Tag Archives: English

Youth development via English class

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Goal-setting lessons 

This week, my Colombian teacher counterparts, Ines, Faride and I put together a lesson on goal-setting and life plans, all cleverly disguised in a grammar and verb lesson (future tense verbs ftw.) Ines said that this is such a new concept–planning ahead and thinking about actual steps to take to realize a goal isn’t a very common pastime in the culture here, but we both felt passionate about getting the kids to think in depth about their futures. I enjoyed challenging them to dream bigger and more specifically.

Some of the inspiring ideas and goals we heard:

To work with disabled children

To learn English to become an airline pilot

To learn Portuguese

To cure cancer Continue reading Youth development via English class

To Flush or Not to Flush: 5 Indicators You’re Entering the Cultural Transition Zone

One of the most baffling truths of modern transportation is that in the space of a couple of hours (more precisely, two cat naps and one plane-bathroom break), one can take-off in one culture and climate and land in a completely different one. Breakfast in 90-degree Colombia, lunch in 20-degree America.  Let’s call this the “cultural transition zone.” 

#1.    What’s the very first sign of the “cultural transition zone?” The toilet paper. During your pre-boarding pee break, you don’t even blink when you have to perch on a porcelain bowl and throw the paper in the trash can. You’ve done it for like, 500 days already. Continue reading To Flush or Not to Flush: 5 Indicators You’re Entering the Cultural Transition Zone

A Good Old-Fashioned Update

I’m wrapping up the school year and preparing to go home for Christmas, which means it’s about time for a standard-issue update post! Aka, what’s been happening lately, the current state of affairs and a preview of next year!

The past few months have been pretty hectic, both in the school and in my secondary projects (not to mention personal travel and a few sick days.) The first half of the school year was my chance to observe, learn the school culture, build relationships with the faculty and the students, and generally settle in. But the second half was go time!

Continue reading A Good Old-Fashioned Update

Back on Track

I’m finally feeling a bit more settled. After over a month of living out of my suitcases, I have once again starting unpacking into a more permanent place. I can finally find all my accessories and my books will have a home as soon as I get a bookshelf in my new room! It’s nice to be establishing a new routine and integrating with my new host family.

I didn’t anticipate the effect that being between houses would have on my work, my energy and my organization. Not to mention the stress it caused. It ended up being a pretty draining process, with a lot of diplomacy lessons along the way.

Now that my home life is a bit more settled, I feel better equipped mentally and emotionally to get back on track.

I am re-focusing on my goals for the next few months. I can’t believe we have already been here for 9 months!

Some of the things I’m working on:

Developing and implementing a curriculum for our Call Center-hopefuls in 10th grade. We are trying to combine a customer service/telephone class with our English conversation laboratory. Any input is appreciated! 🙂

Environmental Committee: I’m the new chairperson of a fairly new committee, and we just had a successful first meeting! We’ve seen that trash and conservation are big issues for us on the coast, so we are designing some projects that PCV’s can implement in their sites, such as awareness campaigns and hopefully some field trips.

Co-teaching and co-planning: this is our primary project. I have great counterparts and a supportive principal, and we’re working to make the English program strong and effective. It’s actually a lot of fun to co-teach–the teacher and I can bounce off each other’s ideas. And she can tell them all to sit down and be quiet.

Primary teachers: with one of my counterparts, we are putting together some workshops for the primary teachers. I’m hoping to target their English skills in order to have stronger English in the students coming from primary to secondary.

English clubs: when you’re the token native speaker, people stop you in the street and even show up at your house to ask for English tutoring! I have an adult class, a high school club and am hoping to start a class at my friends’ foundation and one with the preschool kiddies at the convent. What could be better than singing English baby songs for an hour?

That’s a brief overview! Throw in gym time, sit-on-the-sidewalk-and-talk-about-nothing bonding time, and thinking about studying for the GRE, and I’m keeping busy.

But it’s a good busy, a settled, productive, fulfilled sort of busy. And that feels good.

I said I’d never be a high school teacher

I’ve officially started teaching, with real students and real whiteboard markers and real activities. With a grand total of four class periods (2.5 hours each) under my belt, here are my reflections on teaching, discipline, learning and high school students!

1. The obvious statement that must be made: teaching is harder than it looks! Props to the countless amazing teachers I have had (including my mommy)–it’s not easy to teach, much less to be a good teacher. Kudos especially to high school teachers–you are valiant warriors and intuitive protectors of Truth, Sanity, Reason, Sensibility and Social Propriety.

2. At least in peri-urban Colombian public schools, the lesson plans will get stretched. I’m still working off of day 1’s lesson plan, four classes later! This is fantastic, because I’ve got time to develop the materials and ideas as I go. (at least this week)

3. Discipline is difficult but I’m actually better at being firm than I had anticipated. I definitely pulled the “in English classrooms, silent listening is a sign of respect.” card.

4. Colombian kids have an extreme case of “pena”, or shame. This isn’t just stage fright–this is a knock-down, drag-out fight to get them to do anything, especially in front of other people. I’m still trying to understand the deep cultural implications of this concept, because it’s pervasive throughout ages, genders and social classes. Any insight is appreciated! I realize that I’m coming from a distinctly different background, one where I grew up being encouraged to speak up, sing in front of people, ham it up for the camera, etc. I’m trying to understand the root of “pena” (some say it’s colonial) and how I can best encourage and support my students. I was SO PROUD today when all but one group successfully presented for a vocab show-and-tell!

5. These kids are incredibly artistic. I mean, this culture (at least on the coast) is clearly centered around sights and sounds (aka fiesta.) Anywhere you turn, brilliant tropical flowers, swirling Carnaval dresses and bright soccer jerseys catch your eye. At night, I lay in bed and listen: motos, dogs barking, a minimum of three different songs being played on the same corner, geckos chirping, tvs’ canned sitcom laughter, water running in the shower next door. (I woke up suddenly last night–it was too quiet.)

So I’ve noticed that my students, in addition to being musicians and dancers extraordinaire, are gifted in art. In my ADD, go-go-go personality, a request for a quick map of town warrants a sketch on scrap paper. For my 10th graders in this pre-school year reinforcement class, a quick map of town requires meticulously measured lines, carefully colored-in buildings and perfect little palm trees. The same thing happened when I asked them to make their “passports to English”–what I thought would be a 15 minute activity turned into about 45 minutes of “are you done yet, kids?” and “they took all the dark blue colored pencils so I cannot possibly continue!” 🙂

6. These kids are smart. The class I have right now is a week-long reinforcement class for some students who failed ninth grade English last year (I need to write a blog about this educational system…more later.) These kids have been labeled “flojos” (lazy), so I was tasked with immersing them and giving them a sort of jumpstart to the school year, which begins in a week. But these kids are every ounce as intelligent, quick to learn, and capable of following directions (when they feel like it) as any others.

And let me tell you, they have surprised me several times already with their attention to details and presentation. For example, today I asked them to get into small groups (we’re learning that concept still) to do a “quick” presentation of a vocab word. The objective that each group would provide a definition or translation of the word and then give an example in English. (i.e., School= escuela; we study at the school.) Having learned last week that group work is a foreign concept, I thought this would be a simple way to re-introduce the idea. FORTY FIVE MINUTES LATER, I finally persuaded the first shy, embarrassed, terrified group to the front of the room.

And here’s where I learned my lesson of the day: during the 45 minutes I had been pleading, huffing, puffing, and arguing with these kids to do a simple project, they had all been working on presentations that were above and beyond what I had anticipated. They had found full definitions of the words, in both languages; some had colored their presentation sheets artfully; others had included full examples such as “Simon goes to the library to read books” and “people go to the hospital to find the cure to types of diseases.” Lesson: even though there were evident miscommunications as to the directions and expectations, these kids committed themselves to diligently fulfilling the activity in the best way they knew how (which was way more than I had asked of them).

Today my kids showed me the beautiful manifestations of Colombian culture in the classroom, with beautifully decorated worksheets, carefully constructed, accurate maps, and utter attention to the details of appearance. And now, best of all, I’ve officially found my artists for that world map I’m planning to paint in the English lab! Get ready, kids! 🙂

Bienvenidos to Puerto Colombia

I haven’t made time to write much lately, but I promise there are a few posts in the draft queue. In the meantime, I thought I would give you a quick introduction to my new home, Puerto Colombia. This is my permanent site on the Colombian coast, where I’ll be living for the next two years!

Welcome to the main street into Puerto Colombia!

According to the official statistics, Pto as a municipality has about 45,000 habitants, but our “pueblo” claims about 5,000. There are several little townships squished together, and you can walk between Puerto Colombia, Pradomar and others in just a couple of minutes.

Puerto was the main, bustling port of the coast about a hundred years ago, when the pier linked Caribbean shipping lines with the Colombian railroad. Over the years, as Barranquilla built up its port, Puerto Colombia has quietly downsized to a sleepy fishing village/bedroom community to B/quilla.

The famous “muelle”. It still has remnants of the train tracks that used to run train cars straight out to the waiting ships. Now, it’s the fishermen, bored teenagers and tourists who walk the concrete catwalk out to deep water.
Today’s pier broke into pieces about 7 years ago, and now the only way to visit the end of the once-long and majestic pier is by lancha, or small fishing rowboat. Or by swimming, if you’re brave/stupid.
A view looking towards the beginning of Puerto Colombia’s coastline. I actually visited Pto before they announced that I would be living there for two years. Love at prior sight/site!
My school, which is K-11th grade in two branches. This building houses the middle school/high school ages, from 6th grade to 11th grade.

In Colombia, high school is 6th-11th grade (I know, can you imagine being put through the high school experience 5 years?), and at 11th grade they graduate, usually at the age of 16 or 17. From there, kids either go straight to work, attend public or private university, or attend a technical college.

My school is K-11th grade, and I’ll be working mostly with 9th to 11th grade (at least in theory.) Since a large part of my job is facilitating the professors’ work, I’m hoping to work in depth with them, improving their pronunciation and English conversation skills, as well as contributing ideas to curriculum and materials design.  I have five counterparts to work with, some of whom teach mostly grammar and others that teach English laboratory.

My counterparts and principal!

I’m assigned 18 hours with my school, which will be partly working with the English faculty, partly working with the primary school teachers, and partly co-teaching classes to our 10th graders who are prepping for the ICFES (now called the Pruebas Saber). This test is their qualifying exam for university, and it measures the usual math, science, literature, etc. as well as a huge portion of English grammar and conversation. Because of the importance of this exam, I’ll be spending a lot of time with both the students and the faculty in making sense of the speaking/listening/conversation part of the English language.

These are my 10th graders, demonstrating the use of technology in the classroom for a film crew from Bogota.

Fun story about the above photo: My first “teaching” moment happened in front of a film crew. I showed up on a weekend to help out with a segment at my school, and ended up teaching a brief English lesson for the camera and my future 11th graders! Apparently, a cable channel in Bogota is doing a show on technology in the public school classrooms of Colombia, and our school was chosen to demonstrate said technology. One of our students placed in the top category on a recent national test, as well, so Cisneros has been featured several times lately. This class of 10th graders was the most-behaved and quietest that I’ve ever seen (or will see.) Once the cameras turn off, they’re back to their usual vibrant and costeño selves–loud, excited, curious and not at all excited about studying!


Now that school is out for the holidays, I’m spending time integrating into the community. I’m meeting my neighbors, learning my way around town, and trying to get a feel for the porteña life! I’ve already been warmly welcomed and people are receptive to the idea of English clubs, community work and teaching me to dance salsa! I’ll be here for the holidays, so I’m looking foward to getting the full experience, Caribbean style.

Happy holidays from Puerto Colombia!


On the Way

Hello from my site visit! Here I am, laying on the bed that will most likely become mine in a month, in my new house. The town is just what I have anticipated: motos and kids everywhere, dusty streets and tropical plants, hills and the ocean at opposite ends of town. Walking between two little English teachers and juggling my backpack while trying to dodge puddles in my ridiculous heels, I finally feel like I have arrived.

I´m in the Peace Corps.

I´m going to live in this town, with these people, for two years, learning how to share la vida porteña. I´m on my own, meeting the faces that will soon become familiar. In some ways, it´s already a familiar process, but in the back of my head I´m screaming, ¨this is it! this is the backdrop to the next two years.¨

The school is beautiful and simple, with two stories of classrooms around a covered gym area. A little hut says ¨coffee shop.¨ All the students greet the principal as he gives me a quick tour and introduces me to the kids who will be my ninth graders (or at least, that´s what I understood.)

The host family’s house is a five minute walk, which I think is about half of the way to the plaza in the center of town. We show up on the doorstep and the host mom ushers us into her beautiful home, decorated with her own artwork and her two daughters’ photos.
There’s Internet and a hammock and an international relations student and a medical student and no animals and a papaya on the counter–hooray!

And presently, I decide to take a descanso like a good porteña. Tomorrow I will meet the rest of the teachers and students, and will have to explain what the peace corps is and why I’m here at least 1,200 times, I am guessing. 🙂

On the Night before Sites

This morning at 10 o’clock, our site placements will be announced. These sites have been carefully chosen, vetted for safety and security, prepped with school officials and outfitted with host families. Our assignments are unique to our personalities, skills and preferences, at least in theory!

And here we go, gotta run catch the bus! Stay tuned for the big announcement!