A Fulbright Teacher in Bogota, Colombia, A Special Series – What To Do in a Language Class — The North Star Reports – by Laura Blasena. Sponsored by The College of St. Scholastica and The Middle Ground Journal
I started taking language classes when I was in 4th grade. They weren’t advanced classes by any means–in fact, the most difficult thing we probably did was stand in a circle and recite clothing vocabulary from memory.
When I think back to my Spanish classes in high school (the Spanish classes where I actually began to learn conversational skills) I remember activities like this: drawing, scripting, acting out plays, creating characters, talking with my classmates, and preparing debates and presentations. While paging through the old parts of my Facebook, I came across a video from my junior year of high school where me and four classmates had created a “movie version” of a chapter of the infamous House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. Language class was engaging, fun, dynamic, and while it certainly included necessary times where the teacher explained grammar rules, our practice of grammar usage was very student-centered and creative.
While my job as the language assistant at my university is supposed to be to encourage conversation and discussion in the classroom, it’s completely impossible to expect an English I class to discuss current issues in the United States. With these classes, I usually prepare grammar practice activities that require the students to talk with their classmates.
One week, the thirty or so English I classes at my university were working on vocabulary related to family members and description. (All of you who have taken a language class should remember the “description” unit–tall, fat, short, blonde, nice, funny). I had prepared a simple activity. At the beginning of each activity, I drew a family tree on the front board, and assigned two students to each of the names on the family tree. The task: students had to write a description of their assigned family member and then chat with their classmates to find descriptions of at least three more members of the family.
After giving the class an example and reviewing some common mistakes made with the description vocabulary (“You don’t say ‘Joe is a beard’ you say ‘Joe has a beard’) I would give the students a time frame and tell them to begin writing their description.
Every time I did this I was meant with confused stares.
I’d explain again.
Then I would usually ask the teacher to try explaining it again, thinking that I was using the wrong verbs or a wrong word somewhere, but when the teacher would explain again it would sound more or less the same to what I had said.
I finally asked a teacher about the confusion. “Is this activity weird? Is it something that the students have never done before, or am I just not explaining it well?” I asked. The teacher quickly agreed. “Yes, it’s a bit weird for them” and she went on to explain that they probably don’t know what to do when they’re supposed to create something because they’re very used to being given all the content by the teacher.
The difference between teaching methods struck me as startlingly different. I can’t remember the number of times I was given creative tasks like “write a short description of an imaginary person” in my language classes in middle and high school, and here I was giving the same task to college students–adults–and they were struggling with the idea.
The concept of “teaching” and “learning” in a classroom setting are fairly universal around the world, but as I continue to work in the educational environment of Colombia, I’m learning that almost everything beyond the basic idea that “teaching” and “learning” take place in a classroom is very different.
About our special correspondent Laura Blasena: Ever since I was a little Kindergartner I’ve always wanted to be a teacher.
I graduated from St. Scholastica in the summer of 2015 with a double major in Elementary Education and Spanish Education after student teaching as a 5th grade teacher and also as a Spanish teacher at NorthStar in Duluth, Minnesota.
While my future plans before graduation were initially to become a classroom teacher, I decided to wait a year to begin teaching in the United States and have chosen to work as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Bogota, Colombia. In Colombia, I will be working with a university as an assistant in the language department, attending classes, running conversation clubs, and offering the perspective of a native speaker.
I’ve always loved to travel. In college, I participated in several study abroad trips, visiting England, Guatemala, and Mexico. (I loved visiting Mexico so much that I even went back a second time!). I’m looking forward to the travel opportunities that I will have while working and living in Colombia.
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25 responses to “A Fulbright Teacher in Bogota, Colombia, A Special Series – What To Do in a Language Class — The North Star Reports – by Laura Blasena. Sponsored by The College of St. Scholastica and The Middle Ground Journal”
How fascinating! The Politics and Globalization class was just speaking about this; the way in which education has become “global”. However, it’s pretty obvious from your article that there are some deep and blatant differences between education among parts of the world. How did you overcome this? What are your plans now? To those of us who have learned the same way for so long it seems like that would be the correct way to learn, but to them the idea is so foreign! I wonder how this impacts the way they view a teacher from the United States. Thanks for keeping us updated!
The students often tell me that I`m “theatrical” because of my teaching style, but as far as my personality goes I`ve always thought of myself as a very subduged person, even when I`m in the classroom teaching.
I kept on running into issues with the students resisting the types of activities that I wanted them to do (discussion, conversation, creating etc.) so I ended up convincing the coordinator of my department to allow me to regularly visit classes so that the students could become accustommed to my teaching style.
Now when I show up and make them stand up and walk around they`re a tiny bit less dismayed. They`re starting to get used to the fact that they have to create and/or speak when I`m in the classroom.
I can related to your students a little only because of my dislike of personalized, creative activities in language learning. While I don’t find the activities odd, I find myself wishing that I could just be told what to say… “Different strokes for different folks,” I suppose.
I had assumed teaching methods in countries around the world would be different, but this example surely is strange! Being able to create and use the imagination was an internal part of my primary education, it is odd to think other countries don’t do the same. I understand the difference between “learning” and “teaching” but I never thought how other cultures would take them. Very interesting!
It’s amazing how a classroom perspective can differ in a different country like you have described. What was your solution to teaching in a different way that better suited the students? Starting you career in another country must be challenging, but it seems like a great way to get out into the world. Do you have plans to come back to the U.S. and start teaching here in the future?
In order to make my classroom activities a bit smoother, I ended up convincing the coordinator of the department to give me a regular schedule where I visited the same class multiple times (I was visiting each class once a semester prior to that).
Since I go back to the same classes, I`ve been working up to full-blown conversation activities and varying the types of activities that I use. The students are becoming more accustomed to having to do different things when I`m in the classroom, so things are getting a bit easier.
As for future plans, I do plan on coming back to the states. For a lot of people, Fulbright is a way to get into a future career track, but for me Fulbright was taking a year off before becoming a classroom teacher, which is what I`ve always wanted to do.
That sounds like a heck of a learning experience. I’m working on my educational studies major right now, and I couldn’t imagine it in a different language. Especially with a bunch of students that have different experiences that we have had. Did the kids continue to respond the same way to these activities? Did you stop giving them? Or did they work at it and improve?
Now that I`m visiting the classes regularly as a visiting teacher, the students have started to become accustomed to my style of teaching. They understand that when I`m the one leading the activity they`re going to have to talk to each other and potentially have to leave their desks and move around.
For the most part, after they got over what seemed like the initial “weirdness” of my teaching style, a lot of the students have responded very positively, which is wonderful and helps make my job seem much more worth-while.
Language is not only hard to learn, but as you have demonstrated it is hard to teach as well. Since this experience have you changed your teaching methods to make things less weird for the students? Or are you continuing the same method and hopping they catch on? I have done hundreds of the activities you describes such as making a family tree or writing a description of an imaginary person. I can’t imagine learning a language any differently. The best of luck to you!
For the most part, I have continued using the same style of activities because the students receive a lot of worksheet or notes-based instruction in the classroom, and my job as the English assistant is to bring in opportunities for conversation and language practice.
However, I did modify my lessons to rely less on student discussion. I haven`t yet found a class with students capable of producing English responses off the top of their heads, so I`ve built a lot of prep time into my lessons.
It is difficult to think about the way people are educated differently all around the world. I am so used to the school structure of the United States that at times it is hard to imagine my education being changed in any way. Yet, people from all over the world have been through different systems of schooling and education with different teaching and learning methods. After reading this article, my eyes have been opened to the level of diversity that can be found in every aspect of human life (individually and culturally). Learning a new language is extremely difficult and becomes increasingly difficult with age. I still do many activities similar to the one you tried to do with your class in my Spanish classes here. It would be difficult to come up with new interactive activities to help students put the language into practice! Have you thought of any new ideas?
I`ve continued using a lot of the same types of activities that require students to create and have conversations (many language-gap activities etc.), but I have started to rely on written work instead of spoken work becuase of the unwillingness of many students to speak in the target language at all.
We do a lot of gallery walks and “voting” for best responses to questions, as well as correction work on common mistakes. The students never stop using Google Translate, and so they aren`t capable of recognizing their own mistakes. We have a lot to work on!
I’m glad that I’m not the only one who finds that style of teachers odd. In high school when the exchanges students would come to our language class they would often laugh at the out dated songs we sang and games we played in order to memorize sentence structure and vocab. While it is the more fun way of learning language it is not the only way, but I wonder if it’s a more “American” style of learning to incorporate games?
It’s really interesting that they were confused, however I can understand a bit. Right now I’m trying to adapt to a new teaching style in my language class here at CSS. It can be quite a challenge! I think that learning from a new style can be quite beneficial though. I’m learning how to look at things from a new perspective. I hope it’s going better for you!
Going into education myself that is a very interesting difference. In so many classrooms I’ve been in, whether observing, teaching, or being a student myself, these kinds of creative activities can be found everywhere. I know in my own lessons I’ve taught I’ve asked students to write about something or someone they’ve made up just so they can practice whatever writing skill we happened to be working on.
In a way these students must be having to go through an entirely new code switch. They are so used to a particular learning format and now they are being challenged to use creative and engaging techniques. I think that by slowly warming them up to full blown conversation and discussion pieces, you are letting them get comfortable with this new way of learning. It’s certainly a little surprising to think that our lessons in the US are so much more involved. I wonder if learning activities differ from one Spanish speaking country to the next.
I can’t imagine how strange it is to teach English as a completely new and foreign language to a classroom full of students. Has it made you more skeptical of our language and how complex it actually is? I took two years of Spanish in high school and that was already a stretch for my patience, it must be an entirely different level teaching the language. Are you the only person fluent in English in the classroom, or are there others as well?
Sounds like that was a little bit of a culture shock! I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to try to get students to reach a higher level on Bloom’s when they are used to rote memorization. However, I’m sure that your lessons will be just as valuable to the students as the experience is for you. The look in their eyes when they understand it is always so rewarding!
I love your introduction! That is exactly how my elementary language class was structured. I am surprised at how their teaching framework for language is different from ours, but i have never really been to a different countries university so it could be different in every country on earth. Is it hard to teach your first language English? I feel like it would be hard to go from talking in English and learning Spanish to talking in Spanish and teaching English. When you explained the class with blank stares it brought back the memories of sitting in Spanish class on the first day when the teacher didn’t use any English. Great Article I love the series!
If we take that difference that you’ve found in Columbia and compare our learning styles with the rest of the world how would we compare? Maybe the education gap isn’t due to the material that is taught but the style that teachers teach the material in. If some countries that are doing better performance wise have a different style of teaching, maybe we can adopt that style through a slow process of integration. This could make up for the “lazy” attitudes of the younger generations and propel the US back towards the top of education.
I have often contemplated about teaching English to foreign students. I have never thought before that people would learn differently in other nations. I know that cultures would be different, but I never really thought of education as apart of culture. I have always thought it as being the same in every area that education systems. Having to one day study abroad, this will be something that I will have to keep in mind. I always thought that it would be language that would be my biggest worry.
I think that’s such an incredible way to start a teaching career. Throwing yourself into a different culture seems like a great way to open your horizons rather than just sticking with what you know. I bet there’s tons of different things you could bring back to an American classroom now that you never would have thought of!
I loved what you said about the teaching methods; we just assume everything is similar from country to country, but we don’t truly realize the reality until we visit a new place for the first time. In some countries, education comes out more in daily life than it may in the classrooms, or vice versa. Education is such a global necessity, but differs so greatly even from city to city.
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It sounds like a wonderful teaching method, but it just goes to show that each class, each student learns differently. Instead of just feeding the students material, I love how you tried to get them to interact with each other. Yes, it may have been confusing for the students, but what a great way to learn for yourself effective teaching methods. Your posts have been very good to read. Thanks for sharing!