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.
Please contact Professor Liang if you wish to write for The North Star Reports — HLIANG (at) css.edu
See also, our Facebook page with curated news articles at http://www.facebook.com/NorthStarReports
The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, The College of St. Scholastica and the scholarly Middle Ground Journal’s online learning community and outreach program with undergraduate and K-12 classes around the world. For a brief summary, please see the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History, at:
The North Star Reports publishes edited essays from our students, particularly from those who are currently stationed, or will soon be stationed abroad. Students have reported from Mongolia, Southern China, Shanghai, Colombia, Norway, northeastern China, Nicaragua, Micronesia, The Netherlands, Tanzania, Ireland, El Salvador, England, Finland, Russia, Cyprus, and Haiti. We also publish student reviews of books, documentaries, and films, and analysis of current events from around the world. We will post their dispatches, and report on their interactions with the North Star Reports students and teachers. We thank The Department of History and Politics and the School of Arts and Letters of The College of St. Scholastica for their generous financial support for The North Star Reports and The Middle Ground Journal.
Hong-Ming Liang, Ph.D., Editor-in-Chief, The North Star Reports; Chief Editor, The Middle Ground Journal; Associate Professor of History and Politics, The College of St. Scholastica.
Kathryn Marquis Hirsch, Managing Editor, The North Star Reports.
(c) 2012-present The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy http://NorthStarReports.org ISSN: 2377-908X The NSR is sponsored by The College of St. Scholastica and the scholarly Middle Ground Journal. See Masthead for our not-for-profit educational open- access policy. K-12 teachers, if you are using these reports for your classes, please contact editor-in-chief Professor Liang at HLIANG (at) css.edu