An Open Letter to My Students

My school year is rapidly coming to a close – simultaneously speeding and dragging towards November 16th. I’m trying to conclude chapters and concepts while the kids have thrown all discipline out the window in favor of not shutting up ever. I was asked to write something about my experience at GMSB this year for the school newspaper, and it didn’t seem right to just list a bunch of clichés about my life being changed, inspiration, culture, molding minds and making a difference. So, without further ado, and leaving out the parts about the frustration and emotional drain: a reflection, directed towards those who ultimately shaped my experience.

An Open Letter to My Students

Carito me habla en inglés, qué me dice yo no sé…

I guess Carlos Vives didn’t understand his English teacher. Can you believe that? He probably wasn’t listening to her. Crazy, right guys? That’s guys, not gays, so don’t start unless you want to get me on my soapbox again. (Don’t try to translate soapbox with Google. I am not literally talking about jabón here, and definitely not a box of soup.)

Where were we? Something about listening, and English. Remember when you thought I didn’t speak Spanish, and you all freaked out? Funny thing is, you understand my alien language now, even if you don’t know it or don’t believe it. At the very least you know “sit” and “open your notebooks,” though there seem to be a lot of different interpretations on your end. Speaking is still a struggle because it is so darn EMBARRASSING!!! Or so you say.

Nine months ago, I showed up and terrified or intrigued you with my weird accent and exotic green eyes. I talked to you in a language that most of you only heard regularly from music or TV, and I ssstrongly ssscolded you for trying to put an “e” before words like school and stop. I was probably as curious and confused by all of you as you were by me.

Learning a new language is hard. Ten years later I’m still botching conditional tenses in Spanish and I can never remember the word for “needle.” That’s why I don’t expect you to be fluent English speakers after this year, and why I get so excited when you get the littlest things right. Seriously, when I hear someone say, “Hoy te entendí, profe!” I know I made the right choice by teaching.

I came to Colombia to teach English. I suppose I’ve accomplished that, more or less. I was teaching and some of you were learning. Some of you were doodling, or sleeping. All of you were texting. The most important thing, though, wasn’t vocabulary or possessive pronouns. It was being a breathing example of the importance of language, cultural exchange and travel. An example of what’s gained through a little courage, a little confidence and a little recklessness.

I started learning a language – your language – when I was your age, and it ultimately brought me here, to Gimnasio Moderno Santa Barbara. Fourteen-year old me would be pretty psyched to know that twenty-four year old me was in Colombia, all because of that silly high school Spanish class. Twenty-four year old me would love to see as many of you break through your comfort zones as possible, see the world and follow your passions.

I undoubtedly gained more from 130 of you this year than you gained from one of me, and I think that’s ok. You’ll have more English teachers, but I don’t know when I’ll have more students. I do know I’ll never have the same students.

So, thanks. Thanks for the smiles, the hugs, the candy and the laughs. Thanks for enough good days to make up for the bad days, or at least enough to not make me quit. Whether you passed, failed, triple-paged the Observador, ignored me all year or were one of the hilarious, friendly and sweet faces I looked forward to seeing every day, I’ll remember you. I’ll miss you. Thank you for an unforgettable, extraordinary year.

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The Day of the English, and the Pilgrims Hugged the Native Americans.

How do I even begin to describe English Day? I mean, adjectives are easy. Stressful. Chaotic. Loud. Confusing. Educational (?). Red. White. Blue. Cute. Hilarious. Exciting. Messy. Exhausting. Fun. That all describes my average Monday-Friday at school, so what was this English Day that practically sucked out my soul but put me in absolute adrenaline rush Control Freak Organizational Championship of the World status?

Colombians are big on Special Days, especially at school. English Day is common in a lot of schools here, and it’s a specific day set aside to celebrate English education. This year, we (the English department, aka two other teachers and I) decided to be extra ambitious. First, we wanted to organize an inter-scholastic English spelling bee, then have students put on performances in the afternoon with the theme of U.S. holidays. Phewf. The weeks leading up to the Day itself were absolute locura and left me dreading the morning it would all come together – but it did. The spelling bee was impressive and – aside from some on-stage tears by the littlest kids – smooth sailing. My UConn roommate Kasey was in town and some of my WorldTeach friends came too. The afternoon performances were perhaps less than…informative of our holidays, but highly entertaining.

The Run Down:

- 4th and 5th graders prancing around with hand painted Easter eggs….

- 7th graders dancing to Katy Perry (only girls, because they got into a big fight with the boys and kicked them out of the dance the day before)

- My 8th graders playing a Christmas rock ‘n’ roll mash-up (and due to communication errors not singing Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer that they totally mastered with Kasey’s help)

- 11th graders coming out of left field with a New Year’s Eve dance to “New York, New York”

He spells, he sings Sinatra…what can’t this guy do?

- 10th grade boys rocking Cotton Eye Joe (obviously my idea) and Michael Jackson (obviously their idea) versus the girls dancing to Adele – 4th of July, the Yankees vs. the Brits, get it??

- 9th grade leprechauns with an adorable Dropkick Murphys and Britney Spears combination (festive correlation lost somewhere)

- 6th graders dancing to Thriller

- 2nd and 3rd graders…oh my god I will never look at my favorite holiday the same ever again because it will never be as precious as their Thanksgiving performance. It involved a lot of hugging, a poem about turkeys and a special dance performance.

Picture quality is icky because of the terrible auditorium lights (and 16 year old assistants)  but you get the idea.

Now, I breathe again.

And hear someone humming the Chicken Dance tune at least once a day. And join in. That’s what we call cultural diffusion.

(Apologies for repeated pictures, disorder, and overall blog hiatus. Internet problems, always.)

Haves and Haven’ts

Six months just fly by, ¿no?

Have dones:

  •  Swam in the Caribbean
  • Drank beers on the beach about 500 yards from the Secret Service scandal
  • Learned the names and personalities  (and in some cases handwriting, pet peeves, relationship statuses, favorites…) of 130+ children
  • Climbed a volcano
  • Participated in a silent protest for Colombian education reform
  • Ziplined in a cloud forest
  • Figured out how to navigate at least 4 kinds of transportation in a huge city
  •  Adopted a Creole of English, Colombian Spanish, literal Spanish-English translations and isolated gringa-isms
  • Been a patient at the least-legitimate looking hospital I’ve ever seen
  •  Purchased rum from a backpack, arepas on buses, BonIce from penguins, mango from stands, coffee from truck-shaped carts, beers on a boat and candy from children too young to be hawking on the street alone

Not a penguin, but still BonIce. Vanessa Walker photo.

  • Occasionally wished I still lived with the boys and had a job that I knew how to manage
  • Explored the beautiful colonial city of Cartagena
  •  Lounged on an unbelievable beach outside the oldest Spanish city in South America
  • Seen real cowboys in Casanare
  • Seen the desert in Villa de Leyva
  • Ogled and purchased ceramics in Ráquira
  •  Ridden a cable car up Medellín’s mountains
  • Cruised and climbed in Guatapé
  • Appreciated my nationality and culture
  • Eaten arepas, ajiaco, feijoas, mamoncillos, empanadas, rellena, soup for breakfast, hot chocolate for dinner, postres, coffee, papas criollas, micheladas and juice flavors with no translation

Sometimes I wander through ceramic forests. Photo courtesy of Natalie Southwick, who sometimes takes pictures of me in ceramic forests.

Haven’t dones

  • Given up
  • Been robbed (knock on wood)
  • Paid for many drinks
  • Run out of ideas
  • Gone a day without laughing
  • Heard several of my students say a single word in English
  • Ever been 100% confident in knowing what was going on
  • Ever been 100% confident that the bus I’m on is going where I think it’s going
  •  Exhausted my patience
  • Seen the Amazonas, Guajira, coffee region, Bucaramanga, Pacific coast and so so so many places
  • Lost interest
  • Figured out why English is so stupid
  • Figured out what I’m doing with my life…any ideas?

Sometimes I just feel like this, all the time. Kate Bailey photo.

Not that I’m counting…

Eight 90-minute classes to a weekend in Boyaca. Twelve more until Ecuador and Medellin.

The lack of seasons in Bogotá/Tabio has me bugging out about the passing of time. Having spent 24 years gauging life’s milestones by appropriate New England weather patterns, I don’t understand that it’s now summer at home, and people are drinking seasonal brews near a body of water or on the patio at Main Street. My father is sitting in an Adirondack chair on the deck spying on the neighbors, everyone is wearing sandals and listening to happy, summery country music. Is that really happening? Here, when it’s raining and chilly, people say it’s winter. When it’s warm and sunny, it’s summer. When it’s both simultaneously, it’s Colombia. Although I’m really only fond of the warm parts of seasonal weather, I miss the organization.

Sunny but raining…It’s pouring in this picture of my backyard. I kid you not.

So here we are, June. These recent weeks have been nuts with the end of the second marking period, long weekends and getting ready for my mid-year vacation. We just had our WorldTeach Mid-Service conference, which entailed Bogota, Cali and Medellín volunteers joining forces at a finca/hotel outside the capital to talk about hating/loving everything about our experiences so far. It was nice to be back in the group (the interior half at least), remember how amazing we are and that it’s ok to whine sometimes.

The halfway point of the school year is all kinds of stressful, but while I’m adding up grades and fending off the whiners, I feel a million times more organized and confident than I did at the end of the first marking period. I am still quite possibly doing everything wrong, of course. I thought this might be an appropriate time to publish something I wrote a few months back and finally touched up, so check out the next post if you’re interested in some abstract, 100% Made In Colombia words from the brain behind this blog.

Dia del Profe

Riddle: How many times can one commemorative holiday be observed by a school of 200?

Answer: Thus far, maxing out at three, with intentions of four. Colombia’s Día del Profesor (Teacher’s Day) was officially Tuesday, May 15. Wikipedia tells me it marks John the Baptist’s appointment as patron saint of teachers? Sure.

Tuesday was marked by cheery students, aware that they were missing most of their classes, wishing me a happy day and some bearing gifts. I got candy, cards, notes and even perfume from a seventh grader. At mid-morning the celebrations started with a tae-bo aerobics instructor that the students had invited…naturally. Then the teachers shared a brunch of crepes and fruit salad also collaborated by the students. In the afternoon, everyone gathered in the auditorium for a video tribute to the teaching staff, followed by a mariachi band also organized by the students. It was really fun and I appreciated it at a different level – as someone who has probably never known that Teacher’s Day was a real thing.

Celebration number two was rather anticlimactic. Minuto de Dios, the large corporation that runs my school and some of my friends’, had a routine Saturday meeting for all the teachers in the system. Normally, we play the volunteer card and don’t attend, but there was talk of Teacher’s Day recognition so it seemed like a good time to show our faces. It ended up being church, team-building and trivia with an underwhelming though appreciated lunch.

The third invitation came from Oscar Lozano, one and only Mayor of Tabio. All teachers in Tabio (I think nine schools in total?) were invited to lunch on Friday. Afternoon classes canceled, we were treated to a huge cookout lunch of meat, potatoes, avocado and yucca and an excellent live band playing salsa, merengue and vallenato. Beers were flowing all afternoon but the real fun started when waiters delivered a bottle of aguardiente to each table and the dancing commenced. Have I mentioned that I adore Colombians?

The Parents Association was supposed to have a lunch for us today as their contribution, but it was canceled.

Día del Profesor Official Tally

Celebrations: 3

Anthems sung: National (twice), Cundinamarca (once), Tabio (once)

Live bands: 2

Meals: 3

Snap bracelets from 7th graders: 1

Tae-bo: 1 hour

Attractive gym teachers from other schools: 1

Canceled classes: 5

Cheers (both the drink kind and the voice kind): many

THEY SPELLED MY NAME RIGHT ! ! !

A few weeks ago, my program director called and asked if I would be interested in getting interviewed by El Tiempo, Bogotás most prominent newspaper. But of course! They wanted to do a follow-up on the 36 volunteer teachers who rocked the front page in January, and Kim thought my experience was a good display of what we’re doing here. The article and some badass teaching pictures came out yesterday. I swear, my happy/concerned/enthusiastic faces were not entirely staged. Cool, right?

Article here:

http://www.eltiempo.com/vida-de-hoy/educacion/voluntaria-estadounidense-dicta-clases-de-ingls-en-colombia_11915249-4

And yes, Mom, I translated it. [Commentary in brackets.]

Brighid Carey is a U.S. volunteer who arrived in the country with 35 others to give English classes in public schools and universities.

Everyone was talking about chinos. “The chinos in the school,” “the chinos Bogotanos”. She was confused, but she didn’t say anything. She surely thought that Colombia was full of Chinese people.

“For me, chinos are the people from China,” says Brighid Carey, a 24-year old born in Connecticut, with a laugh. Although she speaks and understands Spanish very well, it’s easy to realize that she isn’t from here. [OH, REALLY?] She has light skin, big, green eyes, blond hair and a soft, caring voice, with an accent that gives it away.

[Ok, my accent isn’t THAT bad. And apparently Sergio was too busy staring into my big green eyes to notice that I haven’t been blonde since eighth grade. Journalistic license, much?]

Brighid makes up part of a group of 36 volunteers, between 21 and 65 years old, belonging to an NGO called WorldTeach. For the past four years they’ve been invited here by another NGO, Volunteers Colombia. Currently, they give English classes in different cities, municipalities and islands of Colombia, like Baranquilla, Cartagena, Bogotá, Madrid and Barú, among other locations.

“Of all the things about my experience, I’ve loved getting to know my students best. Colombian ‘chinos’ are so friendly. I laugh and I’m surprised every day,” she says.

It’s not the first time she’s traveling. She had the opportunity to live in Ecuador and Guatemala [and Spain, but who’s counting.] Her parents support her in everything she does and are used to her trips [aren’t ya?]. With her friends and the rest of her family, things are different.

“When I told them I had decided to come to Colombia, everyone asked why, if it was dangerous,” Brighid remarks. “And although you hear that it’s a violent place full of drugs, I knew there was more to it.”

In Tabio, she lives with a married couple. “They have four kids and a lot of grandchildren, so there’s always a lot of people. They’re all very nice. Of course, sometimes there are difficulties because of cultural differences.”

She teaches classes at the Gimnasio Moderno Santa Barbara to students from seventh to eleventh grade, and one hour a week with the younger ones.

Despite the fact that Brighid speaks and understands Spanish, she told all the professors to tell the students that she only spoke English. [Actually, my principal did] As it’s a small school, after a few months [days] they all realized she spoke Spanish, but at the beginning the method worked.

“When you study another language, the classes should be in that language. At first it was complicated but now I know they understand me more. There are those that don’t want to, but that’s how kids are,” says Brighid.

Her student Juanita González [handpicked by the principal to say nice things], 13, considers that “classes with her are very fun, she always has us do activities for us to learn and express ourselves in English. She’s really nice.”

She’ll be teaching until November, and although next year she won’t be a volunteer, she does hope to find work, if not in Colombia, then in another country nearby. [Shocking, no?] “I love this country and Latin America. I see myself living here. For now I want to see Villa de Leyva and the Amazon. Everyone tells me that I have to travel and get to know Colombia, and I’m dying to,” says Brighid.

Just don’t ask me if I’m fluent.

I’m finally noticing that my Spanish is improving, at least to where it was when I left Ecuador which was definitely my peak of bilingualism (I think I was in Guate for too short of a time and surrounded by too much Tzutujil to improve much there.) I know I’m back in the game because in the past few weeks I’ve picked up more colloquial phrases, slang and sayings than my entire time here. I think it means that my brain passes over the content of what I hear, because it automatically registers what’s being said, and focuses on the words that don’t immediately make sense. I’m going to talk like a 16-year old Colombian by the time I’m done as that’s whom I spend most of my time with. This country has more specific words than I’ve noticed anywhere else, though whether it’s the degree of immersion or the language itself, I don’t actually know. The things I write about in Sh** Colombians Say are the most common but there are hundreds more and I’m collecting as many as possible first hand.

While my listening comprehension is solid (and do I ever overhear some great conversations at school – I’m like the fly on the wall) I still struggle to express myself sometimes. I usually have the words somewhere, I just occasionally fumble putting them together if it’s not a standard issue question. I’ve left more than one conversation frustrated because I really want to get my point across but it’s hard in a second language and foreign context.

I’ve had a few misfortunate slips in Spanish in my classes, and believe me, I won’t be forgetting a common word that also means “fornicate” in Colombia. Because of that, if my students (9th and up at least) ask me what a swear means in English, I tell them to the best of my knowledge. I don’t have any problem educating them in things that they can’t learn from books, aka saving them from future misunderstandings about the pronunciation of “beach” and “bitch.”

My high level of Spanish is a blessing and a curse at school. As it is, communication can be very difficult, so without knowing the language that everyone else is speaking I would be extremely distressed in my placement. It’s essential for building relationships with other teachers and understanding most of what’s going on, and it’s often much more effective for discipline and calling attention. I understand that it’s far easier to tune out a second language, so when I’m yelling “Listen please!” it doesn’t register to a 13 year-old brain quite like “Escuchen por favor!” does.

Spanish is also a burden. My kids know I speak it, and they will pester me nonstop with “How do you say this? How do you say that?” until I have to remind them that I AM NOT A DICTIONARY. They get upset when I legitimately do not know a word that they’re asking me. If they don’t understand something, they whine “profe, in espaneeeeeeshhhhhh!” I think they would make more of an effort to speak English with me if they didn’t know there was another option, but as the only fluent speaker among 180 kids and 20 teachers, I can’t exactly hide it.

I try to consistently use only English with students throughout the day, even if they talk at me in Spanish, but sometimes it’s just nice to have a conversation in a language we both understand. Part of my role as a foreign volunteer is cultural ambassador, and I would much rather give and receive accurate information at the expense of some English retraction than leave things unclear. Sometimes it’s just plain frustrating to be misunderstood all the time. I always reiterate that I’m still learning Spanish and I know languages are hard. Mistakes are inevitable and rewards are absolutely immeasurable. I wouldn’t be living and teaching 20 miles outside the capital of Bogotá if I were good at physics.

…I would have a salary instead…and benefits….and be WAY more boring.