Finally El Salvador

Teachers use connections to spark interest

Catching a student’s attention can be everything when teaching.

Granville Spanish teacher Bonnie Gray says she has seen the results first hand.

Student teaching with Gray this year is Castleton State College student and Granville High School graduate Kim Turner.

Turner said experiences in Gray’s classes as a student hooked her to the point she knew she wanted to be a language teacher.

It is that excitement about the subject both hope to utilize to get students interested and keep them going through some of the necessary tasks that can become drudgery.

“You’ve still got to conjugate verbs; you’ve got to build that base. You can’t build a second floor without a first floor,” Turner said.

Making a connection to the culture of the countries where Spanish is spoken is a huge part of getting students engaged in the material, Gray said.

Thanks to her travels abroad, when she talked about architecture in Spain the pictures she shows she took; they don’t come from a CD that came with the textbook.

“It helps the kids have a real world connection . . .  It brings a real world context to the material. It’s more realistic, more authentic for them,” she said. Looking at pictures taken by someone they know helps them to realize “it’s a place they know they can travel to themselves at some point,” Gray said.

Turner is just one example of students spurred on by interacting with engaging material, Gray said. Off the top of her head, Gray said she could think of at least three other students who have traveled to experience different cultures after piquing their curiosity in a Granville classroom.

Gray and Turner came up with a unique way for students to get excited about learning language.

During the last school year Gray and Turner each traveled to El Salvador to work with an elementary school in that country, producing a wealth of material for students at the same time.

Granville students wrote, and later received, letters from students at the school as well as seeing pictures and hearing stories of the two teacher’s adventures in the country.

A handwritten letter isn’t the most common form of communication for a high school student these days, but messages that took weeks to arrive from a distant land were exciting for Gray’s Spanish classes.

Granville students and children in a 91-student elementary school called Caserio El Izcanal in La Libertad, El Salvador began communicating during the 2009-2010 school year.

During a visit to El Salvador, Turner hand-carried letters to the school written by Granville students. For Gray, the letter project was part of a larger goal of establishing a permanent relationship with the school in La Libertad.

Gray said the connection between her students and the children in La Libertad was enhanced by photos taken by Turner during her visit to El Salvador. A slideshow presentation received some kind of reaction to every frame as the Granville students got to see not only what conditions were like in El Salvador but also lots of smiling faces.

Turner said she felt the slideshow was important to show the Granville students faces to go with the names from the letters to try to emphasize the importance of the letter writing experience for the children in La Libertad.

“The kids have really been excited about this project,” Gray recalled. “Students walking into class asked if it was finally ‘letters day.’”

“I thought it was really cool getting introduced to people from a different culture so you could see how we’re similar and how we’re different,” Nelson Cramer, a Spanish 4 student, recalled earlier this year.

“I loved it,” Spanish 4 student Danielle Milanese said.

“It was really cute. My (kid) was 6 years old and couldn’t write much so she wrote one line and then drew me pictures,” said Alyssa Martel. “She said she was small and chubby.”

Based on the reaction, Gray said, she plans to keep up correspondence with the school as well as looking for other schools to write including high schools. Gray said while the letters from the small kids were engaging, they didn’t do enough to test the student’s language skills. It would be nice, she said, to have high school students in El Salvador writing to her students because they would be writing at a higher level and would be throwing in slang and other cultural factors more useful in learning Spanish for the real world.

In a school with students in what would be pre-kindergarten up to high school freshmen in the United States, Gray said some of the children could not write yet.

In some cases they drew pictures and in other letters they traced the letters plotted out by their teachers. Despite the simple nature of the communication, it was obvious from the expressions on the students’ faces they were enjoying the exchange.

Like many of the students in the Spanish classes the kids were fascinated by the similarities and differences between the lives of the students in El Salvador and here in Granville.

Student Kayla Wheeler said she thought the letter writing project was like getting to have a conversation with someone from another culture.

“It was very rewarding,” she said.

Gray said the initial plan had been to gather games and other materials to take to El Salvador when she traveled to the country, but following some discussion of cultural sensitivity the groups involved decided against it.

“They’re happy with what they have,” she said and taking the items to the school could be seen as emphasizing what they don’t have versus what they do.

“We don’t want to make them uncomfortable,” Gray said.

The ultimate goal of the interaction with the school is a cultural exchange, not an exchange of things, she said. Gray said she was making a video for the children in La Libertad showing various aspects of Granville as well as the students in the classes and others saying “Hola,” or hello.

Although Turner was slated to move on to student teaching and graduation, Gray said, the relationship with the school in La Libertad should continue between both Castleton and Granville.

“We’ve gotten such a good reception at Castleton; we’re hoping this will continue,” Gray said.

Turner said the trip has become a part of service learning at the school and it on its way to becoming a three or six-credit class.

Gray traveled to El Salvador over spring break, an experience she plans to add to the classroom as well.

El Salvador proved to be a land of sometimes frustrating and sometimes stunning contrasts, she said.

After arriving in country in San Salvador, Gray said, she went directly to the small village of La Libertad and the school.

“This area was rural, very rural,” she said.

Making her way back into the city with the others to do some sightseeing, Gray said she fell asleep and was awakened by traffic noise in a bustling urban city with every possible convenience down to American-style fast food restaurants.

Gray said it was hard to describe what the 30-minute bus ride accomplished – it was like the two places did not exist on the same planet. “It was disorienting; I didn’t know where I was,” Gray said.

When traveling away from the school and the small village, Gray said, the group always had a guard.

Sometimes the guard made them all remain together and other times he wouldn’t let them go certain places. It was clear all was not well, she said, adding, “There were times when you knew there was slight danger.”

Gray said the trip turned out somewhat differently than was initially planned in at least one aspect.

The initial idea had been to bring toys and games to the kids as gifts, but after some discussion, Gray said, they decided not to bring so many things.

In an effort to be culturally sensitive, Gray said, it was decided the visiting groups did not want to appear to be trying to make up for things the school or people lacked. They were simply trying to help out in a collaborative way.

Gray said there was concern showing up with “things” might look like the Americans were almost showing off how much stuff they have versus how little the Salvadorans have.

In place of the things, Gray said she brought soccer balls when she went.

One ball was signed by the students in her classes who corresponded with the children while others were purely for play.

The kids and teachers decided to return one of the balls in a reciprocal gesture likewise signed by everyone from the school.

“They really wanted something to show their appreciation,” Gray said.

The soccer ball will be in her classroom in the coming school year even as the letters continue to go back and forth between countries.

Gray said one of the things that surprised her was the interest the school continued to draw while she was there.

The big project for the trip was the construction of a wall around the school to protect it as well as keep the kids safe inside. Gray said each day more and more people showed up to work on the project to improve the school.

The principal of the school told her the community felt more responsible for and attached to the school after doing the work.

Previously, Gray said the school had not been paid much attention.

Gray said two groups made the trip with them a group of students from Castleton State College in Vermont and professors from the same school.

An unanticipated side effect of all of the foreigners at the school was increased attendance.

Gray said as many as 97 percent of the children who could attend the school came when the Castleton group was in town, up from roughly 60 percent average attendance.

Gray said the opportunity was a great one for her students and herself.

In the classroom the letter writing and cultural exchange did a tremendous amount to spark student interest.

“As a language teacher my goal is to bring the real world in as much as possible,” Gray said. And it worked as her students really took ownership of the project and showed pride in what they’d accomplished.

“This project meant a lot to my kids,” she said. “This was a chance for (the students) to connect to the Salvadoran kids that they would never have had otherwise,” Gray said.  “This (project) just opened up the whole world to them.”

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