By Rachel Loetzbeier
Having first-hand experience in teaching English as a second language already, I chose to participate in the one credit Education 197A class that was being offered with mandatory travel to Guanajuato, Mexico, so that I could help native Spanish speaking students practice their English speaking skills. Besides, it was a chance to leave the country and do something other than work and sleep during spring break.
Upon arriving in Guanajuato, we were given an itinerary booklet, which gave us a day-by-day breakdown of what we would be doing in Mexico. Paging through the booklet, I saw that on a few days our Penn State group would go separate ways: the biology students would head to the fields and the education students would head to the schools. In all honesty, I was a little bummed when I saw how diverse and jam packed the biology students’ schedule was. Visiting an agave field one day, strawberry field the next, and a dairy and vegetable factory as well? How cool! The Education student’s schedule was the same…at the Prepa (high school) in the morning and the University in the afternoon. By the end of the trip, however, I was questioning why I was so jealous at the start.
Being able to compare the English language experience in both a University setting and a high school setting was eye-opening. The Universidad de Guanajuato class was more formal. They had textbook lessons and workbook pages that we helped them complete. The Prepa on the other hand was more upbeat without much structure. Both experiences were similar yet different. My favorite by far was being with the students at the Prepa.
On the first day that we were headed to the schools I was lollygagging filling up my water bottle and had been left behind at the hotel (accidentally of course). Once the biology students pointed and said “your group went that way,” I finally caught up and my first day at the Prepa ended up being incredible! “Hola” seemed to be the go-to phrase throughout the entire 10 days spent studying abroad in Guanajuato, Mexico. I’ve never really understood what it meant to have the comfort of being the majority and then overnight have that sense of security be torn from you and become the minority- literally overnight. This was one of the most powerful feelings I’ve ever encountered. It was an indescribable feeling. I felt lost.
Walking into that tenth grade classroom I felt so vulnerable as heads turned and all eyes were on us, the Americans. However, once I broke the ice with “¡Hola! Me llamo Rachel,” I could see the invisible barriers crumble. Their reaction to me speaking Spanish was priceless. Some Mexican students smiled, some laughed, some clapped, some were shocked, and some even let out a “wow.” These reactions put me at ease for the rest of the trip. All it took was that simple introduction and I had gained the confidence I needed to assure myself that I was able to communicate and get around in Mexico by speaking the native language, Spanish (even though I haven’t taken Spanish since junior year of high school).
We proceeded to get into three groups of one Penn State student, one Penn State faculty member, and a group of about 10 Mexican students. First things first, “¡Hola!¿Cómo te llamas?” I said hello and asked each one of my students what their name was. Once introductions were out of the way, it was time to complete the assignment at hand; read a Guanajuato folk tale in English, discuss it, come up with an alternate ending, and then have the students perform the ending they came up with. This was a great assignment on the teacher’s part because the students were already familiar with the folk tales in Spanish, so their comfort level was high yet their challenge was to speak in English. It was interesting to see how some of the students relied on other students to do most of the English speaking. However, once I told them it was okay to say the word they were looking for in Spanish, suddenly everyone wanted a chance to speak!
At the end of the fifty-minute class period, everyone was sad to say goodbye. The students would beg their teacher to let us stay longer. We ended each class by taking pictures with our group and exchanging Facebook and Instagram usernames. I couldn’t believe how many friends I had made! I had truly made a deep connection not only with the students, but also with the Mexican culture. I found myself engaging in the custom of saying goodbye by hugging and reciprocating the kiss on the cheek with each of my students, without even thinking twice about it! Here in the United States this would be crossing that unspoken boundary line entering into our personal space since we hate human contact from strangers and everything seems to revolve around “I.” There is no doubt in my mind that I will stay in contact with each one of my students. It’s nice that we help each other with our second languages: they message me in English and I message back in Spanish. I know I will be traveling back to Guanajuato so for me this is not goodbye. It is until next time.