SUNY Cortland students gain experience in Costa Rica
One of the most effective ways for students to genuinely understand a subject is to break from the regular classroom routine and apply the theoretical lessons in real-life situations. Doing all of this in a foreign language and unfamiliar culture creates an unforgettable experience that further drives these lessons home.
For two weeks in January, a group of seven undergraduate students from SUNY-Cortland in Cortland, New York were led by their professor, early childhood lecturer Valerie Behr, to join Teaching and Care projects in Heredia where they taught English as a Second Language (ESL) classes and worked in a local daycare center.
“Almost all of the students except for one are education majors,” states Behr, “One of the really important pieces of this trip is to immerse the students in a culture and a language that they don’t speak so that they have a similar experience to that of an ESL student in the United States.”
The English classes that the students led are part of a special program initiated by Projects Abroad volunteers during the two and a half months of summer holidays for local students and schools. Apart from teaching English, the group assisted in the local daycare center, Centro Infantíl: Luz Divína. In addition to helping with daily responsibilities, the group painted a mural and conducted Teacher Training workshops. “I’ve always wanted to study abroad,” says third-year education and childhood development major, Michelle Boulbol. “This was one of the opportunities, and I liked the idea of working in a school and a daycare center.”
“The center that we are working at is really amazing,” says teacher Behr. “The students can see what a certified teacher looks like in Costa Rica, and can see the differences to a certified teacher in the United States. They are also able to experience that you can be happy and sustained with just a little. The children are happy and learning with just a chalkboard. These kinds of experiences help them to flourish as educators.”
Furthermore, the experience of teaching across cultural and linguistic barriers provides its own lesson. “When the students come here, they experience what a child experiences every day in a school setting where they don’t know the language,” says Behr. “When interacting with the children here, they have to translate, so they get to experience the frustration that comes with it, the tiredness of your brain that comes with it, and all of those emotions that come with finding yourself in a place where you don’t know the language.”
Of course, the SUNY-Cortland students weren’t the only ones who experienced the benefits that come from breaking away from the normal routine in the classroom. “I think having the new faces of the volunteers coming in, gets the children excited again,” says teaching student, Michaela Auer. As students are forced to think out of the box, their creativity grows searching for other methods to communicate. Michaela continues, “I told my children, ‘you teach me Spanish, and I’ll teach you English.’ That was the deal that we made. If I had trouble saying something in Spanish, they helped me, and if they had trouble saying something in English, I helped them.”
This attitude of mutual learning is a perfect example of the creativity that comes from being forced to communicate in a language that is not one’s native tongue. “I think letting the children know that you want to learn with them instead of just teaching them helps them want to learn,” Michaela adds. “It’s funny how it works. They’re teaching us just as much as we’re teaching them.”
However, lessons aren’t confined to only the classroom and care centers. By living with local host families, students gain a perspective that only immersion into a different culture can provide. “My goal with this trip was to take the students and have them experience something besides their own culture, their own country, and their own privilege and to see how other people live,” says teacher Behr. “One of the experiences that I really enjoy the students having is living with the host families. This way, they experience what it’s like to live as a Costa Rican rather than coming into a country and still being yourself in that country and not really experiencing what they have to offer.”
“Being in a different place opens your eyes.” Michelle adds. “We were talking about how the Costa Ricans conserve water. At home we shower forever, but here we have to be quick. We notice more things. We’ve become more aware.”