by Dr. Mónica Lara and John Seidlitz
These are certainly trying times, in the midst of all of this, we wanted to share with you our recent experience working with teachers in Honduras.
Earlier this month, we had the opportunity to join the Catholic Diocese of Dallas on a medical and educational mission trip to Honduras, to the town of Bonito Oriental. On the medical side, doctors and volunteers were there to provide annual healthcare for the citizens. On the educational side, the goal was to help enhance the quality of education. In particular, we were working with one of the Catholic schools in the area to support the teachers there and lay the groundwork for a partnership that we hope will eventually provide training for many, if not all, of the local Catholic schools.
Our trainings were focused on giving teachers strategies to promote their students’ academic language development for content classes. Going into the experience, we knew we would use ¡Toma la palabra! as our foundation, but we didn’t want to go in with detailed plans or fully formed expectations beyond that. We knew it was important to get to know our fellow teachers — what they do on a daily basis, what their school environment is like, and what their needs and expectations are — before we could get started. We also knew that, if we were willing to listen, we stood to learn just as much as we could teach.
And it turns out we were right to go in without expectations, because we quickly learned that any assumptions we might have made would have been wrong.
We were surprised by what the teachers in the Honduran school weren’t worried about.
Some of the biggest challenges we face with newcomers in the United States — including our Honduran students — tend to be parental involvement and attendance. Yet that wasn’t the case in Honduras. The teachers we were working with said that students attend school regularly, and their families are so involved, in fact, that the PTA has to be separated by grade to keep it manageable.
Of course, there were a few overlapping challenges.
One was classroom behavior. The teachers we worked with in the Honduran school were accustomed to more lecture-based teaching, with very little time for the students to interact. And, while the kids are generally well-behaved, they said, many of them struggle to stay focused and/or rein in their energy. For that, we were able to share strategies like Dobla la Fila to get students up and moving and participating throughout the day.
Another was helping low or slow readers get up to grade level. Fortunately, we had a lot of ideas to share there, and the teachers were eager to learn how to implement activities like structured conversation. Since we left, we’ve loved receiving text messages and Tweets from our new friends showing us how they’ve integrated new strategies into the lessons — and how quickly their students are embracing them.
A couple of fascinating differences.
Although students didn’t have a lot of opportunities to speak in class, when we interacted with students outside of lessons, we were amazed at how proficient they were in oral language. These kids’ backgrounds include working in the family businesses, negotiating and interacting to make ends meet. As a result, they know how to connect with adults, ask questions, and use language at a very high level. So we couldn’t help but wonder where the disconnect is between these Honduran kids in Honduras and newcomers from Honduras in US classrooms, who are often all but silent and who rarely, if ever, participate.
It’s too easy to forget that our newcomers aren’t blank slates when they arrive in American classrooms. They’ve got an academic background that includes poetry, history, and math, and their extracurricular lives have given them a wealth of experiences to draw on and use as a foundation for further learning. But it’s up to us teachers to encourage that.
In Honduras we asked ourselves, what is it that we’re not doing here in the United States to build on what these students are bringing to the table? How are we failing to create environments that show these students we care for them so much and we want them to be themselves and add their own unique value to our classrooms?
And one powerful similarity.
Perhaps the most rewarding part of the experience was seeing just how dedicated these teachers are to their students and their mission. Many teachers in Honduras have only two years of high school and two years of escuela normal (teacher certification), and their resources are severely limited. And still, they (like so many teachers in the United States) are working incredibly hard with whatever they can use to provide for their students.
These teachers’ biggest worries weren’t about resources or books or technology—they were about the health and well-being of their students. They said malnutrition was a chief concern, as many students came to school hungry, with vitamin and protein deficiencies. They were worried, too, about their students’ safety in the community and, often, in their own homes.
To us, challenges like these almost felt helpless, as we didn’t know what resources might be available in Honduras to help them, or how we could address them ourselves. But in working with these teachers, we were reminded that there can always be joy and knowledge and wisdom in a classroom, and those things are good even in the face of violence and lack. Whatever their home lives may look like, those students are bettering themselves by spending time in the classrooms, where their teachers can help them build knowledge and share joy. After all, if kids learn how to be eloquent, and if they have the gift of academic language, they can find more opportunities, and perhaps even create opportunities where there were none. And this realization—this experience in Honduras—reminded us of our true purpose as educators of educators: if we can give teachers, no matter where they are, the tools to bring joy, knowledge, and wisdom to their students, then we are doing something good.