El Salvador, 2017
It's not an exaggeration to say this last year has been among the most meaningful and enjoyable of my life. I’ve wanted to return to teaching for a long time, and so when I read that a social justice organization in El Salvador was recruiting ESL instructors, I jumped at the opportunity. Although I have a background in ESL, it's been years since I taught, and I knew I needed classroom practice and a thorough update on current teaching methods. So, I left the US a few weeks early and, before going to El Salvador, made a stop in the beautiful colonial city of Granada, Nicaragua, to complete an ESL/EFL certification course.
The particular program I chose was a "hybrid": 4 weeks online (which I completed in the US before I left) and 2 (intense) weeks in front of a classroom in Granada. It was a challenge, but I came out of it feeling prepared, confident, and excited to return to the classroom. I left Granada reluctantly when I finished (I could have spent weeks if not months or years there), traveled a little bit through Nicaragua, and then made my way to El Salvador.
The school where I taught was housed in the Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad (CIS), a social justice organization in the nation’s capital, San Salvador. Among a variety of other community and outreach programs, CIS offers English (and Spanish) classes to adult students, most of whom are engaged in the social justice movement in El Salvador as lawyers, social workers, educators, organizers, activists, or other support.
I taught an intermediate class, which met 3 nights a week. The English school at CIS uses the Popular Education method; and so instead of using textbooks, students and I voted on a list of real-life topics of interest and concern from which to draw language lessons. To prepare for each class, I chose 1-2 grammar points/vocab on a given topic and made a lesson plan around it. For example, if we were discussing water rights—a pressing and politicized issue in El Salvador right now—we might start with a warm-up activity re: what we thought of as “rights” and how the UN defines them (adding vocab to the board as necessary, eg, safety,equal protection, freedom,education, food/water, housing, healthcare). From there I would introduce a grammatical feature (eg, Wh- questions and aux inversion: “Why is water scarce? Where is water scarce?”). Next was controlled- and then free-practice exercises in pairs or small groups, followed by production, which could be another whole-class discussion or debate of the theme using the new grammar and vocab.
It worked well—in some ways better than a textbook. Students were very invested in the issues they had chosen to discuss, so participation was high. Likewise, absent textbooks, we were both obliged and free to construct our own classroom environment, which included a non-hierarchal structure, critical engagement with language (ie, explicit attention to the oppressive norms it often enforces), and respect for others’ views and speaking time.
This format led to some truly amazing conversations (aka authentic production time). Interaction was engaged, informed, and productive (we usually ended with action items). Even though I facilitated the activities and discussions, they often took on lives of their own. Students improved demonstrably by applying relevant, contextualized vocabulary and grammatical structures. As for me, I learned about organizing strategies, how CAFTA and other trade agreements suppress the economies of Central America, and the damage to human health and the environment caused by metal extraction. I loved every minute (minus those spent on administrative tasks).
Outside of the time spent in the classroom or lesson planning, I was free to explore the amazing city of San Salvador—my favorite in Central America—whose streets are full of music, art, poetry readings, glorious cathedrals, world-class museums and theaters, Ciclovía every Sunday, and some of the best food I’ve ever eaten. On weekends, I did as much traveling as I could to some of the other natural wonders of El Salvador, including volcanoes, emerald-green lakes, beaches, and mountains that recede almost endlessly—stopped only by the Pacific.
Even for the short semester that I was there, though, being in El Salvador was also sobering: It’s a clear window into what the price of capitalism, deregulation, and privatization on exploited nations really means. Many people in El Salvador endure a daily reality of extreme hardship, working long days at hard labor for very little money. Others suffer hunger and malnutrition, violence, repression, separation from family who have left, and often deportation back to endure it all over again.
This exploitation is not new in El Salvador, and so the local and national popular resistance movements are powerful, organized, and resilient; and they continue to fight against the global corporate interests to which almost all of this brutality is bound. Recently, in fact, El Salvador became the first country in the world to ban metallic mining—an enormous threat to the environment and human health—within its borders. The justice movements in El Salvador have much to teach the rest of the world about sustaining the struggle to protect natural resources, demand fair labor practice, preserve the public sector, and push back against all forms of neoliberal policies.
I’m back home now, but will be returning to El Salvador in early 2018. A few months was not nearly enough—to see, to learn, to teach, to support, to talk, or to take it in. So I’ll return for another semester(s) at CIS—at their main campus in San Salvador but also at some of the more rural community schools where many grassroots organizing originates.
When I reflect on this year, I think one of the things that made it so meaningful is that, for me, ESL is truly an exchange: Teaching makes me a student: of other cultures, other languages, other values, other ways of doing things—and in El Salvador, specifically, of other models of justice, solidarity, and humane development. We need these alternatives desperately—all of us. I’m fortunate that through teaching ESL I can support those who fight to achieve them, day in and day out.
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