Fulbrighters in Argentina

Fulbrighters in Argentina

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Things I Took for Granted…

Being a teacher myself, I’ve been very interested in the way that the university trains its teachers. Today, I witnessed something pretty important. First, a little explanations are in order.

In the final (usually 4th) year of the program, students are required to observe for a total of 60 hours in the public schools. These 60 hours are broken down into a specific amount (about 10) of observations required at each level (from Kindergarten up to Polimodal [college prep]). Just like in the US, second language teachers here are certified in all levels of school (K-12). These 60 hours of observations serve as the students’ only source of in-field training before “student teaching” on their own. To an education major at Elon, 60 hours is very reasonable. Education majors probably serve more than 60 hours when all their practicum hours are totaled for each semester preceding student teaching. Anyone serious about becoming a teacher must recognize the importance of this in-field observation experience because learning the theory about teaching and actually teaching can be very different. However, many students complain about the large number of hours required. But to be fair to the university, I must add that students are given a grace period of up to a full year to complete the 60 hours.

Well, today there was a meeting of all the students and professors in the English department. The head of the university received a letter from an angry English student. This student, a woman in her 40s who (according to unnamed sources) does not have much interest in teaching and simply attends classes because they’re free and she likes English, wrote a letter of complaint to the head of the university about the “ridiculous” amount of hours required by the English department. Also, she felt that observing in every level (K-12) was unnecessary. This student had not even mentioned her concerns to the professors in the department before sending this letter. Then, without even consulting the professors in the department about the matter, the head of the university took it upon himself to declare that the department must lower its number of required observation hours. Not only that, but students also will no longer do ANY observations in primary schools – only secondary schools. So because of the disgruntled opinions of one woman, all of the students in the English department are now limited in their already limited teacher training.

Luckily, the professors and students are eager to take a stand. The meeting today was held so that the situation could be explained to the students. Students and professors expressed their concerns about the new “mandates,” and the meeting ended with all the students signing a letter to the head of the university asking for him to reconsider. Now we have to wait and see what the head will say. But honestly, what was he thinking in the first place? I can’t believe he wouldn’t even discuss the matter with the professors before making such a huge decision. Also, how can anyone offer a degree to teach any level without also offering the opportunity to train at every level???? I could go on forever about how much I was appalled by this, but I’ll stop before I get carried away.

Although I greatly admire the professors here, I also must admit that being a part of the higher level education system in Argentina has made me realize just how amazing my education was at Elon. I realize now how much money, time, and experience it must have taken to develop the education program to where it stands today. I know that sometimes students complain about the transportation, lack of involvement, strange circumstances or placements, etc. that go along with a practicum in the education field; however, the fact that students at Elon are given the opportunity to have so much in-classroom experience before even reaching their final year in the program is incredible. It takes the willingness of schools in the community as well as support from the university to make that kind of system work. And, sadly, those are two things that the university here greatly lacks.


The Culture of Education

I’ve made some interesting observations about the culture of education here in Argentina. One of the professors that I work closely with taught full-time at the secondary school for many years. She still teaches a few English classes a week in the primary and secondary schools. Talking to her about her teaching experiences, resources, and the attitude of students, I’ve come to a few conclusions:

1. The Power of Money and Competition – Although I don’t like the fact that higher education in the US is so expensive, there is something to say about how scholarships can motivate students. Many students cannot afford college on their own; they rely on scholarships and loans to make it through. However, scholarships aren’t given to just anybody. You can’t go to school just to “socialize” and come out with a 4.0 GPA and tons of scholarship money in your pocket. You have to work for the grades, the skills, the leadership opportunities, or even the sports. Even if money doesn’t concern you, there’s still the competition to get into the college of your choice. You could have all the money in the world, but if Yale doesn’t want you, you’re not going to Yale. Selectivity and cost are some strong motivators to get students interested in their own education, especially at the secondary school level. Not to say our high schools don’t have problems, but at least these motivators exist.

Public university education in Argentina is free. The majority of high school students don’t seem to care much about their education. They come to school to socialize, not learn. They aren’t greatly challenged, and they aren’t greatly concerned about their futures (in terms of education). If students choose to go to university after secondary school (there are quite a large number who DON’T even though it’s free), they don’t feel any particular rush to graduate. Since all the classes are free, it doesn’t really matter how many times you fail – you just re-take the class again and again. I’ve met many students who have taken the same class 3, 4, or more times before passing. But it’s normal here, so it doesn’t bother them too much. In the US, we pay for each class we take. Failing a class doesn’t just set us back in terms of graduation credits; it sets us back financially if we have to re-take the class.

2. Problem Professions – Argentina is suffering from a shortage of professionals in certain key areas, such as engineering and specialized medicine. These kinds of careers require that students pass certain admission tests before entering the university programs. I mean, no one wants a doctor who can’t do basic mathematical conversions for example. But most students here just coasted through high school; they’re not mentally prepared for such demanding tests of their knowledge. So, rather than go through the difficulties of preparing for such an exam, students choose to study other professions instead. Right now, there seems to be a consensus among Argentines that the country has way too many people studying psychology than any possible future demand for psychologists. But it’s a free and interesting career to study. From an 18-year- old’s point of view, why not? This is just one of many examples of this growing problem. Fewer and fewer graduates are emerging from the much needed specialty fields of science and medicine, while more and more Argentines between the ages of 18 and 25 are either slowly making their way through university, working, or simply doing nothing at all.


So What???

So after all this venting, what solutions do I have to offer? Right now, I feel like the only real solution would involve changing the entire educational system in Argentina – from the ground up. Change the way teachers are trained so that they focus more on challenging students and motivating them to succeed. Change the way schools are run so that there is more rigor and discipline. Change the way education itself is viewed and valued in the country.

Well, these all sound great, but there’s no easy way for all that do be done. It requires all kinds of money, government support, formal education, willingness of teachers and parents, etc. I would love to play some kind of part in changing things for the better, but I don’t know how much of a difference I can make on my own, especially as an “outsider” to the country.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Misiones Province

My first really “touristy” trip in Argentina. Last week, I traveled by bus up to Posadas, the capital of the province of Misiones (north of my province of Entre Rios). If you’ve ever seen the movie The Mission, then you already know a little about Misiones. The movie describes what happened to some of the Jesuit missions that were established in this province back in the 16- and 1700s.

San Ignacio Mini – Ruins of a Jesuit Mission
The first thing I did in Posadas was catch a bus out to San Ignacio to see some of the best-preserved ruins in all of Misiones. The town itself of San Ignacio seemed almost deserted: barely any people were out in the streets, almost no stores were open, and there were no cars at all. Despite the lack of life in the town, the ruins were very well cared for. There’s a small museum at the entrance to the site that describes some of the history and even includes a model of the mission’s layout when it was at its peak occupation in the 1700s. The amount of work that must have gone into the building of the living quarters and church must have been immense. The most valuable part of the ruins is the remains of the entrance to the church at the head of the great central square. The intricate stonework showing the insignia of the mission as well as angels and saints is so beautiful! I was really touched by the living quarters as well. It’s amazing but also kind of sad to see the effects of time. Once this place was packed with life and activity, and now there are full-grown trees inside what used to be people’s homes. Even worse, the population of indigenous peoples in Argentina has all but disappeared, so there aren’t even many people who can legitimately connect their heritage to these missions.

Puerto Iguaz├║ and Iguaz├║ National Park
After spending another day in Posadas, I hopped on another bus up to Puerto Iguazu. Puerto Iguazu is located at the very northern tip of Misiones. Walking along the costanera (boardwalk), you can see where Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay almost meet – except for the river separating them. There’s a monument with the colors of the country’s flag placed along the costanera of each country; looking from above, they would form a kind of triangle. I don’t think I’m describing it well, but it was really neat to see.

Iguazu National Park contains the most famous waterfalls in South America. I’ve never been to Niagara Falls, but from what I’ve seen in pictures, Niagara Falls can’t even compare to the falls at Iguazu. In the park, you can take two different walking paths among the falls: the lower path allows you to see the falls from below. At one point, a pier leads you so close that you can almost reach out and touch the cascading water! The upper path gives you a fabulous view of the whole expanse of waterfalls. They seem never-ending in the distance.

I don’t know much about science or nature, but I do know that these were some seriously spectacular and miraculous sights. Can you even imagine what it must have been like for the first people who discovered the falls? Whether indigenous people or Spanish conquerors, someone must have stumbled upon this place. Why did they leave????? It’s probably the closest thing to paradise that I’ll ever see on this earth.

But the sights weren’t the only things that impressed me at the National Park. This was my first trip to a truly “touristy” place in Argentina. At first, I was shocked to hear so much English being spoken. I’m not used to hearing English outside of the classes I teach or on TV, but there were tourists and vendors all speaking English in and around the park. At first, I jokingly thought to myself, “Look at all those silly tourists;” then, I realized that that’s probably exactly what the natives in town as well as the vendors were thinking about me! Considering the fact that I look nothing like the beautifully tan Argentines, I’m sure the people in Puerto Iguazu could figure out that I was a foreigner. But when vendors and tour guides started speaking to me in English without even attempting Spanish first, I had a ridiculous impulse to stamp my foot and say, “I’m not like them. Talk to me in Spanish!” Luckily, I refrained from doing that, but I tried very hard to speak in Spanish even if others started to speak to me in English. It felt strange since I know that technically I’m a foreigner, but I’m trying so hard to incorporate this country’s culture into my life that I don’t think of myself as completely foreign. Does that even make sense?

Well, overall it was a fantastic experience for my first big trip outside of Parana. I hope you’ll look at the pictures I put online because words just can’t do justice to the beauty of Misiones.

Monday, April 28, 2008

SO Much!

There really is no other way to put it except that there’s just SO MUCH of everything in my life right now…so many new experiences, new friendships, new lessons. But I’ll try to make my thoughts relatively organized.

Hernandarias (Fri. 4/25)
On Friday I traveled to Hernandarias, a town about 1.5 hours away from Parana. One of the students at the university teaches English part time at her old high school there, and she had asked me if I would come visit her students and share a little about the US. I brought along with me 2 Spanish/English dictionaries to donate to the students (who by the way have almost no English resources and would very much appreciate any donations!) as well as a CD of popular music and photos of my family, pets, friends, fun places like Disney World, etc.

I cannot even begin to describe how wonderful my experience was at the school. These students had never met someone from the US before, and they were so excited to try out their English and ask me questions about everyday life in the states. There were signs around the school saying “Welcome Jen!” and every single class bought or made me a gift! I was so moved by their kindness. The sincerity and good will of all the people that I’ve met here just astounds me. No matter how little they have, they give from their heart – and that matters so much more than the monetary value of the gift.

I spent some of the time speaking in English so that the students could practice, but I spent most of the time speaking in Spanish since they only know very basic English. I made sure to tell them that I was still learning Spanish, and I asked them to correct me a few times. I wanted them to realize that just because I spoke English didn’t mean that I was perfect. I felt a little guilty that they thought so highly of me without even meeting me simply because of my language and nationality. So I wanted to give as much as I could to them as they were giving to me in terms of sharing my culture and experiences. We talked about how hard it is to learn another language and what kinds of things they liked and didn’t like about English. They were also very interested in the kinds of foods that I like in the US, and I made sure to ask them about their favorite foods in Argentina as well. Food is an incredible topic. I dare you to try to find a person who would have nothing to say about food. Good food is something that’s shared across all languages and cultures ;)

Overall, I had a fabulous time talking with the students and teachers. I’m so incredibly grateful for being placed in Parana because it’s given me the opportunity to see how average people live in Argentina. Just like foreigners often have misconceptions about Americans based on movies and books, so many foreigners to Argentina think that the country IS Buenos Aires, but there’s so much more to appreciate than just that one city. And this trip to the tiny town of Hernandarias was just one of those experiences.

An Argentine Wedding (Sat. 4/26)
About 2 weeks ago I joined the friendliest and most enthusiastic gospel choir that I could ever have imagined. On Saturday, we sang at a wedding here in Parana. It was my first experience at an Argentine wedding. The first difference I noticed from weddings that I’m familiar with in the states is that it took place at night (around 10pm). I found out that this is traditional for weddings here. Also, all the guests waited outside the church until the bride and groom arrived separately. Then they went inside to be seated. I like this because it’s like they’re greeting the couple and showing their support before the ceremony even begins. Another thing I noticed is that the ceremony was short and sweet. The couple met at the alter; the priest talked about the importance of marriage as a sacrament; the bride and groom said “I do;” the priest pronounced them married; they kissed; and last but not least, they exchanged rings. Then it was over! It couldn’t have been more than half an hour.

I know I’m completely jumping the gun here, but every single girl can agree with me that you can’t go to a wedding without thinking about your own “future” wedding (hypothetically speaking of course, Mom). And this one was EXACTLY how I would like mine to be someday. The simple but beautiful bows on the church pews and the short ceremony that focuses on the commitment of the couple is just what I’d love. It just seemed perfectly simple and beautiful to me. Ok, I’ll stop gushing now. But the main point is that once again I saw how much you can appreciate something by just keeping it simple. I think we’ve lost a little bit of that sense of “simplicity” in the states…but maybe that’s just me.

Well, there’s so much more to tell, but it’s getting late. More soon!
Besos,
Jen ;)

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Things are finally starting to settle into some sort of pattern. I'm really enjoying working with the students in all the different classes. My biggest role teaching-wise is in the grammar classes where I'm responsible for handling all the practice exercises (the profesor teaches the theory). It's interesting but difficult because there are so many differences between British (which is taught here) and American English. I won't bore the non-grammar nerds with details, but basically many of the terms that I learned mean something different or don't mean anything at all in British English grammar. I don't want to confuse the students, so I'm trying to learn things British style ;)

Although I like working with university students, I honestly miss my high schoolers. I was absolutely astounded the first time I got up in front of a class here because all of the students were a) seated, b) paying attention, c) had their own materials, and d) didn't yell, fight, curse, or attempt to slip out of the room unnoticed. Even though it's a wonderful feeling being able to turn my back to write on the board without worrying that someone will misbehave, I feel like teaching at the university level just isn't the same kind of "teaching" as at the high school level. As a high school teacher, I'm a teacher, a referee, a cheerleader, and an entertainer all in one. Students at the university level aren't as much fun - they don't joke around or yell out strang comments. So even though I like the material and the good behavior, I kind of think I'd like to stick with high schoolers. I feel like this is going to come back to bite me later on, but oh well....

Last weekend I went to Concordia, a town about 2.5 hours away from Parana. One of my students invited me to stay with her family there. It was a fantastic experience! I loved it because I got to do what a normal Argentine does on the weekends. We went to a gorgeous park where there's a botanical garden and a historic (yet demolished) castle. We explored the city and shopped among the artisans' kiosks. I even made gnocchi with the family for lunch! For dinner, we had milanesa, a traditional Argentine dish that's similar to fried chicken and beef (but better than you imagine) with home-made french fries. On Sunday, we went to a traditional asado, or BBQ, in the countryside outside of the city. It was so much fun to practice my Spanish and meet so many new people.

This week, I was invited to speak with some classes at a private English teacher-training institute here in Parana. I really enjoyed it! It was basically 2 hours of discussing politics, education, life in the US, my experiences here in Argentina, idioms, etc. The director of the institute wants me to come back again to speak with some other students specifically about teaching. Also, next week I'll be visiting a high school to speak with the students. The chica who's putting it all together told me that most of the students have never met a native English speaker, and they're freaking out with excitement lol! They're planning a picnic, working on translating questions that they want to ask me, and are even making traditional food for me to try. I told her that all that wasn't necessary, but she said that the students really want to do it. I'm so excited to go talk to them and exchange information about our cultures. And I get to be around high schoolers again (for better or for worse lol).

So it looks like I don't have to worry about finding volunteer opportunities anymore...they're finding me!

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Finally!

I know people now!!! Classes started a week ago, and it has been wonderful actually meeting people (ice cream vendors not included). Have you ever had one of those days when you are absolutely certain that you're doing exactly what you want to do? THAT was my day today.

A little bit about the classes...
I'm assisting in Grammar I, Grammar II, Language II, and Nivel I (for students that know very minimal English). Being a grammar nerd, I find the grammar classes to be very interesting. There's so much that is taught to non-native speakers that is overlooked or assumed to be known by native speakers. And there are different terms for some grammar concepts that I've learned. It's amazing to see how intricately these students are required to analyze the English language. Obviously, they need to be familiar with it in order to teach it as a second language, but I still consider it very impressive. I absolutely love the Language II class because it's all about communicating orally. And, since I'm a native speaker and completely new to Argentina, I get to play a big part in this class. My referente (advisor) Sandra teaches the class, and she is wonderful about getting the students engaged. For example, today we ended up talking about all kinds of topics: food, family origins, our names, etc. The students asked me questions, and I asked them questions in return about life in Argentina. It was really fun and helped me learn a lot more about Argentine culture. For example, did you know that a greatly-celebrated holiday here is Friend Day? Isn't that great??? The even have a special tradition like secret santa to give gifts to their friends on Friend Day: it's called amigos invisibles. I love it!

And the students...
I have to say that I'm very glad that I'm working at a university because I've been able to meet a lot of people close to my age. Unlike teaching high school, it's ok for me to hang out with my students here. Everyone is so nice, and they're very patient with my lack of Spanish speaking skills. Today, the grammar teacher was called out of class for a meeting. While she was gone, a whole group of students and I chatted about random things like what kinds of foods I should try, what my home is like in the US, what places I should visit in Argentina, etc. And we talked completely in Spanish!!! I was so thrilled to get a chance to talk in Spanish and practice the language. Boy was I bad lol! But I was very glad that the students corrected me and helped me figure out verb tenses and vocabulary. I WANT them to correct me!

Also, one of the students teaches/tutors at a high school part time. She asked me if I would be willing to come speak to the high school students and let them practice their (basic) English skills. I'm so excited! I love meeting people, and it will be a great opportunity for me to see how high schools here are managed. I've heard a lot about the schools, but I'd like to see them first hand as well. AND Sandra and Jean, the head of the English department at the university, have asked if I'd be willing to give a lecture on topics related to education in the US, English as a second language, etc. Part of me is honored that these people think so highly of me as to want me to give presentations and speeches; another part of me is concerned that I'll let them down by not being quite the "American" (think choirs of angels singing the word) that they imagine.

Anyway, I'm so excited that things are finally getting started. In only a week I've not only begun teaching and observing, but I've also been invited on a weekend trip to Concordia (where there are some incredible thermal spas) and asked to join a gospel choir!

It's official. I love Argentina.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Where's the beef???

In case you don't keep up with the Argentine news, let me fill you in. For the past 3 weeks, the agricultural community has been on strike. From what I understand (and feel free to look into this on your own too), the government increased the taxes on agricultural exports. Apparently, this is most affecting the smaller and/or private farmers, who feel completely unrepresented and unnoticed by the government. So for the past 3 weeks, there have been road blocks on major roads throughout my province (Entre Rios) and other major cities in the country. The protestors refuse to let any agricultural products past the road blocks.

In other words, the supply of milk, chicken, and beef has been dwindling drasticly of late. And today, when I went to the grocery store, there was NOTHING. NO chicken, NO beef, NO milk. Not even milk products like yogurt. I have never seen so many completely empty shelves in my life. Let's just say, it's a good thing I like pasta!

But the whole experience of the strike has been interesting for me. First of all, I've never been in the middle of one before or had the effects of a protest or strike hit close to home (or maybe I should say "close to the fridge"). Second, over the past week, I've seen more and more businesses put up signs saying "Estamos con el campo" - basically "We're with the farmers." I've been attempting to read articles in La Nacion to understand exactly where the government and the farmers stand on the issues involved, but it's been difficult. Although my Spanish reading ability is relatively good (at least better than my speaking ability!), I'm facing a lot of agricultural and political terms that are completely new to me. Not to mention that I'm not very well versed in the basic politics of agriculture and taxes anyway.

I love that whether in the country or the city, all of the Argentines have an opinion about the issue. I would much rather see people debate their opinions than have no opinion at all. As long as they remain peaceful about it.

But for now, I'm just hording the carbs and praying that the heladerias don't run out of milk to make ice cream ;)

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

I don’t know if it’s me or if it’s just my luck with my travels, but I’ve never been to a place that I didn’t like.

Some things I love about traveling:
Sitting in a restaurant eating food unique to the country’s culture, yet listening to American music playing in the background – “Gangster’s Paradise” alongside “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”
Not really knowing what I’m eating and enjoying it even more because of it
Having a good excuse to try all kids of foods (mostly unhealthy bus all delicious)
Willingness to accept things as true without really questioning why – for example, what is dulce de leche? I’ve accepted that it’s delicious and some kind of dessert without even knowing what it is.

Since language is something of a passion of mine, I can’t help but mention it here. I’m so grateful for the kindness shown to me while I continue to learn Spanish. No matter how much I stumble through my sentences, no one looks at me with disgust or impatience. I am constantly reminded of the contrast that I’ve witnessed so often in the US. I’ve seen so many Hispanic high school students isolated because of their language barrier. Rather than try to help them, many of their English-only speaking peers choose to simply ignore them.

Outside of school I’ve heard people complain about foreigners’ mispronunciations, strange accents, or lack of basic knowledge of the English language. I wish I could explain why it seems so hard for Americans to embrace diversity of language and culture. One thing I loved when I was teaching in NC was using Spanish examples to explain certain ideas to my students. For example, how some word parts in English have similar meanings to those in Spanish. I want so much for people to recognize the aspects of life and culture that bring people together around the world rather than separate them.

That’s why I’m so excited about teaching English as a second language. I don’t want my students to think I’m teaching English because I think it’s the best language, but rather because I want them to be able to learn something about another culture and make their own decisions about it.

I still have no idea what I’m going to do when I finish in Argentina, but luckily I have lots of time to figure that out ;)

PS - pictures coming soon!