Being dropped into a school in La Virginia, Colombia has been filled with song, joy and of course a little frustration. It’s the end of the year here so the English teacher has little time for me, but the kids, well, that’s another story. Kids always have time to stop and talk to someone new, someone seemingly exotic. Someone who can teach them something they want to learn – and they know they should learn English. Even though they’re shy and/or afraid of not speaking well.
There’s so much to say about the town, La Virginia, itself. I know whatever I write now will be a jumble of thoughts and ideas so expect more in the next few weeks. It’s a poor, hot town with little vegetation. That said, there’s something about it that feels comfortable and welcoming. Maybe it’s that bicycles outnumber cars, or the people leaning out windows watching the street and all who pass with a smile, and it’s definitely the hawkers walking or biking down streets selling fruits and vegetables. I don’t think I’ll ever look at an avocado again without hearing ‘aquacade’ in my head. There are few buildings over 2 stories high, and doors are often open for air and to satisfy (at least my) curiosity – or not – with many opening to a single room meaning a bedroom. It’s just the way it is.
Will this town change as Colombia changes? What will ‘modernization’ look like?
The school I’m working in: Pedro Pablo Bello (try saying it fast even once…) is considered to be one of the better ones in the town. Juan Esteban, a student, told me other schools are envious of the students ‘here’ because it’s a very united place. This doesn’t look like an enviable place though with peeling paint, old desks, dark hallways, and their ‘technology’: black boards replaced – by white boards and markers.
Each morning I’ve been bombarded with greetings of ‘h-e-l-l-o. How – are – you?’ and waves from kids too embarrassed to even try to speak. As groups gather in the halls around me – there seems to be lots of break times and kids wandering the hall – we have conversations of sorts as I teach them general phrases and let them ask me questions: Where am I from? Do I have kids? (being married is not nearly as interesting or important as having kids). How do I like La Virginia? How long will I be in Colombia?’ They promise to come for afternoon conversation club but unsurprisingly only a handful show up. Don’t get me wrong though, having only 2 or 3 kids provides them lots of personal attention which is wonderful
More often than not, they quiz me to see if I remember their names – which often I don’t. They all look very different but I’ve just met so many in such a short period of time.
Although they learn English – technically – it’s not evident in conversation beyond hello. I admit I’m surprised at how much we have to drill the simplest phrases and words they might say when meeting someone. How is that they know and speak so little? The purpose of Nukanti’s program is ‘to promote’ English speaking and I’m experiencing the challenges of this seemingly simple goal. Colombia’s goal is for everyone to be bilingual by 2023 creating a need here for native English speakers. Sadly, many teachers who teach English (like many other places in the world) have poor language skills themselves. With that in mind students’ difficulty with speaking and pronouncing English becomes easily understood. Another complicated issue.
(My favorite: I say ‘nice to meet you’ ; they say: ‘machu picchu’.)
But let’s face it, I’m not giving formal classes and it’s the end of the year. How to introduce language to kids in a way that’s fun and gives them real practice? SONG! Two big hits are camp favorites: ‘swimming, swimming in a swimming pool’ – it is vacation time and it’s quite hot here, and, ‘If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands’. They know the latter in Spanish and seem thrilled to sing it in English. Much to the chagrin of the English teacher, a class requested a sing along. Not only do they get practice pronouncing the words, they get a start on vocabulary since amazingly, I translate the words for them! It’s a start for all of us. I like to have them help me with my Spanish and regularly let them know how hard it is for me to learn their language.
The school is out-of-town, not quite a suburb, but a different barrio/neighborhood. Lucky me, I get to walk 20 minutes on a tree covered road in a town that is sorely lacking vegetation. I pass fields of sugar cane which to my untrained eye looks like corn, grazing cattle which look far different from the dairy cows in Salento, and scores of bicyclists and horse-drawn carriages. Except for the busses breezing in and out-of-town, mornings seem to begin with a quiet energy.
That’s part of La Virginia’s charm: the quiet energy. And of course the singing!