We’ve landed in our new site in the San Pedro Department of Paraguay. Angela and I each have a local contact assigned to us by Peace Corps. Currently, we are working with them to understand what our future projects should be. We’ll be writing about these projects as they develop.
First Community Economic Development Project – Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL).
Angela is working in the local hospital and figuring out her trajectory. Her task is more daunting. She needs a much higher level of Guaraní language and her subject matter it more sensitive.
My situation is different. I landed a gig already. My qualification: I’m a native speaker of an in-demand foreign language. How keen my foresight.
What and When?
This post will focus on my first project, Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL).
I’ll be working with my contact’s organization to teach three small classes of about ten people each. The class will be desde cero. From zero, for complete beginners. I’m told that the English proficiency in this town is very low. They teach it in the schools but for various reasons many aren’t able to communicate well in English.
I’ll be teaching the same students for two years starting in a week. My contact and I are going to get the course certified by the government. This will allow us to award a two-year “Nivel Basico” certification.
Paraguayans are big into certifications. They are crucial for resume building. I’m told it’s hard to generate interest in a class if there’s no evidence in the form a certification.
Moreover, “Nivel Basico” is the first third of the three-part certification process. Those that finish can keep studying English for higher certifications after I leave. This is where I should mumble the word “sustainable.”
Why start with TEFL?
First, one our firsts tasks is to get to know our community. My hope is that I’ll be able to get to know my students (possibly 30 people) and their families through these classes. The Peace Corps wants volunteers to integrate before getting involved in complicated projects. But in this case, the project itself will advance the integration.
In fact, “building relationships with students is vital…. it is perhaps the most critical factor affecting student motivation” (Ferlazzo and Sypnieski). I hope that I can start a virtuous circle:
- teaching in part to build community relationships;
- relationships boost the teaching quality;
- better teaching reinforces relationships and perhaps leads to new ones; and so one.
Also, I want to spin off other types of economic development projects out of these leads.
Second, although I didn’t join Peace Corps to do TEFL, it’s clear that community members want English classes.
Volunteers should leverage their integration to assess community’s needs. Peace Corps wants us to find out what the community needs and not to push our own (as of yet ill-informed) ideas.
Yet even without a full-blown community needs assessment, it’s clear to me that English is an itch I can scratch right away. My contact explicitly told me that she wanted to host an ambitious English class. People we meet in social settings often mention that they want to learn or practice English.
Third, TEFL supports the Peace Corps Paraguay mission. The Community Economic Development sector has three goals: community engagement, workforce development, and business development. TEFL gets me going on the first two right away.
Teaching TEFL gets me started towards community engagement. I’ll be meeting people and making connections. My contact and I are already talking about using the classes as a springboard for community projects (e.g., having a youth group focused on cleaning the local hiking trail to boost tourism).
Also, during the process of advertising this course in the local schools, we’ve begun work on an “English club” for high school teachers. “Training the trainers,” I’m obliged to mumble.
Moreover, TEFL hits workforce development in a big way. Anecdotally, it’s clear that English skills help with employability. A few examples:
- We’ve seen first hand how English proficiency helped someone we knew get a good job.
- The Paraguayan Peace Corps staff tend to have high English levels.
English proficiency seems correlated with quality employment. And with Latin America faring poorly in English proficiency in general, it’s a stand-out skill to have.
Finally, TEFL is something I can do right away. Although I don’t have a TEFL background, I do have adult education experience. And, of course, I speak English and know how do to project research. RTFM.
Also, TEFL doesn’t require a sophisticated knowledge of Spanish or Guaraní. Right now, I would say I have an intermediate level of Spanish and a very basic understanding of Guaraní. TEFL allows me to work with the community while I get better at the local languages.
Who will I teach?
Two classes will be day sessions of teens age 15-17, one for each turno. (Paraguayans go to school for a half day only, either in morning or the afternoon). The third will be a night class for adults age 18 and up. This hits a critical demographic for workforce development. Students that take advantage of this class should be leaving with a marketable skill. No matter where they go, they can take that skill with them.
Since my Peace Corps-assigned contact is the owner of a private education center, I hesitated to teach. I was concerned about the ethics of working with a private institution.
On the advice of my program manager, however, my contact and I agreed on a system of becas, or scholarships, for promising students who lack the resources to attend a certification program. If all goes as planned, forty percent of my students will get a scholarship for this program.
This is an on-the-ground judgment call, plain and simple. The center appears to be of good quality and the owners seem to have a sincere passion for education.
Furthermore, there are several benefits of going through my contact’s education center rather than a high school:
- It adds more English instruction to the community. Rather than me stepping into a role already filled by an existing teacher, I’m making a new class. Before I got here, there was no English class in my contact’s center for teens or adults.
- It adds a different level to the English instruction. High school students can add to the English they’re already studying. Adults can continue/restart what they may have studied already.
- The students who take this class should be the ones motivated to learn English rather than those taking a course because it’s a requirement. The monetary and opportunity costs should act as a filter. The scholarship should allow disadvantaged but motivated students to take part. Opportunity costs sans monetary cost. Still a filter.
- Languages are hard and learning is difficult even for the hard workers. This system should allow me to focus on quality of instruction and actually get them started towards true proficiency.
How will I make a TEFL program?
I said yes to a two-year course without any TEFL experience. I’ll be learning as I go. Right now, I’m building a curriculum from scratch.
I’m basing the approach on my experience learning, and failing to learn, languages.
High school French. Didn’t study. Didn’t have a language partner. Never went on an exchange. Didn’t learn French.
Then I took a year of Spanish as an undergraduate, but didn’t put in the effort needed to make progress. I didn’t study that hard. Although I had Spanish-speaking roommates, I didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to practice. Laziness and a lack of foresight. Didn’t learn Spanish.
The lesson: study, stupid.
Lesson learned. Next, I took two years of Korean in grad school. I studied for hours. I put more time into studying Korean than anything I had ever done up to that point. I learned how to write in Korean script and memorized grammar and mountains of vocabulary. I got stellar grades.
But never learned to communicate. Although I tried having a language partner at one point, it didn’t work out. I also never managed to travel to Korea to practice while I was studying the language.
The lesson: putting in the hard work to learn vocab and grammar is necessary, but not sufficient. Without speaking and listening practice with a native speaker, you can’t get very far.
Teaching literature backs up this insight:
“Recent research has proposed a more balanced approach – that second language instruction can provide a combination of both explicit teaching focused on features of the second language such as grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation, and implicit learning stemming from meaningful communication….” (Ferlazzo and Sypnieski).
A language success (or a work in progress):
Fourteen years after my first attempt, I’m making more progress in Spanish. I’ve put in a lot of self study: Assimil, DuoLingo, Pimsleur, classes, travel, Spanish-language media, and lots of conversation practice. After two years of effort, I’d rate myself as an intermediate Spanish learner. The Peace Corps rated me as an “intermediate high” when I showed up to training.
The more balanced approach is working for me.
In my TEFL class, I’ll blend a structured approach with a lot of communication practice. I understand homework is a tough sell in Paraguay. Still, I want to assign a modest amount of DuoLingo practice each day (5-10 minutes). Without a little bit each day, you cannot learn a language. Since I’m limited to teaching one day a week, there has to be daily homework. Even with daily classes, you’d still need self-study.
In general, I will follow the DuoLingo “tree” to guide my curriculum. I’ll add, clarify, and emphasize along the way. After four to six months, DuoLingo should be tapped out and I’ll move to more advanced material.
Why DuoLingo? The school version is easy to implement and I found it useful in my own experience. I also don’t have the time or background to design a perfect curriculum. Game on in a week. I need something that works and I need it now.
Additionally, I’m hoping small class size combined with a long time horizon let’s me develop high-quality, relevant, and engaging communication exercises.
For two years of study, I’ve set out a B1 (intermediate) level as a goal for the students. A2 (elementary) seemed unambitious. I didn’t want to set a low bar. B2 (upper intermediate) seemed like a bridge too far. I may or not be a B2 in Spanish myself and I had the opportunity to travel and practice. These students will have much less opportunities in that department. B1 seemed like a good compromise. An ambitious but achievable goal.
- Can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc.
- Can deal with most situations likely to arise while travelling in an area where the language is spoken.
- Can produce simple connected text on topics that are familiar or of personal interest.
- Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes and ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.
I’m going to encourage students to exceed this goal if they can.
Ready, set, go
I’ll be figuring this out on the fly. I’ll have to make adjustments, but am motivated to make this a success. It’s a unique opportunity to work long term with motivated students.
Whether any of this works out in practice remains to be seen. My class is two years. My Peace Corps assignment is two years. No do overs. Only real-time adjustments.
I’ll write about our progress in future posts. Since this blog is public, I will post responsibly and respect the people involved. I’ll distill lessons learned and will share carefully. But I will share both success and failure.
I figure a good sign will be if a student mentions this blog during a conversation in English.
Vamos a ver. ¡Adelante!