Growth in the community

Written by Ryan Hunter
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Hola mis amigos! I hope that you are all doing well wherever you are in the world and enjoying the ebb and flow of life’s proceedings. Personally I have been exploring the remarkable Latin American culture and all its aspects while I have been living in the bustling city of Buenos Aires, Argentina. I have been situated in the downtown core for the past two months, and I still have an additional two months to reside & travel in South America while I complete my Bachelor of Education for the University of Calgary. There are endless events to partake in, districts to explore, and people to meet here, so I am overwhelmed on a daily basis as to what I want to do! Often while I try to plan for these future endeavors, I forget the fact that one of the primary reasons I am here is to connect these cultural experiences with my practices as a new teacher to adjust my perceptions and technique. While I have been volunteering at a school to teach local students the English language, I have not yet felt that I have been making the type of lasting impression I desire for both these students and myself. So, through discussions with some of the local people I have met in both educational and informal settings, I have devised a plan that I hope will inspire change both to the community and myself as an educator throughout the process. The volunteer placement that I am currently assisting at is a small school designed for adolescents who wish to either develop a knowledge of the English language or strengthen pre-existing skills. It is located in a small working class community outside of the city of Buenos Aires, and students residing in the area come for after school seminars and workshops taught by volunteers who are visiting Buenos Aires from around the world. My commute to the school could best be described as

lengthy as I must take both the downtown subway system and a train for a total of three hours (one and a half hours to arrive, and the same distance to return) travel time. 

 The trip by itself though is a realistic portrait of the city beyond the tourist-laden areas. Buenos Aires is a very diverse landscape socioeconomically, as beautiful architecture and world-class restaurants envelop the inner city, while at the same time far reaching slums on the fringe of the urban developments can be seen littered with garbage and decay. Unfortunately there is a great disparity between levels of wealth amongst residents due to numerous factors, some of which I will mention later as part of my inspiration for the project at the school. Regarding my actual periods of instruction, I have different classes and age groups to manage depending on the day of the week. In any case many of the students I have been assigned already have a solid grasp of the English language, making it easier as a native English speaker and foreigner to adjust as well as establish some form of relationship.

Through my communications with students, for instance, I have discovered that several of them have taken English language courses throughout their schooling (much like we take French in Canada) but the majority of these individuals have followed through with further instruction as a mode of support in future significant endeavors. For these individuals, learning English is somewhat crucial to their success after their initial schooling. Since they reside in a working class community and may not have the funds to attend post-secondary educational facilities for an extended period, a second universal language is imperative for their resume in their hopes of finding a prosperous career. For those that hope to attend post-secondary schooling in an international setting, the ability to speak and understand the English language is equally crucial in order to expand their prospects for accepting institutions. As a Canadian, it is quite interesting to see how the English language has such a significant effect on a portion of the population in a nation that is not even bilingual, yet many residents rely on it for obtaining reputable careers and opportunities. This is definitely not the case in our nation where the French language is sparsely utilized in the same manner, yet is politically and culturally supposed to be considered a language of equal importance.

Concerning my instruction of students and the curriculum for learning English in the classroom, the seminars are set up in such a way that individuals from a variety of backgrounds can step into the teaching role and complete the required activities with minimal issues. Volunteers are given textbooks with step-by-step instructions, activities, and answers to discuss with students in an allotted period (one hour per class) each day. As a beginning teacher this was a surprising yet understandable approach to learning the language as there are multiple factors affecting how the director of the school can run her classes. Volunteers who take part in the programs do not always come from educational backgrounds, and consequently may not understand the process of building a curriculum and/or what activities may be necessary to instruct when learning a language. Many volunteers also stay for short durations (typically one month), therefore a textbook is the simplest way for a new volunteer to jump into a classroom and begin instruction without too much difficulty. Since the focus of volunteers is also typically travel rather than instruction at the school, the layout allows individuals to walk into the class without the worry of extensive pre-preparation or planning. However, as a teacher used to a high level of flexibility in the classroom setting, this format has been very difficult to adjust to, as there is often little room to stray into personally generated projects. As I mentioned before I have no issues with this teaching format, but I would like to create something during my time here in Argentina where I will see some form of immediate influence on the students regarding their learning and perception of the world. Luckily I have been given that opportunity and I hope that my efforts will pay off.

Last week I was having a lengthy discussion with the woman that runs the English language school regarding my experiences thus far in Argentina. We discussed the disparity of wealth I had seen in the city and its outer limits, as well as the public’s general perception of their environment, politics, the education system, agriculture, and other cultural aspects of interest. Concerning the poverty-ridden “shanty towns”, she mentioned that these areas are financed by the government for people with little to no earnings. Housing, electricity, water, and food are supplied in these areas, and people from across the country flock to the districts to reside. Since their necessities to live are covered, many of the people that inhabit the “shanty towns” have little desire or ambition to work, and therefore may bring their children into the world with the same mode of thinking. The surrounding areas are truly horrendous to drive by during my commute to school, as they are covered with refuse that will likely never be disposed of.

A regular sight (and smell) on my way home are piles of flaming garbage beside the railway tracks flying up in smoke, since there is no system established outside of downtown to pick up residents’ waste. To say the least, Argentineans’ perspective of the environment is quite fascinating. There is garbage to be seen everywhere, and it is disappointing as they have such a beautiful surrounding landscape with abundant resources which they readily promote. Celebrating Earth Hour in the city this week, for example, is slightly ironic. There is a sense of laziness in relation to all these issues, as the wealthy would rather pay for conveniences and/or put a metaphorical “band-aid” on issues on both a large scale (ie. the government catering to the wealthy and financing “shanty towns” as a mode of assistance for the poor) or on a small scale (ie. buying chips and pop for dinner rather than fresh vegetables from one’s garden). So here is the idea that came forth from my conversations. T

he English language school has an abundance of green space around the main buildings that is disheveled and littered with leftover appliances. I suggested that I would take it upon myself to remodel the area and build multiple gardens for both aesthetic and educational purposes. As long as I had the resources to dig away at the earth, and the weather cooperated, I would try and further cement the school as an important meeting site in the community. I believe this remodeling is important on multiple levels. Aesthetically it is important for a school to establish an environment that is inviting to students, especially for individuals who come from homes where this type of setting does not exist. Designing and maintaining a vegetable garden is something that many Canadians take pleasure in for the process of creating, as well as to reap the benefits on the kitchen table. Unfortunately in Argentina, these sentiments do not largely exist due to some of the issues I mentioned earlier, and I believe that the education system does not promote these types of activities in their classrooms.

I am hoping that throughout the process I will be able to have students help me before and during class so that they may understand the benefits of having a garden at one’s residence.  I will of course be speaking to the students in English while I work, teaching the younger ones the names of items such as vegetables or garden tools, and the older students the methods of constructing and caring for a garden. I also hope that students will bring their own seeds/resources and ideas while I am at the school so that they feel as though they have had some input in the process, and consequently become excited about the end product. Hopefully in the end they will grasp the concept that they can create sustenance on their own which is healthy, and that it is important to take care of their natural surroundings (which means a little bit of manual labor!). This garden will be a place that former students can return to, educate other students about, and future volunteers can build upon regardless of their length of stay. I am excited to begin and I hope this is an experience with enduring impressions for myself, other volunteers, as well as the community of Pablo Nogues.

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