As I'm wrapping up my first semester teaching at CEC, I am looking back at these past few months and forward into planning for next semester. Which has me revisiting the question “Why do we study English?” The first day of class, I asked every student to answer this question along with some others as part of setting goals. The seriousness of their responses was a bit surprising. Pamela, a 7th grader, wrote: “Quiero aprender inglés porque es muy importante para hoy en día. Si uno no sabe inglés, no es nadie.” Which translates: “I want to learn English because it is very important for today. If you do not know English, you are no one.”
Now I am working with our colegio English teacher Tracy to plan how to incorporate the ESL students into the colegio English classes, and also rethinking our goals, as teachers and as a school, for teaching English.
So, why DO we teach English at a school in the cloud forest of the Tiliran mountains of Costa Rica? It's clear that many students and their families choose CEC because of the opportunity to really learn English. With the year's tuition equal to a third of an average salary in the region, that choice is even more telling of the value which families place on this skill. I think it's clear that knowing English is a way of increasing job opportunities, especially in the Monteverde region where most jobs are found in tourism and biology research which require interacting with many English speakers. In fact, with the amount of English spoken in Monteverde, it can feel like a rural community in the U.S.
Beyond that, I think that knowing the English language gives students access to new ideas and perspectives, both through communication with other English speakers and through literature. The study of English expands students' world view and understanding of history and helps them to develop an appreciation for cultural differences.
Side note - the Costa Rican Ministry of Education requires that students take an English exam along with other subjects in order to graduate. This test is a 70-80 question multiple choice test with comprehension questions based on a series of short (less than 200 word) texts, such as an email to a tourist with recommendations for planning their trip to Costa Rica, or a description of an English class, or a conversation between a ticket agent and a customer buying a train ticket from NYC to DC. Although this test is not comprehensive, I think it shows a recognition of the importance of knowing a second language and a national attempt to prepare graduates to participate in a world that functions in languages other than Spanish (and often in English). I want us to go beyond the basics in what we're expecting of our students.
Working from my ideas and conversations with others, I have created an outline with ideas for developing the colegio English curriculum around 5 different themes, one for each grade: identity, voices, culture, justice and the environment. And I have ideas for titles to consider with each of the themes. I've heard folks say that anyone can teach English, especially ESL abroad, so long as they know how to speak the language. While I disagree, I do think that I can create a much stronger curriculum using contributions from others. And I think that everyone has useful ideas about interesting books and movies. I'd love to have your input. You can email me suggestions for titles or ask to look at the Google doc.