Teacher goes to Mexico to learn Spanish
English as a Second Language teacher Mary Whalen spent this summer learning Spanish as a second language.
Whalen, who has taught for six years in the district and currently teaches at Jacks Valley Elementary School, had taken Spanish classes, but was not fluent. The language barrier often was an issue in discussions with her students’ parents, Whalen said.
“I never had a total immersion experience like this,” Whalen said. “In order for me to communicate with parents, I wanted to be proficient. I wanted to involve them, because if they can help their students at home, even in their own language, it will help the children be successful.”
Whalen and her daughter, Michele, who is a 1st grade teacher in Salinas, Calif., decided to pay for their stay at a language school in Oaxaca, Mexico, for four weeks and learned more than just the language.
Whalen said the Instituto de Cultural held classes from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and also provided trips on weekends to villages surrounding Oaxaca to learn how the people make a living and about the arts and crafts they sell.
“The area is so culturally rich. We lived with a family, so it was a total immersion into the culture. We ate with the people and went to a village where pottery is made. We made some pottery to learn about their vocation and to appreciate their art. They make pots without wheels and in a very primitive fireplace, not a kiln,” Whalen said. “It has given me a much better understanding for how hard these people work for so little. These are the parents of my students.”
The language students could stay at the school as long as they wanted, but the Whalens stayed for four weeks. Whalen said she made friends with people from Kuwait, Switzerland and many people from California, Oregon and Texas. Whalen said she was overwhelmed by the experience of attending the Guelagueta, a celebration of the cultures and folk dances of the seven areas surrounding Oaxaca. She also visited the Indian ruins at Milta and other historical sites.
Whalen previously traveled to Mexico, when she visited Adriana Guzman, 19, in Mexico City. Guzman was a student of Whalen’s when she taught at Carson Valley Middle School. At the time, Whalen was very touched by the way the people welcomed her, but felt a little cut off because of the language barrier.
While at the language school, in the afternoons, she had one-on-one language lessons with a young medical student from the area, Axel Santiago Santos. She helped Axel with his English and he helped her with her Spanish. She said Axel also helped her when she didn’t get all her clothing from the laundry. They had discussions about the cultural differences between Hispanic parents and American parents.
“Parents in Mexico are very involved. Here, they are intimidated, so I want to welcome them and make them feel as much a part of the school as any other parent,” Whalen said. “They are so appreciative of what we do. I want this to benefit the parents.”
Whalen often deals with students one-on-one or goes into their classrooms to help them with assignments from other teachers. Whalen said she does receive help with the parents from her assistant, Gaby Hernandez, who is studying at Western Nevada Community College to become a teacher. However, more assistants and teachers are needed who speak Spanish, she said.
Ideally, Whalen said she will now be able to communicate to parents ways they can model reading and writing behaviors at home that will help her students. Whalen said at the school’s first open house this year, most of her parents came and she felt much more comfortable conversing with them.
Her plans also include more effective parent conferences and creating an afte-school reading tutoring program. Whalen said she is currently looking for a place for the program that would be in a central area for her Jacks Valley students.