A six-week summer excursion to Ecuador that was at once life-changing and academically challenging left an indelible impression on prospective teachers who wish to become effective educators of English language learners, now typically referred to as “emergent bilingual learners.”
As semesters go, a student could do much worse than a summer trek through a cloud forest, a visit to an alpaca farm and a weekend in an indigenous community in the Andes Mountains, all while being involved in the College of Education’s Teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) immersion program in the Ecuadorian cities of Cuenca and Loja in this ecologically diverse South American country.
A group of 21 Penn State students, graduate assistants and faculty became more globally minded and culturally aware through their daily interactions with host families and their Ecuadorian students. They discovered how to turn their surroundings from unnatural to natural and their feelings from uncomfortable to comfortable. They learned that there are more bilingual and multilingual people in the world than monolingual, and that speaking several languages is a normal part of everyday life.
Such an adventure is never without its trying moments.
“I absolutely loved my experience in Ecuador, however, it was also one of the most difficult experiences of my life,’’ said Carly Colavecchi, a junior early childhood education major from Clearfield. “I was challenged every single day by language and cultural barriers. Although it was hard, I’m happy I went through it. I can now be a more successful and empathetic teacher, being able to personally relate to my students and know what it’s like to be a language learner,’’ she said.
Senior liberal arts major Matt Crager of Mount Joy in Lancaster County took with him an extensive study of the Spanish language and returned certain that he will apply for positions teaching English abroad. “I think this program helped me gain the skills necessary to live and work in an intercultural society,’’ Crager said.
Teaching English in a foreign country is not solely about language instruction, it's also knowing how to interact with students of another background and how to show them that you value their culture while giving them a taste of your own.''
The experience of teaching
And early childhood and adolescent education major Sarah Murray of Scranton found her identity as a teacher. “I left the summer experience with new-found teaching beliefs and a sense of goals I know I want to accomplish,’’ she said.
“The trip allowed for optimal learning by throwing us into the teaching practicum to experience for ourselves. The program is unique in the aspect that you are not only taught about teaching, but more importantly you get to experience real teaching.’’
There are numerous things a student must accomplish while learning how to teach English language learners. The program begins in the spring semester as part of a five-course, 15-credit certificate program. Teaching ESL certificate coursework is completed during summer courses on-campus and then continues in Ecuador, where students complete a teaching practicum with a mentor teacher who guides them through instruction of their own English language course to Ecuadorian students.
“Learning about a very different culture, its history and current challenges as well as the region’s incredible beauty and life rhythms all through a hands-on experience with Ecuadorian peers and Penn State students and faculty is incredibly motivating,’’ Smolcic said.
“Many of our students go on to future international experiences; they become teachers attuned to differences of all kinds … cultural, racial and linguistic. Their world is changed as a result of this border-crossing experience and they are stronger, more global people for it.”
“There is clear personal growth that happen when a student realizes, ‘oh, yeah, I can put myself in this totally different space and get along and know what to do and solve my own problems and figure out how to get from my family to the university and back again,’’’ Smolcic, the faculty program coordinator, said.