Teaching and Learning a Second Language: Nicaragua Service Trip

Part 3 of a series of blog posts about Wheelock’s Nicaragua service trip. Read the full series

Meilin, Elizabeth and Halle working with students to develop a story that was then acted out and videotaped.

Today we completed our sixth day of teaching, May 30th, which is also Mother’s Day in Nicaragua. For most of us, teaching English as a second language is a brand-new experience. Some of the Wheelock students, Jazmin Wallace ’18, Halle Burns ’18, Daisy Russell ’19, and Elizabeth Zuelke ’17, Meilin Chong ’17, and Linda Le ’17 especially wanted this teaching experience in order to gain some understanding about Central American culture, as well as what it feels like personally to learn a second language, such as Spanish.  These experiences may help us to be more effective in teaching English language learners back in the Boston area.

In our second week in Nicaragua, Claire E. White joined us; Claire teaches sheltered English instruction courses at Wheelock and she was our professor in Spanish for Human Service Professionals, which accompanied this service trip in the spring semester.  The group of children we have this week have been involved with Outreach 360 for over four years and are now young teens with stronger skills in English speaking and listening.  So having Claire with us for this second week was invaluable.

Extending vocabulary as students guess objects.

Here are a few things we have learned this week.

We have a set of learning objectives provided by Outreach for the week’s English instruction. No matter the content, we are learning how important it is to scaffold the use of English as well as to adapt according to the various levels of the students. For example, Linda and Jazmin created a “Mystery Box,” an activity for students to reach in, feel, and identify an object using descriptive words (e.g., smooth, hard, round, wooden). They realized with the more advanced speakers that they could extend learning by categorizing students’ words by identifying the adjectives, verbs, and purpose and then form a full sentence to guess the object’s function.

Daisy was quite the star as she read stories in Braille.

We learned from Claire to use richer language, preferably more cognates, as many of the words are concepts that the students already know in their native language. Instead of saying “in” and “out,” to use interior and exterior – which more aptly described a set of paper flowers we were making with students.  Extending language was also an important teaching tool. Wheelock students Meilin, Halle, Daisy, and Elizabeth learned to extend a student’s two-word response (e.g., went home) by modeling a full sentence or ‘extending student discourse’, “The boy went home”.

Mystery Box with Wheelock volunteers Jazmin and Linda.

An additional component of our teaching this week has been a focus on social emotional learning – led by our Wheelock social work students (Kristen Gaherty, MSW ’17, Eileen Lara, MSW ’18, Corazon Swanberg, BSW ’18). Their focus with students has been on finding mentors in one’s life and how mentors have helped individuals achieve personal goals.  Students wrote daily in a reflection journal, and this has been a calming and enlightening experience for teachers and students. Kristen, Eileen, and Cora sat individually with students to discuss their reflections in order to help them understand what they wanted to write.

Corazon, Kristen and Eileen guide students in written reflections: Claire taking notes.

Each Wheelock student wrote a personal statement back to each student in the evenings and then posed another question to help them write reflections that helped students express ideas of acceptance, empathy, collaboration, and compassion.  This aspect of instruction is relatively new for the Outreach 360 staff and the Wheelock students and faculty are excited to support the staff to develop more opportunities to target social emotional growth for these young teens.  Maybe our Wheelock colleagues will be interested to participate!

Our Wheelock students are getting the opportunity to work with children in their own country and with their own fully-formed native language, which allows these new educators and social workers to return to New England with a deeper understanding of immigrant children.

Stephanie Cox Suarez is an associate professor in the Wheelock College Special and Elementary Education Department. She teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in special education assessment, children with special needs, instructional methods seminars, and “making learning visible” documentation courses.

Elizabeth and Meilin guiding the story structure,