This piece is written by Jim Johnson, a Burton Elementary School teacher. Johnson was one of 10 Durham Public Schools teachers to visit Guanajuato, Mexico through Connecting Stories, a Duke University program designed to give local teachers a social and historic understanding of Guanajuato, Mexico, which is the hometown of many Hispanic families in the school system.
My class this past school year was 60 percent Hispanic. I had created, in my own mind, some preconceived notions about these students. I found them to be, on the whole, hard working and well behaved, with families that worked hard to provide for them.
I then was given an opportunity to visit Guanajuato, Mexico, which happened to be where one of my students was from. I soon found that we had several families in our school from Guanajuato. This trip, part of the Connecting Stories program at Duke University, would begin a paradigm shift in me that is still in motion!
While I thought I knew my students, in preparing for the trip I found that I really didn’t know my kids. You see, one of my students was Honduran, one Guatemalan, several were from Mexico, and one was Columbian and Puerto Rican. I had simply known them as Hispanic or ESL. The four workshops we participated in began to show me that their individual cultures were as diverse as our own in the U.S. I soon found that their language was not just Spanish, but each group had an individual dialect.
Arriving in Guanajuato was an eye opener. I only knew a couple of phrases in Spanish and had never traveled outside the U.S. In minutes, I began to appreciate the struggle my students with limited English wrestled with on a daily basis.
It soon became apparent to me that I needed to learn more, or the next eight days were going to be rough. I set out to soak up as much as I could. My host family had two sons who spoke limited English and tried to translate for me, but they were not always available.
My host parents and I began to communicate using the pictures I took on my digital camera. At the end of each day, they looked over the activities I had chronicled and gave me words and phrases in Spanish that helped me as the week progressed. Before I left their home, they thanked me for reminding them of the beauty of their city as they had seen it through my eyes and pictures.
This next school year, I will be a little bit more prepared for my new ESL students. I know what a struggle it is to not speak the language, how hard it is to learn the language and try to communicate when you don’t understand. I saw myself compensating for the lack of knowledge by simply tuning out some of the conversations, just pretending I knew what was being said. I began to learn the most important phrases as I used them over and over. I had to focus my attention if I was going to learn. As an adult, I find this hard enough, I can’t imagine what it must be like for a student who has not had the time to build this skill.
Finally, I soaked up so much of their culture in Guanajuato! I knew nothing of their history with the exception of a few tidbits about Ancient Americans, European colonization and present day news about immigration and NAFTA. It was awe inspiring to realize I was in a city that was nearly 500 yrs old and had the history to prove it.