Blog by National Union of Teachers (NUT) members Felicity Callanan, Sofia Melo Lopes, Emmeline Perronno, and Elizabeth Stevenson.
FOREWORD: In July/August 2017, a group of Spanish language teachers from the National Education Union – NUT Section spent three weeks working with colleagues in Nicaragua. The project, organised in collaboration with the Ministry of Education in Nicaragua, the teachers’ union ANDEN, and the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign Action Group, involved workshops, classroom teaching, and more. In this blog, four participants reflect on the benefits of their experience as part of the exchange.
Nicaragua has a tumultuous recent history, but the government elected in 2007 has placed education at the heart of their policies. Education is free to all, alongside universal free meals in primary schools, and money has been invested in teacher training so that all children have the best chance of success. This means that classes can be huge – up to 50 students at a time – and they have exactly the same problems concentrating on what they’re supposed to be doing that our students do in the UK.
Before arriving in Nicaragua, we expected quiet rows of eager students, but the reality was that many Nicaraguan teachers experience the same lack of motivation from students that we see here in the UK. The training sessions we delivered for the teachers therefore focussed on low-resource engaging tasks – games, speaking activities and making the best of any resources that are prepared. We took so many fantastic ideas away from both the UK and Nicaraguan teachers that our classes are benefitting from.
The Benefits and Challenges of Technology
As teachers in an educational environment increasingly depend on technology, we also had the opportunity to reflect on its role in learning a foreign language. Wireless internet and access to smartphones is part of the changing educational landscape in Nicaragua, as it has been in the UK. On the one hand, the Ministry of Education has made innovative efforts to use technology to widen access to educational resources: a YouTube channel with English lessons, free access to the internet in public parks and plans to build an app to learn English. These actions corroborate the importance that the internet has in language learning, and has made us reconsider and value how we use technology with our students, particularly when enhancing their contact with the foreign language.
On the other hand, we also became aware of the difficulties regarding infrastructure in the classrooms, which are equipped with basic furniture and whiteboards, as opposed to British classrooms, which often have interactive boards and computers. This challenge proved to be pedagogically interesting as it again made us reflect on how lessons can be of high quality, with basic resources and low preparation. Therefore, the dichotomy between the expansion of the role of technology and the internet versus poor infrastructure and resources allowed us to deliver training about the essence of each activity, its learning value for students and the potential of students as their own resources too.
‘Teachers need to be inspired’
In this context, as we planned our training sessions for Nicaraguan teachers, we often discussed the differences in the classrooms and daily lives of these professionals. Moreover, we considered how this would impact on their teaching styles. Thus, we adapted our sessions with strategies we would think would be valuable and feasible in their lessons. As a result, the Nicaraguan teachers were very positive about these training sessions because they could easily transfer the activities modelled, adapt them and use them comfortably with their students. For this reason, there was a sense of empowerment in the teachers that attended and coordinated the training sessions. In this way, this teacher exchange revealed that teachers not only need to motivate their students, but they also need to engage in training to have motivation in their own profession. To conclude, the teacher exchange made us acknowledge that, in order to lead students to achievement, teachers need to be inspired by malleable and accessible pedagogy too.
A Whole New World
The whole experience also allowed us to improve our subject knowledge – we all admitted to having little to no knowledge about Nicaragua as a country – but now we can inspire our students through the use of authentic resources. From selfies by a volcano used to describe a photo for GCSE classes, to a text about the kind of foods that a student in Nicaragua would eat for breakfast, we have been able to weave this cultural knowledge into our existing curriculum so that our students gain a wider awareness of the Spanish-speaking world as well as learning the language. Some colleagues’ Year 11 students have been able to put their language skills into practice, writing letters and sending a video of their school over to the partner schools we worked with. These colleagues hope to set up a similar programme with their Year 9s as they focus on Education in the Hispanic World. One or our schools, North Birmingham Academy – a truly international school with over 60 languages spoken by our pupils – has begun to acknowledge its amazing diversity through working towards the accreditation level of the British Council’s International Schools Award. This has brought together many different aspects of school life, as well as a focus on developing international awareness. It would never have happened without the teacher exchange project.
Participating in the National Education Union – NUT Section teacher exchange programme to Nicaragua has made us better teachers – participating in the project with eight other like-minded teachers from the UK and our Nicaraguan colleagues inspired us to be even better in our own classrooms, as well as sharing ideas to inspire pupils.
Blog by Felicity Callanan, Sofia Melo Lopes, Emmeline Perronno, and Elizabeth Stevenson.