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Understanding My Students By Becoming One

I first heard about the Professional Development fund for veteran Rocketship teachers back in 2015 when we opened Rocketship United Academy, where I teach. Two of my grade level teammates who were a few years into their work with Rocketship told me about the program. The program allows teachers who have been with Rocketship for three or more years to take $1000 dollars to do a professional development completely of their own choosing.

I knew I wanted to do more than a conference or a series of lectures with my funds. This year, I’ve begun a new role as a full time English Language teacher with the largest bulk of our students coming from Spanish-speaking families. I thought that if I could find an opportunity to travel and be the language student rather than the language teacher that it would give me a glimpse into the process that my students face.

I chose an immersion program in Antigua, Guatemala since a number of my students are from Central America, Guatemala/Honduras/Mexico in particular. I also chose a program where I lived with a host family and was fully immersed in the local culture, responsible for finding transportation everyday and navigating my own way in Spanish. Now, the last time I took a Spanish class was in 2009 during my junior year of high school so needless to say I was a bit intimidated at the thought of throwing myself into another country alone and unable to communicate. But I also know the fact that that discomfort has been a reality of so many of our families. Learning a language is more than the syntax, grammar, and vocabulary — there is also a large emotional component needed in order to build up the confidence to lower one’s Affective Filter.

The first official day of ‘school’ was the Monday morning of spring break and it began with orientation. There, I learned too late not to eat fruit off the street and had to take a Spanish placement test to determine what class I would be in. Taking the test was honestly one of my favorite parts of the week because I had to complete all of the components that I ask my students to do: to read, write, speak, and listen. I tried to use the skills that I repeatedly tell them to use (process of elimination, context clues, etc.) and ended up placing in a pre-intermediate class which was nice to end up a bit higher than expected but also to solidify the fact to kiddos that going back to the text and re-reading questions really does work!

The rest of week was incredible. The morning and afternoon were spent learning Spanish but I was able to explore Antigua by evening, talk to my host family to rapidly improve my Spanish, and even got to hike a volcano. It was a surreal, beautiful, and amazing opportunity to get outside myself and my day-to-day stresses to learn. For that week, I was the student.

Now, I know a week of practicing Spanish isn’t going to make a tremendous difference but I wanted this experience in order to gain an insight into language acquisition from the perspective of a student and immerse myself in a culture to gain more understanding of my students and their families. I also hope that my renewed Spanish skills can help me to better communicate with my Rocketeers and their families.

Some of my favorite moments of this trip were the mornings I walked to school early to do homework and then to just sit in their garden in silence. In a world where we are constantly stimulated I think we take calm and silence for laziness – that if we are not busy and stressed then we aren’t doing enough. I’ve gotten to a point where I no longer feel the need to prove my ‘busy-ness.’ Life is too short to be burnt out and I know my body to know that I’m useless to anyone without recharging. I’m blessed with a job that has these breaks built in as a reminder to step back. Life is more than a job or work and you never stop growing or learning if you allow yourself to be stretched.

Thank you, Antigua for forcing me to slow down this week and be a student of your beautiful city and even more beautiful people. And thank you, Rocketship. I’m immensely indebted to my school for supporting me in this journey and for supporting me in my own growth.

Emma Volpe is the network’s Lead EL Specialist based at Rocketship United Academy. Prior to this role, Emma was the founding third grade Humanities teacher at Rocketship United as well as a 2014 Teach For America Nashville Corps Member. Emma graduated from the University of Virginia and received her Master’s in Education at Lipscomb University. Outside of teaching, Emma enjoys a good cup of coffee with even better conversation.

Published on April 19, 2018

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