Vocational Education

23 11 2012

The Salem News ran an edited version of this article. Here is the full length version.

Vocational Education isn’t what it used to be.  If you graduated high school prior to 1990, your perceptions of, and experience with, vocational education is undoubtedly out of date.  It is no longer just an  alternative pathway for kids who are not on a college track nor is it an academic track that prepares students for entry levels jobs that only require a high school education or where academic expectations are low and post-secondary education is not an option.

Allow us to introduce you to Career-Technical Education (CTE), an academically rigorous, course of study subject to Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks, and designed to prepare students for technical careers or college-level classes both technical and academic .  CTE provides hands-on applied learning experiences that builds academic knowledge, problem solving skills, general employment skills and specific career skills that lead to applicable industry credentialing.

CTE is available to Salem students at the North Shore Regional Vocation High School (NSVHS) in Middleton and at Salem High School where there are three vocational (Chapter 74) programs (Auto Tech, Electrical and Culinary Arts) and many technology education elective courses (e.g. carpentry, metal working, CAD, and child development).  Students sign up for these courses for a variety of reasons:

  • An opportunity for hands-on, practical experience in a field that may lead to a career, post-secondary education or just useful life skills.
  • An opportunity to explore different career paths before entering post-secondary education or the workforce.
  • An opportunity to learn a skill or trade that will provide them with a job while pursuing post-secondary education

As city budgets tighten and as we see the expansion plans for NSVHS and the success of its students, we might be tempted to question the need for CTE at Salem High School where there is an overlap in programs.   In Salem, there are approximately 100 students per year who apply to NSVHS, and 60 don’t get accepted, leaving more than 200 students at the high school who want vocational education options.  There are several others who arrive at SHS after freshman year (transfers or immigrants) who won’t have a chance to apply.

Nationwide 50% of our students do not go on to any post-secondary education (38% here in Essex County, MA).  Many  students see no clear connection between their schoolwork and tangible opportunities in the labor market and as a result, find learning boring and irrelevant. School learning is indeed abstract, theoretical, and discipline-based while work is concrete, specific to the task, organized by projects and problems and is cross-disciplinary. Work-based learning is a credible, proven alternative education pathway for many youth who are disengaged from learning, and at risk for dropping out.

Nick Arno, is a 2009 graduate of NSVHS, arriving there after 8th grade at Collins Middle School.  “I was always interested in working with my hands and attending vocational school.   Being able to link academic subjects, particularly math and science, with my career interest, definitely helped me stay engaged in school. “ Nick left NSVHS at the height of the recession and got a job at Cranney Home Services as an electrician, where he is still employed.

The Salem High School Vocational Department, run by Richard McLaughlan (former principal of NSVHS), is a Massachusetts Chapter 74 Certified Department. Four year students acquire entry level skills preparing them to enter the labor market or enabling them to receive post–secondary college credit in their vocational area.  Completers receive a Massachusetts Vocational Certificate in addition to their high school diploma enabling a student to receive vocational credit toward an apprenticeship or advanced standing in the military.

SHS receives $4,000 per enrolled student in Chapter 70 funds from the Commonwealth as well as $64,000 in Perkins IV funding.  141 students are enrolled in these programs and another 140 students participate through the exploratory programs.  While it is difficult to track all the money in and out of these programs, the math seems to indicate that most of the costs are being covered.  If SHS were to add two additional vocational programs to boost enrollment, then the city would also receive $4,000 for each of the exploratory students which will increase the funding by $560,000.  Programs being considered for Chapter 74 are Facilities Management, Early Child Development and Medical Assisting.

Of the 33 students who graduated in 2010 from the Chapter 74 programs, 12 (36%) went to post secondary education, 10 (30%) went to work in the trade they studied, and 11 either went to work in an unrelated field or the data was not available.

Ben Kapnis, a senior at Salem High School, is completing the electrical vocational program and is planning on going to college to study to be an electrical engineer.  “I chose to go to Salem High School because I knew I wanted to go to college but didn’t know what I wanted to do. I chose the electrical program because it was hands-on and taught me real life skills. Every day we are doing real projects like building an alarm or light system and I am never bored. It was because of this program that I decided to try electrical engineering.”

We are living in a rapidly changing world, one in which middle skills jobs that do not require a 4 year college education are growing in importance.  Technology is infiltrating not only the STEM and healthcare fields but also the trades requiring significantly more time in school and training.  Just receiving a traditional high school degree will not be enough to fill these jobs.

I encourage anyone interested to take a tour of the high school vocational wing.  You will not help coming away inspired.  I left my tour with Rich McLaughlan with a request for adult courses. My mind was whirling with possibilities of making our vocational education school into a business where students provide fee-based services for the community.   I am already thinking about putting in an order for a new coffee table.


Do We Need Algebra?

21 08 2012

In a recent article in the New York Times entitled “Is Algebra Needed?” by Andrew Hacker, (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/29/opinion/sunday/is-algebra-necessary.html?&pagewanted=all Mr. Hacker states that “making mathematics mandatory prevents us from discovering and developing young talent…..and from depleting our pool of brainpower.”

Mr.  Hacker states that failure to meet math requirements are the primary reason for dropping out of high school and college.  His claim is largely based on anecdotal evidence. However, even if math was a reason for many to drop out, why are we presuming it is math itself?  Perhaps it is the pathetically dull and incomprehensible way in which we are teaching it.  Furthermore, many of our elementary grade teachers are self-admittedly math-phobic and put into motion the dynamics for fear of math at a young age. If you don’t build the foundation at a young age, it is very difficult for youth to catch up.  A study funded by the National Science Foundation found that math-phobic female elementary teachers particularly influence a generation of math-phobic girls. (January 11 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).  There are countless articles and research on how to improve the teaching of math in elementary grades. One I found particularly interesting was “Math Education of Elementary Teachers: A Challenging Issue” by Anoop Kalsi, University of Maryland  (http://www-users.math.umd.edu/~dac/650/kalsipaper.html). Mr. Hacker does support changing the way we teach math and making it more accessible but still feels that higher level math is unnecessary except for the few aiming for highly technical careers. And higher level includes Algebra – more on that later.

Math education doesn’t get much better in the higher grades either.  It is often taught as an amalgamation of facts and memorization of formulae, leaving students scratching their heads wondering what the relevance is.

Mr. Hacker also wonders about the relevance of math: “Nor is it clear that the math we learn in the classroom has any relation to the quantitative reasoning we need on the job.”  He cites a psychologist from Michigan State who found that “mathematic reasoning in the workplace differs markedly from the algorithms taught in school.”  I agree wholeheartedly, but I would aver that this is a problem in the way we teach math, not an indictment of subject of math.  He goes on to cite a Georgetown study that states that 10 years from now only 5% of entry-level workers will need to be proficient in algebra or above.  However, are we just training our youth for entry-level jobs?  I think most of us go into a job hoping to have the skills to make it into a higher paying job sooner rather than later. Following that logic, let’s look at the study of history, literature, foreign languages and science.   How much of what they learn in these subjects are needed in entry level jobs? Should we cancel school altogether and send students to a more vocational system where learning is tied only to the career you choose. Though Mr. Hacker doesn’t suggest this, his argument against math could just as easily be leveled against other subjects as well.

I will give Mr. Hacker credit for recognizing the importance of arithmetic which is needed to understand public policy and basic everyday finance (like obtaining a mortgage).  As an example, he states that students should be able to understand a Consumer Price Index calculation which is used to measure inflation.   Learning the CPI calculation is a mechanical understanding of the index.  What they need to know is the concept of weighted averages, to question what goods are included in the calculation, that there are many different CPI calculations and how they differ and when each of them are used.  Since new measures are developed all the time, we need an educated citizenry who understands the mathematical concepts to apply to any measurement developed that are relevant to our daily lives.  I actually don’t think Mr. Hacker would disagree with this. What we disagree on is that there are important concepts in Algebra 1 and in Algebra 2 (although less so) that will help us with these concepts.

I spent most of my career in business and used Algebra 1 a lot. In fact, I would often work through a problem by putting it into an equation.  Let x = # units we need to manufacture and set Y as our breakeven profit.  What is the minimum number of units we have to sell, if…  you get the picture.

In Algebra 1 students study linear equations to understand relationships between two variables, which is the underpinning of statistics.  The number of drowning in the summer months goes up at the same rate of ice cream sales during the summer.  So does ice cream cause drowning?  Many politicians abuse statistics to make crazy points – how do we have a prayer of cutting through that without understanding the concepts? A concrete thinker, one who learns math mechanically, can draw wrong conclusions because they cannot see beyond what is in front of their face.  It has been said that one can learn statistics without algebra. Perhaps, but your conceptual understanding of stats will be more developed with a strong underpinning in Algebra 1 (linear regressions) and even Algebra II where we learn the difference between linear growth and exponential growth –another important concept for everyone to grasp.

Let’s address the need for algebra which Mr. Hacker claims is only needed for those interested in careers in science, technology engineering or math.  Even here he claims that most should only have to learn the math necessary for their intended career.  Yikes.  Most of us don’t stay in one job our whole lives and understanding the math concepts and their applications well in high school and college will help us to better understand the specific skills of our jobs and allow us to develop them as we rise on the career ladder.  Will I use everything I learned in high school or college math – of course not, but the analytical thinking and understanding math concepts should benefit me in many professions outside the world of science, engineering, technology and math.

OK, I am not a Pollyanna when it comes to math. At Salem CyberSpace I see kids struggle with math every day, particularly the English Language Learners who have to master the literacy of math as well as the numeracy. Many students coming from foreign countries come with less formal schooling.  Imagine being dumped into an Algebra 1 class without understanding negative numbers?   At most high schools, precalculus and calculus are not required.  Most students will take Algebra 1, Geometry, and Algebra II.  Some will substitute statistics or contemporary math[1]for Algebra II.  I do believe that some students would be better off taking contemporary math rather than Algebra 2; however, we have to be very careful about this.  I have interesting conversations with youth who tell me that they want to be engineers, architects or airplane mechanics but cannot make the connection to math.  Shame on our education system for allowing that to happen.  We are blocking a pathway to interesting and high-paying jobs if we don’t make these important connections for our youth.  I would argue that math should teach us important analytical and abstract thinking skills and make connections to careers.  For this to happen, we need to radical changes in our math curricula. We need to put kids in math classes based on their ability, not their age bracket.

I think we all agree that we need to take a hard look at how math is taught in our schools.  This debate is healthy and, like always, the answer lies somewhere in the middle.

[1] A contemporary math class is designed to survey some of the important ideas and practical applications in mathematics. In a typical program, you will study such topics as problem solving, finance, number concepts, art and math, and mathematical modeling.

Developing a Community of Engaged Learners

3 08 2012

A large percentage of high school students are disengaged from learning.  Nationwide 50% of these students do not go on to any post-secondary education (38% here in Essex County, MA).

I have always been an engaged learner so it has been a long path for me to realize that for many, learning can appear to be irrelevant and, yes, boring. In fact, this is the most common reason students cite for dropping out. These students see no clear connection between their schoolwork and the “real world.”  Such connections are difficult to make in a classroom and teachers can only do so much “out of classroom learning” in a school day. Experiential, hands-on learning, community service, service learning, and career linkages through internships, job shadowing, and industry field trips are essential to engage many of our older students and this is why out-of-school programs are a critical extension of our educational system.

Through collaborations with Salem Schools, community organizations and local businesses, Salem CyberSpace, has been expanding its “real world” activities so that students can make connections between school and their world while building critical thinking, problem solving, communication and team work skills.

Last spring, Salem CyberSpace and Salem High School co-wrote a grant to deliver a service learning science project to students at risk for failing MCAS.  The partnership also included Salem Sound Coastwatch, the National Park Service and the North Shore Youth Career Center. 20 students who are academically at risk spend 20 hours per week for 6 weeks this summer to identify and deliver a project related to an environmental issue facing Salem Sound. Approximately 60% of this class is comprised of ESL students so the classroom also has an ESL teacher to co-teach.

Each day, students spend the first two hours in a lab learning about the science related to our waterways.  As an example, this past week students learned about bacteria, nutrients, osmosis, salinity, and turbidity through labs and field work.

Students get a free lunch at the high school and then head into the field with their instructors to apply their knowledge in the waters, beaches and marshes around Salem. Students will identify a problem they want to tackle as their summer project. One week this summer will also be dedicated to learning about careers in science.  “The program makes science more understandable by doing hands-on activities. Going to high school, it will make a difference when I take biology”, said Chanel Garcia who will be a freshman at Salem High School in September.

Taking on a project for which they will be accountable also resonates with the students and gives relevance to their learning. “This program helps the environment and at the same time we learn how the environment works and how we can impact the environment,” said Pablo Encarnacion, an ESL student and 11th grader at the high school.

Through this program we hope to see improved MCAS scores, more engaged and independent learners, and an expanded understanding of how science knowledge can help solve real problems. “Having the students all day allows us to complete a lab, do field work and reflect on it when it is fresh in the student’s minds. It helps them retain and understand the material better,” said Graeme Marcoux, the Biology and Environmental Science teacher for the summer program and at the high school.

“Having so much time with the same students all day allows us to work with the students on becoming independent learners,” said Mary Kate Adams, the ELL teacher..

After school academic programs for older youth are scarce, underfunded, and staff receives little, if any, professional development. Therefore to succeed, programs like ours have to find partners. We are fortunate here in Salem to have a Superintendent, school principals and a Mayor who understand the benefits of after-school programs.  However, I cannot help but think that we could develop an integrated web of after-school programs each with its own unique core competencies, that work together and share resources, and who are more closely aligned with the public school and state priorities. As an example, if after school academic staff could participate in professional development days at the schools, our staff would obtain valuable information on pedagogy and educational priorities while forging connections with teachers. We could create a model of a city-wide coordinated afterschool program serving youth, grades 6 -12, where students can move from program to program transparently and where after-school and in-school staff work collaboratively for the students. This would be a powerful resource for our youth. It is certainly something we should think about as we debate the merits of an extended day model.

Student Corner – How College Success Programs Help Students In College

21 06 2012

Yibelis Pena graduated Salem High School in 2010 and North Shore Community College in 2012 and will be attending Northeastern University in the Fall of 2012 as a transfer student.  Yibelis was a speaker at the Great Expectations Event and spoke about the value of college success programs in support students through graduation.  Yibelis received generous scholarships from Northeastern and the Steven Phillips Scholarship.

Good evening!

I would like to start off by congratulating both the high school and college class of 2012 on your success.

I am Yibelis Pena and I graduated from Salem High School in 2010. Although I am a very good student, I did not get very good grades in high school. I did not know how to find and use my resources wisely. After high school, I went on to attend North Shore Community College because I knew it was an inexpensive option and I would have a chance to improve my GPA. At North Shore Community College I received my Associates Degree in Liberal Arts. This fall I will be attending Northeastern University to obtain my bachelors and eventually my masters in child psychology. As a result of the help I received from Salem CyberSpace I applied to and was awarded a substantial scholarship so I would be able to afford such a prestigious and expensive private education.

High school graduates, I know 1st hand that beginning your college experience can be tough. I remember having few resources and little information on the entire college application process. Before my senior year I never really thought about what school I wanted to attend. In my mind I had decided what I wanted to do; however, I just never took the step to actually do it.  On top of trying to figure out what my plans would be after high school, I also had the SATs to worry about. For those who know me, I am not the best test taker. Luckily, I heard of Salem CyberSpace. During my junior year of high school I began coming to CyberSpace for SAT and Accuplacer tutoring and it made all the difference. I later went on to enroll in the College Success Program in order to get the help I needed throughout my college process.

One thing I must say is that the people here are truly one of a kind. I remember working 1 on 1 with Jesenia to regularly check in about the progress I was making in all of my classes. I was listening to her advice and I was also enrolled in the TRIO program at North Shore Community College. TRIO provided me with tutoring in any classes that I struggled with. The impact that Jesenia has had on my life has been incredible. She consistently instilled in me the tools and the motivation that frankly, we all need at times. With my hard work and the help and support of the staff at CyberSpace, I can see my dreams becoming a reality. They have not only helped me stay on top of my studies, but they also assisted me with transfer applications to several different universities and making sure that I secured enough money to not be in debt for the rest of my life. Attending Northeastern University is an opportunity that I would have never thought possible.

I honestly can’t emphasize how thankful I am to have such an amazing program in my community. Congratulations CyberSpace on your 10 years of amazing work! And to all of the graduates tonight, I am aware that this is only the beginning. As they say “Success is a journey, not a destination”.

Class of 2012, I wish you the best of luck!

Thank you!





Student Corner – The Value of After-School Programs for Immigrant Teens

21 06 2012

This is the speech that one of our students gave at our Great Expecations fundraiser on June 5, 2012.

This compelling speech describes the challenges immigrant youth face when they come to the US as teenagers and how after-school academic programs provide needed supports and social capital. Johanna graduated Salem High School in 2010, North Shore Community College in 2012 and will be entering Northeastern University in September, 2012 as a transfer student with generous scholarships from the Steven Phillips Scholarship and Northeastern University.

Good Evening everyone, my name is Johanna Rodriguez. On May 24th I graduated from North Shore Community College, with an Associate’s Degree in Liberal Arts. I will be attending Northeastern University in the fall to study Social Work. But what I’m here to talk about is my experience as a high school student when I first started coming to Salem CyberSpace and how they have helped me.

I immigrated to the U.S. in the summer of 2006, with my mother and brother when I was 13 years old. I had just graduated from 8th grade back in the Dominican Republic, so I was here to start high school. My mother sent me to the U.S. to study hard so that I could eventually go to college. I moved in with my aunt because my mother had to go back to my native country with my brother. I was here without my immediate family. I did not know my aunt, I mean I knew her name, and I knew my grandfather always compared me to her, but I had never had a relationship with her. But my aunt’s family welcomed me and treated me as a daughter.  I still live with them today and her daughter Isabel sees me as her big sister.

As soon as my mother went back to the Dominican Republic I started high school. I knew I was going to miss her but in my heart I knew it was the best for me. Starting high school was kind of hard because I only knew Basic English, which I had learned back in my country. However, the lack of English never stopped me from learning. I would constantly seek out my teachers after school for help and to show them that I had an interest in learning the material. I met a lot of awesome teachers in high school who knew my potential and were always pushing me to do better like my ESL teacher Ms. Zatorre . My guidance counselor Ms. Luz was always keeping in touch with me to see how I was doing in classes.

My only contemporary friend was my cousin Elisa. She was the one who introduced me to Salem CyberSpace. At CyberSpace I met Linda Saris and Kelly Quinn who until this day have been so helpful. With Kelly I started a journal program, which helped me with my written English. Kelly and I (who I always called Ms. Quinn) would swap journals. I would write to her in English and she would respond to me in Spanish, since she was majoring in Spanish at Salem State University.

This was a program that helped me gain confidence in myself and trust in new people. I did not communicate so well with people when I came to this country. I remember that I did not talk to Kelly for 6 months until she started the journal program with me. I always had problems trusting people and letting them get to know me. Ms.Quinn was very patient with me. She never gave up and although I would come with a different attitude everyday she learned from me as much as I learned from her.

With Linda I did an ELL street program which helped me with my spoken English and vocabulary. Linda came up with many fun ideas to challenge my knowledge and give me courage to speak in public. For example, we did a mock trial, in which I was a prosecutor. This mock trial was in a real superior court with a real judge. The mock trial was about date violence.  I started the program knowing very little English and having no confidence in speaking and here I was a year later in court arguing before a judge. During high school I received tutoring and received help with my homework from Robin Frans. She helped me write papers and helped me with my grammar. Also, she helped me to understand assignments; she knew how to explain things better than the teachers.

Ron was my SAT’s and Accuplacer test tutor. He helped me with the SAT every Saturday for at least 2 months and he did the same for the Accuplacer test at NSCC. When I started at NSCC I began taking developmental courses. It only took me one semester to finish my developmental courses and move on to college level courses. I started taking five classes a semester and due to that I graduated in exactly 2 years.

The college success program started with Ms.Quinn, but then it moved on to Jesenia since Kelly had graduated with her bachelor’s and master’s in social work from Salem State University. Jesenia and Monique helped me apply to different colleges. I was only going to apply to one college, but ended up applying to 4 great schools. Also, Jesenia and Monique checked on me every week for the two years I was at NSCC. They were always making sure I was doing well in my classes and seeking out teachers if I needed help. Honestly, I would have never done so much by myself. I’m very thankful for being part of Salem CyberSpace and I encourage all students from Salem to take advantage of this organization.

Thank you for your time and have a great night.

Value of Social Capital for low-income, ESL Youth

10 06 2012

This was a speech given by Linda Saris, Director of Salem CyberSpace at

its Great Expectations Fundraiser

June 5, 2012

In a book entitled Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard Chip Heath a professor from Stanford and his brother Dan Heath, a researcher and consultant at Duke, ask why it is so hard to making lasting change in our companies, our communities and our lives.  I was fortunate to hear Dr. Heath speak at Stanford and one of his stories really hit home with me.  A team from Save the Children went to Vietnam to open an office to fight malnutrition among children.  The root cause of the malnutrition was already well known:  The people lived in poverty, there was poor sanitation, low quality of water and no understanding of nutrition.  But the new office had few staff and meager resources. They were not going to be able to bring people out of poverty build new sanitation systems, fix the water supply in 6 months with no money.  Therefore the data and conventional thinking, while true, was useless.   They simply couldn’t fix the thorny root cause issues.   They had to develop a better idea.  They sent a research team into the villages.

  1. First they went about to study the norms – how do children normally eat. He found they ate, twice a day and were fed child-appropriate soft, pure food-mostly high quality rice
  2. Once the norm was understood, he then went and looked for the “bright spots” – those children who were NOT malnourished.
  3. He found that these parents fed their children the same amount of food but spread it out over 4 meals a day, and collected shrimp and crabs from the rice paddies and mixed it in with the rice. They also added sweet potato greens, considered low-class food by most
  4. What these mothers were doing of course was providing their children with much needed protein and vitamins absent in the normal diet.

So why am I telling you about malnutrition in this small village in Vietnam? Well, for the last 30 years since I have been paying attention to education policy discussion, we have been searching for ways to change our educational system, particularly in the urban districts where over 50% of students lack engagement in learning.  From the late 60’s with people like Jonathan Kozols and John Holt to name just few, we have been trying to change and innovate.  Recently with Secretary Duncan’s Race to the Top, charter schools and innovation schools, innovations and change is again top of mind.  They say that if a time traveler from the early 1800’s drop in today, the only thing in society they would recognize would be our public schools.  We all know that poverty, lack of access to education resources, and lack of education and engagement of parents all contribute to a student’s engagement in learning.   SC, like SOC, is a small office with a meager budget.  We are not going to solve these problems.  So like the SOC team we also look to the brightspots and ask ourselves why so many students do succeed against the odds.  What research has shown that in most of these kids’ lives is the presence of social capital.  Social capital is a youth’s social network of family and community members who increase that child’s productivity and probability of success. Social capital comes in the form of a parent or parents (and for most of us, including myself, that is our primary social capital) but for others it can come in the form of a teacher, counselor, coach or after-school worker(and you will meet 5 such individuals tonight) but it can also be a friend, another relative, clergy or an employer. At Salem CyberSpace we provide social capital by offering a supportive, non-judgmental adult who believes in the potential of all of its students. In addition to academic and college tutoring and advising we provide emotional supports and access to a range of social services. Everything we do is focused on building skills to be successful in post-secondary schools and careers. We do this through dedicated and caring staff, community partners, a strong alliance with the city and the schools, with bright and energetic volunteers from high school students to retired professions and of course with our funders.  And, most recently we formed a Leadership Circle made up of the Presidents of 4 of our region’s great colleges and universities, the Mayor of Salem and 6 local business leaders.  In the coming years, I know these invidicuals will also be contributing important social capital for our youth.

Today we currently have 125 students per year participating in year round programs that offer academic help, English Literacy, STEM programming and College Success programs.  Each year over 125 youth participate at Salem CyberSpace.  All of the youth who engage for 2 years or more and who enter our College Success program, graduate high school and go on to college.  To date we have over a 90% college retention rate and tonight, after 10 years, starting with a group of middle school students, we have our first college graduates.

Over the next 10 years, we will work with NSCAP, our Leadership Council, our community partners and our schools to expand the reach of our programs, strengthen our financial sustainability and to stand proud as hundreds more students adorned in cap and gown step forward to achieve their dreams and assure our futures. Thank You

Speaking a Foreign Language

20 03 2012

Wow, it has been a long time since I have blogged.  Life has a way of intervening doesn’t it?  I recently had the opportunity of traveling to Argentina with my family.  After coming up with many reasons not to go (too expensive, not a good time, etc.), I finally gave in to the pleasures of vacation and a first-time trip to South America and the Southern Hemisphere.  I had only a month to prepare for this trip and worked furiously to finish all my grant applications, take care of email, and make sure the staff was all set for coverage while I was gone.  However, the biggest challenge was taking a crash course in Spanish.   Hard to believe that I have worked with Spanish speaking youth for 10 years and my Spanish is so non-functional.   I have so many great excuses. I am trying to teach these children English so it is better if I don’t know Spanish because then it forces them to speak to me in English.  Now that is a good one.  How about I am too old to learn a new language – ok that is pretty lame.   However, I truly regretted not making more of an effort to learn this language.

I quickly discovered that my vocabulary consisted only of school vocabulary and was largely useless for travel.  I knew the words for homework, backpack and stapler but could not come up with the words for suitcase, ticket, or directions not to mention a hopeless attempt at conjugating verbs with an endless number of endings.  However, the most humbling experience was speaking the language.  Words come out wrong, people ask you to repeat it several times until they finally say, “Do you want to speak in English?”  A mere transposition of letters or putting an “o” vs an “a” at the end leaves your listener with that puzzled look on their faces.   As I get frustrated thinking that they are being difficult and must have understood me, I think back to my Spanish students who ask me about World History and I think they are saying word history and keep asking them to repeat and then finally asking them to spell it.   Yes, one misplaced or missing letter can make the difference indeed.

With our ESL kids, they do not get enough time in school or at home to practice their spoken English.    After failed attempts, people not understanding, and worse, people laughing at their mistakes, it is no wonder they just stop talking. Studies show that most ESL kids speak only 90 seconds a day in a typical school day.  That is why we really do our best to get our kids speaking in English and is why I don’t learn Spanish.

But my experience here in Argentina has really inspired me to learn this language and perhaps I will soon take on the study of this language in a focused and meaningful way. I will just have to keep my new linguistic talents secret, won’t I?