Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Tapas anyone?

Tapas--bites of incredibly gourmet food that waiters bring out on wooden platters--are a wonderful way to eat, but don't worry. I'm not about to reduce my travels down to a collection of fine dining experiences. These tapas are more like bites of life than bites of food. Here's a sampling of my past week...

Manuel Antonio
At the end of the week, the need to leave work behind took hold. I took a bus to the beach with four students from school. It poured rain when we arrived, and I left to run the beach. I wonder what the link is between the eyes and the philosophical part of the mind, because it seems strong. As if trying to fill those blank views, my mind took me on a virtual tour of the other lives I might have decidd to live. It insisted upon imagining, right there in the beauty and tropics of Costa Rica, all the other places I could be. California. Seattle. Colorado. New York. All these places that I know, all these places that I already understand. There are so many possibilities, but in each one of them, I hoped there would be the possibility of a beach escape, where the water is grey blue, the sky is white with clouds, and the sand beige. That's when my alternate lives began to fade from consciousness, and the rushing waves washed the excess dreams out to sea.

That night the five of us ran out into the black water as the waves rushed towards us in unkown sizes. Sometimes, when the had not broken yet, a wall of water would hit and swallow you before you knew it was coming. The water was luke warm, definitely tolerable. We swam for half an hour, riding the foamy waves in when we could. We kept becoming entranced by the bright phosphorence that formed as beads of light in the water when we moved our hands and feet.

Jazz Cafe again and again
We keep winding up there. I didn't like it the first time, but like the funny flavored sauce we use like ketchup on our food at dinner, it's grown on me. We walk in, and the blue Derby sign in the back of the room greets us. Derby. Roller derby? Horse derby? I don't know. It's one quirk among many I have no explanation for. In any case, the place is real. The people aren't putting on any acts. Sitting at those black tables, drinking Imperial and cocktails, there is always frank, honest conversation.

There's that old saying "If you can't do teach," and I think that whoever made it up was just mad at their teacher. Teachers do not merely attach a feeding tube to their students and then start pouring in the knowledge. If teaching isn't doing something then neither is miming or acting or communicating or reading people. Keeping the energy high is imperative. When I didn't get my students smiling by getting them out of their seats or laughing, or snapping "Only English!" when they slipped into Spanish, the boring atmosphere squelched their learning energy.

Good teachers are good performers. My teacher Ken copes with the demands to be scintillating by opening up stories about himself and asking students about themselves. He tells stories. He tells jokes about people, such as me. (I'm "the hybrid," having done half the class online, and am therefore the one he'd feed to the lions if necessary) He demonstrates how to act out the words this, that, these, and those by getting up and acting out each word with pens. He says "this," holding the pen close to his chest, then runs to the other side of the room, puts the pen down, runs back, and says "that." Acting and miming are key teaching tools.. One of the other teachers that I've been observing always responds to student answers with clear expressions. Raised eyebrows and smiles for good answers; frowns and a cocked head for wrong ones. He waits for the right answer, writes the first few letters on the board for clues. Lights start turning on in the student's head. The correct answer surfaces in their mind. Then it comes out their mouth and onto the board. Task completed. Purposeful expression clues successful.

When in front of my own class, my level of attentiveness to what is happening in that moment rises to record levels. There's no time to imagine alternate lives. No time to contemplate, only to convey a point. One hour. Four kids. Go. So I throw my questions out. First we've got to get them engaged.

Me: Give me fruit
Students: Apple, banana, pineapple

Me: Good Good Good. I have five apples. Who has five apples? How do you say that in a complete sentence? I or you? Do you have them or do I? What color are apples?

And the questions keep going, each one built upon a student response. Each one a reaction to what I think is going on in their minds.

Once class is over and they all leave the room, and after I've received my critique from the instructors at the school, I wonder why the students come each day. What is it that drew them here? Why are they learning English? Will they actually use it? Yes, English is the language of international business, but my students are not businesspeople. They are a couple, one of them owns a restaurant. One of them works in food delivery. One works at a library. What is in their futures? How will English change that? Now that the week of teaching them is over, I realize that in all my efforts to teach them English, I did not take the time to understand what exactly that meant for their lives. It's easy to forget these questions of purpose in the day to day grind. But next time I have a class in front of me and am trying to think of how to engage them in conversation before beginning the lesson, I think I'll ask.

With my plane leaving at 4:30 a.m. tomorrow for Guadalajara, I decided I needed to take this opportunity, my last day, to see Mercado Central. It was modern, had many American chain stores and many Costa Rican stores that seemed American. They seem to have quite the obsession with shoes because practically every other store was a shoe shop. Maybe there's something really profound about shoes in the Costa Rican consciousness. Some shopes had American brands, some Costa Rican. Some played hip hop music, others a slower sort of pop. Each one offered a chance to fully define yourself with a piece of footwear. Inside the center of the market, there were spices and all those cultural things you buy when you're desperate for some tangible piece of evidence that you did visit the country. I didn't buy anything except spices for my host mom, so hopefully this blog is proof enough. I promise, I'm not making any of this up.

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