Michelle DiIeso is a Practical English for Success (PES) volunteer serving in a pueblo in Bólivar, Colombia.
- Think about what type of program you want and what resources you have available.
- Sign up! (https://www.peacecorps.gov/educators/ for educators, PC Live for volunteers)
- Get matched and get going!
Originally, World Wise Schools (WWS) was created to connect volunteers with U.S. classrooms, a way to share their knowledge and expand students’ understanding of the world in the U.S. The program has grown over the years and according to the new system teachers can sign up for web chats, content checks and writing exchanges. I signed up for WWS on the older system, where I put my name and country of service and waited for about 7 months before receiving notice I had been matched with Lena, an amazing Spanish teacher in Colorado.
Lena and I started talking about what type of program would work for us and we decided to try a pen pal program. We punningly called it CO Club, taking advantage of the CO that comes from both Colombia and Colorado. Obviously, it was a perfect match as we both found this extremely amusing. Twenty-five of her upper level Spanish students and 25 of my eleventh grade students signed up for a 10 week exchange. My students met once a week after school while her students completed their assignments on their own time. We ran into some interesting challenges, including a lack of working computers and internet, wavering student motivation, teacher time conflicts, and a teacher strike, which caused our last meeting to be put off for about two months. With every challenge we found solutions: sometimes good solutions, sometimes solutions that made everyone’s lives a little more difficult. Eventually, we moved the program to a primary school that had more computers and more reliable internet. We always had USBs on hand when there was no internet to save every individual response and then went to an internet cafe to upload everything. The teacher of the eleventh grade students helped track down students who did not attend the previous week. Lena tracked down her students who needed to stay on schedule on their own time as well.
Through it all, there were students who came every week, always eagerly awaiting a response from their partner. Every week there was a theme, ranging from a general introduction, to talking about important holidays, common food and music. Each week students wrote in English or Spanish, depending on the topic. This gave Lena’s students an opportunity to practice their Spanish and read Spanish from a native speaker, while my students had these same opportunities with English. Every week my students received a response in English and the challenge became practicing what they knew before going right away to a translator. I was able to catch one student, Maria, before she translated everything when her partner sent her a description of her daily routine. We went through the two paragraphs the partner had sent, reading it together and figuring out what the daily routine of one American student looked like. By the end of the two paragraphs, Maria was amazed at herself for having understood so much and started working on reading her friend’s response. She danced her way out of the room that day. It’s moments like these that make it all worth it!
To top it all off, we were extremely lucky as well to have Lena visit during her summer break. Our last session of CO Club was a chance to write a farewell to their pen pals and spend time with Lena, asking her about life, culture, Colorado and about their new friends. It was a great way to wrap up the program and we hope to be able to continue it in the future!