Here, for example, is one of our early exercises. On the first morning of class, we knew very little about one another (only what we had talked about at breakfast), but were told to draw on that very slim ¨data¨ to make some ¨observations¨ about what we thought one another was like. We were actually given a suitcase full of old magazines (like National Geographics) and asked to tear out three pictures that we thought we expressive of one another. I was very surprised when the teacher put up a picture of one of the Easter Island statues, and said that it was representative of me. I had described myself as a ¨complicated¨ person, and he had deduced (how correctly he had deduced!) from that observation that I was a person who had trouble letting go of the old, of moving on to the new…. It was a fascinating exercise, not just in how perceptive he´d been about my internal life, but in how we are all able to make deductions about one another (about understanding in general) from very little data. It was also a great representation of how language learning is best accomplished.
I come to this experience after trying out four other kinds of Spanish learning experiences over the course of the past three months. The first one, in Antigua, Guatemala, was a school renowned for its beauty (and it is quite beautiful). The pedagogy there was strictly grammatical: each of the teachers walked us through basic vocabulary and varieties of verb forms, and our homework was to memorize them. That approach pretty much silenced me. I did the memory work, but I could not manage the quick recall needed for conversation.
The next school, in Xela, Guatemala, had a very deliberate political focus, and we learned a ton about the history of the conflict in that country, and its present-day ramifications. The language pedagogy there was identical to that in Antigua: one-on-one sessions with individual teachers, who marched us through a series of grammatical exercises. Again, on my part, this meant great difficulty in speaking, and I often found myself in tears, unable to perform on what felt to me like tests in which I hadn´t mastered the material.
Our third experience, in Monteverde, Costa Rica, was for me a much more positive one. This time round we weren´t working with a school, but rather with two teachers who contracted independently with us for daily conversation and instruction. This was a lot of fun for me (and I feel that I´ve made some life-long friends). But a good deal of the direction of the classes came from Jeff and me, rather than from our teachers.
Our fourth experience was in in San Jose,Costa Rica, a city right in the downtown area of the capital which emphasized conversation (and, from what one of the teachers told us, was thereby quite able to help U.S. men looking to hook up with the sex trade in Costa Rica). The focus there was on ¨fluidity¨ (we spent one session, for instance, looking out the window and describing the activities we saw on the street).
All those experiences were very useful ones, and now I find myself engaged in -- and I think quite able to take advantage of -- this last in our series of language classes, in a school which has a far more deliberate -- and I think far more radical -- pedagogy than any of the others. It includes dimensions that are sensory, poetic, meditative and imaginative. Let me describe a few more of the more creative activities of our first week.
We started with breakfast on Monday: lots of emphasis on the sensory experiences of eating and drinking. Afterwards came a review of each of the 5 senses, and of a wide variety of words we could use to describe our various sensory experiences. But then came the turn of the screw. I was asked to close my eyes, while Jeff led me around the room and had me touch a number of items, then I did the same for him. We were next asked to describe the items we had touched. How certain we were that we were naming them correctly? Quite certain. Why was that, since we hadn´t been able to see them? Because we relied on our other senses. Because we relied on one another´s help. Because we were operating within the safe walls of a classroom, under the guidance of an experienced instructor. What a great experiential way to teach students that what they are doing when they are trying to speak a new language -- groping ¨in the dark¨ for words, not knowing the exact names for things, but being able, nonetheless, with approximations and resemblances, to find their way.
We were given a homework assignment to write about our own sensory experiences in exploring the city that afternoon and evening. After we presented that, the next morning, came the next turn of the screw: Neruda´s famous poem #20, which is all about the power of sensory experience in memory -- and (next turn of the screw) about the need to forget it. We worked our way through the poem line by line; it was a very strong experience in remembering, in forgetting, and in how each feeds the other.
There will be much more to say. over the next few weeks, about this school and its attendant activities, including its initiative F U N D A C I Ó N V A L P A R A Í S O, a quirky attempt to ¨found¨ the city anew, artistically.