What a Nicaraguan slum taught me about PBL

I just wrapped up a pretty inspirational week in Granada, Nicaragua, as part of my summer professional development abroad. Through a Spanish immersion trip with Common Ground International, I spent the week with some awesome teachers, doctors, physician assistants, and nurses, working in a Granada shanty town in the morning and taking Spanish classes in the afternoon. I learned a lot about Nicaragua, but the biggest takeaways from the week centered around our morning community service projects.

One of my goals for my summer professional development is to seek out opportunities for my students to use their Spanish outside the classroom and give back to the global community (all the more important since our school is officially embracing Project Based Learning next year). Common Ground did a great job of finding us a service project that both met our goals of practicing the language AND helped out a local organization in a direct, meaningful way. Our service in Granada made me think a lot about student service learning, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was the PERFECT service project for us as Spanish students “at that time in that setting,” as our friends at the National Board would appreciate. I saw three reasons for the project’s success that would be applicable to any PBL service learning attempts in my classroom: 

1) There was a genuine need for our help, AND we were able to meet that need.

We were collaborating with a small Christian school run by American missionaries in a very poor shanty town in the outskirts of the city. The neighborhood is extremely impoverished, with high crime and unemployment rates and low health and literacy rates. The school is trying to start classes and lectures for the community to help address some of the health problems there (nutrition education to decrease diabetes, smoking cessation, alcoholism supports, etc). Before giving these talks, the school wanted to conduct a survey of the neighborhood (affectionately named “el Pantanal” or “the swamp”) to determine their needs and figure out which health programs would be most beneficial. Our mission as Spanish students was to walk door to door conducting these surveys. The organization NEEDED these surveys to be completed – if not us, they would have looked for someone else to complete them. It wasn’t a contrived project, which made us feel like our work was worthwhile – a crucial component to guarantee student buy in. 

2) We were stretching a little bit outside our comfort zone – where the learning really happens. 

At this point I would like to be real with you and say that this project COMPLETELY freaked me out. As a tall skinny blonde girl, no part of me wanted to skip around a Nicaraguan slum knocking on doors to ask if anyone in the house had a history of alcoholism, depression, or chronic diarrhea. (“HOLA! Soy de los Estados Unidos and no I am not here to give you anything, I just want to ask you fifty extremely personal questions!!”). Despite my gringa fears, the experience was predictably eye-opening and rewarding. We stayed together in a big group with some help from people in the community, so I always felt safe. The majority of the people we surveyed were super open and helpful, and full of hope. Adriana, the missionary growing and running the school in Pantanal, spoke to us about the difference between poverty and misery, and the people we spoke to all morning were poor, but they weren’t miserable. They all talked about the importance of education for their kids and how they want them in school to advance their future. They spoke about health issues and problems getting food on the table, but never in a way that tried to evoke pity. They just were telling us about their lives, which brings me to my next point.

3) The project met our instructional goals of using and improving our Spanish. 

When we started our surveys, we were all focused on making sure the pronunciation of each question was right and trying really hard to read our script correctly, but quickly the surveys became less about a Spanish reading exercise and more about human connection. We stopped worrying about language accuracy and started doing everything we could to communicate understanding – our affective filter and our fears of making mistakes went out the window as we listened to these people share their fears and their wishes. It was a truly language rich experience, and hit those Cs of culture, community, and connection really hard. It was a perfect way for us to learn, give back, and feel good about doing it. 

Okay, so how am I going to apply these concepts in my classroom?

I went into my service trying to find ways for my students to give back in Nicaragua, and I discovered that the only genuine need my students could realistically meet that would help out the work Americans are doing in el Pantanal is : hit up their parents for money (ughhh! Such a frustrating realization). The folks we were helping in Pantanal told us that even classroom supplies and donations aren’t the best to contribute, since it would be best to give money that the school would then spend in the local community, supporting the local jobs and the local economy even further. Since we have so many fundraisers at our school already, I had already crossed financial donations off the list possible projects. It is possible that we could have a Spanish event that we charge admission to as a fundraiser (like an after school feria/market to go with our shopping unit; a Hispanic food festival to go with our food unit; etc). My mind is already moving through ideas for them that would both help out the neighborhood financially AND help us with our linguistic goals. 

Beyond trying to figure out a way for my students to help out in Nicaragua, however, my biggest takeaway was the need to WORK to find opportunities for my students to help out in our own community. Trying to find a genuine need students can meet in a language-rich way requires research, and networking in the local community to find people who are already working with Hispanic populations in town. Possibilities could include tutoring elementary school kids or partnering with an organization who works with new immigrants to the US. The folks at Common Ground did a lot of investigating before partnering with an organization that had a need that Spanish students could meet in a meaningful way. I came away with a reality check – that finding a meaningful student service opportunity requires research, time, and networking, but I also came away with a renewed sense of social responsibility and a desire to show my students how important and rewarding it can be to give back outside your comfort zone. 

It truly was an amazing week, and I gained a lot of perspective and inspiration as I head into our school’s first PBL year, but that hasn’t turned into concrete service ideas yet. What are your awesome student service activities? Have you found some meaningful service learning projects that also meet your instructional goals? Let me know in the comments below! 

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