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San Diego State University


Briana Wagner

Summer Immersion Reflections

Summer 2016

Speaking Spanish in Mérida

I’ve been on 3 summer immersions — first to to Mérida, then Oaxaca, and the last one was in Querétaro, south of Mexico City.

My most memorable immersion was my first one, to Mérida in the state of Yucatán. It’s the most memorable trip because it was the most difficult for me, and I learned the most. I grew so much during my time there. When I came home I was completely exhausted, and it took me a long time to process everything. The Class EL grant is offered for both Spanish learners and native Spanish speakers. I felt like I was one of the least advanced Spanish speakers of my cohort. It was in Mérida that I really — for the first time — noticed how far behind others I was in my speaking abilities. It was Spanish all day every day. We were working in Spanish with kids in the schools, then we’d have a Spanish class, then later in the day we’d be speaking Spanish with our host family, too. In my down times, I’d want to speak English. That’s when others made comments to me that I’d never learn Spanish if I kept trying to speak English.

Photo: Posing with some of the students I worked with, my first immersion (Summer 2014 in Mérida)

Photo: Posing with some of the students I worked with, my first immersion (Summer 2014 in Mérida)

I felt like people didn’t understand how difficult it was for me. I was so “poor me, poor me” about that at first! Then later, when I got some distance, I had this real understanding that this is what it’s like for Spanish-speaking kids who are new to schools in the U.S. I had only a small glimpse of this experience, for 1 month, but they live with it every day, with no end in sight. I’ve heard teachers say, “Only English please, no Spanish.” And I understand now that that’s really debilitating. You can lose your confidence. You’re trying so hard and not getting any credit for it. In Mérida, I went into reverse mode, because my confidence went down, and I compared myself negatively to others. So at first, I had the “poor me” attitude, but later on, after some time had passed, I felt like, “This is such a gift. Now I understand.”

My second year, I was doing an intervention for reading comprehension, and the teacher was working on a poetry unit for 6th graders. This was hard for me. It was pretty advanced Spanish. It’s a little bit harder, having to do everything in Spanish when you’re not as fluent. It’s hard to express yourself.

“Owning it”

By my third year on the grant, I had learned to own the level I’m at. So now, I don’t compare myself to people who grew up speaking Spanish. I own my level. I tell people that I’m still learning. When they correct my pronunciation or something, I take it as help and not with the attitude of “I’m being corrected.”

I grew up in Arizona, and I studied Spanish from 7th grade until the end of high school. But it was just classes in school. It was never really, “I need to use this language to communicate in real life.” On paper, when I’m in Spanish class, I get 100 % on the tests. I can write and read well, I know the grammar. I have a strong foundation in Spanish. But it’s different when you’re talking. I had to learn to be willing to speak and make mistakes and not have it perfect in my head before I speak.

I wasn’t until college that I realized, if I want to study abroad, I have to be able to speak this language. In summers, I worked in a boarding school in Switzerland. There were students there who I had to look after, who only spoke Spanish. They were from lots of different Spanish-speaking countries. And that’s when it really hit me that, “You learn a language to communicate with others.” And that’s when I started really understanding why you study a language!

Making tamales in Oaxaca

My favorite immersion was Oaxaca. It’s so beautiful, and I’d learned so much the first year, that it was a little easier the second time. I think Oaxaca’s a magical city, and I loved living there. I had an amazing host mom who was an incredible cook. She always wanted to sit and talk with us, and she taught us to make tamales. She wanted to teach us to cook, and Oaxacan food is just amazing. There are unique and delicious dishes special. I’m a vegetarian which is so difficult in Mexico. She introduced me to nopales, a kind of cactus. She’d make a hamburger but instead of meat, she’d put in grilled nopales for me, or chayote squash. It was so good, the best food I ever ate. I felt really spoiled.


Photo: My Oaxaca host mom and the other immersion participants (Pepe, Bryant, and Karen) who I shared a house with, learning how to make tamales (summer 2015)

Photo: My Oaxaca host mom and the other immersion participants (Pepe, Bryant, and Karen) who I shared a house with, learning how to make tamales (Summer 2015)

I knew I had it good there, and I was really grateful. I loved the house, and we’d wake up every morning and take long walks and watch the sun rise. This was my second immersion, and by then, my attitude had changed. I had such a defeatist attitude the first year. The second year, I knew I had to mentally prepare, and I told myself, “I’m here to do this wonderful work, and I can give myself breaks throughout the day.” So the attitude was better.

My cohort: We’re “like a machine”

During your 3rd year immersion, you’re there as a graduate assistant, or GA, and you supervise other grad students. In the grant, 4 people are chosen every year. The school psych program is 4 years long, but the last year is spent working full time at a school. Students in each incoming cohort apply and write essays, and 4 people are chosen. You really get to know these people well. This last immersion, in Querétaro, my cohort all lived together with Carol. All 4 of use have been working together now for several years — it’s a real cohort situation, you’re always together and you learn to lean on each other trust each other. We know in any situation who wants to do this part, or this part. We’re like a machine now; we know what everyone is good at.

In your third year immersion, as a GA, your role is different. The first 2 years, you’re usually paired with a teacher. You’re assigned a classroom and you do an intervention to help in some way. But in the third year, you are in charge of supervising 2 pairs of grad students. You meet with them every day, giving suggestions on how to improve their intervention, answering questions, and so on.

Also, every year we either run a teacher or parent workshop. This year we did 2, and also some consultations with teachers at the request of the school. So in addition to classroom interventions, we also did performed this system-wide intervention.



Photo: Briana, center, posing with one of the pairs I supervised and their class (summer 2016, Querétaro)
Photo: Briana, center, posing with one of the pairs she supervised and their class (Summer 2016, Querétaro)


Intervention really means support

An intervention is friendlier than it sounds. It’s like a support group, You go in and ask the teacher, “What areas do you think your kids are struggling in?” It could be math, reading comprehension, whatever. You give the class an assessment to see where they are. And then you pull out a small group of the kids who are struggling the most, and you help them every day. At the end, you do a post-test to see how the class has improved.

In my group, there was definite progress. The kids benefit from having special attention and targeted help. When you try to teach everyone at the same time, the highest level kids are kind of bored, and the ones at the bottom are struggling. So this method really teaches to them at their level, so they’re benefiting from the lesson.

Sometimes, instead of academic concerns, it’s behavior issues. So we work on class management strategies, or consulting with the teacher about how to do a clip chart, where kids get their clips moved up as they’re doing better. Or if there’s one kid who’s struggling, we’ll maybe give him a sticker chart to reinforce specific behaviors. Mostly it’s academic interventions, but the first year I was on immersion it was a special needs school, so there were lots of behavioral interventions in that setting. Kids everywhere do the same attention-seeking behaviors; they want attention and love.

The classrooms in Mexico — there are lots of similarities to classrooms in the U.S., of course, but also some differences. Sometimes, we work in religious schools. In Querétaro, we were in a Catholic school, so there were nuns who were teachers. In these schools, a lot of behavior management has to do with religious principles. There’s a level of affection that’s not encouraged in the U.S. In Querétaro, for instance, there’s lots of hugging, and the teachers pray for the students in the morning.

Connecting with kids

Every summer, I connect with the most amazing kids. They welcome us with open hearts. I’m always impressed by how funny and smart they are. They make a lasting impact. The main thing the immersions have done for me is the language struggle . . . how I’ve learned to own my level of Spanish and stay humble and continue to learn. But the most important part of these trips has always been the kids.

My first year, I had the most unique experience. We were in a special needs school. They have a system in Mexico where there are special schools for the more severely handicapped students. I was in a classroom with older kids, ages 16 to 21, who were transitioning out to get jobs in the community. They were learning in a kitchen, to prepare food for other students and for teachers because that’s the kind of jobs they’d get, out in the community.

My intervention that summer was a math intervention, to teach them to make change with money when they interacted with customers. The student I worked most closely with was Valeria. She and I got to be good friends, and it was a joy working with her. Valeria had a really bad vision impairment. We were trying to teach her to count money and make change, but it was difficult. At one point, I felt like I didn’t know if she’d ever be able to do it. But by the end, she was able to identify all the different coins. And there was a boy named Christian, too, who was so funny. He was a total character. That was 2 summers ago, and I still remember their names.

Underground caves and a rich culture

(Photo: The little girls in Chinantla who taught me how to make flower crowns, summer 2015.)

My first year immersion, the excursions were amazing. We went to visit a number of of undergound caves carved out by the water of that region. They were pretty magical.

My second year, we went to Chinantla. This was a remote and mountainous region, with rural indigenous people who lived off the land. I was impressed by the rich culture and sense of community — it was a difficult but good trip.

(Photo: The little girls in Chinantla who taught me how to make flower crowns, Summer 2015)

CLASS EL: A perfect fit

I originally trained to be a teacher, and after college I did a program called Teach for America. It’s an Americorps program that recruits people to work in underserved areas. I was placed in east San Jose in a charter school, where I taught kindergarten for 2 years.

This is when I realized that being a teacher wasn’t for me. I was planning to go into a Ph.D. program for psychology, but I felt like wasn’t ready for that. I knew teaching wasn’t for me, but I still wanted to work in a school setting. So becoming a school psychologist made sense for me.

As a kindergarten teacher, I was one of the first people to evaluate incoming kids, and I worked closely with the school psychologist there. And I thought it would be great to be a school psychologist who had also worked as a teacher. As a school psychologist I could use my 2 years of teaching experience to be able to empathize with teachers. I came across the CLASS EL grant, and I really wanted to get into the program. I was eager to get to work in Mexico and improve my Spanish. When I was a teacher in San Jose, the population I worked with was mostly from Mexico and Central America, so this was such a perfect fit for me.

It’s been such an amazing experience, the past 3 years, and I’m so grateful that I was able to be a part of it. I’m grateful for the experience of having some small insight into what it’s like to be a language learner in a school. This makes me very sensitive to what English language learners must be going through when they come to the U.S. Without the immersion experience, I wouldn’t have known how hurtful it is to be told, “Just stop talking English and speak Spanish!” These young students are learning to become bilingual. It’s a talent and a skill.

Photo: My partner Karen (bilingual teacher) and I, doing sassy poses with Lili, the teacher we worked with. Last day of Oaxaca immersion (2015).

Photo: My partner Karen (bilingual teacher) and I, doing sassy poses with Lili, the teacher we worked with. (Last day of Oaxaca immersion, 2015).


Upcoming internship

In the last year of your program, you do an internship. I just finished my 3rd year, so next year will be my internship year. I’ll be in Palo Alto for the academic year. I’ll still have class once a month, so I’ll fly back to SDSU for that. For the internship, I’ll be working full time in a school doing everything a school psych would do, but with a supervisor. I will be on the bilingual assessment team, but the population of Latino students is much lower. The things I’ve been learning from the grant, I’ll still be able to practice and improve upon. Having this experience is good, since you get the opportunity fill in the gaps of what you haven’t done yet. In the past, my students have been mostly low-income and Latino. In Palo Alto, this is a higher income population with mostly white and Asian students, who I don’t have much experience working with. As a school psychologist, you may also find yourself dealing with lots of legal issues — I’ve never been in a school where there are lawyers in the meetings. So this will be new.

Family support

My family loves that I’m doing this. My parents have always taught us to love travel, and they think it’s so awesome that I’m involved in these immersions. My parents are retired, and they go to different places around the world and do volunteer work. They just got done working in China for a month where they taught in a women’s university.

We don’t speak Spanish at all, but my mom is in the process of learning. They have lived in Peru, Columbia and Ecuador. Both my parents love learning new and different cultures. They think it’s awesome that I’m involved in the CLASS EL grant.


Photo: Briana, attempting to try chapulines (crickets), something that Oaxacans enjoy. (“I couldn't do it.”)

Photo: Briana, attempting to try chapulines (crickets), something that Oaxacans enjoy. (“I couldn't do it.”)

"These challenging immersions provided me with a small window into what it’s like to be a language learner. Knowing how mentally exhausting it is, trying to learn, to make friends and express yourself all day in a language that isn't native to you . . .

I have a new respect and admiration for the struggle ELLs face daily in schools in the U.S."