Caitlin Quinn - Spotlight on Service
Instead of working exclusively at a single work site, my Bridge Year Program Brazil companions and I have volunteered for varying amounts with several different partner organizations. Our service placements include daycares, orphanages, an HIV/AIDS clinic, and a shelter for homeless elderly women. Each organization features a unique work environment and a cast of diverse characters. Each seeks to address a specific need, struggles with distinct challenges, and asks volunteers to serve in varying capacities. While I have learned and grown from my experience with each of these organizations, my most challenging, meaningful, and rewarding moments have occurred at my primary service placement: a community school where I teach English.
My classroom — where I team-teach with Eli, another BYP participant — is a tiny room at the back of a parish building, which functions as a sort of community center for the surrounding neighborhood. Our classes are free and open to the public, and our students range in age from eight to nearly eighty. Some of our students plan to someday travel to the United States; some want extra practice to supplement their English classes at school; some seek the employment opportunities that bilingualism can provide. Prior to the start of our classes, a few of our students had already studied English — either in a formal classroom setting or merely by taking advantage of Internet resources — but most were as new to English as I was to Portuguese.
As a native English speaker, I never realized the complexity of our language until I began teaching it. (I now spend so much time researching English grammar and practice activities that many of the targeted online advertisements that pop up in my browser say things like, “Become fluent in English in just three months!” as though I were a student myself.) My deepening familiarity with English has also enriched my study of Portuguese. My students are invariably delighted to reverse the roles of teacher and student, and we spend a lot of time comparing conventional syntax and trading slang expressions. Not a class goes by where I don’t learn something new about Portuguese.
Learning how to teach is a challenging process. Flexibility, I have found, is absolutely key: even the best-laid lesson plans sometimes fall flat and require improvisation. Variation is also essential: games and songs add “spice” to the usual fare of grammar lessons and writing exercises. Furthermore, I have learned that it’s not only permissible, but downright crucial to seek input from the class when deciding what and how to teach. Improvement comes slowly, but sharing in my students’ sense of accomplishment when they understand a difficult reading or master the conditional verb tense makes it more than worth it.
Teaching my English class has been one of the most valued experiences of my bridge year. The skills and relationships I have built within the confines of my classroom have extended far beyond the hours I spend in class. Teaching is sometimes frustrating and always challenging, but at the end of the day, it is the most rewarding thing I do here.