Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Beatles Arrive in Teotitlan

Today was my first day doing my English/Zapotec exchange at the primary school in Teotitlan del Valle. Organizing this venture was, predictably, a project in and of itself, so the fact that it is actually happening now is exciting enough. I first talked with the director of the school about my idea for the project several weeks ago, but due to the school being closed for unknown reasons, heavy rain that caused a bridge to break between Oaxaca and Teotitlan, protests that blocked the road and prevented me from getting there, and the director not showing up to school on the day he told me to meet with him, I didn't actually speak face to face with him again until yesterday. When I did, I was pleasantly surprised to find that he had changed his mind about the necessity of me working with all 14 groups of students in the school, and had decided that I should work only with 3 groups of 6th graders. Each of the groups has about 15 students, a very reasonable-sized class. This will allow me to actually get to know the kids and be able to come up with some sort of continuous curriculum rather than giving a series of useless one-day English "workshops".

There were a series of other pleasant surprises besides that. I met the three 6th grade teachers, surprisingly all men, and they were very receptive to my idea of doing an "exchange" in which I would teach the students English but also incorporate the Zapotec language into my lessons, and ask the students to contribute their knowledge. I am now hoping to do a final project in which each class creates a storybook (ideally, a legend told by elders in the town, or maybe an invented fable, I haven't decided which) that is translated into the three languages--Spanish, English, and Zapotec--and illustrated by the students. Thankfully, the teachers did not give me incredulous stares when I told them I wanted to learn Zapotec. Another surprise was the classrooms: I was not expecting a school in a rural mountain town in Oaxaca to have two whiteboards, a modern PC with internet, and a projector in every classroom. This compared to the Instituto Tecnológico (the university where I teach), where a lot of the classrooms smell like the bathroom and my only resources are a white board and a portable CD player (and believe me, I am overjoyed to have the CD player). I'm guessing the school in Teotitlan has attracted some donors, because even though the town is an up-and-coming tourist attraction due to its weaving economy, people there are definitely not wealthy.

After meeting the teachers, I got a chance to say a few words to the students in each class. I told them that I would be coming in to teach them English for one hour every Thursday, that we were going to have fun, listen to music, and play games, and that I would be expecting them to be my teachers as well. When I said, "I know some of you probably speak Zapotec", some students even RAISED THEIR HANDS. I was pretty shocked and very happy about that, because most people had told me that there are not many kids in Teotitlan who speak Zapotec anymore, and that the kids who do speak it would probably be embarassed to admit it because of social stigma. One man in Teotitlan even had a statistic: "Only 3% of kids in the school speak Zapotec," he claimed. (I've got one too: Over 97.5% of statistics are made up on the spot.) I'm glad I didn't listen to him or anybody else, even though they all meant well. Part of what makes Teotitlan so interesting for me is that while the commercial success of textile weaving and the onslaught of tourism makes English and Spanish more valuable to people on the one hand, on the other hand it also creates more pride surrounding the use of the Zapotec language, which is associated with the "tradition" that is symbolically epitomized in textile weaving. In other words, I think there is less social stigma surrounding the Zapotec language in Teotitlan than in other places in Oaxaca, precisely because of its weaving economy.

Also, a Mexican friend of mine who speaks Zapoteco del Istmo pointed out that Zapotec is the most "noble" of the Oaxacan indigenous languages-- and by that he meant that the Zapotec language has survived in part because it has historically had money and status behind it. That's not to say that Zapotecs are rich, but they have always been the nobility among indigenous groups in Oaxaca; kind of like the Aztecs in central Mexico, the Mayas in the Yucatan, the Incas in Peru. A cynical viewpoint, but undeniably true: it is hard to maintain cultural pride in a virtually unknown indigenous language when the only people who speak it are dirt poor. Some cash flow helps.

So back to my project... today I left my home in Oaxaca bright and early and arrived in Teotitlan at 8:00 AM ready to give my first class. But when I got to the school, it was locked and there was no one in sight. About ten minutes later the assistant director arrived and let me into the office. It took me about ten more minutes, all the while thinking, "OK, so I know it's Latino time, but this is ridiculous", before I realized that it was still only about 7:15 in Teotitlan. The director and the teachers had neglected to tell me that Teotitlan doesn't have daylight savings time while Oaxaca City does, so they are currently an hour behind. In retrospect, the director might have mentioned something about the school having a "different schedule", but I didn't know what he was talking about. People in Teotitlan (perhaps somewhat ironically) call their time "Tiempo de Dios", or "God's time", since they don't change it for daylight savings.

Of all the things that could have gone wrong though, that was just a minor little entertaining mistake. The classes went pretty darn well: I started by teaching the kids some basic greetings, "What's your name?" and "Where are you from?", followed by a hot potato game in which the person that ended up with the "hot potato" had to ask the two students next to them one of those two questions, first in English and then in Zapotec. About 1/2 to 2/3 of the students seemed able (and willing) to contribute when I asked how to say things in Zapotec, although it's unclear how many of them are actually fluent in the language. A few of the students (some of whom aren't originally from Teotitlan) speak no Zapotec at all, so they're learning the language along with me. To end off the class, I played the Beatles song "Hello Goodbye" and helped the kids translate the very simple lyrics. My favorite student by far was a kid named "Cesar", who not only had some English under his belt and knew who the Beatles were (from his older brother, he said), but also shared a song in Zapoteco. It is sung to the tune of "Frere Jaques" and goes like this: "Saq shtil, saq shtil. Shayuu, shayuu. Wanka wanka wanka, wanka wanka wanka. Azá, azá." (Translation: "Good morning, good morning. How are you? How are you? Fine fine fine. Fine fine fine. Goodbye, goodbye.") The kids started cracking up when I mispronounced the middle part of the song as "Waka waka waka", which prompted them to start singing the World Cup 2010 theme song.

To top off a great morning, I also had an hour of free time in between two of my classes, in which I walked over to my friend Celestino's house and not for the first time, enjoyed his mother's sunny personality and superb cooking. (Note: I thought before that I did not like the Oaxacan snack of "chapulines", or fried grasshoppers with lime and salt. But, I have since discovered that Celestino's mom's hand-caught, home-made grasshoppers are just DELICIOUS. No more of those day-old market grasshoppers for me!)

English classes at the Instituto Tecnológico have also been going well. (I've noticed that my actual "job" keeps becoming a footnote in this blog after I describe my personal projects. Oh well.) There, I am working with five different professors and only see each class once every week or two weeks, so the logistics of lesson planning and of being an "assistant" are a little complicated. I usually try to figure out what the students in each class have been learning and then come up with an activity of my own to bring to class. With some classes I pretty much just teach the entire thing, while other professors prefer to stick more to their own plan, so I maybe do a short activity and play more of an "assistant" role. In both cases, I think it's been working out fairly well. Also, when I discovered that there were some CD players locked away in a closet that I am allowed to use, my entire teaching life was forever changed.

Some recent highlights:
1) Teaching John Lennon's "Imagine" to a level 3 group. After helping the students to translate the lyrics and making a list of things that "there are" and "there are not" In Lennon's perfect world, I divided the students up into groups and had them describe what their "perfect world" would look like.
2) Also with a couple level 3 classes, I brought in the handy dandy glossy photos depicting different aspects of American culture that Fulbright gave us, and had students work in groups to describe what was going on in the pictures. Then I got to use the photos to tell them a little about my motherland, including explaining a Native American powwow, the New Orleans jazz tradition, and the AIDS Memorial Quilt in DC. (I'm sick of hearing people here say that the United States doesn't have any "culture" or "traditions"!)
3) With some beginner classes, I have been playing "jazz chants", or conversations put to a beat in order to emphasize the rhythm of the language and help students practice oral skills. This particular jazz chant was about routines and was called "I get up at 7:30". One fiesty male student was getting particularly dramatic while reading the lyrics in class, so I asked him if he wanted to practice at home and do a dramatic interpretation of it in front of the class the following week. He agreed. He didn't practice, but he did the performance anyway. At least the other students and I got a good laugh.

I will leave you all with a view of Teotitlan from above,

taken from a mountain peak where it is said that the gods descended from:

It's been a good few weeks, and I'm sure I'll have much more to add later. For now, azá!! Goodbye!