Language Teachers Become Language Students: TESOL Students Take on Guatemala ☆

This summer, four fellow students from the TESOL K-12 program and I traveled to Guatemala for an intensive Spanish course and a bit of Central American exploration. While we all had varying levels and backgrounds in Spanish, we headed south with the same goal: to get better.

A Xela home reveals layers of color on its walls

While it is certain that we will have students in our ESL classrooms who speak languages other than Spanish, it is undeniable that having an understanding of a foreign language can only help us as ESL teachers. Not only is it very likely that we will come across native Spanish speaking students in our careers, but learning any language serves to enhance our understanding of the language learning process. Being able to empathize with our students as they acquire another language can shape our pedagogue as we seek to successfully impart English language skills to them.

Lace Smith describes why studying in a Spanish speaking country this summer seemed like a good idea. “As a future ESL teacher, and NYC teacher in general, I knew I needed to brush up on my Spanish in order to be as effective an educator as possible. So many of our students have Central American heritage. That, along with great plane ticket prices, made it an easy decision.”

Bright colors abound in Xela

We chose Quetzaltenango, more commonly known by its Mayan name Xela (pronounced “shay-la”), because of its reputation for quality language schools, of which there are about fifteen in the city. We settled in with our Guatemalan host families for a three-week homestay, which accompanied our daily one-on-one Spanish classes. While there is a wide array of language schools to choose from in Guatemala’s second largest city, drawing folks of all ages and regions of the world, Xela maintains an authentic, working city feel. It has been able to resist a more commercial, touristy takeover, thereby forcing us to use Spanish in all of our interactions with the locals.

Rosemary Sharpe, another TESOL K-12 student, shares her takeaways from our stay in Xela. “The people were very warm and friendly. The family I stayed with treated me like their daughter and they took really good care of me. The culture is very family oriented, and from what I could see, Guatemalans like to work hard and play hard.  It was also really neat to see the combination of Mayan and Catholic traditions.”

In addition to taking classes, we were fortunate to travel to neighboring towns around Xela in the afternoons and on weekends. One of the highlights includes San Andres Xecul, a town about 45 minutes from Xela. We started out by taking a microbus (pronounced “meecro-boos”), a big van crammed with people who hop on and off sporadically via the gaping door that stays open the whole time, to the outskirts of Xela. There, we got on a ¨chicken bus.¨ This is a privately owned, retired American school bus that has somehow made its way down to Central America and been decked out in the personal style of the driver, including unique paint jobs inside and out and décor of all kinds. They blare their music and even have funky lights inside making it a bit like a night club on wheels. People jumped on and off continuously as we bumped and swerved through the countryside.

We then arrived in another town where we embarked on the final leg of our journey: standing up in the back of a pick-up truck (“peek-ope”). There was a wooden frame built into it with bars around the outside and one down the middle providing ample space for everyone to grab hold. Being tightly crammed in the back of the truck actually enabled us to give each other support as we jostled down the road. Just when I thought we could not possibly fit one more person in, the pick-up truck stopped and a tiny Mayan woman climbed on with her large basket in tow.

The sriking church in San Andres Xecul

We finally arrived in San Andres de Xecul, a much smaller, sleepier town than Xela, nestled in the mountains. There is a famous Catholic church there, which happens to be the one pictured on the front of the most recent Lonely Planet guide book. This unique, somewhat quirky church is bright yellow with multi-colored Mayan, Christian, and agricultural images depicted on the facade. We ambled up the steep, narrow lanes, deeper into the town. Down every street was another picturesque scene and I couldn´t stop snapping pictures. We encountered some little kids who saw us and shouted ¨foto foto!” They giggled giddily and infectiously upon seeing themselves on the tiny screens of our cameras.

Other highlights near Xela included Fuentes Georginas, a beautiful, relaxing natural hot spring tucked into the mountains, Chichicostenango, a massive, bustling market said to be the biggest in Central America, and Santa Maria, a dormant volcano we summited for a few brief and misty views of the Pacific through the thick but fast moving clouds that shrouded the top of the mountain.

Liz Hoelzle, Darcy Coonan, and Lace Smith atop Volcan Santa Maria

Besides taking classes and attending the daily afternoon activities organized by our school, some of our most valuable learning experiences were in the conversations we had with our host families. Eating our three meals per day at the family dining table provided the opportunity for lots of real life conversation and the chance to get to know one another on a personal level. We were able to get a much stronger sense of what Guatemalan family life, history, and culture are all about. We developed strong relationships with our host families and all felt a twinge of sadness when, after three weeks, we had to say goodbye.

With a week left, we set out to explore other parts of the country starting with San Pedro on Lago de Atitlan, a lakeside hippie enclave where we enjoyed kayaking in the volcano ringed lake. We then made our way to Antigua, a beautiful city that boasts many language schools and a place we had initially considered for our studies. However, perhaps because the city is closer to the capitol of Guatemala City and therefore more accessible, or perhaps because of its quaint city vibe and famed, picturesque Colonial architecture, it is far more touristy. Menus, on which prices are about three times higher than Xela, have English translations while waiters, tour operators, and taxi drivers spoke to us in English (something that happened seldom, if ever, in Xela). While Antigua was beautiful, we were happy that the majority of our stay in Guatemala was in the total immersion setting of Xela.

TC TESOL K-12 students Julia Soare, Rosemary Sharpe, Liz Hoelzle, and Darcy Coonan on Volcan Pacaya

From Antigua we took a day trip to Pacaya, a semi-active volcano about an hour away. We started out hiking on what looked like a normal mountain, but the soil got gradually darker and darker, until it became a rich, pitch black. Then it got grainier and crunchier as we started hiking on small lava rock pebbles. As we continued up, we started seeing bigger and bigger lava rocks, light and permeable, full of little holes, and huge formations of jagged black rocks in crazy formations… rolling, curving, undulating, pointy, swirly… the evidence of the lava that flowed over the mountainside and then cooled just one year ago. Our guide told us what it was like when the volcano erupted (for the first time in ten years) last year. They could hear it rumbling and took cover, then huge rocks came flying down, assaulting the town. When the rocks, glowing orange and flaming, hit the town they tore holes in the roofs, exploding into many tiny flaming pebbles, and setting trees on fire. No one was killed, but the town had to spend several months cleaning up and repairing the damage.

As we got toward the top of the volcano we started seeing steam and feeling the moist heat. While there is no flowing lava now, there are steam vents from which you can feel the energy of what is happening beneath the surface. The whole landscape, with its odd shapes and rock formations, almost like the jagged waves of a black ocean frozen in space, is steaming and the ground is warm to the touch. We sat on larger rocks and had our lunch while the clouds and steam billowed around us. On our hike down we walked through a regenerating area where the shoots of new life shot out of the black, fertile soil, the verdant, bright green vegetation in stark contrast to their jet black surroundings. This was an amazing experience.

At the culmination of our time in Guatemala, we took an overnight, nine-hour bus ride to Tikal National Park, in the northern Peten region of Guatemala. This park was home to a bustling Mayan city about 1500 years ago. Temples and other structural remnants abound, some in large clearings and some tucked into the jungle. Some were half excavated, one side totally uncovered with the other side buried. Many were not yet excavated, completely buried in jungle flora and fauna, but the shape and knowledge of what was underneath was unmistakable. Walking along the paths, excited at what I discovered around every corner, imagining a thriving civilization here 1500 years ago, was quite a trip.

Temple V, Tikal National Park, Guatemala

On our last full day in Guatemala, we awoke at 4am and set out into the park, making it to the top of Temple IV by sunrise. Our group sat in silence as we watched the sun come up and gazed out over the top of the forest canopy. We listened to the jungle wake up, complete with the loud, exotic calls of birds and raspy, deep, throaty growls of howler monkeys… an eerily cool sound.

In the distance, the tops of ancient pyramids. Under my feet, stone that had been laid 1500 years ago by Mayan hands. And all around me, the sights and sounds of a flourishing, vibrant jungle. As our month in Guatemala came to a close, I reflected on how the experience of traveling, being immersed in a new culture, and  becoming a language student would benefit me as a language teacher, and I was grateful.

Tikal at sunrise