“Out of My Comfort Zone”: Understanding the Impact of a Service-Learning Experience in Rural El Salvador: An Analysis
While the school age population has been becoming more diverse over time as minority students increase in numbers, the average teacher in the United States continues to be white, middle class and female. This disparity between the lives, cultures, experiences and even financial security of over 30% of the student population and their educators suggests a potentially deep divide between the two groups that can be very hard to recognize, understand and then overcome. There are many ideas about how to bridge this gap, to help create empathy and more understanding between educators and their students and to educate the educators themselves more fully in the areas of diversity. One way that has been attempted to achieve this ideal are short service-learning experiences in areas of direct need that cover many of the cultural, financial and challenging experiences of some of the students who are moving to America and entering our school systems. This paper describes a qualitative case study of a two week service immersion in a rural mountain village in El Salvador called La Secoya. This short term study was produced by Paula J. Beckman and Lea Ann Christenson and was populated with fifteen female students who were all in either pre-education or pre-med degree programs.
Funnily enough, as these two authors work to find ways to bring down barriers, they find themselves in the majority of educators as middle-class or higher white females. Paula J. Beckman is a Professor of Early Childhood: Special Education Program Counseling and counts among her research interests early support for Latino families, community development, the impact of poverty on development, and inclusion for exceptional children. She earned her Ph.D. in Special Education and has written over eighty articles, edited two books and been involved in international research and training projects both in Europe and Central America. Lee Ann Christenson is an Assistant Professor at Towson University with a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction and focuses on early literary acquisition, ‘Study Abroad’ and English as a Second Language instruction. She also has several publications and presentations on these subjects under her belt. There present paper is intended to help express possible mental and behavioral changes that can happen when people are immersed in a culture for even short periods of time. Both authors fully admit that due to their small sample size and lack of other studies, this study is a suggestion and shows short term change pretty clearly in the participants.
This article covered its primary objectives very well. It covered how the two week immersion changed the perspective of the participants from their point of view, using quotes when necessary to help back up the premise that all student participants felt that the experience overall was a positive one for them and their perceptions of people they did not know even though in the case of half of the students, they didn’t understand the actual language being spoken by the villagers. How this experience affected them personally as well as their professional choices was also addressed, asking the students how they had changed or what decisions they were going to change or had changed after the event based on their experiences in El Salvador. Lastly, the authors tried to address how each student’s perspectives on global awareness, immigration, war and privilege were impacted or changed based on this single experience. My major disappointment was that the sample size was so small (and gendered as well) so that, while this was a fascinating article and I am very excited by its conclusions, my excitement is tempered knowing that there isn’t enough evidence to conclude that all student populations would have the same understanding or empathy after the study was complete. I would love for more research to be completed on this topic.
I think this information might be very valuable to a general education teacher. It is important for each of us to recognize and understand what we don’t have experience in. Being able to recognize that a child fluent in Spanish but not English should not be listed as nonverbal, to recognize and truly attempt to understand the varied experiences of those from other cultures or immigrants, to focus on what is needed for the child by understanding his full experience and not just using assumptions from your own perspective and stereotypes- what an amazing gift for a teacher! This information could help a general educator use their limited resources wisely and more appropriately to the situation and not to waste time and energy focusing on things that are not needed. This paper suggests that even short periods of time immersing yourself in the culture of your students can make a large difference in the way that an educator sees and potentially responds to some of their most challenged students. I would highly recommend this article to a teacher for that reason alone.
Here is a link to the article: link