Living the Spanish Language and Oaxacan Culture in México 2009 with Valerie

Shared by German Jimenez on February 16, 2012

Valerie provided the leadership, organizational skills, philosophical foundation, and professional excellence for a truly amazing summer experience in Oaxaca.  It has been said that one does not truly learn a language, unless one lives it.  Through this summer cultural immersion program, I lived the Oaxacan culture and Spanish language.  It was one of the most influential experiences of my personal and academic life.

Valerie organized intensive Spanish Language instruction at Academia Vinigúlaza in the afternoons. We were put into small groups of instruction tailored to our level of proficiency of the Spanish language. In my group, we read Spanish textbooks on the evaluation and assessment of students. This was critical to our understanding of the social construction of learning disabilities and to the differences in identifying and assessing students in México versus the USA.  My group had the privilege of being taught by a graduate student from one of México’s most elite universities, UNAM in México City. He drew from personal experiences as a teacher and native of México to enrich our education.

Valerie also provided an opportunity for service learning at a private school, Colegio Erich Pohlenz, every morning during the week. We were assigned to a classroom where we conducted participant-observations.  We conducting reading groups, tutored children, assisted the teacher, and observed classroom instruction. The dynamics between the student-teacher relationship could never be fully captured by simply reading a textbook. We needed to live and observe these exchanges to appreciate the particulars of the schooling process in Oaxaca.  I gained insight into the expectations the students and teachers had of one another, how they expressed their ideas about teaching and learning with one another, and the cultural parallels with and distinctions between our educational practices in America.

Valerie also provided a meaningful opportunity for learning about the culture and language of México by placing us with amazing host-families and organizing excursions. We were not simply guests, but were included as family members in our home placements.  I was included in daily activities and extra-curricular activities, where I observed the exchange of humor, of social and family values, of parent/child relationships and academic expectations. These experiences were authentic, embedded in social context and helped me understand the roles of family members.  I learned that the community and the individual are not mutually exclusive.  It is very important that the individual work hard in order to improve their overall quality of life, which includes the family and the greater Oaxacan society.

Valerie also wanted us to explore the intersection of colonial and indigenous cultures.  She helped facilitate this endeavor by providing cultural excursions on the weekends.  I learned about many facets of Oaxacan life, including the colonial history of México, systemic poverty along ethnic/indigenous lines, the educational system and cultural vibrancy of this city.  Her presence, as well as the depth and breadth of her knowledge provided us with a remarkable experience. 

Having had this experience, I feel much better prepared to address the discrepancies between the potential and the real-life achievement we see in Mexican-immigrant students in America. I am certain an educational experience of this caliber could not have occurred without the hard work, wealth of knowledge, rich experiences across Latin America, and professionalism of Valerie. 

In memory of my hero Valerie Joy,
Germán Chávez Jiménez Jr.

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