Teaching Traveling: Wishing for a creative, intercultural learning community?
Kurt Wootton, the cofounder of the ArtsLiteracy Project in Rhode Island, and the codirector of Habla: The Center for Language and Culture in Merida, Mexico, can help! Kurt, give us some background. Before moving to Mexico, what were your first travels as a teacher?
Kurt: Traveling while teaching really begins in the classroom. We’ve all heard the term “armchair traveler,” referring to a person who only reads about travel while resting comfortably at home, but really as teachers we are all “classroom travelers,” particularly as the world becomes smaller and our classrooms grow more diverse.
Several years ago I worked in Central Falls, Rhode Island, with a class of students who had recently immigrated to the United States from more than eight different countries. My work in that classroom, as part of the ArtsLiteracy Project, involved working with an extraordinary teacher, Len Newman. Len’s work was highly influenced by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire who writes that in order to teach students literacy or languages, we must connect the “word with the world.”
By this Freire means that we must draw on students’ actual “lived experiences” rather than creating contrived activities in the classroom like “shopping at the supermarket” or “conjugating the past perfect.” So, with the Newcomers class, we began asking the students about their lives. They told stories about their home countries, about their families, and about their transitions to the United States. The students’ stories were my first travels to Latin America.
TT: Indeed, being at home and teaching ESL can be like travel! So once you started actually leaving the country, what’s the story of one of the interesting travels you have undertaken?
K: While we were working with this class in Central Falls, Len received a Fulbright to study in Brazil as part of a teacher exchange. First a teacher from Brazil, Daniel Soares, visited Len’s classroom. We had dinner together one night and Daniel invited me to visit him in rural Brazil (Daniel was from the town of Inhumas in the state of Goais in the heart of the country). At the time, our organization, the ArtsLiteracy Project was working in several urban school districts in the United States, and I couldn’t find the time or see a reason to travel down to Brazil. Len returned to Brazil to teach, came back, and told me stories of his travels and experiences. Convinced, I took some vacation time and went down to Brazil with Len six months later.
What happened in Brazil on that first trip changed my life. We led workshops for students and teachers demonstrating how to integrate literacy and the arts in classrooms. In contrast to our New England winter, the weather in Brazil was warm, but the people were even warmer; our classes and workshops would often end with us all singing or dancing. The students and teachers were genuinely gracious, and “school” always spilled over into the homes where we would dance Forro, a regional Brazilian dance, or barbecue well into the night.
I have returned to Brazil fourteen times, and on the last trip we took with us twenty artists, students, and teachers from the United States to create a summer school in partnership with Daniel and his school in Brazil.
TT: 14 times?! Whoa! I understand, though– I LOVED traveling in Brazil! So, how have your travels impacted you as a teacher and in your career?
K: More profoundly than I ever imagined. I began teaching with very little knowledge of Latin America. I’d studied in England for a time and I majored in English and American literature, so in a sense I was much more focused on the English-speaking world.
After my first trip to Brazil I received a grant from the Rhode Island Foundation to travel to the countries where many of the students in Central Falls were from: Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. My desire grew to not just travel to other countries, but to actually live and teach in Latin America.
In Providence I met my wife, María del Mar Patrón Vázquez, who is from Merida, Yucatan, Mexico, and we moved to her hometown and opened a language school, community arts organization, and international education center called Habla: The Center for Language and Culture. We built Habla to offer teachers, teaching artists, and students the kind of international experience I had learned so much from in Brazil.
We now have several programs for teachers including the Habla Teacher Institute and the Habla Forum that allow teachers to visit for a short period of time and exchange ideas with other educators from Merida and from around the world. We also have a staff of teachers from the United States, Cuba, Spain, Australia, and England who have moved here to teach at Habla, and educators and artists who visit internationally for a short period of time to offer a course, talk, or workshop.
TT: So cool. I’d love to come participate at Habla sometime soon! Now, how have your travels impacted you as a person?
K: Living in Latin America, and now raising a family here, has made me much less of an individualistic person. When you walk into a shop here in Mexico you always greet everyone with a “Buenos Días,” and if you know them personally, even just a little, you give them a kiss on the cheek or a little hug. If someone stops by to visit you unannounced you drop what you are doing and spend time with your guest. There is a natural hospitality, a graciousness to daily life here, and that is one of the most important things I have learned, to be more open, something I particularly love about this culture. It makes living and working here a pleasure. My students always greet me with a smile when I walk into the classroom, and teaching here is one of my favorite parts of the day.
TT: Beautiful. What advice do you have for other teachers who are dreaming of travel, or travelers curious to teach?
K: Traveling for me happened very organically. I never chose a place and decided “I want to work there!” I let the currents of my professional work as well as my developing friendships guide me, and this has made all the difference. I believe that when we decide that we want to do work in other settings, we become open to the possibilities of what might be, and that openness will bring us in contact with the people we need to help us walk down that path we’ve chosen. There was a chain of important people who led me to Brazil and to Mexico that ended in deep friendships with first, Daniel in Brazil, and then my wife in Mexico.
Having a strong connection to someone who lives in another country allows you to build on the work that they already do. You become grounded locally, and for us as educators, this is the most important aspect of international work. None of us is so good at what we do that we can fly into a new place and become the solution to a given problem. Our work must always be collaborative, loving, and attentive to the smallest gestures felt, and words spoken around us. There is no question that when we work in another culture, we are the ones benefitting, and we must be humbly grateful for that.
TT: Thanks so much, Kurt! Readers, in addition to co-founding the ArtsLiteracy Project in Providence, RI, and Habla: The Center for Language and Culture in Merida, Mexico, Kurt has written with Eileen Landay a book about ArtsLiteracy’s work in the United States, Brazil, and Mexico called A Reason to Read: Linking Literacy and the Arts, published by Harvard Education Press. You can also connect with Habla on Facebook by clicking here.
So, what questions or comments do you have for this remarkable global educator?