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Reflections in the Water

Christine D’Aquanni, ES EAL Teacher, American Overseas School of Rome, Italy


A few of the students and I on the streets of Xochistlahuaca

Among the photos of family and friends, there is a postcard from Mexico that hangs above my desk at the American Overseas School of Rome. Often, my students will notice it and comment that they too, have visited Mexico. Despite the distance from our international school in Italy, several of our students have been fortunate to swim in the warm waters of Cancun or Cabo San Lucas, have tasted the spicy flavors of tacos or enchiladas. Some have even walked among the ancient ruins of the Aztecs or the Mayans.

There are many other students who have only heard of Mexico and its rich culture and history. They delight in asking me questions about my prior adventures while studying and teaching in various areas of Mexico, and I relish in sharing my passion for a country that has given me so much as both a teacher and human being.


An elementary school in Xochistlahuaca

For the second summer in a row, I’ve had the opportunity to travel to the small mountainous town of Xochistlahuaca (soh-cheestlah- WAH-kah), Mexico, where I’ve participated and presented in professional development workshops with local teachers. Xochistlahuaca is a small town in the state of Guerrero in southern Mexico. The majority of people are Amuzgo, an indigenous group that has maintained many pre-Hispanic aspects of their culture, including language and dress. The native language is Amuzgo or Ñomndaa, as the people call it. It means, “water language” or “the word of the water.”


Second grade students on a nature walk

Water is a resurfacing theme in the Xochistlahuaca. There is a stream running through the town, and nearby, there are waterfalls and natural swimming holes where the local children wade in the summertime. When it rains in Xochistlahuaca, it pours, giving the tropical plants and rich soil the moisture they need to grow the juicy mangos and other fruits and vegetables that thrive there. Xochistlahuaca is a natural paradise.


Teachers on the last day of the workshop in Xochistlahuaca

Since 2010, the schools in Xochistlahuaca and in the surrounding towns have been developing a dual language immersion program unique to Mexico. The project is called Proyecto 50-50, Guerrero. Before the project began, the local schools provided most academic instruction in Spanish, only using Amuzgo in first and second grade and as an occasional tool to aid comprehension, even though it is the majority mother-tongue language.

To boost student achievement and revitalize the language and culture of the Amuzgo community, teachers chose to structure their schools’ bilingual program after the researchbased model of dual immersion started in Canada, though it is now used in many schools in the United States. Characteristic of dual immersion programs, students in 21 elementary schools in Xochistlahuaca now learn academic content in two languages: students spend half of their day learning in Spanish, and the other half of the day fully immersed in the Amuzgo language. The goal for all students is bilingualism and biculturalism, so each language is given the same amount of attention and value.

Dr. Joan Marie Feltes, the coordinator of the project, has organized professional development workshops for the past five summers, supporting the local teachers in their pursuit of a successful dual immersion program. They are able to do so with the support of the National Institute of Indigenous Languages (INALI), the Sertull Foundation, the Research Institute for the Development of Education (INIDE) at the Universidad Iberoamericana, the Faculty of Architecture at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), and other local resources.

In July of this year, I was one of the experienced dual immersion teachers to travel to Xochistlahuaca for the summer workshop. We spent two weeks in the town and at the local school, sharing our passion for language learning with over 100 teachers from elementary schools participating in the project. This year the theme for the workshop was “Caring for the Environment.” We prepared and taught science lessons to the local students in Spanish, while modeling best teaching practices for second language learning. The local teachers sat around the classroom, “fishbowl” style, and observed the lessons. After each lesson, the local teachers had the opportunity to reflect on what they had seen, ask questions, and discuss implications for their own teaching practice. We provided different ways to build background at the beginning of a lesson or unit, strategies to encourage participation and interaction among all students, and tips for making academic content more comprehensible.

With limited access to the Internet and school supplies, we prepared our science lessons using materials that could be found in nature or in the streets. My second grade students conducted an evaporation experiment utilizing water from the nearby stream and empty plastic bottles that were left on the sidewalk. Another class created their own water filters and explored the positive impact that trees have on water quality.

At the end of the two weeks, we were showered with hugs and handmade gifts as we said our farewells to the community. Both teachers and students thanked us for taking the time to visit and reminded us that their casa would always be our casa, too. As we drove away from Xochistlahuaca, I flipped through the journal that I had kept while I was there. It was filled with excited scribbles of notes and thoughtful reflections about what I had observed and experienced, both in and out of the classroom.

While the gifts are dear souvenirs that will always remind me of the warm and colorful Amuzgo people, it is the exchange of conversations about teaching and learning that are invaluable. We tell our students all of the time that the best way to learn something is to teach it to others. Sharing my favorite teaching strategies with other educators has given me more understanding and confidence in my own classroom. Having other teachers observe my teaching and being open to suggestions and modifications gives me a different perspective on my practice, providing me with the opportunity to reflect and improve.

In the short time that I was in Xochistlahuaca, I learned a few words in Ñomndaa, the language of the water. One of the words that I will never forget, is quial’ua: “thank you.”

Published in ISS NewsLinks: Volume XXXII Number 1

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