Many teachers take a well-deserved break over the summer, even during the dog days, they are thinking about their classrooms or schools. For some, that means hitting the road in an attempt to further their education, enhance the classroom experience for their students, experience another culture, or some combination of all of those.
Judi Coffield, the director of admissions at St. Thomas More Academy in Magnolia, spent nearly three weeks in China, teaching natural science and geography to seventh- and eighth-grade students in English. Ariana Ciamaricone, a new English teacher at St. Elizabeth School, crossed the Atlantic Ocean to Birmingham, England, where she presented at an academic conference.
Being present helps
Coffield began her second trip to China on July 27. She was about five hours from Beijing by train, where she was one of six American educators selected by one of the agencies that helps bring international students to America. Her goal was to expose them to the America style of education and tell them more about St. Thomas More. The students were looking to improve their English-speaking skills; many Chinese students aspire to study in the United States.
Most of the Catholic high schools in the Diocese of Wilmington have had international students in the past, but their numbers have decreased, Coffield said. There are several reasons, including economic and political. She wanted to expose them to the possibilities at St. Thomas More.
“One of our goals is to have a presence in their country, to expose them to us, to our school. They can see a face, they can hear from us personally as opposed to through an agent about what our program has to offer,” she said.
Attending high school in the U.S. will help if they want to continue their education here. The students need a certain proficiency in English, and that is better accomplished by coming to the States.
Coffield works with a number of agencies to help recruit students, but the opportunity to visit herself is important.
“You have to have a presence there,” she said. “That shows them that you care, that you’re interested in them, that your’re serious about enrolling international students.”
She said the difference in educational philosophy between the two countries is stark. Chinese classrooms are crowded, with about 60 young people and one teacher in each. It is very much dominated by lectures and memorization, “then regurgitation, so they have to recall what the teacher said in exactly the same way the teacher said it.”
Coffield spent some time explaining that students in America are more engaged in the classroom. Culture plays a part. Asking questions of a teacher in China can be perceived as a sign of disrespect, as if the teacher was not prepared. And with the number of students, time for discussions or lab work is practically nonexistent.
“I purposely asked my students questions or challenged them because I want them to struggled with ideas and concepts and to clarify their thinking and articulate their thoughts, but that’s very foreign to them,” Coffield said.
In her class, the students had a grasp of basic English, but their academic vocabulary improved. They spent two weeks preparing for a presentation in front of a big audience on the water cycle and erosion.
Whether any of them end up in Magnolia in the next few years is impossible to say. But Coffield said both the school and the international students benefit from the experience.
“It’s more than numbers. It’s more than students in seats. It’s about creating a cultural diversity in your building and a global perspective on content.
“I think they bring a richness to the conversation. It also allows our students to see the benefits of being an American citizen, the freedoms we have.”
Also in July, Ciamaricone hopped on a plane to England, where she attended a conference hosted by the Poetics and Linguistics Association, of which she is a student member. She is taking a semester off from graduate school, where her concentration is on cognitive poetics.
“I presented on conceptual metaphors, which are sort of the overarching metaphor to everything we say,” she said recently at St. Elizabeth.
For example, people often use the phrases “Can I borrow some of your time,” or “You’ve wasted my time,” she said. The overarching metaphor is that time is money. At the conference, Ciamaricone examined some of the themes in William Shakespeare’s narrative poem “The Rape of Lucrece.”
“I looked at conceptual metaphors that helped to conceptualize or explain the rape within the text and how that impacted or reflected on early modern English society,” she said.
The 15-minute presentation included a slide show and a question-and-answer session. One person at the conference talked about the song “Hey Ya,” which most people know as a catchy upbeat tune, but it is really a breakup song. Ciamaricone also attended a keynote address on digital narratives and reader response theory.
“It was really informative for what I like but also for bringing it into the classroom a little bit,” she said.
Aside from the academic aspect of the trip, Ciamaricone was thrilled to get to see Shakespeare’s home and his wife’s home and to be in his hometown, Stratford-upon-Avon. That included a tour of the Royal Shakespeare Company Theatre.
She teaches British and American literature at St. Elizabeth and has hinted at some of her linguistics background with her students. For her first year, however, she said she’lll stick with what the school has laid out for her. In the future, she would like to incorporate some of her specialty into her curriculum.
Ciamaricone said she reached a point in her education at West Chester University where she discovered how interested she was in linguistics and narrative styles and wished she had been introduced to it in high school.
“That’s sort of what I want to give to the students, the opportunity to kind of know,” she said. “Maybe not dialed into it, but at least sort of understand that if you are interested in this sort of thing, or reading and analyzing text, that there is this whole world out there.”
Not all of what she experienced in Birmingham or in graduate school will apply at the high school level, she acknowledges. But she can tell her students that she was at Shakespeare’s home, something they can keep in mind as they go through some of his sonnets or “Macbeth,” which they are currently reading.
Maybe, Ciamaricone said, she can challenge them “to step out of their comfort zones with texts and their analysis of it and perception of it.”