Jenn Kirk’s Journey to Sturgis along Many Paths in the Spanish Speaking World (Summer 2014)

Faculty Profiles provide an opportunity to learn more about the lives and previous work experiences of Sturgis faculty.

By Jenn Kirk, Sturgis West Principal 
Costa Rica 1998 - 2000

Costa Rica 1998 – 2000

What are the elements that make up a trip, a journey, an adventure?  The motivations for travel are many:  to discover new things about other people and other cultures, to break out of routines, to find excitement in new experiences, and to have adventures.  Travel can provide an excellent vehicle for finding out about your values and what is important to you.  My journey to Sturgis began with a series of trips, many of them to destinations in the Spanish-speaking world.  The elements that make up each trip can be characterized by the reason I chose to go, the unexpected and challenging surprises that I encountered, and the many lessons I learned about life and about what I most value.

My most significant trips took me to Spain, Honduras, Costa Rica and two parts of Colombia. As a Spanish major in college, I studied abroad in Seville, Spain for one semester. Up until this point, my classroom experiences with Spanish had focused on reading and writing.  For the first time I had to speak the language! Immersed in a different culture and language for the first time in my life I was surprised to find out how much I loved it.

Tequcigslpa, Honduras 1997

Tegucigalpa, Honduras 1997

Although I was incredibly exhausted by the end of each day, not having realized how much more attentive I had to be in conversation in order to understand people, the excitement when I could successfully order a meal, or have a casual conversation was immense.  During this trip, I had the realization that fueled the rest of my journey: the real way to get to know another culture is to live in it – to acquire the language tools and immerse oneself, in order to understand and fully appreciate that culture.

I knew I wanted to go back to the Spanish speaking world.  Family friends connected me with the director of a boy’s orphanage in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.  My goal was to improve my Spanish skills while serving as a volunteer.  During the summer after my junior year, I spent two months living on the grounds of the orphanage.  I spent my mornings working in the laundry while the boys were in classes and the afternoons were free for me to play with the boys.  I was surprised by how quickly we connected.  A few weeks after my arrival, the director invited me to co-teach an English conversation class with 10 of the boys. I was able to connect with them in a more structured setting and learn how much fun language teaching can be, watching the students learn and take pride in their developing skills.

Chiva - Colombia

Chiva – Colombia

Another learning experience in Honduras involved the “colectivo” taxi. Private taxis can be expensive; to make a ride into the city more affordable, you get into a taxi and wait until it fills up.  Often it fills up quickly, but sometimes passengers had to wait for over an hour.  I learned that waiting is something you should expect to do, and the term “ahorita” while sounding like the word “ahora” meaning now, really meant a varied length of time.  The more relaxed notions of time in Honduras provided a lens into Latin culture and provided an interesting contrast to our American time sense.

After my semester in Spain and summer of volunteer service in Honduras, I returned to college to complete my degree and high school certification in Spanish.  However, I knew I wanted to return to the Spanish speaking world after graduating.  I was young and eager for an adventure, so when I was approached by one of my professors to consider teaching at a small school in Costa Rica, I jumped at the opportunity. I accepted a position as an assistant teacher in a 1st grade classroom. That first formal international teaching experience was at the Centro de Educación Creativa, a small, bilingual school in the cloud forest of Costa Rica. By bus, Monteverde was five hours north of the capital city of San Jose. The last two hours of the trip were on a winding dirt and rock road.

Classroom in Costa Rica 1998 - 2000

Classroom in Costa Rica 1998 – 2000

Six weeks into the school year came my first big surprise. The head teacher got sick and I was asked to assume the role of classroom teacher.  I had been certified as a high school teacher but now I found myself responsible for the general well-being and education of 20 six year olds.  It was an unexpected challenge and I had to learn ‘on the fly’.   I worked next door to a highly experienced 1st grade teacher who willingly shared her expertise with me.  It was my first experience with collaboration and I feel strongly that I would not have made it through that first year in the classroom without her.

There were other surprises in store for me there.  It was not unusual for a scorpion to scamper across the floor and send the kids screaming. I learned to hide my fear of these insects and find a way to calmly remove them from the classroom. A Tupperware container came in very handy.  A couple of times the kids discovered a sloth up in a tree that kept us outside for an extended lunch. During the rainy season, it was impossible to hear one another speak due to the din of the torrential rain on the tin roofs.

There were no janitors and when the “bodega” (storage facility) needed cleaning we all spent the weekend at school working on the project together.  The sense of community among the tight-knit staff, and our use of creativity to overcome the lack of resources made the experience both valuable and unforgettable.  Who knew that black beans were such an effective tool for teaching addition and subtraction?

Colombia 2004

Colombia 2001 – 2007

How did I choose to go on my next trip?  After two years working at the school, I decided I wanted to pursue education as a career so I returned to the U.S. for a Master’s program in Curriculum and Instruction at George Mason University. During my time back in the U.S., I missed the excitement of living abroad.  Six months later, I was contacted by a school in Colombia. They offered me a job as a classroom teacher.

The school was located in El Cerrejón, a small, coal mining town in La Guajira,  the  desert region of northern Colombia. The school was surrounded by a fence and had 24 hour security. “You’ll be safe there,” the director of the school assured me, recognizing that Colombia had a reputation for drug trafficking, kidnapping, and violence.   A month after I arrived, the Principal came into my classroom to say that a major terrorist attack had just taken place. I asked her to where we would be evacuated.  Her response was ironic, “No, the attack was not here – it was in New York.”

The tiny town consisted of one grocery store, two pools, one bowling alley, sport fields, a restaurant, a discoteca and a hot dog stand.  We were warned not to leave the mining town by road and so our only way out was a 50 seater plane that traveled to and from the city of Barranquilla on the Colombian coast. All the students lived within a mile of the school, with parents who worked at the mine. They had an hour and a half long break in the middle of the day to go home and have lunch (and a nap) with their families.  When my Colombian classroom assistant discovered that I went home and had lunch alone, she invited me to come home with her to have lunch with her family every day.  Spending time together with family, including brothers and sisters, cousins and aunts and grandparents, is highly valued in that part of the world and I learned to share that value.

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

After one year in El Cerrejón, I moved to Cali in search of a more metropolitan Colombian experience. Cali is a vibrant city known for its warm weather and for being the capital of salsa.  The hustle and bustle of the city, the excitement of navigating a new place and the possibility of the unexpected was exciting.  However, I also learned that I needed to be far more careful than I ever had before.

My job was teaching at an American school.  My students were from affluent Colombian families and the school never lacked for resources.   The school was surrounded by a fence.   Armed guards stood at the gate and some students arrived in armored vehicles.  My first experience of living in a challenging big city taught me some new survival skills.

This was certainly the physically most beautiful school where I have taught. The school’s campus was on 25 beautifully landscaped acres.  The weather is always warm and so the classroom only had three walls.  I took on a new challenge that year as a 4th grade teacher.  I met Lisa LoPresti-Hupp, who was my first real mentor teacher.

We arrived in Cali the same year and became fast friends.  As I learned more about her and her classroom, I realized she was doing something special.  She believed it was critical to create a sense of belonging and trust in your classroom before you could get the students involved in deep and collaborative learning. I realized that something had been missing, and now I was being given the tools to teach well.

She used a method called Tribes which she integrated into all parts of the learning experience.  The community circle became a central part of our classroom.  Our classroom agreements of Personal Best, Truthfulness, Respect, Active Listening and Trustworthiness provided the same kind of solid foundation for learning as the IB Learner Profile traits.  The community worked together to understand what was best for everyone, establish rules and agree to follow the rules they had developed.  This method provided a wonderful environment for learning.

I discovered Colombians are some of the happiest people you could ever hope to meet.  A gathering of Colombians almost inevitably ends in dancing.  One of my most powerful memories happened while riding home from school in a cab.  When we stopped for a light near a corner restaurant playing really loud salsa music, I noticed a man with a large wooden cart who made his living by collecting recyclables. He was dancing salsa right in the middle of the street.  He probably made only a few dollars a day, but his appreciation of the moment was evident in that dance.

Jenn Kirk and Peter Steedman

Jenn Kirk and Peter Steedman Sturgis West Atrium, 2014

Personal reasons brought me to Cape Cod after six years of living in Colombia.  I loved the natural beauty here, but mostly I wanted to be closer to my soon-to-be husband.  The biggest surprise waiting for me here was discovering Sturgis Charter Public School, an International Baccalaureate school right in the middle of Cape Cod. The adventure and challenges of “IB for All” beckoned.  I found a unique school that values community, provides a supportive learning environment and offers an educational program with an emphasis on cultural awareness and international-mindedness.

There have been so many things that I have learned here at Sturgis over the past seven years and there are sure to be many more to come.

My journey continues ….


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