Teachers from Uruguay visit NIU, observe U.S. counterparts in DeKalb, Elgin schools

Analia Piantanida and Valentina González
Analia Piantanida and Valentina González

Valentina González and Analia Piantanida rarely see cultural diversity in the homogenous society of Uruguay, where both are English teachers in middle schools and high schools.

Coming to Illinois as part of the NIU College of Education’s Uruguay Fulbright Teachers Program, however, has provided just that picture.

“I really like how teachers here value diversity, and how they incorporate that into their classrooms, into their lessons, how much they pay attention to that,” says González, who teaches in public and private schools in Maldonado.

“We don’t have that in Uruguay,” she adds, “but it’s wonderful to see how there are so many different cultures – students from many different parts of the world, with many different realities – and how they all manage to combine them all into a classroom, and are able to plan a lesson where all those differences are taken into account.”

González and Piantanida were among 21 teachers from Uruguay who spent two weeks observing and shadowing local teachers in DeKalb Community Unit District 428 and Elgin School District U-46.

Selected from nearly 275 applicants, they received a comprehensive introduction to American culture, history and educational systems from Spanish-speaking teachers in bilingual and dual-language classrooms.

Elgin U-46
Elgin U-46

“I wanted to come to try to see a different reality, and to be able to expand my knowledge on education to have a different perspective,” González says, “and to see what I could take from this experience to apply in my classroom and to the way I teach.”

Here, they gained access to “best practices” in U.S. bilingual programs and glimpsed a variety of instructional methods and approaches in their respective content areas. They also delivered presentations on the culture and educational system of their homeland to the local teachers.

Meanwhile, they spent two days receiving professional development on the NIU campus on topics such as differentiated instruction for students with learning disabilities, children’s books, socioemotional learning, U.S. language policy and urban graffiti.

James Cohen, an associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction; and Stephen Tonks, an associate professor in the Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations; and the Office of External and Global Programs planned the program.

“They had a fabulous time learning our ways of teaching,” Cohen says. “Everywhere in the world, teaching is different. There are similarities, of course, but it’s different – the way the kids are interacting with the teacher, and vice versa.”

Cohen laid the groundwork during his own Fulbright visit last summer to Uruguay, where he saw a variety of ways English is taught from big cities to small, remote villages with no Internet access.

DeKalb School District 428
DeKalb School District 428

“I’m very much into cultural exchanges: people from different countries learning and experiencing different cultures and learning about each other,” Cohen says. “I’ve been to several countries in my life, and traveled all over the world several times, and the thing that I’ve always learned is that I learn more about myself every single time I go to a different country.”

For many of the 21 Uruguayan teachers, the Feb. 5 arrival at O’Hare marked the first time they’d left their homeland. Many had never even visited their own capitol city of Montevideo, where they boarded an airplane bound for Miami.

During three days spent in Chicago, they shivered in Midwestern cold, touched snow and braced themselves against strong winds. They explored the Museum of Science and Industry, wandered through Millennium Park and cheered for the Chicago Bulls against the New Orleans Pelicans.

They dined at a Portillo’s. They loaded plates with American comfort foods at an Old Country Buffet. They savored Chicago pizza – in Chicago!

And, as part of a bus tour of the Windy City, the group scaled the king of Illinois skyscrapers.

“One of the teachers had a video of himself up on top of Willis Tower,” Cohen says, “and I heard him speaking to his two girls – his two young children – saying, ‘The tallest building in our city is seven stories. I’m standing on the 103rd floor of a building!’ The two girls were laughing, and he was almost crying, in tears. To be able to provide experiences like that for other people is really heartening.”

But the main purpose of their journey to the United States began Feb. 8, the first day of professional development.

The Uruguayan teachers listen to a presentation on socioemotional learning.

“The program is important for a number of reasons, including that it provides opportunities for the teachers from Uruguay and teachers here to learn from each other, as far as teaching strategies, curriculum across domains and ages, relating to the students, socioemotional learning and more,” Tonks says.

“The Uruguayan teachers also learn about what life as a teacher is like in this area. All the while, the educators and students here get to learn about culture and education in Uruguay,” he adds. “All this adds up to changed perspectives on teaching and the world, quite frankly.”

Piantanida, who teaches in Canelones, enjoyed gaining motivational strategies from the DeKalb High School and Huntley Middle School teachers she shadowed.

“I’ve learned about encouraging students, giving them the opportunity to, for example, make good choices,” she says. “It’s a kind way to keep them on track. You put the responsibilities on your students, rather than telling them, ‘Don’t do this. Don’t do that.’ ”

Elgin U-46
Elgin U-46

She also was impressed by their reading.

“I’ve been amazed by the amount of books students read here in the classroom,” she says. “Through reading, they are able to expound. They use their imagination, and they are able to use their critical thinking skills. I’ve been really surprised because, in Uruguay, students don’t read much.”

While Uruguay lacks the “wonderful” educational resources of the United States, González adds, the teachers saw “simple things” they could borrow for their classrooms: “The amount of books they read, how much they value communication and reflection – that’s something that I would definitely like to apply in my lessons back in Uruguay.”

One of those practices is “bridging,” Cohen says.

Stephen Tonks (left) and James Cohen (right) join Patricia Vargas, Program and Finance officer for Fulbright Commission Uruguay.
NIU College of Education faculty members Stephen Tonks (left) and James Cohen (right) join Patricia Vargas, Program and Finance officer for Fulbright Commission Uruguay.

Languages are important in Uruguay, where everyone studies English and Spanish while many also study German, Chinese, Portuguese, Italian or other foreign tongues.

Students who hear a concept in their native Spanish and then again in English can see similarities and make connections, he says.

“By bridging those two languages, it creates more comprehensible input, and the students say, ‘Oh, that’s logical. That makes sense,’ ” he says. “Boom! They can speak that concept in both languages.”

Mastering dual-language fluency is an important aspiration for several of the Uruguayan teachers as well.

“Several of them stated they want to come here to study English,” Cohen says. “Several others expressed an interest to get their master’s degrees with us.”

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