Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Tom Bright – UK- England

I can’t remember exactly how I found CIS’ website. I was studying at university at home in the UK, and looking for a chance to be involved in language learning. There is no shortage of specially arranged programmes to students- companies promising to arrange all sorts of experiences in all kinds of locations. But when I read CIS’ website, I knew it was something special. It wasn’t a product being sold by a “voluntourism” company- it was the opportunity be involved in a social movement that empowers local people at the same time as extending links of solidarity across the world.

Tom and his Spanish Teacher, Vicenta
I had been interested in Latin American politics and history for a short while before, but knew only a little about El Salvador. El Salvador is not a country many people in the UK know much about. My friends and family mostly knew only about the gangs, or nothing at all. Some people thought that it was a dangerous trip for me to take, but I didn’t encounter any trouble in El Salvador. I was given a lot of good advice on how to be safe, and once I was accustomed to the city of San Salvador, felt comfortable. I did some reading before flying to El Salvador, but it was at CIS where I gained a more detailed understanding of the country’s history, because I was surrounded by knowledgeable and passionate people to learn from.

Staying with a host family during my stay was a great experience for three reasons. Firstly, it gave me plenty of opportunities to practice my conversational Spanish, secondly, it gave me the chance to understand and be involved in family life and culture in El Salvador, and thirdly my family were lovely, generous people, who were so kind and supportive to me.

I was a little younger than most of the people who had come to be involved in the English school- and I was very nervous about the responsibility of the role of facilitating a class. As the start of the teaching cycle grew closer, I started to think that perhaps I had taken on too much of a challenge, as I had no previous experience. But everyone at CIS- staff and volunteers, did so much to help me and make me prepare and feel much more calm. I was still a little nervous on the first evening of classes, but the friendly enthusiasm of the students relaxed me very quickly, as well as the support gained by sharing the experience with the other volunteers.
Tom and his English Class

Something else that helped me to feel more calm was that classes at CIS don’t operate with a traditional, rigid set up of an “expert” teacher and the students who just listen and follow. The classes are based on discussion- of society, politics, and ideas- and the content of the classes comes from the experiences of everyone attending. Students are split into classes by level of English, but the approach remains the same for all of them.

Planning classes was an interesting challenge. Each week I learnt more about what worked well, what didn’t, and what new ideas we could try. We had group conversations, presentations, music, role plays, and more. If you’re a creative person, then you’ll probably have lots of great ideas for activities. But if you aren’t, then that’s not a problem, as you’ll have lots of help from other volunteers with thinking up ideas. And you’ll probably surprise yourself with how much you can think up.

It’s important to give support with grammar- practising what’s already known, and introducing new grammar too, but volunteers at the English school at given a lot of help with this, so it isn’t something to be worried about. You’ll learn a lot about the grammar of your own language! And it will help you to get to relate to and understand grammar in Spanish.

Like the other English School volunteers, I took Spanish classes at CIS, where we had the opportunity to discuss El Salvador’s history and current social and political challenges at the same time as improving our Spanish speaking and comprehension. (They also help you with ideas of what you could include in your English class, and how to be an effective facilitator.)


These classes were a pleasure to be a part of- we talked about a range of historical and contemporary issues, and were encouraged to consider them in relation to our own experiences, and our own countries. Because I was at CIS for an eleven week teaching cycle, I met so many interesting people from different parts of the world during Spanish classes- as people visiting El Salvador come and join classes for a week, a month, or however long they are staying for.

You are placed in a class with others of a similar Spanish level to you, so you won’t need to worry about being left behind or not being helped to progress in your ability. At one time my class was just me and one other student, and one there were around ten of us. Both class sizes had their merits, but I remember that the most common number was three. The small class size is a huge help, as it allows you plenty of time to speak each day, and ensures that you get all the help you need. The atmosphere is always friendly and supportive- but intellectually stimulating at the same time. You’ll definitely look forward to the discussions in class, and without a doubt you’ll make very significant progress with your Spanish.

My time at CIS changed me, and was the most exciting time of my life. My life and its commitments make it difficult to return for the time being, but I think about El Salvador regularly and I hope I can come back to CIS soon. There’s so much I could write about here- taking a trip to Guatemala during a break in classes, visiting community groups and historical sites on day trips organised by CIS, all of the interesting people I met….. I can’t recommend it enough, and it doesn’t matter where you are from or what age you are- the friendship and solidarity between everyone involved in CIS is a wonderful thing which I will never forget.