Tuesday, June 18, 2013

One June I was invited down to the Dominican Republic to be a keynote speaker at their convention of EFL/ESL teachers. One could say that this was a high point of my career, in that I was recognized as a leader in the field of integrating technology in the EFL/ESL classroom; at the same time, it was a low point in my career, if you consider the quality of several variables, including my knowing what I was talking about, my fitting my message to the audience that was receiving it; my actually having a command over the technology I was showing and using; my being comfortable in an environment with a large population of very critical, very smart teachers. In all of these respects I was somewhat failing; I could not expect them to invite me back. On the other hand, I try to remember that they spent a good bit of money getting me down there, and putting me up for a week (in both Santiago and Santo Domingo), and I hope that what I did for them was at least partly useful.

We started in Santiago, which was high in the mountains in the center of the country, and had an English center which hosted us; some very nice people worked here and befriended us quickly. On tours around Santiago we were fed well and I noticed that there were a lot of baseball fans there; American baseball was often on television (in restaurants) and people knew the teams and players, and wanted to talk about it. My co-presenter, S.G., came from California and planned a presentation on cell phones, but was unable to turn hers on without incurring hundreds of dollars in roaming fees, and the one she requested from the presenters (a cheap local version) didn't arrive in time, or had some complications in the process of paying for it. On my end, things I planned on presenting with didn't work, because of mac/pc differences, or just online capability; I don't remember; it may have been that it required Flash. We were both in a kind of jam.

It was very hot and steamy, but there was a limitless supply of fresh mangoes, papayas, and other exotic fruit. I always felt sweaty and unable to function well; I also had problems at home when I called Illinois at night, and these problems worried me during the day. I would dress up and speak as well as I could about the value of using technology: blogs, speaking programs, different things that I'd done. In general people were technologically astute, but their institutions provided far less support than ours; teachers shared one computer, generally, and did not expect their students to see something that was put online. You have to work with what you have, I'd tell them. Show us how, they'd say, or, hah! There was a communication gap.

Sometimes the communication gap got worse just as we spoke to people who should have been most able to communicate with us, namely, the people who ran the center. They were, in effect, our sponsors, and they were extremely nice to us, yet we often didn't understand each other, or had differences in the way we heard things. It's interesting to see the wide variety of conditions that people teach English under, worldwide, and one of the things I had to adjust to was merely being in the middle of a situation in which learning English is political in nature, it's a stand in favor of leaning toward the power elite or the ruling classes. People never say that, but you get echoes of it as they describe Dominican history or the history of the relations of the US with the various islands in the area. I encouraged them to use English to document the beauty of the island, the traditional stories of the people, the background of baseball players, etc., online. I tried to find ways in which they could use online opportunities to speak more English with the people they would find online. In my keynote speech itself my own technology wasn't working well, and I ended up showing a youtube our class had made using my own banjo song as background. People looked at me with their jaws open, I think. It's possible they had never heard the banjo. We were way out in the country.

In Santo Domingo we met the leaders of the ESL/EFL organization and had much finer quarters, more mangoes, endless papayas, fresh coffee. We were given tours of the old part of the city and saw statues of conquistadores, some of whom they said were evil. They had a fondness for Columbus, though, because he'd landed on their island first. They had mixed feelings about the conquistadores in general and I don't think I heard everything; nor did I feel entitled to ask, really. The sea crashed against breakwaters in our area of town; there was a kind of promenade. But it was sweltering, again, and one could best walk there at night or in the mornings. At one point they took me out someplace where there was live music and got me to try to dance. I really liked this; it was a classic Dominican place, with lots of good food, where everyone was having a good time, and it didn't really matter that I was a bad dancer. They were a fun-loving people, and you could tell, there were lots of hard times, no money, companies coming in and taking their resources and/or their cheap labor, struggles to make a living in any way. Haiti, next door, was worse, and lots of Haitian immigrants ended up coming over, learning Spanish as well as Haitian and in some cases English too, and living with a certain kind of discrimination, I'm sure. It was too much to learn in a week. Exhausted and way too hot, I left, but was glad I'd done it, and met the people I had. I tried to keep a record of what I'd done online, and, though it occasionally gets mangled by computer changes, it's still there.

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