For most of us, moving to Merida brings with it the need to learn at least a second language, Spanish, and possibly the desire to learn the third local language, Mayan. We find ourselves surrounded by a population that shares the need to learn a second language… in their case, English. As inhabitants of a modern 21st Century world, the need to be at least bilingual is palpable and grows stronger daily.
We are all familiar with the logic of language (grammar) and the mechanics of tacking one word on after another (syntax), and have probably all sat through endless numbers of boring learning experiences. At this stage in our lives (heck, at ANY stage in our lives…) and with everything we know as a species, shouldn’t learning be fun? Easier? More interesting?
We think so, and apparently, we aren’t alone. It has pleased us immensely to discover that there is a new language school here in Merida that cares about teaching language using methods that are cutting edge, intelligent and entertaining… methods that appeal to each learner’s individual humanity.
HABLA – The Center for Language and Culture is the name of that new school, and María del Mar (Marimar) Patrón Vázquez and Kurt Wootton are the founders and co-directors. Marimar and Kurt also happen to be married, sharing both their personal and professional lives.
Marimar, who was born and raised in Merida, is a PhD candidate in the Hispanic Studies Department at Brown University. Her focus is the integration of literature into the daily life of communities. At Brown, she received the prestigious Presidential Award for her teaching of Spanish to university students. Her unique approach to teaching involves literature and the culture of language.
Kurt is one of the founding directors of the ArtsLiteracy Project at Brown University, where he piloted and researched approaches for urban schools to develop students’ literacy through the arts. Kurt has worked on multi-year education initiatives in several U.S. cities and he frequently travels to give keynote speeches for educational conferences. His work has been widely published.
Our interviewers are Doug Tanoury and Robin Young, part time residents of Merida, Yucatan and Detroit, Michigan. When they are here in Merida, they have been taking classes at HABLA. They recently spent time with Marimar and Kurt outside of the classroom, and they bring to Yucatan Living an interview with the founders of this exciting new addition to our community. There are many interesting links at the end of the interview, and we, as always, welcome your comments.
Why Habla? Why Now?
YL: How would you describe HABLA and its role here in Merida now?
Kurt: The primary goal of HABLA is to help people, across cultures, communities, and international borders, sharpen and refine their voice in both new languages and new art forms. Our primary vehicle for doing this is the fusing of literature, the arts, and language development. We see HABLA as a dynamic space, where people from around the world gather, create, and talk with each other. We facilitate these interactions through free talks and workshops for the public, a range of language and arts courses as well as a dynamic, interactive website.
Marimar: The center offers a space for the exchange of ideas between educators, teachers, artists, youth, and whoever is interested in promoting change and development in the field of education, arts and literature. We bring together extraordinary people who care about the future of education and focus on teaching languages in ways that are meaningful to our students: we see our students as creators who create with language.
HABLA’s role in Merida is key for this change to happen, especially now that the standardization of education is gaining popularity amongst government officials here in Mexico. HABLA is a space where we can teach in a free environment, focusing on the students and the learning experience. It is also a key place to exchange best practices and methodologies between local educators and artist and the international community.
YL: Can you tell me the evolution and history of HABLA, how it came to be?
Kurt: Ten years ago, when I was a professor in the United States, a group of colleagues and I started an organization at Brown University called the ArtsLiteracy Project. It focused on how the arts – theater, visual art, dance, and music – might contribute to literacy development, particularly in urban public schools. Since many of our students in urban schools are from countries around the world, and speak many languages, we began to ask questions about how the arts can contribute to language development as well as literacy in the primary language. We established a lab school on Brown’s campus to explore some of these ideas and then created another in rural Brazil to further research how the arts can develop languages.
Marimar and I then conceived of an international educational space where we could not only continue to explore how the arts contribute to language development but also how we could create a center that would help leverage educational change on an international level.
Marimar: I came into this program 3 years ago, because I was becoming increasingly frustrated with the isolation of the academic environment in my field of Hispanic Studies. There were lengthy discussions in many of my classes that there is not a large reading culture in Latin American countries. So I asked myself, ‘why do societies with a long tradition of storytelling have such poor reading numbers among youth and adults?’ I started to do research in the way we teach reading and literature, and around the questions of multicultural and multilingual reading. This put me in contact with Brown University’s’ ArtsLiteracy Project and from there one question led to another and brought us, Kurt and myself, to open this center in Merida.
YL: It is a big world, so can you tell me why you selected Merida as the site for HABLA?
Marimar: We selected Merida because I know the place and mainly because I love the city and its rich cultural roots. I was also drawn by the new cultural and artistic life that is being brought back to the city, and of course, Merida is my hometown. I have family here, a long history, and many attachments to it! I think Merida is a fertile place where things can happen; there is magic in its roots and its people. Finally, and importantly, because we believe that classrooms should be places of community, and Merida and its people know the real meaning of community life!
Kurt: We also considered the United States and Brazil, but chose Merida because our work focuses on interchanges across the Americas. We want to bring people together from South America and North America to exchange ideas and ways of teaching. Merida is an ideal location because it is located to a certain degree in the middle of the Americas. Perhaps most importantly, Marimar was born here and her family lives here, so we were moving somewhere to establish an organization with local roots. Given the fact that we are dedicated to promoting educational reform, this is very important to us.
YL: How did you find the building that HABLA is in and how extensive were the changes to it?
Marimar: The search for the perfect place took us a long time. We were looking for a place with gardens, big classrooms, and gallery space: a place where people would feel happy creating and exchanging ideas. We also wanted our school to provide easy access for people from different parts of the city. Then, we saw the perfect house, with a big obstacle: the house had already been sold. We kept looking until one day, three months later, we were told the deal fell through and the house was available again. As soon as Kurt saw it (I had been to the house before as a little girl,) he held my hand and said, “This is it!” The following Tuesday we signed the documents. It was like magic, we could not believe it! We had it! The remodeling process was another story; we went through a lot, as many of you know what it takes to do construction work!
Kurt: We looked at buildings for nine months. We were amazed by both the great location and the size. HABLA really is a place with everything. Each classroom is well lit and looks out into big trees and gardens. We have a large open space for exhibitions and performances and a separate building for kids programs. And the outdoor space is large and expansive.
Our school is really a lab school. Educators come from around the world (and locally) for conferences and courses, so we really wanted to show how a school could be different. We wanted to build a school that would welcome visitors and that would have large, well-lit spaces for learning. Attention to architecture and design is a very important part of our work.
YL: How is HABLA different from other schools that teach languages?
Kurt: There are many different ways of teaching language, all around the world, and there are many language schools in Merida. Since all people learn differently, it is important that the language learner find a school that is the right fit for them. Our approach to teaching values three core principles: building community, reading literature, and creating. We do not use a textbook at all.
The research in language learning clearly indicates these three important points:
- Language learning is a social act. People need to learn a language because they want to communicate with other people. That is why we place community first. Our classrooms need to be places where people feel comfortable talking with each other. Where they can laugh, share stories, and talk about their lives.
- Reading is critical for language learning. Many schools do not place reading in the center of learning. Rather they emphasize structured worksheets and textbooks. These offer you the feeling of making progress in the language. You can reach the end of the textbook and you feel like you’ve accomplished something. It’s not the most effective way for most people to learn language, because it puts all the emphasis on grammatical structures. When we encounter vocabulary words in a reading, we see them in an authentic context, and over time, we begin to acquire them. We read poems, short stories, and articles and our students write their own poems and stories. We spend a good deal of time in classrooms talking to each other about life. We learn much more than language, we learn about each other, as well as a range of art forms from the culture.
- Learning language for us is not mechanistic, but rather it is creative. Language for us has aesthetic qualities. It is why both Marimar and I studied literature. We love words and playing with words. Language learning can be just as creative. The excitement for us in teaching and learning is helping our students play with the language and have fun with it.
Marimar: I believe that the biggest difference is that we see our students as creators. We base our teaching in helping our students find the words to describe their world, to tell their stories, and to express their ideas. Although we follow a grammar curriculum, we do not base our classes on a book. We do not go chapter by chapter, following a pre-determined set of grammar and vocabulary. We believe this limits and predetermines what our students are able or not able to tell us about themselves. Our methodology focuses on three key principles: building community, reading literature (short stories, essays, articles, poems, etc) and creating.
We believe that language learning (and this is backed up by current research) should be a social act. We also feel that reading is critical for language development, and that learning a language is a creative and critical act. Therefore, we create in our classroom a learning experience in which our students play with the language. We give them space to tell their stories, to tell us about themselves, to get to know each other, and to give a personal meaning to the vocabulary and grammar structures they use. We believe that the classroom should be a space of joy in which students have fun while they learn, where students talk about things that interest them, and not about things that are predetermined by a textbook.
Living and Changing in Merida
YL: You both have had a remarkable amount of change in your lives over the past year or two. What has been the greatest change?
Marimar: I think that the greatest change has been my relationship with Merida. I came back to Yucatan after doing a major in literature at the Universidad de las Americas-Puebla, working for the Department of Culture in Puebla, and completing a PhD at Brown University in Hispanic Studies. Although I never stopped coming back during the holidays and summer, I feel that now I come back with a lot to offer the community, and, at the same time, I have a lot to learn from this community that never stops surprising me.
Kurt: The greatest change for me has been leaving my job at Brown University to move here to Merida and open HABLA. Brown was a very comfortable place in many ways. I spoke the language fluently, I had regular classes of students, there were quite a few resources, financial and intellectual, to call on. Moving to another country is in many ways like starting over again. It has been a wonderful adventure.
YL: What has not changed?
Kurt: My relationship with Marimar has been a strong foundational base from the United States to here. Also I love teaching, both here and there. Teaching adults, kids, and teenagers here in the Yucatan has been a real joy for me. Teaching has been a consistent theme throughout my life. I have now taught in rural Brazil, at Brown University, in suburban New Hampshire, in urban Providence, in rural Ohio, and here. I feel like a jazz musician going through different stages of musical development. I keep making the music with different people and in different places. l learn every time I step into a classroom.
Marimar: Many things have not changed. I’d say that the most important two are my love of teaching language and literature, and the fun I have had building this project with Kurt (and there is still a lot to do!)
YL: We can imagine that working with your spouse confers special blessings and challenges. What has been your experience?
Kurt: We both bring a different set of skills to the table. It has been quite amazing to work with Marimar and get to know a different side of her. She is a wonderful Spanish teacher, and for the first time, I have been able to take her Spanish class and be one of her students! I was also impressed with the way she managed the search for and then the remodeling of the school. We do bring the work home with us, so it sometimes seems like we are working nearly all the time. In August, we look forward to getting away for a bit and taking a vacation.
Marimar: Kurt is the kind of person that can make things happen! He is great at bringing people together, at facilitating exchanges and he has a great aesthetic sense in terms of teaching and the work the students do. Working with him has been a great experience, I feel that I am learning a lot, he keeps the energy flowing and best of all, he makes all this work fun!
YL:What have you found most challenging about your life and work here?
Marimar: Learning to be patient and let things have their own rhythm while at the same time pushing things to make them happen! Life here has a different rhythm, and it is not a bad or a good thing, it is just different. When creating a melody, a song, a poem, various rhythms communicate. It is like improvisation in jazz. That has been the most challenging thing here, making different rhythms work together to create a melody.
Kurt: Certainly the international recession has been the most difficult aspect about opening a school these days. There simply is not as much money out there, in the non-profit world, or in terms of fundraising, as there used to be. Or as much money for families to pay for school.
YL: What do you enjoy most about your life and work here?
Kurt: I love the people in Mexico, Marimar’s family, the people on the street, the teachers and staff that work at our school. People here have a natural warmth and kindness that I think makes this an incredible place to live.
Marimar: The people we have encountered by developing HABLA. We have been surrounded by very creative people. Working with them has made everything fun and exciting. Our lawyer and realtor Julio Mimenza, our architect Miguel Sosa, our designer Lucy Alcalá, our web designer Carlos Escalante, our teacher Nayeli Jiménez and our intern Amy Lehrburger have made this journey a beautiful and rewarding one. Also, and very important, both of our families have been a great help and offered constant encouragement.
YL: If you could change one thing about your life or work, what would you change and how would you change it?
Marimar: I think I am being honest when I say that I would not change a thing. Maybe I would have started this work earlier in life, but then again, I believe that all my experiences led me to where I am now. I am having a lot of fun in this journey, and if there is something that does not come out the way we wanted it,
Kurt and I talk about it and, since this is an independent project, we can always change it! It is essential to never ignore the fact that this is also a learning experience for both of us, so we also develop ourselves not only as directors of this project, but as teachers and as cultural agents.
Kurt: Absolutely nothing! Everything is possible. We are conceiving of a course this summer that will involve both local and internationally visiting students between the ages of 8-11 called Spaces. It will explore through different artistic mediums the spaces we live, work, and play in.
YL: Is there any particular time that you can look back on and identify as a turning point in your life?
Marimar: There is more than a just one. I can now tell you two. One moment includes many when I was still taking classes for my PhD and reading essays about how writers conceive of reading. None of them talked about reading as literary analysis, or asked the questions about arguments and main characters. Fuentes, Paz, Monsivais, Poniatowska, Gimferrer, Borges, Reyes, and many more saw reading as an act that connects to life, as a creative act that calls for a creative response. The second moment was when I got to know the work of the ArtsLiteracy project, and I got to know its director!
Kurt: There are many moments, and I hope there will be many more! I first visited Brazil to work with educators and students in a rural town in the center of the country. I spent two weeks working with students in schools and leading workshops with teachers, helping them to make their teaching of language and literacy more dynamic. Then I spent two weeks reading literature with students and teachers, participating in a variety of performance activities, writing original poems and stories, and we created several performances for schools and communities. We were working in the poorest communities and with public schools. On the last night I was there, I started to go to bed about midnight, and then I heard the sound of singing and guitars coming up the street. Many of the students and teachers I worked with surrounded the house with guitars, and sang traditional Brazilian songs. We then had a BBQ and partied all night. I have been back to Brazil many times since and we have built a lab school for teaching language through the arts there. That was certainly a turning point for me.
YL: What is it about the arts that you find most compelling?
Kurt: When we were working with the architects to design the building we decided to put the word “create” in the front entrance. Parents, students, and our teachers, see the word every day when they come into the building. They might all have different interpretations about what it means, but overall it sends the same message: This is a place where we make things. We make things with language and the widest range of possible materials. Our teachers design and develop original curriculums. We make events, workshops, and conferences. We have a broad interpretation of the word and it influences all of the work we do from the administrative to the teaching in classrooms.
Marimar: The process of creating something puts into play many different elements of oneself, as well as many different kinds of intelligence and sentiments. It is in this process that we are most interested in as educators and as teaching artists. Believe me, as a teacher one gets to see the development of a student, the journey in which he or she is creating something, and it is the most beautiful and enriching experience of all.
YL: In your own educational experience, were you adequately exposed to the arts?
Marimar: Yes I was, especially to literature. My dad always encouraged us to read; he loved the Emilio Salgari stories, the stories of the Three Musketeers! My grandma Trino always told us stories about the town she grew up in. Literature as a kid was something fun, a new world, and I owe that sentiment to my parents and my grandparents.
Kurt: Yes, very much so. Theater was a big part of my public high school in Indiana and I had a wonderful theater teacher Andy Lindauer, and I am still in contact with him.
YL: What role do you think the arts play in life today?
Kurt: Richard Florida in his book The Rise of the Creative Class (see link at the end of this interview) begins with the sentence, “Powering the great ongoing changes of our time is the rise of human creativity as the defining feature of economic life.” He claims we are moving into a “creative age” where those who wield the political and economic power in the society are those that have the ability to create new and original work. In a recent study about the artistic lives of Nobel Laureate scientists, it was found that they were 25 times as likely to sing, dance, or act as compared to average scientists. We feel the arts are playing an increasingly critical role in society, helping us to see the world in different ways, and fostering a range of ways for us to communicate with each other across cultures, time, and space.
Marimar: I believe the arts have a critical and powerful role nowadays; the arts help us to be creative. We need to explore ways in which we as individuals can solve the issues of today. The people who are thinking outside the box and that are proposing new ways of dealing with the environmental, social, cultural and economic issues are people who are very creative.
The critic Edward Said in his posthumous book writes that the arts let us experience other people and other times, and help us broaden our understanding of ourselves, our communities, and other communities and times in history. Most importantly, the arts let us express ourselves, opening all the potential we have as human beings.
YL: What have you found to be the most valuable tool in teaching language?
Marimar: I think that the most valuable thing about teaching and learning a language is the fact that language is a social and creative act. Everybody has stories and ideas, so the key is to provide the space for students to find the words to tell their stories and to express their ideas, connecting life with language! We are all storytellers. This is the main reason why we do not follow a chapter-by-chapter curriculum based on a textbook at our school. We want to free our students from predetermined and limiting content and grammar structures and help them to struggle with language at the same time they are creating with it.
Kurt: It is impossible to separate a specific “tool” from the rest. Language learning is a complex act, and is different for every person, so it is most important to employ all the tools we can and create the right mix for the learners in the classroom. It seems to me quite a bit like the art of cooking. If you are making a stew, it is impossible to point out one ingredient as the most important. It is crucial that all of the ingredients work in a balanced harmony to produce the desired result.
YL: What does a normal day at HABLA involve? Can you describe your typical day?
Kurt: Our days are different depending on the time of year. Today Marimar went to teach a class at 9:00am on the Arts and Literature for an international college group visiting here from Centre College in Danville, KY. She is teaching the class in Spanish and they are focusing on the book Sol, Piedra y Sombras (Sun, Stone, and Shadows), an anthology of Mexican short stories. Afterwards, we returned to the office and dealt with getting the word out about international programs. I had a conference call with Florida Atlantic University about a visit we will make soon to give talks and workshops about Radical Ways to Rethink Language Education and Fusing Literacy and the Arts: Best Teaching Practices Across the Americas. We stopped for lunch from about 2-4pm.
Then we had our HABLA Kids class in English from 4-5:30pm with our 5-8 year olds. At night, the adults came for English classes (it was both our Basic and Intermediate classes). The kids read a story ‘Sylvester and the Magic Pebble’, participated in a pebble scavenger hunt, then painted the wish they would make in their own lives onto their newly found magic pebbles. One girl painted a beautiful angel floating up into the sky. Another boy painted eight different versions of Spider Man; I think he wants to be a super-hero when he gets older.
In my adult class we read “Pyramus and Thisbe” by Ovid, identified the six main parts of the story and the adults prepared a radio show that we digitally recorded at the end of class.
We left school at 10pm, ending our usual 15 hour or so work day… and this was a day we didn’t have International Spanish classes here in the morning! Typically, we have Spanish classes from 9-1:30 and then English from 4-10. We are adding Tango classes now on weeknights and hope to have a range of arts classes in the near future.
Marimar: I don’t think we have normal days at HABLA. Our days change depending on the programs we are developing, the people who are visiting us, etc. Our days usually involve curriculum and lesson planning with our teachers, reading of text we are teaching or reading, or text we are writing or researching, meeting and chatting with the staff, conference calls with someone from the States about a program we are developing, administrative work, talking with people that come and visit the school, gardening, and of course, a lot of teaching!
We work at HABLA but we also work in other places or have partnerships with other cities and countries. For example, I teach Literature for a university Study Abroad Program in the States and Kurt has a Ford Foundation grant to write a book about the ArtsLiteracy Project he co-founded at Brown University. So you can say that our days are a mix, and that we move from place to place, even the movement is electronically or digitally.
YL: What will HABLA look like five years from now?
Kurt: Currently we host an International Summit on Education where education leaders gather from around the world to exchange ideas. Many of those talks are now on our website and anyone can access them. We hope this Summit will continue to expand to become an international catalyst for change. We also will have programs in the arts, languages, and literacy running throughout the day and into the night for local residents as well as international visitors. Our students range from 5-65 years old. I love that we can be a place that mixes people of every age and from every cultural background.
Marimar: I see the spaces at HABLA filled with students creating with language! I see kids expanding their worlds through the arts, students from different economical and social backgrounds creating their futures, sharing stories. I see HABLA being a catalyst for educational change, a fertile space for creation. I see a place full of alegria (joy), and a place where people exchange ideas and create projects and liaisons. I see the world changing!
YL: Is there a favorite quote or past event that inspires you in your work?
Marimar: What has inspired me the most are the essays I’ve read in which writers talk about reading as a creative act, a vivid action in which the reader is at the same time writing their own story. The act of reading opens up the reader to infinite possibilities.
Kurt: While working in Brazil with a group of high school students, we would read a poem in English each day. Then they would write their own poems in response. At the end of the course we asked them to reflect on the experience. One of the students wrote: “Writing a poem was just putting myself inside out; it was just using the essence of myself as ink, so I could write. When I finished writing my first poems, it was like breaking the chains of not believing myself and taking flight into a sky of infinite possibilities.” This student’s quote has always been an inspiration for me, and I hope that our lives, and HABLA, can be a place of infinite possibilities.
The ArtsLiteracy Project at Brown University
Culture and Imperialism
by Edward W. Said
Sol, Piedra y Sombras (Spanish Edition)
by Jorge F. Hernandez
Sylvester and the Magic Pebble
by William Steig
Greek Myths Told Anew
by Josephine Preston Peabody (includes the Pyramus and Thisbe myth)
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