Teaching in a hot pot of emotion

Tom Laurence

The classroom window is merely a token barrier against the joyful sound of Bolivian big band music and energetic school kids marching outside. Looking out the window from the institute with a group of students, we see the road safety Zebras dancing playfully in the street as well. This exhibition of emotion and identity highlights the freedom of expression that is not only prevalent living in the city of La Paz, but also working at Instituto Exclusivo - both of which I have been doing for the past 6 months. Both the city and and the institute are environments in which people can express their interests, identity and emotion.

I think the expression of emotion is one of the main differences between English and Bolivian culture. This spills into public expression as well as people’s private spheres. Take dancing for example. This simple act of moving your body in time to music is a difficult feat, especially for myself. However in La Paz, the ability and feeling expressed by people astonishes me. In this highland canyon city, there are bars and clubs full of various music genres - South American and Western alike; and people here seem to enjoy a good dance to everything! There is also a different attitude to live music in social settings. In England, the music either comes from a computer or a DJ. Not to say people don’t do that here, but live music is much more accepted. People seem to be much more enthusiastic when somebody picks up a guitar or a charango and belts out a ‘‘Wonderwall’’-esq classic.

This passion for music and dance is not confined to a garden or living room either. It is also  witnessed on the streets of La Paz as a public expression of love and passion for the country. There are numerous public holidays dedicated to historic events, religion and culture, all vigorously celebrated regionally and nationally. Highlights in La Paz include Day of the Sea, Gran Poder and the famous Carnaval. The streets fill with music, colour and voices in support of Bolivia, with dancers on parade moving in unison in a range of incredible, flamboyant and creative costumes. The most recent regional holiday was the anniversary of La Paz City. It was a weekend full of live music and revelry on the streets. People were  enjoying Bolivian specialties such as Té con Té (a mix of the Bolivian alcoholic beverage Singani with black tea, lemon, cinnamon and sugar) and Sucombé (Singani with hot milk and cinnamon) amongst other tasty delicacies.  

All of La Paz’s energy and power makes it a great place to teach. It gives you lots of relevant things to talk about that you and your student have in common. At I.E, the teachers have the freedom to put their own personality into their lessons and this is a great enabler in getting to know students and bonding with them. At the end of the day, acquiring a language is acquiring a tool to help you understand the world and communicate with those who live in it. Teachers and students getting to know each other is essential for learning and making an enjoyable classroom environment. It would be very difficult to go into classes and have to change your personality or be unable to express yourself.

One exercise I really like which helps me to get to know my student, and visa versa, is what I call ‘My Perfect Place’. This looks at the difference between present simple and present continuous. I first ask the student to think about the two tenses and relate them to where we are and what we are doing. Following this, I tell the student I’m going to describe where I wish I was and what I wish I was doing/what was happening. Then, while the student has their eyes closed, I set the scene of where we are, the weather, the surroundings. I continue to add in what is happening around us and what we are doing - what we are eating, listening to, etc. This shows the student what I, the teacher, enjoy. Then the student creates their own ‘Perfect Place,’ allowing me to get to know a little bit about them. Depending on the student’s level and what you as the teacher are focusing on, you can add instructions such as “Act out any actions you can,” or ‘’Use an adverb and adjective in each sentence.’’

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teaching English / La Paz / Bolivian culture