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It Takes a Country to Teach a Language

It Takes a Country to Teach a Language November 14, 2010

“We make Spanish real,” said Mario Morera. “It’s not just the textbook, it’s not the ACM office – it’s the entire country. We use Costa Rica as a school. Everything, everyone, every town is part of the Spanish the students learn.”

Mario MoreraMario Morera

A native of Costa Rica, Morera is in his first year as the Spanish Language Coordinator for ACM’s Costa Rica programs. He firmly believes in having students plunge right into daily life from the moment they set foot at the program site in the capital city of San José.

“We go to the central market and everyone has to buy something and interview the people working there,” Morera explained. “I give them different things to buy. [I say] ‘You’re going to buy fruit, you’re going to buy vegetables, you’re going to buy natural medicines. Talk to people and ask them what the price is, how good [the product] is for your health, what kind of people buy it, what are the differences of the quality of products.’ It’s a complete interview. The students buy stuff and they end up coming back to the central market to visit those merchants and to continue having conversations.”

Finding a gift for teaching and a mentor

Along with his ever-present smile and seemingly boundless energy, Morera brings 15 years of experience teaching U.S. college students to his new position. He got his start in teaching when he was an undergraduate at Universidad de Costa Rica (UCR). Morera spent a year at Albion College in Michigan through ACM’s Tico Scholars program, in which UCR students study and serve as Spanish language teaching assistants, primarily at ACM colleges, but others, as well.

Mario Morera with studentsMorera with students in downtown San José, Costa Rica.

“I found out that I had this really good chemistry with students,” Morera said. “I made classes fun, it was very interactive, and I practically found myself amused at what I was doing and how well I was doing it. So I said, maybe this is my future, who knows?”

When he returned to Costa Rica, Morera began working for ACM as a language instructor. Eduardo Estevanovich, who led the programs’ language curriculum for nearly three decades before retiring this year, became a mentor to him.

“From ’97 up to ’05 I worked with Eduardo as an instructor and we became very good friends,” said Morera. “I got to know ACM as an institution, the personality of the students, stories of different campuses, and the way Eduardo works. I did pretty much everything with him from Spanish during the first four or five weeks of the semester up to teaching literature, advanced composition, advanced conversation, taking the students on trips, helping them with checking homework, [and] doing compositions.”

Experience in the classroom and graduate school in the U.S.

During summers, Morera taught for other institutions’ off-campus programs in Costa Rica, including one run by Stephen F. Austin University (SFA) in Texas. He ended up moving to Texas to teach at SFA, where he completed a master’s degree in interdisciplinary studies – English, Spanish, and Latin American Studies – and went to Madrid twice to teach in the university’s program in Spain.

Not ready quite yet to return to Costa Rica, Morera set his sights on earning a doctorate and headed west to Texas Tech University in Lubbock. After growing up in tropical Costa Rica and living in the verdant eastern part of Texas, the move to dry west Texas took some adjustment.

“If you stare into the horizon in Lubbock, you can see two days into the future,” Morera noted, “but it’s beautiful during the stormy season. You could see the storms coming from afar. It was quite a show.”

Morera sped through his studies at Texas Tech. “Thanks to classes I had already taken in Costa Rica and other classes I had taken for my master’s, I finished my Ph.D. in two years,” he said.

SFA asked Morera to return there to teach. With Estevanovich retiring, the language coordinator’s job at ACM beckoned, as well.

Morera went to Costa Rica to see his family and to interview with ACM. The fit was right – both for Morera and ACM – and he accepted the position.

Spanish instruction that supports students’ research

When students arrive for the fall Costa Rica: Language, Society, & the Environment program, they take a written placement test and meet individually with Morera, who determines how they will be grouped for language classes. He also leads many of the field trips that are a staple of the program and that take students to nearly every corner of the country.

Cooking in language classA Spanish language class on “cooking day.”

Homework for the Spanish language classes is always grammar and talking to a Costa Rican – a member of the student’s host family, a friend, a university student, someone in a market in San José – and telling about the conversation in class.

A highlight is the day when each class cooks, Morera said. “Every person has to prepare a traditional Costa Rican dish. For example, Emily has to cook gallo pinto, rice and beans. She goes to her [host] mom and says, ‘Mom, I’m cooking gallo pinto tomorrow for six people. Please tell me how to prepare it.’ So she has a conversation with mom. After that, she goes to the supermarket or central market and buys the ingredients, so she has to talk to people there and ask them how much rice, onions, and cilantro she needs. It’s the same with everyone in the class. They have to cook different dishes, they have to have conversations, they have to go out and buy the ingredients. It’s always real.”

ACM’s spring program, Costa Rica: Field Research in the Environment, Social Sciences, & Humanities, focuses on independent field research and the fall program includes a three-week project with a community organization, typically in a rural area. The language classes are designed to encompass the skills students need for those experiences.

“In both the fall and the spring programs we prepare students in a linguistic way so students can ask professional questions to professional people about specific technical information,” said Morera. The spring program, especially, emphasizes instruction in Spanish that is appropriate for conducting academic research.

Visiting campuses brings new perspectives

Earlier this fall, Morera got a closer look at life on ACM campuses when he and Chris Vaughan, Director of the Costa Rica programs, visited many of the ACM colleges. It was an opportunity he had been looking forward to.

Class at the ACM CenterMorera and language instructors (standing) talk with students at the ACM Center in Costa Rica.

“One very important lesson for me, not only as a person but also as the new Spanish and culture director, is that I see students from a whole new perspective right now because of this trip,” Morera said. “Every time I go to a different campus, I see the students’ personality, I see the campus personality, I get to know their professors, [and] I know what they expect from the students.”

Morera’s expertise and interests range throughout Latin American language and culture, encompassing the arts – plays, novels, films – and culture, politics and economics. During campus visits, he was invited to give presentations in courses, such as talking about Costa Rican Spanish to a linguistics class at St. Olaf College, speaking to a Latin American literature class at Colorado College, and giving presentations in Spanish classes on several campuses.

At the same time, Vaughan, a conservation biologist who has worked and lived in Costa Rica for more than 30 years, was visiting biology and environmental science classes. Both of them met with faculty and talked to students about research projects they can pursue in Costa Rica.

“We make a great team,” said Morera, noting how valuable it has been to get to interact with students face-to-face during campus visits. “I’ve already received a lot of e-mails from faculty and students interested in doing [research projects on] literature or art or music in Costa Rica. It’s been very rewarding.”

For Morera, coming full circle by returning to Costa Rica and to ACM has been rewarding, as well.

“I’m back to my family and back to my country,” he said. “I love being in Costa Rica, I love being in the States. There are so many things I can do in the States that I cannot in Costa Rica, and vice versa. I’m happy with my decision.”



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