Notes from the Barrio: Students Teach English in Venezuela

Dr. Daniel Greenberg brought a group of students to Venezuela as part of his civic engagement course last spring.

Dr. Daniel Greenberg brought a group of students to Venezuela as part of his civic engagement course last spring.

Taking Pace University’s commitment to civic engagement a step further, a group of History students spent the spring intersession teaching English to students in the barrios of Caracas, Venezuela. Read an excerpt from student Heidi Chai’s journal of the trip.

For the tenth time, History Professor Dan Greenberg led the trip for students in his Service and Study in Latin America class. Greenberg is a pioneer in civic engagement courses, having started his 13 years ago. Previous classes have worked in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, taught nutrition programs in Peru, and helped repair and paint a public hospital in Argentina. This was the first time a Pace group went to Venezuela.

Greenberg chose Venezuela in large part because of its national mandate requiring all Venezuelan university students to take a one-year civic engagement course in order to graduate.

“It created an infrastructure of civic engagement that I don’t believe exists anywhere else,” Greenberg said. It also gave Pace students the chance to compare notes with Venezuelan university civic engagement students.

Greenberg’s course has two parts: a semester-long theoretical component which is taught in New York, and the nine day in-country immersion.

“It’s quite strenuous,” Greenberg admits, quickly adding that he’s never had a student tell him at the end of the semester that it wasn’t worth the hard work.

When Greenberg began looking at different projects the students could do in Caracas, a city of 7 million people, 4 million of whom are urban squatters, he found that most of the projects were already being accomplished by Venezuelan civic engagement students.

“… but there was one job we were uniquely suited for,” Greenberg said, “and that was teaching English.”

The Pace students taught English to Venezuelan students ranging in age from 7 to 15, many of whom had repeated grades several times. The age range turned out to be a challenge.

 “You have teenagers learning alongside first graders,” Greenberg said. “Overall it went very well. I think we actually did teach them some basic English, and the Pace students learned a lot about Venezuela.”

They also met with two different university groups, and sat in on a political science class, where they spoke more about President Hugo Chavez than about civic engagement.

“We had this long discussion with a class of political science students at the Catholic university . It was more us learning from them than vice versa,” Greenberg said, “but we still learned from each other. Their whole lives, these students will remember that encounter and perhaps the friendships they made,” Greenberg said.

Greenberg recently published an article about the course in the May 2008 issue of the journal, The History Teacher, focusing on how the theory of civic engagement can improve the way Third World poverty and underdevelopment is taught in History courses.