2019 News Stories

College of Education students develop into culturally responsive teachers in Study Abroad trip to Costa Rica

by Chelsea Grosbeck

Amidst a forested canyon in San Pedro, Costa Rica, a classroom of fourth-graders eagerly sit at their desks to learn English at the Colegio Monterrey School. 
Graciela Cervantes, an incoming senior majoring in Elementary Education, keeps her students engaged as she began the day’s lesson with a game of hangman.

USF student teacher instructing in a classroom in Costa Rica

Graciela Cervantes, an incoming senior majoring in Elementary Education, instructs fourth-graders during their English lessons.

Cervantes said she didn’t understand the purpose of the game being in the lesson plan for English until she saw how much it gained the students’ attention. 
“They were identifying English words, understanding the alphabet and the process of elimination,” Cervantes said. 
Cervantes said being an English teaching assistant for students whose first language was Spanish didn’t come without its challenges. Even though she is fluent in both languages, she had no prior experience teaching English. As she continued leading the class, Cervantes found being flexible in challenging situations is where her adaptability mattered most. 

“It really expands what you know‒being able to practice something you’re not aware you can do,” Cervantes said. “I could be that extra resource for them because I can speak English and Spanish. It gave me practice in the classroom and makes me happier I’m a bilingual teacher.” 

USF student teaches a lesson in a classroom in Costa Rica

USF students get the opportunity to interact with Costa Rican students directly in one-on-one English lessons.

For two weeks, Cervantes and 10 other USF College of Education students became global educators as they stepped into K-12 classrooms in Costa Rica as part of a USF Education Abroad program that focuses on teaching and studying in the country. 
USF Associate Professor Jennifer Jacobs, PhD, accompanied the students on the trip this year. Dr. Jacobs transitioned students into two different teaching environments, the Colegio Monterrey School and the Roosevelt Elementary School, and she said the benefits of expanding students’ comfort zones abroad makes for a greater learning experience. 
“Taking on teaching responsibilities within a different culture adds another layer in learning to teach,” Jacobs said. “It helps students develop as culturally responsive teachers.” 
In addition to accompanying students on the trip to Costa Rica, Dr. Jacobs also engages in research about how taking part in a study abroad experience influences students’ development as critically conscious, culturally responsive teachers.  Last year she partnered with graduate student Steve Haberlin to understand the students’ learning while on the trip and to understand the trip’s influence on the students’ teaching after returning to their internships.
“Going abroad always expands my thinking about my research focused on teacher learning for equity,” Jacobs said. “It prompts my reflection about the expanded function of my role as teacher educator when taking students abroad. It is more than helping them learn to teach, but also navigating a new context.”

Cervantes recalls one of the most surprising aspects about the experience was noticing the positive change in the student’s focus and learning retention. Costa Rican teachers found their students perform best with curriculum emphasis on “brain breaks.” Following every 20-minute lesson, students would either play outside, or get up out of their seats to dance and move around.

Throughout the experience, students became more receptive to the learning styles and classroom management techniques. Jacobs explains the Costa Rican student-teacher relationship is largely built on trust and giving students the ability to exercise their independence. 

“When our students experience the difference, it often pushes them to reflect on their beliefs about classroom management and particularly the intersection between classroom management and culture,” Jacobs said. “Our students may rethink the amount of control given to students and finding ways to give students more freedom.”

USF students on an excursion in Costa Rica

USF students take a break from teaching to discover the volcanic beaches of Costa Rica.

For the USF students’ own breaks outside of the classroom, they participated in culturally immersive experiences like hiking to the Poas Volcano, visiting the La Paz waterfall garden and completing a homestay with a local family.
Cervantes said living with a homestay family helped her recognize similar family-oriented values her culture and Costa Rican culture share. Cooking, eating dinner and spending time with her host family and other USF students was a comfortable familiarity. On her trip, she was also excited to explore the differences.  
“Personally, this trip helped me realize that there is so much of the world to see,” Cervantes said. “I was scared to leave the country on my own, especially to a country that I had never visited before. This study abroad trip has made me curious to see what else there is... I was able to see how a different country views education and their students. As a teacher, I saw how important it is to put the students first and allow them to have a say in what occurs in the classroom. I was able to see how having less behavioral expectations for the students allows them to think about their actions in the classroom. Overall, I learned about the importance of a student-centered classroom, which is how I want to structure my classroom in the future.” 

For more information about the USF Studying and Teaching Abroad in Costa Rica program, visit the USF Education Abroad website