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University of Iowa News Release

Aug. 31, 2004

UI Student's Program Immerses Future Teachers In Mexican Culture

Some aspiring teachers know early on that they want to work in schools with large Hispanic populations. They study Spanish, if it's not their native tongue. They student-teach in schools known to have high concentrations of Hispanic students. They may even travel abroad to see Hispanic cultures firsthand.

But many teachers -- whether they want to teach elementary level math, special education or art -- go through college knowing only that they want to teach, with little thought given to the kind of student population they may encounter after graduation. As the number of Hispanic students grows throughout Iowa, and the rest of the country, such teachers may find themselves unprepared to deal with the differences in language and culture among their students.

Nicholas Wysocki (MA '00 - African-American World Studies), a Ph.D. student in the University of Iowa College of Education, hopes to change that with a fledgling program that brings student-teachers to the tiny rural town of Xicotepec de Juarez (pronounced hee-KO-tai-pek dai HWAH-rez), Mexico to meet and work with administrators, teachers and parents and to better understand their culture.

Located in northern Puebla, Mexico, with a population of about 70,000, Xicotepec is similar in many ways to Iowa with its heavily agricultural economy. Immigrants from towns very much like Xicotepec move to places like Iowa for job opportunities, while their children work hard in school to learn English and adapt to the U.S. education system.

Wysocki, a student in the Education Policy and Leadership Studies program, said this Cultural Immersion Experience for Teacher Education Program Students project grew out of a broader project begun in 2001 by Rotary Clubs in Iowa, Indiana and Xicotepec led by Iowa City Rotarians Jim Peterson and Ray Muston, a professor emeritus of the UI College of Education. The collaboration seeks to improve water quality, to provide equipment to the Xicotepec fire station, to supply equipment for an orphanage and rehabilitation clinic and to help build a primary and secondary school.

Muston, whom Wysocki credits with inspiring his project, said the Rotarians of Iowa envisioned establishing a partnership with the state's colleges and universities that could enhance the organization's mission to help the village of Xicotepec. In addition to partnering with the UI colleges of education and engineering, the organization has worked with Iowa State University. 

"We wanted to create service-learning opportunities for students while providing humanitarian service," said Muston, who credits the groundwork laid by former Rotary District Governor Gary Pacha and his wife, Nancy, a former teacher in the Iowa School community school system. "When we first approached the College of Education of the University of Iowa, Nicholas Wysocki was first to respond to the need."

Muston adds, "We continue to identify needs of teachers and children in Xicotepec that can best be served by people like Nicholas and his team of professionals. We have also found that the experience of working with teachers in Xicotepec greatly enriches our own perspectives and professional development. We are proud of the work Nicholas is doing and eager to see his vision of in-service for teachers and student teaching experiences succeed."

Wysocki became involved by helping the Rotary Clubs build five new classrooms for the Los Tezontles "Rotary Club" elementary school, and he hopes to create an educational partnership with the teachers and community. His major focus is the Los Tezontles elementary school, where one director, seven teachers, and one teacher's aid teach over 300 students. Wysocki embraced the prospect for collaboration and saw an opportunity for educational improvement, both in this Mexican community and communities in Iowa.

"Under the Cultural Immersion program, I take students down to Xicotepec and have them tour the community, talk to teachers, talk to families down there and if possible do some teaching," Wysocki said. "The rationale is that we have so many Mexican immigrants in West Liberty, Columbus Junction, Muscatine and elsewhere in Iowa, places where our students may one day teach. To be effective in these settings, they need to get a sense of the cultural environment where their future students are coming from. Through the Rotary Club Xicotepec Project, we've begun to build a relationship with the teachers down there to make this happen."

By June 2005, Wysocki hopes to bring a number of UI College of Education students and in-service teachers to Xicotepec for 10 days. This past March, he took three people with him as part of a pilot study: Georgina Buendia-Cruz, a social worker and adult ESL teacher in Columbus Junction; Todd Siefker, a graduate student in the UI College of Education; and Anessa Jordan, an undergraduate student in the UI College of Education. All came back enthusiastic about the program.

"The idea of having some educators from Iowa not only teaching, but also learning from educators in Mexico, is so fascinating," said Buendia-Cruz, who served as a translator during the visit. "We live in a global economy where communication is so important, therefore we need to equip educators with additional skills to be successful preparing children for the future. Learning another language will help, but learning about other cultures will help even more."

Siefker, a pre-service ESL teacher who has studied Spanish American literature, said it was refreshing after many hours in a classroom back in the United States to spend time immersed in Mexican culture.

"Beyond what I've read about Mexico, the experience helped remind me of how real, large and mysterious Mexico still is to me," Siefker said. "The Xicotepec experience rekindled my interest in learning more about a country I will be introducing high-schoolers to this coming fall. Also it was beneficial to work with Nicholas in putting together an international experience, which gave me a vision of how I might start taking my own high school students to Mexico for summer service projects in the future."

He said the biggest lesson he learned while in Xicotepec was that while the lack of material resources available to a school may profoundly affect the quality of the educational experience for its students, it does not automatically mean that students cannot have a quality education.

"I made friends with teachers who have over fifty students in their cramped classrooms with no more than a piece of chalk to work with: no copy machine, no computer, no printer, no Internet, no school lunch program, not even any toilet paper in the bathrooms," he said. "Yet it really inspired and challenged me to see these teachers pouring themselves into their low-paying jobs with hardly any of the resources that I take for granted as a teacher. Having grown up here in the States, which is known for it's whining, the Mexican teachers helped me see that anything is possible. They challenge me to make no excuses for my teaching and to make the most of whatever the situation affords."

Wysocki said there are other differences between the U.S. and Mexican school systems as well. While they have similar school calendars, and comparable grade levels (Mexico's premaria is equivalent to the U.S. K-6 elementary school, and its secundaria is like middle school in the states), schools determine fairly early whether students will go into a liberal arts education or into technical training and route them into separate programs.

In many cases, however, students never make it beyond sixth grade because they're needed by their families to work.

Wysocki hopes to gather data during the next visit for his Ph.D. dissertation.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACT: Media: Stephen Pradarelli, 319-384-0007, stephen-pradarelli@uiowa.edu.