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Uruguayan Fulbright Teachers Bring Cultural Exchange To Illinois Classrooms

Peter Medlin

Samuel Costa is the only teacher at a small school in rural Uruguay close to the border of Brazil. His 11 students range in age from kindergarten to sixth grade. And he’s not just the only teacher, he’s the only adult, period. So he has to clean and be a chef. Samuel makes his class a home cooked breakfast and lunch every day. That’s on top of meeting the typical academic standards.

“To learn about what he does, like, I cannot complain about my job," said Megan Forti. She’s a bilingual third grade teacher at Littlejohn Elementary in DeKalb. Samuel has been shadowing her in her class. She’s also been hosting him at her house for the past few weeks.

There are 21 Uruguayan teachers spread across the DeKalb and Elgin school districts. They’re learning bilingual-ed best practices, but they don’t all just teach English. They teach across content areas from math and science to sign language.

Some, like Samuel, teach in a rural school. Others teach in the capital city of Montevideo.

“So we have the whole gamut and to see them intermingling, the exchange is just tremendous," said James Cohen, associate professor of ESL bilingual education at Northern Illinois University.

Cohen helped facilitate getting the Fulbright teachers up to Illinois. He was a Fulbright scholar in Uruguay just last year.

The Uruguayans are in Illinois for about a month. When they landed in Chicago, it was snowing.

“For many of us, it has been the very first time we’ve seen snow. So we were very excited about it,” said Selene Gadea, one of the Uruguayan elementary school teachers.

Gadea and the other teachers spent a week in Chicago before their shadowing commenced. They got to see a Chicago Bulls game and visit some of the city’s museums.

Gadea says the amount of choice at stores and restaurants in the U.S. is notable. And the prices for some teaching materials are significantly lower in the U.S. than in Uruguay.

Another of the teachers, Patricia Betancourt, agreed. She says an English hardcover that cost $7 in Illinois could be $70 or $80 in Uruguay. So the teachers have been stocking up.

Emily Quade is a Littlejohn teacher and former Fulbright scholar herself. She also helped with some translation for this story.

“When they show up at a bookstore they're like ‘Oh, here comes Selene! Be careful!’" Betancourt said. She also says even though the resources and equipment might be different, the challenges that persist in education are the same for them in Uruguay as they are in DeKalb.

And she says, during their shadowing, conversations about finding solutions to global issues, balancing class resources or supporting special needs students helped teachers from both countries connect with each other.

James Cohen says the Uruguayan teachers have also been going to educational presentations at NIU.

“I’ve never seen people with more passion for knowledge," he said.

There are some differences between the two nations’ education systems. Cohen, who was in Uruguay last year, says the way foreign language is taught is very different.

He says some programs send instructional videos and lessons to smaller, rural schools where teachers don’t even speak that language.

“These elementary school teachers who don’t speak any English are teaching kids how to speak English and they’re learning English alongside the kids," said Cohen. "The power dynamics have completely shifted.”

Back at Littlejohn, Megan Forti says it didn’t take long for the students and Samuel to get comfortable, even though he doesn’t speak any English.

“The kids immediately gave him that respect which you have to earn and you have to be open to kids and love kids in order to earn that respect," she said. "Within a week they’re already saying, ‘Maestro, teacher, don’t go!’”

And Forti says even though her school in some ways is very different from Samuel’s, they have something in common.

“His school is a huge resource for his community even when it comes to like getting water from the well or feeding the children," said Forti. "At Littlejohn we think of ourselves as a neighborhood school and providing the resources for our students.”

The teachers were to go back to Uruguay after a final ceremony on Feb. 22nd. Cohen and the other teachers said they were expecting lots of tears as they left their friends and host families.

“The most meaningful thing that I took from this experience is the people," said Selene Gadea.

Even though they’re from opposite sides of the equator and have a very different perspective, Gadea says their passion for students easily bridged that perceived gap.

“Everybody answered a million questions I had to ask. I mean, I feel that I was very welcome here," she said. "And it was for me priceless.”

It’s likely Forti and the other host teachers would say the same.