Tuesday, April 23, 2024

COEHD grad students partner with Manos de Dios to teach English remotely

COEHD grad students partner with Manos de Dios to teach English remotely

MAY 31, 2022 — UTSA graduate students enrolled in English as a Second Language (ESL) 5073–Technology in Language Teaching and Learning, taught by associate professor Kathryn Henderson–are getting a global view of teaching thanks to a partnership with Manos de Dios, a mission organization located in Danlí, Honduras.

Founded in 2000 by Episcopal congregations around the greater San Antonio area, Manos de Dios offers several services including scholarships for underprivileged students in and around Danlí. The program currently assists 70 students: 50 in middle and high school, and 20 in college. Nineteen program alumni have graduated from college. However, the group soon realized that scholarships could only take students so far, says Patricia Perea, executive director of the Honduras ministry.

“We kept seeing how our kids were disadvantaged compared to other kids in terms of their opportunities,” she said. “They were missing out because of their lack of English abilities.”


“The collaboration has so many layers of benefits to our students.”



In 2014 the group launched the after-school ESL program Club Intercambio.

In 2019, Perea met with Martha Sidury Christiansen, a UTSA associate professor, to explore the possibility of a collaboration with the university. The pair explored different ways students could participate, including making the site an option for practicum students. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the partnership seemed even more imperative.

“The pandemic injected all these new ideas and new ways of doing things,” said John Panther, a volunteer with Manos de Dios. “Now having remote international options seemed very much a win-win situation, not only for UTSA but also for our students in Honduras.”

After being connected with Henderson and John Turnbull, a UTSA doctoral student in culture, literacy and language, the pieces began to fall into place.

“[It was] the perfect storm in the right way – when we got all the right people in the right room with the right set of skillsets, it all happened so quickly,” Perea said.

Currently, eight students, including Turnbull, are participating in the optional virtual lessons over WhatsApp, an app which allows users to send text messages and make voice and video calls. So far, Henderson says the program is a hit with her students.

“The students that are currently participating in it are raving about the experience and the relationships they’re forming with the Honduran students,” she said.

In Honduras, there are approximately 30 students split into two groups: one for beginners and one for intermediate English students. Four or five of these students are assigned to each UTSA graduate student. They meet every Saturday for an hour-long lesson, the content of which Turnbull says is generally up to the student-teacher, who encourages the students to use technology to supplement the lessons and show off their world. For example, if a lesson is about the weather, the students might incorporate photos or videos of their environment. In this way, Turnbull says, the experience is not only about language learning, but intercultural exposure for both groups as well.

“That’s one of the powerful parts of the collaboration,” he said. “In some ways, the students in Honduras are beginners, they’re novices in English, but they’re experts in their culture, and they can convey that better than anyone else can.”

This view of both teacher and student as learners contributing knowledge aligns with the master’s program’s own pedagogical foundations, Henderson says. But more than that, she believes the whole Manos partnership meshes well with the College of Education and Human Development’s vision statement to “train culturally and linguistically responsive agents of change.”

“The collaboration has so many layers of benefits to our students,” Henderson said. “They’re gaining skills and practice but also having that cultural interaction and exchange where they’re able to increase the other skills that we want in our students.”

While the partnership is having educational impacts on both students and student-teachers, Perea says the ESL teachers in Honduras are benefitting as well.

“[Because of] the collaboration with UTSA and having grad students teaching, they’re learning the techniques,” she said. “They are also developing their own professional skills.”

Perhaps the biggest long-term impact of the partnership, however, is on the community in Danlí and beyond. The ultimate goal of their scholarship and ESL programs, Perea says, is to improve the quality of life and expand available opportunities for those living in Honduras.

“These kids are just as smart, just as motivated as kids from any other part of the world,” she said. “All they need is an opportunity.”

However, many of those students may decide such opportunity lies elsewhere. The U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. State Department estimate that between 10 and 15% of the population of Honduras is currently living in the United States.

By expanding the opportunities and resources available locally, fewer students may have to make such heart-wrenching and often dangerous decisions, says Geoff Partain, a volunteer with Manos de Dios.

“If these kids leave Honduras, this is the potential future intellectual infrastructure,” he explained. “Part of what we’re trying to do here is cultivate that infrastructure and then give them opportunities in their own country, so they’re not forced to go somewhere else.” 

Accomplishing such goals will not be easy; even in the early stages, this collaboration has challenged students and teachers alike. 

“Learners and teachers have to be willing to take risks. You have to go out of your comfort zone as a teacher,” Turnbull said. “You feel quite vulnerable as a teacher, teaching at a distance of 2,000 miles, but I think the students probably feel that way as well – this is a very new model of interaction for them.” 

But despite these challenges, Henderson notes that the development of communication tools such as WhatsApp has played a large role in making projects like these feasible. 

"WhatsApp is really the most remarkable tool for interaction globally right now, in a way that’s accessible to communities,” Henderson said. “This would not have been possible ten years ago, no way."  

Going forward, she hopes to make the program sustainable, making it a core element of the university’s ESL-5073 course and making it a site for the TESL practicum. 

“Once relationships are built, these kinds of collaborations can lead in new innovative and exciting directions that one might not even be able to anticipate,” she said.

Perea would also like to see the program continue and expand.

“I hope that this alliance between Manos de Dios and UTSA continues in one way or another because I think it really is a win-win situation,” she said. “Both groups of students are learning so much and I really hope that we will be able to find ways to continue this collaboration.” 

Manos de Dios is also collaborating with UTSA’s College of Engineering and Integrated Design to deliver a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) curriculum for Spanish-speaking communities. The program, called Brillantes, is expected to continue for a second year.

Christopher Reichert



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