Monterey Institute of International Studies

Lindsey Bowman: Women Coming to Power in Colombia

Lindsay Bowman

Lindsey strolls through the streets of Colombia with her students.

May 13, 2010 - 12:00am

Lindsey Bowman (TESOL '11) spent a year teaching elementary and secondary students on a Colombian island with WorldTeach:

Every day before, after, and even during school, the mothers of my students would approach me. They wanted to know if my North American colleagues and I would provide them with English lessons too. A number of the mothers worked in the hospitality industry and felt that improving their English would help them interact with tourists. Others were stay-at-home moms looking for a creative outlet, and they seemed jealous of their children's opportunity to learn.

Soon we devised a rudimentary ad hoc needs assessment for the mothers to get a better look at their English proficiency levels. What we found out surprised us: Although these women had asked us for English language instruction, they actually wanted classes in Spanish about a variety of topics that they assumed we "gringas" knew more about - from first aid and hygiene, to childcare, to basic household finance. Essentially, they wanted two distinct classes: English on Monday nights, Life Skills on Wednesdays.

Although we were novice teachers, an idea struck us: Why not combine English and Life Skills to provide one content-based class meeting twice a week? About ten enthusiastic and ambitious women enrolled in our project, which they named Mujers al Poder. Rough translation: Powerful Women, or more closely, Women Coming to Power. Our participants ranged from an advanced-beginner to low-intermediate level proficiency when we gathered for the first class.

I came directly from teaching in Colombia to the TESOL program: I have the souvenir motorcycle burn-scar to prove it. When assigned one of my first content-based lesson plans, I designed a project for Mujeres al Poder, a two lesson sequence called "Deceptively Delicious." The title comes from a popular cookbook by Jessica Seinfeld that serves as an authentic material. The course attempts to demystify an issue all busy mothers struggle with: how to incorporate fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods into family meals when husbands and children complain about the way they taste. Such content is invaluable to this specific group of mothers in light of the startling rate of malnutrition on the island, a result of a lack of healthy food and the knowledge of what that food consists of. To combine nutrition with English provides a doubly powerful lesson.

One of my co-founders of Mujeres al Poder was fond of a particular quote from Mahatma Ghandi: "Educate a man and you educate one person; educate a woman and you educate a whole nation." My classmates are fond of a related phrase from one of our textbooks: "teacher as transformative individual." Discussing effective teaching strategies, I keep coming back to how the inter-relation of these two ideas would improve the Mujeres al Poder classes if I was given the opportunity to teach them again. By teaching mothers not only English (which could be used to help with their children's homework) but healthy eating strategies, how might that have a positive effect on the rest of the community?

Lindsey currently works for our Intensive English programs, pursuing her dream of becoming an effective educator and constantly searching for cheap plane tickets to visit her friends in Colombia.

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