Teaching English (or trying to)

“¿Cómo se dice …?” I understood that one, an often-used phrase in my Spanish class. It means “how do you say…?”. But for the life of me I couldn’t work out what the child was trying to get me to translate. I smiled and turned to Danielle, the far more capable of the two of us, for help.

After a frustrating online search for volunteering placements in Buenos Aires, coming up with nothing but agencies that charged outrageous fees, I finally came across Conviven, an organisation offering English lessons to children in disadvantaged areas. And now I was in one such area, called Mataderos, surrounded by 9-year-old kids babbling at me in an almost incomprehensible language. The classroom was a small, tiled room in a multi-purpose building, filled with mismatched chairs and children’s paintings. We had already spent an hour there, planning the lesson, eating soup that was kindly offered by one of the residents, and wondering if the children were going to show up. Then, in they came, in matching white coats from school, some running up to us to give a kiss on the cheek, some too busy wrestling each other to notice us.

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We directed them to sit on chairs, claiming “I don’t speak Spanish, remember, you must speak in English” (this was true for me, at least). Then out came the box of treats, and, as if by magic, each child suddenly gained the power to sit in their chair, focus on the teacher, and, most impressively, to speak English. One by one they raised their hand and robotically quoted “I would like a cookie, please”.

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The mate container

Once every child had received their treat and a glass of water or mate (a strongly caffeinated Argentine tea that I think contributed to the amount of energy in the room), we began our lesson. Holly, a visiting Speech and Language therapist, took the lead as we taught the story of Beowulf. The finer details went almost completely over the children’s heads, but they grasped the general idea, particularly with our over-the-top reenactments of a monster who hates parties and the hero sent to fight him.

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This is what a hero looks like, right?

With nothing but a green bed sheet and hand-drawn pictures, we somehow managed to keep them engaged for an hour, making our way through our list of focus words, as I alternated between feeling completely bewildered, and fondly remembering why I love teaching in the first place.

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For information on free volunteering in South America, visit


Or centroconviven.blogspot.ie

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