It’s not an exaggeration to say this last year has been among the most meaningful and enjoyable of my life. I’ve wanted to return to teaching for a long time, and so when I read that a solidarity organization in El Salvador was recruiting ESL teachers, I jumped at the opportunity. Although I have a background in ESL, it’s been years since I taught, and I knew I needed some classroom practice and an update on current teaching methods. So, I left the US a few weeks early and, before going to El Salvador, made a stop in the beautiful colonial city of Granada, Nicaragua, to complete an ESL/EFL certification course.

The particular program I chose was a ‘hybrid’: 4 weeks online (which I completed in the US before I left) and 2 (intense) weeks in front of a classroom in Granada. It was a challenge, but I came out of it feeling prepared, confident, and excited to return to the classroom. I left Granada reluctantly when I finished (I could have spent weeks if not months or years there), travelled a little bit through Nicaragua, and then made my way to El Salvador.

The school where I taught was housed in the Centro de Intercambioy Solidaridad (CIS), a social justice organization in the nation’s capital, San Salvador. Among a variety of other community and outreach programs, CIS offers English (and Spanish) classes to adult students, most of whom are engaged in the social justice movement in El Salvador as lawyers, social workers, educators, organizers, or activists.

I taught an intermediate class that met 3 nights a week. The English school at CIS uses the Popular Education method; and so instead of using textbooks, students and I voted on a list of real-life topics of interest and concern from which to draw language lessons. To prepare for each class, I chose 1-2 grammar points/vocab on a given topic and made a lesson plan around it. For example, on ‘water rights’ day, we started with a warm-up discussion of what we thought of as human rights (vocab went up on the board as necessary, eg, safety, freedom, education, food/water, housing, healthcare). From there I introduced Wh- questions and auxiliary inversion (eg, “Why is water scarce? Where is water scarce?” ) Next was controlled- and then free-practice exercises in pairs or small groups, followed by production, which was another whole-class discussion of the theme using the new grammar and vocab.

It worked well—in some ways better than a textbook. Students were very invested in the issues they had chosen to discuss, so participation was high. Likewise, absent textbooks, we were both obliged and free to construct our own classroom environment, which included a non-hierarchal structure, critical engagement with language (i.e., explicit discussion of the oppressive norms it often enforces), and respect for others’ views and speaking time.

This format led to some truly amazing conversations (aka authentic production time). Discussion was engaged and productive (we usually ended with action items). Even though I facilitated the activities and discussions, they often took on lives of their own. From these discussions, students improved demonstrably by applying relevant, contextualized vocabulary and grammatical structures. As for me, I learned about organizing strategies, how CAFTA and other trade agreements actually affect the economies of Central America and the damage to human health and the environment caused by metal extraction. I loved every minute (minus those spent on administrative duties).

Outside of the time spent in the classroom or lesson planning, I was free to explore the amazing city of San Salvador—my favourite in Central America—whose streets are full of music, art, poetry readings, glorious cathedrals, world-class museums and theaters, Ciclovías every Sunday, and some of the best food I’ve ever eaten. On weekends, I did as much travelling as I could to some of the other natural wonders of El Salvador, including volcanoes, lakes, beaches, and mountains that recede into the Pacific.

Even for the short semester that I was there, though, being in El Salvador was also sobering: it was a clear window into what the price of capitalism, deregulation, and privatization on exploited nations really means. Many people in El Salvador endure a daily reality of extreme hardship, working long days at hard labour for very little money. Others suffer hunger and malnutrition, violence, repression, separation from family who have left, and often deportation back to endure it all over again.

This exploitation is not new in El Salvador, and so the local and national popular resistance movements are powerful, organized, and resilient; and they continue to fight against the global corporate interests to which almost all of this brutality is bound. Recently, in fact, El Salvador became the first country in the world to ban metallic mining—an enormous threat to the environment and human health—within its borders. The justice movements in El Salvador have much to teach the rest of the world about protecting our natural resources, demanding fair labour practice, preserving the public sector, and continuing to push back against all forms of neoliberal policies.

I’m back home now but will be returning to El Salvador early next year. A few months was not nearly enough—to see, to learn, to teach, to support, to talk, or to take it in. So I’ll return for another semester(s) at CIS—at their main location in San Salvador but also at some of the more rural community schools where a lot of grassroots organizing originates. I think one of the things that made this year so meaningful is that, for me, teaching ESL is truly an exchange: It makes me a student—of other cultures, other languages, other values, other ways of doing things. And in El Salvador, specifically, of other models of justice, solidarity, and humane development. We need these alternatives, and I’m fortunate that through teaching I can support those who fight to achieve them, day in and day out.