Bringing their spirit home

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Christina Schwalm’s 10th-grade biology course at Silver Spring’s John F. Kennedy High School is a double whammy: Her students learn English while tackling basic science.

In theory, they can become more adept at expressing themselves in a second or third language by writing and talking about the subject matter at hand. Skills go alongside content in this ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) biology class, where students grade their own writing assignments according to the teacher’s standards as a means of learning new vocabulary.

Ms. Schwalm, 26, a native English speaker, learns, too. A graduate in marine biology from the University of Maryland, she is a former Peace Corps volunteer participating in a program that allows her to perfect her teaching skills as an employee of the Montgomery County Public Schools while earning a master’s degree in education from George Washington University.

The partnership between the university and Montgomery County grew out of a pre-existing one called Teachers 2000, which now has a link with the national Peace Corps Fellows/USA program. In any given year, about 20 returning Peace Corps volunteers take part.

GW’s emphasis is on secondary education, according to project director Jeanne Embich, a professor in the department of teacher preparation and special education. Teacher placement depends on what she calls “the county’s critical-need areas,” which most often are science, math and special education. Participants are required to work in the school district for three years.

“We don’t make teaching in the Peace Corps a requirement, but we tell them that if they haven’t taught as part of the Peace Corps experience, it will be that much harder,” says Ms. Embich, going on to praise the “positive attitude” of most returning volunteers.

They have an advantage as people who have been out in the world, she says. “It is in special education where they really shine because they have had a multicultural experience, they speak a second language, and they are creative and responsible and enthusiastic. They are just happy not to have to carry their supplies on a donkey.” At Kennedy High School, many teachers move supplies through the halls on a rolling cart.

During the first year of their master’s program, participants intern with a master teacher and act as substitute teachers. During the second year, they have full-time responsibilities but have the support of a full-time coach — a retired Montgomery County teacher who spends three hours a week with the participant. They attend classes two evenings a week the first year and take as many as four classes in summer.

Nationwide, the Peace Corps Fellows/USA program, with which Teachers 2000 is allied, places several hundred returning volunteers annually as interns in a wide range of fields through collaboration with several dozen universities.

Locally, George Mason University, the University of Maryland at Baltimore County, the University of Maryland at Baltimore and Johns Hopkins University also are involved with varied offerings. Fellows gain professional credits at reduced rates while working at various jobs in many underserved communities.

Ms. Schwalm did not work specifically as a teacher while spending two Peace Corps years in Jamaica in a village of 600 called Polly Ground. Attached to a primary school as a loosely defined “auxiliary person,” she spent much of her time writing grants, the most successful of which was for a greenhouse. That was important, she says, so the children in a rural area would gain experience growing plants and learn about sustainable farming.

Her foreign languages are German and Jamaican patois — less than useful ones in her present position. But having had to learn patois, she says, “I kind of understand the difficulties of these students acquiring another language.”

Her varied cultural experience gives her extra resourcefulness as well, she says. Her classroom manner is friendly and relaxed, befitting someone who is comfortable in many social settings.

She describes herself in professional terms as “a science teacher moving into ESOL.” Now full time with benefits in her second year, she teaches three subject areas in science, plus reading, for five ESOL classes daily. Three of the classes have fewer than 10 students, including 10th-grade morning biology where, one day recently, only five were present. They chatted with one another in Spanish but discussed the subject matter — review of a multiple-choice test — in English.

“What’s ‘crawl’?” a student inquired while trying to discern the meaning of a word on the paper in front of him.

“She’s pretty good. I like her,” a young man said of Ms. Schwalm at the end of class.

She finds the high school teaching staff supportive and calls the teaching fellow experience “a good transition.” After her return from Jamaica, she spent six months looking for a job in international development and nearly got a job as an aquarium education program director before signing on to become a fellow.

“Science teachers are always in demand,” she says. “If I got the itch to move around, I could just pick up and go.”

Three other Peace Corps fellows are teaching fellows at Kennedy this year, among them Jacqueline Waite, 28, a corps volunteer in Mauritania, who has only ESOL classes and is committed to a career in teaching. Andrew Wilson, 29, is an ESOL teacher who spent time in Niger as an agricultural worker.

“What the Peace Corps gives you is basically understanding that other people don’t interpret social skills the same way you do,” Mr. Wilson says. The second thing a volunteer learns, he says, is patience — waiting for transportation that may or may not come along and waiting for a child to develop in his or her own way.

Tim Chaney, 29, who was a public-health volunteer in Kenya, is another fellow at Kennedy, where he teaches five regular science classes — chemistry, physics and a course called nutrition science. Before joining the Peace Corps, he worked three years in a hospital laboratory and would probably have gone back to that job without being exposed to teaching, almost by accident, while in Africa.

Back home, he tries to enliven students by telling stories about his experiences there. In nutrition science, he describes the steps in how he made a chicken dinner in Kenya: “First you have to find a healthy chicken,” he says. “Then you have to kill it.”

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