TORTUGUERO, Limón – Seven children play games while talking about their lives to a family from the United States at Tortuga Lodge. It’s not easy. The children from the nearby rural village of San Francisco barely speak English. But that’s why the children and the guests are sitting together on the hotel lobby floor – to learn.
In early July, Tortuga Lodge and Gardens in Tortuguero, on the northern Caribbean coast, introduced a curriculum in which hotel guests work with children from San Francisco on beginner’s English. Michael Kaye, CEO of Costa Rica Expeditions, which owns Tortuga Lodge, presented the idea as a way to open up opportunities for the underprivileged children in San Francisco.
Each summer thousands of tourists overwhelm TortugueroNational Park to go for canal tours, turtle-watching tours and hiking expeditions. For the several hundred inhabitants of San Francisco, the best way to find employment among the popular tourist attractions is to speak English.
Kaye says he doesn’t want the program to be a gimmick. He brought in English-as-a second- language (ESL) experts to help mold the curriculum. If the program was bound to fail after a couple of months and disappoint the kids, Kaye didn’t want to attempt it.
After seeing the ESL teachers’ ideas put into practice and a consistent number of guests participating each week, Kaye says he sees the program’s potential.
“Now I’m convinced it’s a good idea,”he says.
Melany Ramírez, 10, might be the biggest star of the tutoring program’s inaugural class. She can greet visitors, tell people about her family and even talk a little football with British guests. Her class attendance since the program started is near perfect.
Melany is well aware of how this program can advance her future, and what the best job is for residents of Tortuguero: “A guide,” she says. “It’s a great job to have, that you need English for.”
Maciel Bermúdez, 11, who lives with her 10 brothers and sisters in San Francisco, has the same ambition, as does Héctor de Jesús Sánchez, 12.
Sometimes the students, who range in age from 9 to 12, are picked up in a speedboat and brought to the hotel for lessons and games. Other times the guests take the five-minute boat ride over to San Francisco. Lessons often are seven days a week. Classes last about an hour.
A bilingual tour guide employed by the hotel organizes and coordinates each class. The guide also serves as a medium between the English-teaching guests and the Spanish-speaking students.
Tortuga Lodge guide Alberto Martínez carries a box stuffed with puppets, paper, writing utensils, books and candy to the school in San Francisco. He passes out a lesson plan to three guests. The day’s lesson: numbers and using “There is …” and “Where is … ?” Guests sometimes invent games to teach the kids or use puppets to interact with them and keep the lessons lively. To learn “There is …” the class begins a round of “I spy.” To learn left and right and colors, the kids play the board game “Twister.”
Paul Flood, a British citizen vacationing in Costa Rica with his two daughters, taught the San Francisco students both days he stayed at the lodge. He says the first day the children seemed timid, almost scared. But on day two, the kids warmed up to the group of guests, which included Flood and two U.S. families.
“They were really a bright bunch,” Flood, 50, says. “They’re obviously really smart and they’re really motivated. And they really want to learn their English, and they do want to practice.”
Flood talked family, music and soccer with Melany. He also taught her the game hangman. They alternated between games in English and Spanish, with Melany winning every time. Flood says he loved the experience, and it made him feel more a part of the Tortuguero community rather than simply a tourist gawking at his unfamiliar surroundings.
He says he hopes his small contribution will pay off in the long run for Melany and the other students.
Kathleen Arnett, who has taught ESL students for two years and English for six, laid the basic groundwork for the program. She stayed at Tortuga Lodge in March, and Kaye invited her back in July to launch the tutoring program. In late July, Kaye asked Liesse Goldfinch, who has taught ESL classes since 1980, to implement a more detailed lesson plan for the students.
“It’s been very tough work, very interesting though,” Goldfinch says. “Of course we want the guests to be involved as much as possible, but we want to make sure the children are in a safe atmosphere emotionally, so they respond well and feel good about the class.”
Goldfinch lists several keys for the program’s survival and success, most relating to how to cope with the constant rotation of guest teachers. Structure is most important.
At times, the students can lose focus during a session. Goldfinch wants to make sure instruction is intimate; two hotel guests work in a group of four students. If the guests outnumber the students, the children tend to feel overwhelmed and shyness takes over.
Routine is also necessary for each class. Students need to know what to expect in class each day, even as the steady stream of substitute teachers brings a different teaching style and personality to each lesson.
As Kaye begins to better understand each of these factors, the more confident he becomes in the program, he says. His biggest worry now is the upcoming tourist low season. Rooms will be discounted in September and October to encourage tourists to spend a fall vacation in Tortuguero, he says.
Kaye is already hearing from acquaintances interested in starting similar tutoring programs in their parts of the country. Kaye acknowledges he’s a little wary about promoting the program at this early stage of development, but insists the formula is in place for the program to work.
“The fewer resources that we have to put into it – consistent with the kids learning quickly and the guests having a really satisfying time – the more sustainable it is and the more exportable it is, and the more likely it is for other places to pick it up,” Kaye says.
For information about Tortuga Lodge and its ESL program, call 2257-0766 or 2521- 6099, e-mail [email protected] or visit www.tortugalodge.com. Published rates at the lodge start at $118; contact the lodge for information on special low-season discounts.