Make a difference as an ESL volunteer

Volunteers do not necessarily have the time; they just have the heart.
~ Elizabeth Andrew

As a volunteer for not-for-profit group English Volunteers for Change [EVOLC], which places aspiring ESL teachers in Costan Rican schools, I have nothing but praise.

EVOLC’s Alexandra Johnson, showing me the ropes during a two-day in-office orientation!

EVOLC’s Alexandra Johnson, showing me the ropes during a two-day in-office orientation!

They placed me at Escuela Nueva Laboratorio in San Jose for five weeks. For one’s first assignment teaching you’d have to say I lucked out! I received an outstanding introduction to teaching ESL, and EVOLC organiser Alexandra Johnson put me with a great host family living less than five minutes from the school in the cute and handy enclave of San Pedro.

EVOLC organised my pick-up from the airport, my first night’s accommodation and then two-day orientation, including a city tour. I was taken to my host family, who the next day walked me to my school to meet and greet my co-teacher. It was that well organised, and really put me at ease given it was first overseas ESL teaching assignment.

My co-teacher Silvia Córdoba Gonzalez, who is the English maestra at Escuela Nueva Laboratorio, couldn’t have been more welcoming.

Escuela Nueva Laboratorio’s English maestra Silvia Córdoba Gonzalez, with grade 6 students and EVOLC’s Alexandra Johnson.

She’s a hard worker teaching up to 30 classes each week! And she had enough trust in my new ESL skills to allow me to share the teaching load. I was responsible for grades 4-6, an older group, with “good” English skills, and I assisted Silvia with grades 1-3.

The hours I volunteered were just over five a day and I spent another five hours a week creating lesson plans. I could spend so little time on this because Escuela Nueva Laboratorio supplies coursebooks, including student books and the accompanying workbooks.

So you can see why I lucked out on my first assignment abroad teaching English! And I’d recommend volunteering as a great introduction to ESL if you’ve never done it before. Should you choose to come to Costa Rica, get in touch with EVOLC. You can’t go wrong.

Volunteers are paid in six figures… S-M-I-L-E-S.  ~ Gayla LeMaire

Carmen (right), Raul senior (centre) with Jimena and Raul jnr celebrating Carmen’s 61st!

Carmen (right), Raul senior (centre) with Jimena and Raul jnr celebrating Carmen’s 61st!

As to my hosts – Carmen, Raúl senior and jnr, Jimena and visiting daughter Silvana – who allowed me into their beautiful home, how can one person be so lucky as to meet such a wonderful family. Carmen, an ever-so-young 60something who looks 40something thanks to her health retreat-style of cooking inspires you with her energy and approach to life. I keep insisting her fruit and vegetable juices, concocted on a daily basis, need to the subject of their own daily blog. I can only hope and pray she does one day.

We often joke about Carmen’s tours, where she takes you on a walk around the area, or via the local bus, and trust me put your joggers on because you’ll need them to keep up!


On the go with Carmen, rain or shine!

The family has travelled extensively and through their hospitality hosting volunteers they get to meet people from around the world, including me, their first Australian visitor, although an intreprid neighbouring Kiwi got here first!

I am so sad to be leaving not only the school, my hosts but also the capital. It took a little getting used to but now I understand the Tico way of life, I’m liking it, a lot. My Spanish has improved and had I have stayed longer I would have mastered more of those super verbs – hay, tengo, eso, esto and esta – in all their past, present and future forms.

Costa Rica costs a little more then other countries to volunteer but it is really well set up with resources such as the internet which helps in the classroom given you need to distract those cheeky chicas and chicos often with a uTUBE clip or two. [Students couldn’t get enough of NASA Johnson style which inspired great conversations about Life on Mars and whether Johnson would ever do a similar parody on the Moon, let’s hope so!]

So if you too are in a country where utilising the net is easier, resource up on these sites: and which I can’t recommend enough. And… if you aren’t, i-to-i’s English Teacher’s Toolkit for $100 also helped with those ever-so-important warm-ups, stirrers and calmers!

Now, I just need to get a paid teaching ESL job so I can stay in Central America. It’s been that much fun and that rewarding! My next stop: and

Judy Wilkinson is a freelance writer who wants to secure paid teaching jobs in Central and South America. As an introduction to teaching, she volunteered for her first post in San Pedro, a 15-minute bus ride from the Costa Rican capital of San Jose.

Don’t knock the nouveau e-nerds

If at first you don’t succeed, call it version 1.0  – T-Shirt

Standing on the inside looking out!

Standing on the inside looking out!

Yep, I’ve joined the board of e-wisdom.
I just can’t get enough of learning online.
Some are webinars, others are videos,
all allowing me to start-stop as I please.
And that is what’s great about it,
you can laptop, tablet and smart phone
it on the go. Once I’ve downloaded the
course, the webinar waits for me!

I first got hooked on e-learning after being introduced to by British-turned Aussie Twitter guru Steven Lewis.
And the reason I keep going back is every so often I’m offered major discounts [up to 75 per cent] off courses that help improve my skills, anywhere at any time.

So far I’m managed to snare two free courses, and reduce one course by more than $70! I’m hunkered down on all the latest social media courses including Social Media Marketing for Startups given I’m on the path to start-up glory. And then there’s the must-have FREE Learning SEO program but I thought I’d buy Design, Develop & Sell WordPress Themes because it’s another way for me to make money in one of my chosen fields. At only $24, discounted from $97, you’d have to say it’s a bargain.

I’m not anti-social, I’m just not user-friendly  – T-Shirt

Everywhere you look online there’s something out there to help you e-learn. Finding the time to do it all is key and you’d have to agree with a friend of mine that technology has encroached so much on our lives that there’s really no reason to walk out the door.
Don't hide indoors, there's too much e[learning to go around!

Don’t hide indoors, there’s too much e[learning to go around!

If I could I would become a professional student. Instead I’ve joined the nouveau e-nerds and wear the badge proudly. My aim is to be working and earning big bucks, online of course.
So back to Udemy and other providers like it. I’m lovin’ the brave new e-world of studying. At the touch of my tablet, I’m connected to a free language site run by the BBC. Each week sends me interactive videos and course notes I can watch and read at my leisure.

While I’m here in Costa Rica, volunteering to teach English, it is necesario para mí para mejorar mi español so thanks to e-learning sites like the BBC, I’m practicing in the privacy of mi casa before venturing out to talk up a storm with the locals.

And I get to help others. My nouveau e-nerd status means I’m now that go-to person, the one you ask when you don’t have time yourself to find that great website that’ll take your career to the next stellar level. Of course, I don’t have the time either, I’m too busy learning about the value of SEO right now.

Adios, hasta la próxima vez

Judy Wilkinson is a freelance writer who is currently in Central America teaching ESL, trawling websites for others, e-learning about social media while finalising an app and website. Watch this space for the launch date!



Just keep working it!

A game of cat and koala!

A game of cat and koala!

There are three rules for writing a novel.
Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.
W. Somerset Maugham

Look and you will find. Makes you think of the word seek, so those smart people from Seek Australia got the host name right. Yet there are so many online sites to search jobs, you just need to seek out the right ones. Elance is a great one for people looking to utilise their skills around the world.

It’s a brave new world online. As Elance spruiks: work differently. You have to put in a bid to be considered for the job. Which is difficult at first. I mean how much is your expertise worth when there’s others in developing countries equally as talented and prepared to go as low as it takes.

The answer is to just keep bidding for multiple jobs. Like getting your foot in the door, once you’ve snagged one the rest follow. Since leaving a full-time job I’ve spent much time perusing work-related websites. I’m a member of so many worldwide organisations in need of writers for hire that my inbox at times goes into information overload.

The real skill is sorting the wheat from the chaff. Are these real offers, or just people seeing how low they can outsource a job. One online position cancelled their ad after deciding to do the work in-house. The writing was really on the chalkboard because the employer’s bidding price guide was expressed as “unsure”!

Dream a dream for someone else!

Dream a dream for someone else!

And yet I’m fascinated with the type of jobs on offer via Elance. One woman’s ad was about sending ideas for her mummy blog. If she likes YOUR idea you can send her questions and if she likes YOUR questions you will be invited to interview her over skype and if that all goes well YOU can ghostwrite her blog. She then reads it and if she likes it YOU get to post it up on her site! Of course, she too was unsure of what price guide to provide. And given her surname was theatrical I was intrigued whether she even existed, so I looked up her blog and I guess for young, inspiring nouveau riche mums living in exotic locations it has some value for certain readers.
If only the content was original.

Another “unsure on price” employer needed someone to turn his ebook dream into a reality. He’d written the plot outline, he just wanted someone “with excellent English” to expand it by 60,000-65,000 words. Mmmmmm. I’m not sure I’d want to put the hard yards in unless the ebook ran with both our names.

All this just makes one think about the unreal expectations some people have in life. Take the easy road. I guess if you can, why not. For me there’s nothing more rewarding than putting in the time, whatever it takes, to reap the rewards of coming up with an original idea, expressing your own thought and producing your own content. Yes, I’m old school but at least I’m trying to navigate the new school way of working online!

Judy Wilkinson is a former print journalist turned online freelance writer and ESL volunteer teacher while creating original content for a web and app soon to be launched in 2013.

Cheeky chicas and chicos

Get ready for the onslaught: 30 kids vying for your time!

Get ready for the onslaught: 30 kids vying for your time!

Niños, I teach a few, nine classes a week and 30 students per class. If they all show up that averages 270 kids a week! Add another 270 as I assist the co-teacher’s nine classes.

Imagine never teaching before and then facing 540 expectant faces week after week.

As a volunteer for a great organisation in San Jose, English Volunteers for Change [EVOLC], I front years 10-12 in grades 4 to 6. Some are interested in learning English as a second language, which is mandatory at Escuela Nueva Laboratorio, most are not!

Grade 6 to debate why English is required in Costa Rican schools!

Grade 6 to debate why English is required in Costa Rican schools!

To find out why we’ve challenged Grade 6 students to debate whether English should be taught in Costa Rican schools. The whole class virtually shouted “No!”, so you can see what we’re up against. It will indeed be interesting to hear what they deliver for the affirmative, and the negative for that matter.

Grades 4 and 5 are just as challenging. They love to colour in and listen to music so any audio or visual aid is going to get their attention and hopefully keep them interested for more than five minutes.

In San Jose, the capital, kids here rule the roost. They pay little attention to their profé [teacher] and think nothing of playing inside the classroom as if they were still outside enjoying recess.

The daily mantra is 1, 2, 3, silence please!

Cheeky Tico chicos!

Cheeky Tico chicos!

And it works, but you have to say it a lot. Never turn your back on these kids as it is a signal they can get out of their seats and dong their nearest classmate on the head. Then all hell breaks loose. You spend the next 10 minutes calming them down.

So best that both teachers maintain eye contact all times with these little cheeky chicos and chicas, which is difficult: two against 30!

That said, if you want to take some time out to help schools in need and do something rewarding, teaching is a great way to give back.

I have to follow the school curriculum, so coursebooks are provided. It helps if you have more than just a little Spanish, in my case, under your belt, but brush up on words such as sit down [sientese], be quiet [callarse], listen [escuchar], listen and read [exuchar y leer], write [escribir], draw [dibujar] and to be polite, always say please [por favor] following the request.

School is over, for another day, at least!

School is over, for another day, at least!

The best part of the day is going home, not because you’ve had enough, but simply knowing you may have imparted one word of wisdom,  in English of course!

Judy Wilkinson is a freelance writer who hopes to secure paid teaching jobs in Central and South America. As an introduction to teaching, she volunteered for her first post in San Pedro, a 15-minute bus ride from the Costa Rican capital of San Jose.

Did you see that? Obama waved back!

Police guards all roads leading in and out of San Jose the morning the US President's arrival.

Police guards all roads leading in and out of San Jose the morning the US President’s arrival.

There’s something comforting experiencing a city under siege. Thousands of police officers lining streets, locals nowhere to be seen. The normal buzz of a busy city ground to a halt. What better way to get downtown!

Of course you have to be prepared for the bus driver to come up with ingenious ways with all the road closures to get the few passengers into town. A hairpin turn or three around extremely narrow streets before being ceremoniously dumped somewhere near Avenida 2. Perfect. Just where one needed to be to watch US President Barack Obama drive by and return again.

And, yes, I swear he waved back! Even the owner of stall 3 at the Artisan Markets, next to Parque Nacional, believed he waved. He and everyone else at the market were out in force filming the spectacle on their smart phones. I said it was probably a guard seated in his place holding a machine gun. But he wouldn’t be convinced. The US President had waived back. So I’ll go with that!

Police guard Avenida 2 as  US President Barack Obama's entourage drives by!

Police guard Avenida 2 as US President Barack Obama’s entourage drives by!

What a chaotic time for Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose. Even the local florist on the corner of Calle 11 and Avenida 2 moved her chair closer to the barriers to get a better look. She said it had been the same yesterday, the day Obama arrived. But this morning between 9am until just after noon, on the US President’s final day in the San Jose, only workers and sightseers on foot were allowed into the city centre.

For over an hour helicopters flew over, high-speed police bikes swept through the avenue, more bikes, police cars, surveillance trucks, then a posse of police bikes, followed by one high-speed motor cycle, and then a high-speed car stopping suddenly to pick up one of the police on the street and as they drove by a not-so-secret hand signal went up. Next minute the sirens sounded, another posse of bikes and finally the black limousine with the US flags on each side drove by. Impressive. So much so I just had to stick around for the return drive down Avenida 2.

Hair one minute, gone the next at Ashe Lounge & Spa!

Hair one minute, gone the next at Ashe Lounge & Spa!

But how long would that be? The police weren’t sure if they’d come back this way. The previous day officials diverted the return route … so one could stick around in vein. Not to be dissuaded I hung out at Ashé, a nearby Lounge & Spa, where the owner persuaded me to part with 12 million colones [$US24] for a wash, cut and dry.

So while Obama visited a business school nearby, I sat in a beautiful salon filled with no patrons but me, the police outside guarding the street, all of us doing what we needed to do while we waited for the US President to return.

For me that was being served only the best Columbian coffee Ashé had to offer. As I savoured each sip chatting about how some Americans I met were slipped a hotel note advising them not to open their windows during the presidential stay, I could only wonder whether Obama was getting as good a Tico welcome as me. And as luck would have it, I was done and out by the time Barack was on his way back!

Chaos one minute, normal the next

Here comes Obama waving goodbye!

Here comes Obama waving goodbye!

So at 12.10 on a Saturday afternoon, Obama’s entourage of police escorts once more swept through followed by that now famous limousine down the avenue. Within minutes the barriers were down, cars and buses appeared out of nowhere as did the locals. Life was back to normal and weekend trade could begin.

It was time for me to get out of the city.

Judy Wilkinson is a freelance journalist who by good fortune or plain serendipity got to enjoy in style the drama of US President Barack Obama’s two-day visit to Costa Rica!

Lock down: the US President is coming!

Casa Amorilla [Foreign Ministry] rolls out the red carpet for Barack Obama.

Casa Amorilla [Foreign Ministry] rolls out the red carpet for Barack Obama.

Last night Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla Miranda gave her yearly state of the nation speech after Ticos enjoyed the day off. Tomorrow US President Barack Obama arrives in San Jose, and again Ticos get a day of rest. More so for security reasons but it is being flagged as a long weekend gift to Ticos to enjoy themselves and spend up big. The economy could do with a cash injection of the retail kind.

So what about the US President’s visit? It seemed to be a case of who really knew Obama was on his way! No one seemed to know in the school where I teach. The news hadn’t made it to grass roots Tico teaching society though they were aware parts of the capital would be shut down. That was the talk during recess when teachers gathered around the coffee machine.

And yet only two days ago, the Tico Times ran with a story saying the security operation for President Obama’s visit was the “biggest in Costa Rica’s history!” So why wasn’t everyone talking about it. Why weren’t classes swept up in a visit of such grand proportions. After all, Obama is only the seventh US President to visit Costa Rica after president-elect Herbert Hoover in 1928, John F. Kennedy, a favourite of Ticos, in 1963, Lyndon Johnson’s brief stop during a flight to El Salvador in 1968, Ronald Reagan in 1982 and George W. Bush in 1989. The most recent trip was by Bill Clinton in 1997.

Truth be known Obama’s visit is big news and the whole city is on high alert, well for some secret service types, so the Tico Times reported:  “Following deadly attacks in Boston and an attempted poisoning of the president with ricin, Costa Rica will employ 1000 police officers, 180 intelligence agents, 150 Traffic Police officers and an unreported number of US Secret Service agents to guard the US and Central American presidents.”

From midday tomorrow, Costa Rica will experience “22 unusual hours of massive security deployments” across the capital. Not only will there be street closures but neighbourhoods, commercial buildings and public services will be locked down during Obama’s visit.

Practising rolling out the red carpet a week prior to Obama's arrival in San Jose, Costa Rica.

Practising rolling out the red carpet a week prior to Obama’s arrival in San Jose, Costa Rica.

Obama and other presidents from Central America and the Dominican Republic will be escorted to Casa Amarilla, as the historic Foreign Ministry building is known. The presidents of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica along with Obama will be discussing trade, security, immigration and energy matters, officials were reported to have said.

So now I know after arriving in San Jose last week and visiting the famous Casa Amarilla [yellow house], why staff were practising rolling out the red carpet!  I thought there was some “unusual movement” by municipal and other police!  The Tico Times shed some light on that reporting that secret service agents and Costa Rican police officers had swept through downtown neighbourhoods interviewing residential and commercial building owners demanding personal details!

Back to the coffee machine at school. It seemed no one was that impressed. The visit by such high-ranking government officials was just another inconvenience. And I must admit how quickly I fell in step thinking their arrival was indeed problematic given I’d made plans to vacate the capital. Chances are, I’m told, I won’t get through downtown to join the tour bus to Tortuga Island

Chilling out on Tortuga Island.

Chilling out on Tortuga Island.

So what is one to do during an enforced lockdown? The only thing is to visit some of the “amazing” museums, via the internet! When in downtown San Jose at the  weekend, a Faulty Towers’ Manuel lookalike, and soundalike, helped me choose a card to send home. I was looking for something quintessentially Costa Rican.

Carlos José Juan Jesús Alonso Martín Sanz Rodríguez has many talents. He likes to travel the world, he is a local tour guide, he teaches English and he works in a card and bookstore similar to Hallmark in the US/Dymocks in Australia, and he isn’t shy in promoting his other sources of income on company time.

But what struck me about Carlos was his enthusiasm for life. He shunned other Spanish-speaking customers to take time to show me the “hamazing” website on Magical Trees, which of course is also available as a book at his store. Concerned about the other customers, he replied. “Don’t worry, Ticos take their time looking at things, we love to talk!”

So as he pulls up the website, and writes down directions to the exhibit, he excaims: “Hit es hamazing! Hi love eet. Ju must visit the display!” I promised I would but Carlos wasn’t about to let me get off so lightly. “Ju must visit it, won’t ju, eets hamazing, Hi love hit?” he urged. “Of course I will, it looks beautiful,” I replied. “Promise ju will visit. Ju must experience the trees of my country, eets hamazing, hi love hit!. And hi love your country. Hi want to go there. Hi’m a world traveller, ju know. Hi travel everywhere … via the internet!”

So this afternoon on the eve of Costa Rica’s biggest lockdown in history as the local horns blare with a political message I can’t understand, I plan to honour my promise to Carlos… and take a peak at that “hamazing” website of beautiful Costa Rican trees.

Judy Wilkinson is a freelance writer, potentially stuck in San Jose during President Obama’s inaugural visit to Costa Rica.

Livin’ la vida locally

Known for its laid-back attitude and Caribbean lifestyle, Puerto Viejo allows visitors to experience Costa Rica’s most exotic side.  This beautiful beach town has a unique blend of Latin, Afro-Caribbean and Bribri indigenous cultures.

Known for its laid-back attitude and Caribbean lifestyle, Puerto Viejo allows visitors to experience Costa Rica’s most exotic side.

I still haven’t got to the bottom of why Costa Ricans, better know as Ticos, like to adorn their beautiful homes with barbed wire. I guess the five bullet holes in the bedroom window where I sleep provide a clue.

Yet, I’m living on the good side of the tracks in San Pedro, just a 15-minute mas o menos bus ride from the bright lights of San Jose, the capital. The host family I’m staying with are well to-do and appreciate some of the finer things in life such as expensive groceries, white goods and furnishings. Similar to Australia really except they are locked up inside their home, fenced in by security grills and watched over by a neighbourhood security guard as a daily reminder that something more sinister possibly lurks outside.

Since arriving I’m yet to witness any danger, except when walking around the streets. There are few intact footpaths; the pavement looks like it has had a sledge hammer taken to it. Thinking back to the earthquake here in September last year, I innocently asked my host what was up with the poor maintenance of sidewalks. To my astonishment she replied that the local government, or municipality as it is called, fix them only once, then maintenance falls to the home owners!

So of course, it is the last thing they worry about.

With this in mind each day as I walk less than 10 minutes to the local school where I’m teaching as a volunteer I’m forced to traverse terrain, the pavement, with the attitude of cross-country runner. At times, the concrete is above my head and I have to clamber up to get to the next flat surface.  And then there are those gorilla tactic holes in the ground where I’m sure some nasty type covers over to catch unsuspecting gringo shoes, or feral cats and dogs of which there are a few! It is the strangest juxtaposition: such a modern group of people living in such poor conditions. And it doesn’t seem to bother them!

Slow things down

Everything is tranquilo, muy tranquilo! Ticos like to live life in the slow lane at work and at home … that is, until they step outside!

Out in the open it’s a free for all and most gringoes come off last. Never get in a Tico’s way in the street and on the road. They’re all on a mission!

It’s the same trying to catch a bus at the weekend or in rush hour. Line up and jump in head first preferably so you can pay the driver as you’re swept to the back.

Once seated, everyone reverts to a more “gentle” way of treating fellow passengers. Apart from this minor flaw, the people themselves show little of their violent past. Yet I’m reminded often that there’s violence on the streets. Gangs, drugs and alcoholism are everywhere in Central America, so keep your head down and play it safe. Be home by dark, or get a cab. Apparently people here are very jealous if you have something they don’t. In their minds, all foreigners are well off. You only have to look left and right in downtown San Jose to witness the poverty on the streets. Good paying jobs are hard to come by, especially post GFC.

Parking meters installed in early 2013 in San Jose.

Parking meters installed in early 2013 in San Jose.

So people assign themselves to self-imposed jobs like watching out for car inspectors now that new meters have been installed. They hope if they save someone from being fined the owner will be grateful and throw them a few coins. And in the mall there’s watchers for unlicensed street vendors. A cat call goes out and they all disappear. Once the coast is clear, the municipal police have walked on by, they reappear just as quickly.

I guess that’s what you have to love about this city. It is so vibrant and colourful, so poor yet so rich in tradition. It’s really a city you wouldn’t want to miss despite the overhanging threat of violence.

Judy Wilkinson is a freelance writer, currently volunteering as an English teacher for a school in need in San Pedro, east of San Jose.