Living abroad with WorldTeach, volunteers have many chances to participate in new cultural traditions. Sometimes these celebrations happen at school and WorldTeach volunteers learn to be flexible and open to new experiences. In Colombia, WorldTeach volunteer Jena Ladenburg recently had the chance to take part in Carnival festivities at her school. Read on to hear about her experience and to see how she adapted quickly to the changes in her schedule brought about by the celebrations…




Okay, so I was going to update you all on what I’ve been doing the past few weeks, and maybe I still will. The beach, corner tiendas, salsa dancing, and trying to figure out this whole teaching thing have been adventures in themselves. However, right at this moment, I have the urge to write about my experience at school today. What was so special about school today? Well, it was basically everything I’ve learned about Colombia so far…in a nutshell.


I should start by telling you all that last week, I was named the Reiña Internacional (International Queen) of Carnaval at our school, Maria Inmaculada. My hunch is that the teachers just wanted to see if I would rise to occasion, or be too shy and decline. I ROSE! The girls were all really excited to have me dance the traditional cumbia in front of the whole school, which I did last week on Friday. I was up there dancing with the queen of the teachers, and the queens of each classroom. I wasn’t very good at it, but they loved it all the same, and that’s all that matters anyways.


At the beginning of this week, my students informed me there would be another Carnaval event today, (Thurday), and that we would not be having class after the 3:40 recess. That meant that the last two classes of the day for me would be canceled. Alright, I’ll just move the test to Monday, I thought to myself. So, I planned accordingly for 3 of my classes today. When I arrived at school, however, everyone was already dressed up in elaborate costumes and about half the students were practicing dancing. The rest were just hanging around. This was at 1:00 in the afternoon, the time my first class was supposed to begin. What else was there to do besides deal with it like a Colombian (or more specifically, a costeño)? So, I greeted all my students excited faces, sat down, and watched them dance for a bit. One of my fellow teachers approached me and asked “where is your skirt?” I was supposed to get a long, flowing skirt, since I am the Reiña International. The thing is, if I’m going to get a beautiful skirt, I’m going to get it done right. Amparo’s (my host mom’s) sister offered to make a skirt for me. She is a seamstress and will do an amazing job. She just took all my measurements yesterday, so the skirt will take a few days to make. Unfortunately, in the meantime, I am skirtless. I explained to my fellow teachers that I will have the skirt for the big celebration next week!


Since it clearly looked like we would not be having classes at all today, I walked back home to drop my things off. No sense in having all my books and my computer at school when they didn’t need to be. I told Amparo what the teachers said to me about the skirt. A couple minutes later she came out of her room with a long skirt for me to try on. It wasn’t in traditional bright carnival colors – it was actually cream colored skirt with soft floral patterns. However, it was long and it worked for cumbia! I quickly changed and went back to school.


carnival 1


When I got back to Maria Inmaculada, I expected the assembly to start fairly soon. So, I asked the other teacher, Maria, if she knew when it was starting. Not until around 3:40, was her reply. “Oh, and can you please stay with the students in 5th grade in the classroom for a while?”, she added. Oh boy. I had JUST dropped off all my lesson materials thinking we were starting the assembly soon, and now I have a class full of hyped up, dressed up girls who I really doubted would be thrilled to cut the excitement for an hour to listen to me teach English. Plus, the students who would be performing in the assembly were practicing loudly RIGHT outside the classroom, distractions galore! Just go with it, I told myself. I walked in the classroom, dodging the millions of questions I always receive from the girls: Seño, do you have siblings? Seño, what’s your mom’s name? Seño, do you like One Direction? Seño, I’m a Belieber. Are you? Seño…Seño…Seño….You get the picture! (Seño is short for Señorita, which I just learned yesterday. The whole time I was confused as to why the students were calling me Señor, which is what I thought they were calling me.)


I started telling the kids to sit down, in English and Spanish, and once most of them were seated I did my ‘attention’ signal: “Ears Open!” “Eyes Snap!” “Mouths Quiet.” The students repeat each phrase after I say it. A fellow volunteer and ex Marine named Joe taught me that during practicum. Apparently it’s similar to a Marine training technique…whatever works, right? Next, I asked the students to take out their notebooks. About 3 of them had their notebooks. Great. Today will just be a conversational type of class I guess. I borrowed white board markers from a student (for some reason a lot of students carry extra ones for the teachers), and I started asking the students to name sports they knew in English. I drew them on the board and labeled them as we went. My attempt to draw a volleyball was so poorly done that a student actually came up and corrected it after we were done with the activity. After about 15 minutes of that, I could tell there was no way I could win over the excitement of the day. English teacher v.s. pre-Carnaval activities? I’m not even ashamed to say, I gave in. Hangman, anyone? They were much more pumped about hangman. At least I was able to create sentences with the grammar structures we were learning about, right? Ten minutes into the game, the other teacher came and told me to go to another classroom with a different group of students, just two doors down from my current room. I went, and then the students there said no, you are supposed to go to the other room (which was the room I just came from). I thought maybe I misinterpreted the teachers Spanish, which has happened before. I was very confused and couldn’t find the other teacher to clarify. Typical. All the students ended up moseying outside to watch the performers, and I didn’t stop them. I wanted to watch too, not to mention I had no idea what exactly I was supposed to be doing with the non-performing students.


Just then, the students who had been practicing for their performance in the assembly came over as asked me to dance with them. Since all the students who were supposed to be in classrooms were already standing outside watching, I obliged. It was so much fun! The kids who weren’t performing in the assembly all sat around, watched, and cheered as the Reiña of 5th grade taught me their routine. The costume for the class was the ‘Congo’, which meant that all the kids had tall, African inspired hats with colorful flowers glued to them. When Maria came back and saw I was dancing with the kids, she made me a hat also. The child Reiña walked me through each step of their show. The kids were so cute, all of them asking if I was dancing with them, and when I said yes they got so excited! Whatever I did, they told me I was great at it, as if I could do no wrong in their eyes. It was a strange and amazing feeling, to be so accepted with open arms into this new cultural experience. They girls were so fun to watch. I liked watching them practice better than the actual performance. There was no nervousness to be seen during practice – only the sheer joy of dancing with their peers and having fun! It was truly a beautiful experience they shared with me today.


carnival 2


After a while of practicing, they had recess, and I took some time to enjoy a bolly (basically a jello ice pop) that I bought at the tienda at the school for 200 pesos. The assembly started after recess, with the usually chaos and confusion that I have begun to grow accustomed to. The loudest women out of all the teachers was trying to get the students to quiet down, and simultaneously direct them to their places. The quietest the students ever became was a dull, continuous murmur, and even that level of quiet was hard to reach. Inevitably, the teacher continued to talk over the students and began the assembly. Similar to the last assembly, each class had a costume and their own dance to perform. When it was our turn to go, I could see that the kids were both nervous and excited. There wasn’t as much room on the stage as there was for us outside, which created a bit of confusion, but overall I think the kids were great. After all the performances the kids all went around to different tables that had already been set up, and sampled traditional foods of the coast. They had soups, sweets, yucca, and more. I made the mistake of trying a hot drink made of mashed up plátanos, milk, and cinnamon. Since I don’t like bananas, I am not a huge fan of plátanos either. I ended up giving mine to another student. I walked home feeling tired but very pleased with how the day went, despite the change of plans.


I said at the beginning of this post that this day represented Colombia for me in a nutshell. There was confusion, chaos, laughter, culture, generosity, beauty, food, community, joy, and a welcoming embrace to be a part of something new. Those things describe so many of my experiences here so far, and I’m sure will ring true to those yet to come.


– Jena Ladenburg, WorldTeach Colombia 2014-2015

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