Noelle, left, and Vienna, far right, Schmitter-Schrier teach children in El Salvador how to count in English using jump rope.
Photo courtesy Lisa Schmitter
They may still be students, but Noelle and Vienna Schmitter-Schrier, 13 and 11, are teachers at heart.
Last year, the girls' parents moved with them and their younger sister Treava, 6, to a small village in El Salvador for eight months in order to show their children a different lifestyle.
"We wanted to expose our children to a different culture and to learn Spanish," said Lisa Schmitter, the girls' mother. "We ended up with this opportunity to go live in this small village and we just decided to go for it."
After arriving in El Salvador, the family decided that they wanted to get involved in community service and discovered that the people in the village wanted to learn English. At the time, the family wasn't sure that they wanted to teach English because they wanted to remain as culturally sensitive as possible, but Schmitter said that they changed their mind after seeing the benefits that English can have.
"The average daily wage (in the community) is four dollars a day," she said. "English is one of the major ways for people to be able to improve their chances of getting a better job."
For four and a half months, the family rotated through the classrooms of the village's school teaching English. In November and December, the school went on break, but Noelle and Vienna continued to teach students while Schmitter instructed teachers in how to teach English.
The family taught using the Theory of Multiple Intelligences, which was developed by Dr. Howard Gardener, a professor of education at Harvard University, in 1983. The theory uses linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal and naturalist intelligences to present lessons. For example, Noelle and Vienna would teach verbs by playing "simon says," or demonstrate counting using a jump rope. They also implemented drama and acting into their lessons.
"It was really fun but hard to be able to obtain confidence in front of (the students)," Noelle said.
For her work in El Salvador, Noelle was named one of Alaska's two State Honorees for 2008 by The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards and will receive $1,000 and a silver medallion. Vienna was also recognized by the organization.
"It was really bad that we couldn't have both won because we were both equal in the amount that we worked on it," Noelle said.
State honorees, 102 in all, were selected from around the country and will travel to Washington, D.C., to attend an award ceremony at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. A national selection committee will name 10 National Honorees, who will receive an additional $5,000 as well as a $5,000 grant from The Prudential Foundation for the charitable organization of their choice.
"I'm extremely proud of them for what they've done," Schmitter said. "It's difficult to teach, but to teach your peers is even harder."
Since their eight months in El Salvador, Noelle and Vienna have been trying to raise funds for the village. Last year, they held an auction with Central American goods and crafts to fund scholarships for the kids to attend high school, which costs $150, and to buy books for the school.
Noelle said that she hopes to be named a national honoree because the money could help more children continue their education.
According to Schmitter, the family's living conditions in El Salvador were very different than they are here in Alaska.
"My kids have never seen poverty like that," she said. "The trash factor and cobblestone streets and dog poop everywhere ... that was pretty hard to get used to. ... Here in America life is definitely at a different pace so I think we all miss the leisureliness (of El Salvador)."
Despite the initial feeling of culture shock, Schmitter said that the family adjusted well.
"After that first week all of that started to fade as the smiles of the people and the spirits of the people began (to replace that). I think we all found out that language doesn't matter if you have a good sense of humor and can smile and laugh and play."
Noelle and Vienna said that it was difficult to adjust to the new culture and that it was also hard to make friends because of the differences in lifestyle.
"The culture, especially the trash, was a big issue for us," they said. "It's so different that it's hard at first. One of the factors is that they don't do spending the night or coming over to play because they have to work."
Both girls said it was hard, but that their parents keep telling them that they'll thank them when they're older.
Molly Wakins, 17, of Kenai, was also recognized by The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards for her work on an environmental awareness campaign called "Make a Switch, Make a Difference," which encouraged Alaskans to use energy-efficient florescent light bulbs. Ariel Lyon, 17, of Juneau, was selected as the second State Honoree for Alaska and will be travelling to Washington, D.C., with Noelle.
Hannahlee Allers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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