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Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

The Third Question

Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Romania
Grades 6-8
Service Learning

Students will reflect upon the rewards of providing services to others, and whether by giving they might perhaps be gaining at the same time.


After studying the letter and engaging in activities, students should be able to explain how or why knowing a foreign language can help people make new friends and build a new life.

  • Tedious service may turn out to be meaningful in the end.
  • Service can take many forms, from lending a helping hand to listening.
  • Service can help change someone else's life drastically.


  •  Nina Porzucki's biography (find link above)
  • Map of Romania (find link above)


  1.  Ask students to imagine that they are on an airliner flying from Hong Kong, China, to San Francisco. The pilot is Chinese. What will happen when the plane reaches American air space? What kind of information will the pilot have to provide air traffic controllers and receive from them? How will he or she manage this? How important is it for the pilot to have information about guiding the plane to a safe landing? Explain that English has been agreed upon as the official language for air traffic controllers and international pilots, so that they can speak to each other no matter what country the pilots or controllers are from.
  2. Introduce the idea that at certain times in history, knowing an entirely different language from one's native language was important for professional or academic success. Mention that knowing Latin was important for status in the Roman Empire, even if one lived outside of Italy; Latin was the common language of academics living in countries all over Europe, which they used for communicating with each other and sharing ideas during the Renaissance. Arabic was so much the common language of trade at the time of Columbus that he brought along Arabic speakers, expecting that they would be able to communicate with the Japanese he expected to find. The term "lingua franca" means a common language shared by many who have distinct national languages of their own.
  3. Ask students if they can name the common language of academics today. Show your students the Language Chart (find link above)  and note from Ernest Garfield of the University of Pennsylvania (in color if possible). Why are so many academic papers published in English? Scientists from many countries often attend international conferences where the only common language is English. Point out that most Internet pages today and computer manuals are written in English, another reason many people want to learn the language. English is also an essential tool for international commerce. Peace Corps Volunteers teach English in response to requests from host countries, which recognize the usefulness of the language.
  4. Tell students they are going to read a story by a Peace Corps Volunteer who tells about a Romanian woman's efforts to learn a second language. If students do not know what the Peace Corps is, give them some background information. Then introduce them to Nina Porzucki. If you have not discussed Romania with your students in a previous lesson, locate Romania on a map in your classroom or pass out copies of the map available on the National Geographic Society website.
  5. Give out copies of Porzucki's letter and allow sufficient time for students to read it.
  6. Discussion questions:
    1. How does Porzucki feel about her job teaching English? (Answers may differ. Some may surmise that she is exhausted by it since she doesn't relish the idea of doing freelance work on the side. Others may infer that she likes it since she is willing to do it for so little money—but she does gets tired of being a "walking dictionary.")
    2. Why does Porzucki agree to help Mirela learn more English?
    3. What does Porzucki learn about Mirela's life? (Mirela has children; she is ambitious for them; she sacrifices for them; she wants to emigrate to give them a better life. She has lived a lonely life in Syria because she did not speak the language; in order to get her visa for New Zealand, she needs to speak English competently.)
    4. What will happen to Mirela if she fails to learn enough English? (She may not be allowed to emigrate. If she does get to New Zealand with a poor command of the language, she may be lonely there if she cannot communicate with her neighbors.)
    5. How does Porzucki feel after her first conversation with Mirela? How does she feel after she spends a day listening to Mirela? What do students think is the answer to Porzucki's "third question"—why she came to Romania? (She never explicitly says, so students can interpret and differ in their answers. For example, is the answer to the third question that Porzucki can help someone so meaningfully? Or is it that she—Porzucki—learned more than she taught? Or that she had skills that were more significant than she knew? How has Porzucki been rewarded for giving up her free time to work with Mirela? How has she been rewarded for her two years of service in Romania? (Answers will vary.) If the class has used other letters from Porzucki, remind students of the other issues she has written about
    6. Writing assignment: Ask students to write in their journals about an occasion when they helped someone else. Ask them to be sure to include who needed help, what the student did to help, what motivated the student to act, what the results were, and any reward, tangible or intangible, that came to the student as a result. If time permits, give students the opportunity to read their entries to each other as partners or to the class.

Frameworks & Standards

 Enduring Understandings
  • Competency in a second language, often if the second language is English, can open doors to opportunities in many fields and locations.
  • Reaching out to help others can yield rewards for the giver as well as for the recipient.
Essential Questions
  • How can learning a new language broaden one's prospects in life?
  • What are the rewards of service to others? 


  1.  If your class is interested in a student service-learning project, they can find guidance at the World Wise Schools service-learning unit available online. One obvious type of service activity related to this CyberVolunteer letter is tutoring students who are learning English or providing opportunities for them to practice.
  2. Work with a teacher of another language in your school to investigate reasons it is important for U.S. students to learn other languages besides English.
  3. Some students might be interested in researching and reporting on the several kinds of languages used for effective communication between people of different native tongues. Examples include Swahili, which is widely spoken in East Africa by many groups for whom it is not a native tongue—where it is known as a lingua franca—and Pilipino, which was created to allow members of almost 200 different language groups in the Philippines to communicate. Pidgin languages have existed for centuries, facilitating communication among people doing business with others whose language they don't speak. Pidgin speakers use a bit of their own language and a bit of other people's language to get along. (The term "pidgin" is likely derived from the Chinese pronunciation of the word "business" in "'business' English," the language used among foreign traders and local merchants in China. And creole languages are those that evolve from pidgin languages, when a widely used pidgin language is adopted as the mother tongue by a population.)
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