Sunday, March 6, 2011

School Daze: Getting Started

In the middle of January, school started. Ela works with Junior High aged kids in the next town over. I’ve more or less agreed to do team teaching with her. I was particularly interested in helping out with the Home Ec class as a means to teach nutrition, which fits right into my program of Food Security. On the first day of school I also said I would give one afternoon a week to meet with whoever was chosen to teach English, since the person who had taught English last year took a different job and was not going to be replaced. None of the other teachers speak English. So, I planned to work with three age groups on Mondays and Wednesdays.

Week I:

On the first day of school, a Monday, we had an all school assembly. Everyone crammed into a classroom to review the rules and introduce the teachers (including yours truly). The kids were told not to come on Tuesday, so the teachers could get things straightened out. By that I mean deciding on a course schedule and which teachers would teach each subject. Apparently teacher planning days before the school year begins is not a norm here.

The next day some Mayan Justice was handed down on an apprehended thief (in this case, just some public shaming). So, the teachers went to watch the spectacle.

On Wednesday there was still no schedule, so they went by last year's schedule. Theoretically. They were doing it by memory, and not everyone's memory lined up. Ela and I used the day to do introductions with the kids. She already knew most of them, but they each stood up and said their name for my benefit. Generally they were quiet and didn't enunciate much, sometimes talking from behind their hand. Side conversations were rampant with the other kids, leaving me unable to distinguish 80% of the names, so Ela repeated each name loudly and clearly afterward. In the end it felt a little futile, since my mind is not a steal trap for names after hearing them once and it took a lot of time. On the other hand, we had nothing planned for the class period, so…

After all the names, Ela gave a little monologue of her advice for the kids as the year starts. She lamented the attrition rate. Of 36 kids from 2nd Básico last year, 20 advanced to 3rd. Of the 76 from 1st last year, about 45 made it into 2nd. Some of this is drop outs, some is people being held back to repeat a year. There were also some new faces, so I imagine others chose to go to a different school, since there were some transfer kids coming in. 

Next she warned them against romance, since apparently the congress is considering outawing noviazgo (dating) in the schools, with expulsion as the consequences. How all this is defined or enforced seems unclear. Regardless of whether that ever makes it onto the books, she blames early marriage for a lot of the attrition, and laid on a heavy guilt trip about how many hours their parents work in the sun to afford to send their kids to school.

Finally, she forbid the kids from speaking K’iche’ in class. Anyone caught speaking K’iche’ will have to write lines (in Spanish) as punishment. On the one hand, I get that they’ll never get good at Spanish if they’re not forced to use it consistently (that’s how any foreign language goes). On the other hand, part of me cringed as she told them that K’iche’ is fine at home but it will never get them anywhere in life and will only lead to discrimination against them. How true that is, I don’t claim to know, but it made me think of the many languages already lost around the world and mourn a little.  

Week II:

Ela had volunteered to teach English, and rearranged the schedule so most of the English classes would be on Mondays and Wednesdays when I would be there anyway. That would be fine, except it means I miss out on the bulk of Home Ec classes, which had been switched to Tuesdays (when I take K’iche’ and cannot get to the school). 

Ela and I only work Monday-Wednesday, so when we arrived on the next Monday, we still didn't know who we would be teaching at what times.  Apparently there was no way to communicate that to us between Thursday and Monday.  (Cell phones?  Anyone?)  As we looked at the schedule, it became clear we were scheduled in multiple places simultaneously.  We pointed the issue out, and it was resolved the following week.

Monday, we made things up on the spot in the classrooms, because we hadn't known who, what, or when we would be teaching. Not all the kids had desks, so we lost some class periods looking around for seating in storage, cleaning it off, and getting it into the classroom. We also spent some time electing the Junta Directiva (student council) for each grade.

Week III and Beyond:

By the third week, things were settling into a rhythm, of a sort. At least we started in on content.

The school didn’t know when exams would be or when each quarter would begin and end (apparently that's decided at a national level). Even if Ela been interested in sitting down with me for long range planning, it would have been a challenge. 

We did a diagnostic quiz on the English level of the kids, and the 3rd year and 2nd year students didn't know anything from the previous years' curriculum, so we started everyone on the first year stuff. Home Ec consisted of dictation.  

My inner camp counselor was screaming to get these kids out of their desks and doing activities. Happily, Ela is excited to work actual cooking into Home Ec, and we made Jam last week. One small step, but a good one. Despite my best intentions not to be sucked into actually being the English teacher and making sure to just provide support, I'm essentially taking over that class on the days I'm there. We'll see how well I can ease back out of that, and if it's worth the effort. I learned yesterday that exams for the quarter are probably only two weeks away, so we'd best figure out what we can test the kids on.

I love having scheduled things to do each week. I love working with kids again. My direct communication skills are being challenged and honed as I negotiate just what my role will be.  I am learning tons about how the education system works here, and while I see many hurdles, I am glad this is becoming part of my daily work.  

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