Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Unorganized thoughts on my first month teaching

Finally, I feel like I’ve started teaching. Since arriving here 9 months ago, I’ve gone through 3 months of training, preparing me to teach, and almost six months of general observation and practice teaching within my site. Though the time has been valuable in many respects, it feels good to finally get started with my main project.

I work in two high schools in Palacaguina. I have three sections of 50-60 students in the main school and one section of 18 students in a school about 15 minutes outside of the town. I teach a Junior Achievement type course called La Empresa Creativa to the rough equivalent of US sophomores/juniors. Throughout the year, the students work in small groups developing a business plan and managing their small business. Most of the content is very hands-on as opposed to general business theory or definitions. For instance, the groups do a market study to determine what business to open, they sell shares in their company to fund the necessary start-up capital, and they keep track of the business accounting while producing and selling their product. For the most part, I really enjoy the material and the idea of the class, but it’s certainly not easy teaching it in Nicaragua.

A normal class has around 50 students and one teacher. There are no books for the students and besides a general outline of subjects to cover, the teachers have no curriculum. Oftentimes, the teachers are left to find class material on their own in libraries or the internet. Though they try to match specific skill sets with what class a teacher will teach, it doesn’t always work out, leaving, for example, a teacher who has studied English in college, teaching high school math.

Photocopying books or homeworks is too expensive, so generally, the teacher will copy down in a notebook definitions and one or two examples which he/she can dictate to the students during class. The students copy the definitions into their own notebooks, memorize the answers to homework examples and regurgitate everything on a test. There’s very little discussion or critical thinking involved in any class. In fact, many times when the teacher begins to discuss a point during the class, the students immediately start misbehaving and talking because they know that all they need to know for the test is what’s copied down in their notebooks.

So, given what the students are used to, you can imagine that it’s hard to teach a hands-on, project oriented class in your second language. But, things in my case aren’t too, too bad. For one, Peace Corps volunteers, over the last five years, have developed a book to teach the class, so I don’t have to make things up on the fly. The book is nicely written and well organized which has made it easy to plan my classes and give my students a fairly good idea of what we hope to accomplish during the year. I’m also working with three Nicaraguan teachers, meaning we team teach the class during the year, with the idea that at the end of my two year service, there’s two or three teachers trained and prepared to continue teaching the class. Though I’m doing most of the teaching right now, my Nicaraguan counterparts and I plan the class together and they help me within the classroom. And finally, I only have one 90 minute class period per section per week. In other words, my counterparts and I plan one class on Sunday, and then I give the same class four different times.

But, though the book, my counterparts, and the schedule are indeed helpful, it doesn’t mean things go smoothly. Most of my initial classes have been spent trying to teach things that I expected my students to already know. For instance, when I tried to form six groups by counting each student one through six, the students blankly stared at me. After getting them to understand how it would work and telling them where each group would meet, we counted off. In the end, half the class had forgotten their number and the other half asked me where their number was meeting. It was a disaster. But, the next week we did the same, though this time I taped numbers on the wall where each group was going to meet. Besides the four or five questions I got at the beginning of the class of why there were numbers on the wall, the process worked much better.

In the second week I spent almost ten minutes teaching how we were going to turn in homeworks. Normally if they have homework to turn in, the students surround the teacher as he/she walks in the door, waving papers in his face, screaming “Profe, Profe!!” By the time the teacher has collected all the papers and navigated his way out of the maze of students, no less than five minutes of class time has been lost and every student is out of his or her seat. It bothered the hell out of me watching this last year. So, the first day they had homework to turn in I turned away all the students that ran up to me, telling them I would collect it at the start of class. They all sat back down confused. At the start of class when I asked the students in the middle to pass their homework to the corners and the students in the corners to pass all of the homeworks to the front, I got more blank, confused stares. After showing them an example of what I wanted, the homeworks were turned in correctly. I wonder if they’ll remember the process this week.

Class discipline is also hard with 50 students. As I mentioned, the students aren’t used to answering questions or discussing material, so when I’m in the front teaching, the classroom is horribly loud and half of the students aren’t paying attention. But, if I start to write anything on the blackboard everyone quiets down and starts to scribble. I could seriously write whatever nonsense I wanted and they would copy it down without questions. Though it’s much easier to give a class with just definitions, I try to ask questions and hold discussions even if it means, right now anyway, that I have to yell over the other voices. I try to get them to raise hands rather than yell out the answer, I call on the troublemakers and put them on the spot, I praise the ones that are listening or participating, but it’s a long, uphill battle to reverse what the students have learned over the last 10 years in their other classrooms. I wish I could more accurately describe what the class room environment is like, but suffice it to say that it’s horribly tiring and completely frustrating trying to teach the students in a more dynamic manner than the simple dictation they’re used to.

On the other end is my class of 18 students at the rural school who wouldn’t talk if their life depended on it. The class is dead quiet no matter what I’m doing. I could walk in dressed like Batman and they would stare at me with the same confused, blank looks they give me everyday. I ask a question and 18 pairs of eyes immediately fall to the floor.

“Ramiro, name a business you know from your community.” Ramiro, sits there nervously pretending to scribble something in his notebook. I wait for what seems like hours and what must seem to him like days. I try to help him, give him examples, re-phrase the question so that all he has to say is yes or no, but I get nothing until Nubia helps him out, bailing the rest of the class out, including me. She’s the only one that ever talks or answers questions. One student out of 18. So though it’s a lot easier and more relaxing teaching at this school, it’s equally frustrating.

Overall I think things are going well given what I’ve heard from other volunteers and how I feel. It’s certainly frustrating and even though my students probably don’t quite understand yet why we’re teaching this class, I think the class is important specifically in this country. According to USAid, of 100 students that enter first grade, 11 graduate from high school. So, arguably, the ability to create and manage your own small business is more important than many of the more general high school subjects. And even still for the lucky few that move on and study at the university level, Nicaragua doesn’t have and isn’t generating sufficient places of work for its rapidly growing population. The chances that a university graduate finds work within his or her field is low, meaning these graduates need to know, at least in a general way, how to create and run a business. Will my students actually walk away from my class with this knowledge? I’m not sure, but if they raised their hands more in my big classes and weren’t so shy in my small class, I think we’d be a lot further ahead. We’ll see where we are in a few weeks.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Peace Corps Top Universities

A list of the colleges and universities that produced the most volunteers in 2006. University of Michigan sits at number 4 with 82 volunteers.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Syllabus Week

I had friends in college that used to call the first day of classes “Syllabus Day.” The idea was that on the first day of school, professors wouldn’t do much more than hand out the syllabus and talk about the class in general terms. For the most part it was true and it also happened to be a convenient excuse to skip the first week of school. With this in mind, I approached my first week of classes with low expectations, simply hoping I would be able to introduce the class to my students and to talk about what I expected of them. And now after a full week of “school” I realize how naively high those expectations were.

I arrived at the school at 8am on Monday, exactly the time I was told to show up. Though there were a handful of students that were waiting, I was the first teacher to show up. The others wandered in around 8:30. I felt a little weird being the first teacher there on the first day of school, but I’ve had plenty of experience waiting at the school. On my first day of classes in July I was told to show up on Thursday at 7:00am. I did as I was told, but then had to wait an hour before anyone else arrived. They had failed to mention that since the hour had “sprung forward,” 7am actually meant 8am. When the other teachers arrived and told me why I had had to wait, I cursed every single one of them under my breadth. Then I made sure, in the future, to confirm all meetings with a discussion as to whether the person was talking hora vieja, hora solar, or hora normal.

So, the late arrival of the teachers didn’t surprise me much. What did surprise me was that by 9am we were all still sitting in the teachers’ lounge not doing anything. Meanwhile, most of the students had arrived and were hanging out, running around, fighting, dancing, and enjoying “syllabus day.” Again, the students’ behavior wasn’t much different than any other normal day of school, but it was a little more active considering it was the first day of school and that all of the students had been asked to arrive at 8am as opposed to only half of them. At 10am we had a 20 minute “assembly” where the principal and the government representative spoke to all students and staff. At 10:30 the students were dismissed for the day and asked to return on Tuesday at 8am.

Not very productive I thought, but I had seen the warning signs. The two weeks prior to the first day of class, the teachers and administration spent the days waiting for the parents to arrive at the school to sign up their sons and daughters. I thought it was a bit strange that no one seemed to be working on a class schedule or assigning students to the morning or afternoon shift. The Friday before the first day of class the teachers didn’t know what classes they’d be teaching, if they’d be teaching in the morning or afternoon, or what their class schedule would look like. Why did I think that the first day of school would be organized?

Tuesday was more of the same disorganization and chaos. On Monday afternoon, the administration had decided which students would have classes in the morning and which in the afternoon. How did they let the students know Tuesday morning? They tried to congregate all of the students (900 strong) in front of the school to read students’ names and what shift they were assigned to. Did it work? Hahaha…

After getting through no more than 30 names, it was too loud to hear the teacher. So, they decided to give a list of students to each teacher and then allowed the students to run around trying to find their name. I didn’t ask why they couldn’t just tape the lists to the front wall. In fact, after I saw a girl start to cry because she wasn’t in the section she wanted to be in, I left too annoyed to stay to see what would happen next.

By Wednesday morning my expectations were low. All I really wanted to know was who I would be working with and when my classes would be. It didn’t happen. They got pretty far creating, rearranging, and discussing the schedule they made on the chalk board, but it was completely erased at 11am. At that point, I told my principal that she could call me when they knew my schedule and I left.

Though the tentative schedule was finally agreed to on Friday, they all tell me it will change. As for the students, they got through the first week with a little more than an hour of class time. Which I suppose is a good thing considering that many of the students decided not to show up until Thursday. At the rural school where I teach, 28 of the 150 students showed up on the first day. Is this because the students know the teachers won’t be organized/prepared or are the teachers unorganized/unprepared because they know very few of the students show up? I’m not sure (though there’s no excuse for the teachers being as unprepared as they were), but “syllabus day” just turned into “syllabus week” and I haven’t even gotten to address my students yet. We should have been so lucky in college.