This week we continued our efforts in the Polochic Valley town of Nueva Mercedes working in the local primary school in the morning, teaching computer classes in the afternoon and also hosting a myriad of extracurricular activities that include, gardening, arts and crafts and physical education.
Here is a quick update on the primary school situation—particularly second grade where we have seen success as of late. It seems that the second graders are at the perfect age and literacy level to really see positive short-term results from our supplementary actions in class. As we have reiterated many times our work in the classroom is mainly focused on:
-Making the job of the teacher as smooth and stress-free as possible
-Providing supplements to day-to-day lessons that offer the opportunity for students to be creative and utilize critical thinking and problem solving skills (both of which are absent from standard curriculums in the region)
-Eliminate teaching time lost from grading papers, maintaining order in the class, and monotonous busy work
This was the plan for all the classes we worked with and the short-term results have been very positive. Here is a snapshot of what it has been like in second grade. The second grade teacher, Martha, was great at maintaining order in the class, but lacked creativity and tactile activities that accommodate a wider range of learning styles. Also a few disruptive students were falling behind. They were constantly being disciplined so that the rest of the class could not function smoothly and were not getting the necessary one-on-one time to excel academically. After a few weeks in the class we identified these students and it was apparent that if they understood the lessons and were given the necessary attention to excel like their fellow students, both the disruptiveness and the academic shortcomings would be eliminated. Months later we can safely say that our strategy worked. The disruptive students were reseated in the front of the class and given special attention in each and every assignment by the teacher for the first month. As their confidence built and literacy improved we slowly began to ease off and help them less and less. The students now only require a little encouragement in the activities that are difficult for them but are functioning as part of the class and learning each day. The second issue (absence of creativity and tactile activities) was one that had a simple antidote. For each dull exercise by the teacher (usually involving a two-minute explanation of material followed by thirty minutes to an hour of copying by the students from the whiteboard), we incorporate solving of exercises on the board for the students who finish first, a game for all students that reinforces the new concept learned, and a tactile demonstration of the concept. For example, when studying how the heart works volunteers were selected: one was the heart, one played an arm, and two students pretended to be blood cells. Every time the heart clapped his hands, symbolizing one pump of the heart, the blood cells had to run across the room to the arm and then run back at the second clap. Tactile demonstrations like these grab the students attention, provide a supplementary explanation for students who did not understand the concept fully from the teacher’s verbal explanation and make students excited to then work individually on whatever homework or busy work has been assigned. The other main advantage of games, demonstrations and board drills is that they are the perfect filler for the time that was being wasted previously. Now when the teacher begins the day by grading homework from the previous night, the students will be playing a game or solving exercises on the board related to a previously learned concept. The result is a teacher who can efficiently grade the work with no distractions and a class that is receiving extra attention during this time. Board drills and games that require students to answer questions in front of the class have built confidence in each child in the class and developed their public speaking skills. In the first weeks students were terrified to answer a question in front of the class. This has changed to a culture of participation where students are now completing assignments faster in order to be the first to answer questions in front of the class or participate in a game.
There is still much work to be done and each grade has its own set of specific issues that need attention. However, short-term results have shown obvious increases in productivity and teachers’ morale. Long-term results, if we continue at the current pace of improvement will be monumental for the students, teachers and all the families of Nueva Mercedes.