Thursday, July 25, 2013

Cambia, Todo Cambia

Positive energy, rather than mosquitoes, has been currently swarming us here in the Polochic Valley as we are seeing and feeling tremendous development in our impact in the school-day, our after-school class, and our overall presence in the community of Nueva Mercedes. A proposed library system, four fixed computers, greater scheduled computer/reading/art classes, proposed singing classes, and weekly river trips, it's almost overwhelming, yet music to our ears and kudos to our efforts.

The relationships that we are building with the teachers --what I find to be perhaps one of the most important steps--is really beginning to blossom, as there are conversations before, during and after classes about how we want to be more involved in and out of school, and likewise how they can be more involved in what we are doing (This was a problem I  faced and have noted again and again, and perhaps it is just time permitting, but also for future volunteers, I'd like to note that it is imperative to take the initiative to reach out to the teachers and get to know them as best as possible for we must learn to feed off of each other.)  With attendance for our after-school class climbing above thirty children we have proposed a solution for the teachers to help promote and support us by dividing the children into two groups based on grades: first, third, fourth, and second, fifth, sixth. They gladly accepted and now the teachers each have a fixed weekly schedule posted in their classrooms that identifies which group practices on each day and likewise they announce reminders at the end of class. This little effort by the teachers is important as they are the main authoritarian figures on the school grounds, thus it reminds the children that our class is an extension of the school-day, and deserves the same mandatory level of respect. Most importantly, this involvement signifies a bridge between the two teaching bodies, which at times in the past seemed detached from and disharmonious with one another.

School director, Reginaldo, has been of great help lately by lending us school records of student evaluation scores permitting us to begin developing a statistic-based tracking system that will allow us to see our impact in student performance. Also, he has approved of our plan to introduce a library system where children can check out books for certain amounts of time to bring home and read. This idea was inspired by the discovery that very few children in Mercedes have access to books , therefore have zero opportunity to read leisurely outside of school. Our small volunteer operated library would be a means to provide children with books to bring home and practice reading, and hopefully will promote greater reading interests among all ages in the community as well as responsible behavior since the children will be expected to care for the books and return them on time in the same condition when borrowed. Lastly, Reginaldo has spoken to the first grade teacher Anna on behalf of us and received permission to open up her room in the afternoon to be used for our after-school agenda. Our plan is to have the computers in one classroom with only the students practicing, and the other classroom to be a library setting or art class. This idea including the split groups we find to be a potential solution to the on-going problems we have faced in regards to distractions and over-crowding.

Since the arrival of our current volunteers over a month ago our after-school class has tremendously improved. Being here for the entire school year, it is an incredible experience to see something step by step grow and mature as new minds and personalities contribute what they can. Beyond the arts which Jess has been largely responsible for (check out last weeks Blog by Jess detailing her efforts) the IT class has really evolved since Quentin's arrival. Possessing technical skills I and others have lacked the past 6 months, Quentin has fixed four malfunctioning computers (we now have 8 functioning machines), and got them all up-to-date with the current Edubuntu software that we use the majority of the lessons. The increased number of laptops allows more children to practice each day and at longer intervals. With our split agenda this means that 15 children get 45 minutes to 1 hour of practice twice a week. A giant leap forward.

Something important we have realized about the math programs we are currently using is they do not not effectively “teach” the children new concepts, but only allow them to practice which they already know, therefore we have begun to give one-on-one lessons on the dry-erase board. For example, my third graders are working on multiplication so I use to board to explain alternative methods of counting to find the product of two numbers. Like most third graders, larger factors such as 8 and 9 are more difficult for them to calculate internally.   We intend to begin creating lesson plans that we could give for 10-15 minutes to five or six students prior to each computer session. This will be specifically helpful for the students who are falling behind in their day classes.

On top of all of this I have constructed an educational board game incorporating day-time material into a race against peers that has become extremely popular among the third grade students (soon to be shared with other grade levels). We have begun weekly river trips to Pueblo Viejo on Sundays, a day to simply cool off, relax, practice swimming, collect flowers, search for flat rocks to paint, and explore the awe of the Polochic Valley walking through the many corn fields which have decorated this region of the world for thousands of years. We are trying to make more frequent trips to the village in the late afternoon to interact with families, for instance, we have begun to visit one of the local churches to support the children's choir. These evening trips have inspired the idea to bring music to our after-school program, which is in the works as I am talking to Reny, a community member and guitarist who is enthusiastic about playing music with Quentin and myself which we will in turn share with the children.

"Cambia, todo cambia" -Mercedes Sosa

Monday, July 15, 2013

Art in the Valley

By Jess-
Today marks the midpoint of my time volunteering with Lichutam with barely four weeks in the Polochic. My short stay has flown by, marked by the methodical smacking of mosquitos. So from my peak here in the valley, I’d like to make a rough analysis of the work I’ve done so far as I also start looking towards an impending departure.

After the first day helping out with the afternoon computer class, the most pressing problem seemed to be the ratio of four working computers for the 30+ students who attended. Many of the children would initially occupy themselves with the approximately 50 books that comprise our mobile library, but after the first half of their two hour class, their attention starts to falter. As the volume in the classroom slowly rises, and the echoes of the voices of 30 restless children bounce off the tin roof, my co-volunteers and I leave each session completely drained. I decided to try and rally the reckless troops behind a loosely organized art project to both diversify the 2 hour session and give the children an interactive, creative outlet that seems to be missing during the school day.

The first day that I brought paints and brushes to class was a complete success. We started with the simple assignment of painting a flower, but based on the enthusiasm and patience of the kids, I have since been able to organize more involved projects such as making beads out of recycled plastic bottles.  The kids’ complete embrace of every activity we have thought of, from paper cranes to bracelets to small writing tasks leaves us excited and challenged to fill this new niche. 

 I’m continuously amazed at the versatility of paint and paper, which leads me to contemplate the connection between the school’s lack of materials and the oftentimes slow and monotonous school day. On the bright side, the lack of first-world school supplies forces us to find unique ways to use the Polochic’s grossly underutilized resource: namely the garbage that can be found lining ever roadside and riverbed. 

  In the coming weeks I hope to further explore and test both the limits of my own and the kids’ creativity while simultaneously spreading the message of the importance of recycling. (This seems to be especially important here because the river that holds thousands of discarded pepsi bottles is the same water many people use at home.)

On a more personal note, I would like to comment on my rather unique situation of being one of the first women volunteers that has visited the valley. I think being female has made my experience distinctly different in some ways than those of my co-volunteers. From the first day at school I noticed a sharp divide between the boys and girls. The most obvious difference being the jeans and western  t-shirts sported by most of the boys, while almost all of the girls wear a traditional skirt and top. While I have had a little bit more difficultly connecting with the boys, my relationship with the girls has been especially easy and open. I’ve already had more than several cooking lessons because to the horror of everyone here I don’t cook and can’t make tortillas. From accidentally sitting on the wrong side during a church service to my strange tendency to ‘dress like a boy,’ it’s been interesting living in a community that’s so divided along gender lines.

As the date on my return flight quickly approaches, I hope I will have time to expand the ‘art-class’ and spread out a little more in the community. If the next half goes as well as the first I think my only problem will be finding the willpower to pack my things.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Rain Rain Go Away

On the way back from classes the other day I said to co-volunteer Jess that it is interesting how the external environment influences our internal thoughts and perspective as I realized that my most pervading thoughts at the time were, not so much to say pessimistic, but  critical of what I was observing in the classrooms.   Up to this point in the school year, days have rarely offered anything other than blue skies and sunshine, translating to and providing me, a consistent stream of optimism (an ideal standpoint to begin any experience in a community very different from my own).   However, of most recent, the rain which I have noted in an earlier blog has become such a force that it has altered the entire mood of the Polochic Valley.  For example, the sun no longer awaits us outside our door every morning, but instead has been replaced by grey skies and thirsty mosquitoes, and the pollen released by the various floras at times plays tricks on our bodies.  Needless to say the rain-season has its benefits undoubtedly, yet it requires slight adaptation.

The main points that I have been most critical of in the classroom are poor teacher attendance, poor time  management, and lack of resources.  I walked to school this Monday excited to continue classes after a national rest week for teachers, and was immediately frustrated to see that classes had been cancelled for another national holiday.  Tuesday classes continued, but were slow to start, lacked energy, and one of the teacher’s was not present.  After over a week of resting I had hoped to see an excited rejuvenated teaching staff, but this was not the case. 

After reviewing our teacher attendance sheet, I’ve noticed we have two teachers that have already missed at least twenty days of classes, many of the reasons being “work-related” and some unexcused.  Regardless, the children on these days are not provided with substitute teachers therefore miss out on days of learning.  Unfortunately the issue of attendance is something that seems out of our reach in improving, but I believe that through greater communication and coordination, we will be able to allow for more transparency and perhaps we can develop some sort of safety-net system where we can catch the children up on missed lessons via our afterschool program.

The time management of the third grade class has improved substantially since my arrival in February, however, there is plenty of room for improvement.  There are still moments throughout the day where the children will finish a lesson or activity, and rush to the corners to play marbles or jacks.   With success, I have been able to isolate up to two or three children in these moments to really see if they absorbed the lesson or activity, but I’d like this to be the norm of the entire classroom.  The other day I asked third grade instructor Elda if she could give me the lesson plan for the following day at the end of each class so that I could plan extra activities that coincide with what we are doing.  She kindly agreed and added that she finds it to be a good idea.

The resource scarcity at this point is my largest qualm and is something that stems deep into the economics and politics of Guatemala.  A month ago I was informed by Elda that the construction of the government funded school was never actually finished as it was designed to have finished bathrooms and a small kitchen to cook the children’s mid-day snack (of which were not provided to the school until two months after the year begun).  Furthermore, we are having issues receiving all of the other smaller school materials that the government is required to supply.  Textbooks have arrived (3 months late) for grades kindergarten to fourth, but we have not been provided with the correct amount.  In a discussion that I shared with Veronica Spross, director of Empresarios por la Educacion, she mentioned to me that at the start of the school year every school was to be provided with four-hundred reading books for the children.  I brought this up to the school’s director Reginaldo that knew nothing about it.  lastly there are basic simple things which are lacking in Nueva Mercedes such as paper for the children and markers for the dry-erase board.  The other day Elda gave lessons with a faint marker that was practically unreadable from the seats of the children.

Class Materials Shelf
Many of the issues that I mention have begun to frustrate me further because these are obstacles that are much larger than we are at Li Ch’utam or the teachers are in Nueva Mercedes.  As a grass-roots organization we have no ability or intention to recreate the whole system, but are here to work within it and strive to set an example to the hundreds of other schools that are in the same predicament.  Like the pesky mosquitoes, some problems we face are inextinguishable, yet we relentlessly push forward even if only inch by inch.  

*In contrast to this useful critical analysis, our afterschool program is thriving, and we eagerly look forward to sharing our stories and the many photographs in our next posting that testify to its success.