Thursday, October 27, 2011

An Exchange in Self-Esteem

Charla: Literally translates to “talk” or “chatter”.  In reality, refers to a sort of guest-led training event.  The speaker may substitute for a teacher in a school or host an independent training (single or multiple sessions) on any number of topics.  PC Paraguay loves charlas.

I have a confession to make.  Throughout junior high and high school, I never took a standard version of a class when an honors track existed.  (Full disclosure, when I transferred to public school in the sixth grade I did not enroll in the gifted language arts program because I had spent the previous standardized test season in the hospital and my new school did not know what to do with me.  At least my math teacher gave a pre-test on the first day of class and promoted me on the second.)  Backdoor bragging notwithstanding, the fact remains: I did not realize until many years later what true classroom management meant for most teachers.  Of course I know that not every class that doesn’t earn an honors point gets crazy and truthfully, arrogant honors kids can get completely out of hand.  However, generally speaking, when you share all your classes with a group of nerds more interested in applying to Harvard than Homecoming, most days pass uneventfully.  If anything, I was probably the most obnoxious female in the A.P. clique.  (Super sorry, by the way.)  Even so, it never occurred to me to carry on a conversation with my neighbor talking over my teacher in my full speaking voice or to blatantly disregard clear instructions.  To this day, I still feel guilty for giggling as the boys in my 8th Spanish class tortured a substitute teacher by tricking her into using made up slang to tell the whole room that she did indeed masturbate.  (She thought she told us about an entirely different hobby.)

Well, today, those thirteen year old giggles exacted a little karmic retribution.  After months of careful observation and planning, Kevin and I dove in head first and lead our first set of self-esteem charlas for seventh through eleventh graders. 

If my high school experience represents one end of the classroom behavior spectrum and season four of The Wire represents the other, typical Paraguayan classrooms lie somewhere in the middle- leaning closer towards The Wire.  Some kids take a great interest in school, others prefer to drink terere during class and throw garbage on the floor.  Teachers, tend to concentrate their attention on the focused students and disregard the behavior of the others.  I have yet to see discipline enforced (or even threatened) for disrespectful conduct.

This problem stems from multiple directions.  One, after speaking with several teachers, I’ve learned that most people who work in schools do not do so because they feel passionate about learning.  In Paraguay, if you want the fastest track into white collar work, you become a teacher.  Additionally, although recently the federal government completely re-hauled grade level expectations, few teachers follow the new guidelines or use suggested methodologies and lesson plans.  Kids move from grade to grade, regardless of their competency, with their peers.  Most teachers teaching today, teach in the same manner that they learned. 

A dictator doesn’t stay in charge by encouraging critical and free thinking.  Incidentally, five decades of Paraguayan public schools concentrated on rote memorization.  Teachers would read from a text book and students copied what they heard into personal notebooks.  In art class, a teacher would draw a picture on the board and expected students to mimic the drawing as closely as possible.  Twenty-two years into democracy, not much has changed.  Students still do not have their own textbooks and struggle with imaginative lessons and creative problem solving.  Kids memorize correct answers and leave the process of getting there to the textbook publishers.  In other words, no one in Paraguay has seen Dead Poets Society. 

Finally, students barely attend class four hours a day and schools regularly cancel for strikes, institutes, and inclement weather.  When school is in session, classrooms lack climate control and proper furniture.  While observing a one hour long class from a broken chair on a hot day, I could hardly pay attention either- and I’ve had tons of experience feigning interest in boring situations.  How can we expect kids to do any better?  Luckily, the teachers in our local school seem dedicated to bringing about major reforms in education and have specifically requested we work with them on the same.

PCVs learn to combat these issues, by hosting interactive charlas where the kids get out of their seats, work in groups, and have to come up with their own answers.  Although the later part requires pulling teeth, after a while the kids catch on and let their guard down.  For our introduction on self-esteem, the students seemed to enjoy themselves and the charlas went basically well.  (I’d average our seven sessions to date at about a “B”.)  Perhaps they went well because we included outdoor activities that work best (at least for discussion purposes) when everything goes wrong.  Eh, igual.  (It’s all the same.)  For the record, I feel no guilt from bribing answers with candy.  Nothing solves a participation problem better than sugar. 

My post-charla self-esteem, though... that’s another issue entirely.  Make no mistake, these classroom hours drained the life out of me.  However, not all hope has fled.  As we exited the school this afternoon- after a particularly difficult group of ninth graders put us through the ringer- some eighth graders stuck their heads out the window of their classroom and yelled, “when’s our turn?”  Our reply of “tomorrow” met cheers.  Of course this exchange interrupted their teacher mid-lesson, but I take my wins where I find them.

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