August 23, 2012
Visits to the Classrooms of Participating Teachers
In the first two weeks of my stay in El Porvenir, I made brief visits to many, perhaps most, of the kinder and first grade classrooms within the municipality. Over the course of the third week, between our two Saturday PASA workshops, I made more in-depth visits of at least an hour to 12 classrooms of workshops participants. It was energizing and enlightening to spend more time with the teachers and students. What I learned from my observations greatly informed the topics and the treatment of the topics for the second workshop session.
My style of interaction depended on the requests and interests of the classroom teacher. In some schools, the teacher asked me to give a sample lesson. I asked the teacher what the children were supposed to learn and worked from there. In other schools, I observed the teacher working and supported her with ideas or brief demonstrations of alternative techniques.
MATERIALS AND STRUCTURES
As would be expected in one of the poorest nations in the hemisphere, there were significant material and structural challenges. I found that many school slack sufficient textbooks or are only given textbooks that are meant to be written in, so that teachers are either afraid to let the children use them or are only have used textbooks with pages that have been written on and cut out. Instead of using texts, most children worked in store-bought notebooks with lined paper, often having to painstakingly copy information from the chalkboard or white board.
Children’s adaptation to the school environment and school expectations was obviously an issue teachers were still addressing, despite being almost three-quarters of the way into the school year. Many teachers reported that their struggling students were those with very irregular attendance, sometimes coming to school only a handful of times in a month. In the schools serving the poorest children, the difference was palpable. Many students were obviously distracted by hunger and fatigue, and materials were scarce. Sometimes even the overall structure of the classroom was inadequate, open to the elements and far too small despite the space being available to build a larger structure. In these schools the children were having much more difficulty managing the expectations of school and social interactions, leaving many to be upset and/or disengaged. This all drove home to me the importance to continue engaging the teachers in discussions about how school culture differs from home culture, how difficult this is for students, and how we can support students understanding of expectations and management of feelings and behaviors.
I saw only a few practices that seriously concerned me in terms of teacher effectiveness. The greatest one was the way many teachers, even those passionate about their work, would quickly shut down children’s engagement by correcting answers or saying “no.” I ended up devoting significant portion of time in the second workshop session to student motivation or, as I call it, opening the door to learning and keeping it open. I recommended to teachers that rather than say “No. The answer is 5,” or “No. Dia begins with B,” they ask the child to explain why they came to that conclusion and to engage a deeper discussion that could clear up misunderstandings such as the difference between 5 and 6 or the difference between “b” and “d.”
Of similar concern was the length of time many students spent on activities, periods too long to hold the attention of a young child, especially when the activity is repetitive, difficult, and not something the child would have chosen to do. For example, many teachers had children copying a great deal from the board or had children working to write an entire page of the same letter or number. Given that many of the students were also seated in chairs or desk seats that were too tall, keeping their feet from reaching the floor, the students were also uncomfortable and probably having some circulation difficulty in their legs.
I saw very little time given over to play, partly due to a lack of engaging and appropriate materials. I know, as a teacher, that without appropriate materials and careful planning, it is difficult to establish a setting in which children will automatically engage with the concepts I hope for them to master. However, I rarely saw teachers engage in playing with the students, either, which is one way to overcome the lack of materials that would direct their attention and guide their play. This seemed more a lack of awareness that this was an enjoyable and engaging option for them. Many seemed surprised and curious by my own play with the children and one-on-one engagement with children.
Even when students went to recess, in most schools there was little if any playground equipment, no materials such as balls or jump ropes to encourage healthy activity and social engagement, and teachers were entirely disengaged from what was occurring in the yard.
Having taught in Honduras previously, understanding the political and social structure of the school hierarchies, and understanding in my bones how much every teacher needs to get occasional breaks, I did not jump on this lack of adult engagement as something to correct but rather as an opportunity to point out an interesting difference I was observing. Telling someone to look isn’t going to make a difference if they don’t want to look and if they don’t know what they are looking for. I often used these opportunities to point out the developmental milestones I could see the children making, in terms of gross motor movement, cognitive engagement and problem-solving, and social-emotional abilities like sharing and taking turns.
The teachers I visited could also benefit from culturally relevant training in differentiated instruction, something that we are also grappling with in North America. In one first grade classroom, I observed the teacher give a short dictation test, saying five words the students had been exposed to during reading and writing activities. I helped her collect the papers and looked over them to see how her students had fared. They fell roughly into thirds, with one third getting perfect scores, one third showing only a few mistakes, and one third making significant errors that indicated a need to go back over the material with those students. The papers of those who seemed in need of more help appeared to have similar issues, including:
- not having finished words before moving on to the next word, so perhaps the test was too fast for them,
- having particular difficulty and confusion with the formation of some letters, indicating a need to practice writing those letters, and
- not being able to translate the sounds being heard into the letters that needed to be written down, indicating a lack of phonetic awareness.
None of these are unheard of, or even terribly concerning to me, as these are all skills children are in the process of learning during first grade. It did, however, indicate the importance to me of breaking down the literacy learning process for the teachers during the second workshop, to make sure they were aware of the importance of helping their children form phonemic awareness (the ability to hear and discern different sounds in language), a strong sense of the alphabetic principle (that each letter is a symbol that stands for certain sounds), and that reading does not necessarily translate to writing because of the physical component.
However, from what I saw in classrooms, even the most passionate and capable of teachers struggled to find ways adjust instruction to the needs of the child. Overwhelmed by the variety and depth of instructional need amongst their students, most teachers simply taught to the middle, leaving the advanced students to be bored and the struggling students to feel incapable. However, because instruction (especially reading instruction) is different due to language and culture, and because public schools in Honduras follow a fairly rigid curriculum, a great deal of thought and discussion needs to go into how differentiated instruction would be approached and its development supported.
These few concerns aside, much of what I saw in participants’ classrooms was uplifting and invigorating. I saw many teachers enjoying their work, engaging with children in supportive and meaningful ways, and working to find and build upon what resources were available to them.
I saw excellent use of songs to make learning fun and to help children remember routines and expectations. I saw a creative array of open-ended play materials for building and patterning, including: sticks, drinking straws, rock, shells, bottle caps, hand-made wooden blocks, and string. I saw one kindergarten lesson on what makes a bird a bird and introducing what a mammal is, complete with a series of baby animals from one of the children’s yards, including a hen and her chick, a dove, a kitten, and a puppy!
One teacher is opening a new kinder, so while I didn’t get to see her teach, I got to spend time with her in the new location, talking in depth about how to set up the space to encourage safe play and deep engagement. We also talked over the requirements and recommendations of the government for her daily schedule (only 30 minutes of play! Ack!) and discussed ways to balance these with what we know about developmentally appropriate practice. For example, we settled on two 30 minute periods of play, with activities that will lead into the day’s lessons or take them into new depth and with options for children to keep working on their previous play from the afternoon before or that morning.
The teachers who took part in the workshops and who asked me to come to their classrooms are very likely the cream of the crop in El Porvenir, but for that reason they are also the most receptive to new ideas and greater depth of professional development. And they are also likely to be leaders in their community and professional networks. I cannot imagine a better group of participants for PASA’s first few steps, and I look forward to building deeper relationships with them over time.
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