Monday, January 24, 2011

Hats off to the Elementary Teachers!: A day in my life in Mexico

This is a rock. (kids repeat) is a rock heavy? Light? Soft? What? “Teacher!” Yes? (insert 30 seconds of student trying to explain using noises, not words) Oh! The rock is a space ship? “No teacher!” (more noises) Oh I see! The rock is a boat! Class, can a rock be a boat? (class) “No teacher!” that’s right, a rock sinks in the water. “Teacher, no!” okay, then what? (more noises) Oh, I see now. The rock is a banana! “Yes teacher, yes!”

I have always admired Elementary teachers. I have no idea how they do it. 20+kids in a classroom isn’t so bad…when they are over the age of 15. One has to be interested in ever little thing that could be remotely (sometimes REALLY remotely) connected to whatever he or she is talking about. Kudos to you, my Elementary friends, you are brave and valiant souls.
I typically have 2-6 students in the class. There is such a variation because students don’t always come regularly (it is an after-school program). They drive me crazy much of the time. There are days when I wish I could grab some of the kids by the hair, spin them in circles, and throw them out the window. Other times I think they are hilarious. Don't worry, I had a student trying to dry off his pants after he peed them the other day. I am growing to love their curiosity and innocence despite the constant reminder that kids at this age "have no brains" (thank you Bill Cosby). I have a hard enough time with the small number of students that I have, I can’t even imagine what you full-time Elementary teachers deal with! I do not envy your job, only your abilities.

There are many levels in the program. Kinder is the beginning level. This level usually has students from 4-7ish. Then there is the primary level (age 6ish-8ish;) we call them basic readers, then elementary (7-11ish). One advances through the program mainly based on their ability, not age. Age is a factor, however. You see, a 9 year old, no matter how basic, will not enjoy activities that are for the 4 year olds. An older beginner may spend some time in the basic level but hopefully, because of their superior cognitive ability; they will advance quickly, sometimes within a couple of weeks.

In the kinder level the students are taught through, what I am going to call, task based learning (That may have been an approach that I learned through school/training so I can’t take credit for it…). The teachers prepare lessons based on tasks they wish to perform. They are given 6 areas that are to be the focus for a given lesson. For example: this week I am teaching gym. I prepare a lesson using some kind of “gym” activity (soccer, basketball, baseball etc.) and write out specific tasks that will be completed (bring out ball, kick ball, spin ball, try to eat ball, throw ball, teach game, assign teams etc.) This is just the plan though. When we are actually in the moment, we are focusing on talking (This is a soccer ball, it is round, it has stitching, the stitching is done by a machine, the stitching is white, there are different colors on the ball, black is the color of darkness, or night. White is like a cloud, the ball is bouncy, it is kind of hard, the ball is not huge but it isn’t small either…you get the point). We have the students repeat almost everything we say. Speech and input are the most important for the student. They generally will be speaking small sentences and answering yes or no questions within a week or so.

Now on to the basic readers, there are a few levels within this one as well but I will tell you what I teach. I am in the third phase. The students have already learned a song that helps them learn letters and sounds, they have also already began to learn how to write the letters and associate them with concrete items (“B” for “b”at). We are now helping them put the sounds together. My head teacher, my amazing co-teacher, and I have taken the original method that ILP has purchased and adapted it to our situation. We generally get through two letters a week (1 letter per teacher). We start off the first day with an object that is related to the sound and letter. A bat, for instance, when we start the “B” book. The books that we use are 10-20 pages long with lots of illustration and few, large print, words. The books have a theme that is related to the sound and that is usually where we get our ideas for the concrete object. Today, we started the “D” book. The book is about dragons eating donuts. I brought in donuts to begin. We talk about the object in great, great, great detail. Then we look at the pictures in the book without reading it, describing everything we see. By the time we get done with all of this, our first class is already over.

Day two is a review singing the song that they learned in the other phases of the program, talking about what we did the previous day, then jumping into the rainbow reader sheets. I don’t quite understand the psychology behind this aside from the repetition, but I have heard that colors help children remember. There is a packet that we give the students that has the main words from the book. They are taught about rainbows and then each day color in a new color under each word. They have to sound out each word, and then say it quickly as they draw a line. (“B” “A” “T” “bat!”). They color 1-2 colors a day. The teacher then reads the book to them aloud as they listen. After all of this is completed, the class is usually over. The next day is a repeat of the 2nd but they are faster. The teacher then hands out copies of the book and then reads again aloud as they follow along. If there is time they play games that are assessments (a die that has who? What? Where?... or flash cards etc.) If there is still more time, the students get to color their packet (it comes in black and white as a coloring book). The 4th and 5th days are similar to the 3rd, adding more assessments and having the students read out loud as a group, then as a group individually as the teacher helps, encourages, and models.

I don’t know much about the Elementary grades except that they too have levels and are more focused on writing and spelling as well as tasks. They have books that correspond to each level and are reviewing what they already know in core subjects only now using English.

As I mentioned before, I have a co-teacher. This isn’t to say that we co-teach but more we have a rotation. We begin the two-hour block at 1:40 PM, with an opening. We sing songs, and play games that encourage the use of English. We then split into classrooms and teach either an SPE (the task based learning) or BR (Basic Reading). Because there are two teacher and we have three rotations we teach two BRs and one SPE. We end up with the same students we started with after the opening. These students are almost on their way to Elementary. That is why they only have one SPE (the SPEs are generally more fun for the students).

I am picked up with my little brother and sister and we go home to eat. I then bath and brush my teeth (see culture post), then head out to the ILP building to teach another two-hour block at 5:30. This time there are three teachers. We still do two BRs and one SPE but this time we have three sets of students. Two sets at the BR level and one at the SPE level. The BR students get the same rotation as our first two-hour block only now they don’t have an SPE with me or the other BR teacher. We have one teacher that only does the SPEs. As we rotate, the other BR teacher and I teach BR to the BR kids and SPEs to the SPE students.

At 7:30 we are done, and as soon as I can clean up and get out, I walk home to eat a light dinner, chat with the family, and then go to bed, only to wake up and do it all again.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The trip begins

I woke up at 3:30 AM after going to bed at 1. I got to the airport and found my ILP friends. We got in line, many looked worried and anxious but were trying to cover it up with an obvious sense of "I'm okay, I do this all the time." None of us really knew what to expect or how this adventure would end. I have traveled before out of country so I had an idea but still, I was slightly apprehensive and worried. I don't know any of these people and I am the only male! Granted, this is usually how my life is. I seem to be involved in activities that are generally overrun by the female persuasion of life. Not to worry, I later found out that one of the girls had to drop out because of health reasons, and a boy would be coming to take her place. I only have to survive 1 week alone amongst a sea of estrogen.

As I get in the security line, finding out that my bags weigh exactly 50 lbs and 40 lbs (that's right, I used to throw luggage for a living, I know how to pack), I find out that one of the girls that I am traveling with has never been on a plane. Never been on a plane and the first plane ride she takes is out of the country, and to a destination thousands of miles away. I had a similar experience when I went to Spain. One of the girls (again a trip where the amount of testosterone was a drop in a bucket compared to the female hormones) was also on her first airplane ride. It was cool because the security let her dad come and say goodbye at the gate inside security. I met both of them in Salt Lake and assured them that I would take care of her on the ride to Europe. Turns out I didn't need to. She was upgraded to first class the whole way. On this trip, however, my friend was not upgraded and unaccompanied by anyone. She went through all the security very well, I shared my tricks on how to get through quickly and we arrived at the gate, no crazy random inspections, and having gone through the new, full-body scan (which isn't a big deal everyone, I think it is cool).

After a short stop in L.A (because of many minuets of delay in SLC) we were on a 4 hour ride to The City of México. We arrived and met our program director after everyone picked up their luggage from the carousel (strangely enough, EVERYONE got all their luggage! I was for sure that I would have a repeat of a 6 day delay on my bags like what happened to me in Spain). We all got some money out of the bank and then jumped on a bus, which thankfully gave us a bottle of water and cookies, which would take us to Puebla. It was 2:00 in the after noon. I am currently listening to The Cassandra compact by Robert Ludlum so this is how I occupied my time. Others watched a movie dubbed in Spanish and still others used the internet, which strangely enough was available via WiFi on the motor coach. We arrived in Puebla at 5:40 and waited until 7 to take our last bus to Tehuacán. Again, I listened to my book.

The drivers in México are very good. They can pass at any point on the road and dodge anything that comes their way. This was demonstrated as, all of a sudden I hear nervous giggles and half screams from the girls around me. I look up and we are passing another coach on a very sharp curve. I look to the on-coming traffic and see that there was another vehicle doing the same thing just yards in front of us. I smiled and closed my eyes as I went back to my book. I figured it wasn't my time to meet Peter quite yet, and I have had experience with bus drivers in the past.

We arrived at the bus station and were taken to our school. My family was waiting for me, a boy and a girl (twins), and my mom for my stay. I was warned by my director that I can't speak Spanish to them because these families are also volunteers. They let us stay with them for free and usually do it so they can get more English in the home. I was a little disappointed by this but at the offer of delicious Mexican food, I couldn't resist.

I got to the house and found out that the boy has given up his room for 4 months. He will be sleeping on the couch. The family is awesome and very welcoming. They let me make salsa, clean my room and do my laundry. I still feel independent but not completely overwhelmed.