Saturday, February 5, 2011

After the First Week of Classes

So, this is the end of the first week of school, and I’m starting to write this after taking a nap--it was pretty exhausting; every day has been a challenge emotionally, mentally and physically.  Even though I really needed sleep each night, I have not been sleeping well because there has been so much on my mind and I feel like, as soon as I close my eyes, my alarm goes off.  This week has been exhausting, but so far it has been exactly what I was looking for when I decided to do a year of service.
I was getting frustrated towards the end of last week because I had very little human contact, which is exactly why I was getting frustrated with the path that my studies were taking towards the end of college.  For some reason I feel so much more complete and useful when I’m actually working directly with people.  The research I did senior year, although it was pretty intense and may end up eventually helping people, left me pretty dissatisfied.  The best part of that was traveling to the research conferences in Texas, presenting my own research and hearing ideas and projects from high-powered international researchers.  That really stimulated my curiosity and thirst for knowledge, but it also showed me that I was missing something.
This week at the school, it has been virtually the opposite intellectually, but I feel so much more at home in my work.  Every day we arrive at ten past 7 in the morning, and every night we leave the school around 7 or 8 at night, sometimes later.  Fridays are half days because the students travel back to their aldeas in the afternoon, so we got home today around 3:30.  The days are long, and there is rarely down time, but so far I’m loving it.  When we’re not teaching, we’re supervising meal preparation, or cleanup, instructing physical education classes, praying with the girls in the chapel, holding tutoring sessions, or setting up the radio learning hours.  
Each time I have interacted with the girls so far, I really feel like I’m helping them develop into an integrated, well rounded person.  They learn the importance of faith and community in the chapel and their reflection periods, teamwork while preparing meals and cleaning up, the importance of hard work and education in their classes, and how to responsibly have fun and develop healthy interactions in the extracurricular classes and activities like physical education, sewing, guitar and choral lessons with Norlan, and computer classes.  During all of this, the girls constantly look to us as examples and, cautiously, for reassurance and a smile.  I always feel eyes on me, which definitely has a lot to do with being a white male with blue eyes, but I also think that sometimes it’s about trust and a silent request for guidance.  
Tuesday night, we all went to a mass on the street in front of a woman’s house with some other members of the parish and a volunteer group from Seekonk that was leaving the next morning.  The mass was lit by the street lamps and the candles on the altar, and was a really beautiful service that helped us to feel more of a part of things, but it was also when I started to feel responsible for the students and a sense of almost paternal protectiveness.  Since we were all in the street, there were people occasionally passing through, and there were groups of boys who would stop on the corner and watch.  At one point a group of boys, who had been hanging around the end of the street a bit too much, laughed loudly so I turned around, walked down the street and asked them to be silent because we were having a mass.  My heart was beating pretty fast as I turned around and returned to the congregation because you can be almost 100% sure that people like them around here are carrying some sort of weapon.  However, I hadn’t thought twice about going back there and telling them off because it obviously made the girls feel uncomfortable--several of the girls had been turning around nervously and looking back at the corner where the boys were hanging out.  
I have never really been in an unsafe situation before with people for whom I felt responsible, and I had no idea how I would react, so my reaction in this situation really surprised me.  It definitely made me stop and think about how much we have already started connecting with the students after only a couple of days, and the relationship that we will develop with them after spending 13 hours a day, four and a half days a week, for nine months.  As a side note, I was probably more surprised that the boys (and one older man) listened to me and shoved off after I spoke to them.
Classes this week started off pretty rough, but each day has consistently gotten a little better.  Monday was the day they all arrived and had orientation for the school and with their parents, so Tuesday was the first day of actual instruction.  That morning I went to the farm with my class of seniors for our lab and work in the fields, which I expected to be a good way to just ease into getting to know the students and the routine of things.  Although I had prepared the lab we were going to do, I was under the impression from Manuel that he would do the explaining, and I certainly didn’t want to step on his toes by taking his job and explaining everything.  However, we got there and he said something like, “Ok, I’m going to go get the materials now, I’ll be back in a little bit after you’ve explained the lab.”  So, I got up in front of the class for the first time, and tried to start asking them questions about the variables in experiments.  To put it simply, it did not go so well.  They couldn’t understand me, I couldn’t really understand them, and I didn’t realize until later that they have little or no background information.
I had to keep backing up and making things simpler, until we got to a point where they could understand.  Eventually they started understanding some things, but I was very grateful when Manuel came back and started rewording what I was saying, or just repeating it with a better accent.  We were able to get through a few important topics, but I definitely breathed a little easier when they started working on the actual lab, which was pretty simple and didn’t need much explaining.
Wednesday I had Biology, Chemistry, a Math review, a radio session, and a physical education class.  The academic classes went ok, although I still hadn’t gotten into the hang of things and the classes definitely lacked a good flow.  We made some progress on topics like the scientific method, and cellular structure, but there were pauses and choppy moments during transitions and when I was trying to figure out what to say.  Fortunately, most of the class time was taken up by the review quizzes and activities I made for them, so it was a better way to ease into things than the lab the day before.
The really, really, did not want to take the quizzes that I gave them, and just as much as they didn’t want to do the quizzes, they didn’t want to do any type of math.  Most of them were not able to answer any of the questions on any of the quizzes, except for a couple of students, who were able to give some half answers for a couple of questions.  They also did not know any of the previous years’ information that they needed for the activities; even simple things like the nucleus of a cell, chromosomes, or cell membranes threw them off.  It was very frustrating because it was as if they had retained nothing from previous years, and I now have to choose the most important topics to reteach them before we begin our classes’ information.  
That is the downfall to the trimester system.  The way the classes are set up, their Bio and Chem classes for the tenth and eleventh grades combined contains a single year of Biology or Chemistry information that high schoolers in the States receive.  However, they have a good nine months between the end of the first half of the course (the end of the first trimester of Primero Bachillerato) and the beginning of the second half of the course (the beginning of the first trimester of Segundo Bachillerato).  Between this length of time, the lack of adequate teacher presence (even now, with my lack of Spanish), and the general philosophy behind the national method, it seems like the students don’t actually learn anything.  They have been able to spout out a couple of memorized definitions, like the full name of DNA, but when I asked them what DNA is, what it’s used for, or where it’s found in the cell, all I got in response was blank stares.  Their retention problem is something that I will try to fix by reinforcing our material with activities, labs and more frequent tests and quizzes (I am suspicious that, in previous years, they never had tests other than the final exam).  
More frustrating than their lack of knowledge, however, is their inability to think.  They just don’t know how to apply information that they already know, to questions about something they don’t know.  On Friday they presented some information that they had researched in a group activity on Thursday, but when I would ask them a question that they should have been able to answer with their research information, for the most part they just couldn’t.  It wasn’t that they didn’t understand what I was saying (I tried to make sure of that) they just could not extrapolate information.  As the year goes on I expect to give them less hints and support to try get them to think on their own.  If I can teach them this skill, I will consider my time here very successful because the ability to think and apply is more important than any set of knowledge or information.
Overall, I’m very happy with this first week of classes.  Although there were definitely frustrating moments and I have my work cut out for me, this is exactly what I was looking for.  I love the challenge that I am deeply involved in--the language, the teaching and the culture--the challenge feeds my curiosity, my perfectionism and my desire to accomplish.  Even more, I love the daily interactions I have with the students and the other tutors.  It’s the little things each day that I appreciate, like the timid smiles we get from the youngest students, the jokes that I have been able to share with the older students, and the moments when I can literally see my students’ desire to learn.  A few of the girls are so attentive and try so hard, that when I get a little frustrated with not being able to express myself, I can take a deep breath, look at how patiently they are waiting for me, and continue the best I can.  It seems like many of them really want to learn, so all I have to do is continue to arrive each week prepared and excited for this opportunity.


  1. What a full and intense week! I'll bet that a few of the students will catch on to what your expectations are, and will start to perform. They will be good examples for others to follow. Then it will take off for you.
    Careful on the 'streets!' Element of surprise was on your side when you approached the group of on-lookers. They may not be as surprised if there is another time. Speak with sister, if you haven't already, regarding conflict resolution in that environment. (sorry, just being a dad)

  2. What a week! ... full of introspection and action. I will side with "dad" on the conflict resolution. Humanity has both a viceral and cultural side, Matthew. Regardless of where we are in the world, guys will be guys and gals will be gals. The cultural drivers are less universal. Sister should be able to help with that aspect.

    I don't want to over-represent the negative component of conflict in the thoughts you have provoked with your writing. Conflict is a constant in life. I have come to appreciate it as an opportunity to learn and grow. You have experienced taunting, apathy, under-motivation and symptoms of inadequate resourcing... all of these are laced with opportunity.... and can produce frustration. I have yet to read your more current postings, but look forward to doing so. Thanks for the time you are spending, Matthew. Uncle Pete

  3. Good and wise advice, as always! Thank you.
    I think the students are starting to catch on to my expectations a little, this week has started off better than last for sure. Also, I'm excited today because the labs that I'm making with our limited resources are not only working really well, the students are receiving them well and working with me. This past week we have been able to investigate yeast fermentation of glucose and both asexual and sexual reproduction, again using yeast and a growth solution that I made in the kitchen with potato juice, dextrose and a little gelatin. Some really cool stuff, both for me and the kids!

  4. DITTO DAD'S ADVICE! Be careful! It sounds like you did the right thing though.