So it’s about time to take a minute and go back over my successes and growth thus far. I have gotten pretty caught up in what’s going on here, so much so that life has started to feel pretty normal. I still look around with a sense of wonder each day, and certainly learn something new every day (usually a couple handfuls of new things), but I have stopped feeling like a tourist or academic traveling to learn about a new culture, and started to feel more at home; like I’m an adolescent who is still learning things like social norms and who is starting to find where I fit in with the community.
One advantage I have is that I have already done this in one culture, and that there are many basic rules of courtesy, respect and friendship that are similar enough to ensure that I can function and grow here. One disadvantage is obviously the language, which is still a struggle. I had a pretty difficult time last week with it because we traveled to a coffee growing aldea, where some of our students come from, and none of the people there could understand a word I was saying. This was also a day after I had the last of my one-on-one conferences with my students, during which she mentioned that I speak fast and that it’s hard for her to figure out what I’m saying with my accent. When I started to think about all of this, I of course started to make more mistakes and second guess myself, which just caused more problems.
Despite all this, I have to count the language in the success column for now. Having come here with three years of HS Spanish, half of which was without an actual teacher, and one year of Intermediate Spanish in college, plus the practice I did last fall, I actually started off at a level that surprised me. Since then, it’s been a constant, many times frustrating, struggle, but as I take stock after seven weeks, I am very pleased with where I am right now. My vocabulary is ten times better than it was when I came, verb tenses come so much more naturally both when I’m speaking and listening, and I have been able to have conversations with virtually everyone I come in contact with. The most difficult people to talk with are those from the aldeas both because they hear far fewer accents and mannerisms than the people in town, and because a lot of times they seem to have their own dialect. It’s not necessarily faster, but there is a definite difference.
In the beginning of the school year, it was virtually impossible for me to understand many of the students, who are all from the aldeas. However, both I and the students have gotten better at spacing things out, talking slower, and at deciphering what the other is saying. I can now teach classes where I write key words and phrases on the board and talk about/elaborate on those topics, and the students are able to listen to my dialogue, decipher it, and write notes down. Earlier in the year, I had to basically write every sentence on the board so that they could understand it and so that I could describe information.
This brings me to the classroom experience itself. A month ago, the students seemed to pay attention, but really they were just sitting straight up in their chairs, staring at me, writing what was on the board, and nodding occasionally when I paused to assess their understanding. Five weeks in, however, I have seen tremendous improvement. Now they are much more lively in class, actually paying attention and processing the information that I am teaching. They now tell me much more often when they don’t understand something, which for me is great to hear because it shows me several things. First, that they are interested and engaged in the class, because they really want to understand. Second, that they are recognizing the importance of the information I teach. I have tried to show this throughout the year by continually building on what we have already learned and by referring back to posters or assignments we have already done, whenever I can. Third, it’s one of the ways I get feedback. I will never know that a certain style of teaching is not working, or that my Spanish was incorrect, and never be able to fix it, if someone doesn’t say something.
Related to this, I am nothing short of ecstatic that they have started to participate in classes, when called on or when there is a question for the class as a whole. In the past five weeks, I have constantly asked them questions during class that challenge them to look past the information directly in front of them to remember old information, extrapolate to new information, and draw conclusions. Wednesday, February 23, was the first real breakthrough. Before this, they had been slowly progressing up to answering these types of questions, but that Wednesday, I asked a question of the class that required them to look at information on the board, use information that they had already learned, and draw a conclusion. I was just about to walk them through it when one of them said the answer hesitantly. I was so happy I responded in a near shout, and was contagiously excited the rest of the class, which got them all participating more.
Recently they have also started to ask questions, during class and after class, which again tells me that they are interested in learning and that they are starting to take responsibility for their education. This week, I came into the classroom one afternoon and they all scattered and looked extremely sheepish. I asked what was going on, but nobody said anything. They all looked pretty embarrassed, so I asked again, when Sandra (the class leader) pointed at my question box. Actually she didn’t point, people here point with their lips, kind of like a kissing motion, and it still takes me a second to get over the confusion this causes me.
Anyway, I looked in my box and saw a piece of paper with questions on it (for the first time!). I opened it and read a couple of questions about sexual education, which makes sense because we were finishing up our reproduction unit. Again, I was ecstatic that I had questions. First, just because I had questions, but also because I had been trying to think of ways to incorporate sex ed information, but hadn’t figured out a way yet. I answered their questions, and talked about other relevant information that I thought they should know. The day before, one of my students, Ledy, had surprised me with a question about how developing babies obtain their nutrients, so I gladly explained about the placenta and the diffusion of nutrients between blood vessels.
I think that it’s very important for them to learn about this material because they live in a void of information concerning any similar topic here, which contributes greatly to problems they have with teen pregnancies and diseases. One of the goals of the center is to change some of the attitudes women in Honduras have concerning their own worth and their place in society, and I really believe that with more knowledge comes more empowerment.
Another reason I was so happy about these questions is that it shows that I have started to develop a good relationship and trust (una confianza) with my students. They not only listen to me and behave in class, but we have a good rapport outside of class, and classes are becoming more interactive with their developing interest and questions. More specifically, however, the fact that they were able to ask me sex ed questions, and have a discussion about these topics with me, a male foreigner whom they met a month ago and barely speaks their language, really caused me to stop and appreciate the relationship that I have already developed with my students.
Speaking of developing relationships, one way that I have definitely grown since coming here has been in my faith. For the first time in a long while, I have actually been able to feel my faith. I think is still very different from many Catholics, and has been for some time, but even so it hasn’t been something I have really felt, at least not recently. But here, surrounded by humanness, unfiltered by the things that clutter our complicated life in the States, and given a lot of opportunities for reflection and prayer, I have come much closer to God than I think I have ever been. And thus, much closer to myself than I have ever been.
Another way I have grown is in my warmth and capacity to smile. When I’m at school or walking around town, I feel like I’m always smiling. Smiling at and talking to people I know, people I don’t know, and just smiling when I feel like it; it certainly is a defining difference about life here. Life is just so much simpler, more community based, and open. There are about twenty corner stores, all of which sell the same things for basically the same price, but people buy from who they know, and thus somehow all twenty stores stay afloat, where back home they would all be taken over by one CVS or Target. It’s this sense of connectedness that you can see every day on the streets, where people talk more in a day than Americans do in a month. In fact, during one of our dinners with Norlan, who has been to the US, he mentioned how Americans don’t talk the same way they do here. We just don’t have the same practice they do, and therefore have spent many an awkward five minutes in silence during our dinner dates.
I should also mention that, along with their increased ability to take notes and follow along with class, their lab reports and quiz grades have steadily been improving. They have Chemistry and Biology tests this week, so I am hoping that their increased effort continues through to their exam studying, and they are happy with their test grades. I sense that they have a good understanding of what’s going on, and now they just have to realize how to make it all happen with the studying. Even though their quiz averages weren’t that great, they are doing extremely well, considering that they have never had a real teacher before, and that the final exams (which we just got to see this week), were only about 20-30 multiple choice/True or False questions, which only focused on the useless specifics of the courses. Anyway, at this point I am extremely pleased with the progress that I and the students have made, and although it is often quite difficult on a daily basis, I feel so rewarded during my work and life here.