Checking my students´Chinese calligraphy skills
What is the square root of 86345? Perhaps an 11-year old from Miyuna can tell you. That problem was written on the board of an intermediate school we visited one Saturday after we worked in Miyuna’s botanical garden. Knowing what I know now about Ecuadorian education in the jungle, I would be extremely pleasantly surprised if a student of any age could do that problem. Any level of education is not compulsory in Ecuador; from what I can tell, attendance is contingent upon the parents’ financial situation. As a result, the schooling system, at least around Jatun Sacha, is nowhere near as rigid as it is in the countries we come from. There was no need for sick notes, recess varied in length, and I never saw homework being turned in or assigned.
This laissez-faire attitude was definitely perpetuated by the teachers. While they were both nice people, they let us have free reign of their classes, didn’t say a word as we taught, and sometimes left the room for the entire class period. I felt quite stressed during these disappearing acts!
One last game of trying to keep kids in and out of the circle with brute force
On the flipside, the students were the sweetest bunch of children I’ve ever encountered. Every morning we were greeted with their irresistible smiles and a chipper “Buenos Dias”, and sometimes “Good Morning”, when we entered the classroom at 8am. Once when we were playing a complicated version of Tag, I fell on my face and the children rushed to my side, wiping sand off my clothes.
This was all well and good, but my impression remained that succeeding in school was solely up to the individual. We were thrown into the deep end, but this is what made teaching the most difficult assignment as well as the most rewarding for me.
Learning first aid from local university students
Jatun Sacha volunteers normally teach at two schools in the area, but we mostly taught at a school that Greenforce participants had taught at before. Prior to teaching at that school – whose name none of us remember so I’ll just call it Escuela del Bar because it was across from the bar – Kate and I accompanied Matthias, a Danish volunteer, to Chichico Rumi, an elementary school located a 45-minute walk from Jatun Sacha. Chaotic is how I would describe our first day there. Third, fourth and fifth graders share one room; each class faces a different wall.
Without volunteers, the 30 or so students would have to share one teacher. Needless to say, they aren’t used to being quiet and attentive, although we were given a spiky, leafy weed with which to flog misbehavers. We never used it so it was difficult to keep everyone’s attention, not that it looked like corporal punishment helped much from the bedlam emanating from the teacher’s end of the classroom.
On a sugar high at recess, whee!
The three of us taught the fifth graders math and English. Matthias had prepared a short exam for them, which tested their arithmetic skills. Ability levels varied greatly and the only way to help them was to give each individual attention. I explained division to Alejandra, a girl who later identified herself as a troublemaker. I drew a circle, split it into four pieces, and asked her how many groups of two are in four.
She didn’t know so I outlined the two semi-circles, and explained that that’s how I got 2 for 4/2. I worked out a few other problems with her and she appeared to understand the concept, until I had her do the problem Matthias put on the board, 388/31. When she whipped out her ruler and started drawing a 388-piece pie, I knew I’d failed. I told her that solving the problem with the pie method would be impossible and tried to point her in the right direction. Unfortunately she lost all interest and started drawing a card for Matthias. I couldn’t get her to stop so I moved onto another boy, Frankie, who was probably the smartest kid in class. For him, I wrote 4/2=? and 2x?=4, and he got the connection between multiplication and division right away. I couldn’t see why the concept of division was so difficult to grasp until I started teaching at Escuela del Bar.
Audrey and Katie with some of their students
At this school, I taught the third, fourth and fifth graders, while Kate and Katie took the sixth graders and kindergartners.
I had to teach division to the fourth and fifth graders, and it soon became clear that only a handful of them had their multiplication tables memorized. For some of those who didn’t have them memorized, I’m not even sure if they knew how to solve multiplication problems. I stressed to these students that division would be impossible if they didn’t know how to multiply and I told them to copy the tables and I’d give them a test the next day. Unfortunately the prospect of further mathematical knowledge meant little to them as most of them needed my help to finish the test. I don’t think reviewing class materials after school is a common practice here, which is too bad because I know that all of the students have the ability to do well in school; they just need a nudge in the right direction.
getting ready to strike a pose
This hampered their retention of English as well, although they were all more engaged during English class than in math. Some days they were on fire with their comprehension of English; it felt great to see them all standing up, touching their heads when I asked them to stand up and touch their heads. Visual aids and games, especially ones that involved running, worked really well. The easiest day for us, and perhaps the most enjoyable for them, was when we taught them the words for things they could easily find around them – insect, rock, root, stick, leaf, garbage, grass, peanut, flower, fruit, sand and soil. We moved the chalkboard outside, wrote the words in English and Spanish, had them copy them down, and then sent them on a scavenger hunt for their newly learned vocabulary. First, second and third place received treats in the form of chips, cookies and lollipops, and we ended the competition with a rousing version of the Ecuadorian national anthem.
On the last day, I gave a presentation in Spanish on Hong Kong and China to the 8-11 year olds. I’m sure they didn’t understand everything, but I think they learned a bit and enjoyed writing Chinese characters. After they came back from playing outside, I saw that one student had written the first character for “Ecuador” in Chinese on the board under the four characters that I wrote. Interestingly, I think their Mandarin pronunciation is better than their English, perhaps because each character is one syllable that is said very distinctly; there’s no accent confusion as there sometimes is between North American and English inflections.
I was sad to leave the children and hope that they are all given the chance to realize their potential. It’s impossible to say how much impact we as volunteer teachers had on them, but in my egotistical mind’s eye, I see them savoring the page in their notebooks with “I am Ecuadorian” written in Chinese for years to come.