Saturday, June 27, 2015

A Glimpse of Teaching

We have now completed two weeks of intensive training to prepare us to be Peace Corps volunteers, and specifically to turn us into reading teachers for primary schools in the eastern Caribbean. I've already mentioned that it seems I am back in grad school with a bunch of impressive fellow students. We are expected to keep up with our reading assignments and other homework in order to “graduate” from Pre-Service Training and become full fledged Peace Corps Volunteers.

Given how much we have to cover in a short amount of time to convert us into classroom teachers, the workload seems daunting. This is way more preparation than what I was given before I started teaching at our local community college. However, all the hard work we have been doing was rewarded at the end of this week. We finally got away from our own classroom and found ourselves in local elementary schools for the first time.

It was great to spend time with school children, since we came here in the hopes of helping them out. On Thursday afternoon, all 32 of us were bussed to a particular elementary school for the afternoon. We had been divided into small groups and expected to create a one-hour learning activity for a specific classroom.

The group I was assigned to included two other older women (one had served in the Peace Corps back in the '90s, and has now signed up for a second “tour of duty,” while the other is a former elementary teacher from near Athens, Ohio), as well as two recent college graduates (one from California who is thinking about a foreign service career, and the other is a recent Howard University graduate whose father is from Tobago, another nearby Caribbean island).

We chose a large book (about two feet tall and three feet wide when opened) designed for reading to a classroom. The story contained 11 compound words (e.g., sailboat, sightseers, downtown), which became our theme. The five us each had a specific role to play—mine was to actually read the story to the class (which included lots of interactive opportunities). It reminded me of the years that I read to classes on a weekly basis with the ReadAloud program at Nash, Park, and Worthington Elementary schools back in the early 1990s.

We listed what they had thought were the compound words as the story was read (by clapping twice when they thought they heard one), and discussed which ones were and which were not actually compound words. We later split the classroom into two teams and played a puzzle game we created by cutting 3x5 cards into jigsaw puzzle pieces for them to piece together other compound words that had not been included in the story.

All in all, we had a successful hour spent with these school children. It was great to see their smiling faces. Their behavior was wonderful! However, we learned how difficult it can be to accurately predict how much time is required for classroom activities. As we tried to follow our lesson plan, we discovered that some things took less time that we thought while others segments required more time. I'm sure this difficulty with lesson planning is familiar to many educators, but I bet it gets better with more experience. In the meantime, you just need to be flexible and adjust "on the fly" as necessary.

The school building itself was interesting. It had a concrete playground/courtyard. The walls were made of cement blocks, with some of the blocks laid on their sides so that the open “holes” could allow air to flow through the walls. Obviously, there are no air-conditioned schools here, and the schools stay in session until July (it is a trimester calendar system). [As we were leaving, I noticed a plaque that this school had been rebuilt after damages from a hurricane years ago.]

After our successful half-day venture on Thursday afternoon, our Peace Corps contingent was split up again into several groups and spent all day Friday at other elementary schools. Six of my classmates were assigned to join me at another school on Friday morning. We spent most of the morning performing literacy assessments—a specific reading test to get data on how well a child is reading. Then we were allowed to interview a classroom teacher. We also got to spend some time exploring the school library after completing the assessments. Finally it was time for lunch with the teachers, which was delicious!

Following lunch, I wanted to get more classroom time, especially since they had recently finished their national exams and so they were merely winding down the school year. Myself and another of my classmates arranged to go with one of the teachers back to her classroom. We started off by talking about our lives back in America, and allowing them to ask us any questions. American culture is quite influential here, and some of our questions were things like “Have you ever gone to DisneyWorld?” (I told them the story of the conference I attended at a DisneyWorld hotel, but all I got to do was to ride the monorail—plus drive a race car at the Richard Petty Driving School on the outskirts of the park).

It was a good opportunity to promote the “2nd Goal” of the Peace Corps--to tell host country residents about America. We wanted these school children to know that all of America is not like New York City or Hollywood, California. I made sure they knew that my home of West Virginia is known as “the Mountain State” and that we have lots of steep, winding roads like they do here.

Later, we formed a circle with the children, and played an alphabet game. Each person in the circle would say the next letter in the alphabet, and then a word that matches the category we were playing. For example, the first round was books, and everyone had come up with a book title they were familiar with (my letters ended up being “C” and “T” so I used “Cat in the Hat” and “Tom Sawyer” when my turn came around). Later we played again using foods.

Then we broke the class down into two smaller groups. My colleague and myself took charge of our separate groups, and we worked up Venn Diagrams to discuss the differences and the similarities between St. Lucia and America. Stuff that was only found in St. Lucia (the Pitons, wild parrots, etc.) went on one side of the two overlapping circles. Stuff that was only found in America went on the opposite side of the page (snow, DisneyWorld, etc.). Where the circles overlapped, we listed items that could be found in both locations. This activity made them realize that America was a much larger country, and that some of the items in St. Lucia—while not found in my home state of West Virginia—could be found in other parts of the USA (such as coconut trees in Florida).

We spent the entire afternoon enlightening these students about life in America. It was a very rewarding day, as the students seemed to genuinely enjoy interacting with us. All the classroom training we had received the first ten days will eventually result in a full-time job as a Reading Literacy Co-Teacher. These two days of school visits give me hope that when we are assigned to our permanent schools when the next semester starts in September, we will bond closely with the students and be able to truly help them.

I want to close with a funny incident. During our visit, one of the students said he thought I reminded him of Santa Claus. I responded with a hardy “Ho, Ho, Ho.” To my surprise, the students all responded spontaneously and in unison by yelling “Merry Christmas!” I think that December in my school is going to be an interesting month for a stocky white fellow with a gray beard.

This is lunchtime at the school where I worked on Friday. The boys are playing cricket below the beautiful orange blossoms of what is known as the Flamboyant Tree. Notice the mountain shrouded in clouds in the distance.

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