Wednesday, February 25, 2009

#13 Jungle School Sunny Side Up

Jungle School has been in session for almost three weeks now and I have learned that I love and hate teaching. It is challenging and fun and active. It is also challenging, exhausting, and frustrating. I love learning and I love helping other people learn, but I am ready to lose my cool at least once a day due to one frustration or another. I could do without the misbehavior and lack of initiative, but they are small prices to pay for making what I think is a real difference in these kids’ lives. I will blog tonight about the positive sides of my work and return later to discuss the less positive aspects.

I am teaching Second and Third Grade, Monday through Thursday, from 7am to 1pm. Julia, a volunteer from Austria, and I trade classes for 40 minutes so that she gets a break from Kindergarten by teaching my classes’ Social Studies and I get a break from my kids and get to play and sing with the Kinder kids. On Fridays I teach music to the 5th and 6th graders; we are learning to play the recorder. Then I stay at the school with the younger kids while the older kids go down to the river with Toshi for karate lessons. I’m not a big fan of Fridays. My Monday to Thursday schedule looks like this…

7-7:20am PREPARATION Transportation is a pain for me and the kids, so this is time when they can finish the homework they forgot to take home, read books from our little library, and we can all finish getting to school.

7:20-8am MATH We’ve been doing the order of numbers and the place names as well as greater than, less than, and equal. The 2nd graders are working with numbers 1-999 and the 3rds are working with 1-99,999. I’m looking forward to getting to addition and subtraction next.

8-8:40am SPANISH I give them 12 spelling words a week that we then practice and use throughout the week before having a test on Thursdays. I am focusing on problem areas like v/b, c/s, h, rr/r and ll/y. It has been fascinating to see how often even adults here spell “hacer” (to do or to make) as “aser” because they are unaware of the silent “h” at the beginning or the fact that “c” and “s” have the same sound sometimes. My other favorite spelling issue is fairly particular to Honduras and is that “b” and “v” are both pronounced as “b”. Many of my kids spell 20 as “beinte” and one kid wrote his alphabet with “…Uu Vb Ww…” These are problems we see with adults too…
[The sign says "Don't vote for trash." They thought they were using the word "botar" which means "to throw out."]

We use the words to practice writing and how to form sentences correctly. We are also currently reading some simple poems and using them to learn how to answer reading comprehension questions.

8:40-9am RECESS AND MILK I have loved watching the kids play a game at recess called “The Lucky Bunny” which consists of standing in a circle and clapping hands with the persons on either side of you and saying a poem about a lucky bunny who comes to visit and kisses the boy or girl he likes best. There is one child in the center who is counting around the circle with the beat of the poem and whoever his or her finger is pointing at when the poem is done is the lucky bunny. This person then moves to the center and chooses who they want to kiss, and then this third kid takes to the center to count with the poem. The gender observer in me noticed right away that while girls kiss girls and boys, boys only kiss girls. Ahhh, homophobia…it starts so young.

9-9:40am SOCIAL STUDIES (aka My time to play with the cute kids who are ages 3-6 in the Kinder class.) It is fascinating how hard it is for a 5 year old who has never been to school to learn to differentiate colors or to recognize numbers or letters.

9:40-10:20am SCIENCE We’ve been working on what constitutes life, the life cycle, how we use things that aren’t alive, and the parts of plants. I’m looking forward to getting to animals soon! The kids enjoyed the chance to look close up at leaves with the magnifying glasses I brought with me.

10:20-11:20am ART, CALLIGRAFY, or HEALTH Depending on the kids’ energy level and attention spans, we usually do one day of art, one day of health, and two days of calligraphy (learning to write in script.) Most of my students’ penmanship is atrocious and painstakingly slow, so it is important to practice and I focus on the words from their spelling lists to help us practice those. Art is very basic. We used white chalk on black construction paper to mimic Lenca pottery (the Lenca are a tribe indigenous to western Honduras.) My plan for Health this week is to teach them to wash their hands for at least the duration of the song “Happy Birthday.”

11:20-Noon LUNCH Ahhh, rice and beans and either pineapple or plantain… the rice is from a program called “Kids Against Hunger” so it is specially formulated with soy protein and vitamins. I can’t say I’m a fan, but I always eat a little to make a good show of it. We also try to make sure the kids brush their teeth and take a children’s vitamin.

Noon-1pm TUTORING While Toshi, another volunteer from the US, and Julia teach English to the older kids, I keep myself available to the younger ones to help them with homework and basic skills. I have one second grader who is new to the school this year. He is very capable in math class but completely unable to read, so I am working with him at a very basic level to get him understanding phonics so that he can catch up more quickly to the other kids in terms of language.

I then go down to the road wait for the bus to pass by (which can be at any time between 1:15 and 2.) I try to stop by a house just down the road where one of our first graders lives. His grandmother has asked me to help him with his homework when I can because she can’t…she’s never been to school.

We have two Honduran teachers at our school. Angel is the director and is in charge of 4th, 5th, and 6th grades, although most classes for them are taught by the volunteers Maria (from Spain) and Toshi. Those three grades (about 25 kids in all) share one classroom. The other classroom is headed by Iris, who really only teaches first grade. Also in that room are 2nd and 3rd grades, with me. In total there are around 25 kids in 1st, 2nd and 3rd. Julia teaches about 5 Kinder students in the roofed space in between the two buildings.

We have approximately one textbook for every two kids, so there is a great deal of sharing. I have mostly given up on using textbooks, as sharing is not an easy thing and the time taken up in fighting over who will have the book on which side of the desk is precious learning time lost. I spend my own money to pay for copies so that the kids can have actual worksheets for math and science and a small book of poems that we use for Spanish class.

My biggest goals in my work over the next few weeks is to help set some foundations for these kids to learn HOW to learn, so that they are not completely dependent upon inconsistent and poorly trained teachers for all of their knowledge. I want to instill in each of them at least a kernel of self-esteem. I want to model consistent adult discipline and appropriate behavior. And I want to provide them with a sense that everything they learn has a practical, and maybe even enjoyable, use.

Part of me can’t wait to come back and teach some more. I love the work. Most days, I really love the kids and will miss them terribly and am trying not to think too heavily on that approaching departure date.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

#12 Las Cascadas Bejuca, Pico Bonito, Honduras

I am currently lying on the couch with my slightly battered left knee elevated on pillows, but it is entirely worth it. The other three volunteers and I spent the last two days hiking and camping in Pico Bonito National Park along the Cangrejal River outside of La Ceiba. A Honduran friend,Queso (yes it is a nickname and, yes, it is the Spanish word for cheese) offered to take us up to the top of the waterfall and camp there for the night after our failed attempt to reach the falls on an afternoon hike last Monday.

Lessons learned on that Monday hike:
Lesson #1. Do not count on a dog as your guide. Tonki, the pudgy Rottweiler who belongs to the owner of a lodge along the river, decided to tag along with us and would run ahead on the trail and then wait for us to catch up. No one informed us that we were actually looking for an offshoot of the loop trail, so we missed the turn, and although we found some lovely smaller falls, none of them were the 180ft falls we were expecting to find. Whenever we see Tonki now we call him “Mal Guia” (bad guide.)
Lesson #2. Water droplets on a carpet of moss look like liquid emeralds.
Lesson #3. You don’t have to reach your destination to have an incredible journey.
Lesson #4. Leafcutter ants will go one hell of a long way down the mountain to find good leaves to carry back to their colony. And they form their own little highways as they traverse back and forth by the thousands. Also, smaller ants will hitch rides on the leaves being carried by the larger ants. I could watch them for hours.
Lesson #5. Sitting in front of a water fall and listening to it is like sitting before a wise teacher who speaks in poetry, so that you must take in everything you hear and await the day that you will understand it. And all the time you are listening to your own inner voice.

We camped at the top of the falls, about 200ft above the valley floor. From our fire we could see far up into the Cuenca (Spanish for “watershed” and used to describe the valleys formed by the river and its tributaries.) As the sun set and lights in houses below were turned on, we could sit at our fire and look south into the mountains. We could see that electricity has not yet been installed far into the Cuenca, and as night fell it became an inky black void. From our tents we could see north all the way to the city and where the river meets the sea. Sitting near the edge of the falls, I was far enough out from under the canopy of trees to see the eastern sky filled with more stars than I could count. As the clouds began to form yesterday afternoon (this is after all a cloud forest) they were actually below us, we were so high up! This morning we hiked down to the base of the falls and then to the river valley floor, stopping along the way to enjoy a dip in a beautiful swimming hole.

Lessons learned on this weekend’s hike:
1. The floor of a cloud forest is a loose, peaty dirt mixed with dead leaves that is more than willing to give way at any moment beneath your feet. The only things holding it in place are the tree roots. It really brings home the fact that this soil is not meant for agriculture or ranching and that deforestation is the worst thing you can do.
2. Trees, their roots, and thick vines are my nearest and dearest forest friends. My fall this morning would have been much worse were it not for the strong vine I was able to hook my arm across and thus stop myself from going down the steep slope below the trail. My bruised armpit is a small price to pay for not having to figure out how to get down a steep mountain with broken bones. (Big Honduras lesson: Life hurts sometimes, so get over it. Keep your eye on the positive.) I have endless respect for my students and their hikes to get to school because I know some of their paths aren’t much better.
3. Soaking in cold river water is as good as ice when your knees are hurting.
4. The Cuenca is a beautiful place, full of vibrant life of all kinds, and I really feel like I am a member of the community sometimes. Coming home in the back of a pickup, we were greeted by many of our students playing along the road or in the yards of their homes.

5. Sleeping in a tent with the other 4 volunteers just doesn’t compare to having Lempira, my pygmy jaguar friend, wake me up in the morning by biting my nose.
6. I am definitely closer to 30 than 20 and my body knows it. I should listen better.
7. Caterpillars come in all shapes and sizes.

8. If you crush termites and rub them on your skin, you won’t get bug bites. (I already knew that they taste like carrots.)
9. Mountain spring water tastes delicious!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

#11 Solares Nuevos

I spent my Friday afternoon and Saturday morning helping to organize and deliver food to the campesino village that Helping Honduras Kids has become involved with. Campesino is the Spanish word for peasant, and village is a polite description of the terrible conditions these 250 people are lucky enough to live in. They have chosen for their group name Solares Nuevos, Solares being the Spanish word for plots of land, often referring to tenement homes and Nuevo being new. That’s right…the “new tenements.” They first lost their homes and belongings in Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Then, two years ago, they were forced off the land that they had been living on for 6 years and where they had managed to build adobe homes. A humanitarian group was able to purchase this hectare of land for them just outside the town of La Bomba where they have managed to build wooden shacks and establish something of a home around the one-room concrete building and the well that have been built for them. There was a donor helping provide food until a few months ago, when they had to or chose to stop buying food. Agriculture is next to impossible on this land and completely impossible in the enduringly severe rainy season we are still at times experiencing.

Here are some figures to help you imagine. A hectare is 10,000 square meters, equivalent to a little less than two and a half acres. The average US home is 2,330 square feet. This means that there would be about 47 average US homes back to back and side to side without yards and in each house there would be about 5 and a quarter people. That is one person to every 435 square feet. Sounds livable until you start including shared space like paths, roads, the well, community center, and most importantly the subsistence agriculture these folks so desperately need. The land is low and gathers mud and water easily but is slow to release it and become dry. Even if it was suitable for successfully growing crops, it is not adequate for the variety of foods necessary to ensure nutrition. That would include corn, beans, plantains, and chickens at the very least.

I spent much of my time there talking with the children. They have many of the same problems as the kids at the Jungle School, living in fatherless homes, staph infected bug bites on their legs, light streaks in their hair from malnutrition, trouble learning and staying at grade level in school. However, their problems were all markedly more severe than the ones I encounter at my school. The wounds on their legs were actively bleeding and deeply eaten into the skin, making divots into their shins. I met multiple children who were in grades far behind the average for their age, for example eleven year olds in second grade. I also saw evidence of severe birth defects, including one girl with Down syndrome, a baby with a slightly but obviously oddly shaped head and a boy with the wide set eyes that I have often heard associated with fetal alcohol syndrome. My thoughts today have often strayed back to the girl with Downs, wondering what her future will be, especially should she outlive her parents and siblings and especially in a culture where she is vulnerable to predatory men just for being a girl, let alone developmentally challenged.

The kids taught me the Spanish words for bike seat (monturo) and swing (culumbrio). I taught them the concept of “thousand” in English, so that they can now count up to 999,999 in English. I also taught them my Monkey Poo song, which was a big hit with the kids and the woman driving the delivery van for us.

And now I sit with the information I have gathered and attempt to digest it…looking at it from the personal story angle, the statistical angle, and finally the philosophical angle…trying to see the truths through the mixed muck of poverty and social prejudices and enduring disadvantages in these peoples’ daily lives. Whose fault is it that they are poor? The society at large does not offer them much in the way of opportunities and lives in such ways that demand that someone be poor so that they can be rich. But nor do these people help themselves, instead perpetuating much of their poverty by giving up in the face of such enormous odds and being self-destructive with alcohol and other behaviors. For example, we seriously considered not leaving the unclaimed bags of food for the absent families because it was so likely that someone else would steal them before those families returned. We eventually left the bags under the security of the woman they have chosen as their community representative, but it was with minimal hope that the intended families will actually see all of the nutritious goods intended for them.

Each bag contained a pound of pasta, a pint of tomato sauce, a pound of coffee, a box of milk powder, a pound of shortening, two pounds of beans, two pounds of rice, and two pounds of coffee, and two pounds of sugar…in short, enough to stave off starvation for a week. The kind couple from New Mexico who was donating the food bought enough for us to deliver this for at least two weeks, possibly three. It cost them less than $500. $2 per person in the village.

It seems so easy to help. At the same time it is so difficult to solve. So I am embracing the famous Rilke quote:
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved...and try to love the questions themselves. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them...Live the questions.”
That is what I am doing here, I think, living my way through the question and hopefully in some small way living the answer whether or not I am aware of it.