Monday, July 9, 2012

First steps...

This is a republication of my first  progress report to the Omprakash Foundation.
In just a few days, PASA workshops (the Spanish acronym for Promoting Improved and Sustained Learning) have gone from being a potential to being an exciting eventuality. Despite some trouble getting to El Porvenir (missing flights) and a day of school closures lost to a teacher work stoppage (in remembrance of the coup three years ago), I managed to turn only three full working days into successful first steps in setting up this pilot project.

It wasn’t easy, and I could not have done it without the wise advice and help of several people from Honduras Children. In all, I was able to:
  • meet with and gain the support of the district’s superintendent and several important community leaders,
  • arrange for the use of the municipal building as a workshop location,
  • visit with teachers at 15 primary schools and 9 kindergartens,
  • connect with 3 more primary schools and 7 more kindergartens that I couldn’t visit (several were closed on the days I visited), and
  • visit 13 of the 15 townships in the municipality (only missing the last two because of how difficult it is to access them due to distance and poor road infrastructure).
The plan and budget is to work with 30 teachers of kindergarten and first grade in the Municipality of El Porvenir (15 rural townships along the north coast of Honduras) to identify and address common instructional challenges. Interest among teachers is so high that I worry I may find myself turning away participants! I will have to begin looking at options for expanding inclusion and/or which factors to use to decide who gets to participate, with both project objectives and equity being important. After all, the poorest schools may need the workshops the most, but bringing together a mix of schools is part of the plan’s structure to foment change and community building across the demographics.
 My discussions with teachers and observations of classrooms brought home to me many of the challenges the teachers face and that I will be facing in my delivery of the workshops. Honduran culture can be very status-oriented and hierarchical. Education is very much based on the “banking” model, in which students are passive recipients and teachers are the givers of knowledge. Teachers are members of a school culture that follows guidelines and curriculums without often comprehending the reasons why particular aspects thereof may or may not work. Students are responsible for learning, and failure to learn is their fault rather than that of an unresponsive educational system. The realities of child development are poorly understood, motivation is extrinsic, and the usual challenges of any classroom are compounded by poverty and poor health.
All that said, I found many teachers who were eager to improve their practice and gain access to greater knowledge and the potential to change. That is the aim of PASA, keying into that motivation to make a difference and providing the tools to do so in sustainable ways. As I begin the process of laying out a plan for the workshops and for more in-depth work with the teachers, I find myself focusing on how to help teachers get kids more deeply involved in the learning process. This seems to be breaking down into two sub-themes, (1) how to use a deeper understanding of child development to help teachers use children’s learning patterns as an asset rather than a deficit, and (2) how to teach in ways that actually avoid problematic behaviors by children (what I see as a more empowering spin on the idea of “classroom behavior management.”)
I also know that talking about different practices will do little to foment change; instead, the different strategies, from choral response to graphing to using the inquiry process, will have to be built into the workshops themselves, along with opportunities to reflect alone or in small groups. Understanding the cultural nature of teaching and what these teachers are up against in their efforts to improve their own practice is also requiring me to begin mapping out strategies not just for classroom practice but for the motivation and maintenance of the change process, perhaps a simple self-reporting system to help teachers monitor their own progress over time.
I’m excited to keep moving forward with the background research now that I have more exact knowledge of the issues on the ground and the perspectives of the teachers themselves. I’m especially excited to have been so warmly welcomed into the community of educators and I look forward to deepening the relationships I have begun to build.

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