Growing up in Florida, I didn’t get snow days. I did, however, get days off for the occasional hurricane. It’s no hurricane, but it has been raining all morning here in Granada, and school has been canceled. The rain hasn’t been torrential, but I suppose it doesn’t take much to make traveling the dirt roads in rural areas unsafe.
I’m coming to the end of my second week working at an elementary school on the outskirts of the city. The experience has been about as equally frustrating as it has been rewarding. For my first couple of days I was placed in a kindergarten class for the first part of the morning, and a first grade classroom for the second. Both were chaotic and totally unorganized. The teacher generally assigns the class one activity first thing in the morning (think coloring or a single, very easy math problem), and then retires to a chair in the back of the room and totally checks out for the rest of the period. I would help the kids with their assignment or try to keep them on-task, but the project was never enough work to keep even the motivated kids busy for the whole day. Eventually, the room would turn into a makeshift playground and my job went from supervising building blocks to trying my best to ensure that the kids were literally not hanging from the rafters.
After a few days of that I was re-assigned to do one-on-one tutoring with first graders. The teacher gave my tutoring partner and I a list of eight children to work with every day on reading, writing, and math. So far I am enjoying this much more than the classroom stints. Working one-on-one gives me much more time and opportunity to actually affect change, and I love getting to know the kids.
Life at Escuela Pablo Antonio Cuadra varies quite a bit day-to-day. I am usually up at 6am to make myself a big breakfast and leave the house by 7. I walk with several other volunteers about 30 minutes to the school, where we set up our tutoring stations and say our hellos to the kiddos. There is a 45 minute break every day from 9:15 to 10, and often teachers dismiss their classes early for reasons that are not explained to the volunteers. Even when class is in session there are children wandering the grounds. Sometimes they come to our table and watch, erase what we’ve written on the board, or try their best to distract the other children. Often teachers don’t show up to school, and their classes are either dismissed for the day or combined with another – completely obliterating any chance at productivity. There is no system of time-outs or detention, no discipline at all, and no security at the school. Yesterday I counted three grown men wandering the campus and huffing jars of glue.
But even with all of that, there are children who want to learn. This is Nayansi. She’s one of the first graders I tutor every day. She’s very shy and is just getting a hang of her vowels. She doesn’t yet know how to spell her name. But when she sees me at school she quietly throws herself at me. She wants to be touching me all the time, and even though she doesn’t talk much, I know she looks forward to our daily sessions. Yesterday – instead of my usual rotation of children – I worked with the same girl the entire day because her teacher hadn’t showed up, her class was dismissed, and she wanted to learn. But when I hadn’t come to collect Nayansi for her lesson before breaktime she came to me and asked why I wasn’t with her today. By the end of the day she had joined my lesson with the first girl.
Overall I’m feeling really happy here. My days are filled with challenges, yes. It is sad to see first graders who don’t know the alphabet. It is sad to see eight-year-olds that look five due to poor nutrition, that eat candy for breakfast and snack and lunch. It is sad to see children with black teeth or without shoes. It is tragic that the government here doesn’t value education like mine does. But it’s important to see all of this. I know my impact here will be minimal. But watching Nayansi correctly identify an ‘i’ from an ‘e’… that’s a cause I throw myself into.