Jun 18, 2012

Chocolate dreams and city living


By past volunteer David Drezner
In Granada Nicaragua, there is an isolated atmosphere of artificial leisure on Calle Calzada, an island of First world civilisation in a sea of small houses full of poorer people, replete with mariachi bands,  American and European cuisine,  European music, native hawkers, and continuously flowing booze. Surprisingly, the chocolate here is delightful and the ice cream is delicious.  Even the cheap commercial brands of ice cream have a rich flavour which enchants.  The city centre features ceramic tiled colonial adobe buildings, homes dating from the 19th century.  At night, all the homes in the centre of the city have open doors, all the better to bring the cool air into the house, while the inhabitants sit outside on wicker rocking chairs having quiet family and neighbourly chats.
Poverty is an accepted part of Nicaraguan life, and it is reflected in Granada.  It isn’t unusual to see an expensive pickup truck parked next to a shanty house, or a horse and cart carry a refrigerator. A sea of tin roofed shanty houses surrounds the main city and is slowly being given the facilities of a city, one by one. The people of this new community steal electricity with the permission of the authorities, and they are just now getting paved streets.  In the rainy season the dirt streets become a muddy mess.  They live a hard life of poverty, driven to the city by a lack of work in the country. They raise their families in their small shack-houses, and manage to feed them for the most part
After an initial surge of Sandinista excitement for education, the country has settled into an established indifference to the idea. Many of the schools in the city are built by foreign NGO's, and many teachers and volunteers help the schools here. The help is needed. The level of funding for the schools are extremely low, even by Central American standards. Teachers in the Primary system here are paid about 70 dollars a week, and they're glad to get that much sometimes.
As a medium term volunteer for La Esperanza Granada, I am here to see how education is carried out in such an environment, and how I can give what help I can in the limited time I have. People  of all ages come from all over the Western world to give what help they can. I am one of them.  I am a  teacher’s assistant volunteer, it is my job to help teach the children. For the summer season, no regular teachers were available, so volunteers taught the primary school summer school children.

Most of us had no experience or training in managing a Primary school, so it was a catch as catch can experience for all of us. We had no supervision from professionals in this, though Nicaraguan students  did a good job making sure we didn`t mis-manage things too badly.  We carried out some simple classes in basic skills with the children.  Some of volunteers managed to make well run and educationally efficient classes. I admire all of them for this talent.  Most of us tried hard, and did as well as we could. For the most part, the students responded by trying their best.  I’m told that the Education department of the city of Granada was pleasantly surprised by the results.  The kids actually liked to go to school to learn reading, writing, and math.
Recently, the normal school season has started, and my role has been reduced to helping the teacher in the normal class curriculum.  It is interesting to see how schools can operate with only a whiteboard, copy books, some schoolbooks that never leave the school, very few materials, and a will to teach and learn.  Some classes run to 50 students, and discipline in the lower grades is a serious problem. Still, there are students that want to learn, and they try their best. We volunteers help them do this to the best of our abilities. If you have good Spanish, it isn’t hard to tutor First to Fourth grade students in Spanish.  The students make it easy with their ready smiles and willingness to listen and learn.  Teaching an entire class is another matter, requiring talent in classroom management.  Teachers in the Primary grades seem to spend half their time getting their children to sit quietly and listen.  I’m happy to just be a helper in this situation, though other volunteers with more ambition wish for a larger role.  This is not our school system, and we are not there to take over.
In my time here, I’ve discovered the joy of working with children that genuinely want to learn, despite their occasional attendance. During  summer school, attendance was fully voluntary.  When they came to school, they came with a willing heart and an easy smile.  Though they may be lacking in attention span, when they do learn something, you can see the happy glint of understanding in their eyes, and it is profoundly rewarding. I am not a 'natural' teacher, though I try my best, and in trying my best, I get an admittedly corny warm glow inside when one of my students grasps something as simple as the phonetic spelling of a word, or perhaps the uses of the number ´0´.
 I’m not sure I’m helping any more than any given other person, but the fact that I care, and I want them to learn must be some form of positive motivation. It is one of the most rewarding things I have done in my life, and is just as rewarding for all the other volunteers that I work with.   

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