Thursday, October 6, 2011

Learning, Teaching, and the Space Between

The Guatemalan school year runs from January through October, which means that this is our last week teaching in the schools until January. When we, the new group of PDs, began running English programs, we did so more than halfway through the Guatemalan school year. And while we’ve only run these programs for a few short months, the semester’s end provides a valuable opportunity for reflection and evaluation.

Though I’ve spent the past three months teaching English, I’ve done so in two very different settings. The first of my programs is Teachers’ English, which equips elementary school teachers with the skills and materials necessary to teach English in their own classrooms. I also helped lead a new section of After School English. This program differs from all of our other English programs in that it occurs outside of regular school hours. It’s essentially an extracurricular activity, which gives us, as teachers, more control over the schedule, discipline, and grading.

Having dedicating hours to lesson planning, I’ve often stepped back to ask myself why. Why do we teach English? What are the community members gaining from these programs? MPIG has asked this question more than once. We teach because that’s what the community requested that we do. They see our English language skills as a valuable asset in their community. If that’s the case, then that’s what we’ll do, trusting that the community knows its own needs better than we do. But we also teach to cultivate trust and relationships with teachers, students, parents, and administrators. In this respect, it doesn’t really matter what we’re teaching. The point is that we’re in the schools, week after week, building Manna’s reputation as a consistent and reliable presence in the community.

Given these facts, my favorite part about teaching English has been watching my students learn. Some of the kids in After School English—the majority, even—learn just enough material to eke by on their exams (if that much). They pay attention in class, though they rarely study at home. But a handful of my students have taken ownership of their English education, and it’s incredible to see just how quickly they learn when they do so. Two students have even started bringing their younger siblings—kids no older than 6 or 7—to class with them. The older students learn the material and then teach it to their younger siblings. I’ve seen a similar phenomenon in my Teachers’ English class, in which the most dedicated students are both kindergarten teachers—in other words, they will never need to teach a word of English in their own classrooms. But they come week after week, studying at home, learning at a much faster pace than their peers. One of the women told me she does so simply because she enjoys learning.

In some ways, it doesn’t really matter what my students are learning. I could teach them math, or German, or cake decorating (if I knew how to do any of those things!), and some of the benefits would remain unchanged. Learning provides individuals—children and adults, Americans and Guatemalans alike—with confidence and self-assurance that is a valuable part of human development. Think about it: education is one of the world’s oldest institutions, having played a role in virtually every one of the important ancient world civilizations. I’ve spent 18 years of my own life as a student, but as a teacher in Guatemala, I’ve had the opportunity to participate in education in a new way. And so, while our English language programs these past few months have contributed to Manna’s presence in Chaquijyá, they’ve also contributed to my own growth as a person and as a teacher.

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