Math Workshop

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Day 4: Thursday, August 2, 2012

Awoken by truck blaring its horn at 4:30 a.m. Breakfast of tortillas, eggs, beans, bananas, pineapple and toast. We went to LHI to meet with a primary school teacher to explain what she will be teaching when we visit a primary school this morning. On the walk to LHI we passed the men working on paving the road by the posada, animals having sex in the street, an active slaughterhouse with dogs waiting outside and a lot of smiling faces.

Alicia, the teacher we met with, graduated high school last year and is teaching primary school this year. She is studying physics and math at university (not in Chajul) with a scholarship from LHI. Alicia wants to teach middle school math and physics, but for now she is teaching primary school in Chajul. She has to go to school on the weekends for five years to complete her degree. Alicia said there is not a lot of reading in class. Laura from LHI said there is a lot of dictation and copying in classes in Guatemala. There are not many books or text books, and some teachers recite information and students copy the information in their notebooks. Apparently, there is a lot of lost instruction time at Guatemala schools with extended recesses and week-long school anniversary festivals. Many students fail in school because of poor Spanish-language skills. Alicia said she was able to practice her Spanish a lot with peers and family. She said you learn Spanish grammar in elementary school students don’t have much of an opportunity to practice it with many families conversing in the traditional Ixil. LHI offers Spanish tutoring every Saturday with native Spanish speakers for students struggling in school.  During November break struggling students get intensive Spanish help. Frank suggested that students might benefit more from reading to see sentence structure and words. There is a severe lack of materials in the region, but the LHI-supported library does have a growing collection of books that students can read at the library. The level of education in neighborong Nebaj is better as there is more infrastructure for education. The fact that there is a school psychologist there is a big deal.

We walked uphill in Chajul to the school house. It is a dirt-floor room that is part of a house. The family leases the room to the school department. The door was locked when we arrived with 20 students waiting outside. The family in the adjacent house was cooking, so the smoke from their [not] safe stove poured in to the school room. It made it hard for me to concentrate on what the students and teachers were doing. Also, someone in an adjacent house was blasting music for half of the teacher’s lesson. Alicia sang an hola hola song with the students and then read them a story about a rat and a strawberry. Students were all watching and listening attentively. There were mobiles of math shapes and objects hanging from the ceiling. The room was about 500 square feet and there were 23 students. There were old-school wooden desks and chairs.

The next teacher came in and taught a multiplication lesson that I had a hard time following. Laura from LHI had to explain the method he was teaching of raising the fingers on his hands. For example, if he lifted both pinky fingers, that meant six times six. Since two fingers were pointed up, that means 20 (10 for each raised finger). Each hand has 4 fingers down. 4 times 4 is 16. And 16 plus 20 is 36. Huh? How is this a good or easy way to multiply 6 by 6. So if you put two fingers up on each hand, that is 40 (four fingers times 10), and the remaining 3 fingers down on each hand times 3 is 9. 40 plus 9 is 49. Again, I’m not sure how someone would multiply 4 times 4 or 11 times 11. It was almost as if the teacher was teaching a confusing way to do something that did not have to be that confusing. Or maybe he knew of a quirky way of multiplying with fingers that he thought he’d break out for our observation. I’m not sure.

Back at LHI we spoke with Edilma and Veronica, two strong and proud women who work for LHI. They each told us their heartbreaking stories. Edilma left Chajul in search of education and her path took her to living and working at a family’s house far away. Veronica’s father was an alcoholic and education was not valued by everyone in her house. She woke up early to make bread and would also sell ice cream. Both Edilma and Veronica were self-motivated and would let no setback stop their path to education.

Before 1995 there were no middle schools in Chajul. Politics complicate education in Chajul. Teachers mostly have only high school training. Many parents cannot read or write so students take advantage of parents. Parents don’t push too hard. There are many responsibilities at home like laying fertilizer and collecting wood. There is only one option for high school students in Chajul — to become teachers. An Evangelical school now offers accounting. Many try to leave town to get other educational opportunities. LHI offers monthly grants to mothers to cover middle school and high school expenses. Fathers are generally not involved in children’s education. According to Edilma, “You really have to fight to succeed here.” With families in financial distress and with little motivation coming from parents, one must be driven and determined and fight and plan for the future and education because few others will. Both Veronica and Edilmo’s stories are of heart-breaking perseverance and they are both giving back to the youth of Chajul.

After hearing the stories of Edilma and Veronica we went to the house of LHI students and had sopa de hierbes soaked up with tortillas. We also had atol, a hot cream of wheat-like drink that sometimes has chocolate in it. We saw a letter hanging in the house from the government apologizing for atrocities during the Civil war which spanned nearly 40 years, not ending until 1996.

After lunch Frank and I led our math workshop. We had a detailed agenda and were hoping to cover a lot of topics. We had about 16 middle and high school students and spent much of the two hour period reviewing how to add, subtract, multiply and divide fractions and how to solve one- and two-step equations. I found that not one student could divide fractions, but they were all taking notes. We covered a lot of relevant vocabulary like reciprocal and common denominator and factor and taught a good method to find a common denominator by listing multiples. For the most part students were engaged and we had students come up to the front of class to explain different problems they worked on. We found out that students rarely worked together in school or presented their reasoning behind their work. Students seemed to be excited and proud when coming up and students took many notes. It was a success and some of the students gave positive feedback to LHI staff. It was too bad we would not have more opportunities to work in small groups like this on math.

At night Edilma came to the posada to give us a lesson in Ixil. We all had to recite the alphabet with 37 distinct sounds. Some of them were challenging. Good day, or buenos dias, is tchaqlaxh or (chalk-lash). My name is = “in bij in” and how are you = Kam Tal axh or (Kahm tallash). I took copious notes and made a reference sheet to bring with me to use in basic interactions with locals. It was a lot of fun to learn basic greetings in their traditional Mayan dialect. There are more than 20 such languages in Guatemala.

We had a delicious dinner of chicken burritos with a fantastic guacamole that Katie and Frank made, and then discussed a range of topics like how dangerous Guatemala City is today with gang violence. Also, Katie talked about how the government is a little clueless about what happens in the country and how to fix it. There are a lot of inefficient systems in Guatemala, and education is certainly one of them. Katie spoke about the problem of alcoholism among men in Chajul and how no one in town ever drinks in public. Many men drink a homemade corn-based moonshine and become completely useless and incapacitated.
Tomorrow: LHI celebration at the town’s community center.

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About prcloth

I am a high school math teacher in Boston who spent two weeks on a volunteer program in a town of mostly indigenous people in the highlands of Guatemala. I worked closely with the sponsor NGO, Limitless Horizons Ixil, and the residents, students, teachers and librarians of Chajul to extend educational opportunities to the region. I have included some details from this rich, authentic cultural exchange.
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