I woke up around 6:30, did my quick “Insanity” workout video in my room, showered, and headed to my class. The start time was 8:24. I arrived a few minutes late and noticed several young, bright eyed students working independently without a teacher. I immediately praised them for being so focused without any form of micromanagement. Then, my co-teacher walked in and we chatted for a second about introducing myself to the 7th graders. After having taught in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, my charter school had made me feel incredibly prepared to teach. After hundreds of hours of taping my lessons, being observed, and attending incredibly productive teacher training sessions, I really felt confident in front of the class. Compared to the other teachers at my previous school, I was still definitely a novice teacher, but I still felt ready. As soon as I walked to the front to introduce myself, I praised one boy in the front for having his eyes on me immediately. Then, other eyes started popping up to stay on me. Others smiled nervously at each other. One student continued to scribble, and I gently placed my hand on his desk. He stopped. I was used to expecting having all eyes on me before moving forward. I introduced myself as “Profesora Charleen”. This was strange for me to do, as last names are not used here. I felt like a child pretending to be a teacher. When I tutored in San Antonio I went by Ms. Stoever, and the ESL students would often call me “Ms. Tovar”. In Boston, one of my students called me “Ms. Stoeffer”. Before coming to Nicaragua, I had wondered if I should instead go by “Ms. Johnson”, AKA “Ms. Yonson”, to avoid such confusion and deviation from my name. “Profesora Charleen” seemed juvenile at first, then oddly convenient.
The lesson focused on articles of clothing and prices. Through the use of “How much does the blue tie cost ($2)?” vs. “How much do the black shoes cost? ($40)”, my co-teacher reminded the students about the difference between singular and plural. I immediately noticed differences between this classroom and the one I taught in back home. Both classrooms had open doors, but in Boston, we had silent hallways. This allowed our students to focus. In Nicaragua, the windows were open and we could all see students walking by and peering inside to distract us. Also, there was a loud marching band playing in early preparation for the Independence Day celebrations on September 14-15. I was astonished that the students could focus relatively easily despite these distractions. Another difference was that students called out answers, and didn’t raise their hands. Teachers also rotate around the classrooms where the students stay, so they have less control over how the classroom looks. The walls are bare, with the exception of graffiti, which oddly enough resembled my classroom at the University classroom in France. Yes, France is a “first world” country, yet my University’s infrastructure suggested otherwise. At first I was annoyed that the open windows allowed for distractions, but then I succumbed to the breezy ventilation they provide in this humid country.
My favorite part of the 86-minute lesson was the “telephone” game. My co-teacher whispered a phrase about shoes or sweaters into one of their ears, and they had to pass down the phrase down their columns. Their giggles made for a lively background noise. With cupped hands, they whispered into their teammates’ ears. Whenever the final student went to the front to reveal the original phrase, there would be bursts of laughter because the phrases were unintelligible by that point. It was fun for them, as well as for my teacher. He clearly enjoyed his students and cared about them. Management wise, he circulated to make sure they were not working on work for any other class, and he moved students around if they weren’t able to focus. His tone was positive overall and he did a great job of speaking mostly in English. I would have just spoken to them in Spanish…in fact, I was. He asked me to monitor the class once when he stepped out and then again to check their homework. I wanted them to know how they were doing, but it’s a challenge to do not praise them in Spanish. I suppose that I should be more conscious of speaking to them with cognates (words that sound similar in Spanish and in English), so that they can more easily relate the words to Spanish. For example, if I were to say “You are showing your focus today by paying attention when I speak”, the cognates would be “focus” (“enfoco”) and attention (atención). I was rotating and praising them mostly in Spanish.
Later in training, I would learn that speaking to them in Spanish was effective in the short-term, but that I should immediately start speaking to them in English. If I do not make this switch, then they will grow used to me translating everything for them. Why would they care about learning English if it would be translated into Spanish anyway? At the end of class, I announced that my English Youth Group would be meeting today in the “Parque Central” at 3:30. A couple of students came in late from band practice. One student came in, and my co-teacher introduced him to me as one of his stronger students in class. At the end of class, I was inviting this student to my youth group, and my co-teacher called out to me: “My friend! Can you wait?” He was very receptive to my feedback. I enjoyed working with someone who genuinely wanted to improve. I know that I will learn a lot from him as well, especially about the content.
Later, Robin and I had our first English youth group meeting. Some came because we had invited them at the school, and others came because they had heard about it on facebook. Beforehand, I chatted with one young man who played in a band. He played his music for me on his phone. The two songs I listened to sounded like Mexican corridos, and then others were mambo-based. One of them spoke out about domestic violence, and we talked about the “Ley 779” or “779 Law” in Nicaragua, which has taken a step forward in protecting women from domestic violence. He was excited to learn English, and I was happy to have met someone who is making this kind of music. We all met for about an hour, and played different English-based games. Again, it was hard to speak in English the entire time. I’m quickly getting introduced to TEFL Problems: 101.
After the Youth Group, I spoke on the phone with one of our Spanish class coordinators. I had been interviewed to determine my level of Spanish, and she said that I was at the advanced medium level, but that I needed to advance to the Superior level. No one had really said that to me before. I grew up speaking Spanish since I was three, and was used to being complimented on my fluency. At first I was surprised to hear this news, but then I appreciated that the Peace Corps would work with me to improve my Spanish. Sometimes, you just need someone to tell you that you can do even better. In 11 weeks I will be interviewed again to determine my level, but in the meantime, I know what I need to work on: Using the correct articles before nouns. That’s always been my weakness. The English-speaking part of my brain is used to introducing nouns with the genderless “the”, but in Spanish, every noun has a gender. Yay!
On Friday, we went to a Restaurant complex for training. We spent four hours observing one another’s 20-minute demo English lessons, and we all learned different things from one another. One teacher would go up to the front, and the rest of us pretended to be Nicaraguan students. I definitely focused more on classroom management during my lesson, because that’s what I as used to doing. I was used to being very present with my students and using constant positive narration. After observing my colleagues’ lessons, they taught me all of the different, fun ways that English grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary can be taught. I’m excited to borrow these ideas from them in order to make my classroom as engaging as possible. During our debrief, we talked about the importance of consistency in the classroom. Enforce expectations and procedures is super important in earning students’ trust. I also chatted with another volunteer about how I believe teaching is 90% management and 10% content. Anyone can write a lesson and most people can present one, but if your kids are not bought into your management system, then only the most intrinsically motivated students will learn.
Later that night, I went with other volunteers to a folkloric dance group…I’m still not sure whether or not we were supposed to be there, because it seemed like a pretty well-rehearsed dance that was probably meant for the Independence Day Celebrations. It was fun, though, and reminded me of all of those Latina Cultural Show rehearsals in college. I haven’t gotten to dance nearly as much salsa or bachata here, but I’ll have to be patient. That’s the motto. Nicaragua is the best place to learn how to be patience, as my Spanish teacher told us a week ago. Speaking of patience, it turned out that me showerhead had fallen off when I had come home that night. Luckily, due to water shortages, I had that barrel full of water in my shower. On August 22nd, 2014, I took my first bucket bath. It wasn’t nearly as depressing as I’d anticipated. I cleaned what I needed to clean, and I probably used 1/20th of the water that I would have used back home. In fact, it’s disgusting to realize how little water you need to clean yourself. All it took was two large buckets of water, not a 15-minute shower. I don’t even want to know how many barrels I could have filled with each of my showers back home.
Armed with my can of DEET, I was ready to face my spineless, miniscule, blood-sucking foes that were waiting for me in bed. I sprayed my whole body and my bed, then crawled under my mosquito net. By 9 PM, I was asleep. The next morning, I went for a my first run in two weeks. I wasn’t terribly interested in being cat-called, so that’s why I had resorted to working out each morning in front of my computer screen. This time, I was ready to brave the world and run in my small town. I had heard about a soccer field, so I ran through the streets and past homeless dogs until I reached the field. Under an early morning sky full of vaporous, fluffy clouds, I ran back and forth between the goal posts. The humidity made me sweat a lot more than I was used to back home in the surprisingly arid Moses Lake, Washington, so I went home after about 20 minutes of running. I succeeded to go on a run without much commotion in town. Maybe it was because it was 6 AM. By this time, the roosters have already been up for a couple of hours.
Later in the morning, I bought my $14 cell phone and installed my Peace Corps family plan. Finally, a working cell phone! This one does not have wi-fi, but it does have an FM radio. Apparently, about 30% of the volunteers lose their phones during service, so I don’t imagine that I will have this one by the time I leave. I later went to the bank to exchange money, but more importantly, to stand in the air conditioning. The guard in the front greeted me with a smile, which almost distracted me from his machine gun. He inspected me bag, and signaled to the guard inside to let me in. It’s not as hot as Texas here, but the air conditioning was a small comfort. I don’t mind the long line. It gives me a chance to cool off and to be glanced at inquisitively by the small children hiding behind their mothers’ legs.