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Friday, October 16, 2015

Equity in Ecuadorian Public and Private Schools

Volunteering in two drastically different first grade classrooms in Quito has been eye-opening experience for me in so many ways. El Colegio Menor is a private bilingual pK-12 school entirely in English and Carlos Aguilar is the local public elementary school conducted in Spanish. The classes have very different teaching styles and subject content but their primary focus is on the students. I am learning so much from the way the teachers care for their students as people with innate dignity and worthiness as their first priority, regardless of the inequity and injustice in their situations.

Colegio Menor seems very much like elementary schools in the United States, and even more endowed than most. Everything (except the Spanish classes) is conducted in English and the teachers use methods, materials, and curriculum from the US. The school is very well-resourced. My CT taught for a few years in Miami, so her teaching style is similar to other teachers in the US, although she is a bit more affectionate. She talks to students politely, rarely if ever raises her voice, and seems calm and capable. My CT has specific objectives and plans for all of her lessons and often teaches each lesson with an instruction period and then practice time. The students seem to be at grade-level (for the US) for the most part.

Carlos Aguilar, the local public school, on the other hand, is a very different environment. I am in a first grade classroom there as well, but the classroom seems almost out of control often and the teacher is very stressed. Everything is conducted in Spanish. The teacher yells a lot and almost every two minutes asks for “silencio” or “callense” (be quiet), and even tells the students to pretend to sleep on their desks so she can have silence. When students are in the wrong place at the wrong time, she sometimes physically moves them to their spot, which is discouraged in the US. The lessons are planned out but they do not have very many resources at all. The classroom is tiny, the students don’t have workbooks or computer, and the room is sparsely decorated. The lessons are a lot of activities but do not seem to introduce a lot of new material. Today, for example, the students painted a worksheet yellow to learn about primary colors, they played with lego like toys, and did some physical exercise to learn more about their bodies. The students are below grade level (by US standards) and the lessons, at least from what I saw today, do not sufficiently address them. Despite the more challenging and stressed atmosphere in this low-income school, the teacher never gives up and brings energy to each acticity. The students are very warm and affectionate, ask lots of questions, and love school. When I first walked in, at least half the class surrounded me in hugs and bombarded me with questions about where was from and what my name was. I like working at this school as I feel like I am helping the students and the teacher a lot, despite my imperfect Spanish, and because the kids are so loving.

I enjoy working at both schools in different ways. My experience at Carlos Aguilar in particular has impacted my understanding of “Promoting Equity and Social Justice.” Despite the under-resourced environment, low-income population, and below-grade level performance, these kids deserve and need the best possible conditions to learn, as well as those in other schools like Colegio Menor. The students’ background should not influence the quality of education they receive. Seeing the huge discrepancy between the two schools that are less than 10 minutes apart made me realize the huge income divide in Ecuador and the unequal distribution of resources. As a teacher from Boston College that focuses on promoting equity and social justice, I want to try to do what I can to help the students succeed, regardless of their background.

Comparison of El Colegio Menor in Ecuador to the US System

El Colegio Menor 

I student teach in a first grade classroom at Colegio Menor, a private pK-12 English immersion school in Quito, Ecuador. Before reading further, keep in mind that Colegio Menor is one of the most expensive and “best” schools in the country, so this is by no means representative of a typical Ecuadorian public school, which I will discuss in my next blog post. Colegio Menor is very similar to those in the US with an abundance of resources and similar teaching styles. Even so, the culture is more laid-back and the students are in a total immersion environment (my CT uses SEI techniques, which I will discuss in a later blog as well), which seems very different to me.

My lesson on sight in the first grade classroom

My first thought walking into Colegio Menor on my first day was to notice the beauty of the campus and all the wonderful resources available to the students. The school is particularly expensive in Ecuador, so the tuition pays for resources such as smartboard like systems in every classroom, curriculum and books from the US, a full school library, computer labs, and many buildings on the huge campus. The resources are here are very similar, and perhaps even more abundant here, than what I’ve seen in the US in middle to upper income schools. My CT also taught in the US for a few years, so her teaching style seems familiar to me. She uses US curriculum (Foss curriculum for science and Math in Focus for Math) and books. She starts each day with a morning circle, which I’ve seen many teachers in the US do, where they discuss what day it is, what they will learn today, the schedule, some new letters and their sounds, new sight words, and morning work. She expects students to raise their hands and to sit on the rug or at their tables. She uses lucky sticks (popsicle sticks) to call on children and uses positive reinforcement (I see that Maria is sitting down, thank you…).
However, I did notice some differences from the US right away, such as the very laidback and relaxed atmosphere, as well as the sheltered english immersion (SEI) techniques that my CT used to help the students understand English. All the teachers here call the students “my love” or “my life,” and are very affectionate with them, hugging them and not hesitating with physical contact, as they would in the US. Ecuadorian culture is very affectionate and warm, even with newcomers. All the students call teachers by their first names, so I am Ellen instead of Ms. Daly. The school is also surprisingly laid-back, even lax in special education. The new ecuadorian law now requires schools to include all students with special needs in general education, as they often just stayed home before, and in theory requires an IEP where applicable, but IEPs are virtually non-existent and no pull-out or special education classrooms exist. The school only has one special education professional, who is stretched too thin over many classes and is never really with the students for long enough to do much. A student in my class has Aspergers and really struggles with transitions, but he does not have an IEP or any accommodations. For the very few students who do have IEPs, they just consist of a few insufficient sentences, such as “give Martin blocks to use for math.” My CT also is very relaxed in her teaching approach. I’ve taught lessons almost every time I’ve gone to the school, but she often only tells me “teach the next lesson on the sense of sight” or “let’s do the next lesson from the foss curriculum, whatever that is,” which seems to reflect her personality but also that the general approach at the school is not as structured as in the US. Her primary focus, she told me, is on caring for the students, and all else, even lessons and learning, are secondary. Her loving attitude helps her connect with the students more and help each one in the best way. My CT also uses SEI techniques in her pedagogy, since all the students are native spanish-speakers and are learning English. She uses a lot of pictures, verbal explanations of vocab and new words, songs, and gestures to help students understand, which is more than I’ve seen in the US in general education classes.
Overall, my experience is going well and I love observing my CT, teaching lessons every day, and learning ways to help ESL students. I will discuss my other public school volunteer experience, which is drastically different, and I will also go into more depth on the SEI techniques and lessons.

Hasta luego!

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Class Lessons: America vs. Italy

          On my fourth week of student teaching abroad, I had the opportunity to observe a true lesson taught by my cooperating teacher.  The past three weeks were a combination of the English curriculum taught from the student book and my own personal English lessons.  Today, my cooperating teacher had brought in her own activity for the students to test their language abilities and progress from the past school week.  The activity required the students to recreate the conversation they copied down in their notebooks between two children that involved a series of simple sayings such as, “Hi, how are you?” and “How old is he?”  The students were each given a separate notecard with one phrase on it and asked to line up in correct order of the conversation.  As I watch the students try and figure out the proper order of the conversation, I recorded the advantages and disadvantages of the activity.
            Some positive aspects of the lesson include that it required students to recall the homework they completed over the weekend, and how it made students think comprehensively to figure out the context of the conversation.  For example, students must understand that “I’m fine, thank you,” follows “Hi, how are you?” in a conversation.  The negative aspects included that the students had difficulty distinguishing the different characters in the conversation and the location of certain phrases.  For example, the students had difficulty distinguishing the placement of “Hi” in relation to the placement of “Hello!”  From an English speaking point of view, the two phrases are the exact same; therefore, to a new learner, it can be confusing to distinguish the difference between the two because they carry the same meaning in the English language, unlike how the Italian greeting “Ciao!” is both “hi” and “hello.” 

            In comparing methods, the Italian method of teaching a language is substantially different than the American method.  The Italian method involves the teaching of conversational phrases and practical usage of learnt words.  In the American language classroom, there is more of a focus on reading and writing the language.  Throughout elementary and high school, I attended countless Spanish classes and relentlessly memorized verb conjugations and vocabulary. Since graduating high school, I can read and write Spanish, but I am hesitant to speak Spanish in a conversational manner.  However, in my Italian class here, I am learning how to interact with the people in my surroundings via conversational language.  The students in the third grade classroom at San Gaspare are learning how to interact with English speakers, as well as the language’s grammar and vocabulary.  The differential learning in Italian classrooms allows students to learn both the practical and theoretical aspects of the English language for long-term use.