We Got a New Dog

>> Monday, November 24, 2008

All right, so it's the same dog.  But without complaints about having hair in her eyes!


Nica-Style Elections

>> Monday, November 17, 2008

After all the excitement about the presidential elections in the U.S. we haven't really mentioned the Nicaraguan elections.  On November 9th, Nicaragua held elections for the mayors country-wide.  There is no state/departmental government here, so the municipal governments and mayors are quite important.  Unlike in the States, campaigning here is prohibited for the last few days before the election, and the sale or public consumption of alcohol is also illegal during the 24 hours before and after the elections take place.  We missed school the Friday before the election and Monday was a national day off so that the ballots could be counted and the results finalized.  Peace Corps Volunteers aren't allowed to participate in any political events, and we normally just try to stay home on days that have a lot of political excitement in the air.

On Monday afternoon, we heard the familiar blaring horns and marching bands passing by the street, so we looked out the window and saw a parade of Liberal Constitutionalist Party members cheering as they passed, so we assumed that the PLC had won the election in Masaya:
A few hours later, however, there was another parade with the Sandinistas claiming victory.  We knew, then, that someone was either very confused or that there was trouble brewing.

In the last week, there have been widespread protests in Managua with at least two dead and lots of smashed car windows.  Here's an excerpt from a Time article about the elections and the causes for the protests, "Why Nicaragua's Capital is in Flames":
The last time rival political forces fought one another street by street for control of the Nicaraguan capital was three decades ago, in July 1979, at the culmination of the Sandinista insurrection that overthrew the Somoza dictatorship. This week, the streets of Managua were once again aflame amid the boom of mortar rounds, as the Sandinistas and their rivals battled for control — but it was the erstwhile revolutionary movement that now stands accused of being a dictatorship.
Our travel in Managua has been restricted and I haven't seen any sort of violence in Masaya, so we've all been safe here.  We'll keep you updated on the recounts and the upcoming final results.


Supernanny Part II

>> Sunday, November 16, 2008

Discipline:  Students need consistent discipline and consequences that are carried out.

In addition to a lack of a routine, Supernanny would probably take issue with the discipline that takes place at my school and, in particular, the consequences for bad behavior.  Students are constantly being threatened that they're going to "lose points," but this never actually happens.  Many teachers like to say that students are mal educados, literally meaning badly educated, but it implies something more like poor manners or being poorly raised.  Really, though, students are really quite smart--they realize that there are no consequences for bad behavior, so there's no reason to stop.

I am a very big believer that decisions and actions should have consequences, and that people should follow through with the consequences that they set.  This simply doesn't happen at school, and the students all know it.  In Nicaragua, students are assigned a classroom and the teachers move from class to class.  The students, therefore, are responsible for sweeping and mopping their classrooms before school begins and during recess.  This rarely happens.  Sometimes the vice principal will come into the classrooms that aren't clean and tell the students that they're all losing five points off their grades, but everyone knows this is an empty threat.

What happens, then, is that the students do their cleaning during my precious class time.  It's impossible to teach class or even have students copy an exercise in their notebooks because they have to scoot their desks around so that the whole room can be swept and then mopped; we normally lose about 30 minutes of our class time from the first class of the day and the first class after recess because the students haven't cleaned.  And why should they?  They can either spend their coveted recess cleaning the classroom, or they can enjoy recess and then be rewarded for it by getting to spend class time chatting and scooting desks instead of taking notes or learning. 

I think the whole cleaning process is silly to begin with; this is a dusty place, so the classrooms are going to get dusty.  There is a lot of trash that gets thrown onto the floor, but I believe the focus should be put on teaching the kids to put their trash in trash cans in the first place.  I became very tired of wasting so much class time with the cleaning, so I convinced my reluctant counterpart that instead of rewarding them for having a dirty classroom by letting them clean (they really do enjoy it--they all fight over who gets to sweep and mop), we should instead tell them that they have to clean before school and during recess like they're supposed to, and just make them suffer through a dirty classroom if they don't.  I really thought this plan was going to work and, even if it didn't, I can teach just as well with a few wrappers on the ground.  The plan lasted only about two days, however, before the principal came into the classroom and said they had to clean right that minute; I suspect that my counterpart asked her to come.

The grading systems that are used here are a big part of the problem.  Teachers are not able to decide how to distribute their grades; instead, this is determined for them by the Ministry of Education.  For the final grades, 37.5% of the final grade comes from the August partial exams, 37.5% of the grade comes from the October partial exams, and 25% of the grade comes from the final exam.  So teachers have no way to actually enforce attendance, participation, or homework for the last month of school or for any of the grades that actually go on the permanent record.

For the rest of the year, the partial (quarterly) exams must compose 60% of the grade with 40% of the grade that can be determined by the teacher.  There's no syllabus, so this last 40% can be determined in any arbitrary way.  Teachers usually take attendance every day, though it's never figured into final grades.  Participation is also not very common.  Homework is supposed to be a large part of this last 40%, but I have never seen a teacher collect homework to grade it.  Instead, the students take all their notes, do all their classroom exercises, and do all their homework in their notebooks, and then my counterpart generally does a "notebook check" about once every two months to determine their homework grade. Obviously, it is impossible for her to check two months' worth of work in 50 notebooks and precisely record how many of the assignments have been done and if they have been done well all in the 45 minute class period, but that is what she pretends to do.  Students figure this out and know that they only need to scribble a few notes and do a couple of the exercises to get their points.

This frustrated me to no end, so I decided to hold students accountable for the homework I assign.  At the start of class, I would go around to each student, check their homework assignment, and write down their name and student number if they had actually attempted to complete the homework.  I then gave my piece of paper to my counterpart to record in her gradebook whether they had done the work and should get the points.  The first day I did this, about 10 of the 45 students completed their homework.  After assigning a little bit of homework for every class for about a week, I was up to about 35 of the students actually making an attempt to do the work.  This proved to me, at least, that students are capable of doing the work and will do it if they know that they will be held accountable.

Copying here seems to be as much a part of the culture as gallo pinto; students do it all the time, and teachers are either unable or unwilling to make it stop.  The copying is shameless and poorly-executed; students normally just give their notebooks to another student to copy from, and make no effort to even hide it if a teacher comes by.  Paul and his counterpart once assigned students to physically describe their family members; a large number of students chose to write, "My sister is short, fat, and handsome."

When I made my homework reforms, I also instituted a rule that if I saw students copying or loaning their notebooks to another student to copy, neither student would receive credit.  I am sure they all assumed that this was another of the countless empty threats, so they proceeded to shuffle notebooks around and copy.  As I was making my way through the aisles of desks and recording homework on the first day, I saw one student copying from another student's homework, drew a sad face by both exercises, and wrote that they had copied.  Students were shocked when I refused to write down their names and student numbers so that they would get credit for the work.  After word got around what I had done and that I was serious, I never caught students copying homework during class again.

Copying is perhaps worst on tests.  With 50 students pack into a small classroom, it's impossible to situate desks so that students cannot see each others' papers.  All the teachers tell students not to copy, but none follow through and do anything if they see copying taking place.  When I have to proctor exams, I tell the students that they cannot talk, that they should look only at their papers, and that they should guard their papers so no one else can see.  I also tell them that if I see them copying, I will give them a warning the first time, then take the test away the second time it happens.  Again, being used to hollow threats, the students normally ignore me until I take a test away from the first student that won't stop copying.  Then they realize I'm serious and that there will be consequences for not following directions.  This always seems to shock the students and even my counterpart, but I would happily agree to stay at home during test time if enforcement of the rules poses too much of a problem.

Supernanny says that "positive attention and praise are the most effective rewards for good behavior, but sometimes it's important to give your child boundaries and let them know that certain behavior is unacceptable."  Students aren't mal educados for not following the rules, they're smart for knowing that rules will never be enforced with the stated consequences.  Each time I made it clear to students that I would follow through with enforcement of my rules and that I don't make empty threats, their  behavior improved markedly.  I think the problem here is that this is the way things have been for so long that no one is willing to change and try something new, even if it might improve the classroom conditions or the education students receive.
This is my fourth year class along with my afternoon counterpart, Carmen.  They're by far my favorite students, and none of my above complaints apply to them.  Carmen is also always willing to go along with any of my weird ideas, and then is actually willing to admit if they work.  I'm actually a little sad that the school year's ending and I won't have this section anymore.


Our Neighborhood Park

>> Tuesday, November 11, 2008

We try to go to the park or on some sort of walk every day so that the dogs can work off some of their energy and be admired for all of their cuteness by all of the onlookers.  Yesterday the park that's very close to our house was full of people swinging, playing soccer, and spending time with their families.


Supernanny Part I

>> Sunday, November 09, 2008

I'll admit, one of my guilty television pleasures is that I like to watch Supernanny on Friday nights.  I love how Jo is able to manipulate the kids into doing exactly what she wants, and that she isn't afraid to let the parents know when they need to shape up.  It's almost the end of the school year here (everyone is ready for summer vacation!) and I realize that my school could use Supernanny's tough love.  I try to channel Supernanny myself to varying success, but here are two lessons that my institute still needs to learn:

Routine: Students (and teachers) need a routine to be able to thrive.

One of the most difficult things for me about being in Nicaragua is that seemingly no one here likes to plan ahead.  As a student, the first week of school I always looked at my academic calendar and wrote into my agenda our days off, exam days, and other important dates, and then I was always looking and planning ahead.  I realize that I fall at one extreme end of the spectrum, but Nicaragua falls on the other; there is no yearly calendar, and most decisions about schedules happen the day before.

The exam schedules here are sort of strange.  Teachers don't get to choose when they have tests in their classes, or how much their tests are worth.  Instead, about six times a year we have exam weeks where each day every student has one exam at the exact same time; the English exam may be Tuesday during 3rd hour, and every teacher administers the English exam to his or her third hour class. There are "partial exams" about every two months, so in April, June, August, and October, which cover the previous two months' worth of material.  Then there are semester final exams that occur in July and November.  We just finished our October partial exams last week, and teachers are still working on getting their grades submitted.  The last day of the semester is already set for either November 21st or November 28th (depending on who you talk to), and teachers will need time before that date to get all their final exams graded and grades figured.  That leaves a maximum of three weeks to finish any outstanding topics for the class (the topics that must be covered are dictated by the Ministry of Education), review for the final exams, conduct the final exams, and compute grades.  And, remember, we just completed one set of exams last week.

I had been worrying about the end-of-year schedule for weeks now because there just isn't enough time to get everything done.  On Wednesday, the principal's office finally decided that it needed to make some decisions, so they announced that all teachers' final exams must be submitted for approval the following day... not a lot of time considering that many teachers teach five different grade levels.  They announced that the final exams will begin on Tuesday, but they had not yet announced the schedule for the exams, though this is usually posted a week or so in advance.  Further complicating matters, school was canceled Friday and is canceled on Monday for the mayoral elections nationwide.  I don't have class on Thursdays, so I didn't see if they finally did post the finals schedule for students, but I suppose we'll all find out on Tuesday.

Days Off
As I said before, there's no academic calendar that says when there are days off.  Some días feriados are easy to predict, like for Nicaraguan independence day, but even then you never know exactly how many days off you'll have before and after the actual celebration.  Many other days, though, just show up out of the blue.  Two weeks ago, we were about to begin our partial exams on Thursday.  At the same time, there was a big band competition coming up on Friday.  Band here is really the only extracurricular activity, so it's a pretty big deal; the whole school was already on an emergente, shortened schedule so that the band could have time to practice; though I was trying to take advantage of what little time we had left to review for the tests, the classes were all shortened from 45 minutes to 30.  Then on Tuesday, they decided to cancel school on Friday so that everyone could attend the band competition.  This meant that all the exams had to be moved up a day, so I lost yet another day of classes that could have been spent reviewing.

Other times, we don't even get a days' notice of a day off.  One day in September, I went to school and found students playing outside and several teachers just sitting in the teacher's lounge.  It turns out that there was some activity that had caused school to be canceled, but neither the students nor the teachers had been informed that they didn't need to come.

Even if there is school and it isn't raining and the teachers come and the students come, that doesn't mean I can actually be teaching English.  On Tuesday a teacher came into my class about ten minutes into it and told all the students that it was time to walk to some sort of cultural activity across town.  Other times we waste a ridiculous amount of time as my counterpart collects money from all the students to make photocopies for their exams, and still other times random people (unaffiliated with the school) might come in to make announcements, advertise their computer classes, or ask for money to help care for a sick child.  I had a teacher in high school that hated school assemblies or other activities that took away her class time; then I thought she was overreacting a little bit, but now I understand completely.

Class Length
Classes here are supposed to be 45 minutes long, and we have English class three times a week.  The bell in my school isn't automatic, so its ringing depends on a secretary or teacher remembering that class is over.  Sometimes the bell ringer gets a little too enthusiastic and class is only 20 minutes long; other times, no one remembers to ring and class may be nearly an hour.  This makes it impossible for us to pace the class and make sure that we're at a stopping point when the bell is about to ring.

We also frequently use the emergente schedule, which allows for the school day to finish early.  These classes are supposed to be 30 minutes long, but can range from about 15 minutes to a full hour, depending on who's there to ring the bell.  The shortened schedule can be used for anything from giving the band extra time to practice to allowing for a staff meeting.  Often, for really important events like teacher parties, the school uses the double whammy of a shortened schedule, and then cancels the last few class periods just for good measure.  The shortened schedule is most popular during exam times.  Your guess is as good as mine why we would be shortening and canceling classes during the last few days that teachers have to review with students.

Supernanny says that "sometimes, all a family [school] needs is some structure and some practice at working together to get them back on track."  If the teachers can never know if we're going to have class and how long it's going to be, it's impossible for us to plan activities and make sure that we cover all the topics that we need to.  I rarely have time to assign homework, because either there isn't enough time for students to copy it off the chalkboard or because they have too much time and everyone completes it in class.  Similarly, students and teachers need to know when they will have school, when there is no school, and when the exams will be so that they can at least pretend to care about studying.

From the very first days of training, we've heard over and over that we must be patient with different cultures and that one culture isn't "better" than any other.  Most of the time I buy that or at least understand it, but this has been beyond my comprehension.  Even after just one year here, I already know that we miss days for independence day in September, that we have band competitions, and that we have shortened classes during exam times.  I can't figure out why no one sits down and establishes an official calendar with dates so that everyone can plan ahead.

Stay tuned for Part II, Discipline and Consequences.


Yes, We Did

>> Saturday, November 08, 2008

Even a few days after the polls in the U.S. closed, we're still a little in shock that the election is over and that Obama won.  I think because we were so far away geographically from the campaigning, we paid particularly close attention to what was going on.  We woke early up on (most) Sundays to catch Meet the Press, watched a lot of Anderson Cooper 360, and were always reading the latest blogs about what was happening in the campaigns.  Since January, we've always had some caucus, primary, debate, or interview to be looking forward to, and now it's a little sad that the whole thing is done.  Needless to say, we were holding our breaths until the election was officially over, but now are extremely proud of Obama's historic victory; we're now even more excited to return to the States eight months from now.

 After conducting informal exit polls Obama garnered approximately 100% of the votes cast in Nicaragua. All of the norteamericanos I know sent in absentee ballots and even all of the Nicaraguans that talked about it were big Obama fans; in our classes when we asked if students knew what big event was happening in the U.S., all of them knew about the election and many even yelled out "Obama!" 

To gear ourselves up for election night, we ordered some all-American Papa Johns:
It was at 11:00 when they officially called the race for Obama, though we were pretty sure what was coming after Obama won both Ohio and Pennsylvania.  Dora celebrated after the race was called:
 She simply could not contain her excitement:


Brown Dog

>> Friday, November 07, 2008

One of the most noticable differences between Nicaragua and the US are that there are street dogs everywhere.  Most are very skinny and malnourished, and the female dogs almost certainly have a litter of puppies hidden somewhere nearby.  Dogs here play a very different role than they do in the US--while our pets are members of our families, here pets are, at best, animals fed scraps in exchange for guarding a home or hunting mice.  People don't hesitate to kick, run over, or throw rocks at dogs, and so most dogs are, quite understandably, very timid or overly aggressive.

Last Tuesday I was in the teacher's lounge looking at my calendar to count down the days to the end of school (about 5 days left!).  A street dog came into the lounge and jumped up on my lap, trying stealthily to lick me on my face.  Most of the other teachers were shocked and perhaps even disgusted when I started to pet her.  I had some free time before my next class, so I went to the market to buy her some food, which she quickly gobbled up.  She stayed nearby, either laying on the floor or making attempts to hop up in my lap.  When I went off to class, she stayed in the teacher's lounge snacking on her food, and she was off exploring somewhere when I finished my classes.

That night I told Paul about the sweet dog I had met, and on Wednesday brought back the remaining dog food.  The dog came back to school that afternoon, and hopped like an excited gazelle as I started getting her food back out.  After she had eaten her lunch, I went off to class and she followed me into the classroom, where she layed down in the corner as I taught.  When I left at the end of the day, the dog followed along, sometimes staying behind to sniff or explore, and sometimes running ahead and waiting for me to catch up.  I didn't intend to take her home, but must admit I stopped to make sure she crossed the big streets safely.

So, we now have an additional four-legged friend at our home.  She's not very old (she hasn't had any puppies yet, and still acts like a puppy), but has already had a tough life.  She has several cuts on her face that are healing, and a big scar on her back that we suspect came from a machete. We didn't really have a plan for what to do with her, but the first day we had her we realized we can't send her back to the streets: we took Dora and Brown Dog (as we call her, for lack of a better name) to the baseball stadium nearby to play and run.  As we were walking back, Brown Dog (who behaves wonderfully off-leash) bent to urinate in a grassy patch near a park.  There was a sanitation worker scooping up leaves nearby, and he promptly threw a rock at her.  We were a few steps behind, and yelled at the man to stop; his only response was that he thought she was a street dog.  A few hours later, Paul was outside with Dora and Brown Dog, and a neighbor purposefully swerved to run into her with his bicycle.  When Paul yelled at him to stop, the boy's response was, "That's how Nicaragua is."  I don't think we've ever hated being here more than we did after seeing how hateful people can be to a poor puppy for no reason at all.
We got Brown Dog a collar and spread the word among the neighborhood kids that we're taking care of her, so we haven't had any other incidents since the first day.  She and Dora get along really well, though sometimes Brown Dog plays a little roughly for Dora's liking.  Though she's had a tough life as a street dog, you'd never guess by her behavior.  In her heart of hearts, Brown Dog really wants to be a lap dog, though her awkward, long legs make it a little difficult.  She follows us from room to room and always wants to be in the middle of the action.  After a few days of Dora showing her what she's supposed to do, Brown Dog now loves playing fetch or tug-of-war with Dora.  She knows how to shake and is getting pretty good at sitting, and walks much more obediently on a leash than Dora does.

Our hope is to give Brown Dog to a Volunteer that's looking for a sweet, cuddly dog that is also a very loyal guard dog; she is always alert to strange people or sounds, and Dora usually runs behind trying to pretend she knows what's going on.  Brown dog sleeps out in our garage/patio, and I've never felt safer.  If any Volunteers reading this are willing to give Brown Dog a permanent home (and a better name!) please let us know.  Until then, you can find us all snuggled together watching T.V.


Lists of things

>> Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Unfortunately I had to update my list of things that have been stolen from me so far on Friday. I stopped at a restaurant (in what I now realize is the "bad part" of Masaya) to look at the menu and left my bike alone for maybe two minutes and when I turned around it was gone. I think I had that bike for about a month or two but it's gone. There are probably 30,000 blue bikes in Masaya so I don't really think the police are going to be much of a resource.

I know I've posted this picture recently but it's the only one I have of my bike. The description that I've given everyone is that it's blue with Shimano stickers. I'm pretty sure it's gone.

My list of things stolen is:
  • Basil plants (x2)
  • Bikes (x2)
  • Bike locks (x2)
  • Handkerchief (stolen off of the clothesline)
That's really not a bad list considering that other people that live close have had computers and iPods stolen. That's the only thing that contains my vigilante spirit.


  © Blogger template Palm by Ourblogtemplates.com 2008

Back to TOP