Thursday, February 3, 2011

Teaching English in the clouds

Although I know the people who live in Tapesquillo see it as far from paradisiacal, every time I ascend the steep road that climbs up from La Cruz, the crossroads outside of Chinique, I have the sensation -- atheist that I am -- of entering the realm of the gods. There is a particular juncture in the road, not far from where I was headed on Sunday, where one can look back down (assuming one is not carrying a heavy load of leña [firewood] on one's head) and visually trace the line of the road, tan and ochre, as it stretches through the trees and brush back down to the town. I doubt many local people stop and admire the view; as breathtaking as it is for the eyes, it is literally breath-taking for the lungs, heart and legs to walk it, or walk even part of it. There are three parts of Tapesquillo: Tapesquillo Uno, Segundo Centro and Tercer Punto. After the road climbs steeply and zigzags up some treacherous curves, it arrives at a small cruz camino (crossroads). If you take the path heading more or less straight ahead, you arrive at Tercer Punto. To the left, Tapesquillo Uno. The area right around the crossroads, Segundo Centro (I will correct this if I am wrong!). To the right is another road that leads to another rural community called Cacabal, and beyond that a small cooperative called Nueva Esperanza. 

This past Sunday I set out, after having returned from my trip to the Gumarkahaj archaeological site, to teach an English class for a group of women in Tapesquillo. I met these women a week ago, when I convened a meeting in my house in Chinique. I was told that the handicrafts association that I helped found in New Bedford was recruiting members in Guatemala and that there was to be a meeting at such and such a date at such and such a time.  At the meeting (which I will discuss in a separate posting) we talked about what the group could do and I asked what they wanted from me -- how could I be of use during the time I am here. One of the women said, 'You can teach us." Well, what could I teach that would be of use and also comprehensible to people who have had very little formal schooling? One of the women had completed tercer básico -- the equivalent of some high school. Of the rest, most had completed a few years of primary school, and a few had had no schooling at all (the older of the women).  I am not advocating that everyone in the world should learn English; however, it is something that I can (more or less) teach and something that might be of interest. So I offered.

There was some discussion, partly in K'iche', about what to do. Someone asked if men would be allowed to join. I said, "That's up to you." They laughed. There were two men in the room, who had accompanied the women, and I said, "Well, if you want to be able to tell your husbands and brothers what to do in English and you want them to understand you, then they need to understand English." Everyone laughed again. I added, "If there are men who can leave their machismo aside then they are welcome."

We left it up in the air, and then a few days later I had a follow up meeting with three of the women; this time I went up to Tapesquillo rather than having them come down to the town.  There were only a few of us at the second meeting but I asked again if they wanted me to teach something . We were also supposed to be having a workshop on indigenous rights.  They wanted to have the workshop about a week and half later; I explained that I had already set aside the Sunday thinking we were going to have the indigenous rights workshop (that I, ironically, was going to lead). So I said, "Why don't we start the English class this Sunday?"

I was preparing to leave when I got a call on Sunday from Alicia, one of the women who was organizing the weaving group and the English class. She and her mother were in Sta. Cruz del Quiché, still, and therefore wouldn't be back in Tapesquillo by 1, when we had said the class would begin. I told them to call me when they got to Chinique and I would give them a ride up to Tapesquillo. So we got there a bit after 1:30, and after securing the car with a few rocks under the rear tires, we went to the empty school building -- there were some children playing in the dusty space between the buildings, the school yard, so to speak, and I started to set up chairs and tables. We were in a large building with a concrete floor and a tall roof; it wasn't being used by the school (and certainly not on Sunday). Some child-sized chairs and little desks were piled up on one side. On the other side, some tubes laid across the floor (maybe for water? I will have to ask). There were  a few women who stood around shyly, and two young girls (daughters of some of the women). I ushered them all into the chairs (well, I had to actually be slightly more aggressive than the word "ushering" conveys; I had to seat them) and a few more arrived. 

I started to distribute the notebooks and pencils I had bought. Then I noticed some shadows in the doorway, strongly backlit by the afternoon sun. Four or five young boys stood looking on. I called out to them "O entren y participen o que se vayan pero NO pueden parar allí solamente para mirar! Sólo hay dos opciones: aprender o salir!" ("You can enter and participate or you can go away but you CAN'T just stand there and look! There are two options: learn or leave."). They looked at each other -- they seemed to range in age from about 8 to about 16 -- and then shuffled in and we made more space at the tables for them. I didn't have enough notebooks so I told the younger boys they would have to share for now. I also told them that if they were serious I would buy them more notebooks but I wasn't going to buy notebooks if they were just going to show up once.

Over the last two years I have given ESOL classes in New Bedford -- not that  I've had any training as an ESOL instructor, but I've made up my own pedagogy, using materials that were donated to some of the community groups. Overcoming shyness and self-consciousness is one of the biggest challenges, especially among women who are already self-conscious about their limited education and their limited ability to speak Spanish (ESOL, for those of you who might not be familiar with edu-jargon, is English for Speakers of Other Languages. I prefer that to ESL, English as a Second Language -- since most of the Maya speak two other languages, their mother tongue, K'iche', and Spanish (with varying degrees of fluency). So English is a third language for most.

The dry erase markers I had bought in Sta. Cruz did not make as thick, dark lines as I had hoped but they sort of work (the school room was equipped with a white board; I had checked that out when I had been up there for a meeting earlier). So I started with greetings, introductions (My name is_____. What is your name?) and then the names of simple objects that were visible in the room (chair, desk, table, floor, etc.). A few of the women dissolved in giggles every time I asked them to repeat a word; one kept on insisting "No puedo, no puedo" (I can't, I can't). I replied, "Si se puede" (an old slogan from César Chavez and the United Farm Workers -- yes it is possible). Eventually one of the women asked me to write out phonetic versions of the words (using what would be the phonetic spelling in Spanish). So table became "teybul", door became "dor", yellow "hielo", light "layt". That seemed to work. 

I only used objects and colors that we could see around us, and made them touch the objects as they said the words (to get the sensory connection), and then got to stand in the corner and I called out the name of one object at a time and assigned someone to go find it and touch it (trying to break the passivity of "I stand in the front and teach, you sit passively and 'learn'"). Active learning, in other words.

Their homework was to copy over the words we'd learned -- I said 5 times, and to say the word as they copied it. I don't know if this is a recommended technique but it's what I did when I studied (briefly) French: I would copy verb conjugations over and over, saying them as I wrote, and it worked. I also told them to find objects that corresponded to the colors we had learned, and to bring in the word in Spanish and I would teach them the English words (I wanted to get them involved in making their own "lessons"). One of the women asked if they could bring in the object itself, and I said sure, as long as it was something that could be picked up and carried, not a house or a car (they all laughed).

So we agreed to have class again at 1 the next week, and the discussion on indigenous rights at 2 (exactly what I, the resident gringa, am doing giving a workshop on indigenous rights is a story for another day .. or at least another hour).

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