Friday, January 28, 2011

Quimica, Cooking and Photos

We’ve been slacking in the blog writing department this month, maybe because nothing new and exciting has happened. I did want to share a few random thoughts, stories and photos though.

As Nolan mentioned before, I started teaching chemistry at a school in town once a week, and am now in my 4th week. It still amazes me how I can spit out lectures in Spanish with relative ease. Or at least what I assume to be relative ease. The students never say much so it’s hard to tell if they understand anything I’m saying. That being said, the kids are incredibly well behaved, which was my biggest fear of teaching anything here. “Kids” is the wrong word because most are young adults or adults. I have to share two stories about two students just to demonstrate what they are like.

The first is about a girl. She came up to me after class, kind of shyly, and asked a few questions about the lecture. She then asked if I would take a look at her notes from class. I leafed through her notebook to see that she’d copied things correctly (I wasn’t really sure what I was supposed to be looking for). She told me I could keep the notebook if I wanted and review it more. I told her no, you need it to do your homework. What good would it do me to keep it anyway? Then she grabbed the notebook and flipped back a few pages to a drawing of some chickens. She asked me what I thought. “Bonita” I replied, very pretty. She said it still needed to be colored in. Then she asked me about some other drawings she had before packing up her stuff and heading home. She’s a smart girl and is doing well is class, but she wanted my approval on how nice her notebook looked. All I could think was how desperately these students crave support, encouragement, attention and praise, something I don’t think they get often enough in school.

The second story is about a boy. I caught up with him walking home from class and we got to talking about where he was from etc. He told me that he worked at a health center (he said as a nurse, but I find that hard to believe since he didn’t have his high school diploma yet, probably more like an aide?) in a town about 5 hours from La Esperanza by bus. He works 6 days a week full time at the health center, then, on Thursdays, leaves at 2 am to get to La Esperanza for class from 8 to 1, then takes a 2 pm bus back to get there by nightfall to start work again the next day. He needs his diploma because he wants to go to medical school. He said he couldn’t find a job anywhere closer to La Esperanza. This story was interesting to me, not because it was sad (even though it was), but because I can only imagine that his efforts to get to class are not unusual, but the norm for half or more of the students in my class. (Well maybe a 5 hr bus ride isn’t the norm, but 2 hrs might be.) To them, a 5 hour bus ride is just what you have to deal with, it’s just how it is. It also makes me wonder how some students can still act like they don’t want to be there. For such a large sacrifice of time, you’d think they’d at least put in some effort.

So those are my thoughts on my class. Also this past week I finally got around to hosting an informal cooking “class” at my house for the girls I work with. They love praising my baked confections I’m always cooking up in my spare time, so I promised I’d teach them some simple recipes. Hondurans on average I’d say are not proficient bakers. This might be due in part to the fact that measuring cups and spoons are all but non-existent here and that your standard oven does not have an exact temperature gauge. So, utilizing my tools, we made some quick apple bread (literally 10 minutes to mix then 40 minutes to bake) and I showed them some cooking tricks and techniques, how to peel and apple with a peeler, how to zest a lemon, how to use a knife to scrape extra off your measuring cup, how to test bread/cake doneness with a toothpick and the importance of exactness in baking. The girls were so sweet; they did all the dishes, praised my well-organized kitchen and were amazed by my spice collection. It was a fun evening hanging out with just the girls and I hope it turns into a monthly event. If anyone has simple quick recipe ideas you think would be good, just let me know.

And, speaking of cooking, here are some long-awaited photos of some of the interesting food items we have here:

Vacuum sealed package of refried beans

Round log-shaped chunk of manteca/veggie shortening, thinly wrapped in plastic, a half of this package might be used for one meal

The infamous banana flavored soda, a Honduran favorite which actually tastes more like bubble-gum

In a 4 aisle grocery store, a half aisle just for oil, margarine and manteca - they do love the stuff here

A popular current brand of 'corn flake' - no there is no Spanish name for corn flakes, and yes this looks like a 1970's retro Wheaties box or something

Whole milk, in a convenient (not) almost 1 liter bag

Saturday, January 8, 2011

New Year's on Utila

One of the two beaches on Utila

The lovely Mango Inn where we stayed

Jackie and Stephen tearing up the dance floor on New Years Eve

Happy New Year!

Getting ready to dive

Nolan jumping in with SCUBA gear

Jackie and our new friend Delaney in between dives

Sitting at the Treetanic bar

Combing the beach looking for Robinson Crusoe's or Captain Morgan's caves, depending on who you talk to

Hermit crab who found a home in all the trash on the beach

Finding our Zen in Utila

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Soy Maestro de Quimica

“¿Profe, cuando es el examen?” Five minutes into my first chemistry class and I’m already a professor.

Hondurans use titles a lot. It’s a sign of respect. Most people don’t go to college here, so if you have a bachelor’s degree, and they know it, you are automatically Licenciado So-and-so. Whenever I go out on a topo survey, I am Ingeniero (Engineer), even after I introduce myself as Nolan. So I really shouldn’t have been surprised to be addressed as professor, but I still was.

I’m not a teacher, I have no teaching experience, can’t they tell that? What am I doing teaching a high school class? How is this even legal, receiving a certified high school diploma when they were taught by non-certified Peace Corps volunteers? But there I was, teaching a class I hadn’t taken in 8 years, concepts I barely remembered.

I was teaching for a program called Maestro En Casa, which is more like a GED program than a high school. The students are all from the surrounding aldeas where there are no high schools, so they only have elementary school educations. The curriculum is the exact same as what is required for normal high schools, so it includes Math, Chemistry, Biology, Physics, Spanish, English, etc. They are even required to complete the community service requirement. The students receive two classes at a time for about 2 to 3 months each. They come to La Esperanza just once a week for classes and are supposed to study on their own at home with their book. The entire curriculum lasts two years and when they finish, they have a Bachillerato en Ciencias y Letras. In high school here, students basically have to pick a career when they start, so they study computers, business administration, teaching or science and letters (general studies which is what Maestro en Casa does).

The Honduran education system being what it is, I’m sure you can imagine that Maestro En Casa is usually lucky to be on par with your average high school, which isn’t saying much. The La Esperanza branch of the program however is run quite well, despite having very little money to work with. The program here was started by Susan, a woman from Vermont who came to Honduras 10 years ago looking to find some way to help. She keeps costs as low as possible for the students, who usually come from very poor areas and her teachers are very motivated, actually trying to get the students to learn the concepts instead of just memorizing the text. Some students have gone on to study at universities both in Honduras and the U.S. which is a sign that the program is pretty successful. Peace Corps volunteers have taught at the school for at least 4 years, teaching classes in whichever subjects they feel comfortable with, usually math and science. Which is what I did.

While chemistry is not my forte, I did take AP Chem in high school so I figured I was off to a good start. Plus chemistry was the class the first year students needed to move on to second year. I had 15 students in my class, down from about 30 who had started the program at the beginning of the year. Most of them looked to be around high school age, but I also had 3 middle aged women in my class. And just like in any class, there were students who paid attention and were motivated to learn as well as other students who sat in the back and looked bored or mad that they had to be there.

Teaching in Honduras is tough. The kids are taught to write everything down and memorize. Even when giving a presentation, you have to be careful, because anything you write on the board will immediately be copied down word for word in the ubiquitous notebook that everyone has at meetings, and no one will pay attention to what you are saying until they have finished copying whatever you wrote. As such, Hondurans are excellent memorizers but have trouble when you ask them a question.

The first several chapters of chemistry went pretty smoothly because it was just memorization, history of chemistry, atomic structure, the periodic table. Then came formulas and equations, and the struggle of actual teaching, made more difficult because it was in Spanish. I spent a lot of time doing examples, forcing the students to come up to the board and work through the problems themselves.

In the end, I think the class went relatively well. Given the fact that I had less time than normal because I had to fit everything in before Christmas, and the fact that some students didn’t seem to care at all, I was happy with passing 8 of the 15. I could tell that the 8 who passed were the students who wanted to be there, and wanted to learn, even if it wasn’t always easy for them. In Honduras, if you don’t pass the final exam, you are always given a Recuperación or make-up exam that can take the place of the first one. Several of the passing students had to take this, but in the end I was happy for them when they passed. I’m looking forward to teaching them again this semester when I start teaching second year math, things like trigonometría, geometría, y funciones. Nicki starts teaching chemistry today, so I’m interested to see how her experience differs from mine.