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.

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