Wednesday, May 13, 2015

4/3/86 PM, Thursday

4/3/86 PM, Thursday

I wait in the classroom where there are five chairs and four tables of assorted heights, shapes and sizes. Soon students of all ages, from children to adults start to trickle in. They greet each other warmly. Some carry chairs, the early birds snag one of the five available chairs while others resign themselves to a lesson on foot. 

A man in coveralls has apparently come straight from work. His clothes and hands look dirty but no one seems to mind. A woman comes in with an infant in her arms and a little girl pulling at her skirt. One of the early birds offers her his chair but she declines, choosing instead to sway with her baby at the back of the room while the little girl goes out to play with some of the other children who are waiting for their parents to attend class. 

Lorraine Scognomillo, 2015

This group is on Lesson Ten. The teacher writes the following sentence on the board: La reforma agraria recupera la producción de la tierra para el pueblo. (Agrarian reform recovers the land for the use of the people.) She reads aloud, then the students join her. Discussion ensues as she reminds the class that they are waiting for everyone to get there. I walk around, eavesdropping on the little groups clustered around the tables. Some are discussing the sentence, others are still catching up with each other about what happened during their day. 

After a while, the little classroom is full and dialogue fills every corner. The woman with the baby joins a round table, still swaying as she interjects with her opinions. The teacher reads the sentence again, placing an open palm under each word as she reads it. “La reforma agraria recupera la producción de la tierra para el pueblo.” Some of the students join her, others just listen. Then she asks if anyone has any comments about the sentence. One man jokes, “I didn’t know I’d been robbed until right now!” Other joking comments follow and then more serious observations about Somocismo, about which types of crops are most beneficial. Everyone who wants to speak is given the opportunity. Differing views are expressed but the feeling of mutual respect is always there, modeled by the teacher and followed by the students. 

Soon the teacher leads the class back to the sentence and underlines the word recupera. The class reads it. She breaks it into syllables and pronounces each one, again placing her palm under each syllable as she reads it, re-cu-pe-ra. The class joins her. Next she underlines the syllable re. She makes the sounds of the letter r, gently rolling it off her tongue. 

“What other vowels can we combine with this letter?” she asks the class. The woman with the infant quickly calls out “ru-ru-ru!” The class bursts into laughter as the ru-ru-ru sound is often made by mothers who are trying to coax their babies to sleep. Her baby has just started to make soft, whimpering sounds. 

Ru, ru, ru! Con u, u, u,” the teacher calls back. The formal phonics lesson continues as the new syllables are constructed with the previously introduced consonant and vowels. 

It makes a lot of sense to me to have the students go from understanding the meaning of a sentence and how that message pertains to their lives to breaking down the words into syllables and letters. They understand the power of written language to transmit ideas. To learn to read and write is to harness that power. 

Even after the class is over, the dialogue component of the lesson has a lasting effect. Some of the students linger to chat, eager for the opportunity to share their ideas. The subject of discussion is not limited to the contents of the primer, it only begins there. Individual, community, national, and international concerns are all valid subjects for discussion and collective actions are encouraged. Everyone is expected to exchange viewpoints in a setting that encourages respect, fosters community and promotes praxis, breaking down the separation between theory and practice. 

I have just one gripe. Despite the fact that the ruling party - the FSLN - is extremely popular, the party is too repeatedly mentioned in the school books in comparison with opposition parties, who are rarely (if ever) mentioned at all. I think it’s important to have balance and consider different points of view. The problem is that the coalition of armed forces that opposed Somoza banded together under the name FSLN but after they overthrew him, the coalition disbanded and formed different parties with divergent political and economic ideologies. They all opposed Somoza and that had forced them to work together but once he was gone, the differences between them became evident, so the FSLN of a few years ago is a different entity from the FSLN today. 

Nonetheless, the literacy program is impressively efficient. It has a wonderful success rate and I believe there are many aspects of it which I can implement in my own teaching back home.


In Boaco, a small town south of Managua. The students are obliged to bring their own chairs due to lack of furniture in many schools. 

© 1986 Peter Williams 

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