I am writing from Guyana to update you on the progress made at my teaching project in Chenapou Primary School.
The first school term began on the 2nd of September, and from this date I was given responsibility for teaching grade 2- a class of 22 students aged six and seven years old. To begin with, controlling the behavior of such a large number of young children seemed like an impossible task, especially in a tiny classroom with not enough benches, desks or books.
Over the first few weeks of teaching I began to discover methods of classroom management, including a gold star reward system, strict class rules and detaining pupils who came in late from recess or lunch. The challenge then really became how to teach the children as effectively as possible.
I focused first on turning our dull classroom into a more colourful, interesting learning environment by making posters and charts for the walls, and putting up pictures drawn by the pupils. As the school has no janitorial staff, it was also up to me to clean out the classroom every morning and arrange it properly, moving out a rotten cupboard and knocking out boards from the windows to allow some light in.
It did not take long for me to realise that me talking to the pupils or asking them to copy from the blackboard, was not going to teach them anything. I had to start making my lessons as interactive as possible, with many actions and objects to hold. Simple things such as using old cardboard to make number cards, letters cards and word cards opened up a whole new range or possibilities. For science lessons I started taking the class outside more often- to follow a compass North or to count how many types of fruit tree they could spot. Games such as hangman, wordsearches and tongue twisters were useful warm ups for English, and the children loved having team mental maths competitions at the start of every maths lesson.
Then came the real breakthrough- I picked up the school guitar and began to sing. If you stand and talk to grade 2, nobody will be listening, but if you start singing, it will be a different matter. As a class we began the day and end the day every day with a few songs- some nursery rhymes and a song that I invented to help them remember the date, as well as Christmas carols later on in the term. This instantly improved the attitude and mood of the pupils, and taught them a lot at the same time. When it came to the end of term Christmas concert, grade 2 were by far the most confident performers.
One other routine that made a huge difference was 'Golden Time'- just twenty minutes or so at the end of a Friday afternoon for the children to look at books, draw pictures, use my calculator or make models. This treat was enough of an incentive to improve the behavior of the pupils throughout the week.
Unfortunately it was just as we had settled into a solid routine and a comfortable classroom, when disaster struck. Contractors arrived with no warning one morning and started removing the shingle roof from our classroom, in order to replace it with zinc (a job which was still incomplete when I left Chenapou). This meant that we were forced to use a football stand as a makeshift classroom for the last few weeks of term, including the end of term tests. The results of my tests showed a lot- for English, which required the pupils to read and write, there was a clear cut division between the ones who could read (and got As) and those who couldn't read (and failed or got 0%). In subjects where I did aural assessments individually with the pupils, they scored much more consistently across the class. I had been trying to combat this poor reading ability by creating reading groups and holding reading sessions during lunchtimes, but much more work is clearly needed on this next term.
My plan to improve the performance of grade 2 next term is to spend some time every day learning basic phonetics, so as to help those who cannot read at all to catch up. I would also like to start incorporating more experiments and models into science and social studies lessons to make them more interesting for the pupils. Getting the pupils to answer all questions in full sentences and standard English (as opposed to their Creole) will make a big difference to their speaking and writing skills.
Without making this letter too much longer than it already is, I would like to mention some of my activities in Chenapou outside of my work at the school. I have found it fascinating gradually learning about Amerindian life and trying it for myself; working on farms, planting cassava, making cassava bread and cassiri, going fishing on the river, going hunting out in the bush. My partner Ben and I love the Potaro river so much that we asked a man to dig out an Amerindian canoe for us. We helped drag the boat down the mountain from the tree it was cut from, and watched him complete it by roasting it in a fire.
I have experienced hot sun and tropical rainstorms and watched the river rise and fall. I have met too many snakes for my liking, as well as all kinds of beautiful trees, insects and birds. I have learnt how to handwash clothes, how to clean a house, how to cook for myself and how to sleep in a hammock. I have learnt too many things to write here, but perhaps the most important one is how to share. The Amerindian way of life is to share everything. Wherever you go, cassiri and cassava bread are free, camping is free, and you are welcomed as family. They share their work too- helping each other on their farms in community events called cayap. It seems to me that it is this sharing attitude that defines their culture.
Thank you for taking the time to read this letter and thank you for supporting this project. I hope I have convinced you that I have been, and will continue to make the most of my time in Guyana and do the best I can for my pupils. I hope also that you are well, and would like to wish you a happy Christmas and new year.