Dear Sponsors, friends and family,
I am writing from the remote Amerindian village of Chenapou, Guyana, to update you on the progress in my placement here as a Project Trust volunteer teacher. This has been my second term in the rainforest, in charge of a class of 22 children aged 6-7.
You may recall that at the time of my last report, work had been severely disrupted by the absence of a roof on my school building. I was neither overjoyed nor terribly surprised to find it in exactly the same state when I returned from the Christmas holidays! As a result, Grade 2 were accommodated in the other school building with the higher classes, whilst we waited patiently for the roof to be finished.
After the holiday in Georgetown, where contact home had been so easy, readjusting to the remoteness and quietness of the jungle was surprisingly difficult. The distance between myself and home never felt quite so far as it did during those first couple of weeks back in Chenapou. On the other hand, at least I had in my control a group of children who I knew, and who knew me, and discipline was gained without all the hair tearing and despairing of last September. We settled down in our restored classroom with its fresh lick of bright paint, tried to make do with the inadequate furniture and got down to business.
The classroom itself became one of things I took most pride in- spending many afternoons creating posters, display boards for pupils’ work and filling every corner with something colourful and pleasing to the 6-year-old eye. It was certainly a world apart from the dark, dingy place I had found myself in last term. Along with the classroom came the new class routines, such as a permanent seating arrangement with table groups named after animals. Each afternoon the rota would dictate whether the Lions, Bears, Tigers, Alligators or Jaguars were to help me clean the classroom.
I would like to specifically thank Viewlands Primary School for their donations towards this teaching project, as I made use of the funds at Christmas to buy a variety of school supplies. These included paper, pencils, rubbers, sharpeners, rulers, crayons, scissors, glue, a calendar, a clock, a jigsaw puzzle and some modelling clay. These things may sound quite basic but they made an immeasurable difference to what we could do in class. I have seen with my own eyes how much more likely a child is to learn if he/she is pasting colourful words and not staring at a blackboard.
It had been a promise of mine to make science lessons more interactive, and I believe I have kept my word. Grade two have made parachutes out of old plastic bags, sailing boats from old cans, rockets from toilet paper tubes and a rain gauge from an old plastic bottle. We have also planted seeds, pulled out plants, watched a windsock, boiled water, melted wax and butter, fried an egg and tested all sorts of things to see if they sink or float.
Last term’s report also mentioned a severe issue with reading ability. My response this term was to go right back to basics and fill every morning with phonics- teaching letter sounds one by one with the immensely useful Jolly Phonics song booklet. Games such as I-spy and bingo were popular with the kids and did a lot to reinforce sounds. It was a joy to see children who I had almost given up on, at least identifying and writing the initial sounds of words. I may have neglected to push the top pupils beyond their comfort zone by doing this, but it felt essential to me, at this early age, that I at least give the whole class some chance of learning to read properly.
Possibly the things that stood out most of all from this term’s teaching for me were the readings of Fantastic Mr Fox and George’s Marvellous Medicine. To see the children’s imaginations open wide in those great worlds of Roald Dahl’s was a special thing.
Towards the last third of the term the idea struck me to begin a study of ‘Country of the Week’ in an attempt to convey something of the outside world to a group of children who have mostly only as far as Georgetown and back, if that. This was a success, partly due to a wonderful book of children’s songs from around the world- Australia may still be a distant concept to anyone in Chenapou, but at least singing Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree… seems to bring it to life.
The children of grade two have inspired me greatly this term. Their curiosity, their energy and their little moments of genius have provided all the reward I could wish for as a teacher.
Once again this letter is running beyond its proper length, but I cannot conclude without showing off some of the little adventures Ben, my partner, and I have been on during our free time.
We have seen Chenapou’s own Potaro River plunge over a 741 foot drop, at the most secret, untouched wonder of the world imaginable. We have experienced culture shock just going as far as a neighbouring village, with scary things like fences, concrete, and wide open spaces. Our jungle trekking abilities have been put to the test and we have had the joy of patrolling the river in our own dugout canoe. In the village itself we have run the lines for football matches and held early morning fitness sessions, whilst still finding plenty of time to lie in hammocks and enjoy the slow pace of life here.
I will finish again with one of my overriding thoughts for the term- what on earth did I need all of that stuff for back in the UK? By my old standards, I now live with so very little, and the people around me even less, but aren’t we all perfectly happy? I haven’t yet worked out what life is about, but at least I’ve managed to eliminate stuff.
Thank you for reading this letter, I look forward to hearing any questions or comments you may have. You will at the latest hear from me again sometime in August.