Posted by: HelenRortvedt | 9 February 2006

Slow and steady

Slow and steady progress is being made here in Jinotepe. On Monday, the installation of the amplified sound system was completed. On Tuesday, I had a meeting with the English faculty, where it became quite clear that it is important for the teachers themselves to brush up on their skills. All the teachers are proficient, and more or less confident in the grammar, but have had very few opportunities to use their English with a native speaker, and thus, have lost any pronunciation finesse they may have once had. Some of the teachers are not English teachers by trade, but rather, by necessity. One woman is studying to be a social studies teacher, but has found herself teaching two sections of first year English because they had no one else. I imagine my Russian and her English are comparable. And I remember what a challenge it was to teach Russian last summer, knowing that little. I find myself preferring to speak Spanish with many of the teachers, because it is often hard for me to understand their English. However, during the department meetings every Tuesday, I am going to prepare a mini lesson/workshop for the teachers which will be geared at improving their own dominion of the language. So that will be a good challenge, and will hopefully provide some trickle-down benefits for the students as well. Unfortunately, the young woman we interviewed last week for the English Lab job declined the position, since they cannot garuntee her salary during December and January (when classes are not in session). So we are working to find someone else for the long run. Two teachers have graciously offered to help out for the time being, but hopefully before I leave we can find someone who intends to be in it for the long haul.

Side note: The English Lab is established to operate as a self-sufficient entity within the school. Each week, every student who comes to the lab with their class will pay 2 cordobas to the lab, which will pay the salary of the person working in the lab (if we ever find one). This amounts to just over $0.10 per student–which is certainly a reasonable price, considering they all spend that much and more everyday on snacks from the school snackbar. And clearly, if there are students who really cannot pay, we make exceptions. But, in order for the project to be sustainable, it has to be able to operate after I leave, and we have to pay someone to continue the job. What’s left after the salary is paid will go to acquiring more materials, and maintenance of the equipment and materials we already have. End side note.

I have had the opportunity (finally) to observe some English classes this week as well, so I can plan lessons for the English Lab, which is intended to be a practical application class period, accordingly. I have really enjoyed these observations…when they happen. It it not at all uncommon for both the teachers and the students to cancel classes. This morning, during the last two class periods, I was supposed to observe 4th and 5th year classes back-to-back…neither of which actually happened because the students had already left. The teacher was still there, but just hadn’t gone to class, and so the students left as well. This is something that I really can’t wrap my brain around yet…especially after a year of working at Noble Street Charter HS in Chicago last year, where discipline, consistency and hardwork are the backbone of the academic agenda.

On the surface, both schools are quite similar. Noble is a charter school–meaning that it receives some of its funding from Chicago Public Schools, and has to solicit supplemental funding from other sources (grants, student fees, etc). Juan Jose is an autonomous school–the Nicaraguan equivalent to a charter school. They also receive partial funding from the central government in Managua, and rely on fundraising, student fees and external grants for the rest of their operating budget.

But, on a day-to-day, operational basis, the schools could not be more different. Students are here (and in class) for about four hours a day (they always seem to have a free hour here or there, even though they are scheduled for 5 hours of classes). At Noble, it is not at all uncommon for a student to be at school and in some form of class, or school sponsored activity from 7:30am to 6:00pm. Here at Juan Jose, there are upwards of 50 students in each class, and are constantly distracted by the open-air nature of the building. Students get up out of their chair at will and wander around the classroom while the teacher is teaching. I have found that it is next to impossible to observe a class without causing a stir. I always have students seated near me trying to talk with me instead of listening to their teachers. There is no such thing as a disciplinary system here, whereas a demerit at Noble actually carries a significant amount of weight…enough to deter most students from continuing demerit-worthy behaviour. While Juan Jose lags behind Noble in many ways, it still impresses me in many other ways. The resources here are so limited, but students dilligently copy every word their teacher writes on the board…knowing they will never receive photocopies of notes. It felt like pulling teeth to get Noble students to take adequate notes while they were in class sometimes.

I could go on and on about the differences between the two schools, but I will leave it at that for now. I remember feeling lost in the Noble-maze when I first started working there, as there are so many traditions, rules, programs, etc. that I was not accustomed to at first. I have a similar feeling about Juan Jose right now, but I imagine that, with time, I will adapt and figure out the idiosyncracies of this school as well. And at least I don’t have to learn Russian this time! I already KNOW the language I will be teaching here! 🙂

Stay tuned… pictures of the new and improved English Lab will be posted here soon!



  1. That sounds like an amazing workplace – raw and frenetic, but with lots of energy and inspiration. I know you’ll make a lasting impact for the better there sis. I’d say buena suerte, but you don’t need it, you dedicated smart thing, you.

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