Teaching in Puerto Jimenez – A report by Miron

This being my first experience as a teacher in any sort of environment or subject matter, I was both exited and a little bit nervous. I knew that everything would be completely new to me, so I carefully read through the descriptions and suggestions that Annelies, the previous volunteer from the year before, had written down after she had finished her work. To put it mildly, she hinted at a “chaotic” situation with many classes that were cancelled, a lack of books and long term planning, little advancement between different grades and a lot of time spent on drawing pictures. All this information was very helpful to me and allowed me to create some mental image before starting my own three week period!

Volunteer Miron - Organic Farming & Teaching English

Volunteer Miron – Organic Farming & Teaching English

On the school schedule were grades ranging from 2nd to 6th, but those numbers aren’t representing the same thing as they might do in Europe, because the children in 5th grade for example seem to be only around ten/eleven if I understood correctly. Regardless of their age however, the English level of basically all the children is extremely low, the exceptions being the few kids that have one English speaking parent at home and thus are bilingual. There are a number of factors that might help explain this:
Apparently, English isn’t mandatory at all the schools in Costa Rica (only at the ‘larger” ones), and the decision to make it so was only taken about 15 years ago.

As mentioned above, the children lack books because public schools like this one aren’t able to buy enough of them. Thus, only the teacher has got one and he needs to copy the exercises on the whiteboard for the children to copy.
There appears to be a lack of exposure to English in general in Costa Rica. Most movies are dubbed into Spanish for example, so people don’t get to hear any pronunciation or get used to understanding spoken English. Connected to the point above, there seems so be few books or texts in English to read, at least for the children; apart from separate sentences/words that they learn in school the children won’t get any more input. I can’t say what the situation is concerning music with English lyrics, but somehow I doubt that the exposure is as massive as in my home country of Sweden for example.

There is no television in the classrooms and I don’t know for certain but at least I haven’t seen any computer room. Because of this there is a lack of interactivity and opportunities to vary the classroom experience any.

However, not everything is bad. From what I gather, the teacher only had about one year of actual English teaching under his belt when Annelies was here, and I think his skills have improved since then. For example, during the one and a half week I’ve been here so far, he has never once made the children draw anything, instead every class is focused on one set of phrases or words.
He still makes mistakes in pronunciation and grammar, but he always asks me if it’s correct or not and let me read out the sentences for the children to repeat. In other words I believe that he truly wants to learn and so far when I’ve made suggestions he always seems so listen.

On two occasions so far he has used his computer; once to play a listening exercise and once to play a simple song. I was very happy to notice all these things and I’ve encouraged him to use the computer more, maybe to play more songs or maybe show some short video clip.

Last but not least, the teacher has showed up very day, which was apparently something that was far from certain last year!

Of course much work still needs to be done. What Annelies wrote earlier about little advancement between the grades still holds true and it becomes very apparent when he alternates between two exercises during a day no matter what class. Another thing is that, probably because of their lack of exposure to English, the children seem to be very shy when it comes to actually speaking. This became very apparent during a verbal test I helped with with recently.

The test was divided into two parts:

  1. Translate – I read some very simple phraces in Spanish and the children needed to translate them into English; it could be “Good morning”, “May I go the the bathroom?” or “See you tomorrow” etc.
  2. Communication – I asked something basic like “What is your name?”, “How old are you?” or “Where do you live?”. I need to double check this, but I think we did “5th grade” (which is something like 3rd in Europe?) and the vast majority of the children struggled heavily with it.

The children could get 1 – 3 points per question, where 1 stood for not answering, 2 was “answering after some explanation, repetition or clue” and 3 was answering correctly with no assistance. I didn’t do the grading but I got the feeling that many children that only could say the phrase after getting like half the words as a clue got a 2, because many of them got 70 – 80 % though they would probably be regarded as knowing no English at all by most English speaking people. For example, only about 3 out of 45 could (with some mistakes) give one reason why English is so important to learn…

If I compare the situation with my home country of Sweden, I believe we started having English classes actually be taught in English only at this age (when we were around 11 years old). Here, because of their low level of knowledge, this would be completely impossible and what you will hear during 95 % of English class is Spanish. Once during an exercise when the children were supposed to ask their classmates things like “Do you like to play soccer?” and other similar questions, I heard many of them replying in Spanish and more often than not also ask the question in Spanish. Needless to say, I think this is one the things that they need to focus on the most in the future, get the children used to having English “in their mouths” and start having some basic but simple conversations, like maybe setting up a really short play with lines the could learn and practice?

Not all my time has been spent at the public school though. For the first time during this program, the volunteer time has been divided between then public school and a nearby private school. Now, the reason why I started describing the public schools is partly because that is what has been covered before and thus it’s a good starting point, but also because my work at the private school has been so different in every way.

First of all, the private school is not nearly as big as the public school, and this is reflected in the class size, which seems to be ranging from 4 – 12.  Second, I’ve been doing very different work over there. To be more precise, I’ve been helping out at two sorts of classes:

  • Kindergarden – I was introduced to this on my very first day of work and thus it was not only my first time as a “teacher” but also my very first time working with children at any age, especially this small (ranging from 2 – 4). Thankfully I wasn’t alone but had the regular teacher there to help out. As might be expected when working with children this small, the exercises consisted mostly of things like practicing colors, the alphabet, the days of the week etc. with some coloring to mix things up.The children are generally well behaved; of course they might neglect to pay attention from time to time, but no lying on the floor screaming or anything (so far!). After the children have their snack brake it’s the same sort of deal but this time with a different teacher and in Spanish. This is probably because while some of the children have English as their mother language, some have Spanish.If i felt a little out of place before, now that feeling was poignant because there is little I feel I can contribute but help with some minor stuff like bringing pens to the children or cleaning up after them. Of course you could argue that this was the case during the English part as well and though that might be true to some extent it least then I can communicate with the children some. Unfortunately my Spanish isn’t really good enough at the moment to have any sort of real “conversation”, even with children (that sometimes aren’t the most articulated of all), so what happens is I get kind of quiet during this part.
  • Spanish teacher –  the afternoons so far have consisted of me helping out with Spanish in a class of around 3 – 6 people, or to be more precise a either a boy and/or a girl around 8 years old maybe. This is a bit easier for me partly because the Spanish isn’t very hard (so I can actually help out) and partly, again, because I can communicate with them. The work they’ve done so far has basically been to color different pictures with a corresponding word and then cut them out and glue them into their book. Nothing too difficult but also nothing too exiting either; many times the children try to do other things and I constantly have to remind them about their assignment. Also I get the feeling that they don’t always know what words they are learning, they just learn the word without knowing the English translation…

Two times things have been different. One morning most kids were out doing some excursion and it was up to me and a fellow volunteer from a different company to help a girl with with her English exercises for the day and some basic math. Thankfully the school had prepared everything in advance and my fellow volunteer knew how to speak Spanish with the girl and explain everything she might wonder, so things passed smoothly. One other time I joined another class and again helped with their math and a tiny bit of science. This was “more like it” and I felt more useful during these times than during the Spanish classes.

So to sum things up the schools are very different. Before I started this work I expected I would enjoy the private school more, but it’s actually been the other way around. This is partly because I feel that the public school needs more help, but I think mostly because I feel I can accomplish more there. I’m not saying I’m not enjoying my time at the private school, the children are all very cute and they always get me in a good mood with all their energy, but I mainly came here to teach English and that is not what I’m doing at the private school, at least not as of yet….

Saying something about the over all experience I think it has been very fun and rewarding. To see and experience the educational system of another country is always interesting and this volunteering period has allowed my to see a wide spectrum of it, from Kindergarden to “6th” grade, from private to public. Sure there is a lot of room for improvement at the public school, but that is the reason why I’m here in the first place, to try my best to help. 🙂

– Thanks Miron for your amazing and helpful review! The projects and we appreciate any type of feedback. We’re looking forward to your end-of-your-volunteer-time Review 🙂 ~ Janina, Green Life Volunteers’ Program Manager