A Picture and a Bag of Rice
by Laura Landstrom, Teach a Teacher Volunteer June 2014
My usual commute to work involves gazing out a metro window into blackness or looking out a car window at bumper to bumper DC traffic. And so as I peered out the bus window at the immense desert coastline and the rolling mountains of the Cordillera Blanca on my initial ride from Lima into the Ancash region, it became clear to me that my visit to Peru would not only be beautiful, but it would be like nothing I had ever experienced.
As we got closer to my home for the next few weeks in Caraz, we drove through several small mountain villages. In each of these villages, I noticed a curiosity – painted onto the sides of houses, fences, and businesses there are small, brightly colored pictures. While there were various pictures from people, to a single letter in a circle, to a tree or sunburst, the pictures were repeated throughout the towns. They piqued my interest, and I began taking pictures of them during my travels, wondering what the significance of these small creations were.
I arrived in Peru the summer after I completed my 9th year of teaching – all in public Title I schools in the United States. I have taught in schools in Texas, Georgia, and I currently am starting my 10th year of work in Washington DC. Working in Title I schools, I have spent a great deal of time working with students and families living in poverty. While there are many challenges facing students and teachers in the schools I have taught at in the United States, many of those challenges pale in comparison to the challenges faced by many of the teachers and students I encountered in Peru.
One of the things I was most surprised by as I got to know some of the teachers better, is that there is no formal training process or certification required for teachers – including attending college. Basically, many teachers show up to their classrooms the first day and are told to “Go for it!”
While I was inspired by the effort and dedication shown by many teachers with limited resources and education, this deficit in pedagogical knowledge was apparent in many of the teaching practices I observed. In the pre-k classroom I visited, students devoted a large portion of their morning every day to marching practice (as in “Attention! Forward March!”). And while in the classroom there was evidence of learning the alphabet, they were learning the letters and their sounds in isolation. They were not spending any time showing students the connection of the sounds of letters to their sounds in words.
Reading instruction in most classrooms primarily consists of either copying sentences a teacher has written on the board into a notebook or the whole class reading sentences or a short passage from a workbook and then answering questions independently on a worksheet. Teachers do not read aloud daily to their students, do not utilize graphic organizers, and no teacher I met with had heard of Guided Reading. Students never spend time independently reading to themselves, which makes sense when one realizes classrooms do not have books for students to read or even a school library.
When I visited a classroom in Caraz, I looked through the one reading resource for students- workbooks (and each family buys their own child their workbook which might cost a family a whole day’s salary). Within the entire READING workbook there was not one story!!!! I quickly understood why many teachers were asking me what to do for students that hate to read.
Despite the many differences between schools in the United States and schools in Peru, I surprisingly found many similarities and I was also able to learn ways to improve my personal teaching practice from teachers there.
While I feel majority of educators in the United States are grossly underpaid for the work they do, I feel an even deeper issue is not a lack of pay, but a lack of respect. Comments surrounding teachers choosing their profession in order to get summers off or the assumption that the primary reason schools are failing is because of ineffective teaching are sadly accusations thrown at teachers every day.
Likewise, there seems to be a belief among many (but not all) of the education departments or administrative personnel in Peru that teachers do not desire learning opportunities, like those offered by Teach a Teacher, so why would the Education Department go out of their way to help organize them? I, however, was impressed by the passion and enthusiasm of the teachers I worked with to improve their skills as an educator.
Kelly’s sweet neighbor, Anna, informed us the night before a workshop in Caraz was to take place that the teachers at her children’s school never received the invitation from the education offices to the workshop. When she and Kelly visited the school to talk to the director and ask if he would announce the workshop to the staff, he told them that they should invite the teachers themselves. So Kelly, Anna, and I went around the morning of the workshop to each teacher’s classroom to invite them. Despite the short warning, we still had a large group of dedicated teachers show up to the workshop eager to improve their instruction and to take advantage of a learning opportunity.
At the first workshop I facilitated, I had modeled for teachers completing a readaloud for your students and we focused on character analysis using the book (in Spanish) A Bad Case of Stripes. For those who have not read this fantastic book, basically a girl is so worried about what others think of her that she will not be true to herself. She literally wakes up one morning covered in rainbow stripes form head to toe. If a person calls her a color or shape, she morphs to match it. In the end she realizes the only cure, of course, is to be herself!
Quechua is the native language of many people in Peru, however, the school system is moving to all Spanish. All I could think of was my experience teaching at a highly bilingual school in Texas. We were so quick to transition students from Spanish to English, and many times what would happen is our students would end up not truly fluent in either.
It scares me how quickly the whole world seems to be moving to English. Don’t get me wrong – there is great value in being able to share a common language with others for communication purposes. I just worry about students losing a valuable part of their identity – their native language – in their quest to learn English.
One teacher made the profound connection with the text to many of her students whose native tongue is Quechua feeling the need to deny their culture and speak Spanish only. I have read this book aloud to my students many years, and not once had I made that connection with my English Language Learners.
With all the above and a long history of low funding for education taken into consideration, it’s no surprise in many towns there is a low literacy rate. As my trip came to an end, I learned the significance behind those small pictures painted on the walls of buildings I had seen on my bus ride to Caraz. Kelly disclosed that these pictures stood for candidates running in elections. All Peruvian citizens are required by law to vote. Since many citizens cannot read, they vote in elections by picture. Many candidates have handed out bags of rice to people with their picture logo attached. They can get the rice by voting for their picture. One, candidate whose logo is painted on rocks and trees and countless unsightly places, like a mad graffiti tagging binge, is even offering every family 500 soles a piece for their vote!
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.
In my time in Peru I was lucky enough to encounter many small groups of thoughtful, committed citizens: A group of teachers wanting to improve their practice were determined even after a hard day at work to make it to a training they learned about just hours before. Two Americans who have chosen to make Peru their new home and have become involved in changing their community for the better in so many ways. Generous neighbors who pitch in at the last minute to prepare a training space when the initial venue fell through, a teacher who attended my first training and set up an additional training for me to hold in Lima where over 30 teachers and two representatives from the Ministry of Education attended. Most teachers attending that SATURDAY workshop had to travel long distances on buses (some from over 9 hours away) and combis (small, public transport, packed to the gills, mini-vans) to arrive. (Take that Department of Education, Administrators and the like- teachers do want to grow professionally!) And every teacher I encountered in my travels who wishes for more and better for their students and who has come to the Teach a Teacher workshops with an open mind and heart.
While many seem to think they will solve all the problems in education by implementing a new teacher evaluation tool, raising the standardized testing bar, or purchasing the latest research- based curriculum, I truly believe any real, valuable, and lasting change that will happen must come from the teachers themselves. Having an opportunity this summer to work with teachers and help build teaching efficacy together is an experience that has forever changed how I look at my profession.
A quote was shared with me during my time in Peru that resonated with my overall experience – “God is in the details”. In the seemingly small day to day interactions I had with Mac and Kelly and the teachers I worked with during my time with Teach a Teacher I saw tremendous possibilities. And I do think with thought, commitment, education, and compassion – we can change the world.
There is too much at stake in life to base important decisions on just a picture and a bag of rice.