I wander aimlessly around the training center, laptop in hand, hoping to connect to the wifi just long enough to find a copy of a short story. A dozen or so of the other trainees were scattered throughout the room in the late afternoon. Some were writing stories on flipchart paper, others typing worksheets, and even more others cutting out crafts from construction paper for students to use in class the next day. This was Model School week.
Model School was the culmination point of the past six weeks of training. Everything we have done in EC 89 was to prepare us for Model School and our classes beyond. In teams of three, trainees had their own class of about 15 students from four area schools for the week. Under the guidance of our assigned Master Teacher, this was our time to implement the strategies of differentiated learning that is needed to teach these classes with children of mixed-abilities.
In the back corner of my classroom there is a quiet girl, who mostly keeps to herself, but her eyes sparkle at the chance to write her own stories. In the front row is a boy who can hardly read or write, but embraces the role of trouble-maker, not realizing how far behind his classmates he really is. Seated attentively in the second row is another boy who finds himself somewhere in the middle, able to read simple sentences and just beginning to understand the bigger concepts of reading comprehension and literacy.
How do you teach the same lesson to a class with some students who are practically writing their own stories on one end, and students that can hardly write their own name on the other? This is the situation that we as literacy teachers have found and will find ourselves in here in the Eastern Caribbean.
Consequently, with limited resources and technology that is not always reliable, it is our job to come up with activities for students that cater to their various reading abilities.
Here are just a few things I learned during my week at Model School:
1.) Just because you have a lesson-plan, doesn’t mean the lesson will go as planned.
The speaker may not work on your laptop for the short video you want to show (given that the wifi is strong enough to begin with). A number of students may be absent that day for various reasons. The students that are there may become restless, lose interest, or act out in class, thus slowing down the lesson and preventing them from being able to understand the material. You may have to scrap and start over your lesson entirely because the students simply aren’t ready for the next concept and need more review. All of these things and more happened in one week alone.
2.) You have to be loud to be heard.
The walls are thin and the classes are loud. My model school classroom had walls on each side that could collapse or extend so the rooms can open up into an assembly hall. Due to the heat and lack of air conditioning, most of the classrooms are open-air so sound travels easily. You might have to compete not only with the other classes, but traffic such as big trucks passing by on the street might distract your students too. On top of that, if there is a torrential downpour, the rain on the roof can make it seem as though you can’t even hear your own thoughts. Therefore, you not only have to capture your students’ attention from the get-go, but also keep it throughout the lesson as well.
3.) You have to be resourceful and create your own culturally-relevant worksheets and materials.
We were lucky enough to have a printer available to us for Model School. However, it is not guaranteed that the school in our host community will have one. There are a number of websites and resources that provide great ideas and activities for teaching. That being said, finding worksheets that are culturally-relevant is difficult. Most of the materials online would use names, various seasons, and be centered on activities that just aren’t relevant to a Caribbean child. Therefore, often times we had to create our own stories and worksheets so that the students would not only understand the material, but also be able to relate them as well.
4.) Reading and writing is not exciting for some children, so you have to get creative in getting them to do the activity.
“I don’t want to do this. This is boring,” one student told me during a writing assignment.
“Well what would you rather be doing?” I asked him, kneeling to his level.
“Playing with my cousin Kayla.”
“What would you be playing with her?”
“Okay. Maybe you can write something about that. Would you play with her at your house, her house, or at the field?”
“Okay so there’s the setting of your story. When you play with her is it a sunny day or a rainy day?”
“There you go. On a sunny day you are playing with your cousin Kayla. See, you’ve already started your own story.”
5.) Students will test you to see how far they can go.
Although they are gravitating away from it, corporal punishment is used in the schools here. Students know that we, as Peace Corps Volunteers, cannot and will not physically discipline them. Knowing that, they definitely will take advantage.
It was their lunch hour and they had to stay in the classroom because we couldn’t let them outside for recess. I was supervising the class today, so it was only me in the room with 12 pent-up, rambunctious kids. I was letting the little things go because I can understand that they’re kids who have too much energy to have to stay cooped up inside a room. Then one boy chased after another, grabbing a hold of his arm. The other pushed back, knocking him into another boy who was seated.
“That’s it! You two! Outside-now!” I called across the room.
The boys froze like deer in the headlights as the class fell quiet. Everyone in the room was surprised, including myself, at the sternness of my voice. We had been together a week and although I had to correct their behavior before, I never raised my voice like that yet. The boys hung their head and shuffled out of the room. I walked them to the corner of the hallway where I had them sit on a bench. My reason for taking them away from the room really was two-fold: 1) I could speak to them out of earshot of their classmates and 2) I needed to buy time to figure out what I was going to say.
By the time they sat on the bench the excuses and blame game had already started. I was having none of that, though, because I had asked them on a number of occasions to quit running and pushing each other. I found a lot of irony in this situation, having been a student my entire life, I was now that teacher lecturing kids to quit acting out and behave themselves. I also learned that although I wish I didn’t have to, I can put the fear of God in a student’s eye to keep them in line if I need to.
6.) There is nothing more rewarding than seeing a child’s eyes light up with an ‘ah-ha’ moment when they understand a lesson.
We were broken into small groups for mini-lessons and I had a group of three girls and a boy. Our lesson that day was covering adjectives and describing words. After explaining again the importance of using describing words in our writing, it was time for students to practice identifying them in sentences. The chalk repeatedly crumbled in my hand as I wrote a series of simple sentences on the board.
Together we would read through the sentences and underline the describing word, drawing an arrow to the word it modified. After a couple of sentences, the boy raised his hand.
“Sir, can we try one?” a boy asked excitedly.
“Sure, you can have the next one,” I replied, surprised yet pleased.
I had planned on giving them sentences to try on their own anyway, but since he was excited about trying it on his own I moved to that part sooner. The excitement about trying it on their own spread to the others as they all now wanted a turn of their own, too. The rest of the lesson cruised by as each took his or her turn identifying the adjectives in the sentences. It was times like these throughout Model School week, when students were embracing the material and excited about learning, which makes teaching particularly enjoyable.
7.) The students will surprise you with a laugh.
One of my fellow co-teachers and trainees came up to me after school one day.
“One of my students wrote about you today,” she told me as she handed me a worksheet.
I took the worksheet, which had Person, Place, and Object listed across the top with lines underneath for students to list adjectives to describe it. For Person, one student in her small group wrote about me. Underneath “Mr. Scott” was listed: tall, nice, fair, and…white.
I couldn’t help but laugh at the simplicity of it all. That’s one thing you have to appreciate about children is that they call it as they see it. I am white; I am also quite possibly the first white person this student has met. I am happy he had those other adjectives come to mind too, but it’s the little things like that which can make you laugh to ease the stress of the day.
All in all, Model School week certainly had its ups-and-downs. There were challenges both inside the classroom and out. From the lesson-planning, to finding and creating materials, to behavior management and motivating students, our hands were full this past week. But thanks to the guidance of my Master Teacher Natasha Stanio, who was truly a valuable resource for me, I survived Model School week and learned how to effectively teach in an Eastern Caribbean classroom.
Having the opportunity to exercise everything we’ve learned in Pre-Service Training provided me with the necessary experience to move forward to my host community and school this week. There will certainly be more challenges along the way, as mixed-ability classrooms require differentiated learning strategies to ensure that each student can understand the lesson.
A room of Peace Corps staff, based on a community’s needs and my background and personality, determined last week where I will be living and working for the next two years of my life. On Wednesday, I find out that answer and by this time next week, I will be there. I’m happy to say I’m very much looking forward to what’s to come. However, now it’s time for Carnival, the biggest celebration of the year in the Caribbean. So in the meantime, I will be enjoying what time I have left on the beautiful island of St. Lucia (unless, of course, I am placed here) with the rest of the amazing people that I have gotten to know that make up the rest of EC 89. After all, we have cause to celebrate-we survived Model School!