Un Montón de Gringos

After completing the first full month in Nicaragua and in my work placement at Las Tias, I have a little bit of a different perspective than I had upon onset of my internship. First of all, I’m fully aware that the old adage – less is more – definitely holds true when it comes to volunteers. I remember days in high school when I’d be turned away from volunteering at the local soup kitchen and not understand why an organization would refuse free help. Things have become a little bit clearer now. One child exclaimed that there was “un montón de gringos” at Las Tias this week upon the arrival of a whopping ten more American volunteers from Montana. It definitely took me by surprise when the first shift of them walked right into my morning English class to introduce themselves. They each will be at Las Tias two hours a day, four days a week, for six weeks. A very brief amount of time truthfully, and very contradictory to the information I initially received from the director about my expected full-time commitment to the program.

I’ve been consistently teaching English classes at Las Tias – although now I have the ten new gringos to compete with a little bit. The director reassured me that there would still be time allotted for the class, but it’s hard to keep kids in a classroom, when the other volunteers are simultaneously offering bracelet making, arts and crafts, and sport “classes.” Honestly, it took me off guard that their classes are not at all educational. Of course, I enjoy playing and drawing with the kids, as much as anyone else, but at the end of the day I am thrilled to be doing something more substantial. With the English classes and the one-on-one homework help every day, I feel like I’m at least helping the children, if not making a small difference, instead of merely entertaining them. That being said, the kids definitely enjoy the English classes – I learned pretty early on that songs are a big hit among my students and they do wonders with helping them remember words and phrases! Everyday I try to introduce a new song along with new vocabulary and an activity. This week we conquered the Hokey Pokey and along with lots of laughs and new dance moves, I think the students really got a better grasp on direction words and body parts. I’ve also incorporated games for review – pictionary is up next! Things have been going pretty well and I’m at the point where I personally know almost all of the kids at Las Tias very well. I’m grateful for these personal relationships I have with all the children. A sizeable group from Montana comes to volunteer every year, so I’m actually quite lucky I got a month with the kids and just one other volunteer before they arrived. I imagine it’s pretty much impossible to connect with kids on a very personal level when there are such a large amount of volunteers. As for the influx of new “gringos” to my program, money speaks and I can’t exactly blame a nonprofit for bending the rules a bit in order to maintain a donor relationship.

gretchenGettysburg’s beloved Gretchen Natter, the Nicaragua Heston coordinator at CPS, was also in León with us this week. It was great to have conversations with her about our experiences in Nicaragua thus far, as she really pushed as to look at situations more critically and from every angle. It’s fairly easy to identify the “problems” with the Nicaraguan education system and a little bit more difficult to fully understand the historical, social, and political context that contributes to these challenges. I’ve had quite a few interesting conversations with the children and the teachers at Las Tias about the way schools are run here. One of the “tias” originally worked for a public elementary school, where her class would change on a daily basis. When other teachers were absent, she would have to teach an entirely new age group with no notice, often jumping between 3rd grade, 5th, and kindergarten. I can’t imagine a school environment where it is common to have this kind of disruption. There’s no way the same teacher can be equipped to teach such different ages and curriculum at such short notice. I suppose this is a better alternative to class being canceled altogether (which has happened quite often during my time here as well). I think Las Tias’ biggest strength is the consistency it provides for the students. Children attend the program for eight years (from 6-14 years old) and the teachers are consistent as well. This also makes me question the volunteers at Las Tias. If consistency and stability for the children is one of the primary functions of Las Tias, are temporary volunteers a constructive force or just a disruption to this model? I honestly don’t have an answer to this, but I think it depends on the way it is handled. If I spend my day working through math problems with a struggling student and giving that child individual attention and help he would normally not have gotten, I believe I’m doing something worthwhile. If I spend an hour reading and working out the words of a story with a kid who insists “no puedo” (I can’t), but ends up reading the whole thing, I’ll feel accomplished. One of the most effective parts of my English class is just fueling their curiosity and validating their desire to learn. Originally, the teachers told certain students (mainly the troublemakers) that they weren’t allowed to take my English class, probably to make things easier for me. However, they never shared this information with me so every time a kid asked me to be in the class, I immediately let them in. If someone wants to learn, who am I to turn them away? I think the fact that I “allowed” them into my class contributed to a better atmosphere in class because the kids who are there actually want to learn. It’s a consistent class in both the morning and the afternoon, and they always seem to look forward to the next one. I might not be saving the world, but I’m doing something decent and giving these children the attention they need.

Kerry Mullen