Now that I've been in Paraguay for a little over 6 weeks, I'd like to dedicate a blog entry to what I've observed so far about the country's educational system. As part of my training as an Education volunteer, the Peace Corps has matched me up with a school and teacher that I'm supposed to work with over an 8-week period. My language group and I (4 of us in total) have been assigned to the Municipal School, an elementary school that caters to children from Guarambaré's asentamientos, or shantytowns. I chose to work with the second grade because my dad used to teach that age group and I consider it lucky.
I'll start off by saying that school here is very, very different. Kids here only go to school here for 4 hours a day. The school day is divided into 2 turnos: the morning turno is from 7-11 and the afternoon turno is from 1-5. Usually, the second turno is more female-heavy because their parents keep them at home during the morning to help with household chores. Some colegios (high schools) have a third turno at night that lasts from 6-10 for the students that work full-time during the day. Since the classrooms have different grade levels and teachers depending on the time of day, no one is able to decorate or prepare a classroom for a specific age group. In terms of methodology, the teachers believe that a quiet classroom is an efficient one, so the best teachers are the ones who can keep their students in the seats and copying from the board. Although the government gives some elementary schools kits filled with basic school supplies, they often arrive late or not at all. That means that the parents are left to supply their children with notebooks, pencils, pens, art supplies, etc. At my school, parents can barely afford to give their kids a soft-cover notebook and one pencil. Parents are also expected to buy their children uniforms (white tops and navy bottoms for public schools), but if the children don't come in dress code, the school cannot legally send them home. Usually, only the neediest students don't come to class in something that resembles a uniform. Paraguayan teachers come to school in the same navy-and-white uniform as their students.
Teaching here usually boils down to a teacher writing something on the blackboard and having the students copy it into their notebooks. If they finish early, there is no alternate activity for them to do, so they usually occupy themselves by bothering their classmates. Part of my job is to introduce new teaching methodology, but it's hard coming. During one of my Días de Practica, I gave my second-graders a diagnostic reading test. About 70% could not recite or identify the alphabet in order. Only one child could indentify the letters both in and out of order. None could read. That day was really disheartening because the kids are capable of learning, but no one is giving them the help they need. Instead, the teacher simply writes lessons on the board, and the kids copy. How are kids supposed to answer a word problem like "If Claudia has 4 apples and Mariel has 17 apples, how many apples to they have together?" if they don't know that the letter A says "aaaa"? You gotta know the letter A before you can even think about apples.
A large part of the educational tradition in Paraguay (and its subsequent challenges) has roots in the Stroessner dictatorship. Back then, all teachers had to be registered members of the Colorado party in order to work in public schools. Creative or analytical thinking was openly discouraged; instead, the objective of education was to make a nation of followers. Although the dictatorship fell around 20 years ago, some of the same teaching strategies are still employed, and unfortunately, the educational sector remains highly politicized. That means, if your superintendent knows the right people, your school might recieve a surplus of supplies or snacks (each elementary school student is supposed to get milk and bread, but it doesn't always work out that way), but if you're out of favor, your school might not get anything.
In sum, the situation is disheartening. But in spite of the institutional challenges of the working in Paraguayan schools, the kids are still kids. And they're a blast to work with. They're willing, engaged, and happy to have your attention. They're what make it possible to keep going back.