Friday, July 11, 2014

Interning with AHA Bolivia: Jeffers Guthrie

When I volunteered for this program I had almost no knowledge of Spanish besides the menial skill of being able to crudely count to ten. In the months leading up to my departure I experienced constant self-doubt. And for obvious reason. I would be traveling internationally for the first time on my own, and entering a foreign country with an entirely different culture and environment. A country that has been voted one of the most unfriendly to foreigners, not to mention that the majority of its population speaks only Spanish. My only solace was that I had taken Latin for 4 years, an unspoken language that I was told would greatly improve my ability to learn this new language.

This anxiety followed me, unwavering, throughout my journey to and arrival in Bolivia. On the flight from Miami to La Paz everything around me seemed to confirm my helplessness. Even the flight crew did not speak English! The difficulty and nervousness I encountered when trying to decipher the immigration forms compounded my feelings. Everyone and everything seemed to be hostile and new. All I wanted to do was to turn around and go back to the safety and comforts of home. Going through immigration everyone seemed to look down on me for being a “gringo”. When I was met by the people escorting me to my next flight their first question was, “How is your Spanish?” Defeatedly I answered, “zero.” The answer hit me far harder than the altitude sickness I was feeling. I was supposed to be coming to this country to teach; how was I going to communicate with these children, let alone teach them math skills, knowing so little of their language?

Arriving in Cochabamba was the greatest culture shock. There was almost nothing familiar that I could hold onto to give me some hope of success, at least in the way I perceived it. I felt completely overwhelmed by the sights, sounds and, of course the language, especially knowing I would be there for a month, the longest time I had ever been away from my family. Upon my arrival we headed directly to the office from where we would be heading the Khan program. I met Elahdio and Jose, and sat idly by, watching nervously as they taught the kids effortlessly in fluent Spanish. I looked at the kids, understanding none of the sounds that flowed from their lips. Once again questions of doubt flooded my brain.  It was intimidating to say the least.

The next morning was when the ‘fun’ really began. I had my first Spanish lesson, which was both encouraging and discouraging. I realized I knew more than I had originally thought, but there was also the realization that I was learning kindergarten level Spanish. Equipped with a few simple phrases, I prepared to begin the task of tutoring fluent Spanish speakers in mathematics. With broken words and sentences I helped the kids sign up for Khan Academy and begin learning. I looked around. Everyone around me seemed to be able to approach and teach the kids with ease. I looked around for someone who was struggling. In the corner I saw a little boy who was having difficulty with fractions. Nervously and cautiously I approached him, greeted him and asked his name. “Fernando,” he replied in a quiet voice. I could easily read the nervousness and shyness in his voice and face. But there was also the keen and almost desperate desire to learn and understand. It felt familiar. I looked over the problem. It seemed to be simple enough. In single words and poor attempts at pronunciation I explained to him that a fraction was equal to part over the whole. In this case red rectangles over the total sum of all the rectangles. As I spoke he seemed to read in me what I had read in him -- a feeling of nervousness and apprehension, and it put him at ease. His expression was one of contemplation, that slowly gravitated to understanding. Quickly, as though afraid he might forget, he scribbled ⅗ down on the whiteboard.  I smiled, relieved, and said with a terrible accent “Si! Muy bien!” He entered in the answer and a smiley face appeared on the answer button, which he quickly mirrored.  I found the rest of the session, while a challenge, very enjoyable and very gratifying. Leaving the session, I allowed a smile to creep onto my face; I knew that I would be able to contribute here.

Over the past few weeks teaching has only gotten better. My desire to help these children who are faced with a very limited educational system and few opportunities has grown. Although I still constantly need to ask my fellow volunteers for vocabulary, somehow I have been able to teach the kids and impact them in a positive way. The students enjoy my poor attempts at the language and they are learning the material, even calling me back to explain something they don’t understand. Despite our very different backgrounds, we are connected. Because of my limited Spanish I think they see me not as a symbol of authority or intimidation but as someone who is just as hungry for knowledge as they are.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Interning with AHA Bolivia: Vicente Nagel

This being my first time volunteering with the Bolivia4ward program, I knew very little of what to expect throughout my time here. All I really knew in regards to my involvement in the program was that I would be assisting Bolivian children and teens in expanding their math knowledge using the Khan Academy website. My lack of knowledge about the project compounded with my lack of confidence in my Spanish-speaking abilities and my inexperience as a teacher instilled in me an apprehension that followed me from the time I departed from Chicago all the way to the first time I decided to sit down next to a student in need of some extra assistance with a tricky problem.

Coming out of a full week of teaching, however, I have to say that I couldn’t be more thankful for the opportunity to participate in the program from the perspective of a nervous foreigner and a true newcomer to the field of education. What I began to realize, and what became my mantra every time I felt overwhelmed by a particularly difficult concept to explain, was that the girls and boys whom I was teaching weren’t here to judge me on my Spanish or scold me for making a simple mathematical mistake—they were here to learn about math just as I was here to learn about their culture and language. The moment I realized this simple fact was the moment that the program turned from a daunting test of mathematical skill and command of the Spanish language to a mutual journey for knowledge.

In this new reality, what I had attributed as my weaknesses turned out to be the biggest advantages that I could muster in the quest for truly understanding how best to impact the lives of these bright children that I had the joy of surrounding myself with. The feelings of unease and self-consciousness that I experienced as I tried my best to appear as someone who was fit to teach a roomful of children mathematical concepts, while stumbling through the most elementary of Spanish phrases was the same exact feeling that my students had. Just as I had felt that I wasn’t worthy to be teaching math in Spanish to a bunch of native Spanish speakers, the students felt as though they weren’t worthy of asking for math help from someone who they assumed was a master of the material. When they saw me bumble around and asking my fellow volunteers for help with vocab or with some insight as to how to explain a topic as simple as division, the intimidating nature of my presence was replaced with the notion that I, just like them, had a lot to learn.

This realization from them made learning less about saving oneself from the embarrassment of failure and more about learning alongside someone who was truly as clueless in other topics as they had convinced themselves that they were in math. Instead of looking confused at some nonsensical Spanish phrase that I had thrown together in an attempt at basic communication, they would help me work through what I was trying to say, offering encouraging words when they could tell that I was embarrassed about my butchering of their language. I would say things like “Lo siento, mi espaƱol es muy malo,” and they would instantly respond with “No! No! Es bueno!,” and offer back a smile that made it seem as if they were grateful to know that I wasn’t some perfect human being who was there to force them to learn what they assumed must be expected of people to know where I come from.

Perhaps the most important thing that I have learned from helping these kids with their math is that the best way to teach someone effectively and to open their minds to accepting failure is to connect with them on an equal playing field, making it apparent that you are learning just as much from them as they are from you. I think that, if more people realized that they can learn something from every single person out there, they would realize just how equal we all are at a basic, human level, and be more driven to ensure that every person has a chance at achieving their full potential. What the Salman Khan espouses in his Khan Academy manifesto, The One World Schoolhouse, and what I have experienced first hand with the Bolivia4ward project, is that it is for everybody’s best interest to make quality education accessible to every person out there because not doing so could be depriving the world of some of its greatest innovators and game changers whose full potential was being oppressed at the hands of societal boundaries such as class and financial status. All in all, this experience has most definitely left me with a drive to level the playing field for all who have a will to learn.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Second Program

Our second run on our Khan Academy Program was different in many ways
from the Pilot. To start with, we would be dealing with around 50
children, which is about half the students we had last time around.
Whoever, we would be starting with only two volunteer tutors, Eduardo
and myself. (Although we eventually did have another part-time
volunteer called Gabriela).

After having some ordeals with the children who came to us for the
very first time or the ones who were returning who had forgotten their
account names or passwords (or both!) we introduced them to some
things they had never seen: The Learning Dashboard and the Spanish
Beta Site.

I feel both of them were great tools, the Spanish Beta site, while
very far from Perfect just yet, was much better than the Google
Translate that we used before. Since there were only two tutors,
having the site in the children's native language was extremely
helpful. The Dashboard, including the Pre-Test and the Grade division
of learning modules, were also very convenient tools for us to find
and work on the holes in all of the students' knowledge. However, we
found it very interesting that most if not all of the children were
pointed towards practicing the Line Chart modules.

The program this time proceeded smoothly, not to mention we received a
donation from a local Software business for 5 new computers which make
us very excited for the future.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Activity Update


The students have already gone back to school but we have gotten interest from some of their parents and the same students to come and use the room a couple days a week. To address this we have decided to open the study room two days a week in the morning and one day in the afternoon. For sure one of the morning days will be Saturday morning. We have one of the tutors that helped us during the program who also works for the company, so he will be in charge of over site during these days and especially Saturday. We are also talking to some schools that have honors programs for those students to come and learn to be instructors for this kind of thing and get community service hours in this way.

We have also mentioned the pilot program to several different people. There are different groups which are now excited and have expressed interest in what we have done. As we have limited facilities we can not accommodate all these people and the possible students this means. So what we have decided is to set up a seminar that two of the instructors, Eduardo and Jose, can give to different schools, teachers,parent groups and people who are interested. These seminars will let interested people learn about the Khan academy and how we went about doing the pilot program, this way they can learn from our mistakes and build on what we saw as the successful parts of our program. Our first seminar will be given to a small school that has started in the city of Samaipata. Thanks to them the seminar idea was started because the schools founder were the ones to ask us about this. We have made an outline of the seminar and are preparing to go to Samaipata in the next 2-3 weeks. This will be an interesting learning experience for us and enable us to see the viability of using the Khan academy in a school setting. This school is a great place to start because it is a small school with small class sizes. Since there are no more than 100 kids,  it will be interesting to see how this works out.

EA

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Saturday August 3rd



Yesterday, we held a meeting between the AHA Bolivia Staff, some of
the volunteers for the Pilot Project and the heads of the Artisan
Groups that AHA Bolivia employs. The objective of the meeting was to
ask the Group Heads for feedback about the Pilot Project which is why
it was set about a month after it was over.

After a few words from Anna thanking everyone for their time and
collaboration with the project, the floor was given to the Artisans
and students. Each of them gave us positive feedback. For most
students, particularly if they do not excel in their education, school
life can become quite a frustrating drag. Try to picture going to the
same place day, after day, after day just to see that what you are
meant to be learning hasn’t been clicking. To witness that your
classmates, some of them your friends, others your rivals,
understanding that which you can’t.

In Bolivia, there are more students below the average academic level
than at or above the actual average. Many of the kids here get
frustrated by this. But it is not necessarily their fault. The blame
goes to a system that forces teachers to advance without putting much
care in ensuring that everybody learns correctly. Its system whose
sole focus is to simply meet the schedule and deadlines of the school
year, where those lucky and skilled enough to understand concepts in
that period of time get to be praised and get more opportunities than
the others.

This is not to say that those students get everything on a silver
platter, they, of course, must make an effort. Nevertheless, more
often than not, it’s because of their innate talent that they can
understand more in less time or simply because they have the drive to
continue studying on their own, outside school time. If your teachers
praise you, that is enough of a motivator to keep up good grades, keep
studying.

That is why the Khan Academy was so alluring to all the kids that
participated in our little project. In an environment where they can
advance at their own place, practicing modules on their own, ask for
help from their fellow students or the volunteer tutors… even if they
didn’t quite get it at the start, they were motivated to keep going
forward.

The Artisans expressed that most, if not all, of the kids asked
whether or not we would be repeating this program again, they asked
when that was going to happen. They’ve also told us about how, even in
such a short time, most of them actually look forward to going to
school now (At least to their Math classes). Some of the mothers of
the youngest kids we had, ages 8-10 also thanked the program as their
children used to be socially awkward and shy and by the end of it,
they could speak to other kids and the tutors and also ask for help.

Both children, and adults, are inherently ashamed and afraid of asking
for help when they don’t understand something. And how could they
not, considering that the persons who ask such questions are labeled
“slow” or “dumb”.

I have been through a lot of different schools and school systems and
I believe that to get rid of this so called fear of asking is primordial in
education. It was great seeing how this curriculum has helped the
children to not have the need of asking for help in their current Math
classes’ subject. It was great to hear how the students have started
to find the joy in learning and how their parents can perceive this. It
 was great to hear that we can provide them with the chance to show
them that they can be above average, if they have the dedication and
the right tools for the job.

To finish the meeting, we announced we will start an effort to have
the room open during the weekends, for all kids that would be willing
and able to come. This will be an arduous effort, but seeing how the
kids and the artisans are doing their best to comply and help, we can
do no less.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Background 2

After reading Salman Khan's book and meeting with James and Bilal at the Khan Academy headquarters, we left feeling inspired and determined.  My sons Eduardo and Elahdio returned to both of their universities close by and I returned to Bolivia.  Upon arriving in Bolivia, Jose and I met about this project.  Jose had been working his way through the Khan math curriculum and was now a master in most things Khan.  We decided that one of the first things that we needed to do was meet with our artisans and see if they were interested in the project.   

Our meeting was a resounding success.  Many of the women were very excited about the idea that we could help their children in math, a subject that tortured both children and parent's alike.  Bolivia's public school system is largely based on rote memory.  Many teachers in this system feel overwhelmed by large classes, few resources and a student population that oftentimes has no parental help at home.  The students,especially in the rural areas, often have little to no, one on one interaction with a teacher.  Math is especially difficult since success is based on the fact that each new concept is based on the mastery of the previous concepts.  Many students feel both frustrated and embarassed by their continued failure in math.  After discussing the project with the artisans, we decided that the best way to go about getting information and signing up the kids was by doing a survey.  

As we are members of the World Fair Trade Organization, we often need to find out basic information about our artisans.  AHA Bolivia works with 200-300 artisans all over the Cochabamba valley, where our offices are located.  The artisans generally work from home or in the case of crochet and handknits, they work from whereever they are.  It is not uncommon to find dried grass in some of our pieces, as a knitter herds her sheep or llamas in the mountainous countryside surrounding the Cochabamba valley.  We have done surveys with our artisans sporadically.  We usually ask demographic questions as well as questions about health and well-being.  In this new survey, we decided to add a section about all the artisans' children and their level in school.  Also we wanted to know if the students were interested in participating in a Khan Academy project during their June/July vacation (winter here in the Southern Hemisphere).  

We hired the daughter of one of our knitters Juseth, to carry out this very difficult task of trying to meet with the artisans and fill out the surveys.  Many of the artisans are semi-literate with some artisans not being able to read at all.  Juseth has a degree in Sociology and she has helped us in the past gather information about the artisans.  She also has some knowledge of Quechua, the language spoken in the countryside in this part of Bolivia.  Although some of the women can only speak Quechua, most of their children will be able to speak Spanish.  We set aside the months of March and April to carry out this task.  By the end of the allotted time, Juseth had done a fantastic job of collecting information and we found ourselves with over 100 students wishing to participate in the project.

Meanwhile, Jose and I were trying to figure out the logistics.  Where would we set up this program?  How would we get the necessary computers?   Was our internet capable of running all the computers at once?  How would the kids from the countryside get to our offices?  Who would supervise the kids?  Etc. etc.  We had a million details to figure out but we were so excited about the enthusiasm that our project had generated that we just figured that everything would work out somehow.

Anna

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Comments

After the last classes, we asked our students to write a few comments about what they thought of the program. Here is what some of them wrote:

"Me gusto mucho por que me fue muy bien, tambien por que los profesores fueron muy buenos y geniales con todos. (I liked it a lot because it went well for me, also because the teachers were very good and nice with everybody.)" - Heidy

"Yo creo que estas clases fueron una gran ayuda y a que me aclareco muchas dudas que tenia con respecto a la matematica, lo recomendaria a los que necesitan ayuda en la matematica fue una experiencia muy grata (I think that these classes were a great help and they alleviated many doubts that I had regarding math, I would recommend it to anybody who needs help in math, it was a great experience.) - Adhemar

"Yo digo que que me gustaron mucho y los profesores son muy buenos las clases me ayudaron mucho y me hicieron entender muchas cosas que no entendia muchas gracias. (I really liked the classes and the teachers were really good. The classes helped me a lot and made me understand many things that I hadn't. Thank you very much.)" - Gabriel

"Me gusto mucho porque es una forma devertida de aprender matematicas y otras cosas y lo aprendes bien y ademas los guias son divertidos y te ayudan bien (I really liked it because it is a fun way to learn math and other things and you learn well and moroever the teachers were fun and helped you well.)" - Vicente

"Me gusto mucho y son las mejores clases de matematicas que he tenido (I liked it a lot and they were the best math classes that I have ever had.)" - Kosuke

These are only a few of many grateful comments, which we will continue to post. Sounds like the kids really enjoyed the course, and many of them are excited to return on Saturdays, when we will have the computers open to use the Khan Academy.