Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Asuncion - part 3: Buses

I'm sipping my lemon ginger honey tea which is delicious and which I will be happy to drink a whole pot of tonight. I get the lemons from the neighbor's tree which mostly grows over my back yard, the honey I bought in Nueva Germania from a woman whose brother and step-father had been out hunting for it in the woods, and the ginger root I buy at a little asian goods store in Mercado 4 in Asuncion on the street where the Chinese restaurants and the Paraguayan herb vendors are. You can't buy ginger from one of the Paraguayan vendors, though they have a root called yerba brava that looks and smells similar.

I was in Asuncion last week for "Mid-Service Training" which involved "training" and informational sessions and doctors and dentists check-ups. It was the first time our whole training group has been together since last September. It was great to see everyone, now so comfortable and confident as Peace Corps Volunteers, happy in thier sites, doing great work. When we all met each other 15 months ago we were nervous, optimistic, and so completely in the dark about life in Paraguay. The change since then is enormous, and we tend not to even be very aware of it ourselves.

I spent extra time in the city to be able to see my girlfriend, who works as a cook in a business which is run out of a large home. She lives and of course eats there too, which is great because she is able to save so much of her wages to send home to her family.

When I am in the city I do not stay in, but rather travel repeatedly around the big triangle formed by the hotels, restaurants, and bars of old town, the PC office in the new part of town, and mercado 4 and the bus terminal which are in the beating heart of the city and where there are some of the better asian restaurants. This nearly daily journey I made almost exclusively by bus, which is as good a symbol for chaotic, uncomfortable, and vivacious Asuncion as I can think of.

These buses run circular routes through the city and then out into the suburbs, like comets which come in close to the sun and then slingshot out into the blackness for a few hundred years. The fare is 2,300 guaranies (like 70 cents) which is great if you just need one bus but adds up quickly if you have to change or get on the wrong bus; there are no free transfers. The buslines are private companies that are required to charge the same fare to be able to operate in the city limits. The line numbers sometimes include decimals and letters. I can't ever remember if it is the 16.8 or the 18.2 that I need to take to get from the terminal to the office and since I'm only in town every so often I tend to learn the line numbers only temporarily. The best way is just to look at the landmarks that are scrawled on signs displayed in the front window. As you learn the way traffic flows around town you become able to make educated guesses about which way a bus will be going based on the displayed landmarks. These are vague descripions at best though and more times than I can count I have been conveyed all about the city or god-knows-where in the suburbs before getting up the ganas to ask someone if I'm on the right bus. I now make it a personal rule to always ask the driver when I get on.

The buses are the loudest, jerkiest, hardest metal glass wood (!) and plastic boxes that you will ever willingly put yourself in, outside of a theme park. The engines roar, the bus lurches as the driver changes gears, black smoke billows as you climb hills, and so many people of every walk of life subir and bajar as you (hopefully) approach your destination. Many of the times when I am most struck by the unlikliness of my being here have been on the buses. Sitting alone or standing crushed together with 50 people you don't know, one has a moment to think about an experience that is at once so intense and bizzare and uncomfortable and at the same time so normal and (kind of) beautiful.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Summer School

I just wrote this for my VolunteerReportForm. I sent it to the EYD Program Manager, with whom I will have a PTIP during MST. acronyms!
This class ran from 1/3/12 - 2/9/12

One of the things that I found most upsetting about the school in my site was the way many students got left behind. They never learned to read well and with such a reading and copying based curriculum they weren't able to keep up, and they never received any remedial help unless their parent's enrolled them in private lessons with Prof. Hilde (who is quite good). These students get stuck in third or fourth grade and repeatedly fail to pass until they eventually give up and drop out as 14 year old fourth graders. It is strikingly inefficient and also heartbreaking.

My feeling was that a little extra effort targeted to students that start to fall behind could be enough to cement their basic reading skills and build their confidence, so that they would be able to advance again with the rest of their class. I decided to offer a special reading class, targeting these students with a high risk of dropping out early. I would teach it myself and though it wouldn't be sustainable in the sense of training local educators I thought that the example would be valuable and more importantly the positive effects of confidence and increased abilities for students (if the class was a success) would be long lasting and worth the effort.

In my service so far my chief problem had been getting people to take my free classes or clubs seriously. Attendance would collapse after the first few meetings. I knew if an optional summer school class was going to have any chance of succeeding it would take a lot of effort before hand to promote it to the parents and to establish it as an important opportunity to be taken seriously.

During the school year I had performed two diagnostic tests  and while they showed a disappointingly high amount of random variance I was able to see which students were unable to read and had failed to improve during the year. I used this information to select 30 some students from the third and fourth grades to invite to attend my class. I typed up formal letters of invitation to the parents in the correct Paraguayan style and handed them out after a short speech at the school on the day parents came in to collect grade-books. The letters had a detachable section to be returned to me before the start of the class with "sí, mi hijo/hija va a assistir" or "no, no va a asistir " check boxes to be marked by the parents.

Ultimately about 10 of the invited students attended nearly all the classes, which were Tuesdays and Thursdays from 8-10am. I was going to have separate 3rd and 4th grade classes, but we ended up combining them because we had so few from 4th grade. The class went well. Though it took some preparation, much of the work had been to find the right students and to get the letters right to convince their parents to make them come to my class. I'm glad I got the preparation right, for once.

In my new site in Natalio they have a Nivelación class and a special Profesor de Apoyo, the function of both of which is to help these students which start to fall behind. Now after seeing this in Paraguay I wish even more I could help implement in Nueva Germania