Learning to Love Reading and Writing
“I’ve been teaching for 12 years and thought to myself, ‘I am a good teacher, I don’t need their help.’ Plus, I didn’t want anyone coming into my classroom to criticize me or judge me,” Ms. Mercedes Aracely Chente, a third grade teacher from the De-partment of Sonsonate in western El Salvador, remembers her first thoughts when asked to participate in the USAID Streng-thening Basic Education in Language Program.
Ms. Chente was one of the 3,000 teachers selected to partici-pate in the program, whose primary objective is to increase the language competencies of 100,000 children in grades 1 through 6. One of the main components of the program is a teacher training program which includes 194 hours of training as well as additional hours of in-classroom coaching, participation in inno-vation circles and a self-study curriculum.
Ms. Chente also objected to the trainings being held on Satur-days and vacation days. She explained, “I wasn’t going to par-ticipate, because they wanted us to give up Saturdays and I just didn’t think anything I’d learn would be worth so much sacrifice.” In the end, Ms. Chente, motivated by two other teachers from her school, decided to attend the first training.
“I was really surprised by what the trainer had to say. She told us how children learn best when they are able to express them-selves, their thoughts, their feelings, and not just copy off the board. She highlighted the importance of students reading for pleasure and how we as teachers need to read to them aloud. I had never read aloud to my students except for dictation,” she explained.
After the first day of training, Ms. Chente decided to give up another Saturday and attend the next session.
“I was hooked after that, I felt like the Program was opening up my eyes to teaching strategies that made so much sense, but I had never worked that way with my students,” said Ms. Chente. Shortly after she completed the first 24 hour module, Ms. Chente received a classroom visit from one of the Program’s teaching coaches.
The teaching coaches visited once every four to six weeks to provide in-classroom modeling, coaching, mentoring, and assis-tance with the primary focus of helping the teachers integrate the new strategies and techniques into their teaching practice.
“The coaching turned out to be the best part. For the first time in my career someone came into my classroom and asked me how they could help me, they actually listened to me. During those visits I asked so many questions and that’s how I learned to really change how I interact with my students,” she said, add-ing that before participating in the Program, her students would be passive listeners during class, spending most of the day filling out worksheets or copying off the board. She said, “Today, I start all my lessons by focusing on my student’s prior know-ledge, what they already know, I ask them a lot of questions, and provide opportunities for oral expression. They feel impor-tant when they have a chance to talk about their lives, their ex-periences, and can share their opinions.”
Ms. Chente also cited innovation circles as an important part of her training. She detailed, “I grew so much professionally in the circles. They really opened the doors for us to share and reflect on our practice with other teachers.”
Two years after that first day when she was sure she did not need any training, Mrs. Chente has successfully completed the Program and is proud to show off her diploma in her living room at home. In retrospect, she cited the change in her students as her greatest accomplishment, “I’ve started this project with my students called ‘A World of Experiences.’ They each read a book they’ve selected, anything that really interest them, and then they write about it. It’s amazing to see how much my kids like to read, write, and then share their work with the rest of their classmates. Before, I never really gave them the chance to pick out books and choose writing topics, so they would get bored. Now, they are so enthusiastic about learning. Thanks to the Program we’ve become a real community of readers and writers.”