November 3, 2014 by Debra Gittler

THE IMPORTANCE OF OPENING THE AULA (CLASSROOM)

Last week, we went to visit a school that is just finishing the Turnkey process.  We planned a morning visit for the donor; in fact, he was our very first Turnkey sponsor.

I was nervous. This whole first year testing our scalable model has been a learning curve. And as a naïve gringa, I really thought that we could stick to our work plan without being disturbed by a presidential election year. But no, with two rounds of contentious elections, everything was pushed back months.

And at this particular school, a change in Director caused even more hurdles. Mistrust amongst staff, changes in leadership; the previous Director was engaged with ConTextos, the new Director had to be convinced.

So I was nervous for the visit. One of our first Turnkey Library interventions had been such a steep learning curve. Plus, I knew that the library space had been slow in evolving, and that even just a week ago, there were problems with leaks in the library roof.

Carlos and I arrived at the school early and immediately went to the library.

I was blown away by the space’s simple beauty; but even more so, by the boys who acted as librarians. Hector comes in the mornings to man the library—he attends classes in the afternoon—and takes control of the lending registry, engages with kids, and helps them find new books. He even reads with them. And during my visit, his friend Gilberto was there, too, to help.

And Bayron, a high-schooler who came to school in the morning even though he had exams all afternoon. These two boys, supported by a cast of first-graders on recess who crowded the library, pouring over books and sharing the pictures, told me how the library worked and how it’s changed their experience.

“At the beginning of the year, there wasn’t much interest in reading,” the boys explained. “Now, a lot of kids really enjoy reading. They come into the library all the time.”

The boys explained how important the books were, how they added something that technology doesn’t capture, and of course, made a list of all the other books they hoped to have. And talked about how class-learning is different, too. How they use books to have various different tasks at any given time, rather than the entire class always engaged in the same exact work.

But the most powerful moment was the transition to classroom instruction. Teachers had model lessons planned, and our visitor and I sat in the corner of 4th grade as the teacher led the class. First, the kids shared how many books they’d read already this year: 22, 35, up to 52!

And then the teacher modeled the class. Our visitor and I asked questions:

“How many books did you read last year?” (None… there weren’t books.)

“How did you read without books?” (By copying and taking dictation.)

One student explained that now she does comprehension-reading (la lectura comprensiva) every day. “What other kind of reading is there?” our visitor asked.

“Well,” the girl explained. “La lectura comprensiva y la lectura de clase.” Reading comprehension and class reading.

“What’s the difference?”

Reading comprehension, she explained, is when you read to understand and learn. Class reading is when you copy what’s on the board or in a book.

As we finished the tour and prepared to leave the school, our visitor stopped me.

“Debra, in all the years of supporting education and schools, I’ve never before been in the classroom. Never before watched teaching.” He was moved by the experience; he saw deeper into a problem that he had long thought he understood. He realized that the solutions are much more complicated—and exciting—than he had ever anticipated.

And I realized how deeply important it is to “open the aula”. To open the classroom. I remember fondly (or with frustration) my own experience as a classroom teacher in NYC, and how visitors came in to observe and criticize. I never thought then about the insight that I could provide by having them in my classroom.

And now, after last weeks visit, I realize how brave and vulnerable our teachers are to allow visitors in.

El Salvador, like it’s neighboring countries, suffers drastic political polarization and extreme wealth inequality. During that last visit, I realized how vital it is for ConTextos to create opportunities to share, opportunities to come together.

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