Trainees use tools for teaching

April 9, 2004

CHIRIQUI PROVINCE, Panama — The sweet smell of cedar sawdust fills the air, and the rhythmic back-and-forth of a lone hacksaw harmonizes with an insistent tap-tap-tapping of oversized tropical raindrops announcing an imminent downpour.

Suddenly, all clouds burst, and the entire sky becomes a waterfall, its deafening beat thundering off the corrugated tin roof of the Ngabe-Bugle Cultural Center in Soloy.

Victorino Rodriguez is hard at work, along with 15 other indigenous schoolteachers. Oblivious to the rain outside, the teachers continue preparing instructional materials to take back to their schools. One is on government salary; the rest are volunteers, serving full-time as teachers for the native children who live in the remote mountain communities of Chiriqui.

The teachers are attending an intensive two-week training, where they will earn three credits towards the 14 required to become government-certified and receive a salary.

Roberto Palacio has been serving as a volunteer for eleven years.

"This was the best training we have ever had," said Mr. Palacio of Alto Naranjo.

"We were given an opportunity to design our own educational materials and to bring these back to our own communities to teach the children. For us, teaching is a labor of love."

His wife, Maria Teresa Bejerano, also a teacher, is participating in the workshop as well.

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Teacher trainee Tahireh Sanchez displaying her handiwork.

The training is sponsored by FUNDESCU (a Baha'i-inspired non-governmental organization in Panama) with assistance from the Mona Foundation (a Baha'i-inspired non-profit organization based in the United States).

It includes classes in curriculum development, lesson planning, teaching strategies for active learning, methods of teaching elementary math, and the production of hands-on materials.

Most of the teachers are members of the Baha'i Faith, who are learning to set instructional goals that meet Ministry of Education requirements, and that are in harmony with Baha'i teachings as well as local cultural values.

They have generated a list of topics which they feel are of high importance such as moral values, practical skills for useful work, preservation of traditional culture.

After setting goals, the teachers practice writing educational objectives using an integrated thematic approach. They work in teams to design interesting lessons based on those objectives, and they demonstrate a variety of teaching strategies, including the use of art, music and drama.

In the math workshop each afternoon, participants use the hacksaw, the drill, and other tools to craft practical, inexpensive materials that will help their students learn to sort, classify, count, understand the decimal system, and perform basic math operations. These items must be produced using hand tools, since there is no electricity in the area.

It is an impressive sight: young Ngabe women in their colorful floor-length naguas (the traditional dress), cutting wood and measuring right angles with a T-square, a pencil tucked behind one ear.

The trainees are making the short numerical rods used in the Montessori system of education.

"The Montessori methodology learned in the seminar has been of great assistance to me in teaching the children in my school -- we should continue with this method to facilitate their learning," said trainee Julio Moreno of Cerro Bolo.

After two intensive weeks, the training course comes to an end, and a photo session is scheduled for the last afternoon.

"This training has been in tune with the reality faced by the teachers, the children and the communities," said trainee Ismael Atencio of Quebrada Molejon School.

"The trainers showed us how to develop a coherent and integrated curriculum model that truly meets our needs. The seminar was dynamic, interactive and collaborative. It was also systematic and practical."

"For me, this two-week training was extraordinary," said trainee Alexis Bejerano, of Bocas del Toro.

"I learned about curriculum development, and many different methods of teaching and learning," Mr. Bejerano says.

That night, a small closing ceremony begins with prayers and singing in three languages (Spanish, English and Ngabere). There are eloquent speeches, an exchange of gifts, laughter and a few tears.

Their official certificates are being signed by the Ministry of Education, and won't be delivered for several days. But the teachers are undaunted. They are already making plans for the next course.

[Report and photos by Randie Gottlieb.] (For part one of this story see