Dec 2, 2016

Ayudante profile #3: Teodora

This is the third in a series of profiles of our ayudantes. Ayudante means ‘assistant’, and is the name we give to the young people receiving university scholarships through La Esperanza Granada. Alongside their studies, the ayudantes are long term interns who give 5 hours of their time every weekday to support La Esperanza Granada. Our ayudantes are so much more than assistants – they are critical to our success. More information about our ayudante programme is available here. 

When speaking with Teodora, it quickly becomes apparent that you are talking to a smart, determined young woman, confident of her direction in life. This is someone who is going somewhere.

Teodora is currently in her second year as an ayudante at La Esperanza Granada, supporting the teachers and volunteers in Pablo Antonio Cuadra school. Her first year was spent working with kids on computers in two schools, Nueva Esperanza and Escudo, and her desire to succeed and to see the kids progress has given her a firm preference for working with small groups.

“Although we can do a lot of good in the classrooms, we are most effective when working with small groups, or on computers. Kids focus better with fewer distractions and more dedicated support, and we have a chance to tailor our methods to each child.”

Having worked with numerous volunteers, Teodora is also willing to offer an insight into what makes a good or bad volunteer.

“Most volunteers are great – they are enthusiastic, hardworking and make a real difference to the kids. The very best are those who bring skills and experience with them, or who come up with new ideas.

The worst are those who think this it should be one big party and who don’t take the job seriously, turning up late, sometimes hungover, and not paying attention to or remembering what we say. When that happens, it’s a real missed opportunity, for both them and the kids.”

Teodora is in a good position to appreciate the value of the opportunities we can sometimes take for granted in more developed nations. Like Juan Carlos, Teodora´s High School was only able to offer three years tuition instead of the normal five, so she had to switch to technical college.

Encouraged by her father, she studied construction, and dreamed of going on to study engineering at university. However, this would have meant studying at a particular university in Managua, and their fees proved prohibitively expensive.

Instead, Teodora went to work in the office of a construction company. Her work there included all aspects of office administration, and she found a natural instinct for managing the company´s books. A career as an accountant began to look like an increasingly attractive option, and she signed up to study accountancy at university.

“The first year was really tough, because I had to work constantly to be able to pay the fees. I don’t even remember how many different jobs I did that year! But I do remember how exhausting it was, and how little time I had left for studying.”

After hearing about La Esperanza Granada through a friend, Teodora became involved with the project and was soon lucky enough to receive a sponsorship from Project Pulsera to fund the rest of her degree. Although balancing her studies with her duties as an ayudante remains a challenge, Teodora is clear on the benefits it brings.

“It’s made an enormous difference to me, and I’m hugely grateful. Without sponsorship, I don’t know how I would have been able to carry on studying.”

Unlike most students with another two years of studying to go, Teodora already has a clear plan for life after university.

“I hope to be able to start a business with a couple of friends. We are all either accountants or lawyers, and we’d like to create a professional services company, providing legal and accountancy services and advice to other businesses.”

Although common in more developed countries, this sort of integrated services company is a rare thing here. Having spotted this gap in the market, Teodora could be just the person to bring it to Nicaragua.

Oct 27, 2016

Volunteer Teaching Techniques

One of the most effective ways La Esperanza Granada volunteers are able to help is to focus attention on children who have fallen behind their peers. This blog aims to shine a spotlight on some of the best techniques our volunteers are currently using with these children.

Sensory approaches to learning numbers
Naomi and Margarita are both experienced professionals in their home countries. Naomi is a primary teacher in the UK who specialises in children with learning difficulties, whilst Margarita has many years experience of working with children with severe difficulties in the USA. They are part of our team of volunteers in Pablo Antonio Cuadra school, alongside volunteers Paula and Embla, and ayudantes Teodora and Ofelia.  

Both Naomi and Margarita agree that one of the major differences with their home countries is the lack of provision for children with learning difficulties in Nicaragua. They get no special services or additional resources, and there is often an expectation that they are not going to progress. 

Volunteers have an opportunity to change this expectation, by spending time with the children and structuring short, manageable tasks which are targeted at each child’s level. Although the progress they make in each session may be small, the sense that they are doing something worthwhile and are able to successfully complete tasks can be empowering. Naomi:

“Feeling like they are getting somewhere makes a huge difference. I start every tutorial by reminding them of their successes the day before, which builds a sense of progress and makes them much more willing to focus and try again. Keeping up this positive reinforcement with praise throughout the session also helps keeps them engaged.”

Using textured letters to learn the alphabet
Another helpful approach is the use of tactile resources. These come in many forms, including large, colourful, textured letters and numbers, plasticine, picture cards and more. 

“Sensory learning uses a combination of visual, auditory and tactile stimuli to engage multiple areas of the brain, making it much easier to recall information later. Using tactile objects also helps make kids feel more engaged and in control of their own learning. 

For example, I’ve been working with a number of kids who have struggled to learn their alphabet. Tracing their fingers over a large, textured letter shape then re-making it out of pipe cleaners or plasticine can really help fix the shape in their minds.”

This approach is also important in maths, where sometimes children (and not just those in Nicaragua) learn the forms without really understanding how they relate to reality. This can lead, for example, to children memorizing that 5 + 4 = 9, but not being able to work out problems in real-life scenarios. Sensory learning builds this link to reality in from the start.

“We also play simple games with the kids, which highlight how all numbers are related. For example, I sometimes ask a child to order number cards from one to twenty, then I remove one of the teens. Figuring out which number is missing requires them to think about that number in relation to the others around it, and they often deduce the missing number rather than remembering it.”

When children have more severe difficulties, a more tailored approach is required. A good example is a young boy who has difficulty speaking and is unable to engage much with the other children or his classes at the school. Margarita:

“One of the first things I noticed was that he wouldn’t make eye contact with me, or look at my face. This is often the case with children with speech difficulties, who haven’t learned to watch faces and to copy the shapes people make with their mouths when speaking. Persuading him to watch me speak was one of my first aims.”

Learning to sort shapes
With this boy, much of their focus has been on helping him develop skills children ordinarily learn much earlier, such as the motor skills to hold a pencil, and how to complete basic tasks like sorting blocks by colour or shape. 

As with other children, creating a sense of expectation and rewarding good behaviour has been key:

“It was especially important to make it clear that nothing is going to come for free – he both can and should earn the things he wants. This starts very small, like not allowing him to play with the blocks until he´s made eye contact with me, or looked up at my face. But it builds into an expectation that he tries in every session, and if he does, he gets a reward. This is really important in motivating him to practice more difficult things, like repeating words and learning to count.”

Being read to at the end of a session is the most popular reward by far. For both Naomi and Margarita though, reading books to children shouldn’t just be considered a treat, but an essential part of their learning.

Reading to the kids

“Being read to engages children on lots of different levels – it improves their vocabulary, helps link written and spoken words, introduces new ideas and activates their imagination.

We always try to read slowly and follow the words with a finger, so they can see how the sounds correspond to written words. Asking them questions about the story afterwards invites them to reflect and think about it too.

The kids love this, and it’s one of the easiest things we can do as volunteers. But it is also an incredibly powerful learning tool.”

The techniques highlighted here require additional time and resources that can be limited in Nicaraguan schools. By being this additional resource and focusing attention where it is most needed, our volunteers are making a real difference.

Sep 30, 2016

Ayudante profile #2: Enoc

This is the second in a series of profiles of our ayudantes. Ayudante means ‘assistant’, and is the name we give to the young people receiving university scholarships through La Esperanza Granada. Alongside their studies, the ayudantes are long term interns who give 5 hours of their time every weekday to support La Esperanza Granada. Our ayudantes are so much more than assistants – they are critical to our success. More information about our ayudante programme is available here. 

Enoc is one of our newest ayudantes, and began his internship with La Esperanza Granada just 9 months ago. He is based in Mercedes Mondragon school, where he teaches English to the children alongside some of our international volunteers. This can be challenging, with classes routinely containing up to 35 children, but Enoc enjoys it. He cites one key factor to their success - teamwork.

“Everything about our work in the schools is done together. We plan our lessons together, and teach alongside each other. Even when we are able to divide the kids into groups for different activities, we are still working to the same plan.”

Enoc knows what a difference a strong ayudante and volunteer team can make – he was in the 6th grade at Nueva Esperanza school when La Esperanza Granada volunteers started to work there, and remembers how it changed things.

“They introduced lots of new activities, games and sports, which really helped to keep us interested and engaged. The teachers just don’t have enough time for that sort of thing, but it makes a huge difference to the kids.”

After primary school, Enoc found himself drifting, struggling to adapt to high school and losing interest in his studies. A high school sponsorship from La Esperanza Granada gave him the opportunity to change school, re-engage with learning and embrace a more optimistic outlook.

“The new school was totally different. They taught a wider range of subjects, gave us more support and really sparked my interest in learning again.”

Enoc is now in his first year at UCAN University in Masaya, studying software engineering and learning how to code, build databases and more. He has always been interested in technology (and has also taught computing for La Esperanza Granada), and this course has provided the opportunity to take his understanding to a new level, and turn his interest into highly employable skills.

“The opportunities in Nicaragua are getting better all the time. Once I have finished my studies, I hope to find a good job that makes the most of the skills I’m learning now.”

When asked if he has anything else he want to add, Enoc has only one thing on his mind:

“I just want to say thank you for the opportunities I’ve been given through La Esperanza Granada. Without the support of my sponsors, I wouldn’t have finished high school and could never have dreamt of going to university or working alongside volunteers from all over the world. I’m delighted I’m able to give something back by working for La Esperanza Granada whilst studying, and I hope to help support many other kids like me to go on to high school and university.”

Enoc’s unprompted enthusiasm is a good reminder of why La Esperanza Granada is here – to support young people to get the education they need to take control of their lives and realise their potential.

Aug 31, 2016

Ayudante profile #1: Juan Carlos

This is the first in a series of profiles of our ayudantes. Ayudante means ‘assistant’, and is the name we give to the young people receiving university scholarships through La Esperanza Granada. Alongside their studies, the ayudantes are long term interns who give 5 hours of their time every weekday to support La Esperanza Granada. Our ayudantes are so much more than assistants – they are critical to our success. More information about our ayudante programme is available here.

Juan Carlos first heard of La Esperanza Granada when he was around 17 years old. He had always dreamed of going to university, and of the opportunities higher education would bring. But as a student at Pablo Antonio Cuadra (one of the schools where La Esperanza Granada is now most active), he had found his options limited.

“At that time, Pablo Antonio Cuadra was only able to offer three years of high school education, instead of the normal five. So after three years I had to move to technical college, where I studied to become a mechanic.” 

Two years after graduating and starting work as a mechanic, Juan Carlos heard about the scholarships offered by La Esperanza Granada from the Principal of his old school. He jumped at the chance to apply.

“When I heard that I had been accepted on to the programme, I was so happy I almost didn´t know what to think. I´ve loved reading and writing ever since my mother taught me when I was small, and the chance to continue studying and learn a new language was a dream come true.” 

Just a few months later, Juan Carlos began his degree in English at Unadenic in Managua, and started volunteering 5 days a week for La Esperanza.

Juan Carlos´ first role was as an ayudante in Jose de la Cruz Mena school. He spent a year supporting international volunteers working with pre-schoolers, before switching to the team teaching English.

“For me, working in the English team was perfect. When I started my degree I spoke very little English, but working with volunteers from all over the world taught me lots of vocabulary very quickly.”

Around four months ago, Juan Carlos moved from the school to La Esperanza’s office. He is involved in almost all areas of the office’s work, and is responsible for answering queries from future volunteers, organising airport pickups for new volunteers, and many other things. The switch was challenging, but Juan Carlos sees it only as a positive. 

It is an amazing opportunity. Working in the office involves lots of reading, writing and speaking in English, which is tough but great practice.”

When asked about the importance of local and international volunteers working alongside each other, Juan Carlos is forthright.  

“It´s essential. The ayudantes are here for up to five years, which is far longer than most volunteers. This means that we really get to understand how the organisation and schools work. That is good for us, and good for the other volunteers.”

Juan Carlos has two years left of his studies, and is considering becoming a high school teacher when he graduates. Whichever career path he chooses to take, working with volunteers from all over the world has given him a new dream – to save money, travel and see more of the world himself.