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Guatemalan Project Focuses on Instructional Strategies

Published: July 1, 2010

A three-year professional development project to help create new instructional materials with Guatemalan classroom educators recently began under the leadership of the Executive Director of CSULB’s Center for Language Minority Education and Research Leslie Reese. The project is funded for its first year with $23,500 from the German international cooperation enterprise for sustainable development, GTZ, in cooperation with ADICOGUA, a Guatemala-based non-profit educational development organization.

The goal of the project, which Reese leads with Teacher Education’s Paul Boyd-Batstone, is to practice instructional strategies and create classroom materials to help improve literacy instruction in Spanish.

“Beginning in January, we worked with teachers in Guatemala to build language development strategies for improving reading, for engaging students in critical reading of texts and for improving student writing,” said Reese, who joined the university in 1999 and who began her Center for Language Minority Education and Research (CLMER) direction in 2009. “Our plan is to visit Guatemala four times a year for three years. Our goal by the end of 2010 is to have a set of lessons we developed with Guatemalan teachers that we can share with others. Over the three-year run of the grant, we want to infuse their curriculum with key strategies. They will have a whole series of lessons to implement in their classrooms. The ultimate goal of this effort is curricular enhancement.”

In their first week-long visit in January, Reese and Boyd-Batstone visited an Escuela Normal Intercultural in Mixco near Guatemala City and a bilingual (Spanish-Ixil) normal school in the mountain town of Nebaj. “We spent three days in one school and two days in the other,” said Reese. “In between our visits, coordinators from ADICOGUA will work with the teachers every other week to help them with their lesson plans.”

In Guatemala, elementary school teachers are not prepared in the same way as they are in California, according to Reese.

“Elementary school teachers are trained in normal schools, which are three-year programs corresponding roughly to high school here. Normal school graduates are 18- and 19-year-olds who then go into classrooms,” she said. “We worked with two clusters of normal school teachers.”

In Guatemala City, Reese and Boyd-Batstone were careful not to issue orders. “We purposely do not call what we do ‘training,’” she said. “We call it ‘collaborative professional development’ because we do not come to their school and tell them what to do. We explore together pedagogic principles of learning and what they look like in the classroom. The teachers responded well. They told us they really hadn’t had professional development like that before.”

The project allows Reese to see the flip side of learning English as a second language.

“Most of the students we saw in the Nebaj school came from indigenous backgrounds and spoke Ixil, one of 23 Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala,” she said. “Most of the normal school’s teachers are bilingual in the local language and in Spanish. Instead of helping students learn English as a second language, we are helping students learning Spanish as a second language.”

Guatemala Flag
Flag of the Republic of Guatemala

That reversal helped Reese to understand her own classroom techniques in a new way. “Whenever we leave our familiar contexts, we return with a new understanding of what we do,” she explained. “I have worked in bilingual education for a long time focusing on Spanish-English instruction in the U.S. It was interesting to me to see how bilingual education is approached in another country. I am interested in the struggles they have in respect to not having enough material to read. There may be plenty of material available in U.S. classrooms, but that is often not the case in Guatemala.”

While technology can be taken for granted in many 21st century American classrooms, that’s not always so in Guatemala. “When you’re in a classroom that has nothing, you learn to do without overhead projectors, Power Point presentations or Smartboard,” she said. “The things we use to enhance instruction in the U.S. are not there. It forced me to confront a classroom without technology.”

Reese and Boyd-Batstone are working with the facilitators from ADICOGUA and the normal school teachers to help improve instruction in areas of literacy instruction that have been identified by the teachers as areas of need. “We are working with the teachers to understand the importance of oral language development as a foundation for reading and writing,” she said. “We are engaging with them in metacognitive processing and thinking about why we do what we do and how we learn.”

Reese visited Guatemala again in April and will do so again this month with some special assistance.

“In July, the project takes a twist with the involvement of two bilingual classroom teachers who graduated from the dual-language development master’s program at CSULB, Jacqueline Torres and Margarita Solorzano,” said Reese. “They accompanied me when I addressed the Guatemalan Literacy Conference in 2009, where they presented a workshop using results from their action research projects which they completed at CSULB. When we return to Guatemala this summer, they will complete classroom observations and demonstration lessons and work with the teachers on lesson development.”

Reese applauds the College of Education for its support of such outreach projects. “This kind of outreach says an awful lot about the relevance of projects like these not only for our students but for our local communities,” she said. She pointed to a visit in 2009 to Cambodia by CLMER’s Director of School Improvement Alex Morales in cooperation with the organization Hearts Without Borders to return a child to Cambodia after she received life-saving heart surgery in the U.S. “In the same way Long Beach has a sizable Cambodian population, the greater Los Angeles area has a growing Central American population,” she added. “Outreach like this is an international effort that enhances our students’ understanding of the local Central American communities they will serve as educators.”