Reading AND Understanding
Pelagia (pay-LA-he-ya) Mendoza was just finishing at the local teachers college in Huari, the regional capital of South Conchucos, in 1993. She had struggled through school but learned Spanish well enough. Now she wanted to help other students to make it easier for them than it had been for her.
But her heart froze when she was given her teaching assignment -- Collota [Col-YO-ta], Peru. The village was higher up the mountain from where she grew up. Everyone knew about it. Collota was nothing but a den of horse thieves and cattle rustlers. In fear and trepidation she walked the two hours from her home, higher and higher along the ancient Incan trail of mud-carved stairs and steep rocky inclines. She approached a woman tending her sheep on the playing field outside the dilapidated one-room school. When the woman heard that Pelagia was the new teacher she retorted, "Go back to Huari. Teachers just make trouble here."
Three months later she had only a handful of students in her cold, dirt-floored classroom, where a badly cracked layer of cement over the mud wall acted as a blackboard. None of the students came daily to classes. How would they ever progress?
That weekend her brother, who worked on the Quechua New Testament promotion team, came to visit. She poured out her frustration, but he was not surprised or discouraged. "You have to go to Huaraz with me and meet Randy and Linda. They are preparing school materials in Quechua."
What would a pair of foreigners understand about my school situation? thought Pelagia. Still, out of sheer desperation, she made the visit with her brother.
"This is so Easy!"
It was delightful for my husband Randy and me to watch Pelagia respond to reading in Quechua. She was so accustomed to reading without understanding that she began to read the words monotonously out loud as if it was Spanish. However, within a few sentences, her face lit up and she began to read with expression. Her mind was engaged and she was enjoying what she read. She finished the little story and said, "I didn't know you could read and understand at the same time. This is so easy!"
During the three days together she blossomed. We talked mostly about using Quechua, which her students already understood and spoke, as the language of instruction. Through Quechua, they could learn to read with understanding. At the same time they needed to learn to speak Spanish as a second language. Then they would be able to read it. She was hooked, and volunteered to try everything drafted in Quechua in her classroom. If her kids could learn to read with the Quechua material, anyone could.
For six weeks we heard nothing. Finally, one weekend, Pelagia reappeared at the door. Glowing, she recounted how easily the children were learning. She had twice as many students now. "What else do you have? I need more materials!"
And so the bilingual education plan for Conchucos was born. Pelagia and several other teachers helped write materials and test ideas. More teachers joined until 130 schools were teaching reading in Quechua first, and then adding Spanish.
In Collota there were now 35 students from grade one to grade four in Pelagia's class. But the parents weren't satisfied that only their children learn; they wanted to read too. So Pelagia held parents' classes for an hour after lunch each week. The mothers organized themselves to qualify for the government hot lunch program. The community fixed the leaking roof and repainted the school. The men fenced off part of the yard to keep the animals out. The group filled out paperwork and worked to get drinking and washing water from a spring to the school.
Pelagia had been teaching the Quechua materials for two months when I finally visited her school. The children came into the school chattering in Quechua, all 35 present. I looked at Pelagia and she smiled. She handed out books in Quechua to the row of grade four students, and said, "Watch this." They stood up and began to read in Quechua. After a few paragraphs, Pelagia interrupted them, and asked questions. They fired back answers and retold the story with complete comprehension. Then she asked several to go to the blackboard and she dictated words and sentences. They wrote them with no trouble. The first and second grade students had learned to sing the alphabet; they could copy their names and were learning the letters. They were enjoying school and came nearly every day.
Four years later, those first and second grade students were still in school, doing well. They graduated to fifth grade on schedule, going to a school an hour's walk down the mountain. I talked with the teacher who received them. "We have never had students from Collota that could read," he told me. "These are the first students from there that have not had to repeat fifth grade!"
The attendance records show that over four years, absenteeism has dropped significantly. Both teacher and students attend class faithfully. This created a new problem -- too many students were staying in school and there wasn't room for them in the small classroom. In 1999 Pelagia asked the community to build a second classroom and now another teacher works with grades three and four. They built again in 2001, this time a kindergarten classroom and the parents group did the paperwork to get a teacher assigned.