5th Grade in Jaibalito, Lake Atitlán

I am a guest sitting in the last chair in the middle of three rows in a 5th Grade schoolroom in the Jaibalito public school. (This was at the invitation of 11-year-old Sirena, a California girl who is attending school here for a month and spoke to her teacher to have me join them.) The students here all live within walking distance and are Maya. Jaibalito is a small village of approximately 1,000 people, mostly children. There are no cars, no vehicles. You arrive to this village by launcha (boat) or by foot. I have my iPad with me but don’t take it put as it would be a distraction. I write on a sheet of paper torn from a child’s notebook with my single non-electronic writing tool, the 3 or 4 inch stub of a child’s pencil.

The morning started with cleaning, sweeping of the floor. A wall chart shows a group of sweepers for each day of the week. Then the children pull their desks from along the wall to form the three rows in the center and work begins.

The teacher begins with a talk from the teacher. It was either about Father’s Day or was Christian, but it didn’t seem to be a prayer in that as far as I noticed there was no response such as amen from the children. (At any rate, religion on the north shores of Lake Atitlán is an odd version of Christian as the Maya hold their traditional ways.)

There are 10 girls, 8 boys in this 5th Grade class. Five chairs are empty. Some children are absent I notice during attendance, which follows.

The boys wear jeans and tee-shirts. One tee-shirt sports “Super Mario Brothers,” another is for a Guatemalan fund-raiser awareness, another a football (soccer to Americans) team. Some boys wear lightweight cotton button and collar short sleeved shirts. A couple of others wear polo shirts. A few of the boys are wearing baseball hats: one backwards, another sideways.

Each girl wears something of traditional pattern/fabric: a top and skirt or just the skirt with a tee-shirt or blouse. In the case of the latter, neither the fabrics, colors or patterns seem to match.

Most girls have their long straight hair tied in a pony tail as have all the straight-haired school girls I have seen in Central America, just like many a school girl in the United States. One keeps her hair pulled back in a bunch at the top (as we do too).

The kids have western style backpacks or army style shoulder bags.

The first topic of this day is Spanish grammar. Specifically, conjugations. Then math – long division with decimals. They divide 4-digit numbers by 2-digit numbers and the number always works out after one decimal point. The teacher talks them through the first one. On the next she calls for help and the children call out the numbers as she continues to narrate through it. They do a few together then are given two to work out themselves on paper. After, they review these two together. Break time. Then, lessons in proper Mayan words, perhaps grammar. At one point the children are told words, then draw pencil pictures of these words in their own notebooks. They then have time to color their pictures with their own colored pencils. (I notice the pencils of girls near me lack points and many barely display lead so I take out my Swiss army knife and ask the teacher for permission to use it and sharpen some. She says, “ah, pointe” and digs around in her desk for a sharpener, which she gives me. I let the children use this as I do better with the knife. The girls are happy to have points.

School gets out early, around 1:00. The children have to do work to help their families.

What these children are learning is on par with 5th Graders in Sirena’s California class learned, I learn later, except that her class only did two and three-digit division.

However, talking to a caring gringo resident, I am told this teacher must be exceptional and that education for these poor Mayan children is not very good. I am told they learn only what they need for their local village life, rather than anything to prepare them to go out into the world or on with education.