Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Democracy is Love

I went into the high school to meet the principal. I thought it would be a good idea to sit and chat with her to kill some time. I had done the same with the principal at the technical high school and she loved having me there for the afternoon, so I figured I would have a similar experience at the other high school. I was wrong. I was hoping my first impressions of this woman would ware off after awhile but every time I am in her office I grow to dislike her more and more. She is rude and condescending towards me. She thinks my lack of language skills in Spanish and Guarani makes me an inadequate human being. This is odd because Paraguayans don’t treat me this way. They understand that I am a foreigner and trying to learn their language, even though they don’t meet many they seem to really understand. They are very accommodating for my lack of of language skills. However, this woman seems to think I am a total idiot because of my funny pronunciation. Her students get it, you think the principal would.
Anyways, the day I met the principal she demanded I give a lecture (charla) for her school in honor of youth month. She said usually throughout the month of September she usually brings in people to give educational lectures to the students and she needed to fill more spots and wanted to know right then and there what I could do. I was a little taken aback, she was very abrupt, but I had an idea in the back of my head that I want to start student governments at the schools eventually so I said I could do a charla about democracy and participation. She said that would be fine and we set the dates for the next week.
I had a few examples of democracy charlas and activities to do with youth in my PC handbooks but I also did some additional research in the Peace Corps office in Asuncion. I spent a lot of time preparing this charla since it was my first one I wanted it to be good. I had done a few charlas during training but always with a partner and with my teachers and other volunteers observing in case I needed help. This would be my first actual lesson as a Peace Volunteer in my village all alone. These experiences combined with my past year teaching and my years speaking in front of crowds settled my nerves somewhat. I definitely felt prepared. But I have never taught large groups of high school kids in a foreign country in a foreign language before. That would all be a new experience.
In true Paraguayan fashion, no one knew I was going to be at the school when I showed up that morning. The principal was out of town and the teachers weren’t prepared. So they decided to group three of their classes all in one large class all to listen to my charla. They all brought their desks outside so we could have enough space. It was my first real charla in Paraguay and I had 50 unruly teenagers to deal with. I just had to go with the flow and do my best.
I have no done this charla now 6 times and this is how it usually went:
I would start by introducing myself, asking if someone could guess where I was from and they anyone knew what Peace Corps was. I would then try to explain Peace Corps, why I am living in Fassardi, the fact that I am going to live here for two years, that I am not a teacher so don’t call me “profe” (I learned to say that only after the first charla), I am here to work and live with them, please feel free to come visit me in my house if you want help with English homework or want to talk about the United States or just want to be my friend. I ask if they have English class. They all say yes. I ask if its hard or easy. They all say its very hard. I respond, “Then you all know how hard it is to try and learn another language so just imagine how hard it is for me to try and give this lesson in another language. I know I speak funny but Im still trying to learn your language and that is why I need to you to help me. When I make a mistake I am not offended if you correct me, I want to improve my Spanish. So Please you have to help me.” They all nod and say yes they will help me. Paraguayans are notorious for their ass-kissing diplomacy. They would rather slit their own wrists then risk offending anyone else and will lie through their teeth to keep you happy. So you never know if you are getting a real yes or a Paraguayan yes. I am still learning the subtlies. So then I usually finish my intro by saying I don’t conduct my charlas like a regular teacher. My charlas are more like a conversation, its not about me talking and them listening because I am here to learn from them too. Therefore, everyone is required to participate.
I started with an icebreaker activity I was really excited to see how it would actually work with Paraguayan kids. I selected 20 kids to stand in front of the group in a circle. I had a big ball of yarn and one kid would start with the ball of yarn, say their name and their personal definition of democracy and then hold on to the end of the yarn and throw the ball to another person in the circle. The next person would announce their definition of democracy and hold on to their end of the yarn and then throw the ball to the next person until everyone in the group had a turn. This would be an easy activity for American high school students who are used to being asked to participate in activities and have to think for themselves, but Paraguagan high school students are a different animal. I was asking them to do something completely abnormal. Paraguayan kids are shy and timid for the most part and this activity was completely frightening for them. I totally put them on the spot. After explaining the instructions to the group they would all gasp in horror about what I was asking them to do. I just ignored them and tried to exude confidence hoping it might rub off on some of them. I would pass the ball of yarn to a kid next to me and ask them to begin. I know not to ask for volunteers because no one will ever volunteer themselves, I just have to select. The first person I select visibly wants to wither away and die on the spot. One girl even asked me to pick someone else. But I don’t give in and no matter how long they take I just wait for an answer. I think its good for them. This is something they have never had to do before. They have to think for themselves. A few times the kids were taking so long to come up with an answer so I asked them if they thought Democracy was a good thing or a bad thing. And they said it was good, and that was good enough for me, so I let them pass the yarn. And then the next four responses would be “My name is ____ and I think Democracy is good”. Paraguayans were never taught to think for themselves. Teachers write passages on the board, students copy it down in their notebooks and students regurgitate it back for them on the exams. Its memorization. They never really learn the material and the never really learn how to think because they are always given the answer. This is why when I ask adults questions about Paraguayan history they all say, “Oh, I used to know that, ask a someone in school”. They never retain any material. Its not seen as copying or cheating to give the same answer as the one your classmate just gave. If American students were doing this same activity they would try to come up with the most original answer, while Paraguayans want to give the most common answer. In a class I would get a lot of “Democracy is liberty” or “Democracy is right” or “Democracy is justice”. In one group I even got a few, “Democracy is love”. I don’t know if the kid who started it was just fooling around, was actually being serious or was just very poetic. But I emplore him for his creativy. However, every once in awhile I would get a bright shining star who might say, “Democracy means all people, no matter who you are, have freedom and human rights, and the right to elect who you want to represent you. Democracy is the freedom to participate in a government system.” Bingo!

The end result of the big ball of yarn is a big spider web in the middle of the circle. I read about the activity in my Muni handbook. It is called nanduti, which means spider web in Guarani. The web is meant to symbolize democracy. First, everyone participates because everyone holds apart of the web and had a hand in making the web. Second, the web is transparent. We can see every part of it. I would have liked to make a third point if I had multicolored yarn that not everyone is the same, different religions, colored skin, gender, but they are all united but I could not find multicolored yarn in Fassardi. Next came my favorite part (and which I forgot to do the first time because I was so frazzeled with all the disruptive kids). I had two or three people drop their yarn and would ask the kids if our democracy still worked without two participants. Some would say no some yes. I would tell them it does still work because we can still see all parts of the web. Therefore, we don’t need everybody to participate in the democracy to make it work. Then I have half the group drop their yarn and the web has now almost disappeared. I ask them if our democracy still works. They almost always agree that no it doesn’t. I say this means its because we need the majority of our community to participate for our democracy to work. Therefore, case in point, democracy doesn’t work without participation! It was always a pretty cool activity and went over pretty well, especially when I had smaller groups. Some groups were much more participatory and less timid than others, but that first group with 50 kids was ridiculous because we were outside, no one could what was going on if they were paying attention and the kids talk so softly that I would yell their answers out for everyone to hear.
Next I put up a visual I had drawn of the outline of Paraguay with a definition of Democracy written inside. I would ask a student to read it outloud in a nice big voice and then explain it in their own words. Then I would say this is only one definition of Democracy, after the demonstration, we know democracy means many things to many people, so we need to improve this definition. I had eight cards with different words them. I told them that in pairs or groups depending on the size of the class they would each get a card and have to decide how their word was apart of the definition of democracy. I would give them a few minutes, sometimes I would walk around and help them, then we would talk about it with the whole class. Usually they would be able to get the right answers. After we discussed the word I would have them go up to the board and tape their card to the map. I asked every class if they knew when their constitution was written. No one knew. It was written in 1992. This was shocking to me considering the year our constitution was written is branded in the brains of all American children.
Then I would ask the class now that they understand democracy, what is their responsibility in democracy. I was looking for them to say participation. Some got it, some didn’t. I then but up another visual that talked about the definition of participation and how democracy is founded on participation. I then asked how they could participate in democracy, right here in Fassardi. With this question everyone was stumped. No one ever came up with an answer of their own during this section, that was frustrating. I told them they could better inform themselves about current events in their country to be more knowledgable by reading newspapers and watching the news (even though you cant buy newspapers in Fassardi), I said you can form youth groups, help the environment, start a student government, petition the mayor, have a fundraiser. Some kids got excited about these ideas but lots gave me blank stares and looked bored.
We are always supposed to finish our charlas with a “check for learning” so I ended with another little activity. This always seemed to be everyone’s favorite part and ended up having a bit of a competitive edge to it that I didn’t anticipate. I indicated one side of the class room represented “democracy” and the other side represented “not a democracy”. I had written on a bunch of slips of paper characteristics that were present in democracies, dictatorships, autocracies, etc… Anything that was represented in “not a democracy” I tried to pick elements from Stroessner’s dictatorship. ‘Only one political party’ and ‘Can’t form groups’ and ‘no transparency’. For democracy I had things like, ‘open debate’ and ‘multiple political parties’ and ‘balance of power’. So I would hand out the strips of paper and the kids would have to move to the side of the room they thought was appropriate. Then the kids would read their papers out loud to see if they were correct. If someone was wrong their was always a lot of shouting and laughing as the kid had to do the ‘walk of shame’ to the other side of the class room, it was pretty hilarious. I thought of this activity all on my own so I am pretty proud that everyone liked it. I think it was a good activity because everyone had to participate but didn’t put anyone in the spotlight too much (except for the few unfortunate souls who got the wrong answers, although they were all very good sports and laughed at themselves too), everyone had to think for themselves but it wasn’t too challenging, it was educational, it was competitive, and it only took a few minutes. (Although, the pressure to decide what side of the classroom was obviously too much for one kid and during the shuffle he came up to me and asked to go to the bathroom. I said yes, but in 5 minutes, he put his slip of paper on the table and ran out of the room. Poor kid.)
Often my charlas would end and I would be bombarded by teenage girls. They would surround me and attack me with questions. What is my moms name, my dads name, what is their name in English, do I have a boyfriend, what is my last name, what is my favorite color, do I speak Guarani, can I teach them English. The questions never stop and sometimes the questions are really funny and sometimes they just cant imagine that we don’t have mandioca in the United States or only use our fathers’ last names. The fact that my name is only Jenna Houts never ceases to amaze them. There just has to more to it.
Overall, I think my charlas went very well. Although I don’t think my one hour lecture is going to change anyone’s life I think I made an important step into becoming apart of the community. Now I have interacted with half the teenagers in Fassardi (a good chunk of the population in the center) which means they have all gone home and told their families about me. Now I am not just the foreign girl walking around town to them. They know my name and know why I am here. I can tell after a few weeks they feel like the know me now, they aren’t so scared of me anymore. They wave at me like they have made a personal connection with me, sometimes they even call out my name. One kid came to my house one night for help with his English homework. I was so thrilled someone actually took me up on my offer! He also borrowed my extra dictionary…he has yet to return it.
So that is the news for now!!


  1. Jenna,
    This has been a brilliant review of the sort of details that interest me the most about your life in Fassardi. As I said to your twin this morning, as we were driving to the airport in Phuket, in response to his comment that we had enough time together to get beyond the big stuff of what we were doing and were down to talk about minute details of living: "Life is in the details." I got the eye rolling look that I expected and would have been disappointed if it had not happened. Your blog is wonderful, and I look forward to the next one.

  2. Jenners - that democracy lecture is incredible. You are really doing something important down there. Way to go. I am so proud of you.