Not all schools in Nicaragua are created equal. In rural areas, classrooms are often inadequately stocked with teaching materials, seating, electricity and the nation’s standardized English textbooks can arrive almost half a decade later than their urban counterparts.
In July, Gina Mikel Petrie, EWU professor of English as a Second Language (ESL), returned to rural Nicaragua with the hopes of receiving good news. For years, her work had been centered around the needs of the students – teaching English workshops and stocking classrooms with learning materials. But this time, the focus was on teaching a new audience: the teachers.
Petrie’s influence in Nicaragua’s ESL community has been growing since her first visit in 2012, and multiple yearly visits after. Her initial trip was to Escuela San Miguel in Cardenas – a vocational school in a rural area 90 miles south of the capital, Managua – to evaluate the textbooks they were using. It quickly became clear that she could be vitally helpful in many other areas for teaching English. Her work later expanded to presenting at conferences in the capital, teaching workshops and programs in other schools, restaurants and hotels, and now, creating a professional development-based curriculum for English teachers.
With Nicaragua being the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, learning English can be a way to break out of poverty. Jobs at call centers for English speakers can be a source of employment, income and, for some, a dream job. However, Petrie said it’s really only the students who grow up in an urban area with access to better schooling and private lessons that are able to compete for these jobs. Petrie is working to change that narrative in Nicaragua’s rural area schools.
“Some people believe that English is the answer in countries like Nicaragua,” said Petrie. “There are call centers that employ about 4,000 and it’s actually one of the highest paying jobs. You can make about $500 per month, which is about two and a half times the monthly wage for the average person. It’s a huge deal.”
The idea is simple. Develop a curriculum that allows the teachers to learn while they’re teaching. English proficiency among the educators can often be relatively low, with some only knowing just 10 English words, which requires a lot of bravery on their part, Petrie said. After having many conversations and conferences with teachers in the area, it was identified that they wanted a curriculum and teaching materials that helped with professional development.
“We’ve just been building on feedback,” said Petrie. “We’ve been going back every six months to check and continue the conversation about what works and what doesn’t work.”
The model they developed was based on a technique often used science and math in K-12 schooling in the United States called Educative Curriculum Materials (ECM). Simply put, students have a version of the textbook, while the teachers have their version, which is designed to heuristically grow essential elements of their knowledge base on the subject.
After implementing the curriculum, Petrie returned this summer, and the results were overwhelmingly positive.
“We were thrilled,” said Petrie. “Teachers could not wait to tell us about the ideas they now had, and how they were trying new things. This was one of the key signs we were looking for because if Educative Curriculum Materials worked, teachers aren’t just carrying out steps. They’re really starting to think about how else they could apply the ideas.”
This being just a pilot study, Petrie is looking to expand on the success and apply for another Institutional Review Board (IRB) to conduct research on her next trip. She’s looking to expand to three more rural sites, where she’ll do pre-assessment, data collection and implement 22 activities.
The goal is to acquire data and move out of the pilot study phase and begin asking for international, United States and Nicaraguan funders to sponsor a school for 10 years. Her estimates are that it will cost about $250 for a school, mainly to print and laminate the materials.
“We want to see if we can really push the dial so that teachers and students who are learning in small, rural schools in Nicaragua are getting the optimal education in English,” Petrie said.