The Little Picture, the Big Picture

The longer I am here, the clearer my purpose becomes. I could hardly imagine how my life was going to be before arriving in Nicaragua, both in terms of my daily reality and the broader meaning of what I was doing. Peace Corps has been very clear about showing us how we fit into the bigger picture, and assimilating into life here has provided abundant evidence of what life will consist of for the next couple of years.

The broad sketches of daily life do not differ too much from the US. A typical weekday consists of working out in the morning, going to Spanish class, having lunch at noon, doing some work in the afternoon with our youth group or an English teacher (or going to a training workshop), and studying, watching tv or spending time with family in the evening. This is what we will be doing during training. During our time as full volunteers we will replace Spanish class time with more work. Work consists of meeting with an English teacher from the local high school to plan classes, then co-teaching the classes with him/her. Right now we’re each co-teaching for about 1-2 hours per week, but after these 11 weeks of training it will likely be full-time work with three or more co-teachers.

The details of this outline are what sets life apart from what it was in the states. Exercise for me here means going to a gym at 5 AM (essentially in someone’s living room, which is full of free weights and some cardio machines) or running on dirt roads that curve and dive through valleys, farmland, dogs, dense jungle, and (friendly) machete-wielding workers. My shower afterward is buckets of cold water from a tub that stores water during the days when we have no running water. Breakfast is rice and beans, eggs, bread and coffee while I watch CNN in Spanish. Class is in one of the other trainee’s living room and is only four students with one professor. Very high expectations, fun atmosphere and individual attention. We do things like make up stories using new vocabulary, practice using a grammatical construction or are sent out into the town to ask strangers to help us understand new concepts or vocab. Lunch is rice and beans, fried plantains, chicken, and fruit juice while my host mom and I watch my favorite ‘telenovela’ (soap opera).

This is the water we use for washing clothes. Makes a nice mirror for our coconut tree!

The school that we go to consists of about ten classrooms in three separate one-story buildings with bars on the windows, a marker board, old desks, and virtually nothing else. If it were pouring rain, the students would have to go out into the rain to go to their next class or just not come to school. Working with the English teachers is really fun, because my co-teacher is excited to practice his English and to incorporate more student-centered learning opportunities in the classroom. Co-teaching happens bi-weekly and is with classes of between 25 and 45 students. Our youth group is about 15 kids between the ages of 15 and 20, and we do icebreaker games, English lessons with games to help them practice, and we play sports on Sunday afternoons.

Everyone’s host family situations are different, but I get to chat with my mom while she cooks dinner, play with my little sister and the puppy, and hang out with my peer-age brother and sister after they get back from work. Dinner generally consists of (surprise) rice and beans, chicken or beef, squash or a cucumber-like veggie, and fried plantains. Studying is done from numerous books about Teaching English as a Foreign Language(TEFL), non-formal education theory and practice, cultural adaptation, health issues for Peace Corps volunteers, Spanish grammar, community analysis and organization, Nicaraguan history, and sustainable development theory. Dinner is from 6-7, TV and homework from 7-9 and sleep at 9 under my mosquito net.

Putting this in a larger context, the three broad goals of Peace Corps are to increase the capacity of the people we serve, increase understanding of American culture abroad and increase understanding of the host-country culture back in the U.S. Within these rather abstract goals, there are many levels of more specific objectives and strategies. In my program(TEFL), we are here to increase the personal and professional opportunities of Nicaraguans through increased English language skills. We do this by 1) increasing the capacity of English teachers both as educators and communicators, 2) working to develop materials that will stay behind for the use of teachers and students after we leave, and 3) community outreach in ways defined and supported by the members in the community. Our specific objectives include increasing student language ability, student critical-thinking, teacher use of communicative methods in the classroom, teacher English levels, community organization and problem-solving, and youth development and education in areas like health and economic opportunity. We approach these objectives through integration with the community, organization of groups of adults and youth to address needs, formal work in the school district with the English teachers (co-planning and co-teaching) and by building relationships with community members. Our successes with the objectives are quantified through surveys, descriptions, and reporting of how many people our activities have positively affected. These numbers are collected from each volunteer three times per year, aggregated for the specific program area (health, education, business, environment), then aggregated on the country level and further translated into what the Peace Corps does worldwide. Congress uses this information to determine if we are achieving the purposes of the Peace Corps and thus whether we merit continued or increased funding. I know that this is a pretty specific post about the nuts and bolts of what this organization is doing here, but the more I learn about how well thought out everything is, the more excited I feel about what I’m doing.

I joined the Peace Corps with ideas about doing something constructive in the world while learning about what I want to do in my career and life. Now that I’m getting into the meat and potatoes (or rice and beans), at least of my training, I can say with much more certainty what our goals are and where they fit in to the big picture. The challenge will be bridging the gap between the small picture (what we do daily) and the big picture (the macro outcomes we want to see), but I’m ready to give it my best. I still don’t have answers about what this will mean for me personally in my life after the Peace Corps, but I have plenty of time to figure that out. At least I know what I’m here for, and it feels good.

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5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Carol DeBoer on October 2, 2010 at 5:40 pm

    Andrew, I cannot express how much I enjoy your posts and podcast! Through you I have learned so much about the great works of the Peace Corps, and can only imagine the impact you are making in Nicaragua. Your posts more than hint at the impact it is having on you. I am so happy for you! You’re the type of person that can only be happy giving completely of yourself. Thank you for taking the time to post and sharing it with the world. Take good care of yourself! Much love, Carol

    Reply

  2. Posted by Cindy Salo on October 2, 2010 at 6:08 pm

    Andrew,

    GREAT SHOT of the coconut palm in the bucket of water. Very nice.
    I still enjoy bucket baths while camping.

    Cindy

    Reply

  3. Posted by Cindy Salo on October 2, 2010 at 6:12 pm

    Say, just noticed your title, “Aspirante.” Sweet! In Senegal we were “Stagiaires” (“stage” is training). Doesn’t have the same ring to it.

    Reply

  4. Posted by Deb on October 3, 2010 at 4:09 pm

    Ah, Andrew…..as I said before, after reading your posts, I am thinking your life goal is to write and inform. You are sooooo good at it. Feels like a novel and I am always awaiting the next chapter. Thanks for telling us about your day. You are the perfect person to thrive in the atmosphere. Love to you.. Deb

    Reply

  5. Posted by Courtney on October 7, 2010 at 8:09 pm

    I love getting to read about your learning process, and how your views of education and implementation are being assembled. Thank you for going through what your day consists of! It’s interesting to hear about the differences and all the similarities. Sounds like you are working hard. The Peace Corps is lucky to have you! 🙂

    Reply

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