Wednesday, July 1, 2015

How do you teach when your school is on strike?

Hola chicos!

As many of you know, I'll be spending much of this summer in Santiago de Chile, teaching experimental physics to high school students in a creative format modeled after the International Young Physicists Tournament.
Some of you will have seen Andrei Klishin prepare the program by writing fellowship applications, talking to IYPT organizers, and persuading the Physics department to back us (thank you, Physics, for my plane tickets and apartment!). And then you'll have seen me preparing by desperately attempting to learn Spanish. The last few days have been a pretty intense test. I'm getting good at making babytalk and rapidly misconjugating verbs.

This morning, I and two other team members, Jake and Jordan, met with a Professor from the Liceo Numero Uno for girls. I was more than a little worried, by the thought of having to sound professional in Spanish, and because when I emailed Profesora L. to ask about the schedule for our activities she told me she wasn't sure what I meant by "schedule".

Fortunately, Profesora L. and her two colleagues are wonderfully friendly, as well as twelve-exclamation-points-per-email enthusiastic about our program. They weren't even visibly put off by our hesitant Spanish, though I did catch a whispered 'no se si entienden' [I don't know if they understand] between them.

Chilean students are holding protests all over the city, demanding a series of reforms including free secondary education for all and free bus fare to get to school. The teachers unions are on strike for better pay and shorter hours. These issues have been erupting in Chile over the past decade, as promised reforms are diluted or disappear. At the moment, both of the schools we'll be working at, the Liceo Numero Uno and the Instituto Nacional, are on strike and fully occupied by protesting students.
School gates in Chile (not the Liceo Numero Uno, but with similar decoration).

Students manned a reception desk near the gate of Liceo Numero Uno, and allowed us in with the profesores. Behind the reception, two large signs were posted for the public. One listed upcoming events, including protest meetings and biology and physics tutorials, and the other asked for food donations. Salsa con carne, hamburguesas de soya, galletas!, AMOR...

We walked across a courtyard and upstairs to the physics lab, where the profesores moved a bookshelf out of the doorway and unlocked it so we could enter. It was like a beautiful little museum. Cast-iron metal wheels and glass bell jars sat on top of tall cabinets full of antique electronics equipment, some of it mounted on lovely carved wood, and blown glass devices for all kinds of purposes. It's not new, but functionna, functionna, we heard.

Then, as the experimental physics teachers started setting up a small demonstration in which we would discharge a capacitor across bottles of gas (allowing us to see their spectral colors), we listened to a description of their physics program. Which was impressive. One of the experimental profesores told us that he had recently build a radioastronomy telescope with a group of students, and showed me a video of his results during a recent solar storm. Profesora L. had been working to train a group of students for the International Physics Olympiad, and was excited to hear about another international competition for them. The demonstration never did work, but two of the professors patiently adjusted and re-set it throughout our conversation.
Statue on my street in Santiago
On our way out, we pushed the bookcase back across the door. Profesora L. picked up a discarded book, read its cover (linguistics) and left it again. In the courtyard, the students had set up a stereo system, and two of them were selling shirts and soy hamburgers while others talked. Stray dogs wandered in and out of the gates, and a girl shook a cup to ask us for money for the protest.

I am way, way out of depth here. Linguistically, pedagogically, and politically. But I hope that our program will at least give some of these students a worthwhile project to work on during these very interesting times.

Mi amor a la casa,

1 comment:

  1. Tough timing, but at least your students seem to be protesting for something worthwhile. When I first encountered students strikes, then our Israeli students basically just wanted to get their school trips back (teachers did not want to be held responsible for their lives, which is why they refused to go). Also, does this mean Chile's schools run on the southern hemisphere schedules (meaning, summer break would be around Christmas)? You seem to be well-supported by the staff at least.

    PS. Aagh, how I would like to trade weather with you! I'm not sure I've ever had to suffer over 38 degrees before (at least without AC), but my gut feeling was right - I really dislike it. Spending the summer in Chilean winter seems to be the right way to go! I might develop a fondness for glaciers as well in Germany...