Learning from the Learners: Field notes from a recent visit to Guatemala

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit three primary schools in Guatemala that use our tablets, or ‘Rumies’ as the students endearingly call them. To give you some quick context about the project, in early 2016 we partnered with Pencils of Promise, a New York-based NGO, to begin a project in Guatemala. In early 2017, with support from the Michiel Lowenberg Foundation, we were able to scale it up even further. Because it is growing and Pencils of Promise is one of our more sophisticated and tech savvy partners, we decided to visit and glean observations firsthand on how the tech is being used, and how we can continue to improve it.

We preloaded our tablets with e-books and videos that teach reading and writing in Spanish, and sent them to children in grades three through six in rural Guatemalan schools. These students live in Indigenous communities and, for the most part, don’t have adequate access to the Internet or to traditional reading materials such as books, dictionaries and encyclopedias.

IMG_0919 The small supply of paper learning materials at the school seemed to be a bit prone to the elements!

The first school we visited was in Pachipac, a tiny community about a one-hour drive from Mazatenango, the small municipality in southwest Guatemala in which we were staying. Since the school day runs in the morning from 7:30-12:30, we embarked for the school at 6:30am. We drove along roads that gradually got bumpier as we got further out of Mazate and finally pulled up to the school just as the students were about to start the day’s classes.

IMG_0899 First grade kids keen to start classes for the day!

In Pachipac I sat in on a grade three and four reading class. The students used their ‘Rumies’ to read a short story together, the teacher guiding the students to read along and answer comprehension questions. It was amazing to see how well behaved the students were when using the tablets – they followed the teacher’s instructions and did not get distracted by the presence of technology. I could tell that the community valued the devices and did a good job teaching the students the importance of taking care of them (This fact was further confirmed when I learned there had been zero incidences of tablet theft, even though the children bring them home every day!).

IMG_0851 Two students reading a short story on their Rumies.

The next day, we set out in the early morning to visit the two other schools. These schools, like Pachipac, were in very remote communities that were hard to get to not just because of the distance, but also because of the pot-holed roads and mountainous terrain. To get to the first school in a community called Chuinahualate, we drove to the end of a rugged road that was under repair and hiked the rest of the way. The view was beautiful and the cool air refreshing, which together added to the sense of calmness in the town.

Guatemala_1 Scenic views on the walk to Chuinahualate.

In Chuinahualate we sat in on another reading class, this time with students in grades five and six. The teacher explained a reading exercise and assigned a short story, and I again found the students to be very focused in the classroom.

Guatemala_2 Students read one of the stories on the tablet together.

During my visits to the schools, I learned how Guatemala’s political history affected education for people in remote Indigenous communities like the ones Rumie works in. In the Sololá region where we were, many people speak Quiché, an Indigenous language, but reading is taught in Spanish. Most of the students’ parents don’t know Spanish because the civil war in the late 20th century kept them from completing their schooling. Now, the government is trying to make amends and teach both Spanish and Quiché in the schools, but there aren’t enough reading materials in Quiché. I witnessed the difficulties students faced trying to develop their Spanish reading skills without the resources to develop their reading skills in their native language at the same pace.

IMG_0992 Two girls in Chuinahualate wait for their next class.

Talking with our partners in Guatemala inspired us to help address this problem by collecting Quiché reading materials on the LearnCloud to install onto the tablets. It’s hard to imagine not having any stories to read in your native language, but that’s the reality for many people – in Guatemala, Canada, and elsewhere. I certainly hope that technology and collaboration will help us change that.

Written By: Allison Kavanagh
Director of Strategy and Business Development at Rumie

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