Classroom science excites kids in Mexico

A Mexican 1-room school teacher makes use of all the resources at her disposal (or How to teach kids who don’t share your language)

When I arrived in Chacala for my 3rd winter of volunteering at the village primary school, my reputation preceded me, and the new teacher (the 5th new teacher in 3 years) wasted no time setting me to work. After the briefest of introductions, she asked, “Will you teach charlaysrobertodarween to the Grade 5 & 6s?”

“Teach what?”


I’d been working hard on my Spanish, but I had no idea what she meant, “Lo siento, no puedo entender. (I’m sorry. I don’t understand.)”

The teacher, whose name is Maria de Jesus (Jesus pronounced Hey-Zeus), reached down to pick up the Grade 6 science text and flipped it open to a picture.

Ah! Right. Charles Robert Darwin.

I wanted to help, but I didn’t think my language skills were up to it.“Debo pensar,” I said, buying time. (Let me think about it.)

I spent the following week in the classroom watching Maria de Jesus master a challenge. The first 2 years I volunteered in this school, the state education ministry assigned Chacala’s primary school two teachers for the school’s two classrooms. This year, for reasons unknown, it demoted the school to one. Maria de Jesus was now in charge of 6 grades and 25 students, 4 of them severely learning disabled. In reality 26: the younger sister of one of the little girls, not yet old enough for school, also tagged along.

To make matters worse, the teachers the previous year had not taken their job remotely seriously. As a result, very few of the children were able to work at their grade level. Maria de Jesus took all this in her stride.

That previous year, over Easter, a group of campers had broken into the school. During the course of their holiday, they scorched the classroom wall. The previous year’s teachers hadn’t found the motivation to clean it, nor to unpack the new desks donated by Rotarians. Maria de Jesus cleaned the classroom, scrubbed the scorched paint, gave the classroom a fresh look, and assembled the new desks.

Chacala’s classroom before and after the arrival of the new teacher, Maria de Jesus

Then she grouped the students according to ability, arranged the desks so that each group faced a different wall and taped appropriate learning materials to the bricks in front of them. I was amazed to return to a classroom where the kids were actually working instead of wrestling on a filthy floor or roaring around outside. Maria de Jesus concentrated on one subject a day, one class at a time. While she was at work with one grade, the others all worked on projects she’d assigned. At least that was the theory, and it worked reasonably well, particularly if you overlooked a non-Canadian level of boisterous activity.

Maria de Jesus needed help, I could see that, but the Darwin project scared me. How was I going to teach chance mutation and species adaptation over time in a language I didn’t speak? The more I thought about it, the more trouble I could see.

What were the chances that the population of a Mexican fishing village, most of them Catholic, were advocates of the theory of evolution? Every rusty old car in the pueblo has an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe dangling from the rear view mirror. Her image is above every doorway, and a gold medallion hangs around every woman’s neck.

Even the teacher’s name, for heaven’s sake, has both Mary and Jesus in it.

“Do you believe in the theory of evolution?” I asked Socorro, who manages my friend Betty’s house. She was cleaning the kitchen at the time.

“What!!?” she scowled, scrubbing the counter with extra vigour. “That we come from changas (monkeys)?”

The next day I told Maria de Jesus I was sorry. I could not teach Darwin.

“La semana que viene,” she said. (Next week.) Eight 12- and 13-year-olds looked at me expectantly.

“My Spanish is not up to this,” I complained.

Maria de Jesus turned her back and began to work with the Grade 3 kids.

Okay, I thought. I can do this, but I’m going to have to be resourceful. That night, I prepared some very simple questions in Spanish to lead the children into the topic. What country was Darwin from? What was the name of the boat he sailed on? Where did he go to study animals and birds? I wrote the questions on the board the next day, then we all trooped across the schoolyard to do some online research in the Rotarian-equipped computer lab. So far, so good.

“Darwin,” I said the following day. “¿Dónde nació?” (Where was Darwin born?)

The students had quite a discussion before Alexis answered, “Inglaterra. (England.)”

What was the name of the boat he sailed on?”

“Bey-ah-HEY-lay,” they cried.

Oh dear. Why didn’t I think of this? How could these kids possibly pronounce Beagle? When they tried, Her Majesty’s Ship H.M.S. Beagle came out as AH-che, EM-eh, ES-eh, Bey-ah-HEY-lay.

Let’s move on.

“When?” I asked. “What kind of scientist was he?”

Answers started flying, much too fast for me.

Now what? The kids had come prepared, but I hadn’t. I couldn’t understand a word. They were so motivated to learn, they were putting up with my choppy Spanish, but I knew they wouldn’t suffer it for long.

“Escribe en el pizarrón,” I said, in a flash of inspiration. (Write it on the board.)

From that point on, chaos. The kids tossed ideas back and forth. Some of them wrote words on the board. Others rubbed them out or added more. They seemed to stay on the topic of evolution, but I couldn’t say for sure.

Thank God (or the evolution of human ingenuity) for the internet. That night, I looked up educational games and activities related to adaptation. The following day, I stood in front of the whiteboard and briefly reinforced the general principles of evolution before we headed back to the computer lab.

The children shared terminals, designing their own creatures, giving them lots of fur to keep warm or long legs to escape predators. Then the evolution game began, throwing in cold and glaciation or unrelenting sun and drought or ferocious carnivores. The children had two chances to adapt their creatures, who lived or died according to the characteristics they’d given them.

The lesson was a huge hit, due more to diversion and attention than to content, and I became a victim of my own success.

“Linnaeus,” Maria de Jesus suggested next.

I firmly declined and offered to work on fractions with the Grade 4s. Numbers require much less skill in language.

This is the 8th story in the weekly publication A Remarkable Education: Lessons Learned in a Mexican Rural School. The next story describes the unflagging energy and skill of a 1-room school teacher.

One of the fascinating things about Mexico is the way its history lives so vividly in its present. The previous story looks at Mexican weekly markets and the surprising origins of Mexico’s artist cooperatives.

Starting in the winter of 2009, Diane Douglas volunteered three years in the two-room school in the fishing village of Chacala, north of Puerto Vallarta. Since 2012, she’s been working to improve online learning at el Colegio Patria, a remarkable rural school in the poor, agricultural town of Las Varas.