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Back to the classroom

There was no better way to celebrate National Teachers Month than being in a public school classroom to teach for 50 minutes. It was the second time I had done so for Teach for the Philippines (TFP) Week, during which invited individuals serve as guest teachers for a number of its partner public schools nationwide. This year, the schools were in Quezon City, Navotas, Pasig, Sta. Rosa, Cagayan de Oro, and Siargao.

My assignment was to team-teach a third grade English class with TFP fellow Dhen Ramos at Dagat-Dagatan Elementary School in Navotas. We planned the lesson via e-mail. She gave me useful information about her class of 43: Many are nonreaders, struggling with English and fearful that they would not understand me.

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I wanted an activity that they would not normally do under the regular curriculum—a workshop where each of them would produce an eight-page book, thus experiencing what it is like to be an author-illustrator. It seemed ambitious, but feasible if I prepared the individual books with blank pages and the starter sentences for each page. This project is something close to my heart as a reader and a writer. It’s also a regular feature at Where the Write Things Are, our fledgling writing center and a tribute to the classic “Where the Wild Things Are” by the legendary Maurice Sendak.

To prepare the third-graders for the author experience, we had a read-aloud and they were introduced to the parts of the book on which they would also have to work.  I chose the book that would best segue to the book-writing activity. “It’s OK to be Different” had lines relevant to their young lives—it’s okay to wear glasses, okay to finish last, okay to dream…. A boy in class was wearing glasses, so we celebrated that difference in a sense. My original choice was the Kids’ Choice book on the life of the blind genius Roselle Ambubuyog, “Made Perfect  in Weakness” by Didith T. Rodrigo (Bookmark). But when I was informed that there was a blind girl in the Grade 3 class I would teach, I did not want to draw undue attention to her.

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Teacher Dhen divided them into groups to do a “Gallery Walk,” that wonderful technique where groups of children would go from one learning station to another. Of course, there was not enough time to complete the book, but at least the kids got the hang of it, and it was something they could continue working on, on their own.

Being in a public school puts one face to face with issues that teachers live with. Because it had rained the night before and flooded some Navotas areas, 13 students were absent. Mondays and Fridays are said to be the days when absences are customary. It was alarming that in Grade Three, many of the children still could not read. The main activity was to have them complete sentences such as “I like to…” with possible answers they could choose from.  This simple exercise posed a challenge, and when I guided their spelling of words by saying a letter, a few could not proceed until I wrote down the letter on paper. The sentence asking for their age was tough for a little girl who said she did not know.

The blind girl who was holding her Braille was listening intently to the proceedings, and it was she who was individually assisted by Teacher Dhen. She was just learning to use Braille and her parents had purposely wanted her mainstreamed in a regular class, rather than in the specialeducation program that the public school runs.

Such a classroom session with children working at their own pace would have been bedlam had Teacher Dhen not shown excellent classroom management. She quieted them down for the lesson with what seemed like standard familiar songs. Then, she disciplined them, not by scolding, but by praising the students who had heeded her instructions first.

How did the students respond to the workshop? They sent a video waving their colorfully illustrated book covers and asking Teacher Dhen if they could have more of such lessons again.  They had been challenged and appeared to have enjoyed it as well.  Their fear of not understanding English was eased when I switched to Filipino—not Taglish, mind you. And they gave this teacher an apple.

Dagat-Dagatan Elementary School is a very welcoming, well-kept school proudly headed by Dr. Florietta Quijano and with a student population of 4,852. The campus is spacious, and well-loved Navotas Mayor John Tiangco is credited for the oval there. With space a luxury in most campuses, the oval is truly welcome. What a delight to see the children engage in good old-fashioned play with abandon.

The TFP Week allows the students to glimpse career possibilities through the guest teachers from different sectors, from Sen. Sonny Angara to Imran Shaikh (DHL Global Forwarding) to Mitzi Borromeo (CNN Philippines) to Zak Yuson (Rappler), among many prominent others.

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May Teacher Dhen’s class be convinced that, yes, it’s okay to read, write, dream.  Who knows what authors and illustrators would be born from the experience?

Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ([email protected]) is chair of the National Book Development Board  and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.

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