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Turning points in Mexico.

"Open your books to page 31," the teacher requests. The 3rd-graders obediently take out their readers and prepare to read a story, the same way they did yesterday and the day before. One of the children sitting in the front row begins reading the first paragraph. The next child reads paragraph two and so forth, up and down the rows. When the story is finished the class begins again, until every student has had the opportunity to read. Afterwards, the teacher asks several questions about the story - all requiring fact recollection. The children have difficulty answering the questions, which frustrates the teacher. "We just read it," she explodes. "Do we have to read it again? Okay, Carolina, you start and we'll read it once more."

The authors observed this instruction approach in one public elementary school classroom in northern Mexico, and the scenario is far from unique. There may have been many reasons why the children could not answer the teacher's questions. They might have been nervous about "performing" in front of their peers, and might have wanted to finish the assigned paragraphs as quickly as possible. Could it be that the next children in line weren't listening to the reader because they were silently practicing their paragraphs? Knowing their turns were not coming for a long time, were the students across the room totally unengaged? Could it be that the teacher's questions never challenged the children to anything beyond simply recalling facts? School - the very institution that should be helping children learn to think - can unintentionally discourage comprehension, divergent thinking, originality, and creativity.

As one teacher in Mexico with whom we spoke stated, "I believe education in our country is at a turning point. For many years things have been done the exact same way. We get the national curriculum and try to get the students ready to take the national tests. Any deviation from that pattern has been seen as unnecessary, a waste of time. However, now we are starting to see changes in that attitude." Indeed, despite many challenges, some teachers and schools are leading the way toward introducing more creativity and higher-level thinking in the classroom.

Background

Over the last 10 years, Brigham Young University (BYU) has pioneered multicultural programs that allow education students to complete their student teaching in Washington, D.C., Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Guatemala, and Mexico. English and Spanish speakers complete assignments at various sites in Mexico during both the fall and winter semesters, working in early childhood, elementary, or secondary placements.

The university has formed partnerships with two private secondary schools, one in the state of Chihuahua and one in Mexico City. BYU also works with five elementary schools - two private and one public in the north, and one private and one public in Mexico City. Similarly, student teachers are placed at Colegio Mexico, a private school in Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz, that serves preschool, elementary, and secondary students. These unique partnerships have allowed faculty members and supervisors from Brigham Young University a close, in-depth look at education practices in Mexico. It also has allowed for some Mexican students and administrators to visit the United States and observe education practices at BYU and in surrounding school districts. Recent years have seen much sharing of ideas and strategies between the two countries.

Angelica Garrido, the principal of Colegio Mexico, states, "When we first anticipated receiving student teachers from the United States we thought the primary advantage for us would be having native English speakers in our school to help teach English. Now that we have been in this partnership for several years we are seeing benefits that go far beyond the teaching of English. Our school is better because of the input and ideas we receive from the BYU student teachers, and I believe the student teachers leave our school better prepared to teach anywhere in the world because of the experiences they have here."

Creativity in Mexican Schools

Mexico boasts a rich culture in music, literature, dance, and art. Public and private school-sponsored arts programs and dance festivals abound. Each of the schools associated with BYU goes to great lengths to mount lavish productions. Several schools perform annual Christmas programs, and most schools teach and perform folk dances at other times of the year. Colegio Mexico produces an annual musical play that involves every student in the school. There is a great deal of parental and community support for such programs; parents make beautiful and elaborate costumes, and hundreds of relatives and other community members come to see the productions.

Monica Vidal Moreno, the foreign language coordinator at Colegio Mexico, says, "As wonderful as such productions are, I'm afraid we are not seeing a similar push for creativity in everyday classroom settings and tasks." Most of the teaching is direct instruction in traditional classroom settings. Students sit in rows and complete assignments individually by filling in workbook sheets or copying such exercises from the blackboards. Moreno continues, "When children are asked to draw or write, it is usually on teacher-directed topics, with a heavy emphasis on mechanics and product rather than on process. There is a strong focus on math, but very little focus on creative problem solving or on applying what is being learned."

Often, the lack of cooperative work and the institutional arrangement of desks is due to the small size of classrooms. Even in private schools there is not much space in which to work and learn together. Lack of materials is also a common problem and reason why classrooms and curriculum remain so teacher-directed. There are other reasons, however.

One teacher said, "In Mexico the assessment we use is formal [testing], and we are judged as being good or bad teachers by how students do on those tests. So even though I personally would like to try new things, or make more connections between what we are learning in school and the individual interests and lives of the children, I feel a lot of pressure to stick with exactly what is going to be on the test."

Another teacher shared this insight: "In my country, many schools are in competition with each other, and although I know as an educator that children need more time to create and more freedom to explore, the parents don't understand that or want it. They think a 'hard' school is a 'good' school. If children enjoy learning or if they have fun, the parents say the school isn't doing its job, and they pull their children out and take them to a more traditional school."

Although contact between BYU and parents has been limited, some parents were interviewed and they confirmed these observations. One parent stated, "It is expensive to have my children in school. I do not want the teachers wasting time. [They should teach] only the essentials." When asked to define essentials, this parent said, "The things that will be on the test." While some parents talked about how schools should prepare their children for the future, many defined academic success as "passing the tests with high marks."

Even though teachers generally accept such parents' attitudes, it leaves some educators in a quandary. "I'm not blind," says one teacher in Mexico City. "I read about what is going on in progressive schools and what the trends are in the United States, England, and elsewhere. Still, I feel like my hands are tied, because my job depends on keeping parents happy." She went on to explain that her dilemma is not unlike that of college professors who are torn between teaching and research. "Even though they know teaching is important and would like to do a better job, they are rewarded and promoted for their research, so that is what they do."

Turning Points

Teachers are managing to cope, despite the challenges. They cite some important turning points. Moreno explains, "In Mexico there is a big difference between private and public schools. Because the private schools often cater to the more affluent, they usually have better supplies and can pay better salaries. That's why the best teachers are drawn toward the private schools." Consistent with that perspective, most of the turning points of which we are aware are happening in private schools. However, we are seeing positive changes in public schools, as well.

Mexican teachers are quick to credit the American student teachers for exposing them to new ideas, but, as one of the BYU student teachers explained, "They are the ones making the ideas work. It's not us." Another BYU student teacher said, "My cooperating teacher will watch me teach a lesson and then she'll say, 'I really liked such and such that you did.' Then I'll see her try something similar in her next lesson, but she'll do it in her own way." One of the Mexican cooperating teachers said, "It's not that I'm getting any new ideas from my student teacher that I haven't had before. It's just that I feel like since she is here it is okay to try some of the things I've always wanted to do, but [that I] felt like I wasn't at liberty to do before."

Whatever the reasons, Mexican teachers and student teachers alike are making positive changes. This article will focus on four of such changes: 1) allowing students to select and write about their own topics, 2) using more open-ended questions and informal debates in class, 3) using cooperative learning groups, and 4) engaging students in learning activities.

Self-selected topics. In an interview, Stephen R. Covey expressed his views on writing: "How important is writing in today's schools? Why not ask how important is thinking in today's schools? How important is creativity, problem solving, self-expression, and the voice of each individual in the larger community?" (Wilcox, 1998, p. 4). Later in the same interview, Covey encouraged teachers not to give assigned topics such as "If I were president . . ." or "My most memorable vacation." He suggested that students instead write about "topics they come up with themselves - things they really care about. No one assigned a topic for any of my books. I had to decide what was important enough to me to justify the work and effort that writing is" (p. 4).

Teachers in Mexico are beginning to sense the importance of self-selected topics. One teacher said, "I had tried using journals before in my class, but I gave the students a topic or would write something on the board and have them copy it. Now, I am letting the students pick their own topics and write on what interests them. The students are enjoying the experience more than in the past and they seem to be progressing faster in their writing." Similar shifts are being made by other teachers in many of the schools and at various grade levels. Many researchers agree that self-selection of topics is important for all learners (Atwell, 1987; Calkins, 1986; Fisher, 1991; Graves, 1983; Romano, 1987).

Now, preschool students in Mexico are drawing and painting their own pictures, rather than coloring pre-printed sheets or being told what to draw. Older students are writing more than in the past, and their writing is less teacher-directed. However, this writing often is still viewed as a one-draft project meant to emphasize mechanics. One BYU student teacher said, "There is much work to be done in the future to help teachers and students view writing as a process, but at least students are having a taste of writing about their own interests and lives."

Open-ended questions and informal debates. More students in Mexico are being drawn into classroom discussions, because teachers are asking questions that go beyond fact recall. Monica Vidal Moreno says, "Students are being asked why and how as well as what, where, when, and who." In addition, teachers have been encouraged to ask "what if" questions, and to relate what is being learned in school to students' lives and to current events. Such questioning and probing "helping behaviors" are related to effective teaching (Borich, 1988).

One Mexican teacher reports, "At first I was reluctant to try asking these questions, because I was afraid they would distract the students from what they really need to be remembering and studying. As I tried the new questions, however, I could see how much more involved the students became in their learning." The focus on open-ended questions and students expressing their own opinions has led to many informal debates in classrooms. One teacher said, "At first, I didn't like the students contradicting each other, and I was afraid I would be in trouble with the principal if my class became too noisy. But you can't talk about issues without getting different opinions, and now the students are thinking more about what we are learning. I even hear them discussing topics outside at lunch, and I never heard that before."

Cooperative learning. Reutzel and Cooter (1996) define cooperative learning as heterogeneous groups, ranging in size from two to five students, working together to accomplish a task. Slavin (1988, 1991) has found that cooperative learning not only increased student achievement, but also increased students' self-concept and social skills. While cooperative learning in Mexican schools is far from the ideal described in the education literature (Harp, 1989), at least students are beginning to interact in classrooms.

Secondary students in Mexico City are being asked to discuss the lesson of the previous day with study partners. Students in Coatzacoalcos are being grouped and then regrouped in a "jigsaw" arrangement, in which they retell parts of their assigned reading to students who did not read the same material (Wood, 1987). In one school in northern Mexico, students work together to create murals on poster boards about the science concepts they are learning. Murals are displayed in the classroom and often referred to in later discussions. At another school, children work in groups of three to label parts of a globe using paper, tape, and soccer balls. Desks are being rearranged - at least during the activities themselves - in a less institutionalized manner. One teacher said, "My biggest concern is management and discipline, but so far no one has gotten out of control."

High student engagement in learning activities. A student teacher in Coatzacoalcos was assigned to a class of preschoolers. Capitalizing on the students' excitement surrounding the opening of a McDonald's restaurant in the community, the student teacher worked with the cooperating teachers and to create a mini "McDonald's" in the classroom. Students made menus, which were hung on the wall. Some students pretended to be customers, while others assumed the roles of workers writing down orders and preparing imaginary food. There was also a "drive-thru window," where busy workers filled students' orders. Teachers used this activity as a springboard into many English and math lessons, among other topics.

This type of play is essential for children's physical, social, and mental development (Morrison, 1998). It stretches their attention span, builds vocabulary, and provides experiential background knowledge. Morrison claims that play is self-education, and that it represents young children's distinctive way of learning to plan, think, and organize ideas.

In this same classroom, teachers have promoted children's further engagement by bringing in a section of carpet and placing it at the front of the classroom. The carpeted area has become a favorite place for children to gather and learn songs and poems (and accompanying hand actions) in both English and Spanish. Desks are pushed together to form tables, where students work with manipulatives while learning math. Preschoolers venture out into other classrooms to ask other students questions about everything from favorite ice cream flavors to the number of pockets they have. The collected data is then depicted in charts and graphs, which the children proudly display.

Similar transitions are being seen in classrooms of older students as well. One class has learned the states of Mexico by singing the names to the tune of a familiar folk song. Another class put on skits dramatizing important events in Mexico's history. One teacher said, "I asked my student teacher to help the class review for an upcoming English test. She made a little ball out of socks and threw it around the room. After a certain amount of time the student teacher told the students to stop, and then the student with the ball had to translate a sentence or word for the class. Everyone had fun."

By allowing for self-selected topics, open questions and debates, cooperative learning, and high student engagement in learning activities, some schools in Mexico are fostering greater comprehension, creativity, and thinking. Truly, Mexican education is experiencing a positive turning point.

References

Atwell, N. (1987). In the middle: Writing, reading, and learning with adolescents. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Borich, G. D. (1988). Effective teaching methods. Columbus, OH: Merrill.

Calkins, L. M. (1986). The art of teaching writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Fisher, B. (1991). Joyful learning. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Graves, D. H. (1983). Writing: Teachers and children at work. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Harp, B. (1998). What do we do in the place of ability grouping? The Reading Teacher, 42, 534-535.

Morrison, G. S. (1998). Early childhood education today. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Reutzel, D. R., & Cooter, R.B. (1996). Teaching children to read: From basals to books. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Romano, T. (1987). Clearing the way: Working with teenage writers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Slavin, R. E. (1988). Cooperative learning and student achievement. Education Leadership, 45, 31-33.

Slavin, R. E. (1991). Are cooperative learning and "untracking" harmful to the gifted? Education Leadership, 45, 31-33.

Wilcox, B. (1998). Interview: The importance of writing well with Stephen Covey. Writing Teacher, 11, 4-5.

Wood, K. D. (1987). Fostering cooperative learning in middle and secondary level classrooms. Journal of Reading, 31, 10-18.

Brad Wilcox is Assistant Professor, Department of Teacher Education, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. Monica Vidal Moreno is Foreign Language Coordinator, Colegio Mexico, Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz, Mexico.
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Title Annotation:Creativity Around the Globe
Author:Moreno, Monica Vidal
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Sep 1, 1999
Words:2978
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