School in Panama: Oct. 5th, Revised Nov. 12th

Saturday, October 5th, 2013. Revised Nov. 12th, 2013 (Or 11-12-13 in the US! Here that would be Dec 11, 2013)


School in Panama 


School, school, school.


I’m just going to do bullet points for this. It is, in short, the most different aspect of life here.


  • My school, ITP El Silencio, is like two schools sharing one campus. One is split between Science and Commerce, and the other, one I’m in, is Argopecuaria. 
  • Argopecuaria is the study of agriculture and animals.
    • In Agropecuaria, education is usually focused on the agriculture side of things. For example, in Biology last week, we learned about what the mushroom is made up of for half the class, and the other half about different methods of mushroom farming, watching a video about the process in a factory. We have a few classes that are devoted to economics or basics of agriculture. There is also a 4 or 5 hour work session on Mondays where we learn how to work in the field by actually going out and doing the work in a farm and plantation owned by the school for their students to practice on. 
    • It’s hard to comprehend, really. The students can choose between Argopecauria and Science/Commerce, but there are still about 50 kids in Argopecauria. I’ve asked a couple of them why they choose Argopecauria, and they all said they weren’t a big fan of science and math. I try to reserve judgement as much as possible, although it’s really hard. At the very least, I’d have hoped that the school would work extra hard to make sure the students have the best possible education so they’d have as many options open to them as possible, but it seems like most of the teachers don’t really care about their students. Even when they do show up, it’s not guaranteed they’ll stay (let alone have a full lesson; there are a lot of periods that are spent solely on a test, copying a lecture, or just talking). My Spanish teacher left this morning after proclaiming our classroom too dirty to teach in (I think there was a piece of paper on the floor and the desks were a bit out of line because the previous teacher had asked us to move them into groups). She didn’t come back. She’s also our councilor.
      • Note from Nov 12: Two months ago, I was really critical about the kids who were in Agropecauria, saying that it was basically for career plantation farmers. However, I’ve started to look at this in a different light. Every single kid I’ve talked to has plans to study in the university after high school. Also, I know some people that farm for a living in the U.S. too (including my old math/science teacher!). There are kids who are learning valuable skill sets for what they want to do when they grow up. A lot of their families have farms that they’ll inherit, and be able to support their families on, so it makes sense that they’d want to know how to take care of their future livelihood. As AFS says, one of the goals of an exchange student is to “see differences as a source of strength.” Without farmers, where would everybody else get their food? (Especially bananas, the main crop here in Changuinola and most of Panama.)
    • In Agropecuaria, there are three grades, each with their own color: 4th: green, 5th: yellow, 6th: red. They’re the same age group as the schools in the U.S. In each grade are two salons of 12 or 13 students, called A or B. I’m not sure how it works in Science school, but I’m guessing the same. My class is 11˚B Agrop (for Agropecauria), although most students write it XI˚B Agrop.
      • These grades, the equivalent of 10th, 11th, and 12th grade, are called “colegio,” which translates to college. Before college, education is mandatory and unspecified. College is optional, so the families that can’t afford to send their kids to school anymore (mostly indigenous) have them drop out. Depending on the school you go to, you can specify what area of study you would like to go into when you start college. My school is kind of like a trade school, so we choose Agropecuaria, Ciencia, or Comerica. I think the other schools don’t, though. I like to think of the class ranks as freshmen, sophomore, senior. Freshmen because they’re the newest/youngest, sophomores/juniors make up the middle, and then you’ve got the near-graduates who are kinda loco.
    • Each salon is assigned to a classroom, where we do all our classes except special “Lab” double periods, and we go either to the air conditioned “computer lab” (no internet because the connection is so bad in this area trying to use the internet is pointless), or the biology lab, which has a TV and lots of stools. Our classroom is about a usual size, maybe 20 x 30 feet, with a regular ceiling (10-12ft?). There are no glass in the windows, which are organized gaps in the wall. This also means no air conditioning. Instead we have two fans. There are also some florescent lights that are only on half the time. The floor is bare concrete, and has a couples of pits that collect dust and trash. The walls are the light green from a hospital in a horror film. The bottom three feet is covered in scuff marks from shoes, and the rest has marks where students have scrawled their names or short notes, or taped up projects and then quickly tore off the tape. There is a white board at the front, and two badly graffitied and very worn cork boards to either side. The desks are those kinds that have a chair attached to a desk. Many of them wobble, and all of them creak when you move.  There is a desk up front, just a simple wooden table, and wooden chair for the teacher. There will often be one art project or another from a class (although we don’t have art class). Right now there are equations from math on the back and side wall.
      • It doesn’t sound that great, but there are other things my two-month ago self looked over. We don’t really need air conditioning, the fans are good when necessary. You get use to the disorder. I do love the fact that almost every wall is covered in murals painted by students.
      • Also: They’ve installed cameras in the classrooms! Apparently to see which teachers come and stay for the entire time. I haven’t seen a change in teacher tardies and absences, but who knows.
  • All students are required to wear a uniform. Science kids wear a different uniform than Agropecuaria kids. 
    • Uniforms are generally kept ironed. 
    • Science/Commerce boys: White dress shirt, tan dress pants, black dress shoes. College boys wear ties.
    • Science/commerce girls: White blouse, pleated tan skirt, white socks that rise halfway to their knees, black flats. Hair accessories can be black or white. College girls wear little ties that are pinned in the middle and cross. I’ve seen pins of the Panama flag to cartoon characters.
    • Agropecauria boys and girls have the same uniform: undershirt of the color of your grade, tan zookeeper style shirt with colored identification tags on the shoulders, tan pants, brown boots. Hair accessories can be black.
    • On Mondays, everybody is suppose to wear long sleeves, but only about half do, because it’s super hot and not everybody has long sleeves.
    • Jewelry and make-up is not allowed, although a few students wear rings or bracelets (like I did until I was handed an expensive copy of the dress code).
    • Only a few girls let their hair down. The rest keep theirs tightly pulled back. The rest of Panama is like that too.
    • We have a uniform for P.E. too: white shirt, navy shorts or pants, different shoes (although some kids just go barefoot, or one will use their boots).
  • All the students in Panama are given a computer by the government. It sounds amazing, but what it really looks like is cheap computers reminiscent of the computers they sell at Toys R Us that break easily and are quickly infected with viruses, given to students that not only aren’t taught how to use them, but don’t necessarily have internet, a printer, or in a few cases, power at home.
  • Another government fail is that teachers are not given money to buy things for class. That means that at the beginning of the year, students are requested to give their teachers things like white board markers and erasers, and photocopies cost 5 cents for a page, 10 cents if it’s double-sided. A lot of our time is spent copying down lectures word for word. I think about how much time and effort could be saved if we had things most schools consider basic, like free printers, computers and internet, classroom supplies, and wonder where that 1 billion dollars that the government budgets out for education goes. Corruption is a real problem here in Panama.
  • Each period is 40 minutes, but there’s no passing period between one class and the next for the teachers and students to get to their next class, so they’re usually shorter. Especially on Monday when we have a flag raising/prayer session ceremony that takes up half of first period.
    • Bells are more of a suggestion that it’s time to move classes. If the teacher has more to say, they’ll stay. Sometimes they’re out the door before the bell rings, though.
  • There are some teachers that try, although I still find their lessons have a different standard than in the U.S. I found out yesterday that the government makes it hard to teach anything out of line, and their in-line doesn’t seem too good. When I asked about schools that aren’t controlled by the government, my English teacher just shook his head. 
    • English is a odd class. The teacher claims to love his students, but is often very exasperated with them. He says they read, but don’t understand. I think it must be kind of hard for the students too, as they’re being asked to memorize sentences like, “What do you do in your spare time?” and “I enjoy stamp collecting although it is an expensive hobby,” and not asked to figure out what they mean. We spend a lot of time studying a bilingual book of short stories made by students in Panama, and translated by somebody who doesn’t speak English very well. The teacher also teaches the students incorrect English. When I asked why, he said they didn’t understand anything else. Of course, he doesn’t speak fluent English either. Who knows, maybe sticking to the same words in incorrect sentences without telling them what they mean is  the best way to get them to read critically and understand.
      • What annoys me the most is when he just comes to class to sit at the teacher’s desk or a student desk, just to talk! I mean, we’ve got an exam in two weeks. Why are you just sitting there, talking in spanish?
      • I have to point out how amazingly understanding some of the teachers are about my lack of spanish, though. The spanish teacher will write lectures on the board now, and my Math and Química (chemistry) teachers will spend long periods of time explaining and reexplaining. My Tec Forestal teacher tries to give me the photocopies for free, since I’m “learning,” but I feel too guilty not to pay him since it’s his own pocket money that he’s used to buy these photocopies.
  • The bathrooms in school aren’t only missing toilet paper, but also stall doors.
    • Nov 12: hey, they fixed that last week! Not sure if they flush right, though. I remember laughing when I read a Facebook post about emotional duets being interrupted by the sound of flushing toilets from a student friend back home, thinking about how nice our bathrooms where, what with the high-power flush, toilet paper, trash cans, stall doors, deodorant, hot and cold water (I think we had hot water. I don’t know, it’s been a while since I had hot water.) in clean sinks, paper towels, and soap. And a mirror. Next they’ll complain about the racket made by the water-cooler in the drinking fountain, or the air conditioning being too cold, and I’ll be told to quiet down or leave the internet cafe.
  • Teachers don’t get a budget for classroom supplies, so students are asked to bring in white board markers at the beginning of the year so the teachers have a supply. We are also asked to pay for photocopies, which cost 5-10 cents. Sometimes too, students will make photocopies at their house, and then we give them the money. This means that when we take tests, the teachers will say the questions out loud, and students will copy them and then answer them. 
  • In Panama, being openly LGBTQ is not accepted, although I’m not sure to what degree Panamanians would go to (name calling to violence) if they came across somebody who was openly gay. In school, they call each other patos, or ducks, which is slang for gay. They especially like to tell me their friends are “dukes.” “Duck,” I tell them. “Si, dook,” they’ll repeat. I also tell them it’s not a bad thing in the U.S., which isn’t…the whole truth. But it’s the “textbook answer,” so that’s what I give them. And how I feel about it personally. It’s a bit funny, though, because while the boys are busy calling their friends gay as a joke, they’re sharing a tiny, hot pink bicycle with tassels on the handle bars with their other male friend, wearing a pick backpack, holding hands in class, have their arm around each other, or are hitting each other in the balls with their hand. The things I have seen… You have no idea.
  • It’s a small town; my English teacher told me the first day that they were all shy because I was the first person they’d talked to from the United States, although it’s mentioned just about every day on television in the news or on shows, and many musical artists from the U.S. are well known here.  It’s strange to have so much power over how people view the U.S. here. Whatever I say and do is what is remembered about the U.S. Another exchange student from the U.S. was here a few years ago, and I was told about how she smoke, drank, and had lots of boyfriends. I wonder about what the kids think about the U.S., although I don’t know enough spanish to ask. They did ask if knew Obama personally, and when I mentioned I knew Sharikra, they were awed and asked if it was through Facebook.
  • Most of the students use cursive here, or a similar style with lots of loops or large bubbles for the dots the “i”s. My host niece showed me her English homework one day, and they have to trace words like “apple” and “boy” in cursive. I, on the other hand, use a messy print that has cursive influences from when my grandmother taught me cursive (thank you so much, I couldn’t read anything if I didn’t have those lessons in the back of my mind) that’s similar to my dad’s. The contrast is startling.
    • My inability to read cursive sucks though, because I can’t copy notes very well.


Okay. There seems like so much more I could say, but for now, I’ll leave it here. Questions are appreciated so I know what I write about. :D