Researching Education in Guatemala and the U.S. to Improve Mathematics Instruction: An Alpha Chi Opportunity to Engage

Associate Professor Dr. Jeanne Tunks co-sponsors an Alpha Chi chapter at one of the largest state schools in the country, the University of North Texas (UNT). While smaller schools can truly get to know all chapter members over weekly lunches, the sheer number of Alpha Chi members made that impossible for UNT’s chapter. “Monthly meetings didn’t go well,” says Tunks who after 16 years as an Alpha Chi sponsor has learned a few things about running an honors society at a big school.

For starters, she works with students leaders and other chapter sponsors to organize the chapter around projects of interest, rather than standing meetings. “About six years ago, we switched over to a project-based model where, during induction, we reveal the project options and say, ‘Would you like to get involved?’” Each project has its own life, its own student leadership, its own research, and its own decision-making.

One of the steadiest and most successful projects centers around Tunks’ own research into mathematics instruction in Guatemala as well as in the school system of UNT’s hometown, Denton, Texas. Her work in Guatemala started in 2011. “I set out to see how they teach math there because the failure rate in math among Central American and other Latino immigrants in Texas is so very high,” says Tunks. Her central research question became, “Do they think of math differently in Central America?” To find out, she lived in Guatemala for six months and studied math instruction. The following year, she started an international teacher to teacher exchange program between teachers in Guatemala and teachers in Texas. “We knew the change would have to come at the teaching level,” she says.

That’s where her Alpha Chi chapter enters the story. With their sponsor traveling back and forth to Guatemala, her students grew curious. “They were like, hey, we want to come over, too.” Now four trips later, the chapter has found their niche. To participate, students must attend mandatory project meetings, commit to the service of a Guatemalan community (and presenting at the Alpha Chi National Convention), and fundraise for their trip. In Guatemala, the students live together in a house in the village of Jocotenango, just outside of Antigua. Working with a partner non-governmental organization (NGO), the Alpha Chi students—a mix of Spanish and non-Spanish speaking students—do various projects with the NGO and include, but are not limited to: teach English, math, paint murals, homework assist, help teachers, etc..

In the village of Jocotenango, the students work directly with the children of coffee plantation and other subsistence workers. There, the kids face entrenched poverty, a failing education system, and a lack of basic materials like books, notebooks, and pencils. “The kids don’t see any other future than following their parents doing simple labor,” says Tunks. From her research, she has identified education as a vehicle for change. “We believe there are two gateways out of there. One is math and another one is speaking English.” The cards are stacked against these kids, though. Teaching English is not a priority of the Guatemalan government. “The poverty rate is so high in Guatemala,” says Tunks. “The schools are funded at $14 a year per student. A year.”

Working with a local NGO, the Alpha Chi students split their time, teaching English and math, and on occasion, running workshops. Over the years, the team has reached some poignant conclusions that explain not only conditions in Guatemala but also back home in Denton, TX. For years, many U.S. teachers assumed that immigrant families didn’t care about their kids’ education. “Their parents didn’t show up for parent-teacher conferences, so everybody assumed they didn’t care,” says Tunks. “Well, that’s totally wrong.”

Observing parents in Guatemala proved enlightening. In Jocotenango, parents drop and pick up their children at the school every day, but, says Tunks, “The way school works here is that parents come to the school and stop ten steps away from the school door. When they pick up their kids, they’re waiting ten paces from the door. The schools are simply not accustomed to welcoming of parents. No one comes inside the school to talk about their children’s success. In the school in Jocotenango, a second school comes in the same building 30 minutes after the first school finishes the day.” An observation thousands of miles away from Texas helped explain why immigrants, who love and seek desperately to educate their children, are nevertheless confused by Americans customs such as the parent-teacher conference.

UNT chapter’s impressive research on literacy instruction throughout the city of Denton, which the group presented to the 2017 Alpha Chi National Convention, led to an understanding of how a community rises up to help its children learn to read. Up against a particularly strong group of collaborative projects, the UNT team, to their great surprise, won the top prize. “My students were so excited when they called our name. We did a little happy dance at the table,” she says. But then it hit them: after a bad year of fundraising and facing low offers, the $5,000 prize money could pump right into next year’s trip which was looking more than a little doubtful.  “Oh, my gosh,” Tunks remembers saying, “we can go to Guatemala now. We’ve got the money.” In an act of shared goodwill, the entire team agreed that all the prize money would pass on to the 2017 student trip.

Reflecting on the chapter’s success and the good work they’ve accomplished in Texas and Guatemala, Tunks says: “It was a really wonderful thing and really spoke to them as human beings and their care for the greater good.” After sponsoring Alpha Chi for 16 years, Tunks calls it an addiction. “I think it’s so worth it to empower students to believe in themselves. My assumption is that they’ll go out and do something good somewhere else and continue with scholarship and research for their lifetimes. It helps them grow as people and makes them better citizens and better contributors to the world at large.”