Education in a Multi-Ethnic and Multi-Cultural Context: Understanding the past to comprehend the present

In order to understand the high illiteracy rate and educational context on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, it is necessary to take a look back at Nicaragua’s history.

The “Mosquito Shore,” now known as the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, was militarily annexed to the Republic of Nicaragua in 1894 by President Jose Santos Zelaya. A few years after this military annexation, a presidential decree declared that all education in Nicaragua, which included the recently annexed Mosquito Shore, would be taught in Spanish. Many people on the Mosquito Shore, who did not speak Spanish, questioned why they were forced to learn in Spanish.

Classes on the mosquito shore were previously given only in French and English and teachers were brought from Europe, USA, Jamaica and other countries. After the presidential decree, the Mosquito Shore’s Moravian Junior High School was renamed Colegio Moravo Secundaria. The high school had a reputation compared to universities from any part of Nicaragua and it had a very high rate of employability. But all of that would change.

In 1909, the Moravian Junior high school closed for over 10 years, because it needed to transform its curriculum from French and English to Spanish. Administrators had to find Spanish teachers to teach classes in Spanish, but the students couldn’t speak or understand a word in Spanish. On the Caribbean coast, the students spoke primarily English, Miskito, Kriol, Garifuna, and Rama. Many parents reacted by keeping their children at home instead of sending them to class, causing several generations of people on the Caribbean coast to have no education at all. These generations could not even read or write.

Nevertheless, over time kids started to attend the Colegio Moravo Secundaria and throughout the years, other schools opened with Spanish curriculum. Still, much of the history, language, culture, and identity of the Caribbean coast were not taught in the Spanish speaking schools. Over the years, it became apparent that the culture still had not assimilated to the curriculum.

How complicated it is for teachers and students to teach and learn in a multicultural and multilingual context?

The Indigenous and Afro-descendant people whose maternal language is not Spanish usually face more difficult experiences learning in school. They often face difficulty learning to read, both in Spanish and their mother tongue, mainly because grammar and classes in native languages are rarely taught in school, but they never speak Spanish at home. All early grade school language and math lessons are taught in Spanish, a language they barely know.

When kids are at home, parents, mothers, and family members typically speak to their children in either Miskito or Kriol. These languages have prevailed since many people can’t fluently read or write Spanish in rural areas.

This creates a problem. A Kriol speaking teacher with minimal Spanish will teach classes to a Kriol speaking child who also has minimal knowledge of Spanish. While the textbooks are in Spanish, teachers often resort to speaking Kriol or another native language. In another city, a Miskito teacher who speaks only enough Spanish to communicate, but does not know Spanish grammar, will use Spanish text to teach Miskito speaking children. Good intentions to bring Miskito or Kriol textbooks to rural areas are futile since children are not taught to read or write in their native tongue. The result is students who speak very little Spanish and read and write very little in their native language. Without a solid knowledge of either Spanish or their native tongue, students will continue to have a very low literacy rate on the Caribbean coast.

This presents serious issues in the educational environment along the Caribbean coast. In order to increase the literacy rate and better prepare students, it is important to understand the past.

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