Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Collaborating for a Cause

Most recent and exciting news for Li Ch'utam was our invitation and presence at a Educational Reform Conference in Guatemala City this past weekend.  Hosted by our friends at Campus Technologico and Empresarios por la Educacion, Samir and myself were given a key-note speaker position in the conference agenda, where we shared, to a roomful of businesses, organizations  and foundations working within in education discourse, our project in Nueva Mercedes. The highlight of the conference was how to implement technology to increase educational outcomes which gave us a great platform to present on as our work is a grassroots example of using computers to reinforce and in turn extend the knowledge of our pupils.

Following our presentation we were introduced to members of CoEd (a non-profit organization that provides educational resources to marginalized communities and has centers located throughout Guatemala, one being in nearby Teleman); young programmers who have developed a number of educational based computer games; and multiple other business and organizations that briefly but enthusiastically expressed interest in our project.  It was a very speedy conference as people were rushing to get back to work on a busy Friday afternoon, but numbers and emails were exchanged and we are very excited to follow up with many of these potential contributors.

Back in Mercedes, all is going according to plan, as we volunteers continue to work with the teachers throughout the school day and run our after-school program that is becoming more eclectic and productive as Samir has proposed the idea to give small lectures before computer lessons, e.g. basic lessons to begin practicing multiplication questions on Tux Mathematics (one of the educational programs we use).  Thus far the programs we are currently using have been well accepted by the children but I believe that we will need more diversity in the near future.  Meeting the computer game designers gives me hope that this will be no issue, as does discoveries of programs such as "Khan Academy", an educational website that provides video lessons at every level in dozens of different subjects.  In instances like this I am reminded of how increasingly wonderful the worldwide web is.

This past week Samir has finalized plans to organize a field trip for the 6th grade class to Finca Paraiso, a natural hot-spring waterfall located outside of nearby town El Estore.  The 6th grade teacher, Ronny, is very excited about this trip as he feels it will be a fun getaway for the children, but also an enlightening experience for the students to be introduced to one of Guatemala's most beautiful natural settings.  Ideally, we will be able to make this a Li Ch'utam tradition to give the 6th graders, soon be graduates of Escuela Primaria.

With long trips to city and busy days in the classroom during the school-day and after-school program, the work with Li Ch'utam can often be quite arduous and demanding, but the moments of celebration and leisure, such as the Mother's Day Fiesta, and refereeing a football game for the children, keep everything fresh and gives us the sense that we are accomplishing a lot and building strong relationships along the way.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Poco a Poco

The month of April in Mercedes and surrounding areas has been exciting for both its inhabitants and the volunteers and coordinators at Li Ch'utam.  To start the month, there was the annual celebration of Easter, known as Semana Santa, a week-long festival of rejoicing, relaxation and prayer, and to finish the month was a community-fair in the regions commercial center Teleman.  Li Ch'utam very much so enjoyed these festivities but much of the excitement I mention refers to the developments of our team and our work.

The majority of the progress is seen by the development(s) of our IT after-school program.  In my first month here, we held classes five times a week for a minimum of two hours.  With only two computers for twenty students, there would be some days where only a half of the children got to work on their reading and typing skills.  This high ratio of students to computers was further problematic as the majority of the children were often bored and overly-excited to participate, thus becoming distractions to those focused on their lesson.  The sessions, however fun and exciting, were much of the time stunted by the lack of resources and organization.

To our fortune, our donation-call for laptop computers was answered and delivered in early-April.  With five computers recently brought to the valley, as well as two previously owned computers that have been fixed, we have eight functioning computers that have all been updated with programs that offer a diverse amount of subjects including mathematics, typing, reading, geography, problem-solving and more.  These two developments have been fundamental to our class, making each day more productive, as each child is getting longer and more challenging lessons.  This is also creating a popular trend as we see new students enter our classroom everyday as they hear about what we have to offer.

Many of the organizational issues we have experienced, such as overcrowding of the classroom and inconsistent attendance, likewise have been greatly improved by the new equipment and software.  In addition to other unsolved organizational issues, we are currently developing  a greater system to track each child's progress in particular subjects to make sure that our work is clearly effective in raising competency levels, and we are constructing small class groups of 8-10 children that will be assigned and announced daily to specific work days and time slots throughout the week.  We find this will be evermore so helpful with; preparation for classes, e.g. knowing which children we will be working with and how we can tend to their strengths and weaknesses;  and overall smoothness and tranquility of the class time.

Other developments related to the IT classes include preparation for construction of an IT-Center in Mercedes and greater collaboration with other education-related Guatemalan organizations.  Much of the IT-Center preparation is being handled by one our newest volunteer Samir Messaoudi who will be with us until the end of June.  We look forward to sharing more about this exciting project.  Picking up where last year's volunteers David and Caleb left off, we are in contact with Guatemala City's Campus Technology, that incorporates a number of different organizations and projects devoted to developing educational software.  Our two teams are equally excited to be working with one another.

With three volunteers, including myself, and more to come in the months ahead, we are becoming a stronger presence in the school-day classrooms.  Speaking on behalf of myself, my relationship with the third grade instructor Elda is growing and I am becoming more comfortable with sharing ideas and concerns with her.  She in turn has become more trusting in me.  For example, this past week she had asked me to create a classroom decoration and this coming week I have planned a self-portrait art project that I will be sharing with the children.

This month we were thrilled to have two of Li Ch'utam's founders Hannes Neimann and Henning Droege visit us, each being able to spend substantial time visiting the school and helping the IT-classes gain much of the momentum I have just discussed.  As a volunteer who has communicated with Hannes and Henning via emails and skype for the past few months it was a pleasure to be able to meet them in person and further get to know them on a greater personal level.  In addition to these visits, we also were so fortunate to have Bryan Lim, a Singaporean traveler, visit the project and create a video focusing on the IT-project.

Bryan's Personal Blog:

Much of the hard-work was celebrated in nights cooking and eating together, sharing experiences, ideas and future goals.  In these moments shared between a group of young men being from Germany, France, Singapore, Poland, United States and Guatemala, the project's title Li Ch'utam, meaning "coming together", could not stand further correctly.

A motto that I have heard again and again here in the valley and elsewhere in Guatemala, which is now becoming a Li Ch'utam mantra of some sort, is "poco a poco" meaning "little by little".  The road is long and challenging, but that is what makes it fun and worthwhile.