Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Ready? Set? Go!

First things first, I’m sorry it’s taken so long to write this post. You see, I've been wanting to explain what our experience has been in the classrooms of Nueva Mercedes, working with the schoolteachers to improve the day to day learning of the students. I thought I must write about our past week and all of the reasons why the public education taking place in this town has been so pitiful, so that everyone would understand where we were starting from before we try to improve things.

What came out was 3 pages describing the horrible conditions in the classroom, the lack of discipline, and overall horrible teaching that was going on in grades 1-6. I looked this over many times contemplating whether to post it or not and I finally decided that many of you would be downright shocked to hear what has been going on in these classrooms for the last few years.  I decided when all is said and done it is not problems that people need to hear, but rather solutions, so I’ll briefly pass over some of the issues in the classroom and then present the agenda for a meeting we are planning with the teachers this Monday as our first school week comes to a close.  (Special thanks to Gabrielle Ward from Australia, who was the first member of Li’Ch utam’s Global Exchange program for this new year and proved invaluable in helping us get the ball rolling)

Issues in the Classrooms!!! (Not unique to Guatemalan public schools!)

- School enrollment down from 151 to 100 from last year

         -  No Discipline (Kids punching each other in the face, running out of the classroom, playing soccer in the classroom, stealing school supplies, and yelling things out loud… With No Consequence
      - Enormous inefficiency (starting class 20 minutes late even though everyone is already present and seated including the teacher, disappearing for 30 minutes in the middle of the class without saying anything, takes 2 hours for 1st graders to color in 3 shapes in the 3 primary colors, but it isn’t taught why they are called the primary colors,  and the teacher sits in the corner at her room waiting for the kids to finish so she can rubber stamp each individual notebook)

       -  Girls refuse to talk in class and are not encouraged to do so, girls are not mixed with boys in the seating arrangements , and the best students sit in the first 3 rows while the worst students sit in the last 3 rows)

       - No creativity or critical thinking involved in the teaching method (Teacher reads new vocabulary and the class repeats it…Repeat this process until the new topic has been “learned”…apply to all subjects)

       - Lessons are not planned in advance (teachers often spend an hour a day reading the lesson book to figure out how they will teach today’s lesson)

           -  No leadership or accountability among the teachers (Best teacher on the staff, who also happened to be the staff supervisor, the record keeper, and the soccer coach was relocated to a different town yesterday because the teachers voted him out for being too demanding)

Immediate Solutions to be Posed at Friday’s Teachers Meeting to be Implemented on Monday
       - Assigned seating to mix the boys with the girls and the more advanced students with the slower students 

       - Labeling the fronts of the notebooks to prevent the thrice daily 20 minute waste of time rifling through notebooks to pull out the specific notebook for each lesson

       -  “Common” sense: No leaving the classroom while students are present, no cell phone in class (teachers), and no stamping individual notebook FROM THE BACK CORNER OF THE ROOM (So individual checking of the students work takes place at their desk proactively instead of waiting for them to finish 10 minutes of work in 2 hours)

       - Discipline Every act of violence…no exceptions, but not with more violence (Stand up in the front of the room facing the class with arms raised above head for lengths of time depending on the infraction, while being tested to ensure that students are still paying attention) 0 tolerance
       - Downtime exercises (Instead of punishing students who finish early and talk to friends by a slap on the hand with a ruler…incentivize finishing early with downtime activities that will allow faster workers to continue learning at their own pace with extra, more advances activities) 
       - Introduce student hand raising in the classroom to ensure comprehension by random testing and to teach respect by preventing uncontrolled yelling of answers

Most importantly, tomorrow we will ask the teachers to review their lesson book for the upcoming week so as to suggest 2 creative ways of teaching each upcoming lesson. This will either a) give teachers ideas that they WILL use in class or b) get teachers to start thinking in more creative ways of their own, even if they don’t choose to use our specific suggestions.

This is our immediate game plan to fix the issues in the schoolroom on top of introducing extracurricular programs to the youth of Nueva Mercedes. Stay with us in the weeks and months that follow to see how the school reforms are coming along, as well as our technology literacy program! 

Please feel free to send any suggestion to or leave your comments directly on this page. 

Pictures from Top to Bottom: 2nd grade Physical Education Excercise run by teacher, 2nd grade Physical Education Excercise run by Caleb and Gabby, 1st grade teacher sitting in the corner correcting papers as most of the class goes joyfully unsupervised, 2nd graders learning to use a camera for the first time

Monday, January 16, 2012

A Warm Welcome Indeed

Our journey continued last Tuesday as we flew into Nueva Mercedes on a four-person “avioncito.” The plane was rather tail heavy for comfort sake, but we managed to lift-off none the less and soon had a bird’s eye view of Guatemala City.  A few hot air currents and nervous laughs later we crossed over a large mountain range and found ourselves overlooking the vast Polochic Valley, our home for the next 6 months. This valley is one of the most fertile areas in Guatemala, consisting of many a snaking river buffeted by rich, green plots of farmland and forest laid between parallel mountain ranges. The plane’s captain and nephew of our host, Beto, got us to Nueva Mercedes in just 45 minutes; not bad considering the micro-bus would have taken 6 hours and no doubt been packed like a can of sardines. A smooth landing on a grass airstrip at the “Constancia” farmhouse meant we had reached our final destination where our host Klaus awaited us. He gave us a brief history of the farm and surrounding areas as he drove us to his house to meet his wife. the farm’s matriarch, Sylvia. Klaus and Sylvia are part of an old community of German farmers in the Polochic Valley. They have been here for generations and are responsible for much of the infrastructure and the towns that have sprung up over the years. Klaus explained the local indigenous farmers’ way of life and their connections to the valley and region as a whole. Our history lesson made it quite apparent that ties between the people and the land run as deep as its winding rivers and are as old as the mountains themselves.
The next day Dave and I ventured to Teleman bright and early hoping to expel some of the energy we had built up in months of excited anticipation over our arrival here in Nueva Mercedes. Teleman is a neighboring, larger village just a quick hitchhike down the road from Nueva Mercedes. We were determined to explore the open-air market that occurs every Wednesday. We had no intention of paying “gringo-price” for the goods being sold, actually we had no intention of paying any price at all for that matter; we were more interested in the free culture lesson being offered by the families of buyers and sellers. As expected, we were stared at without restraint for the 3 hours that we stumbled through the crowds of indigenous Guatemalans like 2 drunken giraffes. What we learned was well worth the price. Apparently on Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning all of the farmers in the surrounding mountain ranges and foothills descend to the Marketplace and gather to buy and sell some of the highest quality fruits and vegetables on the planet. We passed by innumerable, unnamable objects we had never seen, larger than life carrots, yams the size of small children, and a vast array of counterfeit soccer jerseys, showerheads, cell phone accessories and dozens of other small trinkets. It was quite the Wednesday to say the least and a remarkable introduction to the humble and collective nature of the Polochic inhabitants.
Nueva Mercedes welcomed us home after our little excursion that morning. It has roughly 75 families, a few small corner stores, one primary school, and a soccer pitch. Running water and electricity are a given in our freshly constructed volunteer house fit for kings, but most residents lack 1 or both of these amenities in their own homes. Imagine the average family here of 9 people living on a dirt floor, with nothing to protect them from the relentless swarms of Mosquitos that have been known to plague the valley. As the average household has 7 children you would think that there would be many more students enrolled in the school, but this is something that Li Ch’utam is focusing on in the coming months. Our plan is to implement an after school program to provide an extracurricular backdrop to the meager education system and encourage more children to want to come to school.
In the meantime we have been building relationships with the school’s five teachers and school director, who made it clear that the vision for the school’s development is optimistic and limitless. but the lack of manpower and resources has been a crippling handicap. However, little by little we are making advancements. Along with several volunteer parents from the community we gave the school a fresh paint job and took a machete to the overgrown schoolyard. Needless to say these kids were welcomed into their first day of class with a crisp message of new beginnings. We will be strengthening our relationships with the teachers as David and I begin to work with the 1st and 2nd graders this upcoming week. We hope to harness the drive of the children in their yearning to learn along with the vision of the enthusiastic director and hopefully reflect all of this positive energy outward to the parents who are largely indifferent toward their kids’ education. In any case our objectives are clear and now the path to accomplishing them is steadily manifesting itself. Each day we have been playing soccer with the children and then the adults of the village after they finish their work shifts and becoming closer friends with many of them. While at times we still may appear as albino giraffes who stumbled into the wrong village one day, we are determined to learn from this community and share any support we can offer to these wonderful people. One way we have been building trust and taking in our surroundings here is by working the fields with the men of the village.

The first such man was named Norberto. He took us around to see how coffee and vanilla were grown and harvested. We then were invited by to attend a village meeting. We were informed, after building rapport throughout the workday with Norberto, that this would be our time of formal introduction to the community by Norberto himself. With excitement we attended the meeting and watched as family after family poured into the courtyard of the schoolhouse and the meeting began. The leader of the town committee began speaking softly in Q’eqchi (the local indigenous dialect) as the town sat in a wide circle around him in the grass listening and swatting mosquitos in silence. The meeting continued like this for about an hour without a single word being under stood by either David or myself. Then, all of the sudden, we heard our names and we looked up as 100 pairs of eyes stared back at us. In that uncertain moment the next 6 months of work seemed to hang in the balance, we breathed a sigh of relief as the entire circle erupted into applause and then laughter as we failed to sit down when the meeting continued. Like I said, we really had no idea what Norberto was telling these people, but it seemed to be important. Dave and I both knew that we had our work cut out for us; not only through Li Ch’ utam empowering these people to lead themselves to a brighter future, but also simply to repay the kindness and hospitality that the families of Nueva Mercedes have already shown us in the first days of our journey.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Bienvenido a Guatemala Amigitos

That's it, tomorrow morning the journey begins to Alta Verapaz. We arrived in Guatemala City about 5 days ago and it has been a whirlwind tour of wonderful people, creative ideas, and powerful people who are doing good things for the right reasons. You could say Guatemala took us in with love in its eyes because the perfect people have come together at the perfect time to make our future in Guatemala more sustainable and even more beautiful than it already is here.
 Basically, we met Maria Zaghi of Campus Tec for breakfast at our hostel and we were off to the races from there. She gave us the tour of Tech City in Guatemala which is a Silicon Valley type hub of technological innovation and social entrepreneurship.  She brought us to all of the small businesses and teams of young entrepreneurs working on creative projects all with a tech savy artistic edge. These teams all had advice for us and avenues for collaboration we could tap into over the next 6 months with Li Ch' utam. One of these startups named Milk N Cookies has an online game called Mini Mundi which teaches kids to care for their online planet by recycling types of trash properly everyday they login and playing fun mind strengthening games for dexterity and strategy which accumulate points in an online scoreboard. The kids receive medals for good care of their planet and are released a new game each week they continue up to 16 weeks. I'm happy to say I'm climbing the game's leaderboards rather quickly, my "mini-mundi" is in tip top shape, and the kids in Nueva Mercedes are going to have a heck of a time beating me in the game where the mosquito cleans up all the trashy dust particles. These are the kind of ideas and projects we have been presented with from all angles the minute we entered the country. And its not just from Maria or her wonderful friends throughout the city who she has introduced us to. Our generation is kicking butt and taking names as well, or so they say in America…really intelligent 20-30 year olds are full of bright ideas and entrepreneurial zeal in this country.

So far the family and friends of Henning Droege have cared for us in a way that only Guatemalans could. Henning Droege and Hannes Niemann started Li Ch’utam International some years ago with the intention of using local resources while alleviating serious problems in communities he grew up and loves with all his heart.  His cousin Fernando took us to our meetings in the city, helped us prepare our office with phones and internet, and took us to the most delicious Guatemalan food stands all while giving us the guided tour from a bright yellow Volkswagon Van.  As if this wasn’t enough he arranged our transportation to the family farm, cousin Beto’s airplane should be a lovely way to see our new home for the first time.  We packed plenty of peanut butter, bread, and cookies to hold us over until our bags arrive on bus a few days later. Not that we really need food at this point we are so excited to meet the community and the rest of Henning’s family tomorrow to begin a wonderful 6 month project where anything is possible. Who knows what will happen now until July, but I can promise it will be an exciting journey, full of successes, failures, projects, and relationships that will help sustain a bright future in Nueva Mercedes. If the first 5 days was any indication of what Guatemala holds in store for us, there is truly much to learn and much to love in this little green country.  Before we begin our journey, we really must thank the good doctor Ofelia Cervantes for her wonderful work with youth leadership camps for sustainable development and social entrepreneurship that she is running out of Universidad de las Americas in Puebla, Mexico. Without her I'm quite sure our last 5 days in Guatemala and the next 210 would have been extremely different…Funny how one person can change the course of events taking place in another city or another country with just an e-mail.  Now would be a good time to ask everyone for money to support our projects as you read about them in the coming weeks & months. So I think I will ask you all to support Li Ch' utam and other well-intentioned, sustainable, scalable projects like this one as you hear about more and more of them springing up around the world. The support I ask of you is not monetary, rather that you follow our progress and stay involved in projects like ours. If you wish to contact us regarding getting involved from where you are or by visiting the community please do so here.