Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Arrival of Textbooks

School continued this week as we hung on to a piece of good news from one of our contacts in Guatemala City regarding textbooks due to arrive any day. On Monday we were delighted to see that textbooks had arrived for the children of Nueva Mercedes; one for each child in two subjects: Math and Language Arts. Though the textbooks arrived late they are a welcome supplement to the current lessons and very helpful in reinforcing concepts in a way that requires less monotonous copying of the whiteboard. The only issue now is that fourth, fifth, and sixth grade do not have textbooks and in second grade there are only 25 textbooks for 36 students. We are hoping that the rest of the textbooks will arrive at a later date but this is certainly not guaranteed. Also we were informed by the ministry of education that this year the government is only providing textbooks for grades 1-3. Perhaps next year this will change but it certainly leaves the grades 4-6 in a more difficult position. In any event, our work in improving the level of education has been greatly aided by the late arrival of good learning materials.
This major improvement in the classrooms has increased not only the amount being learned but it makes it much easier for students to comprehend what they are being taught. The traditional system of copying an entire lesson from the whiteboard with little or no explanation (which is typical when textbooks are lacking) is now much less frequent. Students can actually spend the majority of their time reading, comprehending, and completing fun exercises instead. First grade is using the textbooks everyday and second grade is beginning slowly to incorporate the new materials into their daily routine. A full shift to individual textbook use is due in the beginning of March.
Aside from the good textbooks news our work as teacher’s aids is beginning to bear fruit in other ways as well. As Dave and I begin to understand the dynamics of the teachers we aid in the mornings, we are now able to contribute more each day. Every teacher in the world has his or her own rhythm and style of teaching. This past week it has been apparent (as Dave and I both agreed) that we are now in sync with the rhythm and style of our respective teachers in first and second grade. As their trust for us grows and we begin to understand their character better, class time has improved greatly. There has been much more collaboration, better planning, and more use of creativity on a daily basis. We are also much more aware of each teacher’s strengths. Since we recognize these strengths it is much easier to know where to contribute and where to be less vocal and let the teacher excel. One testament to this new bond between teacher and teacher’s aid was apparent between David and the first grade teacher last week. He suggested that the students learn gardening and nutrition in an interactive way—by planting a garden. The teacher was completely supportive and took initiative (something unimaginable in the first month) instructing each student in the class to bring a few germinated seeds to plant in the schoolyard beside the classroom building. The students responded to this idea with enthusiasm and a few days later each one showed up to class with a few germinating seeds in their hands. Now the beginnings of a great school garden are taking root all thanks to some good communication and a little collaboration.
Between Martha (the second grade teacher) and I a bridge of trust is beginning to build even more rapidly than I anticipated. Martha has been a teacher for many years and is now beginning to express her frustrations with the current education system. She even emphasized to me her confusion at the lack of importance local families place on education. Yesterday as six students did not show up school she shook her head in frustration and explained to me that this was wrong saying, “this view of education must change!” I could not agree more that a greater importance must be placed on education and it is great to see teachers that recognize this as well.

Next week we look forward to seeing how the textbooks continue to augment the level of education and hope to meet with the local town committee members again to brainstorm more programs ideas. The key now will be identifying local leaders to help run the programs or even run them fully in order for all of Li Ch’utam’s activities to be sustainable. We have built a strong presence and growing trust in the school but it is critical now to make this increasing value of education sustainable and to begin branching out to other effective areas as well. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Li Ch'utam's Projects in the Polochic Valley

Our Projects in the Polochic

We rolled in to Nueva Mercedes last night after a few hop, skips, and jumps through the mountains. The kids ran up to the fence to welcome us back as we played soccer with the adults…5-4, I let in the last goal, but it’s more about laughs and time spent together as a community. We are happy to be back in school with the kids everyday trying to be good examples for the 1&2 grade teachers who are making class more creative and efficient… poco a poco (little by little.)  They kids don’t learn much in class, but it’s something we’re working to fix every day and show them that learning can be fun, interesting, and challenging.

They are so fun to be with when they are learning new things; their faces are so bright and amazed to see the photo they’ve just taken, or a sentence they’ve written on a computer, or play a new sport.  We’ve been very lucky so far to have such good friends passing by to meet the community and have fun on a cultural exchange.  One of our Australian friends from Mexico even decided to stay as a 1-3 grade teacher for our friends at Sepur private school a few rivers down.  Now we are working in two sites in the Polochic and have a great team of people trying to improve the local primary education. Any and all ideas can be adapted for both groups. We are happy to welcome Li Ch’utam’s next volunteers in early March. They are Northeastern students who are happy to help and practice their own style of sustainable development. As I type they are surrounding a table at Espresso Royal CafĂ© in Boston planning a week-long photography/phys ed curriculum playfully dubbed Kodaks and Crayons that will help the kids look at life through a different lens. This will be part of our after-school program for anyone who wants help with their schoolwork, wants extra work, or is just curious as to what the big fuss is all about.

This after school program is intended to help more students develop their education past the 6th grade where the majority ends their studies each year.  Kids who wish to pursue their education and interests will have access to tutors, computers full of educational software, books, and fun projects to grow individual & community development. Any ideas about creative, interesting after school activities or curriculum would be warmly accepted and likely adapted for our curriculum if relevant, so please do send those comments to my facebook page or e-mail,

 In the name of innovation and sustainable development we have been exploring with our partners at Campus Tec in the city some very interesting possibilities for educational technology. We were invited to Maria Zaghi’s Innovation class at Universidad del Valle in Guatemala City this past week. Her students were wonderful and have decided to develop an open-source software for cheap tablet pc’s that will put the nation curriculum for all Guatemalan primary school students into an interactive adventure video game that will allow students to  journey through an educational world using the touch screen tablets and pens. I’m sure they will do a great job and enjoy their experience working as a team and producing something with so much potential for replicability.  Our feet are firmly planted in the fertile soil of Nueva Mercedes where we will work with the people to develop local educated leaders, and in the name of innovation as global social entrepreneurs we’re reaching for the stars. 

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Road Continues

             The squawk of exotic birds and a moist breeze wash over David and I each morning to lift us out of sleep. Our house has no windows, but rather huge openings strung up with screens to keep the evening throng of insects out. It is quite a change from the caves of homes to which we had become accustomed in our urban lives past, but a welcome change at that. There is no boundary between our resting place and the outside wilderness here, save a thin strip of mesh screen, and I think we would not have it any other way. Much like the nature of our work here, in contrast to previous jobs in the United States, everything is much more interactive and tangible.

Free of office cubicles, time sheets and the like, we are at work day and night. Any hopes that our time here would be an extended summer vacation have diminished, to our delight, as our commitment to make a real impact in six months grows stronger. That is not to say we do not enjoy each and every day, but it is to say that all the markers of hard work are apparent: falling asleep each night just an hour or two after dinner, awakening early with no aid of alarm clocks,  and soar muscles and brains pushed so hard that an hour of reading a good book each evening is a welcome escape. With every new person we meet, every new fruit we try, and every new schoolchild we teach, we move slowly but surely in progress—the long-term vision of which David and I have spent the last four days arduously deliberating on our balcony conference room (It coincidentally happens to be both our favorite part of the house and the spot with best Internet reception though like explorers on a distant planet searching for signs of life we sometimes must turn our computers to and fro, even leaning over the balcony’s edge to pick up any traces of internet). Our meager air card, however, has served us well in hours of research and many a conference call this last week.
We have been here a month now and seen the extent to which the people of Nueva Mercedes are in need. This was no surprise, but this week we have begun the fun of grouping the needs and actually settling on courses of action. It is in this tedious process to which I alluded previously regarding hard work. That being said, our proximity with the people has given us a refreshed understanding of the tasks ahead. The inhabitants of Nueva Mercedes are a tireless bunch of laborers—mostly farmers. They work in the same fields and forests in which their families bathe, their children fetch firewood, and their wives plant gardens. In the west we all have personal lives and professional lives. It seems that an abyss lies between them that we hope will never grow shallow. In the Polochic Valley there is a single, simple life for all, and this is the life that Dave and I have discovered and live now. Work is a constant process as we keep reading, writing, and taking in every morsel of knowledge to be had around us. So as the lines between work and play fade, we begin to see outcomes and the picture of how we will facilitate the progression of our neighbors here. More comprehensive and detailed plans have been drawn up now, of which Dave and I will share in a later post. This was the fruit of our efforts this week so much so that when the weekend arrived we both found ourselves, again roused early, alert, and in the “conference room” discussing future projects, doing research, and continuing to try and make something legible out of our mountain of thoughts, ideas and ambitions.
The arrival of our good friend, Khaled is now upon us. He is Li’Chutam’s second volunteer (the first being our good friend Gabby) and was a welcome surprise yesterday. We arrived home from a lunch with the neighbors to find Khaled in road-worn garb, helping himself to a bowl of fried potatoes from our pantry. Khaled, was a good friend of ours in Mexico and will be a welcome addition to our work here each day for as long as his nomadic spirit warrants him to stay. Gabby proved to us that a fresh perspective from a traveled individual has much to contribute to Li’Chutam’s work. We anticipate that Khaled will certainly have some valuable insight. Dave and I are excited to see what the coming weeks have to offer as the real implementation phase begins, meetings in Guatemala City are expected, and the evaluation/deliberation phase is winding down. But, in the meantime, the sweetness of the humid valley air in the morning and the peacefulness of the afternoon showers will continue to be welcome luxuries.