Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Hurricane Beaches

Living here in El Porvenir, 15 to 20 feet from the ocean (depending on whether it is high tide or low tide), has allowed me to become a bit of a wave watcher. I’ve come to know the many colors that the sea can be, much like an opal or mother-of-pearl. I’ve seen it be sapphire blue, emerald green, slate grey, and chocolate milk brown.

Watching Hurricane Ernesto pass just off the coast was interesting to me after growing up near the Texas Gulf Coast but hardly right on it as I am here on the Caribbean. I was able to watch the changes of the beaches here just outside the house between my first visit at the end of June and now.  It was a full moon in early August, not long before the storm, so tides were higher than normal, and each day it seemed that the beach was melting away bit by bit. During and right after the storm, there was no beach, and 2 feet less of land than had been there the month before, but one could tell that the beach was suspended in the water, which looked like frothy chocolate milk. It wasn’t until a few days later that the sand had settled out of the water and back into a beach, only now with a new sandbar/tide pool/lagoon about twenty feet closer than it had been previously!

I took a series of photos over my time here, all from pretty much the same place on the shore. While not the most exacting of scientific processes, it has brought home to me the sense of the sea as a force to which one must adapt rather than attempt to control.

The photos are below, but I also created a pdf that lets you see them side-by-side.


1. July 1st-ish

2. As Ernesto stormed toward us

3. About halfway through Ernesto’s off-coast travels

4. A week after the storm


1. Around the first of July

2. As Ernesto came toward us

3. After the first section of Ernesto has passed by us

4. A week after the storm

Sunday, August 12, 2012

PASA Workshops off the ground!

PASA workshops have finally gotten off the ground! Read the report about this effort to improve teaching in semi-rural and rural Honduras at pasamaestros.blogspot.com.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Luck of the Gringo

Well, I arrived in El Porvenir last night. Now that I’ve arrived I’m safe. And I’m as sound as I was when I left the States, for what that’s worth. But this time the getting here was an exercise in redefining “luck.”

At the airport in DC, I arrived with adequate time to make my flight. Except that the airline had apparently scheduled more early morning flights than it was willing to supply to staff to check in. You see, as the airport doesn’t open until a certain hour, there is only so much arriving early that actually helps. You arrive too early, and there is no one to check you in. You arrive on time, as did everyone else, and there aren’t enough people to check you in. Bad luck! Thankfully, a nice TSA officer passed me forward in the security line (with the required lecture of being earlier next time…sigh!) and I had a decent layover in Miami to let my baggage catch up. Good luck!

I arrived in San Pedro Sula with my 100 pounds of luggage (almost all of it supplies for the PASA workshops) and discovered that the bus company has changed its schedule and the bus to the central bus depot had already left and there wouldn’t be another one leaving the airport until the evening. Bad luck! But, I had plenty of time to take a taxi to the central bus depot and get on the afternoon bus to Ceiba. Good luck!

So, off I go in the taxi. And we are about half way there and I start to send a text message to folks back home that I’ve arrived safely when, BAM! We get into a fender bender. Bad luck! I delete the message, decide to wait to send any news until I make it to El Porvenir, and just not tempt fate. As for the fender bender, the traffic in front of us was stopped due to a police checkpoint in the road. Our driver thought to pull to the right, avoiding it being a head-on collision, and thankfully there was no traffic in the lane to our right. We walked away without a scratch on our bodies and minimal damage to the vehicles. Good luck!

I made it onto the bus for Ceiba and proceeded to watch the movie they were showing, which wasn’t anything amazing or riveting. Bad luck! But it takes place on a tropical island and there were lots of young men in swim trunks to look at. Good luck!

As we neared Ceiba, we found ourselves in the hours of traffic back up after a four car collision on the bridge over the Rio Danto west of town. I couldn’t figure out where I packed the number for my friends who were picking me up to let them know what is happening, and when I arrived, they weren’t there. Bad luck! However, I flagged down the last taxi in the parking lot before it pulled away and it turned out to be Cesar, a taxista I know from El Pino, just the other side of El Porvenir! He gave me a ride into Porvenir and had a numbers for the folks there so I could call to let them know I was coming. We arrived safely, and 18 hours after my adventure started I finally finished it. Good luck!

I guess, when the bad luck gets balanced out by the good luck, you know the universe wants you to be exactly where you are.

Monday, July 9, 2012

First steps...

This is a republication of my first  progress report to the Omprakash Foundation.
In just a few days, PASA workshops (the Spanish acronym for Promoting Improved and Sustained Learning) have gone from being a potential to being an exciting eventuality. Despite some trouble getting to El Porvenir (missing flights) and a day of school closures lost to a teacher work stoppage (in remembrance of the coup three years ago), I managed to turn only three full working days into successful first steps in setting up this pilot project.

It wasn’t easy, and I could not have done it without the wise advice and help of several people from Honduras Children. In all, I was able to:
  • meet with and gain the support of the district’s superintendent and several important community leaders,
  • arrange for the use of the municipal building as a workshop location,
  • visit with teachers at 15 primary schools and 9 kindergartens,
  • connect with 3 more primary schools and 7 more kindergartens that I couldn’t visit (several were closed on the days I visited), and
  • visit 13 of the 15 townships in the municipality (only missing the last two because of how difficult it is to access them due to distance and poor road infrastructure).
The plan and budget is to work with 30 teachers of kindergarten and first grade in the Municipality of El Porvenir (15 rural townships along the north coast of Honduras) to identify and address common instructional challenges. Interest among teachers is so high that I worry I may find myself turning away participants! I will have to begin looking at options for expanding inclusion and/or which factors to use to decide who gets to participate, with both project objectives and equity being important. After all, the poorest schools may need the workshops the most, but bringing together a mix of schools is part of the plan’s structure to foment change and community building across the demographics.
 My discussions with teachers and observations of classrooms brought home to me many of the challenges the teachers face and that I will be facing in my delivery of the workshops. Honduran culture can be very status-oriented and hierarchical. Education is very much based on the “banking” model, in which students are passive recipients and teachers are the givers of knowledge. Teachers are members of a school culture that follows guidelines and curriculums without often comprehending the reasons why particular aspects thereof may or may not work. Students are responsible for learning, and failure to learn is their fault rather than that of an unresponsive educational system. The realities of child development are poorly understood, motivation is extrinsic, and the usual challenges of any classroom are compounded by poverty and poor health.
All that said, I found many teachers who were eager to improve their practice and gain access to greater knowledge and the potential to change. That is the aim of PASA, keying into that motivation to make a difference and providing the tools to do so in sustainable ways. As I begin the process of laying out a plan for the workshops and for more in-depth work with the teachers, I find myself focusing on how to help teachers get kids more deeply involved in the learning process. This seems to be breaking down into two sub-themes, (1) how to use a deeper understanding of child development to help teachers use children’s learning patterns as an asset rather than a deficit, and (2) how to teach in ways that actually avoid problematic behaviors by children (what I see as a more empowering spin on the idea of “classroom behavior management.”)
I also know that talking about different practices will do little to foment change; instead, the different strategies, from choral response to graphing to using the inquiry process, will have to be built into the workshops themselves, along with opportunities to reflect alone or in small groups. Understanding the cultural nature of teaching and what these teachers are up against in their efforts to improve their own practice is also requiring me to begin mapping out strategies not just for classroom practice but for the motivation and maintenance of the change process, perhaps a simple self-reporting system to help teachers monitor their own progress over time.
I’m excited to keep moving forward with the background research now that I have more exact knowledge of the issues on the ground and the perspectives of the teachers themselves. I’m especially excited to have been so warmly welcomed into the community of educators and I look forward to deepening the relationships I have begun to build.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Honduras Ho!

This August I will FINALLY be back in Honduras! Working with a small NGO called HondurasChildren in the town of El Porvenir along the northern coast, I will be working on workshops for teachers of kindergarten and first grade. Afterwards, I hope to be able to use the internet to network workshop participants not just with each other but also with US-based teachers.

This is all volunteer on my part. HondurasChildren is a purely volunteer organization itself, so they are offering what they can to help bring this to fruition. The Omprakash Foundation has generously offered to fund my travel. I'm still working on fundraising at least another $265 to fund workhop and classroom materials for the participating teachers. Anything beyond that amount will be used to buy additional classroom and workshop supplies and/or will be donated to HondurasChildren to further their education programs. If you would like to donate, click here. Make sure to mark that it is for special projects, then put "donation for PASA" in the notes section.

Why kindergarten and first grade? First grade is when most children enter the formal school system in Honduras. Some are lucky enough to get one of the limited spots in kindergarten. But first grade and kindergarten are not housed in the same schools. After the age of 7 or 8, children’s learning styles change as their brain enters a new phase of maturity. So, first grade teachers face a set of students who need to learn differently from most of the other primary school students. Bringing first grade and kindergarten teachers together can help them find ways to share experiences and knowledge about children who share many of the same challenges and characteristics.

Why this timing? To be honest, because this is when I can do it, as the school where I teach here in the US is not in session during the month of August. However, Honduran schools are actually in session at that time, because their large break is from the end of November to the beginning of February. As we get a new school year started here, they are wrapping things up, and vice versa. This opens up interesting opportunities to exchange ideas and inspirations at alternating times of the year.

These workshops will be no quick process! To make sure participating teachers are really getting the information and support they need and want, I’ll be making visits to classrooms to observe teachers and students and talking with teachers, administrators, students, and community members to identify those challenges teachers share in common.

The workshops will not be lecture-based oratories, either! I have no set agenda going in about what these teachers need to learn from me. What I do have is a collection of resources surrounding developing appropriate philosophies and practices that help children of these ages learn best. And I acknowledge that there is a lot I do not know because I am a US-based teacher. Basic fundamentals like phonics, syllables, and even the number of continents changes from culture to culture.

Participating teachers will receive some simple classroom kits to help them practice new strategies and engage their students in the classroom. All of the materials will be simple, because crime is a major problem and I do not want any participant to become a target of theft or violence because of something I have given them. Most items will be paper, photocopy-able examples printed on cardstock to withstand the tropical humidity. Other items include special pencils and pencil grips for children with fine motor challenges, colored wooden sticks and dice to use as math manipulatives, dry erase markers, and plastic storage bags. 

The end goal of these workshops is not really to distribute supplies or to make a name for the funding organizations or to make me feel like I am making a difference. This is meant to be an opportunity for teachers from different schools but working with similar age groups to come together and discuss challenges, practice alternative teaching strategies, and begin to share resources and recognize strengths. Using a blog platform, participating teachers will be able to continue networking and sharing information in the future. The “cherry on top” to this experience will hopefully be to recruit Spanish speaking teachers here in the US to regularly view and comment on blog postings by Honduran teachers, as well as posting their own classroom experiences, especially during October and March.

Check back here for more information about fundraising, planning, and workshop progress!

Wish me luck!

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Coming back around: counter-clockwise

The hurricane a few days ago...when DC was busy having an earthquake.
Sure feels a lot like Central America 'round here these days!
As Hurricane Irene's counter-clockwise storm clouds continue to keep me homebound, I’ve taken to cleaning out my piles of paperwork, along with taking occasional breaks to watch the storm roll through. I came across a couple of papers I had forgotten about, ideas about education and development that I scribbled onto randomly found scraps of paper—including a shop receipt! Despite the mean writing materials and the disjointed nature of these musings, I found they put themselves together fairly well. And, the ideas are useful to return to, bits of wisdom I was picking up from my experiences at the time.


Empowerment has to be a central goal of all development and educational programs.

It is vital to look at the human element, not just at the overall entity. The development industry is made up of individuals, after all. I like to think of this as the gestalt problem.

Programs need to look to the creativity, resources, and needs of the community. What do they say they need? What do they want? What are the community’s goals?

Private charity schools may not be a good idea as a wide-spread structural solution, and they definitely shouldn’t be the only answer. This would prevent the government from being held accountable for providing their population with their basic rights to educational and opportunity.


Western development is not the only answer available to us.

Consumerism might just be the enemy of us all. We need to fill our own voids.

Making donations is not enough. We need to change the way we live. There is a beautiful adage, although I don’t know the original source, which says “Live simply, that others may simply live.”

No one is special. No one is worth more than another. No one deserves their good fortune anymore than they deserve their ill fortune. If gain is at the expense of any, it is really a loss.
We are not all born with the same capacities, not any of us. We must do what we can and forgive ourselves and each other for what we cannot do.

Competition is no more natural than is community, compromise, and compassion.

We must not assume that “progress” is something inevitable. We can redefine “progress” as successfully minimizing unnecessary suffering and increasing healthy forms of happiness. And, we need to work actively to ensure that this comes to pass.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Experiencing how the political is personal

"The personal is political." It's a beautiful adage from the feminist revolution. And it goes the other way. The political is personal.

Here in the U.S. we often think it odd the way world events can suddenly collide with daily existence. But every time it happens to me, I realize again to what extent the seemingly impersonal political and economic and social issues of this world are actually personally experienced realities. The Honduran teacher strikes are students missing out on their right to public schooling. The economic recession is a child going to live with grandparents when his parents’ house goes into foreclosure. And the strife in any number of countries leads to a family leaving their home and trying to grow and succeed in a place where they don’t know the culture and don’t speak the language.

That’s why I got into international education. My work abroad has allowed me to help students prepare themselves to face their lives with the resiliencies and skills they need, as well as providing them with the chance to comfortably and securely gain cross-cultural understandings and skills. My work here in the U.S. allows me to do the same, with the extra facet of being a bridge for my students to understand and access the culture that surrounds them, hopefully without losing any understanding, access, or membership in the culture of their home.

Today the world celebrates the democratic emergence of a new nation, South Sudan. I reflected on this coming event yesterday while I sat with a young Sudanese girl, L. (Because I respect the privacy of my students and issues of confidentiality, I will from now on refer to students anonymously.) She is attending the summer program at the family literacy school where I teach, although she is not in my class. That day we were on a field trip to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall. We had walked through the Peace Corps themed activity area, where the kids had received “passports” which were stamped when they took part in each activity. We built a wall with bottles like they are now building in Guatemala. We helped paint a world map (that included South Sudan as clearly separate from Sudan!), and we made Malian mud cloth bracelets.

As we recovered from the heat and enjoyed a brief cool breeze under one of the dining tents, L struck up a conversation with me about her “passport.” We talked about all the activities in which she had taken part and I helped her pick out words she didn’t know in the booklet. We came across the blanks in the front cover that called for her name and nationality. I explained that nationality is where you are from.

L: Where are you from?
K: I’m from Texas.
L: I have a cousin in Texas!
K: You do? That’s great!
L: But I don’t know where Texas is.

So we looked at the world map in her passport booklet, marking DC and Texas.

L: I’m from Sudan. Well. (Pause.) Hang on.

She turned to her mother and spoke with her in their home language. There was some back and forth. Her mother, pregnant and tired, was also interacting with her 2 year old brother and 4 year old sister. L was obviously repeating herself to make sure her mother really understood her question. Finally satisfied, she turned back to me.

L: Yes. I was born in Sudan. (Her emphasis. I had not asked. It can be a complicated question for any child, especially an immigrant child.)
K. Okay. Let’s look at where Sudan is on the map.

So we marked the general location of Sudan with an X (it wasn’t a big map, thankfully). L wanted to label it the way we had labeled DC, but she didn’t know how to spell it. I spelled it out loud, and at her request I wrote it down so that she could copy it. After spelling it successfully several times in random places on random pages, she finally turned to the front cover and wrote “SUDAN” on the previously empty line for a nationality.

L’s personal experience was a mixture of culture, identity, literacy, and all the underlying structures and skills that support these facets of development. And there I was, to some extent experiencing it with her. The day before millions of her former countrymen got the chance to have a very similar experience.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Education as a right...and responsibility

Education is a basic human right.

Seems so simple and true, right? But, the first time I really heard this idea actually put into words—I am sad to admit—was within the last two years. The moment I heard it, I thought, “Duh, of course it is!” However, as I began to really delve into this beautiful concept, I found myself in a morass of questions, questions that helped me understand why the idea of education as a human right is so difficult to actually implement.
How much education? Do we all have the right to get whatever level of education we want? Whether or not it is within the resources available? Whether or not we will be employable after receiving that education?

To what kind of education do we have a right? What kind of education best serves the interests of society? A liberal arts education that teaches us to perceive beauty and speak languages and analyze issues? A professional or vocational education that provides us with excellent job skills? An education at a community school near home? An education at a prestigious private institution?

Who is to provide this education to which we each have a basic human right? The state? The community? The family?

What about those who don't want to get an adequate education? Do they have a right to give up a right? At what age? How do we motivate ourselves to complete our education? So, it's not just a right, actually, it's also a responsibility, isn't it?

Obvioulsy, it’s difficult to come to a consensus on exactly how to make education available so that every person’s right to it is honored. But, that doesn’t mean it isn’t worthy of the effort. So, laying aside the concerns about how, it is important to establish why it is vital to honor this human right, despite the reasons it is so difficult and complicated to provide. This brought me to the following thoughts:

People need education to function in our complex society. People have a right to be able to access skills and information that will improve their lives and give them agency. This includes:
- literacy: the ability to read for in depth comprehension and to clearly communicate yourself verbally and in written form
- numeracy: the ability to solve problems involving amounts and numbers and measurements as well as spatial ability
- health education and basic sciences – to understand the world and the way it affects us as well as to be able to anticipate and resolve problems occurring between people and the physical/natural world

People also have the right to learn the social and psychological skills to navigate and resolve social conflicts and to function positively in the wider society, such as:
- civic education (social values, citizenship, peace, identity, governance, history)
- rights education (gender, human rights)

Finally, people have the right to learn skills that are necessary to secure fruitful and sustaining employment. This can come in many forms:
- professional education
- vocational education
- nonformal (think workshops, GED classes, apprenticeships) and informal (everyday learning)

So, I’ve worked through the why—at least my own personal version of it—but I doubt there are any blanket answers to the questions of how. The point is that the why is important and demands our attention, so it is unacceptable to give up trying to figure out the how(s).

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

From estadounidense to US-American

I have struggled with my geographical self-definition for many years now. Ever since I learned the word “estadounidense” in Spanish.


Finally, I had evidence that there could be a word to replace “American” as a descriptor for a person from the United States. After all, it seems usurping to describe ourselves as Americans, when we are hardly the only nation in THE AMERICAS. Nor are we the largest. Sadly, being the richest seems to make us entitled to taking what we want, at least it has in the past, and so we came to describe ourselves as “Americans,” forcing all the other americans to define themselves differently.

But “unitedstatesian” hardly rolls off the tongue.

I’ve tried a lot of different phrases.

North American. But we aren’t the only North Americans. It could make sense to the extent that Canada and the U.S. are very similar, but there are also vital differences between us. Canadians (and Mexicans, especially) might resent my describing myself and my values and culture as North American.

[Brief geography lesson: Here in the US we teach that there are 7 continents, and Central America is technically part of North America. In Honduras, they teach that there are 6 continents, with the Americas being one continent split into three regions: north, central, and south.]

I didn’t give up. I tried “US Citizen”…but there are many who aren’t citizens who do identify as residents of the U.S.

US Resident…but there are many who reside here without feeling cultural ties here.

And, finally I hit on it. US-AMERICAN. So simple. So clear. Borrowing from the way we structure our self definitions within the US (African American, Irish American, Native American, Latin American, etc.)

I am US-American.

In English.

But in Spanish I am still estadounidense.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Back from Cuba again!

I've just returned from spending ten days in Cuba doing research with educational specialists there. The island continues to struggle under an economic blockade by our government here in US, one of the results being an extremely limited amount of internet access. I'll slowly add my reflections on Cuba to this site, as I have time to do so. Reflecting on my research experiences in Cuba is never a simple matter. The personal and the academic and the educational become blended in a way that makes articulation difficult, but here are a few thoughts I sketched out as my plane was getting ready to depart Havana this morning...

In his work, the Cuban artist Fuster often uses a crocodile to symbolize Cuba. For my own reasons, I find it an apt visualization. To truly know a crocodile is not only to read about it or to see photos or videos, nor is it only to talk to those who have met one and understand why they love it or hate it. To know the crocodile is not only to touch it when it is gentle, sleepy, or playful or when its thick skin seems smooth and pliable. To truly know the crocodile one must also know it when it is angry or ill, when its skin is parched dry and rough and crackles in the sun, when it bares its teeth even to its babies and closest friends. To really know the crocodile one must form a relationship to it and reflect upon that relationship continuously while passing time with the crocodile.

So it is with Cuba.

My time in Cuba, two and a half weeks over the last two years, has significantly altered my perceptions and ways of being, as a researcher, as an educator, and as a person. Cuba is for me both intellectually and personally reinvigorating. Each time I leave Cuba, I do so with both greater hope and greater realism about what it takes to make this world a better place. I find links between who I am as a person and my work and my research and my role in the world. I more enthusiastically embrace my responsibility to form and demonstrate a link between theory and practice so that each informs the other, to break down barriers to knowledge and inequality, to participate fully in life on all levels. My greatest lesson has been to begin asking more questions, listening more patiently, and embracing and building more integrated approaches to being a life-long learner.