Friday, November 27, 2009

Cuba #3, Los Cubanos

It has been impossible to post since we left for the provinces on Tuesday, and we have been so busy and so consumed with the interchange of ideas and philosophies that there has been little time to write and reflect. I expect to be slowly processing this trip for some time and will write about my experiences as the opportunity arises, even after I get back to the States on Saturday night.

I do not want to leave. I often feel this way about returning home but this time it is especially strong. I have been presented with so much to think about and to take in and it seems unjust and incongruous that I will be processing much of it outside of its context. I have learned here in Cuba that context is vital to the truth of everything.

That is not to say that truth is relative, only that each truth can be lived differently by different people without sacrificing the fidelity to that truth. Freedom, what it means to be liberated and free, is one that is perhaps most apt to the Cuba/U.S. dichotomy. The Cubans I have met openly acknowledge many of the difficulties that they face and many of the contradictions of their society, but they embrace these not as handicaps but as challenges. I have never witnessed people so ready and willing and capable of working together for a common goal. My new friends are joyous and engaged in life.

I do not say this wearing rose colored glasses. Nor do the Cubans portray themselves through an idealized light. In fact, this is the only place I have ever been in Latin America, maybe anywhere in the world, where I have witnessed profound humility and honesty rather than a strong dose of hubris and bravado. The system here is not perfect, but they seem dedicated to working towards a perfection bit by bit as best they know how. I am inspired by much of what I have seen and although I readily acknowledge that it would not be applicable to the United States, that does not negate its ability to be applicable to my own self.

One Cuban professor who participated in this conference worded it so well..."We Cubans are a people who love peace...We are living as we have chosen...We do not have more than we need. What we do have we are willing to share with the world."

As I said today in a presentation to my fellow conference participants, one of the greatest things I take away from this experience is a deeper understanding, an understanding as a result of actively doing, of my own ability to see and live beyond the black and white paradigms we establish in our minds when faced with difference. Establishing and truly embracing the context of any event or idea does not make it less applicable but rather encourages appropriate and effective applications in other contexts. Ultimately, as a result of this conference, I think I have connected with a basic human love for learning and for engaging in a social learning process, and I have done so in a context unlike any other I could have found.

And here I have also found colleagues with whom I expect to work again in the future, among both the U.S. and the Cuban delegations. I have found other students, scholars, and policy makers who are following the same life of questions as I am, who readily share their research and finding with me, and who encourage my interests and my identity as an individual in a diverse world.

No, I do not want to leave, at least not yet, but now I know that I will most certainly return.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Cuba #2 La Habana, First Impressions

I am back in Latin America, but it is so different, too. It feels so natural to be here, and yet not at the same time. I can not integrate into daily life here, and there are certain parts of reality that I can only glimpse.

The jet took off from Miami. About a half hour late. That didn't bother me; I already felt like I was in Latin America. Time had started to become ephemeral again. I forgot how much I missed that. And then it dawned on me...the jet is off the ground, it's really off the ground, and this is really happening!

Walking through Old Havana isn't like stepping back in time. Realities are still present. The old 1950s cars drive past the old Soviet cars driving past the newer buses from China. I passed by the Hotel Ambos Mundos where Hemingway so often stayed. The bar there was playing a latin pop song I recognized.

As we flew over the brief but expansive waters of the Florida Strait, I kept thinking I was seeing a man in a skiff being dragged by a marlin, but just when I thought I'd seen them, they would disappear into the horizon again. Ironic, huh?

I stopped to play ball in the street with a few boys. I hitched a ride in the side car of an old motorcycle. I saw castle walls that have stood for centuries and old men and women stooped with age and hard work.

And then we were over the island's coast and I was looking down at agricultural fields. Fields were laid out in orderly, right-angled plots of land. What appeared to be a hay harvest had taken place in several of those plots, but I could see no sign of a single important crop. Here and there a few trash or brush piles were burning, but everything seemed well laid out and orderly.

I sense immense differences here from my experiences in Honduras. People of all colors mingle. A man takes a break from fishing off the seawall to write something down. The few time I am asked for money, it is done with a certain grace. I glimpse well cared for homes inside the run-down exteriors. I watch parents playing and laughing with their children.

When the airplane's wheels touched down my heart skipped a beat. I nursed my cough all the way through immigration and into backage claim with constant cough drops. The nurse in a classic, white uniform took my flu symptom checklist (which I had dutifully marked “no” to every symptom” and must have confused my strained look for fear rather than a strained resistance to a deeply needed coughing fit. She smiled warmly at me and said, “Pase, amor.” I forgot how much I love being called Amor by old ladies. I waited for my bag to come out on the conveyor. They must have checked it thoroughly but there was no X on the tag, so customs lets me right through. At the airport to greet us was not only transportation directly to our hotel but a small contingent of some of the highest representatives of the Cuban Teacher's Association, the group hosting us. They welcomed us so warmly and were so genuinely glad to have us there.

They have bookstores here...whole stores devoted to nothing but the sail of books! I always miss bookstores when I am in Honduras. I found an original copy of the Great Campaign for Literacy's manual for teachers and a book on Che Guevara's thoughts on pedagogy. I've never seen some of the photos of Che I see everywhere. He's incredibly handsome. I wonder how many young Cuban girls secretly dream of Che. Papa Smurf looked good too. No wonder the Revolution succeeded.

I've met the US and most of the Cuban participants. We met this morning to register and go over the schedule. Our Cuban coordinators have gone to great strides to involve as many of the top thinkers in the fields of our individual interests. Tomorrow morning I will be visiting the Institute for Pedagogical Research and in the afternoon we are all going to visit the Medical College.

Things are clean but nothing is fancy. In most places the paint is chipping but the basic structure seems sound. Just from the graffiti I can see that art is taught in the schools. Kids ride down the blocks long Paseo de Marti on hand-crafted scooters and two sisters share a pair of skates, each wearing just one. It strikes me that, at least for some, the joi de vive isn't “in spite” of the Revolution but is part of it, perhaps. No one's life is markedly better than that of anyone else. No one is seems to be suffering so that the life of someone else can be unjustly easy. The people I see are literate, articulate, and in decent health.

There are two worlds here and I can feel it when I pass by Cubans on the street. Two realities that slide past each other silently and push tentatively back against each other, too. I use the Convertible Pesos or “kooks,” which are roughly valued at 1 to 1 against the US dollar, but Cubans use Moneda Nacional, the non-convertible pesos, which value at something more like 20 to 1. My dinner tonight cost 20 “kooks.” That is what most Cubans make in a month.

Meals are beautiful but limited. Butter and hard cheese are sliced thinly and served frugally. One nurse drives an illegal taxi to make ends meet. But people seem proud of who they are, rather than ashamed of what they are not. There is meaning to say, “Soy cubano,” that I have never heard in the phrase “Soy hondureno.” Cubano means flamenco dancing and breathtaking art and salsa music and baseball prowess and beautiful poetry and scientific research standards.

The propaganda posters really don't feel so strange to me. They really feel no different from the advertisements that blanket our senses in the U.S., and I respect their forthright honesty, at least in comparison to the ads, which I frankly do not miss.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Cuba #1 - Fatwas from Camp MIA

Dong dong. The. current. local. time. is. twelve. o'clock. am.

I can't decide whether the 15 minute reminders of earth's rotation are making time go faster or slower here in Camp MIA.

Camp MIA was originally the the row of chairs that Tiesha, my equally frugal classmate who also refuses to pay for a hotel room, and I had commandeered in Concourse G of the Miami International Airport. With a blanket kindly but unknowingly donated by American Airlines, I formed a bit of a bed for myself with my feet propped up on the seat of a chair and my head resting on a lumpily comfortable carry-on bag, I was good to go for at least the first portion of my FIFTEEN hour layover.

Yes. 15. Hours. (said in the always chipper voice of the time lady). That is what happens when one is expected to start checking in at 8am for a 1pm flight. A one hour flight across a fairly small strip of water takes 5 hours to check-in apparently. I'll let you know more about that tomorrow.

After an hour and a trip to the far away ladies' room, I discovered an even better location for Camp MIA, so Tiesha and I went M*A*S*H (Mobile Articulate Smart Hotties.) We now have upholstered benches upon which to lounge.

I am enjoying the airport's nightlife. We are hardly the only people here for the evening. Airport staff, security, a number of other travelers. The old dude who drives the mini-zamboni back and forth to polish the floor taps out a great rhythm to go along the jazzy elevator music that intersperses the many safety reminders and “Nombre apellido, venga a un telefono blanco de cortesia, por favor.” I have seen a couple of stylish camoflauge outfits (but distinctly not military camo...think ooh-I-wish-I-was-as-tough-as-this-stylish-black-and-white-camo-outfit-makes-me-look styles.) Dunkin Donuts is open 24 hours and they start putting out fresh donuts at 4am. Currency exchange opens at 5am. TerminalDR (yes there is a doctor's office in the terminal) opens at 7am. I've found the free wireless network and nearby outlets to charge my electronics. Now that I'm not trying to relax on the cold floor, Camp MIA is darn good for the price of NADA.

I am enjoying where my mind wanders to at these late, sinus-congested hours. Nothing is sacred, I'm afraid. I might start telling people I have a frontal lobe disorder that has damaged my ability to inhibit saying my thoughts aloud. It's pretty much at that point.

As I've indicated, I'm still getting over my head cold from earlier this week. It is on the exceedingly gross “evacuation” stage. Several people have made an exceedingly wide berth of me when I've been coughing. Given that swine flu jokes are definitely off limits (don't want to jinx myself...a news article said that Cuban immigration was quarantining people with swine flu symptoms) I've settled for drug resistant TB jokes instead.

Then there's the actually Cuba related thoughts. My mp3 player has provided some good fuel for my cerebrum. “Children of the Revolution” from the Moulin Rouge soundtrack takes on new meaning. And when the Muppets song “Manamana” comes on I like to imagine that it is Fidel and Jose Marti singing back up with Che (in his signature beret) being the beat-nick dude in the middle who wants to improvise on the song.

The current fatwas coming from Camp MIA are:
- “Al Queda is ruining my life.” --Tiesha (This is a long story having to do with how the airport is not as convenient as the bus terminal in an old movie where Madonna went to jail.)
- Fidel's code name for the rest of this trip will be Papa Smurf, or PS. --Kate
- 4am donuts will be written off as educational expenses on this years taxes, and calories from tax write offs don't count. --Kate

Off to a benadryl induced slumber now.

Dong dong. The. current. local. time. is. one. fifteen. am.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Me 'n Che, man! We're tight!

That's right! I've been granted permission by the US government to do research in Cuba! So, for eight days, over the week of the arguably capitalist holiday of Thanksgiving, I will be observing and researching teaching practices in one of the last Marxist strongholds. It's been an iffy process at times, getting all the documents put through, but its all finally approved and tickets have been purchased.

My research is going to center around how Cuban teachers choose to teach students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Cuba has the highest achieving primary level students in Latin America, and I want to know more about why this is when they have faced so many material disadvantages.

I've chosen to travel through Miami, FL, even though I could have gone through somewhere even warmer (like Cancun, Mexico) but I want to document what it is like to go through the US Customs and Border Control directly before and after being in our estranged neighbor nation.

I'm busy researching socialism, socialist education, children's cognitive development, compensatory teaching methods, etc. A big issue will be how to define disadvantage...material, health, intellectual, cultural, lingual, nutritional, etc. etc. Hopefully this research will be able to be combined with research in Honduras (and maybe Brazil?) and DC Public Schools to become my Masters thesis.

I promise to keep you all apprised and to post pictures and impressions of a land so many North Americans aren't allowed to visit.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Keepin’ on keepin’ on…

Due to popular demand (about 3 people), I will be continuing to write here at “Diario de una Voluntaria” while I am in graduate school. It makes sense really, given that my work in International Education, founded experientially in my work in Honduras, is still going on, at least on an intellectual level.

Honduras, Jungle School, and HHK continue to be an enormous part of my everyday life. Keeping in touch with volunteers, sending out appeals for donations, and even the occasional call from one of the families in La Herradura. Even here is DC, so far from the jungle, I feel connected to the community in a very strong way. And it is essential, I think, to have this anchor in a locale while studying themes and topics on the macro level. When I feel like I am swimming in a mire of confusing ideas, I can return to my mental home and refresh my perspective.

People like to say that the world is getting smaller, but I challenge that. I fear the idea leaves the world too susceptible to the spread of monocultures. It makes crossing cultural boundaries sound like an easy thing to do, as if it just takes a short airplane flight or a tour of Google News. And then, poof, you are a world citizen. I have learned, much to my own chagrin, that the process is not so easy. I still fall far short of the goal. The danger in feeling that another culture is not distant is that you fail see it’s intricacies and differences, not to mention the ensuing assumption that the people of the other culture should be able to understand you just as easily. No, culturally the world isn’t small at all, nor would we want it to be. Instead, I challenge the human being to grow bigger. It is time for us to evolve and develop the ability to exist on both the local and global levels.

I work in education and I work in development. We take these words for granted but they are loaded and complex. These days, I am taking the time to look at just want they mean and for whom they mean it. Education is learning. But that isn’t enough. Each individual person does that naturally and often without outside direction. If it is the direction of learning in a systematic way then I start to wonder about the goals of the education and whose goals they are, and why they choose a particular system of instruction and organization of the ideas taught.

Development is harder to wrap my mind around. I like the idea that it is the unfolding of potential (not my own idea but that of scholars Fagerlind and Saha.) But when it is something we are actively involved in, it is the direction of potential in a systemic way. Who is directing the process? Does each person get to choose how to develop their own potential? There is no one system that would work for everyone’s potential, so do some people’s potentials get damaged or quashed in the process of developing everyone else’s potentials? What happens to those who are quashed? If they aren’t able to develop, then maybe the process of Development isn’t really taking place, is it?

Education is involved in Development then if it is the systematic direction of learning in order to unfold the potentials of people. And I am left with a great many questions…Whose potential is developed and whose is either damaged or ignored?...What constitutes developed potentials and who gets to set this goal?...What is the reward for the successful people? And what of the failures?
As always more questions than answers, more of a landscape with relationships between ideas than hard knowledge or cardinal directions on an intellectual map…so I just keep on keepin’ on…

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Slingshot Effect

I am packed and ready to go. As per Honduran style, my arrangements to spend the night in San Pedro Sula fell through at the last minute, but being prepared for the (inevitable) eventualities is part of living here. So instead, I have my ticket for the butt-crack-of-dawn bus that will get me to the airport in time for my noon departure. All is settled.

Except my mind. Or my heart. Upon leaving last time, I could see the differences I had made. I had contributed to my kids’ intellects and had found some paths for resolving a few day to day issues in their lives. After 4 months here I felt at home and full of purpose.

The past five weeks have not been the same. We covered one unit of math in my class and when it came time to take the test most of the children failed rather miserably. Five weeks wasn’t enough time for them to intake subtraction with borrowing (2nd grade) or basic multiplication (3rd grade.) Faced with their life obstacles both physical (living far way, being hungry or sick) and mental (low self esteem, poor motivation, and inadequate self-discipline or parental support,) the basics continue to elude them. A child might have a good day, but for the most in need of educational support they are few and far between.

I am not built to be a band-aid. It simply isn’t enough for me. I cannot say with comfort that I did what I could. That is the bandaid I have to put over my own heart, knowing that I will be back, and that I am returning to States to get the education I need to come back and make a real difference. Some may be able to come for a month or two and leave feeling like they have done enough, and that is okay. But I am not one of them.

The time has proved very useful, and my influence has been positive for many other here, I know. For the development workers who are always here, who are faced with the endless stream of problems and tears, we who are here for short times can bring great energy and renewal with us. We bring fresh eyes and minds to the problems. We bring the patience and hope that have begun to dwindle in the face of daily difficulties.

I did help to collect, organize, and compile growth and nutrition data on almost 600 children from the Cuenca Cangrejal for Dr. Black’s malnutrition study. A few children are significantly more advanced in their Spanish, Math, Health and English abilities after my time here. Most interesting was the observation I made that in all my conversations with Hondurans about the development of their own country, they almost unanimously (but independently of each other) described their culture as selfish and unconcerned with helping others. I have been able to network with a number of other people in the world of volunteering and development, as well as continue to uphold the friendships I began over the winter and spring when I was here before. And being here during the “coup” has brought me truly first-hand knowledge of just how little we can understand the world through the pinhole cameras of the mass media. I know this was not a waste of time.

As usual, I am left with more questions than answers, more anecdotes than measurements, and more philosophy than faith.

I find my mind going towards questions of the efficacy of foreign volunteers in the education field. Who are we? Why do we come here? What backgrounds do we bring with us? What impact do we have on the children and their community? Do we really help? If so, how so? What do we do that is harmful? What styles of volunteer programs work best? What kind of training do we need to be most effective? Perhaps there is a Master’s thesis in there somewhere…

As always, my mind and heart are open, looking for the path that is for me. It is here somewhere, the special thing that I can do to make the most good out of my energies and abilities…

And for now I will continue to research and investigate and learn. How do you motivate children to learn? Especially when the family cannot motivate them? How do you awaken that part of the soul in them that wants to engage and face their challenges and responsibilities? How do you help them grow to be giving, caring, responsible adults that can make a positive change in their self-described selfish, self-destructive, corrupt culture?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


I spent a lovely evening and morning with one of the families from the Jungle School this past Friday. And although I have a cold and a case of laryngitis as souvenirs, I am immensely glad I went.

The Castro family has a finca, what we would call a small ranch, high in the mountains. It is a two hour walk to reach the nearest road that is passable by car. There are six children (3 boys and 3 girls, ages 15 to 1), seven cows (including the bulls and the newest calf), 3 sheep (including the newest lamb), 2 burros, 3 dogs, and the usual uncountable population of chickens.

They are growing a little corn right now, mostly for feed I think, and right behind the house are a number of fruit trees, including recognizable things like coffee and oranges as well as distinctly Central American fruits like wild apples, patronas, and nances.

The house is very simple, with a pounded dirt floor and wooden walls. The main room is partitioned into two bedrooms, one with two double beds and a hammock and the other with one double bed and one single bed. Luz, the oldest, kindly gave up her bed for me and crawled in with her sisters for the night in the other room. It seems that Jose, the father, and Fermin, the baby, vie for rights to the hammock, as it is the preferred sleeping spot for both. (Many babies here sleep in small “baby hammocks” in which they can be gently rocked to sleep.) There are shelves on which to store clothes (mostly in bags and boxes to keep out critters.) The windows and doors all have tight shutters to keep out the rain and cold night air.

The kitchen is attached, with a traditional wood stove and oven, shelves for storage, a few handmade stools, a small table, and a sink made from a piece of flat metal installed at an angle and with a hole for drainage. The family pipes in water from up the next mountain, another 15 minute walk away, but it is always fresh and abundant. There is an outdoor shower and an outhouse with a rather comfortable bench seat (no splinters in my bum!)

Only at night are the doors and windows all shut, so during the day there are regular visitors in the house…chickens and dogs mostly, but one burro was quite determined to join us for breakfast s well. He finally relented to go outside but only after taking a piece of cardboard that was leaning against the wall for a snack!

As the sun goes down, things do get dark, but the family has a couple of wind-up flashlights as well as a car battery they use to watch a small television. The flashlights explain a lot about why this family in particular are such good students…they can do their homework and read for pleasure after dark! Jose is quite taken with the idea of exhausting the kids by putting them to work on a bicycle driven generator…apparently I am not the first visitor to suggest such an idea. I got the kids (and I think the parents too) interested in a Spanish novel I am reading at the moment, which I read aloud while Luz (apt name at this moment) kept the flashlight wound up.

I looked out my window as night was falling and saw a most strange sight…there was a chicken in the tree! This was not something I had ever seen before. But, no, these are not special chickens that can fly or climb…they have a tree trunk leaned up into the branches which they climb to take refuge in their tree/chicken coop. The kids took me to the top of the mountain after dark so that I could see Ceiba and the sea in the distance. In addition, we got to watch a huge thunderstorm building over the ocean, which was quite spectacular to watch. And where it was so dark that you couldn’t see where the sky stopped and the tree line began, the fire flies made me think the stars were coming down to dance. During the day you can see Ceiba in the distance on one side and nothing but tree covered mountains on the other.

It may seem so simple and perhaps lacking in some ways, but I also witnessed a life rich in relationships, compassion, and self-knowledge. I cannot say that it struck me as any harder or easier than any life I’ve witnessed in more developed nations. Luz, her mom Lorena, and I passed the afternoon and most of the evening, learning to make pizza from scratch in their clay oven. The pizza recipe was new for them; the cooking apparatus was new for me. For my last day this Friday, Luz and Lorena are going to help me teach the other moms the recipe and make pizza for all of the kids for lunch! Jose asked me many questions about the US and was quite surprised when I said that I preferred life here in Honduras, where I am not constantly bombarded with the need to have more and achieve more for the sake of proving something to someone else. Luz wanted to know what kids are like in North America (she is being sponsored to study in a Canadian high school next year,) and I said that they were pretty much the same as here. The only negatives I could think of were that they are perhaps at times a little more selfish and sometimes surprisingly lacking in knowledge of what the rest of the world is like despite access to education and media.

As I said before, Luz is preparing to study in Canada after she graduates the sixth grade here in November. She is bright and kind and an all around amazing young woman. We have been reviewing some of the more difficult parts of English grammar together and also talking a bit about some of the cultural differences she’ll likely encounter. She is so excited, and rather scared (but refuses to admit it even to herself…she’s very emotionally strong!) I’ve promised to send her a pair of my flannel pajamas and my full length down coat, because her biggest fear is of the cold winter.

She asked me how long the trip was to Canada, and I said I didn’t know but that I live a little more than half way to Toronto and it takes me six hours to get home, plus whatever time I have between flights. (Her eyes got big.) How long would it take to drive, she asked. I said that with stops at night I figured it would take a little over a week, given that one has to get out of Honduras, through Guatemala and Mexico and the US. (Her eyes got even bigger.) I tried to explain that just in Texas, the state that I am from, to drive from the Mexican border to Oklahoma would be pretty much the whole day of daylight. She said she’d never imagined the whole world was that big. I laughed and hugged her and said, Luz, your world is going to get a whole lot bigger than you can probably imagine. I know mine sure did when I came to Honduras.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Is this progress I’m experiencing?

It is amazing to watch a child make a big step in a developmental or educational direction. Even more amazing is when they manage to do it as a group. This past week I’ve had some real breakthroughs with my second and third graders, and I feel now that when I leave in two weeks I will have helped them achieve some very important academic improvements.

My third graders are rocking it out in the world of multiplication. Because I know that when I leave they will go back to writing and rewriting the multiplication tables under the eye of the Honduran teacher, I am focusing my efforts now on making sure they understand how multiplication works. They can now all find the answer to a simple multiplication problem that they do not have memorized and cannot see on the wall, such as 15 x 3, because they know this means there are three groups of 15.

My second graders are really coming along in subtraction with borrowing. They get so excited when it is time to borrow because they get to yell “Prestame porfavor!” (Lend it to me, please!) We still have a ways to go to achieve consistency, but major improvements are happening. As a result of some of my reading in child development, I realized that my kids didn’t understand how to count up from the number to find an answer in subtraction. For example, given 17 – 9, they are more likely to guess at the answer than to start counting on their fingers at 10 and seeing how many fingers they use to get to 17. We’ve taken a couple of days to go over this skill and there is real improvement in their accuracy now.

On Wednesday, both the kids and I got a treat (although I think mine was even bigger than theirs!) Their Spanish homework the night before was to read the recipe for making play dough from flour, water, and salt. Then they had to answer two questions for reading comprehension. Not only did my kids do the homework (breakthrough #1!), they answered the questions correctly (biggest breakthrough to date!) So we spent Wednesday morning making and playing with play dough in the classroom. What made it such a big treat for me is that they all followed directions closely and accurately, cleaned up and behaved well the entire time, and then showed off their creative minds with the play dough afterwards (and this from children who always tell me they don’t have any ideas in their heads!) The best moment was when we all put on play dough mustaches to look like deposed president Mel Zelaya…play dough gave us a chance to talk about social studies, even! And each child got a ziplock bag of homemade play dough to take home.

I’m still consistently stumped by some of their behaviors. My third grade girls especially are very apt to cry over a frustration or break into arguments so vehement I can’t understand what they are yelling. I’m always at a loss as to whether to intervene closely or just let them feel their way back out of the quagmire. Both methods have proven equally effective and ineffective. I know that I must make things worse when I don’t understand what they are saying, and some of the issues seem so very irrational to me that I feel they must really be stemming from something the child is unwilling or unable to communicate. Similar is the problem that when I ask a child to correct a mistake, they just shut down sometimes and refuse to work at all. I worry that there is something in the way I say it that makes them feel bad, but the more I watch the culture here, the more I see it is an issue for many adults as well.

So I have given up on the Honduran government’s lesson plans for Social Studies and Sciences and have spent the second half of the day working on self esteem and social skills instead. We’ve talked about self-esteem and imagined it as a bucket that can get holes in it that we then have to patch up. We’ve talked about the difference between a positive comment and a negative comment. We’ve taken stock of what we can do and can take pride in by coloring piggy banks full of coins on which our skills are written. We’ve created a post office “correo” for the classroom and written positive messages to each person in the room.

This coming week we’ll start a project in Spanish class about letter writing, which will culminate in each child writing a letter to a former volunteer. I’ll mail them when I get back to the States. The kids are excited for this, and I look forward to using it as a chance to practice writing CLEARLY using the posters I am making that address the kids biggest problems in letter formation.

Each step is so small, it may seem like no big deal, but I can see how at this point in their education, each step for these kids is a potential leap in the future. I feel so lucky to get to help them achieve it!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Interesting Conversations

A great deal of my time lately has been passed in conversations with an array of people. And as I have come to expect, the more I learn and witness and discuss, the more questions I have rather than answers.

There are such enormous cultural and socioeconomic barriers. It can seem like an enormous brick wall without a door to pass through. I have faith that somewhere there is a passageway that I just haven’t learned to see yet. So I continue in search of the passageway and the secret password that will encourage those on the other side to open the door and let me pass through.

A good example for this inner conversation of mine is the solar oven program that Toshi, a volunteer friend of mine, helped the families with before he left in April. He purchased the materials, helped the families construct them, showed them in great detail how to use them for many dishes…but I have so far only found one family using their solar oven. So the families continue to struggle to find enough fuel wood, and mothers and babies continue to suffer the effects of smoke exposure. Some families say they don’t understand how to use them. Others say that it is easier to do what they have always done. Where was the secret password we missed? Should the families have purchased the materials at a very low rate? Should each family have gotten a home visit to help them use it in their exact location? How does one rectify what was missed and see the problem ahead in future efforts?

My other inner conversation is the one I have daily with my child development textbook, which I brought with me to Honduras. Reading ahead for class is helping me understand better how to address my children’s learning needs. Even the most talented and clever child needs heavy remedial help to understand how to follow directions, how to go about choosing the best answer, and overcoming the incredible difficulties of hunger and low self-esteem while trying to learn. I’m making posters that show which letters “touch the roof” and which ones “show off their tails” to help them write more clearly. I am making sure they understand how to do the math rather than just memorizing the most common answers. Encouraging creativity, the use of imaginative metaphors, using positive words and phrases…I believe these will serve these children just as well as memorizing their times tables.

Then there are the conversations I actually have with other people. As no one who knows me would be surprised, one of these conversations involved sexual education of the students in the school 10 years and older. We spent half a morning in split-gender sessions, reviewing anatomy and the anatomical processes of both men and women, exactly what the sex act is (sometimes left out of sex-ed here I’ve been told,) how pregnancy happens, the myriad of STDs (because the only one people talk about here is AIDS,) and how to protect oneself from pregnancy and disease. Then we took a break, let the kids write questions and put them in a box, and after the break we presented a little skit about how boys and girls can talk openly and honestly about sex, and then sat down and answered the questions the kids had put in the box and talked about making decisions about dating and that it is okay and maybe even preferable not to date while you are still in school.

I’ve been happy to see that both in this session and in a small assembly we had with the kids about the political crisis, Angel, the Director of the school, has been careful to tell the kids to listen to their own hearts and minds, not to blindly follow the words other people. It is so good to see someone telling these kids that they are smart and reminding them to think and use them noggin’s! I must remember to praise Angel for this.

On Thursday the kids were accidentally granted an extra long recess, because Angel, I, and another volunteer Nick became engrossed in a conversation about religion and god. A couple of the older boys from sixth grade, who are usually among the most atrociously behaved, were very enrapt and followed the conversation closely and respectfully.

It all started with a classic Angel question (he’s a very evangelical Christian,) “Kati, do you have Jesus in your heart?”

I said no and that he didn’t seem to be in pocket or behind my ear either. (humor did not deflect his intentions.)
“But who is your god?”

I don’t have one. I’m agnostic. I don’t know if there is one and I’m not going to spend my time worrying about it because I can’t prove it one way or the other.

“That breaks my heart. It breaks Hondurans’ hearts when people don’t have Jesus in their lives.”

Why? It is my choice.

“But you will go to hell if you don’t accept Christ.”

At this point Nick pointed out that in many parts of the world Jesus is not god or even a prophet and that other religions say Angel will burn in hell for believing what he believes. (This was news to Angel…not that the whole world isn’t Christian, but that they don’t accept his truth as their truth.)

I presented the idea that there is a seed of truth from which all religions grow like trees, and it depends on the soil it grows in, the needs of the people it serves, as to how it will develop.

“But I know Jesus is the only God. The Bible says he is the only God. And the Bible is the word of God.”

I suggested that maybe rather than historical fact that sometimes the Bible is a fable instead, a story to deliver truth through fiction. When I presented the possibility that evolution might have been God’s way of creation, that seven days for God might be millions of years, I’m pretty sure Angel’s eyes crossed trying to think it over.

“But aren’t you scared you’ll go to hell?”

I pointed out that I wasn’t closed to the idea of god, and that any god who would turn me away for having used the heart and mind he gave me wasn’t a god I wanted anything to do with. If that was the case, I’d have plenty of friends to have a “fiesta” with in “el infierno.”

The lack of sophisticated information Angel possesses is astounding to me, given that he is in charge of so many children’s educations. For example, at one point one of the boy’s asked if Toshi has god. Angel said, “Oh yes. Toshi is Buddhist.” I had to explain that actually Buddhists don’t necessarily have a god, that it is a philosophy and life way rather than religion, that Buddha is a prophet to be emulated not a god to be worshiped. (Sorry, Toshi, you’ve been outted!)

What made it a successful conversation for me was to have those two boys witnessing use discuss such a possibly heated discussion without attacking each other’s beliefs, without insulting Christianity or Agnosticism, without threatening our ability to work together and do good in children’s lives. I complimented Angel and explained why I was willing to have this conversation with an Evangelical Christian: that he did not, not once, try to change my mind. He did not forget that I live a good life, full of giving and love despite my lack of religion.

And it is goodness that brings us together ultimately and most productively. While helping collect and document data for an informal nutrition study with Dr. David Black of Project Esperanza here in La Ceiba, I have had to opportunity to meet other development workers and to brainstorm and discuss with them what they are working on. I have found other folks who hold a similar interest in the possibility of networking amongst projects, to share mental and physical resources, to support each other through the hard times and to keep frustrations in perspective, and to maybe even (maybe I’m dreaming, here) helping the people the groups serve to access others people in other parts of the country.

I can’t overstate how important talking is to my work here. The willingness to listen is most imperative. I have to take notes sometimes to remind myself of phrase that I want to mull over later when the afternoon heat keeps me within a five foot radius of the nearest fan. There is always time to think here and to keep the conversations going and always questions to fuel the thinking.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Jungle School Video

Finally! I have finished a video of my experiences the first time I came to Honduras to volunteer at the Jungle School.

HHK is always looking for sponsors and volunteers, so tell your friends and love ones and strnger on the street to come watch this video and fall in love with these kids.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

It’s a Jungle out there…including the politics!

I have returned to La Ceiba, Honduras to volunteer as a teacher in the Jungle School in the rural Cangrejal River valley. There is all the same beauty, and all the same dirt, as when I left three and a half months ago. It is amazing how fast things change until you realize that they really don’t change at all.

I am once again teaching 2nd and 3rd grades, although I have fewer students than before. Apparently many students haven’t come to school for the last few weeks due to a variety of concerns, which are really just easy smokescreens for not feeling that school is particularly important, if you ask me. For starters, there has been the political crisis since the end of June and there was also a robbery at the school and the robber was associated with a couple of families, so those children are not coming to school to avoid the gossip and social reactions. Most of my students, however, have trickled back, and I have eleven of the original sixteen on a fairly regular basis. I have no reason to really fear for my safety as a result of either of the above situations, so I see no reason to deny these kids a decent education while they can get it.

I’m sure people want to hear about the situation here because from the news it looks like people are sporting strong feelings and are very polarized. I’ve seen neither hide nor hair of a demonstration. The loudest voices (besides the kids at school) is the cat in heat outside my house right now (…I’ve been joking that I am going to start going to bars and yowling to see if it helps me get a boyfriend.) The Ceiba area public school teachers have finally agreed to stop striking in support of Zelaya and are returning to their classrooms this Monday. I don’t know if that agreement extends to the rest of the country or not.

Otherwise things are quiet here. People would have to actually rely on their government for consistency and support to make them terribly concerned about the situation. In San Pedro Sula (3 ½ hours away) and Tegucigalpa (7 hours away) there are demonstrations still going on by Zelaya supporters which aren’t violent but do close down the highways. According to the polls, half the people don’t like Zelaya and half the people don’t like Michelletti, but what the polls leave out is that only a tiny fraction of people believe that at the end of this anything will change. Here the situation is not called a “military coup.” It is called a “political crisis.” As I understand it from the Honduran press and people I have spoken with, it is widely understood here is that Zelaya’s arrest order was issued by the Supreme Court prior to his ouster, that the military chose to exile him to keep the country from erupting in violence, and that Michelletti does not intend to hold on to the presidency but pass it to whoever wins the previously scheduled elections in November. Politicians do awful corrupt things here all the time and you just have to keep going about your day, it seems. People’s main concern seems to be that things at least not get any worse.

So everything is the same, if not actually quieter than before. There has been a curfew on and off. You never know what time it starts, so the bar scene is lots of people asking everybody else “a que hora es la toque de queda?” And a lot of shrugs in response. On the bad side, it isn’t feasible nor just to keep such policy in effect. On the good side, there has been far less crime here as a result of people not being out on the streets at all hours of the night. The curfew has been lifted for the last few days but is going back into effect again as the rhetoric heats up in the approach to the next set of political negotiations mediated by Costa Rica’s president. It effects me less than not at all because I fall asleep by 9:30 each night, absolutely exhausted after a day at school and an evening of planning the next day.

But now the important things…my kids! They are doing quite well most of them. Their classroom discipline has gotten a bit slack since I left, but without adequate volunteers the Honduran teachers often leave them fairly unsupervised to copy pages from their books. The thinking here is that reading and writing the material will help them learn it. But for a second grader, only semi-able to read aloud at all, copying the material is a slow . word . for . word . process . and . they . can’t . keep . track . of . what . they . are . reading . you . get . the . idea? I can’t entirely blame the teachers. If there aren’t volunteers, they are faced with teaching up to 4 grades by themselves. It is impossible to lead even two classes at the same time when they have completely different materials provided by the government and the kids are incapable of following directions on their own. (Don’t get me started on the fact that the government textbooks are way too complicated for their intended grade levels…WAY too complicated.)

So, I have come to a very seemingly simple concept for my time here…to get the kids following directions and reading for content. Crazy ain’t it? Actually finding the solution in the paragraph above the question? But this is almost entirely beyond many of my kids. This weekend I’ll be researching the process for reading comprehension in American schools and start culling or creating materials and strategies to use with my kids. I’ll keep you posted on my successes (if there are any.) If nothing else, my following directions curriculum can involve a fair deal of games like “Mother may I?” and “Simon Says…” (except they’ll have to be more like “¿Papá puedo?” and “Diego Dice...”)

Worry not, those who know my penchant of activism, I am not involving myself politically in any way. It is not my country and none of my business ultimately. I don’t even entertain the thought of asking questions about the situation even with those I already know quite well. That said, I was struck by the hilarity of third world politics today while teaching Social Studies to my second graders. We were reading about public services: drinking water, electricity, phone and postal service, streets and bridges, trash pickup, waste removal, basic education, and health services. My kids do not have access, at least not on any regular basis, to a single one of these things. They live without running water, without electricity, without postal service…they burn their trash…they go to a private charity school because they can’t afford the “public” education…they walk miles on difficult mountain paths to get to school because there are no roads to their houses…they only go to a doctor for an emergency…the family might have a cell phone but they rarely have minutes to make calls and the kids must bring it to school where there is electricity to charge it…and here is the government telling them what they should be providing…I MEAN REALLY GOVERNMENT TEXTBOOK PEOPLE!!!! I can’t help wondering who wrote the book (blind conservatives or ironic liberals perhaps?) The poor kids just looked at me like I was crazy…didn’t I know what life was really like? I assured them that I do know. We talked about how many of these things aren’t true in the valley where the school is and the kids live…and that some of the things aren’t true in the cities, either. And I presented the question for them to think about, should the government provide these things? I assured them they didn’t have to answer in front of anyone but encouraged them to think about it. I’ll see if we ever get around to the discussion again.

So, maybe I should retract my statement about not getting politically involved, but I will hold to the fact that it was not my fault. It was on page 42 of the government issued 2nd Grade Social Studies textbook!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Coup be damned!

Yes...that’s right…I’ve decided to go back to Honduras! By tomorrow evening I’ll be happily ensconced with the fabulous Aguero family in La Ceiba. I fly Continental to San Pedro Sula and take a bus right from the airport to La Ceiba.

What’s that clamor coming from the south central region of the US? That’s my family in Texas…some of them think I’m crazy, but I say…

Yes…twelve days ag0 the President of Honduras was, via military escort, unceremoniously put on a plane to Costa Rica while still in his pajamas...


Yes…there has been unrest between the ex-President’s supporters and the military but…

…that’s in the capital, Tegucigalpa, which is a LONG way from where I work.

…I know the layout of La Ceiba well and can avoid crowds should I need to do so.


Yes…I am a little concerned, which is, as I see it, a good sign that I’m not seeking adventure nor being blind to the realities but taking seriously both the work to which I’m committed and my personal safety.

I’ve had my ear to the ground, as it were, reading several sites regularly as well as talking with my friends there in La Ceiba. For those interested in a non-CNN take on things (as much of their information comes from Telesur, the Venezuelan state run channel) I recommend BBC, Associated Press, and Reuters. I’ve been heartened by the more open opinion pieces in Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. For those who can read Spanish, there are three Honduran daily papers online: La Prensa, El Heraldo, and La Tribuna. (You find those at, etc.) I’ve also checked in regularly with the US Department of State so that I can know what it is I’m representing as a result of my passport. Google News carries the headlines from all over the world and the Cuban papers serve for a particularly good hoot from time to time if you find overtly propagandized statements to be funny.

As for myself, I am abstaining as much as possible from opinion. It is not, after all, my country. I am curious and open to learning the viewpoints of Hondurans from all sides of the argument(s). What I want is to get back to teaching incredibly disadvantaged kids who deserve better than the world is currently giving them, to help them gain the skills of language and mathematical literacy and critical thinking, and to let them know that they are loved, even if it is only by a gringa voluntaria.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

#16 Butterfly in the Sky!

I took my second and third graders out for a pretty amazing Friday field trip…we went to the Butterfly Museum! Now, it probably won’t be exciting to people who think of museums like the Houston Museum of Natural Science or the Smithsonian’s anything. Museums in the developing world usually exist as a result of one person’s incredibly dedicated efforts, in this case that person’s name is Robert Lehman. Robert has been in Honduras since the 1960s, working in community development and teaching…and collecting bugs! He has been a wealth of cultural information for me and he was a wonderfully passionate teacher for my 16 kids, which he kindly did all for free. (That’s him in the headscarf in the pictures.)

Now, another note about museums in the developing world. There is not a plethora of expensive, hands-on exhibits or floor upon floor of displays. The butterfly museum is a large room built onto the back of Robert’s house here in La Ceiba. Three whole walls and 5 displays in the middle of the room are covered floor to ceiling with glass faced display cabinets holding over 13,000 insects, as well as informational displays about Honduran ecology, the life cycle of insects, where in the world all these crazy bugs come from, and where in the world all the crazy people have come from to look at them. 10,000 of the beautiful (and ugly) bugs come from right here in Honduras, many (maybe most) of them caught by Robert right here in the La Ceiba area.

My kids not only learned about bugs but also got the chance to see just how amazing the natural wealth of their country is. The largest moth in the world (1 foot wingspan) was found in my neighborhood! The Rio Cangrejal where my kids live hosts beautiful Blue Morphos and tricky Owl Eyes and the butterfly with the longest proboscis in the world. It was also a great chance to reinforce the idea of there being other countries and other places, as we got to see samples of insects from 6 of the continents including the world’s largest scorpion (Thailand can keep hosting that one…the ones in my classroom here in Honduras are big enough for me.)

The kids got to handle live bugs, too. There were two tarantulas, one of whom had just molted so we got to see her old “dress” as Robert called it. There was a Harlequin Beetle (the one with the ridiculously long front legs.) There were also Honduran rhinoceros beetles (which apparently live in the bathroom at night so that they can fly around.) Outside he was breeding grasshoppers (who happily munched away on his plants) and butterflies. He went out early that morning to some of the empty lots and collected with two nets which he then used to describe the collecting process to the kids before emptying them onto a sheet and letting them go at it finding insects, identifying what they knew and asking about ones they didn’t know.
My kids were wonderful. Other than a bit of watchful eye for running or absconding with crayons in their pockets and a pause for orange juice to get energy and attention going again (although I had brought an orange and a hunk of bread for each for breakfast…but they probably didn’t get much if any dinner the night before.) It was a typical Honduran day in that the electricity was out (due to repairs we are told…it’s been happening a lot lately.) Robert ran some lights off of two small gasoline generators he has, so we were without air conditioning and the day is forever mixed a bit with the smell of gasoline exhaust, but we were able to see all the exhibits and a good time was had by all (including two visiting US university students…who were hung over and not big fans of bugs but made a good face nonetheless.)

My favorite game of the day was “Catch the Cockroach” which Robert collects in order to feed the live scorpions and tarantulas. My kids showed no fear whatsoever and deftly caught it and got it back into the jar for him. (At which point the two US students agreed to descend from the chairs upon which they were perched.) It was great to have someone help to reinforce the idea of catching and releasing bugs (especially at school because the chickens will eat them!) My kids laughed at some of the myths that Robert said other people held and easily answered many questions that he said most city children couldn’t answer. It was amazing to provide them with such a wonderful educational experience and I can’t wait to do it again in the future with another couple of grades.

#16 A Word to Those Who Might Think They Are Wise

Honduras seems rife with international aid. There seems to be no lack of government programs, mission groups, and volunteers. I hear English spoken and meet new gringos almost every day. But for all the gringos and groups of gringos passing through, so many of them seem to leave no wiser than they arrived. Only here for a week, at most two or three, they never get the chance to see the full picture that is Honduras. After four months, I feel like I have only begun to scratch the layers lying just below the surface. I want to offer some humble advice for those who want to help by coming to visit or sending aid.

IF THERE IS SO MUCH AID, WHY IS THERE STILL SO MUCH POVERTY AND STRIFE? To put it bluntly, our meager efforts to help usually feel like spitting in the wind. Government aid dwindles as it passes through filters of corruption, not just in the Honduran government but throughout the hierarchy of contractors and personnel. You might send a container of computers, but unless there is someone here to fight tooth and nail with Aduana (Customs) you may not see your complete shipment come off the dock. Perhaps you are paying a seemingly well meaning Honduran couple to run your orphanage, but without close supervision you may find yourself losing supplies. It happens all the time. Many people have given up and just put up with this enormous, malignant problem. And, in a way, I can understand it. When you are poor or economically insecure (and very, very few people in Honduras are rich or economically secure) you see the riches as more than any one program needs and you feel you deserve more for you hard work and somehow it doesn’t seem wrong to take a little. Who would even notice? And it gets easier and easier to take over time, especially as you watch many around you do the same.
It is also easy to steal when you see so many people doing things much worse to earn an easy buck. Honduras is fairly well-known now for narco-trafficking. I have been told by multiple sources that as Columbia has buckled down on its drug traffickers, they have moved operations here. Many people are very suspicious of the small airports springing up on the Bay Islands. With the drug rings come the guns, the violence, the ridiculous wealth that springs up overnight, and people are trapped in a dangerous world they can never leave if they want their families to survive. The big cities and even the small ones have gangs, even more dangerous than the ones we know in the States. Without enough un-corrupted police, it is impossible to battle the crime adequately.
Many of the reasons poverty is so rampant here are the same reasons poverty exists in the US. People who do have money want to hold on to it, especially given the lack of social security here. They have earned their money and want to enjoy it. They believe the poor are meant to be poor due to stupidness, laziness, or both. I have certainly gotten to see that the poor are sometimes less cognitively developed and far more likely to be mired in hopelessness. I might easily be in the same shoes if my mother had lacked adequate nutrition while pregnant and nursing with me or if I had to face their same life obstacles, I too would feel hopeless. But I haven’t met any more people who are poor and stupid or poor and lazy than I meet who are rich and both.
The average age of first birth here is 15. That’s right, many Honduran women are around the age of 15 when they give birth to their first child. One mother in the school is 29, like me, and has 6 children, one in highschool. With a baby and the only available childcare your own poor family and no more than a 6th grade education, out the window go your job and educational prospects, unless you can develop some kind of a home based income like sewing, making charcoal, baking bread to sell in a roadside stand, growing fruit in your garden, etc. Child and domestic abuse are common. You might fear your husband, but you fear hunger and being alone supporting your several children more. Kids work most days, after school and on Saturdays especially, and even the young ones have duties around the house. This, too, impedes educational development. You cannot ask them to do essays or much homework to make up for the short school day. They simply won’t do it if it comes down to homework or money earned to stock the family’s paltry pantry.
It really feels like spitting in the wind if you only see the big picture. This isn’t to discourage people helping, but to give them an idea of what they are up against. Don’t think your coming here or your aid will change the world. It may change a life, even maybe just for a day or an hour, and therefore it is worthwhile. It is the little steps that end up making the difference. One group donated the money for us to build the last of our steps up to the school. It will make a huge difference in rainy season to have the foundation protected from being washed away and to have a smooth and sizeable outdoor surface where the kids can gather. They also donated a week of their time to get the first third of the project done. It may not seem like much, and some people would say it is better to send your airfare money instead, but I disagree. It changed those university students’ lives to spend a week with the kids, doing many science projects that succeeded (as well as a few that didn’t…but that’s life and learning!)

WHAT SHOULD I DO WHILE I AM THERE? For starters, learn some Spanish. Do not expect people to speak English. But don’t expect that everyone speaks Spanish. There were many peoples and languages here before the Spaniards ever stepped foot here. There is Garifuna, Chorti, Moskito, and the Island version of English to name the ones I’ve personally run into.
Second, resist the urge to talk. Listen instead. Find out what people already know. Ask questions of the people. Find out what people need before assuming they want your help. Learn what their values are. Ask questions of yourself. Do you really know the “truth?” Are you sure that your life is better than theirs in all respects? Did you know that those pretty light streaks in that child’s hair are really a sign of protein deficiency? Did you know that the toddler’s teeth are rotting out because he gnaws on sugary roadside plants because there is not food at home most days? Remember that everyone is an individual. The people here will not all like the same music or the same foods as all the other people. Even vocabulary and basic slang can change just moving from one side of the city to the other.
Concrete help is always good and can often be completed in a concise period of time. Projects that don’t require upkeep are especially a good idea. If you want to plant a garden, fine, but will there be anyone who is going to be able to keep it going? Did you choose plants that will grow here throughout the year and into the next? You can send a huge number of vitamins, but even if the label is in Spanish, will the people be able to read them and understand what they are for, how often to take them, etc.? Sustainability is a problem here. People do not always know how to fix something that has broken or has developed a problem. Look for the simplest solution you can provide. Nine times out of time that is what you need to do. If you do not have a specialty, consider funding the trip for a specialist that is needed here. Sanitation, health, education…these are all the bases from which the poor can improve their lives. A surgeon, a civil engineer, a special education evaluator…these people can make huge differences in many lives in a concise period of time if given the right kind of support.

WHAT SHOULD I BRING OR SEND? Barring natural disasters, we really probably don’t need your old clothes. We sometimes feel we are swimming in used American clothing. We always need shoes, but only shoes that are going to last. We always need new underwear. We always need quality sheets, towels, and light blankets.
Durability is a big issue. What you send needs to survive the rainy season, being worn in the jungle or under the hot highland sun, being worn every day. Kids use everything, especially shoes, harder than adults will. There are no washing machines and rarely soap, so clothes are washed by being beaten against the rocks in the river. It always makes me smile to see a small, shoeless girl in a worn-out velvet dress on a hot day…such an oxymoron…but it makes me wonder what the donator was thinking…where would a poor Honduran child wear a winter party frock? How hot that poor babe must be!
Don’t fall into the trap of “They’re poor. They’ll like whatever we give them.” If toys are cheap or not age appropriate, if clothing is of poor quality, it will not be kept for long. People may smile and say “Gracias” but if it were you, wouldn’t you be thinking “Do they think I’m stupid? That I have no pride?” If you wouldn’t wear it on the street, why would you subject someone else to wearing it? (Look into recycling it there in the States, Europe, or Australia…the companies do exist.)
Consider where the item will go when it wears out. Consider the packaging. This is especially a problem with plastic toys, or as one friend here calls it “Junk for Jesus.” When it breaks in the States, we send it to the trash bin on the curb where the city picks it up regularly and takes it to the dump where it is sequestered and made at least somewhat sanitary. Here there is no one to pick up the garbage in many places outside the cities or people may be too poor to pay for the service. Here people live on the trash dumps because they can’t find anywhere else to live. Here people burn their trash in their stoves to cook their food. For the same amount you spent on the toys, you could likely have found school or art supplies, nutritional snacks like dried fruit in paper boxes, or educational games that can be shared and used for years. Why send things in easily broken plastic bags when you could splurge just a bit more on cheap plastic boxes with lids that can be used for years? Can something be wrapped in another useful item? One church group gave out stockings to the kids at Christmas, just a regular sock filled with candy, pencils, erasers, pencil sharpeners, rulers, etc. It was great except that they didn’t think to stuff the other sock in too. What is a child going to do with one sock? People send cardboard puzzles in cardboard boxes…what do you think happens to those in the humidity? Also, most kids are not patient or cognitively advanced enough to do even a 100 piece puzzle. Think simple and multi-use as often as you can.
If you are coming to visit a project, avoid bringing candy or sodas. The kids can usually afford a little candy each week. It’s cheap even here where it is almost always an import. Bring chocolate milk or juice or drink mixes rather than soda (consider the lack of refrigeration and air conditioning.) Bring fruit or vegetables, especially fruits that the kids have never seen or been able to try. My second and third graders are crazy for broccoli now, which I brought to school in order to show them that it really is possible to eat flowers (we were studying parts of the plant.) And unlike the candy wrappers, the peels and trash from fruit and vegetables will be nutritious for the environment, not toxic. If you are bringing a drink of some kind, bring some quality plastic cups (these never seem to last at the Jungle School but slowly filter away to be used as shovels or other toys on the playground.) If you are visiting a family in poverty, bring dry goods or a frozen chicken (which can keep for at least 24 hours without refrigeration…most people don’t have electricity.) These gifts seem ridiculously cheap to us but they are well out of the family’s price range. Simple toys, like balls or Frisbees, are great if you have a chance to play with older children. I took one family two chickens and a sock filled with rice to make a ball. We had hours of fun.
Carry a cheap notebook, nothing you’ll be sad to lose. You can record what you learn, your self-reflections (if you trip is any kind of success, you’ll have lots of them), and you can tear out pages to give away. I don’t know how many pages of the basics of English vocabulary and grammar I have given out in my short time here. (Although this is something I only do if requested; I never force English on anyone.) And I am going home with more notes and drawings from children than I will ever know what to do with.

ONE LAST ITEM ON THE PACKING LIST: The last and most important thing to bring is your humility. Check your arrogance in your North American airport (for those travelling from other continents, you are still likely to go through Miami, so feel free to leave yours there.) You may think you won’t have it, but it will creep up on you without your realizing (it happens to me frequently.) Whatever you do for these children, it was only a drop into their very deep well of need.
I’m not saying this to discourage you but rather to encourage you to do your work with a sense of reality. I met one young man who had been here a week and was overly proud of the bookcases he had helped build at an orphanage. Don’t get me wrong, the kids needed them and I appreciate that someone came out to put together 25 bookcases. At the end of a morning of teaching in the Jungle, I’m wiped and not about to be putting together bookcases in the afternoon heat. And we won’t be able to find Hondurans willing to do it for free. But don’t get too crazy with the pride. After all, they were just bookcases. They were not an end to poverty or child abuse or malnutrition. I would have preferred to hear, “Well, we made bookcases, and when we come back we will do something even better.”
I don’t think that I have done so much I should be arrogant, either. Please don’t think that. I go to bed each night thinking of all the things I could have done better. I keep thinking of projects that I should have done while I was here. I keep thinking of ways I could have phrased things better to improve the children’s understanding of a topic or their sense of self-esteem. I’ve been spitting into the wind, too. I’ve just been here long enough to start learning how to aim a little better, maybe, I hope. I will learn more each time I come back. It is all about perspective. I don’t fault the folks demanding more of me or lying about having received their gift and wanting me to give them more. To them I am enormously wealthy (even as I have watched my net-worth dwindle to less than half its size amidst our economic woes.) I politely explain that no, I am sure I already gave them a soup packet so no, they cannot have another one as this means someone else would have to go without. I also explain that in my culture (and amongst many middle class Hondurans as well) it is customary to preface and/or close any request with the word “please,” and that they should keep this in mind for their future requests as it will help them get what they need, but no, my answer isn’t changing. [Okay, that is a bit of wishful thinking really…by the end of a day I am so tired that I am just as likely to give them another soup packet if no one is looking.]

I remind myself every day that justice is not a natural phenomenon. The life of the gazelle or blue jay or wild mongolian horse is not fair. It could be eaten by something stronger, bigger, and faster. It could succumb to a nasty disease. It could be washed away in a flash flood while drinking from a river. It lives very much in the present. Poor children are much the same and I have learned a great deal from them about how to keep my wider perspective. But in the same way we see animals in the shapes of clouds or constellations of stars, we have developed this concept of Justice, a deeper concept that we feel should be there even when it isn’t.
It is we, all humanity, together, who must carry it out, we who must create Justice with our own hands and sweat and cradle it like a precious child, keeping watch as it learns to walk that it not falter and injure itself permanently. It will grow very slowly. We may never see it take more than a few baby steps within the generations walking the earth right now. But why should that mean it is impossible?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

#15 I Just Can't Say Goodbye...

· the rainy season…
· the fact that everything here is “relative” (read: a little bit of a lie…at least a little bit…)
· my kitten, Lempira…he’s coming home with me!
· learning just how cruel people can be to their own flesh and blood…
· boiling water on the stove in order to avoid bathing in cold water,
· the starving, skin and bones dogs who cower when you come near because they expect to be beaten,
· constant repetitions of the word “crazy” with a Latin lilt (gotta teach the kids another English word…)
· learning the signs of malnutrition…
· adults who can’t take responsibility for their own mistakes and blame the kids…
· fried lunch meat on my dinner plate…
· learning just how cruel people can be if they can write off someone for being poor…

· the blaring 70s and 80s music in the supermarket (and to which I can’t resist the urge to boogie right there in the produce section)
· Geny’s jokes…
· Jose’s “Kati!” every time I pass by…
· Marieli’s laugh…
· Luis’ “stoy muerto” routine…
· Bryon, the street vender, who says that he loves my freckles
· Eloisa’s intellect…
· Nayeli’s smile…
· Paco’s whistling (but don’t tell him I said that because he shouldn’t do it in class…)
· baleadas (refried beans and cheese in a tortilla…I can’t explain exactly why they are so yummy…)
· Toshi, the other remaining volunteer, he’s awesome!
· Diana’s tiny hands…
· Kristian’s “bien”…
· Danielito’s hugs…
· Luzmila’s calm…
· Wilmer’s giggle…
· Paola’s determination (she is the world’s smallest, youngest old soul…)
· the cool moist morning air…
· Soyla’s hair…
· Denis’ writing (he has no idea what it means but he does it so carefully…)
· Nelson’s fastidiousness…
· Paola E’s shyness…
· Dilcia’s good heart…
· the waterfall’s along the Cuenca road…
· Hugo’s attentiveness…
· Kevin’s energy…
· Gloria’s fidgeting (it’s like her butt and the chair are of opposite magnetic poles, I swear…)
· the cool rush of river water…
· Denia’s strength…
· Karla’s quiet fortitude…
· Ronald’s helpfulness…
· the bounty of beautiful butterflies…

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

#14 ¿Que puta hago aqui? (What the f*ck am I doing here?)

I've randomly interspersed photos of my classroom to entice readers through my eloquent frustrations...enjoy!

Sometimes it feels like my job here has been merely to care and to witness and if I manage to teach one or two children how to spell a few words correctly, so much the better. The lack of resources, the cultural differences, language differences, the dire poverty, and even the rain and mud and heat and dust have all left me with more questions than answers, more of a to-do list than accomplishments done.

Many children want to learn, but how to learn when there aren’t enough books, when the books they have aren’t something they can yet read, when they don’t know how to think to form a question or to want to know its answer? These are things learned in school and by family members who went to school. I’ve decided, as un-concretely as one can decide anything (because decisions change constantly here) that the language goal of a basic education is to learn how to form a question, how to communicate it clearly, and how to search for its answer. But how to learn when all you know is that you are hungry and tired? When you are sick due to poor sanitation, constant rain (some of it even inside your house,) and malnutrition? There isn’t a trick in the world that I can find to get past that learning hurdle.

The textbooks for Social Studies and Science are almost completely useless. They are fairly heavy in text that is far beyond the kids’ abilities to read, let alone grasp the meaning of in any useful way. These are, by the way, government issued text books, and from what I can tell the Jungle School kids perform at or above the average Honduran public school child. Why they would write books that their children can’t be expected to be able to learn from is beyond my comprehension. The children will copy down any problem I write on the board, be it fill-in-the-blank, multiple choice, or open answer, but are completely stumped when asked to answer it on their own. An extraterrestrial might think “No puedo” (I can’t) is a national greeting or courtesy given how often my kids say it.

Honduran education is from another century in so many ways (and I’m not talking about the 20th century.) Education is only legally required until the 6th grade, and this is not even available in some areas. The public schools aren’t completely free, as you must buy and sustain uniforms and school supplies, pay for the guards at the school, and pay the fees for any extra classes like computers. Many families have no hope of covering these costs and adequately feeding themselves.

Public school teachers are one of the only organized labor forces in Honduras. So, whenever there is a labor dispute, whether or not it involves education, the teachers strike. I have heard that they lost over 40 days of school last year due to strikes. Elementary teachers are certified by working as assistant teachers for three years, starting as early as 16. This means that a 19 year old can be a certified teacher. I’ve met few this age from any culture who are capable of handling 15 children with discipline, patience, organization, and maturity. I’m 10 years older, fairly capable in all those arenas, and exhausted at the end of every class period, let alone an entire day. The teachers’ textbooks spell out your entire lesson plan for every class period and explain how to do the math, so obviously the government is somewhat aware of what it is lacking in terms of trained professionals.

It is never lost on me that this was a heavily colonized country, from the endemic poverty to the incredible social stratification. Teachers are the middle class here, although that hardly spells wealth or social security, nor does it keep them immune from the endemic problems of poor self-esteem, lack of initiative, and unreliability. It is a huge accomplishment to become a teacher, but they must find ways to build self esteem and community rather than setting themselves apart from their students by saying “Look how clean we are. Look how much we know. You need to be like us because what you are is not enough.”

When there isn’t adequate self-esteem in a society as a whole (and I don’t think I know of a society where this isn’t a problem) people are always looking for who is “worse” so that they can feel better about themselves. This means everyone is being actively looked down upon by someone above them on this imaginary hierarchy of “worthiness.” When you get to the folks for whom there is no one below them on this ladder, it is as if they are being shat upon by the entire country. And it is their children that I am teaching.

One day we waited a half hour in the pouring rain for one of the teachers to pick us up and take us up to school. When we finally called we found out that he had a meeting that he had forgotten to tell us about. We later found out that his birthday had been the day before as well. And I am constantly fascinated by the horrendous traffic in this small city of maybe 100,000 people that keeps the other teacher from arriving any earlier than 40 minutes late. Yet they are some of the most dedicated and hard working teachers I have met here, so keeping it all in perspective, I have tried hard not to lose my temper. I did do so once, on purpose, because they wanted to restrict tutoring to the tables outside because they believed children were playing with the first grade’s toys in the afternoon. I had to point out that is actually occurs when the first graders are waiting for a teacher to arrive each morning, not under my watchful eye in the afternoon, and that while I am here for the next three weeks we are not moving tutoring to a less conducive environment to facilitate a lack of adult discipline.

But as I said before, I am likely leaving here in three weeks with more questions that I came with, mostly as a result of the extremely relative nature of “truth” and the incredibly subjective but important role of appearances. Uniforms are very good example of how important appearances are, what hidden messages are really being sent to the children, and how they are stressed at the detriment of the substance behind them. Having the right uniform, utterly spotless, with the correct school patch on the sleeve, etc. is a very big deal. Children can be sent home if their uniform is incorrect (and often are from public schools--I’ve been told--I’ve learned to assume everything might be a bit of a lie until I see it for myself.) Lectures are given on the responsibilities each student has, and it always seems to come back around to keeping the uniform clean so that you do not appear to be a dirty, stupid Honduran (read: you are a dirty, stupid Honduran deep down so you need to appear that you aren’t.) During one of these speeches at our school, it wasn’t until the volunteers got a chance to speak that we brought up the idea that the most important responsibility is to learn, to work with your teacher to do so by paying attention, asking questions, doing your homework, and being on time.

I have seen little evidence of consistent tests, quizzes, or grading except by the volunteer teachers. My two kids from public schools had excellent grades in first grade last year but fail to meet most if any of the government standards for first grade. Grades and evaluations are just two more incredibly subjective things, I suppose. But most of my kids are passing on their tests and they all enjoy getting a chance to see what they are learning and earn recognition for it.
I have my work cut out for me when it comes to teaching that cheating is wrong. In a world of appearances and subjectivity, it is better to appear smart than to actually admit that you don’t know something and learn what you didn’t know. How much of this culture operates out of shame? I am afraid to know.
I am not trying to be a brick wall or to swim upstream against a current. I certainly have no intention of importing North American culture as if these people were uncivilized in any way. And, I have found my own compromises between my goals and reality, rather like a sailboat tacking into the wind, never facing its destination head on. For example, a student who gets nothing correct on a test still gets a 60% so that they have a hope of bettering their grade with enough hard work.
I had to recommend we drop one child from second grade back down to first because he could not read or write and was having an incredibly hard time in math. The school director told the mother that “He can’t do anything. Some kids are stupid and need to repeat grades a lot.” I stopped by their house after school to talk to her and to her son to explain in specifics why I felt he would benefit from repeating first grade now that he was at our school, and I made sure to complement his achievements that I had witnessed (he can draw very well, for example). I rounded it out by encouraging him to work hard as I knew he would likely be one of the smartest and most capable children in the class and that I would check in on how he was doing (which I do.) He started out as a silent kid who just stared at me blankly, but now he always has a smile and a hug for me and loves to come inform me of new things he has learned.

I realize that I have been writing a lengthy diatribe on the many failings of the Honduran schools and Honduras in general, but I am not depressed about what I have learned. In many ways they are the average issues faced by the average human being in the average country, only magnified by the circumstances of history and geography. I am glad and appreciative to have a better understanding of the problems. I am hopeful that I can help Honduras to create and provide solutions in my future work here. I want to come back. I love the kids and their families. The land is beautiful. My hope is an amazing feeling.

If I can teach a little hope, and maybe also how to spell “hacer” correctly, well, that would be a life well lived.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

#13 Jungle School Sunny Side Up

Jungle School has been in session for almost three weeks now and I have learned that I love and hate teaching. It is challenging and fun and active. It is also challenging, exhausting, and frustrating. I love learning and I love helping other people learn, but I am ready to lose my cool at least once a day due to one frustration or another. I could do without the misbehavior and lack of initiative, but they are small prices to pay for making what I think is a real difference in these kids’ lives. I will blog tonight about the positive sides of my work and return later to discuss the less positive aspects.

I am teaching Second and Third Grade, Monday through Thursday, from 7am to 1pm. Julia, a volunteer from Austria, and I trade classes for 40 minutes so that she gets a break from Kindergarten by teaching my classes’ Social Studies and I get a break from my kids and get to play and sing with the Kinder kids. On Fridays I teach music to the 5th and 6th graders; we are learning to play the recorder. Then I stay at the school with the younger kids while the older kids go down to the river with Toshi for karate lessons. I’m not a big fan of Fridays. My Monday to Thursday schedule looks like this…

7-7:20am PREPARATION Transportation is a pain for me and the kids, so this is time when they can finish the homework they forgot to take home, read books from our little library, and we can all finish getting to school.

7:20-8am MATH We’ve been doing the order of numbers and the place names as well as greater than, less than, and equal. The 2nd graders are working with numbers 1-999 and the 3rds are working with 1-99,999. I’m looking forward to getting to addition and subtraction next.

8-8:40am SPANISH I give them 12 spelling words a week that we then practice and use throughout the week before having a test on Thursdays. I am focusing on problem areas like v/b, c/s, h, rr/r and ll/y. It has been fascinating to see how often even adults here spell “hacer” (to do or to make) as “aser” because they are unaware of the silent “h” at the beginning or the fact that “c” and “s” have the same sound sometimes. My other favorite spelling issue is fairly particular to Honduras and is that “b” and “v” are both pronounced as “b”. Many of my kids spell 20 as “beinte” and one kid wrote his alphabet with “…Uu Vb Ww…” These are problems we see with adults too…
[The sign says "Don't vote for trash." They thought they were using the word "botar" which means "to throw out."]

We use the words to practice writing and how to form sentences correctly. We are also currently reading some simple poems and using them to learn how to answer reading comprehension questions.

8:40-9am RECESS AND MILK I have loved watching the kids play a game at recess called “The Lucky Bunny” which consists of standing in a circle and clapping hands with the persons on either side of you and saying a poem about a lucky bunny who comes to visit and kisses the boy or girl he likes best. There is one child in the center who is counting around the circle with the beat of the poem and whoever his or her finger is pointing at when the poem is done is the lucky bunny. This person then moves to the center and chooses who they want to kiss, and then this third kid takes to the center to count with the poem. The gender observer in me noticed right away that while girls kiss girls and boys, boys only kiss girls. Ahhh, homophobia…it starts so young.

9-9:40am SOCIAL STUDIES (aka My time to play with the cute kids who are ages 3-6 in the Kinder class.) It is fascinating how hard it is for a 5 year old who has never been to school to learn to differentiate colors or to recognize numbers or letters.

9:40-10:20am SCIENCE We’ve been working on what constitutes life, the life cycle, how we use things that aren’t alive, and the parts of plants. I’m looking forward to getting to animals soon! The kids enjoyed the chance to look close up at leaves with the magnifying glasses I brought with me.

10:20-11:20am ART, CALLIGRAFY, or HEALTH Depending on the kids’ energy level and attention spans, we usually do one day of art, one day of health, and two days of calligraphy (learning to write in script.) Most of my students’ penmanship is atrocious and painstakingly slow, so it is important to practice and I focus on the words from their spelling lists to help us practice those. Art is very basic. We used white chalk on black construction paper to mimic Lenca pottery (the Lenca are a tribe indigenous to western Honduras.) My plan for Health this week is to teach them to wash their hands for at least the duration of the song “Happy Birthday.”

11:20-Noon LUNCH Ahhh, rice and beans and either pineapple or plantain… the rice is from a program called “Kids Against Hunger” so it is specially formulated with soy protein and vitamins. I can’t say I’m a fan, but I always eat a little to make a good show of it. We also try to make sure the kids brush their teeth and take a children’s vitamin.

Noon-1pm TUTORING While Toshi, another volunteer from the US, and Julia teach English to the older kids, I keep myself available to the younger ones to help them with homework and basic skills. I have one second grader who is new to the school this year. He is very capable in math class but completely unable to read, so I am working with him at a very basic level to get him understanding phonics so that he can catch up more quickly to the other kids in terms of language.

I then go down to the road wait for the bus to pass by (which can be at any time between 1:15 and 2.) I try to stop by a house just down the road where one of our first graders lives. His grandmother has asked me to help him with his homework when I can because she can’t…she’s never been to school.

We have two Honduran teachers at our school. Angel is the director and is in charge of 4th, 5th, and 6th grades, although most classes for them are taught by the volunteers Maria (from Spain) and Toshi. Those three grades (about 25 kids in all) share one classroom. The other classroom is headed by Iris, who really only teaches first grade. Also in that room are 2nd and 3rd grades, with me. In total there are around 25 kids in 1st, 2nd and 3rd. Julia teaches about 5 Kinder students in the roofed space in between the two buildings.

We have approximately one textbook for every two kids, so there is a great deal of sharing. I have mostly given up on using textbooks, as sharing is not an easy thing and the time taken up in fighting over who will have the book on which side of the desk is precious learning time lost. I spend my own money to pay for copies so that the kids can have actual worksheets for math and science and a small book of poems that we use for Spanish class.

My biggest goals in my work over the next few weeks is to help set some foundations for these kids to learn HOW to learn, so that they are not completely dependent upon inconsistent and poorly trained teachers for all of their knowledge. I want to instill in each of them at least a kernel of self-esteem. I want to model consistent adult discipline and appropriate behavior. And I want to provide them with a sense that everything they learn has a practical, and maybe even enjoyable, use.

Part of me can’t wait to come back and teach some more. I love the work. Most days, I really love the kids and will miss them terribly and am trying not to think too heavily on that approaching departure date.