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The Healing Power of Relación Tutora

9 Aug

The school!

After spending about 4 months in Zacatecas- from January to July 2012 (being outside of community in April in June), with the majority of my time spent in the community called Presa de Maravillas, I have come to grow and learn in a way that would not have been possible without this experience. For four months, I really lived with the community. Mondays and Wednesdays were usually spent in afternoon lessons with the primary school, Tuesdays was tiangi’s, where you could find almost everyone you knew in the outdoor market either buying or selling things. Thursdays was either a day to do the laundry or wash the dishes and Friday I’d go to a painting workshop with other women in the community. I was game for anything – making cheese, climbing over rocks to get to another part of the community, riding donkeys and of course, dancing. And through all of this I really grew to love the people there, what living in community really means and how the school Pedro Vélez was an oasis for the students in this context.

As the study moved along, I moved to live in San Ramón for two weeks in May with the telesecundaria Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla and Maestra Sara Moran, who also has students who have trouble at school and/or a home, including a student who was recently expelled from the Téchnica in Villa de Cos, almost drawing a parallel to the students and situation in Presa de Maravillas. Furthermore, I made side trips to work in Río Grande and Tlaltenango and took the opportunity to see if the trends I was seeing in Presa de Maravillas and in San Ramón were common in other regions, and they were.

Here is the full study for sharing!

The Healing Power of Relación Tutora

and in Spanish!

Poder sanador de la relación tutora

Presa de Maravillas


The Power Within

5 Jun

Dancing in Río Grande, Zacatecas

¡More photos and en español aquí!

Today’s officially my last day living in Zacatecas. I can’t believe how quickly the time flew by. Two weeks ago, I packed up my bags and left Presa de Maravillas to live in a new community called San Ramón and travel to two regions Río Grande and Tlaltenango to support their work and also to see at a more state-level, differences between regions and schools.

It was a crazy final two weeks, with the temporary move to San Ramón on Monday to being part of the team in Río Grande on Friday and Saturday of last week to going back to San Ramón and taking a 3 hours bus ride on Tuesday, May 29th to the region furthest south of the state, Tlaltenango. It was a lot, but how rich each experience was.

In Río Grande and Tlaltenango, I had the opportunity to be in schools, talk with teachers, students and community members, observe the tutorías and best of all, be in tutoría. That Friday in the community Ignacio López Rayón, the academic advising team (ATP) in Río Grande joined forces to bring 2 or 3 students and the teachers from their various schools together to work in tutoría, exchanging temas among schools and strengthening each tutor and the tutoría. There, I saw students in deep dialogue; I saw students investigating and applying the temas to their lives; I saw students in the community create their own lines of investigation and seeing their world differently through their scholarly work. One tema called “You are a miracle” caught my attention. I observed Axcelia, a student from José Ma. Morelos y Pavón, the school that hosted us, begin her tutoría with a startling but beautiful question: Why are you a miracle? And with that question, Axcelia and her tutee began to explore the human reproduction process and life, why we were indeed living miracles. Axcelia chose this tema because her mom was pregnant with her baby sister and wanted to know about the stages in pregnancy. How wonderful it is to learn something that has a direct link to what we are living.

The academic exchange in José Ma. Morelos y Pavón

In Tlaltenango, I had the pleasure of working with Luis Álvarez González, a boy in his second year of the telesecundaria called Independencia y Libertad, in the community Los Reales. He was small and skinny and had clear, green eyes with a small Mohawk from where he molded his hair. Although he only had worked since October in tutoría, he had such a clear vision and strong work ethic of what a good tutoría should be. He was brilliant and sharp, and meticulously took notes as he worked and analyzed the poem “Mushrooms” by Sylvia Plath. And this Luis moved us with his demonstration on kidney failure. For the first time, I saw a demonstration that hit a perfect blend of raw and rational, a demonstration that moved something inside of me.

He began, “I created this tema because of what I lived, and what my family is living.” I sat up. He began to explain kidney failure and what this means, how it is caused and ways to treat it. In a small bag, he brought a home dialysis kit and with careful detail, showed us how to use it at home and what it does. He ended his demonstration like this: “Now the personal side to my tema. My brother, at 18 years of age had kidney failure.” He talked about the fearful and painful decision-making, how his sister became the kidney donor and the slow recuperation process. There was an unusual courageous and maturity coming from Luis, an earnest quest for learning that intricately united the theories and academic learning of body systems to shed light on life. Through Maestra Mireya Contreras Marquez’s complete openness, trust and belief in her students and the liberty she gave them to explore any issue or a subject, Luis was not only able to go deep in his learning, but gained a special courage and confidence to be a part of the change in his family and a source of awareness in the community as he shared.

The dialysis kit, Luis, Independencia y Libertad, Tlaltenango

In the midst of a volatile political climate and disheartening resistance at times to the work, these small sparks of hope fill us and keep our hearts fighting for what we do believe is worth it. Dalila López, the national coordinator for the national strategy team, once said that through our work, we’ve made many enemies, but gained a lot more friends. In Río Grande and Tlaltenango, I saw the daily battles and how sometimes, it can feel like a tiring, seemingly endless uphill climb with little help from the top.

Under the passionate leadership of Profe Rito Longoria and the support of important authorities, Tlaltenango has been called a model region, where even though none of the schools were labeled “focalized” due to repeated failing results, the creation of the network of tutors expanded slowly and organically through the personal commitment and volunteer of the teachers. When the work in tutoría was just beginning in Tlaltenango in 2008, the pioneering group of teachers decided to commit every Tuesday afterschool to study together, create new temas and demonstrate what they’ve learned. Students were part of this network and that was the most wonderful part of it. They called this “Study Tuesdays.” This week, they switched it to Wednesday so I could be a part of the group. So from 4.30-8pm, we gathered in the small local library in the town of Tlaltenango. We worked in tutoría and listened to two demonstrations, one by Maestro Luis Rubén and another by a student, Edgar Longoria. However, only about 4 teachers and 2 students came that day. Profe Rito, saddened at the lack of attendance of the other teachers that didn’t come, and wanting to do more for the team, asked us, “What can I do to help our region? What’s wrong?” Maestro Luis Rubén quietly said, “Maybe some teachers think that with a change in government, the program will finish they think, why commit?” He had a point because no one really knew what was going to happen after this year. Hearing that statement, I understood that fear and uncertainty. But I looked at the team, at the teachers that had tirelessly come week after week on their own accord to study and build a network from the ground up; I looked at the students who were eager and convinced that working in tutoría has really helped them learn and it was obvious. This change that we have created is irreversible.

I told them, “Maestros, the government can change, but this won’t change how we work. The much-needed changes in education are already in motion, the revolution has already begun, and it’s impossible to go back to how things were. It’s so much more than just an educational policy. The relación tutora has changed not just how we teach, but who we are and how we live. Even if the government changes, we are not going to go back to how we used to teach, it’s impossible. What’s more, we’re preparing the next generation of teachers here in our schools and they are not going to teach in the traditional way.” I looked at the students and asked them,  “ When you become teachers, how are you going to teach? In the old-fashioned way? They firmly shooked their heads and said, “No, in tutoría”. There’s no way. That’s the kind of change we’re creating. It might be hard to see in the midst of tough and volatile political climates, especially now that elections are only a month away. But what we’re creating is much more and lasts much longer than just the now. We’re creating a new way of thinking, a new way of living and a generation that is going to be so used to thinking and living in that way. It’s a change, a radical one, but one that is completely and totally irreversible.

Waking up to learn in Río Grande

In both regions, I got to be a part of an incredible team of ATPs and teachers, passionate and so humble, wanting to grow, wanting to learn. They were hungry for new ideas, hungry for new ways to improve the network of teachers and students here, hungry to be better. For example, the power I see in Río Grande is the incredible commitment and sacrifice the team of ATPs and teachers are willing to make for this cause. They have a community, a brotherhood that pulls them through in the toughest times. But that’s it- it’s a cause, it’s a calling that consumes and moves to inspire. It motivates the teachers to create temas that are relevant to their community and motivates a deep hunger and love to innovate and share. In a small talk I gave to some of the teachers in Río Grande, a conversation came up about a video that Maestro Jesús made of me that inspired other teachers and students in the técnica. I hadn’t seen the video but the teachers began asking for a copy of this video to motivate their students too.

I was glad they had that video but couldn’t help thinking and telling them- you are the inspiration for your school, you are the inspiration for your community. Sure, please use the video with all the confidence you need, but the best inspiration is you. In Asset-Based Community Development we always talk about the resources within a community – the parents in community, their students, the school and its teachers, first and that’s what I wanted them to see. Yes, I love being that source of energy but the real power is here, in the passionate teachers and inspired students and community who have changed through the relación tutora; the power is within. As Profe Rito helped me remember: and what comes from within is so much more powerful. The practice of the tutoría changes us and pushes us to do more for our schools and our people, more for México. We just have to continue to believe in that power, believe in ourselves and gather more who share this vision, and create that community, the learning community (comunidad de aprendizaje) that is leading the movement from Zacatecas to the rest of the country, and I’ll dare say, the world.

There’s a lot to change, but I think the world is discovering that there are new answers. We just got to go back to the basics, the very basics of what makes us human. And learning is one of that, but real authentic learning is what we’ve already robbed from our schools. We’ve created educational systems that were not created with students in mind- that’s a huge problem. In tutoría, the blessed simplicity as Gabriel Cámara always talks about, is going back to the basics. With just a notebook and a pencil, we can do a lot to grow the minds and hearts of the people. And that’s definitely worth fighting for.

The people – teachers, authorities, communities and students in Zacatecas have truly been an inspiration for me. And I almost feel like I’m Zacatecana. Leaving was so hard but I know that I’ll be back, soon. In Chinese, we don’t have “goodbye”, all we have to “See you again” and that’s what I’ll say to you, Zacatecas, “Thank you for all you’ve shared with me and showed me through the power of your people, the power within. And yes, I’ll be seeing you again.”

Profe Misael, Profe Martín, me and Profe Oscar en Río Grande

I Believe

18 Jan

With Flim a boy from Nengsadueak

More photos here!

In December, I returned back to Singapore and then almost immediately straight on to Chiang, Rai, Thailand. I’m sure you all know that I’ve been working in Thailand for about 10 years now and after living and experiencing the power to relación tutora here in some of the toughest communities in México, I wanted to bring it back to my region.

For me, for the first time in about 10 years in Chiang Rai, I really felt we did something special in both Blessing Home and in Negseduak, something we can continue, something we can keep building up as we build ourselves up.

December 12, 2011, we began a network of tutors through a teaching method called relación tutora or check here in 1) a village hill tribe community and 2) Blessing Home, a youth hostel for mainly Lahu students who had come from various villages to the city center to study.

You see, there were so many challenges against us and at times I’d think of all the reasons why it would fail. There was no teacher in the village, and yes- it’s a village, not a school – so we would be going into people’s homes and trying to create a red de tutoría (network of tutors) there. Second, time as it always is, was against us. Many students work on Saturdays and we literally only had Sundays to count on to be sure there would be people in the village. During the week, the students would only come home at 5pm and we would be clothed in pitch darkness at 6pm as there was no electricity in the village, and no more tutoría could happen after 6pm. Almost none of us (except for 3 university students and another local Thai from Bangkok) were fluent in Thai, the team was new and this was the first time we would come together, we wanted to create a English program where students would learn to speak, listen, read and improve their vocabulary, but above all, speak. And in tutoría now, speaking a foreign language has been the most difficult to train. Furthermore, English while taught in school uses an alphabet completely different from Thai. When in Spanish it’s easy to decode words and figure out cognates of large words, it’s a completely different system in Thai. And to me the biggest challenge was for the students to see themselves as teachers, it goes so against Thai/ Asian culture where all we are taught is to absorb and we are in no place to teach. I’d thought getting over this hurdle would be the hardest. I was so worried that the kids wouldn’t want to teach, would feel too shy etc. But shame on me, and was I in for a shock because I had met on this trip some of the most creative and innovative teachers.

I just needed to believe.


We began on Sunday with a whole day with the kids. We started with an ice-breaker and then asked the kids to choose the listening activity or adjectives and Jamorn, Jap and I worked with one secondary student each. That day, we worked 3 hours in the village and had to completely modify our lessons on the spot. Some students had such a low level of English that we really had to start from scratch. We had to think of activities that would engage the students and be at a level where student could really understand and apply what they have learned. So each day, we would prepare for lessons in the morning and in the afternoon, drive up to the village by 3pm to work on painting the new sports court or build a small library and then at 5pm or 5.15pm, we would begin our lessons. What was most astonishing was that even after a long long day of school, even as the days went by, the students would still run up to the team at 5pm each day, with notebook and pen in hand, ready to begin their tutoría. In fact, as the days went on, the students took less and less time to change out of their school uniform to come and join us. I don’t even think I would change quickly to do more learning after school. Something different was in the air.


You could see a change in how they viewed learning. My absolute favorite part was our last day in the Negseduak village and at Blessing Home. That was when they tutees became the tutors. At Blessing Home the kids paired up and began tutoring each other, using the same styles, the same activities that we had used with them, and they knew it by heart. They knew the content well but I was amazed at how they could really guide their tutees, and they were even better than us, and could lead their own peers to a high level of understanding and knowledge in a much shorter time than we could. A lot of it was learning vocabulary and also using our senses and actions to experience the words, it was a whole new way of learning and teaching that the team had created. And when tested, their tutees knew the content, and knew it well.


More than new English vocabulary and speaking and listening practice in English, we created a real culture of learning. Now asking questions and encouraging curiosity became a way of life. As we walked in the village, they would point out or pull out things like leaves or flowers or the table or the chicken and ask what that is in English. The kindergardeners would tug at our shirts and show us that they knew where their head was, eyes were and all the body parts they had learned the day before. And best of all, you could see them asking each other questions. There was a new faith in their people, that everyone knew a little bit, and knew something different, and that even the kindergardeners could teach a secondary student. In the village, there was one girl, Nitaya in Primary 5 who created new activities when learning adjectives she had begun tutoring two students from K2. After she was done, another boy, Witaya who was in a grade above, from the village came up to her to ask her to teach him too. With a glisten in her eyes, she proudly took him on. Each tutor had a real experience sharing that knowledge, and tasted that they could. They were driven, so driven by the opportunity to share the knowledge with their peers. And they had confidence because we really believed they could. For me, Meizhi and Bevin were exemplars of that. There was in this village, a girl named Ah choo, an 11 year old who refused to go to school at a young age and was made to take care of the peanut harvesting in the village, she would barely read or write her own name. Driven by the sheer delight of seeing another learn, Meizhi and Bevin were so patient with Ah Choo and made sure she knew various adjectives. They had the highest belief in her and by the end of it, her face shone with satisfaction as she eagerly showed me her notebook filled with new words and new knowledge.

It’s hard to measure belief but one can feel it. I saw how that made people come alive. To be honest, the first day we arrived, we were treated as outsiders- exactly what we were. And slowly the kids started to warm up to us, and still not the families yet. Then the families started staying out with us after it was dark, and then by the end of it we were eating and sleeping with the villagers, singing and dancing together. We became family.


Now our biggest challenge is to take care of the process very very carefully. We will have to keep refining our work, the temas, keep building more temas, keep building relationships, keep changing, while keeping our principles constant and our passion to learn and work, our hunger and heart constant.

And something that tutoría is about, is that, whatever we do will never be enough. But that’s good, because it shouldn’t. That keeps pushing us to innovate, improvise and keep working, keep believing in others and in ourselves.

Back in México, I feel like there’s so much more to be done, and my burden to go back is even stronger. I keep thinking of all the places in Southeast Asia I have worked in, in the school for street children in Cambodia, in another children’s shelter, in Calcutta… they people are so hungry to learn, and I feel like finally I’ve found some answers that could make create real changes in both the students and their families through relación tutora. This is just the beginning. This is where it gets exciting.