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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

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Our Hands

26 Mar

More photos from March here! y ¡en Español aquí!

Washing the sheets!

I woke up this morning to the noise of dogs barking outside, almost killing two piglets that somehow wandered loose. We ran down to try to get our dogs off them, yelling at Goliath and Tiger with a broom in one hand and a rock in the other. Mounting donkeys and making fresh cheese to seeing the tree house built by some of my students by the watering hole where we bring the cows, it’s another day in Presa de Maravillas. It’s good to be back.

I’ve been out of the community for a full week, and living with Maestra Alma in the city of Zacatecas because Gabriel Cámara was here from Sunday to Thursday. What a week. We travelled to Pinos, to San Ramón, Villa de Cos, being at schools and being with those committed to bringing a change in education here in México. And each day left me more and more inspired by the work here, by the people and students here. Whenever I think about student movements, I think of protests, of marches, and I get excited by the student agency and activism that they are showing against an authority or policy but here I’m discovering a new kind of activism, a new kind of social movement, a movement of the academics.

I’m discovering that the depth of academic knowledge through the human part of education is what directs and guides this movement. Through a real learning experience, students are pushing the work in 1) them as people, it gives them the confidence to carry on, to dream, 2) their own classes, encouraging other students 3) having the confidence to share the work with other schools and teachers, even in other states 4) in their homes, and inspiring their parents, and 5) in their lives, as students tell me how they dream of bettering their community through being educated. It’s so simple, yet so profound.

On Tuesday, I saw this social movement with incredible clarity. We had a teacher training session with about 143 supervisors, teacher-coaches, principals, and teachers who came from the region called Pinos. Instead of bringing foreign speakers or bringing the Secretary of Education or some other big shot to do the teacher training, guess what they brought? An army of 53 students from surrounding schools, ready to tutor. Each student was paired up with about two teachers, principals or school supervisors and from 9am – 1pm, we worked and worked and worked. Every trio took up a spot in the beautiful cultural center in Pinos, completely immersed in the tutoría. The students woke up at 5am just to travel for about two hours to get to Pinos and we only got home around 6pm. But on the bus back, they were so satisfied with their work – both students and teachers – that that energy carried us through.

The teacher training session in Pinos

The movement extends beyond just events. On Wednesday, March 7, in San Ramón, I met Max a recent graduate from the telesecundaria in San Ramón, where Maestra Sara Moran teaches. And an idea that filled my heart with such joy was Gabriel’s idea that we need to create teacher-coaches who are students trained in tutorial relationships. Can you imagine recent graduates from the secondary school, these experts in the tutorial, training teachers and bettering the practice of education one teacher, one school at the time. That’s the student movement I’m talking about. It’s grounded in the academics, the very reason why we created schools- and fights the system with a march that builds up the people – the students and teachers and anyone who comes close to it – from within. It’s an exponential equation and the force just keeps getting stronger as we share it.

I still don’t understand how this can on one hand, can be so incredibly radical in so many other parts of the world, but seem so normal in Zacatecas. Here we’re not even talking about just teachers. The state of Zacatecas believed enough in those 53 students to be the ones giving the teacher academic training, and gave them a real opportunity to be part of building better teachers, better schools across the state.

As Gabriel said in his speech during the conference on Monday, also in Pinos, “We cannot change the economic situations, we can’t change the histories of a child, but what we have in our hands are their lives, and that is a lot.” What an opportunity. We do have those students in our hands, not just the “good” ones, but all kinds of students, student whose fathers are alcoholics, students whose mothers have already abandoned them, students who find no hope except in the safety of the school, students like the ones here who see members of organized crime hiding in the bushes, drug dealers n the street, students who have disabilities, students who even if they say they given up on school, still want to learn – and each can be a tutor. I’m living this here.

Gabriel giving tutoría en San Ramón, Villa de Cos

A few weeks ago I was depressed and down trodden by the hopeless and at times, despair I would feel listening to some of the stories of the women here or of some of my students and all I could ask was how do we even start to create a change? I wasn’t even going to be here for a long time- there’s only so much I could do. But being with the team and being with Gabriel made me remember that I was part of a team; a team of excellent academic authorities, a team of dedicated teachers who want a change and are willing to change themselves, and most of all, a team of students across the state ready to change schools from the inside out.

That’s what we have in our hands.

Our students

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Presa de Maravillas

26 Feb

Presa de Maravillas

More pictures here and en español aquí!

Being at Presa de Maravillas and living in the community has been all I’ve wanted. The very moment I arrived at the school and the community, I was welcomed with the most delicious biscuits and hot canela (or cinnamon) drink, by Doña Juana who came to me as I stepped out of the car and said, “I’ve been wanting to know who was the Maestra that was coming.” That was just the beginning. Throughout the week, I was showered with so much care and love and every evening mesmerized by the breath-taking sunset as the sun slipped into the tiny hills with a brilliant red background. This is Presa de Maravillas.

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The students in the classroom at Pedro Vélez

As I have come to know the community, I grow more in love with its people but more pained by some of its stories. My “sister”, is 16 year old with already one born child and 7 months pregnant with a baby boy. She’s a single mom, but loves her kids with all her heart. She is incredible sweetheart who took me in as a confidant and friend. About 4 days ago, we worked on a Langston Hughes’ poem, Dreams and she analyzed it with more depth than I had ever had seen. She talked about her dreams of a new life, of moving forward for her children and how she’s going to fight to create a life for herself and for them. And I know she’s going to do it. Then there are the students who recall of painful stories in school and in the family. During a tamale feast in the school where a bunch of parents came, unknowingly, I asked this student if his mother was coming. He just looked at me and said, “I don’t have a mother.” Oh. “How about your father?” I asked. “I have even less of a father, I never see him.” And this child is brilliant, gentle and kind. These are some of the people at Presa de Maravillas that I have come to learn from and love.

Speaking to others, I have seen how tutoría has changed not just their attitude, but their hearts and their dreams. I am learning from Yohancarlo, in his third year en the telesecundaria, on what it means to learn. When I think about student involvement in the community, I only think of small community projecst, or community service – which is the mainstream literature that we have. But during Yohancarlo’s interview, I asked, what is the role of students in improving the community? He said, “To work hard at school, to study, so that when we become someone in life, and get a good job, that brings the community up. If we don’t learn, the community will never improve.” I was left inspired by his words. Yohancarlo was brought to this school because he was kicked out of another.

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Yohancarlo presenting his math problem

Mothers have also left me fascinated by what Profe Gabriel and Cesario are doing in the community. One mother recounted the story of Pedro Velez, when they first started comunidades de aprendizaje. She told me many community members didn’t want the students from Malpaso to come to Presa de Maravillas because they were afraid they would corrupt their own kids. But after talking to Profe Gabriel, who explain the right of every child to an education, they community let the students from Malpaso come in. And what was most interesting was that the school became a space for mothers to interact with the mothers who were struggling with their sons and daughters from Malpaso. They would offer suggestions to build up their kids and the school became a critically important space for those conversations.

What’s more, is that the students were now coming home and being the actors in building the comunidad de aprendizaje. At home they would ask questions, ask for books, try to investigate this and that- involving their family through sheer curiosity and a thirst to learn. And that same mother has even asked to be a part of tutoría, something I’m going to try to start in the coming months after school in the community.

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A part of the community in Presa de Maravillas

Pedro Velez is such a special space and I am so honored to be working alongside Profe Gabriel and Cesario. The energy they have in the classroom, the organization of the temas and the absolute joy and love for their students have moved me and so many in the community. Amidst the tough and very real challenges in the community, you see the bright light of hope in these giants in Presa de Maravillas.

Every day is a battle, some days the students escape from school and leave before the day ends, some days some don’t want to do their demonstrations or even get up to say their names, some days, you see a spark in interests in some students, some days you don’t. I feel I’m barely scratching the surface getting to know the community and the students, and already this experience has been so rich. I feel I need more, so much more time with the people and I’m glad I’m going to have that. It’s a wonderful balance of learning so much every day but also feeling you have can help be a support to both my new found family in Presa de Maravillas, the larger community and in the school. There’s a lot to be done, but we have he best people working on it, what a wonderful feeling.

My new community- Presa de Maravillas