Saturday, August 19, 2017

Guatemala: La Escuela de la Montaña

Disclaimer: this post is not about TPRS.  It may come up as it usually does, but if you are reading because you want to know about TPRS, this may not be the most relevant.

This post is about a small language school in rural Guatemala, what life is like there, my experiences there as a student and student coordinator, and why this place is so important in my life.

La Escuela de la Montaña is a small language school that is a project of a larger school, PLQE (Proyecto Lingüístico Quetzalteco), in Quetzaltenango (Xela), located in the Western Highlands of Guatemala.  The school is located about two hours away from Xela, and about 10 kilometers from a small town called Columba.

There are so many things to say about this place that it is difficult to know where to start.

School and Community
The language school is an integral part of the community.  Both communities are groups of former coffee finca (plantation) workers who organized (and suffered) after violations of human and worker's rights.  With support from PLQE and the Catholic church, both communities were able to leave the finca and start over again on their own land.

La Escuela provides work for many women in the two main communities (Fátima and Nuevo San José), where there are few opportunities for anyone in the family to earn a living.  The majority of the men in the area are day laborers, and have to travel 2-3 hours a day (and pay for transport) in the hope of getting a day's wages.  The work for the women is primarily cleaning the school in rotation and cooking for students.  (More about that later.)

The school has created a well-used community library staffed by a teacher for all ages to read and learn.  Most households do not have books, so this is an invaluable resource for the kids and adults.

There is also an arts program that is free for anyone during the school year, adults included, that provides some music and visual art teachers on Saturdays.
In addition, there is a very strong scholarship program that serves all the surrounding communities.  In Guatemala, public education is free until the end of 6th grade.  After that, families need to pay tuition, supplies, uniforms, and transportation costs.  There are four more years of education available for those who can pay.  The nearest schools that provide these levels (called Básico and Diversificado) are 1-2 hours away by pickup truck, bus, or microbus.  As such, an education is beyond the reach of many people in the campos.

 La Escuela administrates a scholarship program that  is truly amazing.  Scholarship recipients participate in community service, classes on budgeting, health and adolescence, politics, government, and more.  They have to keep their grades up and attend school regularly, and participate actively in their communities.

I had the great fortune to attend one of the classes on health and puberty and was blown away by the number of kids who were receiving these funds.  It is truly a program that can change the world.

Life for students attending La Escuela
Here is a review I wrote for

Cement block house in Fátima
Let me get a bit of terminology out of the way before I explain a little bit about living in these communities.  Think of a city block.  That is about the size of Fátima.  Nuevo San José is about three blocks in total.  There are a couple of little stores (tiendas), a church, a local primary school, a health house (now mostly defunct due to lack of funding), and a bakery.  Down the road is a larger community with a few more services.  Most houses have some form of electricity, but some don't.  Many have dirt floors and most women still cook off of wood burning stoves.  Many men in the community have traveled north to the USA and send money home, so some homes have more resources than others.  Sinks (pilas) are outside.  Many showers are cold, hooked up to the sinks, and are outside.

It is important to me that readers do not think "How awful" or something like that.  It is easy to be shocked by the poverty and developing country living conditions.  (Also, if you think that only happens in developing countries, I suggest heading to inner-city Baltimore or the Navajo Reservation.) This is just the reality.

Students at La Escuela do not live with families.  They live in relative comfort in a former coffee finca house, in dorm rooms, with relatively hot showers, potable water, indoor plumbing, a kitchen, and usually, electricity.  Also, fresh organic french-press coffee.


For meals, you walk down to Nuevo San José or Fátima. The cobbled road is usually slick with rain, moss, and cow dung (a local herd gets walked up and down the road daily).  Students eat three meals a day with a different family each week.  Meals are usually simple- beans, pasta, eggs, some vegetables (which are only sold from a cart on Thursdays, or in Columba), and mountains of home made corn tortillas.  Many families grow their own corn and beans, and late July/August is when they start harvesting.
Reading to kids

Students are encouraged to bring books from the school's library to read to the kids in the family, or art kits that can be checked out.

Classes and Activities
A ranchito
Students take classes either in the mornings or in the afternoons, for four hours a day.  Classes are taught one-on-one by an incredibly talented group of professional language teachers. You meet with your teacher in a little ranchito (a little covered area with a table and whiteboard) outside.  The teachers are passionate, committed, and very good at their work.

Each week, there are a handful of speakers who come to the school to educate students about the political realities of Guatemala.  In the two weeks I was there this time, I got to translate the story of one community's fight for unpaid back wages, that included threats, starvation, and more.  Another community leader came to tell the story of how his community decided, after a lot of injustice and no support from the legal system, to occupy a finca, and how they are working now to transform it into an organic coffee and banana cooperative with community programs to empower women and youth.  In the past, I have translated the story of a torture survivor (during the internal armed conflict), an ex-guerrilla fighter, and others.

There are also community members from Nuevo San José and Fátima that come to discuss their own lives and specialties.  This year, I worked to translate the story of the local midwife, a current-events discussion that focused on corruption in the health system, and a lecture from a local herbal expert who received medical training to help his community use plants and local resources to maintain their health.

In addition, there are soccer games in nearby Columba, hikes to see (or not, depending on the weather) the local active volcano, weekly cooking classes, and more.

I was invited to work as the fill in coordinator during the time I was there as the full-time coordinator had to return to the States for a couple of weeks.  My role was to translate, support the students as needed, and bridge the gap between the incredible school staff and faculty and the students, some of whom did not speak any Spanish (yet).

It was a lot of work but very fulfilling and kept me busy.  I also attended class each day with the intention of figuring out how to do a TPRS training in Spanish.  (There! I knew I would work TPRS in somehow!)
3 Hypotheses (with spelling errors) about language acquisition
 I was incredibly gratified to learn that the teachers at the school were starving for training, and we had an amazing time working together to help me explain clearly what TPRS is all about for them.  I got to do a demo class with the Spanish students, then a brief demo and explanation with the teachers.  I plan on returning to do a more complete training next summer.

This school is a very special place.  People who end up there tend to be people who are interested in social justice, worker's rights, and human rights.  They tend to be ok with not having internet for a few weeks, and they are usually motivated, compassionate, and interesting.  So that is great too- I get to hang out with interesting people.

Anny, a teacher, and her student, an organizer for worker's rights in Los Angeles,
 doing a brain break with me during class time

Living in Guatemala is not easy.  Transportation is uncomfortable and unreliable.  (Think of a school bus that seats 6-8 adults across, or the back of a pick up truck that is standing room only.)  You can't drink the water and you have to be careful about food.  During the rainy season, nothing dries, and the bugs are out to get you.  And yet, I will continue to back again and again, because it is important, and because I love it there.  
One night, I brought paper and colored pencils to dinner and colored with the kids.
This guy and I clearly have a lot in common!  This is why I come here.
Please get in touch if you would like more information about the school.  I would be happy to answer specific questions or support you if you are interested in going.

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