School Days in Quetzaltenango
By Erica Burman on Tuesday, October 16th, 2012
Every morning last week our Next Step Travel group worked at a school in Pacajá, a suburb of Quetzaltenango (also known as Xela) nestled at the foot of green mountains. (We’re at 7,655 feet above sea level.) The school – with 570 students split between a primary morning shift and middle school afternoon shift – is classified “rural” by the government, but the city and all that goes with it has sprawled around it, leaving it seriously underfunded in comparison to “urban” schools. Our task: to finish the inside of a new classroom that will accommodate the growing student population.
Our group got right to work. Gary, Alan and Lori had previous construction experience, so they and the Guatemalan workers helped show the rest of us the finer points of putting up drywall, while others applied waterproof paint to the base of the building’s exterior. Later in the morning the school’s director stopped by to thank us for our work and the head teacher took groups of us around the school to observe classes and learn about education in Guatemala. This being a predominantly Returned Peace Corps Volunteer group, they asked lots and lots of detailed questions.
Guatemalan schools, we learned, are in a period of transition. A year ago, the government did away with school fees and dropped the requirement that students wear uniforms. The impact has been mixed. Attendance is up, but parental involvement has dropped, as many assume that education is now solely the responsibility of the school system. Increased enrollment, and an exploding under-18 population means crowded classrooms in the upper grades, often 30 to 50 students in a class. The education model still relies heavily on reading, memorization and testing, with not much development of critical thinking and analysis skills. Through their work in the youth development sector and the Healthy Schools program, Peace Corps/Guatemala Volunteers coach teens on how to make good choices by developing good thinking skills.
At this school, three blocks of classrooms and covered cement bleachers border a cement schoolyard. When the bell rang for recess, the schoolyard exploded into a frenzy of running, ball throwing and snatching, and the occasional wrestling match that would probably shock most safety minded American parents. Those children who were not playing paid a visit to the snack vendor.
This was our time to interact with students. Gary brought a soft bat and ball and instantly became the “big man on campus” as students clamored for a turn. Others blew bubbles with the youngest children, got a game of limbo going, worked puzzles, had the children draw with chalk and played language games such as “¿cómo se dice?”
Former teachers Lynda and Elizabeth, along with Janice and Ann were drawn to the classrooms. With the head teacher’s permission they went into lower grade classrooms and work in small groups with the students.
Meanwhile back at the work site, teams began the detailed work of spackling nail holes and taping seams, while others continued to cut drywall and drill it into place. Needless to say, there was lots of banter and many laughs as the days wore on. Math skills got a good workout, what with the slanting roof and beams, and trowel techniques (“it’s just like frosting a cake!”) were honed. Whether crouched together while sanding a section of wall, lifting a drywall panel into place, or taking a water break, participants had a chance to talk, to learn about each others lives and bask in the satisfaction of a tangible job done well.
The Next Step Travel crew would return from 8 a.m. to 12 noon over the following four days to complete the project.
We happened to be in Guatemala during the last week of the school year, so on Thursday the school honored our contribution at a final school assembly. Third graders dressed in colorful local dress did the kite dance and then presented each member of our group with a kite and a hug. The first graders, looking completely adorable, demonstrated the tortilla dance. A teacher thanked us for our work on the new classroom and presented each of us with certificates of appreciation. We in turn offered our thanks and presented a box of school supplies.
It was a happy and emotional occasion as we said goodbye to new friends.
To see photos, check our Next Step Travel – Guatemala October 2012 Facebook album. We literally took hundreds of photos and will be posting many, many more to our Flickr site in the future.
To learn more about upcoming trips via our Next Step Travel Program, visit http://travel.peacecorpsconnect.org.
Previous blog: Degrees of Separation, Peace Corps Travel Edition (October 15, 2012)