As I write, I am reflecting on my final day here in Bucaramanga. Yesterday was our final day with students and we left the school with a beautiful sendoff:
The band and orchestra played for us, the principal and Diego spoke, multiple students sang, and the three of us said a few parting words. After all was said and done, it was about a two hour ceremony followed by many, many photos with students. Oddly enough, this was really only the middle of the day, but I thought it would be a nice way of opening this post.
In the morning, Diego set me up with a math teacher to observe some student work/presentations. They were generous enough to request leave from their regular classes and present their work to me entirely in English.
It was clear these students were top of their class because even when I grilled them with questions, they were able to give me great explanations that demonstrated their depth of knowledge. I only wish I had more time here to observe full math classes and get a sense of what the day-to-day grind is like here. That may be my greatest criticism of all the professional development opportunities I have had in my short career. I need to seek opportunities to spend extended periods of time observing the same teachers and classes to get a true sense of the culture, strengths, and weaknesses of schools/classrooms. This brings me to the end of the day:
Students taking part in an entrepreneurship elective voluntarily stay after school several days a week and today, they set up booths to make their pitch and share prototypes with us. This elective is for tenth graders (generate ideas and begin finding materials) and eleventh graders (complete prototypes and compete in a local/national competition). Once again, students put in significant time to communicate their projects in English for us, which was greatly appreciated, though when things were not clear, I asked them to speak in Spanish, which I am becoming better at understanding (just as I am about to leave). The pitches were great and some of the projects were truly fascinating as students demonstrated a deep understanding of entrepreneurial understanding as well as technical proficiency in things like Arduino and electronics. Just like the technical programs I have blogged about earlier, these students appeared truly engaged, had a safe space to engage in new experiences/projects, and demonstrated many of the social/professional competencies we want all students to leave school with. There is something to this type of education, not as a replacement for all traditional coursework, but as a complement. I am excited to pursue these ideas further over the course of the next year, especially when I depart for New Zealand in January. And I would also like to return to Bucaramanga on my own time/schedule to sit in certain classes for an extended period of time in the next year or two. Who knows what the future holds, but Diego and his colleagues and students have been incredible. I am humbled by this experience and infinitely grateful. I will continue to blog here with final reflections, but much of my work over the next month will be on the TGC-Colombia section of this website. Until next time, this is Bryan signing off.
Once again, it is a two post day (click here to see the other post). I learned a lot during our school visit today, including the fact that students all around the world can be truly amazing. Diego knew his students were going to put on dances for us today, but he had no idea how much work they were putting into it. They ended up throwing a full carnival for us, which somehow ended with the four of us being pulled onto the dance floor and the lights being turned off. It was a fun experience and the kids were incredibly engaged.
Then, students talked to us, in English, about the plants and animals present in different regions of Colombia. And, of course, they shared more food with us (I'm at least 5 pounds heavier now).
And now to address the title of the post. When students are in their final two years of high school (10th and 11th grade in Colombia), they choose a major. The school I am hosted at has a technical focus, therefore students can choose from systems, electronics, metal working, technical drawing, industrial engineering, and some others I can't remember. That's not important. The important thing is that students have a choice and these subjects are as highly honored as the more academic subjects. And although I am not opposed to assessments meant to gauge student learning and hold schools accountable for student achievement, the US public school system has been pushed to honor certain subjects far more than others and narrow their curricula. These assessments also cannot provide data on important qualities such as student engagement and sense of fulfillment. And colleges only add to the problem by pressuring students to take AP courses to show they are college ready rather than giving them the chance to experiment and discover new interests. What I saw in the electronics and metal working courses were students engaged in their work and not goofing around, even when their profé was on the other side of the workshop. Students were also gracious enough to teach me how to use the metal working machines to cut metal into machine components. It was pretty awesome. I also think, long-term, I want to transition to teaching at a secondary technical school. It was great seeing students apply math in a way that made sense to them and had an immediate impact. Although I believe math is more than just application, it is important for students to see its usefulness beyond the abstract.
I have not slept much for the last 48 hours, therefore I apologize for the lack of coherence in the previous paragraph, but I think I have at least maybe, kind of, communicated the main idea. Students should be encouraged to experiment, pursue their interests, and change their minds as they develop into adults. And if you think this is a rich school, it is actually a public school that, although it should be funded by the national government, often does not receive the promised funds. These computers were secured by a grant and all of the student electronics projects are done with materials that the students have to purchase themselves. However, that has not stopped them from putting together projects that have won them local and national awards. This is a school committed to a vision of student success in the trades. They back up their words with actions, even when the funding isn't there. I was truly inspired and hope to see more of this. When I depart for my Fulbright in January, I will certainly continue to study how the trades are integrated into secondary education. Thanks for reading.
Yesterday we traveled to Pinachi outside Bucaramanga. I don't really have much to say about that place other than the landscapes are amazing:
Then we traveled to Barichara, which is known as one of the most beautiful towns in Colombia and it did not disappoint. I prefer to truly appreciate my time in new places so I do not spend much time taking photographs, but here are a couple to give you a sense of what it was like:
Lucky you! You get two posts today (scroll down or click this to read about the first day-and-a-half in Bucaramanga). The first day visiting Diego's school began with a 5 AM alarm to meet him in the hotel lobby by 5:40. Ouch. Colombian schools are unique in that they have two waves of teachers and students each day: one section starts at 6 AM and finishes by 1:30, then at 2, another wave of students and teachers arrives. Diego is an English as a foreign language instructor, therefore Dave, Michael, and I could actually be useful as native English speakers. In the first class, we introduced ourselves and students were able to ask questions. Then, you guessed it, students shared food with us. It all started with empanadas and Coke. These were eleventh grade students, thus they were into their second year of English courses. There was a wide range of fluency levels, making it a fun challenge to communicate. Continuing the theme running through all of the previous posts, the students were incredibly welcoming and curious. After this, you guessed right again, we ate more food, but with the principal this time. I do not envy that man given he has to be at school for both waves of students of which there is 5000 total. Thankfully, there are coordinators assigned to blocks of 500 students, a position we would think of as vice principal/dean of students. After he walked us around the school, we were back in Diego's classroom for a group of tenth graders just barely starting to learn English. This class was unique in that we played games with them that resulted in me singing and dancing in front of kids. We all got a good laugh. I would like to think they were laughing with me, but the odds aren't in my favor. But I got to meet some students and they were lovely people. Here are some pictures to break up the text:
Next, we were treated to some students practicing Michael Jackson's "Heal the World." This was part of an English project, which was an interesting way for them to continue working on their pronunciations, which we helped with.
The last normal class of the day was fun because Diego called students up to the front of the room and we were the one's asking the questions. It was nice not being on stage after four straight hours of taking student questions. Before I move on to the amazing end to the day, here is some beautiful prose painted on the back wall of Diego's classroom:
I am not yet ready to elaborate on this, but I have seen countless examples of how the peace process between the Colombian government and revolutionary forces such as the FARC is showing up in the classroom. Although Peace Studies is a new subject for schools, it is clear that peace is something that is desired by the people of Colombia and the schools are embracing the learning opportunities decades of conflict present. Anyway, here are some photos of how we ended the day:
It is hard to believe I have already been in Bucaramanga for two-and-a-half days. It has truly been a whirlwind and I must admit to being glad to have this opportunity to breathe and write. Really, this is my first afternoon off since arriving in Colombia seven days ago. When a TGC alum told us it was important to take some time for one's self while on this trip, I'm not sure I fully understood how exhausting it is to not only be interacting with others constantly, but to be decoding another language while doing so. While half asleep, I would like to share some of what has happened since arriving in Bucaramanga. To begin, here is a view from the roof of my hotel. Many people have informed me this is a small town, but one million people does not necessarily qualify as a small town for this Vermonter/New Mexico transplant.
Upon arriving at the airport in Bucaramanga Diego's (our host teacher) dad picked us up along with his best friend Diana, who was a forming English as a foreign language instructor. It was nice to have her around to interpret, especially since we were first brought to Diego's parents' house for lunch. This lunch included Diego's brother and his family, Diego's parents, and Diana's family. I can now say I have eaten goat as well as fried rice with beef intestines. The meal was absolutely delicious and was cooked by Diego's father. Below is a picture of this wonderful host family and my two colleagues. I will have to get to the setting in the background further into this post. It is not possible to have a more welcoming group of people.
Yesterday, after sleeping in until 7:30 AM, I had some breakfast with my colleagues and then we were off to the Colombian Andes with Diego's family. Thankfully, though contrary to my usual approach to mountains, we drove up to Mesa de Los Santos. It is very hard to describe how beautiful the landscape is and there is no way to truly capture this in an image, but here you go anyway:
Colombians know how to appreciate the beauty of these mountains. Although people do drive cars, the dominant form of transportation in the cities of Colombia appears to be motorcycles and scooters. There were countless motorcyclists riding through the mountains on this beautiful day in the mid-80's and I wish I could have joined them, but the car ride was wonderful nonetheless. Along the way, we stopped for food at a very touristy location, where I tried Mute for the first time, a stew full of corn, vegetables, and livestock intestines. Maybe it does not sound great, but it is delightful while you are eating it. It was also funny to see the cultural influence of the US in a location designed to look like an older Colombia.
Now, if there is one thing I know for certain, I will never go hungry in Colombia. About 10 minutes after eating lunch, Diego's family stopped at an outdoor market where I thought we would simply browse the stands and move one. But, as many of you are probably expecting to read, I was very wrong. The first thing Diego did was purchase arepas full of cheese for us, which I felt obligated to eat. But right after finishing that, his family gave us additional fruits to try (if I have not already mentioned this in a past post, there is a ridiculous number of fruits here). My colleagues and I basically rolled out of that market. It is important to point out that Diego is the man all the way to the right in the family photograph. Thin guy right? Well that man can eat and he reminds us, with pride, at every meal that Colombians like to eat. The market was very cool, had stunning views, and was incredibly packed like the one on Montserrate.
On our way back, the three of us had a very hard time staying awake. Once again, I would like to give thanks to Diego's family for there wonderful hospitality.
Yesterday, we had a wonderful time visiting an English language school in Bogotá. It was nice to be able to serve the needs of a school in the community that has treated us so well. I sat with a group of four students so they could ask questions of a native English speaker. I would reply in English, but often had to rephrase to help them better understand what I was saying. I learned so much about them, including their dreams of international travel. Once again, they expressed a great sense of confidence and hope for the future. It is truly inspiring. I was also able to practice some basic Spanish with the students, using it as an opportunity to become more independent. I'm glad I did for reasons I will elaborate on shortly.
Today, we had the privilege of traveling to Montserrate, a mountain on the outskirts of Bogatá with a shrine and church at its summit. We cheated by taking a tram up to the top, but it was a wonderful opportunity for me to wander off by myself (though this was not required). Beyond the church, there was a market where I was able to interact with vendors, picking up a gift for my brother (no spoilers here, sorry). To give you a sense of how crowded it was, check out the pictures below. I was able to successfully greet people, ask about prices, exchange currency, and I was even asked to be in a photograph with a woman and her daughter (I am a bit of a rarity in Colombia apparently). Without choosing to go off alone, I never would have had the confidence to try interact with Colombian people. Also, the views were stunning.
Finally, in typical fashion, even though it was cloudy and rainy, I managed to get a solid sunburn. However, I had a wonderful time observing and participating in a dance with a live band on Colombia's independence day.
Tomorrow, I fly out with two other fellows to Bucaramanga to meet up with our host teacher. Like every other day so far, I am nervous and excited. I cannot wait to have more in-depth experiences being part of a small group and spend more time with students. To all those that have made this first week unforgettable, I extend the same offering: "mi casa es tu casa."
I began this adventure full of excitement and fear, often coming up with excuses to stay in the US rather than travel to Colombia when I let the fear dominate. I am incredibly grateful for this opportunity and very thankful I chose to board the plan on Monday. As you will notice, it is now Wednesday, therefore I have already failed in my duties to update my blog regularly. So here is an attempt at redemption. Because I am the worst, I failed to take enough pictures to fully support this post, but I was so engrossed by the experience that it seemed like taking out my camera would have detracted from my experience and I can be a very selfish person.
Yesterday we hopped on the bus to Corporación Universitaria UNITEC. Attending students have to pay tuition because this is not part of the public higher education system. In the US, we would would think of their programs as professional or vocational. They have strong programs in international business/finance, film (boasting alumni that have been participants in the Cannes Film Festival), and culinary arts. We had the privilege of a presentation by Nicolas Prieto, the coordinator of the gastronomy program. He chopped up samples of all the unique Colombian fruits that would be in our meals, claiming he and his students are "cultural soldiers" in the sense that their art is meant to spread the Colombian culture and establish a sense of pride in the new Colombia (I will get to this later). We then took a tour of their classroom space and had the privilege of consuming a meal prepared by five of his students. It is hard to express the sense of pride he displayed in his work and the work of his students. It was truly inspiring.
We also had the privilege of touring the film studios where students create and edit audio/visual. It is hard to express how inspiring the atmosphere was and we were able to talk to a couple of students, whom discussed how supportive their environment is and how they are encouraged to share their work beyond the school and even the country. The administrators we talked to expressed their desire to provide an education that generated a family atmosphere, produced moral graduates, and encouraged students to travel the world. I think every student we talked to shared plans to travel to other parts of Latin America or the United States. Four of their alumni have had the honor of being invited to the Cannes Film Festival. Here are some photos of the studio spaces (a photographer I am not).
Remember how I said I would elaborate on the concept of the new Colombia? Today (Wednesday), we were able to visit two public schools: Aquileo Parra and I.E. Distrital Usaquen. Unfortunately, this post will not do justice to today's experience; you had to be there. But, I will do my best. We started at Aquileo Parra, an elementary school in Bogotá, arriving to a line of hundreds of students holding "Welcome to Colombia" signs and sat down to see a traditional dance performed by a group of 10 students. The students were adorable and the welcome was truly overwhelming. As many of you may know, Colombia has a history of conflict, but unlike in the US, this reality is not glossed over or ignored. Many times, people stated they know Colombia has a bad reputation abroad, but that is not the new Colombia. Many in my cohort expressed feeling a sense of hope for the future and a general happiness that often feels absent from life in the US. Peace Studies is now a mandatory subject in Colombian schools and this elementary school is a pioneer in integrating conflict resolution into its curriculum. One of the systems we saw was a structure based on clouds, where students in conflict seek out a class mediator (one of their peers assigned this role by their teacher). Starting in the orange cloud, they each state the source of the conflict then they move to blue to establish a compromise. Upon a satisfactory compromise, students move to the green cloud to express their remorse and then then hug to cement the compromise. Exiting on the white cloud means the mediation has successfully concluded.
I also posted the rights posters because a sense of justice has been fully integrated into the school culture; one that embraces the conflicts of the past and seeks to build a peaceful future. The cloud process begins with first grade and stays with the students all the way through sixth grade (the last grade of elementary). The students at this school also create artwork and videos that are shared with partner schools in Spain, Argentina, Peru, Mexico, and Morocco to develop cultural understandings and give students a sense of global citizenship. Although we did not get to visit the high school side, several high school students shared their work with the Model UN. Beyond seeing their website, they also shared how, for four months, they had been putting together a proposal to host 300 students from other countries to attend a model UN event at their school. It was inspiring to see their dedication and I hope to hear good news about their proposal. As a side note, being a high school teacher, it was fun interacting with elementary schoolers:
Finally, my high school visit was the most terrifying and humanizing event of the entire trip so far. It felt very raw in a way that the elementary school visit was not. Rather than watching a few student presentations and then talking to teachers and administrators, I was assigned a student guide and toured classrooms, then asked questions of a student panel. I could empathize with these teachers whose rooms I visited because none of them expected my arrival, which can disrupt everything. What was terrifying was that my student guide, Haidi, spoke very limited English and I speak even more limited Spanish. And even better, the classroom I entered had very few limited English speakers, but from what I gathered, they wanted me to run through an example problem. A student gave me her math notes, the teacher handed me a whiteboard marker, and then...he left the room. Now imagine you have no common language with a room full of 35 teenagers and your one lifeline symbolically gives you control with the passing of a whiteboard marker. I didn't pee my pants, but I was closer than at any other point in recent memory. Thankfully, I was able to understand the notation in the books and did a lovely example of a limit problem for students in English. We all had a good laugh at the absurdity of the situation, though I'm sure most of it was at my expense. When the teacher walked in, I handed back the marker and Haidi took me to another room where I essentially did the same thing, though the teacher stayed, which was unfortunate because I made a terrible math error on the board and it took me about five minutes to figure out what they were yelling at me in Spanish. Sigh... But I survived the experience and it helped me to empathize with those new to the US trying to navigate a foreign system. Haidi and I then attempted a conversation as we walked to another classroom for the student panel. She had a notebook of questions and statements written in English that she practiced on me. If I could not figure out what she was saying, she would show me the written words and I would help her pronounce them. I would also try to answer her questions in Spanish, though more often than not I was given a quizzical expression. This truly felt like one of the most human experiences of my life, trying to communicate across cultures with each person attempting to use the other person's language. I am incredibly grateful to her and I wish her the best in her travels to the US!
At this point, I believe I have rambled on long enough. This blog is really just a way for me to reflect on the day-to-day, which I hope to turn into some sort of well thought out reflection at this trip's conclusion. If you have read this far, you clearly enjoy punishing yourself, but I am grateful for your dedication. I am also grateful to all of the wonderful students, teachers, and administrators that have made these first two days memorable. Many times they have let us know that there house is our house. I could not possibly feel more welcomed. Gracias.
Good morning. Today marks four days and counting until I depart for Colombia. I will start in Bogata, travel to Bucaramanga, and then back to Bogata. I am both excited and nervous, but overall, I am grateful to IREX, the U.S. Department of State, and my host teacher for granting me this opportunity as part of the Teachers for Global Classrooms program. Hopefully, as I post about my experiences, readers of this blog gain some useful information.