Monday, May 25, 2015

Heat Stroke

There is one sound above all others that sends waves of dread coursing through the body of a Peace Corps Colombia volunteer. No, it's not the next door neighbor's rooster that confuses 2 am with sunrise. It's surprisingly not the sound of Colombian school children all trying to grab your attention at the same time by yelling over one another in an attempt to be the loudest. It's actually the sound one's fan makes as it slowly loses power. That slow whirl signaling a lack of electricity and will to continue. The unfortunate sound that your one lifeline in combating the constant heat has failed you.

The heat here in Colombia is a beast of it's own. It's persistent. It never goes away. It hits you like a ton of bricks when you wake up in the morning. There's no escaping it. Growing up in the Midwest, our summers are hot and humid. I'm used to being miserable from June to August. However, when the misery is just too much to handle, I normally escape inside the comforts of my house/apartment, where air conditioning greets me with a refreshing handshake just like an old friend. Here in the small pueblos of coastal Colombia, that escape is not possible. There is no heaven sent location that constantly has Arctic level temperatures blowing. One just has to park themselves in front of the nearest fan and pray for 6 pm (when the sun goes down and the heat relents some). That is unless it is Thursday...

Thursday's have quickly become my least favorite day here. It has absolutely nothing to do with my school schedule or people that I come into contact with on this day. No, it's my least favorite because the power ALWAYS goes out. Without fail. Just like clockwork. You can count on being without the assistance of electricity from 8 am until 5 pm. Every. Single. Thursday. Classrooms become unbearable. Life ceases to be active. Even the occasional breezes that float through town tend to take this day off as well. The sweat just pours and the tempers soar.

As my service nears the 9 month mark (in two days actually), I am trying to find ways to beat the heat. Multiple showers a day have been utilized. However, as soon as you step out of the shower, you are immediately disgusting again, so it´s a bit of a frugal attempt at staying cool. The hammocks in our back cabana have become my favorite hideout spot. I´m able to create a small resemblence of a breeze by swinging myself through sporadic leg kicks. However, this quickly becomes tiring and doesn´t help curtail the sweat. Looks like it´s back to square one.

The heat and and the Colombian coast are a packaged deal. Finding innovative ways to survive and thrive has become my new secondary project...

Monday, May 11, 2015

Paro Productivity

As I detailed in my last post, the teacher strike ("paro" in Spanish) brought a lot of things to a halt in terms of my service. There was no school to attend, classes to teach, or counterparts to work with. What is a volunteer to do in a small, rural Colombian town where the nearest mall (and source of air conditioning) and other forms of entertainment are over three hours away? You get involved in your community, that's what!

Community English Class - The New Hot Spot to Be!

About a month and a half before the strike started, I was approached by a member of the community on my way home from school one day. His name is José and he expressed a desire to start a community English class for adults in the area that had an interest in learning English. We came to an agreement that if he found 10-15 interested people and a place to hold the classes, I would help him out and become the instructor. A week and a half later, he was sitting at the kitchen table in my house telling me that he had found the people and classroom. I was shocked and impressed with the speed with which he was able to round everyone up. Apparently people really wanted to learn English!

We had our first class April 6th (which also happened to be my mom's birthday!) and haven't slowed down since! I can proudly report that there are currently 30 Repeloneros in my class. There is a nice mix of adults and school aged students. This class has become so popular that I've had to turn people away, with the promise of a new class starting up in the fall. I'm also blown away by the determination and attentiveness of this class as a whole. It really makes a difference from a teacher's standpoint to be instructing students that WANT to be in your class as opposed to being FORCED to be in your class.

With the paro in full force the last few weeks, this class has helped to keep me sane. I look forward to Monday and Friday nights when I get to see and interact with my students. Slowly, we are starting to form bonds outside of the classroom that have led to other opportunities (more to come on that later). My quest for friendships is finally starting to pick up steam and my Spanish has improved multitudes in this past month or so.

My class taking their first exam
Using the Guess Who characters to learn about physical descriptions

Family tree time!!

Finca Trips – Exploring The Surrounding Area

Getting plugged into a new community is never an easy task. It takes time to get to know who the key players are. In my case here in Colombia, there is also a language barrier that can hinder progress in this area. However, once you do finally get plugged in, as my community class has shown me, opportunities for integration multiply right before your eyes. One such opportunity presented itself in the form of a trip to a finca (small farm) outside of town a few weeks ago.

Ever since classes started, José had been telling me how he wanted to organize a trip for the whole class to take part in outside of class that would allow us all to get to know each other. Obviously, I was all for this! We settled on a trip to a local finca one weekend and ended up,having a nice little get away! I invited Derek, Jessi, and Janice to join in this endeavor, which was nice because it gave them a chance to interact with my students and learn more about the area.

Out of the 30 students in my class, about 1/3 of them were able to attend, making our field trip a nice, little intimate gathering. I finally leaned how to make sancocho (the traditional soup that is served quite frequently), received some accordion lessons from one of my students, went papaya hunting in a local papaya grove, and got to just spend time with my students outside of the formal classroom setting. It was a nice change of pace and gave us an opportunity to get to know each other in a more personal level. I'm already looking forward to the next outing!

Befriending the Local Police

When I first moved to Repelón three months ago, one of the first people that I met was the chief of police. An extremely nice guy, he gave me his contact info and said that the cops in town were interested in starting English classes if I had time. Well, in the course of starting at a new school, getting to know a new community, and just the daily hustle and bustle of life, these classes got pushed to the back burner of things to do. Enter the paro.

I had told my friend Jessi (another volunteer who lives in a Rotinet, a small community about 10 minutes away) about the police chief’s desire for English classes and asked to see if she would be interested in helping me out with them. Looking for something to do, she quickly agreed to undertake this new task with me. We went to the police station one day and were shocked by what we found. Expecting a building nestled in between other businesses, we were greeted by a compound-like facility, complete with a perimeter gate, open fields, and a one-eyed painting of Santa on the pavement, welcoming visitors as they entered the facilities.

We had a super successful meeting with the police chief and settled on doing classes three times a week. He was so excited to have us start that he invited us to the station the following day for lunch, which we gladly accepted. As this lunch date approached, we were envisioning being introduced to the other cops on the force and enjoying a meal with them. To our surprise, it ended up just being us and the police chief. The other cops sat at other tables, avoiding us like the plague. The start of our lunch was like an awkward first date, as no one really knew what to talk about. Eventually, the conversation picked up and the latent awkwardness subsided. After lunch, we were introduced to some of the other cops, told them about the upcoming classes, and then enjoyed some friendly conversation about ourselves and other topics.

Well, I can happily report that we have successfully completed one week of classes! Outside of free food and some new friends, it's been a lot of fun getting to know the local force. Our classes typically have between 5-8 people, which makes for a nice, small setting. They are enthusiastic about learning and love taking part in the games and other activities that we have them participate in. Plus it never hurts to have the entire police force on your side just in case you ever need them!

Another unexpected result of these classes has been the discovery of a running buddy. While discussing our favorite activities, I expressed my enjoyment of running. The police chief told me that he runs quite frequently and wanted to know if I was interested in joining him. I've been looking for a consistent running buddy since I moved to Repelón. However, there was a catch: he enjoys running at 5 am. That's right, before the sun decides to show itself above the horizon. Desperate for someone to run with, I reluctantly agreed to join him. Turns out, 5 am runs aren't as bad as they may sound. These runs, which occur every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, are being worked into my weekly schedule. Maybe I'll become a morning person after all – or just take a power nap when I finish the run…
The cops enthusiastically taking part in a game of Memory/Concentration

Getting My Dance On

Ever since I arrived here in Colombia and witnessed a performance of Cumbia, a traditional style of dance here on the coast, I knew that I wanted to learn the intricacies and steps behind this piece of story telling. One night, while teaching my community class, I expressed this desire to my class. One of my students told me he had a friend that would be willing to teach me! I was super excited and couldn't wait to get started. The day to start this new endeavor finally came this past week.

Upon entering the house where these lessons were to occur, Jessi (who just happened to be with me on the day the lessons started) and I really had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. We were led to the back porch where we met three young musicians, all aged 11, who blew Jessi and I with their maturity and ability to work together as a cohesive group. We were given a brief tutorial on each instrument that makes up a traditional Cumbia ensemble, along with a lesson on the basic rhythms used in the dance. Given the opportunity to try these rhythms out on the drums themselves, I jumped at the chance. Jessi also partook in playing an instrument for the first time in her life! Needless to say, we had some pretty awesome instructors!

Eventually, more people showed up to the house and we got started with the dance itself. All in all, the steps for the Cumbia are not all that complicated. The footwork and hip shaking take a little getting used to, but the actual,dance itself is pretty straight forward. After watching a few run through, it was Jessi and I’s turn to try it out. With the guidance of some others, we successfully completed the first part of the dance! It was a lot of fun to finally learn some of the base steps. With our next lesson coming up soon, I've been reviewing the steps in the comfort of my room. This has caused my host mom to comment on passing about how happy she is that I'm finally learning Cumbia and how I'll blow everyone away at Carnaval next year with my new found moves!

Jessi and I with our awesome cumbia band
While the recent paro may have hindered my ability to work with my school, it enabled me to explore other opportunities that may not have become available had it not been for this stoppage of work. I can't wait to continue with these new activities and see how they evolve in the coming months and year!

Friday, May 8, 2015

When Teachers Strike Back

Sorry for the long hiatus. I know that it has been a while since my last post, but I haven't had a computer for the last two weeks and haven't been able to access any of the computers at school. Why you may ask? Well, the country of Colombia has been experiencing a nationwide teacher strike. Let's just say that life with no school, no computer, and on days, no power, has been a struggle at times.

This strike, which officially started April 22nd, has been centered around five main issues: an increase in teacher pay, better health care benefits, the process by which teachers are evaluated, lowered educational costs for students, and the implementation of a new schedule called “jornada única.”

Currently, my school has three jornadas (schedules): a morning jornada, which lasts from 7 am until 12:20 pm (for kindergarten and grades 6-11), an afternoon jornada, which lasts from 1 pm until 5:20 pm (for grades 1-5), and a night jornada, which lasts from 6 pm until 9:20 pm (for adults who never received their high school diploma). The idea behind jornada única is to have only one jornada that would last from approximately 7:30 am until 3:30 pm for grades K-11. Essentially, this means that all students would be at school at the same time. This desired implementation presents some undesirable problems.

1. Infrastructure Issues – Many schools here in Colombia, mine included, are not designed to house the sheer number of students that make up grades K-11 at one time. My school currently has 12 classrooms and every one of these classes is in use during the morning jornada. Yes, classes could be combined to help free up extra rooms for the extra surplus of students that the lower grades would introduce to the school, but this in itself creates other problems. Class size would immediately double from a manageable 20-25 students to well over 45 bodies in one room. The lack of useable desks would cause students to have to sit on the floors and turn their laps into a working desk space. Also, the already stifling heat the envelopes these classrooms would be intensified with the the additional students.

2. Lunch – One of the reasons that that jornadas end and begin around the lunch hour is so that students can have lunch at their homes with their families. Lunch is easily the biggest and most important meal here on the coast. Complete with soup, rice, meat, and some sort of salad, this meal constitutes a vast majority of the caloric intake for all Colombians. The lunches that most schools would be able to serve would pale in comparison with the normal standard lunch served in Colombian homes. Besides smaller, inadequate portions, the lack of school cafeterias would force many students to eat in their classrooms. This would possibly lead to issues with trash, which is already an issue that the coast struggles with.

3. Lack of Resources -  Outside of an insufficient amount of useable desks for students to use, other resources, such as textbooks and available space, among others, are other challenges that are facing students and staff alike if a switch to jornada única were to occur nationwide.

4. Staffing – One interesting (and slightly disturbing) aspect regarding the Colombian educational system (at least here in the coast) is the non-existence of a substitute teaching system. If a teacher is sick, has a doctor’s appointment, or just doesn't show up to school, there is no one lined up to step in and take over these classes. This basically means that students attain a free period in which they are free to roam the school grounds, distract other students in class, and pretty much do as they please.

Another issue that my school has been facing is the reassignment of teachers to other schools. A couple of weeks before the strike started, we lost two teachers to other schools in different communities. Our local Secretary of Education decided to move our only math teacher to Rotinet (a small community about 10 minutes away where my friend Jessi teaches) and one of our Social Studies teachers to Suán (where my friend Jordan teaches). I have no idea what prompted these moves, but it has crippled our school. There were no teachers ready to take over these now vacant positions, causing students to inherit even more free periods. Luckily, s new math teacher was hired before the strike ensued, but in order to cover the Social Studies classes, other teachers (my counterpart included) are having to cover these open classes, which is a issue in itself.

In the grand scheme of things, many teachers are not opposed to the idea of jornada única. The main issue that they have with the proposed changes is the fact that the schools are not structurally ready to accommodate the demands that will be caused by the increased number of students. Without financial support from the government, these ideas of how to create a better and stronger Colombian educational system could end up doing more harm than good.

After weeks of tense negotiations, demonstrations, and signed petitions, the strike was finally lifted yesterday (May 7th). All normal activities are set to resume on Monday (May 11th). Whether or not any true changes will come about is still yet to be determined.