Friday, October 21, 2016

Making English Fun Again!

Being a Peace Corps education volunteer in Colombia has its ups and downs. Serving on the coast and having to try and teach in unfavorable conditions with unruly students makes our stated goals and benchmarks sometimes seem unattainable and fruitless. However, every so often, there comes a day or a week where everything clicks and falls into place. Teaching is fun and results are seem almost immediately. This experience happened to me last week, and while it took getting off the coast to achieve it, it helped reaffirm that Colombia's future is in capable hands.

Back in April, I received an email from my project manager inviting me to participate in an English Immersion Week in the department of Antioquia (located in the interior part of Colombia) in a town called El Carmen de Viboral (which is located about 45 minutes outside of Medellin). I, along with two other volunteers, Alex and Michelle, would be working with the Marina Orth Foundation in helping them put on a week long English teaching strategies workshop for local primary and secondary English teachers. After much deliberation and discussion, all three of us decided to jump on board and support this effort the best that we could.

La Fundacion de Marina Orth (Marina Orth Foundation) was started by Maureen Orth, a former Peace Corps volunteer who served in Colombia in the 1960's. During her service, Maureen helped construct a new school in her rural community of Aguas Frias, which is located in the mountains near Medellín. In 2006, she officially started this foundation which aims to provide students with a quality and sustainable education that is centered around the use of technology and English. The foundation is currently working with schools both in and around the Medellín area to implement their vision.

One of the cool things about this experiencce was the fact that we were paired up with RPCV's (Returned Peace Corps Volunteers) who had served in Colombia during the 1960's. My main contact, Mary, had served in a few pueblos around Medellín,so she was very familiar with the area. We started discussing ideas for the week and how I could best assist her back in May. As the date got closer, my level of excitement and anxiety continued to rise.

When Michelle, Alex, and I arrived in Medellín (albeit 6 hours late due to some mechanical problems with our original plan), we were picked up at the airport by two staff members from the foundation, Alejandro and Susana. We enjoyed a pleasant car ride to El Carmen, got checked into our hotel, and then made our way to find some food. We were super fortunate that all of our meals were covered by the Secretary of Education from El Carmen. Afterwards, Susana took us to a local cafe where we enjoyed a glass of vino caliente (hot wine - which was absolutely delicious) and more conversation.

When your flight is cancelled, the only thing to do is enjoy some Subway!
Vino Caliente - on point!
The next day, we met the other RPCV's to  go over the game plan for the week and iron out any unknowns or minor details. We spent the rest of the day just walking  around El Carmen and preparing ourselves for the week ahead. Little did we know at that time just how impactful and enjoyable the week would be...

Overall, the week just flew by! Over 100 primary and secondary teachers attended the workshops that were provided. I worked with the secondary teachers and had an absolute blast. They were beyond greatful and appreciative of the new techniques we provided them in the teaching of grammar, vocabulary, and English conversation. The entire week was done in English and I was just blown away by the high levels that the students possessed. It was such a breath of fresh air to be surrounded by dedicated, determined teachers that truly want the best for their students.

Below are some photos that help capture the week:

Secondary teachers ready to get to work!
Mary, an RPCV from the 1960's, answering questions
Everyone loves the fly swatter game - adults included!
Working on final projects
Teaching is hard work, so naturally we had to treat ourselves to some ice cream!
Introducing comparatives and superlatives
Was surprised with the traditional outfit of the campesinos (farmers) of Antioquia - and they chose blue!
Michelle, Alex, and I with Maureen Orth, the founder of the Marina Orth Foundation and Peace Corps Colombia legend
All of the instructors for the week
With Susana, one of the many dedicated staff at the foundation who did a great job of putting together this fantastic week!
Some absolutely beautiful words written by one of the participants
Group shot!!
I honestly could not have thought of a better way to end my service and time here in Colombia. I will forever remember this week as one filled with laughter, new ideas, and a reaffirmation for the bright future that lies ahead for Colombia and its people. Mil gracias to the Marina Orth Foundation for reaching out to Peace Corps and making this experience a reality. Hopefully this partnership can continue to grow and help teachers all across this beautiful country.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

We Got The Whole World In Our Hands

Before I ever applied for Peace Corps, I have been a huge fan and proponent of geography. Learning the location of important places around the world is a key factor in being a globally educated and well-rounded human. This is one of the contributing factors to why I just love to travel. Being able to experience new cultures and customs is an absolute thrill and adrenaline rush that has only been enhanced by my love of geography.

When I was accepted to the Peace Corps over two years ago, I started doing some research on various projects that other volunteers had done to help give me an idea of possible things that I could try and accomplish during my service. I was immediately drawn to the World Map Project. Created by a Peace Corps volunteer who served in the Dominican Republic from 1987-1989, this project was right up my alley. What better way to spread my love of geography than through the creation of a gigantic map mural?

When I finally got to my permament site here in Repelón, I started scouting out possible locations to make this map into a reality. Luckily for me, other artwork adorned many of the walls of the school when I arrived. This gave me hope that getting permission to do this project would be no problem at all.

Well, time continued passing and I had yet to find the right time to get this project started. Finally, just prior to the summer vacations this year, I talked to my principal at the time (he has since left) about the project and he was immediately on board. We agreed that I could use the wall behind the stage, as it would be in a prominent location and could be seen all visitors that come to the school. So I got to work.

After chiping away all of the old paint, giving the wall a fresh coat of white paint, and starting to draw the grid, I was slightly derailed when I realized that the elements were going to eventually do more damage to the map than good. Luckily for me, a new library had just been constructed at my school and with this four blank walls were just screaming for a new map. After receiving permission from the new principal to move my project into the library, I started over again.

Finally, after about a month of hard work and collaboration with some very talented 10th and 11th grade students, the map is finished! I am so excited to be able to give the school this resource that I am hoping will be utilized by the social studies teacher and maybe incorporated into other activities to expand the students' knowledge and understanding of the world around them.

Below are pictures showing the project from start to finish:

The wall before starting
The start of the grid that was used to draw the map
Grid done - now ready to draw the world!
One of my 10th grade students, Angelica, hard at work
Another 10th grade student, Anderson, lending me his drawing skills
All drawn and outlined - bring on the paint!
Mafe, a 10th grader, putting her artistic abilities to work
11th graders Alex and Arnaldo helping to put on the finishing touches
The final product!!!
I'm super proud of the end results! It was a lot of fun being able to collaborate and work with my students outside of the classroom and in a non-English context. The artistic abilities of the students here both at my school and in Colombia in general never cease to amaze me. I'm excited that I'll be able to leave this in the school as part of my Peace Corps legacy here in Repelón.

Gettin' Down and Dirty!!

Spa days are something that many people enjoy. Being able to pamper yourself for an hour or two with a relaxing massage or mud bath/facial is a great way to relieve pent up stress or to treat yourself after a long week. This is definitely a luxury for many Americans, as high prices and limited free time hinders many people from enjoying this treat as often as they would like to. Well, here in Colombia, there is a simple solution to this dilemma and it comes in the form of a volcano.

El Volcán del Totumo (Totuma Volcano) is a 50-foot tall volcano that is located between Barranquilla and Cartagena along the Via del Mar. It is filled with a warm, dense mud that is believed to have cleansing properties that will lead bathers more wholesome and beautiful skin. The legend has it that this volcano used to emit fire, lava, and ash. However, with the help of a local priest who was convinced that this was the work of the Devil, these harmful substances were turned into mud by the simple act of sprinkling some holy water into the volcano. Today, it is a very popular tourist destination, with the majority coming from Cartagena.

When we first arrived in country, we were told about this volcano and it immediately jumped to the top of our list of places to check out. Well, almost two years later, I can finally say that I have been. A couple of weekends ago, Caitlin, Katrina, Jessi, Derek, and I made our way to this volcano to check it out and see what it was all about. It did not disappoint.

After paying an entrance fee of $10.000 pesos (approximately $3.00), we climbed some steep steps to the top of the volcano. We had a little guy who guarded our stuff and escorted us around the park, which was nice. As I entered into the volcano itself, the mud slowly suctioned itself around my legs, waist, and torso. Instead of sinking straight down to the bottom of the volcano, I found myself suspended in this warm, think muck. It's what I imagine space travel to be like - minus the slime and grime.

We spent over an hour just chilling in the mud. It was a beautiful day and we found multiple ways to entertain ourselves, as only a group of gringos truly can. About halfway through our experience, we were joined by a group of Austrian bros who were probably on a trip to Cartagena and paid an exorbitant amount of money to come check out this treasure. Getting out of the pit itself became a balancing act between trying to rid yourself of as much mud as possible without slipping back into the volcano itself.

After we had all emerged looking more like creatures from the Black Lagoon than humans, we slowly descended down to ground level and proceeded to a nearby lagoon to wash off. We thought that we would be able to just leisurely enter the lagoon and wash ourselves. However, we were sorely mistaken as out of nowhere a group of women appeared and directed us to various crates situated near massive tanks of water. What happened next is something that I can only describe as an aggressive, anger laden rubdown. Water was splashed in my face, mud was forcifully rubbed off my skin, and a few shakes of my shorts completed the experience. We made our way back to Katrina's house and napped for the rest of the day.

I'm so glad that I was able to successfully check this experience off my Colombian bucket list before leaving. With only three weeks left in country, it's memories and experiences like this one that I will never forget. Now if only we had discovered the magical properties of this place earlier...

Faces of Repelón: The Kindred Spirit

Walking down the street on my way to school, I constantly hear shouts of "Profe!" or "Gringo" or "Teacher". Most of the time I just return these greetings with a headnod, slight wave, or thumbs up. However, whenever I run into Leidy Perez, one of my community class students, I always have to stop and get a little update on her life. She's just one of those people that draws you into a conversation whether you have the time for it or not. It's moments like this that get my day off on a great start before it even really begins!

Leidy was born here in Repelón in 1986. She grew up with three sibilings, while her parents were hard workers who provided lots of love and support for their children. Unfortunately, her mother passed away from cancer while she was young. However, she didn't let this untimely event hinderher from enjoying life.

One of Leidy's favorite memories from her childhood was the arrival of Christmas every year. On this special day, she was able to share special memories and time with her family that she didn't always get to see that often during the year. Leidy also fondly recalls playing with her sibilings and friends in her neighborhood. Together, they would play in the streets, go to the pool, and participate in various events/trips, such as going to see the animals at the zoo in Barranquilla.

The time that Leidy spent at school was overall a very positive and great experience. Her closest friends were like an extended family and they participated in many activities together. She thorougly enjoyed her English classes (which was apparent while she was in my classes) and dreaded attending her math classes. After graduating from high school, Leidy went on to study occupational health. Althought she currently does not have a job, she is continuing the search every day.

The thing about living in a small pueblo, espeicially Repelón, that really is attractive to Leidy is the fact that the citizens are super friendly and sincere. She also feels that she is free to live her life how she wants to without many outside influences telling her what she has or needs to do. At the same time, she acknowledges that there are not many opportunities for work. This lack of options leads to a lot of suffering amongst many of the people who live here.

In the future, Leidy would love to visit the United States. To her, the USA represents a land of many opportunities to both continue her study of English and to work. This is made possible by the fact that it is a very developed and beautiful country. She also feels that the USA is an example for the world on how to handle and create viable political and economical systems. Leidy also feels that the USA does an admirable job of collaborating with other countries around the world in finding solutions to problems and issues that arise around the world.

The entire time that I have had Leidy in class has been a pleasure. While she isn't always the most vocal student, I have found that when she does participate, she her anwers are always spot on and correct. It goes to show that it takes all types to make a successful classroom. Loud, quiet, extroverted, introverted - all of these personalities help to create a learning environment that allows each student to thrive. It was been encouraging to see that amount of progress that Leidy has made since the first day of class. She is truly an example of perseverance and hard work.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Faces of Repelón: The Police Chief

Imagine the following scenario:

You have just moved to a new pueblo in a foreign country where you are still trying to understand those around you. On your second day at site, you are approached by a member of the community stating that the police chief is looking for you. Heart hammering, you stammer in your best attempt at the local language, asking why? The community member has no idea - they were just tasked with bringing you to this meeting.

This actually happened to me. On my second day at school. With my coordinator playing it up to the point where I thought I was legitimately in trouble or had done something illegal despite not leaving my house. As it turned out, this initial meeting with the police chief, Melquecidec Vargas (or Mel for short), turned into a friendship that will soon span continents.

Mel was born in Sardinata, a pueblo in Norte de Santander (a department located on the border with Venezuela) in 1989. He grew up with two sisters, who both married at a young age. As a family, they lived in the country, a ways away from town, in a simple house made out of wood. As a kid, Mel loved playing soccer with his friends, both during and outside of school. This is a passion that has continued to this day, as at least once a week he can be found playing with the fellow cops in the plaza.

In addition to soccer, Mel also enjoyed going to the river and splashing around there with friends, and his current girlfriend, who he has known since he was a child and has been "dating" since he was 9 (according to him). He also played lots of other popular childhood games, like Hide and Seek, when not busy with his studies at school. He looked forward to school, as learning new material and seeing his friends were highlights. However, group work was a pain because it meant that he had to get up early to meet his classmates due to the distance from town that he lived.

As the end of high school was approaching, Mel knew that he had to make a decision regarding his future career. He had narrowed it down to being either an architect or a police officer. After taking some time to help his parents after graduation, he decided to join the police force and entered into the Police Academy. Following four years in the Academy, Mel was assigned to Repelón as police chief, arriving here a week before I did (talk about perfect timing!).

Life in Repelón is not all that different from Mel´s life in Sardinata. He is a big fan of the tranquility and relative peace and quiet that the pueblo offers. Mel also agrees that the people here are super friendly and he loves spending time near the Laguna del Guajaro just on the edge of town when he has time. The one thing that he absolutely despises is the condition of many of the roads in town, which he experiences often in completing his rounds.

In adition to learning English (through his own efforts and our casual conversations), Mel is also learning a bit of German as he would one day like to visit both the United States and Germany. The United States is one of the most developed and organized countries in the world, Mel feels, and he would love to be able to experience that for himself one day.

Being friends with the police chief has it pros and cons. On the plus side, I know that I have someone that I can always rely on to help me out if I were to ever get into a bind. It's also pretty sweet to tell friends and family back home that I'm best buds with the head cop in town - never a bad claim to be able to make. However, the life of a police officer is also a hectic one. Schedules are constantly changing at the last minute and finding time to actually hang out is really difficult.

Despite all of these challenges and obstacles, my time here in Colombia would not have been the same without Mel. From becoming my running buddy to sharing Dia de la Velitas with my parents when they visited in December to letting me use the copier/printer at the station whenever I wanted to, he has helped make me feel comfortable and safe while living here. For that, there are not enough words of thanks that I can offer him. I'm already looking forward to his visit to the United States! ;)

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Faces of Repelón: The Nurse

This world is full of people that have the ability to make anyone happy just with their mere presence. These special humans are just filled with a positive energy that is contagious to all of those that they come in contact with. I try to surround myself with these types of people as much as I can. Through my community classes, I have had the opportunity to get to know one of these people – Nahir Nuñez.

Born in Repelón in 1969, Nahir grew up in a household comprised of her father, mother, and three brothers. Her father emigrated from Venezuela as a young man to give his future family an opportunity at a better life. Her mother was responsible for instilling many of the values and principles that continue to guide her life to this day.

Nahir was very active in sports as a child, which was very uncommon at that time, especially for females. She participated in basketball, volleyball, running, gymnastics, soccer, and flew kites with friends from school and neighbors. She remembers having a fairly long childhood, as she continued all of these activities until she was 15.
School for Nahir was a pure pleasure. It is hard for her to think of anything that she didn’t enjoy about her school experience. A plethora of friendships and inspiring teachers are a few of the many highlights when she thinks back to her schooling days. Due to some unforeseen circumstances, Nahir was forced to leave school before graduating. She got married and later went back and successfully received her high school diploma. She has since attended college and currently is working as a nurse in a pharmacy here in town that just happens to be on my route home every day!

For Nahir, the tranquility and hospitality of Repeloneros is something she greatly treasures. She considers her life here to be a marvelous one and is always attempting to find the positive in each and every situation that comes her way. She is especially proud of how she has been able to use her position as a nurse to reach underrepresented populations within the pueblo to help teach them about healthy habits and ways to improve their lives.

In the future, Nahir would absolutely love to visit the United States and Hawaii. Her biggest dream is to experience snow! Due to the extreme, constant heat here on the coast, this is one phenomenon that she has yet to see firsthand. She sees that United States as a powerful nation that offers many opportunities to advance and progress in life.

Nahir has become an inspiration to me personally during my time here in Repelón. She is super ambitious, as evident in her dedication to learning English by taking classes outside of those offered by myself. Not too long ago, she received high marks on a project that she completed and the high levels of joy and pride that she had while telling me of this success could be seen by everyone. Nahir is definitely one of those special people that you meet in your life that will continue to do great things no matter where they are.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Faces of Repelón: The High School Student

One of the many things that I love about my community classes are the rich diversity that my students bring. Spanning several decades, each has an interesting and unique history that adds to the dynamic of the class. One of those students, Luisana, despite being only 16 years old, has definitely enriched these classes in multiple ways.

Born in Caracás, Venezuela, Luisana has two half-brothers, but has never lived with either of them. Her mother passed way when she was 7 years old and she moved to Repelón shortly afterwards to move in with family on her dad's side. One of her fondest memories of her mother was when they would sit together on their front porch of their house in Caracás, talking while her mother did her hair.

In addition to this, she loved taking photos (an obsession that has continued to this day!), making food, and enjoying the sweets that her dad would bring home with him from his work every day. Lusiana also had a large collection of Barbies that would keep her entertained for hours. Going to the park and the beach were other fond memories that she has from her childhood.

Currently, Luisana is in her last year of bachillerato (high school) and is set to graduate this November. Her time in school has been filled with great memories with her friends, exchanging jokes, and taking an obscene amount of potos. She greatly enjoys her teachers and looks forward to continuing her education in the coming years.

Life in a small pueblo is vastly different from that of the city. One thing about Repelón that Luisana loves are the people and the tranquil, safe feeling that life in a small town provides its citizens. She also loves the feeling of solidarity that is shared amongst many Repeloneros. However, the heat, mosquitoes, and lack of a movie theater and mall make life here sometimes unbearable.

In the future, once she has finished with any future studies that she may partake in, Luisana would love to visit the United States. This has been a dream of hers for many years. She sees the United States as a beautiful, developed country that is very advanced in terms of technology. If she can’t make it to the mainland US, Hawaii will do just fine as well!

I know that I probably say this about all of my students, but it has been an absolute pleasure to have Luisana in my classes. When she is absent there is a definite gap in the level of enthusiasm and positive energy in the class. It’s been a joy seeing someone so young take such an interest in bettering herself and setting herself up for nothing but success in the future.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Face of Repelón: The Elder Statesman

People that are able to self-teach themselves another language amaze me. I have met a multitude of humans throughout my travels that have learned English or another language solely through movies, music, and self-motivation. Many of these language learners have never taken a formal class or stepped foot in a country that speaks their second or third language fluently. Over the past two years, I have had the privilege of getting to know one such person that fits the above criteria: Rafael Torrenegra Polo.

Born in Repelón in 1961, Rafa is easily the oldest member of my community clases. However, he doesn't let his "wise, old age" hold him back from continuing the learn and improve his English abilities. Growing up, Rafa was one of 12 children. Both of his parents worked extremely hard to raise himself and his siblings. This work ethic was instilled in his parents at a young age - Rafa's mother grew up without a father and his father began working when he was in primary school just to make sure that there was enough food to eat. Despite these tough conditions, Rafa and his siblings have managed to become successful members of society. Today, his siblings hold titles such as doctor, lawyer, pilot, engineer, and mechanic.

As a child, Rafa's mother loved to sing to her children. This helped foster a love of music in Rafa that continues to this day. His father told many stories about the world around them, helping to spark an interest in Engilsh in Rafa at an early age. When Rafa wasn't learning new songs or soaking up new knowledge, he was outside playing with his friends. Their favorite game to take part in was baseball. In addition to baseball, Rafa also enjoyed running, riding horses, and playing an assortment of popular pueblo games.

During school, Rafa was an excellent student who enjoyed reading books and learning new things. He hated missing classes (which is not a sentiment shared by many students today) and truly enjoyed the teachers that instructed him. After high school, Rafa continued his education by taking many courses offered by SENA, which is a Colombian public institution that is focused on the development of educational programs to help foster employment throughout Colombia. In addition to these courses, Rafa started learning hundreds of English words through the assistance of a dictionary and the Bible.

Throughout his lifetime, Rafa has held an assortment of jobs, including a renter of land on the island San Andres, an insurance agent, and a security guard. It is through all of these various jobs that Rafa has met some of his closest comrades in life. One of his favorite aspects of life in Repelón is just that: the people. Walking down the street and being greeted by neighbors and friends is something that isn't found in the cities. However, there is a prevailing culture of poverty that sometimes tends to suffocate the spirit of the citizens in town.

Rafa has had a lifelong dream of visiting Germany. He sees the German society as one of equality and full of lots of opportunities for both its citizens and those that visit this beautiful country. Rafa also would like to visit the United States someday. Through his eyes, the USA is one of the msot powerful and important countries in the world today. The inhabitants of the USA have many opportunities and the ability to enjoy a good, well-rounded life. Rafa feels that Colombia should use the USA as an example of how to further develop in the future.

Rafa's vast prior knowledge of English has brought some interesting dynamics to my community classes. He is always willing to participate and give his thoughts. Sometimes, he is so willing that he overshadows the other students. While many other teachers may become annoyed and quickly fed up with this behavior, I embrace it. This desire to participate and continue to grow after so much time and effort is one of the truly enduring qualities that I will never forget about Rafa.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Crazy Colombian Celebrations

Being a student in Colombia has to be one of the best and easiest things in the world. This country has the most public holidays in the world, which leads to a plethora of three-day weekends and short school weeks. Outside of that, there are always random assemblies, "acto cívicos", and other happenings that make a full, 5-day week in which each class meets as scheduled a rarity. I'm pretty sure that during my time here in Repelón, we have had maybe ONE week in which every class met for the scheduled time. Consistency isn't one of the strong suits of the Colombian coast, to say the least.

Two weeks ago, my school, I.E. John F. Kennedy (IEJFK) partnered up with another school in town, I.E. Maria Immaculada (IEMI) to celebrate the Battle of Boyacá. This battle, which was fought on August 7, 1819, was the difinitive battle that gave Colombia its independence from Spain. To celebrate this monumental day in Colombian history, we paraded through town on our way to one of the baseball stadiums in town. This parade literally stopped traffic as we made our way through town on the one and only highway that makes its way through town. When we reached the plaza, we met up with the students and teachers from IEMI and made our way to the baseball stadium.

The first part of the day was spent watching various performances from both schools. Highlights included IEMI students dressing up like the main commanders of the battle, students showcasing the cumbia, mapale, and the son de negros dances, a group of students performing a rap, and a performance by the municipal student band. This group featured a few of my students from my school, which was really cool to see them involved in something outside of school. Below are pictures highlighting these performances.

However, for me, the ultimate highlight of the day was what happened after these performances. Here in Colombia, as I'm sure I've eluded to in the past, soccer is king. Life stops when both Junior (the local soccer team) and the national team play. Unfortunately, this only happens with the men's teams. The women's national team definitely does not garner as much attention country wide. In general, opportunities for women and girls, including sports, are fairly limited, as teenage pregnancy is an issue many of these small pueblos face. So it was a breath of fresh air when a softball game between the 10th graders from IEJFK and IEMI was held to end the celebration. I was so impressed and blown away by the amount of support that the other teachers and students gave the girls as they gave their all on the field and at the plate.

While there is still a long way to go to achieve gender equality here in Colombia, in my opinion, this game was definitely a step in the right direction. Instead of featuring soccer and putting the spotlight on the boys, as is so often done, these schools chose to feature the female athletes of their schools. Here's to future "days off" that in turn continue to empower and give the girls of this pueblo a chance to shine and showcase their talents.