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.