By Catarina Saraiva
The Quetzal, Guatemala’s enigmatic and rare national bird, thrives in the hands of ecstatic 8-year-olds. I discovered this little-known fact at a small school in the country’s second biggest city.
Although the Quetzal is the national symbol, represented on everything from the currency (called Quetzales) to city names, much of its natural habitat has been destroyed by human growth. This bird can’t be seen in zoos, as it simply can’t survive in captivity – a pretty sweet trait for a national symbol, huh?
We left beautiful Lake Atitlán yesterday for Quetzaltenango (aka Xela), where we visited an alternative school run by Guatemala’s first Ashoku Fellow. Jorge Chojolán, the school’s founder and director, spoke to us last night about the need for innovation in his country’s education system. He told us only one out of every ten children finishes high school here.
At the Colegio Miguel Ángel Asturias, however, children from kindergarten through the first year of high school learn from teachers who use practical methods for engaging young minds.
Patty, Jorge’s 18-year-old daughter who’s already in medical school, told me that she remembers most of her history lessons from the Colegio because her teachers took their classes on field trips to the actual locations of the historical events. Instead of simply teaching math by memorization, kids are taught to think of how many candies they can buy if they only have a certain amount of money, Patty said. This way, the material has relevance to their daily lives.
After a hearty breakfast at our Catholic hostel early this morning, the troop left for the Colegio, armed to visit classes and offer any lessons the kids might enjoy. We were one man down, as Nick struggled through the deadly Dengue Fever (or maybe just a stomach ache).
At the school, we were greeted by Ryan Richards, a Juniata College graduate who’s dedicating two years of his life to working with the Colegio, mentored by Jorge. Jorge organized us according to our skills and led us to our classrooms. I was to sit in on Paola’s second grade class. The twenty or so kids were learning about shading in art, but quickly became far more interested in the camera. I was filming them as they were coloring, but they gradually crowded around this new device.
After we spent about half an hour in the classrooms, Jorge rang the bell for recess. The kids had an intense championship soccer game to play. Off they went, complete with an older student serving as the referee. Teachers shouted tactics from the side-line and other children screamed their team’s name. These kids are the future of Guatemalan soccer, as I have no doubt they’ll take the country to the World Cup. Upon arrival to Quetzaltenango yesterday, our boys played against some middle schoolers in a heated game. They “tied…” yeah right. The kids probably got a little slack at the end, feeling sorry for their guests.
Some of the school’s team names include “Clean environment,” “Pumas no longer extinct” and “Super rights,” true to the school’s extensive and progressive curriculum.
The Colegio is built like most buildings here in Guatemala, with a central, open-aired courtyard. At the school, this courtyard is paved and serves as the soccer field and basketball court.
We went back into our classrooms after the soccer game, this time to teach. I spent a good amount of time teaching the 8-year-olds how to fold paper Quetzals. I basically had them make paper cranes, bending the tail downwards to replicate the bird’s long tail feathers.
After they colored their birds, Jorge called for a school-wide assembly. The children all sang us their school song, “queremos paz y libertad en nuestro mundo” (we want peace and liberty in our world). Of course, some of sang our school songs as well and, at the childrens’ eager pleas, Carlos brought out the guitar for some further entertainment.
After the assembly we broke for lunch. Nick, fully recovered from his bout with the Dengue Fever, joined the rest of us and Ryan for a wonderful meal of salpicon (spiced shredded beef) and horchata (rice milk with cinnamon and sugar).