May 30, 2012
Having already spent a day with the kids at Santa Cruz Roman Catholic School, we returned to the school on Thursday with a heightened sense of confidence in our teaching abilities. As it were, the principal had requested that Britanny and I come prepared to spend the second day teaching our group of students about synonyms and antonyms. So, with a lesson plan already in mind, we walked into the classroom again on Thursday morning, ready to give the students of Standards V and VI an English lesson.
Yet, for all the planning that we had done, Belize’s characteristic unpredictability prevailed once again as our lesson was interrupted only a few minutes after it had begun. I was in the middle of writing examples of synonyms on the chalkboard when a tall, stocky woman in a traditional Mayan dress proudly marched into the classroom, followed by a shorter Mayan man who was struggling with a pile of projector equipment. Recognizing that she had interrupted a lesson, the woman unapologetically introduced herself to Britanny and me as a representative from a nearby secondary school and explained that she had come to talk to the children about furthering their education. Trading shrugs, Britanny and I told them to go ahead and set up for their presentation; synonyms could wait until the afternoon. So we pulled up two chairs in the back of the classroom, and we turned the floor over to our visitors from the Tumul K’in Center of Learning.
Now, I didn’t recognize it at first, but this interruption could not have been more opportune for Britanny and me as students of Mayan culture. For while it may seem that we were simply watching the Standard V and VI students learn about the advantages of attending secondary school, in a larger sense we were also witnessing Mayan cultural preservation in action. As the projected slideshow explained, the mission of the Tumul K’in Center of Learning is two-pronged. On one hand, the secondary school seeks to advance the modern Maya by providing an affordable secondary education to Mayan children with the hope that they will, as a result, be better equipped to promote socioeconomic development among their struggling people. But at the same time, Tumul K’in seeks to preserve Mayan culture by founding its curriculum upon traditional Mayan principles and practices. To understand how this two-part focus is put into action, take as an example Agricultural Science and Production, one of the two educational emphases at Tumul K’in. Students of Agricultural Science and Production spend time learning about modern agricultural practices throughout the world so that they can one day bring innovation back to their native villages and effect agricultural development. Yet in the same curriculum, significant time is devoted to teaching students about the fundamental role that agriculture has played in Mayan culture both historically and today. Thus, students of Agricultural Science and Production are trained to promote the development of modern Mayan agriculture, but in a way that remains loyal to traditional Mayan principles.
In this way, explained the presenter, the Tumul K’in Center of Learning seeks to practice a “sustainable development identity.” As a student of environmental studies, I find this diction particularly interesting insofar as it departs from the typical environmental context of sustainable development. For while “development” in this usage still connotes societal development, “sustainable” does not refer to natural resources but cultural resources. Therefore, the sustainable development identity of Tumul K’in aims to increase Mayan prosperity without sacrificing Mayan tradition, and it was precisely this ideal that the woman was attempting to communicate to the children of Santa Cruz on Thursday morning. Needless to say, synonyms seemed relatively insignificant by the end of the presentation.
Sean Drake is a sophomore from Cincinnati, Ohio. As a double-major in Classics and Environmental Studies, his main interest is the intersection of ancient civilizations and the environment. As a result, he is interested in the link between the native Maya and their homeland. On the side, Sean loves to scuba dive as well as run as captain on the USC Marathon Team. He hopes to one day pursue a career in coastal management.
May 28, 2012
On Wednesday and Thursday of our first week in Toledo, we completed the service learning portion of our trip at Santa Cruz RC School, which educates the Mayan children of Santa Cruz village. With 109 students from ages 3-15, the school was ripe with opportunities for cultural exchange. Michelle and I spent the two days teaching Standards III and IV–effectively grades 4 and 5–with students ranging from 8-12 years old. Though the brief lessons we taught to them seem trivial, the eye-opening lessons we learned from working with them will undoubtedly stay with us long after traveling home.
Before discussing the cultural intricacies of Santa Cruz, it’s important to note something else: many, if not most, of inherent childhood traits are evidently cross-cultural. The first thing you can expect of preteens in school anywhere is a short attention span and an impeccable sense of the exact moment mid-morning break should start (the classroom clock was nonfunctional, but they always knew). Next, you wouldn’t be wrong to recall that there’s always an identifiable group of troublemakers; not only did they catalyze restlessness amongst one another, but also egged on the rest of their classmates. Lastly, girls were more likely to be shy, especially around the boys, and when they did interact it was often in the form of teasing.
Beyond what can be expected of any adolescents are the specific cultural cues of the Santa Cruz students. The majority of them come from families of farmers, and when not in school they’re often working to help their parents. English is their second language–their first is any one of the multiple Mayan languages spoken in the area. They know a great deal about the surrounding Mayan ruins, including Uxbenka and Lubantuun, and are enthusiastic about their heritage–they expressed a desire to travel to more sites throughout the country. Lastly, and perhaps most significant to our visit, was the fascination the students had about us and where we come from–they were insatiably eager to learn about our families and see all of the pictures we could show them.
Over the course of two days, Michelle and I (with Dan’s much needed help) taught the students some basic lessons on geometry, grammar, and science. Dan also gave an impromptu lesson on religion when the teacher unexpectedly left the room after asking several questions to the students about morality. Most entertaining was the lesson we taught the students about the components of a story. At the end of day one, we split the students into groups and asked them to come up with their own stories, with easily identifiable characters, settings, and plots. One group affectionately wrote a story about Michelle and I getting lost in the woods and later being saved from a hungry tiger by the unfailingly brave Dan. On the morning of the second day, the students were tasked with acting out their stories to the rest of the class. Even the students who didn’t regularly show interest in learning were excited–we were certainly glad to have found an engaging way to teach them (and keep them under control).
Alphine Avila has worked at Santa Cruz RC School for 4 years, and is currently serving her first year as principal (while also teaching Standards III and IV). She opened up to us and shared some interesting insights about the school, the students, and her personal experience as principal. The first thing Michelle and I learned from Alphine is that a sizable portion of the students aren’t as hard working as they need to be in order to do well–something she attributed to the fact that they don’t always receive adequate encouragement and support at home. This usually happens because the students’ parents are either too preoccupied with their own farm work, or feel that their child’s time would be better spent contributing to the family than to learning. Alphine admitted that because the students must often flip flop between school behavior and home behavior, it’s difficult to narrow their focus. She also shared with us that there’s been considerable resistance to her position as principal because of the reform she has recently tried bringing to the school. Among the things she mentioned were including more field trips, and cutting the sports program back slightly with hopes of improving the school’s standardized test scores, which have been low in previous years. Additionally, she often has to leave her own classroom during the school day to attend to problems with students in other classes. She hopes to return as principal next year but is unsure of her future with the school.
Overall, working at the school was a unique experience for all involved. We were able to learn about current Mayan culture and the Belize school system at the same time, and we hope to have imparted some memorable lessons to the students of Santa Cruz.
Sydney MacEwen, an LA native, is an upcoming Junior pursuing a BS in Environmental Studies and a minor in Geological Hazards. This is her first trip to Belize. She’s particularly interested in climate change and related policy. She hopes to pursue a Master of Arts in Environmental Studies following her undergraduate education.