4. From Sticks to Stars...
After months of downshifting and adapting to living and working in low gear, I feel grounded, connected to the people, mingling, able to navigate through Kichwa and now able to crack a joke or two in Spanish. The local dogs that usually chase me down have stopped barking at me, which means that I am no longer an outsider to this community.
I walk the same winding dirt road at high elevation to the tiny rural school I am teaching at Monday - Friday mornings. Greeted by Blanca, with her white plump face and those rosy red cheeks, I arrive to her big hugs, loud “Welcome Dah-Nah." Locking elbows with me walking side by side at a quick pace excited to show me her new breakfast program (desayuno escolar) for the children whose families live below the poverty line - that would be all 101 students in our school.
The desayuno consists of a nutritious protein packed meal so the kids get their micronutrients at least in their breakfast meal. Each child’s family pays $1 per month for 20 hot breakfasts. The little ones line up with their small, rusty metal bowls, spoons and plastic red mugs for their agua con panela, boiled water with unrefined raw sugar. I am not a fan of the agua con panela as it doesn’t provide any nutritional value just some energy from the sugar. Blanca pulls my arm and marches me to the front of the line of 101 kids wanting me to eat first. As a little boy is running in circles, Blanca and her attention follow him so I quickly move to the back of the line as I am not going cut in front of these kids. Most children only get agua con panela at home before school and their energy levels usually crash within a few hours of the day. The typical daily menu in the communities looks something like this: Breakfast - agua con panela, Lunch - soup, rice and potatoes (on special occasions guinea pig (high source of protein), Dinner - agua con panela and bread. There are no vegetables integrated into the meal unless some are boiled to death in their soup.
While waiting at the back of the line I notice two boys, Humberto and Santiago (Santi), playing and not in line. I ask Humberto “Why aren’t you waiting in line? You need to wait and then you can play later.” Humberto looks at me and explains that his mother forgot to give him the $1 for the month so Blanca told him he couldn’t eat. I asked Santi “What’s your story?” He responds that his mother doesn’t have the $1 so he eats at home. I ask what he ate for breakfast, he smiles, kicks the ball across the courtyard, ignores me and doesn’t answer. I ask one more time and Santi looks at me and says agua de panela. I quietly whisper to the boys “Get in line.” They look confused like, Hey gringa, do you not get it, we are poor, and we don’t have the $1! I tell the boys I can lend them the $1 each so they can eat breakfast and pay me back. Humberto jumps right in line making me believe his mom would give him the $1. Santi jumps in line too but tells me his mother most likely won’t be giving me the dollar. I smile, put my arm on his shoulder and thank him for the honesty.
The kids eat up their protein power-packed superfoods consisting of quinoa soup, avocados and potatoes and we return to the classroom. I am placed with the first graders and it is chaos everywhere. There are no materials, no lesson plans nor a positive learning environment, just an open space with about thirty five-year olds running rampant. The first grade teacher looks at me and says “Good luck, I’ll be hanging outside while you teach.” I explain to her that I thought we were going to co-facilitate - that we would do it together. I was hoping to take a sustainable approach with the teachers - not doing it ‘for’ them but ‘with’ them. She laughs in my face and says, “I’ll be outside, taking a nice break, have a good one Señorita Dana!”
I begin by asking the little ones how their morning is going and get an entire array of responses. The little girls don’t participate as much as the boys and tend to look down at their desks if called upon. A wooden stick sits in front of the right corner of the classroom. There’s that wooden stick again, the same one from my Remember Why Your Started blog. This wooden stick is used the discipline the children for lack of participation or for making the attempt but getting the answer wrong. Quite the lose/lose approach when working in classroom management.
This wasn't a- come on, step out of your comfort zone, you'll get graded on your efforts- environment. Nope, that's for us fortunate people that grew up in places where we were encouraged to work hard, make mistakes and learn from our errors. Not here, if you try and get it wrong, there will be consequences.
The children coming from Kichwa-speaking homes (low-literate to illiterate) need to learn Spanish first prior to comprehending science, math, etc. as there is no transition plan in place to help the children acquire their second language skills. The teachers aren't indigenous, do not understand, comprehend Kichwa and teach only in Spanish. It’s a vicious cycle and bilingual education is non-existent; parents pull their kids out of school claiming they are stupid and unable to learn and put them to work in the fields. Most of the kids whose parents allow them to stay in school, unfortunately have been left back for 3 years now and adults blame the children for being ‘tonto’ or stupid. They are stronger than your criticisms.
As I stand there, here comes Blanca moving at her power walk pace, to the first grade classroom and says, “You forgot something,” and her rosy cheeks are now glowing, pointing to the right front corner of the room at the stick. “The wooden stick, get to work Dah-Nah.” The kids stop in their tracks and sit down when they see the stick. I put it in the corner and explain I won’t be using it. One of the little girls raises her hand and says I actually should use the stick on Humberto because he deserves it and needs it to behave. I am quietly horrified, ignore her comment and obviously do not use the stick on Humberto.
Next day Humberto comes to school, walks up to me, head down, arm straight out with a plastic bag of corn tortillas homemade by his mother, “Pagui” (thank you in Kichwa.) I say to little Humberto “Don’t worry about the $1, consider this a trade for the desayuno.” Santi his friend jumps in and says "This isn’t about the dollar you lent him, its because Humberto told his mother that you didn't use the stick on him."
I go to the fourth grade classroom on Wednesdays as Blanca has asked me to work on some hygiene and basic health with this group. She says,“The niños are all dirty, stinky children who never learned to wash their hands.” I try to take take these moments of Blanca’s harsh, ignorant judgments as opportunities for educating her and not getting in an argument. But today isn’t that day. I have no patience for Blanca and I make sure to let her know that she missed a spot with a big food stain on her sweater and should clean herself up before the kids see her.
I go into the classroom and the third graders are more rambunctious than ever bouncing off the walls. We begin our lesson with Maria Con Manos Sucios (Maria with dirty hands). They love the story about a little girl Maria who never washes her hands and eventually gets infected with parasites and the king parasite’s name is Guillermo el Gusano (Willy the Worm). I have their total attention as we go through the lesson until one of the boys gets bored and starts running around. In unison, the kids are yelling, “Get the stick, smack him, teach him a lesson” and again I am besides myself that the children are 'pro-stick' when it doesn't involve them getting a whack.
I stand there and ask him to sit down and he just runs faster and faster in circles. I ignore him but he makes more noise and distraction. Remember why you started, rise above, this kid wants to push your buttons. Then it comes to me, I remember something so simple yet so powerful from my childhood that reinforced positive behavior: Star Charts. Is this something I could introduce in my tiny little Andean world? Would they get it? Would it translate? Oh, shit, do I need money? NO! I can do this with poster board and markers. This can be done!
Quickly, I ask the kids if they’d like to help me with an activity. They all jump at once “ARI” (Yes in Kichwa). I get the poster paper and ask one kid to count how many students we have and once he has that number to draw straight lines for that total number. Then, I ask one of the girls to write the names of ten students and then another girl to write the remaining names. I get other kids to use colorful magic markers to trace over the names and make it fun. I get other students to do the doodles in the backdrop. Next thing I know we have a mix of a mural, mess, star chart.
I explain the concept. “Each time we have class, I will be awarding the students who behave with a star next to their name at the end of the class. At the end of the month, I will give the students with the most stars with a prize. Prizes were going to be my homemade carrot cake or banana bread, as I don’t have money for toys.” I look at my little runner and let him know he can run laps around the classroom if he chooses that I am not paying attention and he doesn’t have to get his gold star if he doesn't want one. He stops ins tracks and hustles back to his chair.
“Stars will be awarded for participation, even if you get the answer wrong, you will get a star for stepping out of your comfort zone and making the effort,” I say bold and loud.
I want to encourage participation, active dialogue, brainstorming, and mistakes being made so we can actually learn. This is a hard sell as they haven’t approached education like this before but I ask, “ Do you trust me? If so, can we give it a try?” I get the same adorable smiles and nods and some, “Go for it, yes.” And so we begin and as the weeks carry on the kids make incredible strides and progress and my classroom management strategy is working; the poster boards are filling up with stars. I decide to splurge with my measly Peace Corps salary (@ $200 per month) and buy glitter for the kids to use on the posters.
Blanca calls me in to ask “What’s this all about with the star charts and how has it been working?” “Can I come observe a class of yours?” I say of course. I had hoped Blanca would hear some positive noise about this and want to learn more. After observing the class Blanca is impressed and sees the kids well behaved. She asks if I could teach the other teachers so the entire school can incorporate star charts into their classrooms. Did we just move a mountain? I mask my enthusiasm.
Then Blanca asks me how the wooden stick is going. I respond letting her know “It’s not going.” I have not used it nor threatened to use it. Blanca does one of her knee slaps, laughs loud and says “I don’t believe you, that would be impossible.” I keep my poker face going.
I challenge Blanca to a full-month of star charts and 'if' it proves to be successful, she gets rid of the stick all together. She laughs saying that the stick has been her crutch for years and when she was a child they also used the stick on her. I look Blanca in the eyes. “How about we lose the stick, let’s give the charts a try AND we can tell everyone the star charts were your idea, creation and success?”
Blanca responds, “Dana, you created and introduced the charts, that wasn't my idea.” I say, “But under your leadership and support, therefore these star charts are all yours. We will let the Superintendent in the big city know about the innovations and new practices you have developed,vamos!" "I’ll give you all the credit, if you give me the stick,” I say. She pauses, looks down at the ground, looks up at me, and hands over the stick. "You have a deal Señorita Dana."
I quietly march out of the school with the stick. I turn around and see Humberto and Santi staring at me confused as to where was I going and where is the stick going? The stick never did make its way back to that school. It was replaced by stars, many shining stars that went on to do great things…
Years later I would come to learn that a bilingual model would be put into place so the next generation of indigenous children would be on a more level playing field when entering the classroom. I would also learn that Paulina (our star from FOMO vs YOLO) would go on to be the first female to graduate high school and college from her community. She would go on to study bilingual Kichwa-Spanish education - something that was non-existent in the rural communities years ago. At 23, Paulina would write her first Kichwa-Spanish book for fourth graders and would win an award from the Ministry of Culture. They would publish her book and commit to printing 9,000 copies for fourth graders to have access to in the rural Andean schools.