Saturday, October 24, 2015

Post-Guatemala Reflections: Poverty and Literacy

Well, I planned to blog every day we were in Guatemala, but it didn’t work out that way. Very long days and evening meetings… the week was intense and flew by. Back in the States, I continue to reflect on the global service learning experience. Today’s topic: Poverty.

After spending a week there, I’m not sure how else to describe the everyday lives of so many Guatemalans. If you have not been to rural Guatemala, the documentary, Living on One Dollar, depicts it well, and the filmmakers grapple with heavy questions like, “How can we eradicate poverty in these communities?” Where does it come from?

Although small, Guatemala is a fairly diverse place. Especially in Antigua, where we stayed, there are a lot of do-gooder gringos (people from the U.S.), Canadians, and Europeans. Some of us are here for a week or two with a university or church. Others initially came on “missions” (a term which, I have learned, has a very broad definition) and stayed.

Ethnically speaking, Guatemala, like many places in Latin America, has a large indigenous population of Mayan decent (“los indígenas”), and a Spanish/Mestizo contingency (“los ladinos”). Also like in many places, the indigenous communities were initially colonized and oppressed, with historical-political atrocities forming the basis of the poverty in which many in this community find themselves today. However, it’s not just the rural, indigenous communities living in poverty in Guatemala (although the great majority of them do). For example, in the capital city, thousands live and work in Central America’s largest garbage dump.

One problem with poverty is limited educational opportunity. As one of our students pointed out last week, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs dictates that individuals need to meet basic biological and psychological needs (water, food, shelter, safety) before prioritizing things like literacy. Due to this and other issues, in Guatemala, only 3 out of 10 children make it through grade 6. Although I am staunchly anti-deficit perspective when it comes to education and research, the effects of poverty and lack of education in Guatemala cannot be denied or overlooked.

There are so many possibilities for literacy programs in Guatemala- from preschool age to adult. The goal of our department –that is, what we can offer in terms of community service here- has been literacy enrichment. This means reading and writing with children in varied contexts and, thanks to donations from Lectorum and Scholastic, gifting books to children and families, as well as donating books to schools and programs that work with children.

Reading with Indigenous girls at a community center

Reading and writing with local kids at a clinic

Presenting to parents about language-literacy development at a private, special education school
Interested in learning about and/or supporting a literacy program in Guatemala? Here are a few to consider:

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Day 3: En Mi Salsa

Today was a great day. Memorably, our SLP team hosted a parent workshop at a school for children with language and learning disabilities. I had been in touch with the school’s educational coordinator, who thought this would be a good idea. When we arrived, however, and found the workshop scheduled for 1:00 on Monday, I wondered who would show up.

Well, in the spirit of time flexibility, we actually started the workshop at 2:30 and, by about 2:45, had almost 30 people in the room. Our students had developed a flyer about typical language development and how to support it at various ages and stages, as well as how to engage and support students in literacy. Before we started, we had the parents introduce themselves and share about their children’s challenges. This was important for the students, to get a picture of the varying disabilities -at varying levels of severity- present in each of the school's, multiage classrooms. 

In spite of my students’ language barriers, they presented their information and I interpreted, naturally expanding when appropriate, to ask parents questions and provide examples. For me, it wasn't interpreting, it was teaching. Thus, unlike the very rewarding but very challenging interaction in the Rett Syndromeclinic on Sunday (more to come on this!), this was completely easy and natural. Talking about language and literacy, connecting with parents… estaba en mi salsa

In addition, one student each from OT, PT and Nursing joined us, and made valuable contributions. It was a very rewarding team effort that I know was helpful to the parents who participated.

Parent workshop on language and literacy development
Continuing our journey… more to come soon!

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Guatemala, Day 1 and the beginner's mind

Today was basically the trip here and settling in. At some point on the plane, one the students made a memorable comment: “I just have no idea what to expect.” To me, this was just amazing, as it reflected her open mind, a clean slate upon which to write who knows how many kinds of new and different experiences.

This comment also reminded me of my yoga practice. I remember one of my teachers used to say that, no matter how advanced you become in the practice, it is important to always approach things with “a beginner’s mind”.

A beginner’s mind: The feeling of openness, the excitement of trying something totally new… not knowing… not being sure of yourself, maybe even feeling some insecurity or discomfort. Now I am thinking that this is how most of my students are feeling here, this week. And this is a good thing!

This also makes me think of something I learned in Spain last summer, at the CIEE International Faculty Seminar on Intercultural Development. The facilitators talked about zones of comfort we all experience when engaging with other cultures (e.g., in a global service learning program). I need to find the reference for this, but, basically, there is the comfort zone, where we are most of the time in our regular, everyday life. Then there is the stretching or the challenge zone, where we need to go in order to learn new things. Finally, there is the panic zone, when we have no idea what to do or how to deal with unexpected obstacles or stresses. Hopefully, our students will not be in the panic zone this week, but it’s great for them –and for all of us- to step out of the comfort zone and into the challenge zone, in order to be open to new things, participate, and grow.

I even did this yesterday, when our whole group went to eat lunch at a fast-food place called Pollo Campestre (“Country Chicken”) -not the best vegetarian option, right? With pictures of fried chicken all over the menu, I thought I was doomed to another Lara bar meal. However… I was happily surprised to find a great salad that included avocado, beans, cheese, tomatoes, etc. that I actually enjoyed. A small thing but, nonetheless, it was a moment of taking a beginner’s perspective. Thankfully I did, or I would have stayed hungry.

So, this week, I am going to remember my student, not knowing what to expect, coming in with a beginner’s mind. This will help me empathize with all the students, who are certainly going to spend a lot of time in their challenge zones here in Guatemala. Hopefully, it will also push me to keep the beginner’s perspective as well. 

Friday, October 9, 2015

Return to Guatemala... Tomorrow!

As I prepare my suitcase for my departure to Guatemala tomorrow, I'm feeling like it's been a long time since I've spent time in Latin America. Not so long, however; the last time I went was also to Guatemala, in January of this year. Still, tonight it feels like a long time ago and a long way away.

Once again, I will be facilitating a global service learning program for speech-language pathology students, who are teaming up with students from physical therapy and occupational therapy to offer various services (e.g., literacy enrichment) in rural communities outside Antigua. I know the students are excited and, the fact is, so am I. I can't wait to be in a Spanish speaking environment, in a town where people can walk everywhere and there is piazza culture, and where I can eat some real, homemade tortillas.

Guatemalan sweets at a street stand
As for the global service learning conundrum, it is still alive and well. I have even had some pretty interesting conversations about it with students, who are also wondering who really benefits the most from these types of experiences. Keeping in mind that these programs are designed as service learning experiences (not voluntourism), there are clear learning objectives for the students. But what about the objectives for the recipients of our "service"?

Thus, I am going to Guatemala tomorrow with a few questions in mind for the week. Hopefully, I will be able to make some follow-up posts exploring some answers. Here are the research questions for the week:

1. How can we foster sustainable relationships with community partners in the towns we will visit?

2. How can we find out, from the communities themselves, how we can participate with them? What do they really want from this collaboration?

3. What are the long-term impacts of global service learning on the participating students? How will this experience influence their academic and professional inquiries and applications at home? What is my role as a facilitator in supporting/enhancing the students' learning?

Stay tuned for approximations to these questions, and, certainly, even more questions, as the week progresses. ¡Hasta pronto!

In January: An SLP student reading with a shopkeeper's daughter