Thursday, June 24, 2010

Teaching the Teachers

Learn why a Smaller World Educators Workshop in Panama inspired a Massachusetts Spanish teacher to introduce environmental concepts in her curriculum.

Written by Barbara Kelley

BARBARA, KIRSTEN AND JAMI GET THEIR HANDS DIRTY WITH A SMILE.From the moment we arrived at the Tocumen International Airport in Panama City for the first-ever SHI Educators Workshop, a lively collegiality and passionate dialogue about sustainability and environmental education prevailed. Our varied teaching fields (elementary special needs, middle school science, Spanish, music and community service development) made the discussions all the richer. With Panama’s stunning biological and cultural diversity as a backdrop, our exploration of SHI’s projects and mission deepened our understanding of important environmental issues and energized our dedication to inspiring students to take action.

After an overnight stay in the capital, we traveled to the village of Santa Rita where we lived with local families and worked at the community school. That first night is vivid in my mind, doña Digna and her quiet daughter Aurora presenting a lovingly prepared meal of gallina de patio (her own free-range chicken), rice and fresh organic vegetables from the garden. After eating, we nervously gathered outside in the patio area, trying to make small talk while the two children helped their parents bottle the pungent yellow berries from their nance tree. The generous hospitality of this humble family over the next few days was extraordinary. “Somos pobres de dinero pero ricos en naturaleza y espíritu,” commented my host father, don Luis. “We are poor economically but rich in nature and spirit.”

Each day, we spent the morning collaborating with Panamanian educators, sharing ideas about environmental education through a variety of workshops. Each afternoon, we worked on school and community projects, including planting gardens, reforesting degraded land and building a slow water filter. The work was hard, in very hot weather and even tropical downpours, but the spirits of our group of Panamanian and North American educators was high. Fifth grade teacher Anel sang salomas (a traditional form of yodeling) while 4th grade teacher Edwin slashed open coconuts for refreshment and home economics teacher Yadira offered up crackers and noni jam prepared by the students from the fruit of their local tree project. Despite language barriers, the camaraderie was palpable as we shared our common interest in sustainability education.

THE SANTA RITA SCHOOL FOLKLORIC DANCE CLUB PUT ON A SPECIAL PERFORMANCE IN OUR HONOR.Our SHI Field Trainer, Daysbeth López, enthusiastically shared her knowledge and commitment, while our dynamic Smaller World Tour leader, Kevin Johnson, provided seamless interpretation and boundless energy. We visited many of SHI’s projects to learn about its work with rural families. At don Isabel’s farm, we learned about natural fertilizers and pesticides, and the use of nitrogen-fixing trees to enrich the soil and provide shade and firewood. We used his newly installed water pump, planted pepper seedlings and admired his extensive production of tomatoes, onions, celery, peppers, cassava, pineapples, plantains, cilantro, many medicinal plants and so much more. At doña Corina’s home, we were introduced to the integrated rice paddies as an alternative to planting rice on hillsides, improving rice yields without having to cut down more forest. We visited don Diogenes’ beautiful organic gardens nestled into a verdant hillside, such a contrast to the slash-and-burn agriculture and the 20th century tendency toward monoculture. We heard about many of Sustainable Harvest International’s initiatives, such as microlending projects, wood conserving stoves and community nutrition.

Everywhere we went, food, music and dance were a vital part of our gatherings. On our last day at the school, the folkloric dance club put on a special performance in our honor, the girls swishing colorful pollera skirts and the boys boasting sombreros pintados, the celebrated Panama “painted” hat. I felt like a rock star, and a bit of a fraud, as community members thanked me personally for the transformative work SHI does. But it was clear to me that SHI, under the capable leadership of their Panamanian agricultural field staff, makes an enormous impact in the villages they work in.

I was inspired by the school gardens, community outreach and sustainability education in Panama. My two weeks with SHI’s Educators Workshop brought up a lot of big issues in the world...climate change, energy use, deforestation, biodiversity loss, the need to grow enough food to feed the planet. It was a lot to think about, but in the words of one of the farmers I met, “Lo importante es empezar, hacer el empeño, como todo en la vida.” “The important thing is to begin, to make the effort, as with everything in life.” I have begun the effort, thanks to SHI’s program. This year, I introduced an environmental unit into my eighth grade Spanish class, studying the environmental challenges facing Latin America. The sustainable future of our world depends on education and action, for it is the younger generation who will make the difference. Those rural Panamanian children and my suburban Massachusetts students must share a common goal: to work to restore the land to health and wholeness, to live their lives in a sustainable way.

Last modified on Friday, 16 April 2010

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