February 20, 2008
After breakfast this morning (where we learned there was wireless internet available in the dining room!), we boarded the bus once again. This time, we were joined by a special guest- the superintendent of the lake schools district in the Patzcuaro area. We we would be driving about 20 minutes from the hotel to the town of Santa Fe, to visit la Escuela Primeria Miguel Hidalgo. la Escuela Primeria Miguel Hidalgo is a bilingual school, which prides itself on teaching not only Spanish, but also the native language of P’urhépecha. On the ride over, the superintendent explained to the group that in the mid-twentieth century the Mexican government tried to force the schools to only teach in Spanish but the district and teachers fought the mandate. Luckily, they won!
We also learned a little about the P’urhépecha. The P’urhépecha, sometimes referred to as Tarascan people, are a pre-Columbian civilization of Mesoamerica. Their capital city was Tzintzuntzan (which we would later visit). Tarascan architecture is well-known for its step pyramids. The superintendent proudly informed us that the P’urhépecha were never conquered by the Aztec Empire, despite several attempts by the Aztecas to do so. This was probably due to the fact of P’urhépecha’s knowledge of metal working, an advantage over the Aztecas, and still widely regarded today, in particular their coppersmiths. He also explained that even though they were enemies, the Aztecas still traded with them, mainly for copper goods. He was also very happy to let us know that his people had never paid taxes to the Aztecas, unlike most other groups in the area.
The P’urhépecha once ruled an area over 100,000 square miles (mainly the state of Michoacan). They were one of the most powerful empires in Mexico but sadly fell victim to the Spanish conquest when Cortes came from Spain and conquered all the once great native people taking their land (in most cases killing them and by spreading European diseases like small pox). By the end of the 1500’s most of their culture and empire had vanished due to European invaders. The P’urhépecha never returned to power in the region but over the next 400 years the P’urhépecha people began to re-populate this region and it took until the 1970’s for their population to reach as many people that had existed here in the early 1500’s.
The town of Santa Fe was founded in the 1500’s by a Spaniard. It combined a few communities that had been impacted by the Spanish atrocities occurring in the region at that time. Since 1535 they have had to defend the land, territory, culture, an language from outside attacks and invasion. The town is currently divided into 8 neighborhoods. The school serves all 8 neighborhoods, mostly those with few opportunities (lower-income). The next town over speaks Spanish, but Santa Fe has protected its native language for centuries. They believe it is very important that the children have a deep grounding in their language, customs, culture, and the nature surrounding them. The adults worry that maintaining their language and culture will only get more difficult, as P’urhépecha is beginning to adopt Spanish words and phrases, integrating them into the ancient language. The school itself only uses 16th century stories and texts, ensuring some preservation of the original language. The town also holds festivals and celebrations each year, which have been passed down for centuries. Children receive excused absences for attending these cultural events. The children at the school speak P’urhépecha at home, and it is the first language for most of them. However, it is also second nature for them to speak Spanish. They are truly bilingual.
The school is still working on a fully-developed curriculum. Right now, the teachers and supervisors use their own knowledge to teach the school children. As the superintendent explained, “P’urhépecha is their first language. For the children, it is how they think, talk. They sometimes struggle learning Spanish because it is so different”.
Each classroom at the school is named after a different P’urhépecha king. While we use numbers or letters in most US/Canadian schools, they use history! The school has 150 students, all from Santa Fe save two, who commute from nearby towns. There is no tuition. The students choose to come to Hidalgo because it is a bilingual school. There are other schools in Santa Fe that are not bilingual, and the remaining children attend those neighborhood schools. When Hidalgo opened in 1965, the superintendent explained, they did well to get teachers who spoke both languages. Degrees were not a requirement. Today, they have many teachers who have gone on to receive their Masters degrees. There is a school in Michoacan which only trains bilingual teachers now! There are also new university training programs. There is no national teaching certification process.
The superintendent also answered our questions about graduation rates and continued schooling. Of the students at Hidalgo, approximately 40% will stop school after 6th grade for economic reasons. The nearest secondary school is in a different town, and 40% of the students can not afford to commute to the school, despite the free tuition. The remaining 60% do attend secondary school. Of those students, 30% will prepare for university. Three or four of those students will actually attend university.
The students go to school 200 days per year, from 8:30am-1:00pm. Remedial classes are held from 1:00pm-2:00pm and 2:00pm-3:00pm. These remedial classes are available for students who are struggling in their classes. Every two months the students take a cumulative exam. There are also exams at the end of the year. As the superintendent explained, exam grades are important, but other items are considered in the final grade evaluation. The school does not have a specific plan for dealing with special needs students, but there is a school for special education a few miles away. However, if parents can not afford to send their children to the special education school, Hidalgo will work with them. The school is working to develop a special education curriculum so that they can do the best for them. They are currently looking for a special education teacher.
When we arrived in Santa Fe, the bus had to park at the bottom of a steep hill, which we would walk up to reach the school. The first thing you notice, as in most of the places we have visited, is the poverty that seems to hold so much of this area in its grip. The streets are small and narrow, the homes small and sometimes disheveled. Yet somehow the locals make do with what they have and wherever you go, you are greeted by happy, bright, smiling faces. Most, if not all, of the buildings in the town date back to the 1500’s, as do the narrow stone streets. Walking down the street is like being transported back in time.
When we reached the school, we congregated on the basketball court. The students were still arriving at school and we were unsure of ourselves. We were their guests and there was the ever-present language barrier. However, one of our high school teachers broke the ice by racing the preschool children across the basketball court! Soon enough, the children were laughing and showing off for us, the foreign teachers. Then the superintendent and principal had the classes line up for morning exercises. Each grade level was introduced, from preschool to 6th grade. The 6th graders reminded me so much of my own 6th graders- the girls giggling and trying to communicate with the guests while the boys were climbing the flagpole and trying to distract the girls. They were too cool (and embarassed) to come meet us!
During morning exercises the director greeted us and everything was done twice- once in Spanish and once in P’urhépecha. Then, one of our teachers would translate the Spanish into English (which sent the older students into fits of giggles). The 3rd grade class then presented us with a song in P’urhépecha.
After morning exercises we found out that due to a slight miscommunication, the school had expected 4 foreign teachers, not 40! They were a little panicked (I can only imagine how my own school would react in the same situation), but managed to work everything out.
Once everything was under control we split into four groups. I walked up the hill a bit further, to visit the older students at the newest part of the school. I was very excited to visit the 6th graders and couldn’t wait to present the class with the bilingual book that my class had made for them. It was bit of a walk and we had to watch our step, as the town was in the midst of digging trenches to bring water to the newer buildings at the school.
We entered a 6th grade classroom and the teacher was reviewing a language lesson. We were invited to sit with the students, who began frantically waving us over. There were 10 students in the class, each at their own table.
We observed the language lesson for a while. It was fascinating! The students did everything in translation, Spanish and then P’urhépecha. I was shocked to see that the room had a mounted SmartBoard and LCD projector. The teacher told us that the older elementary classrooms were equipped with these, courtesy of a grant.
The students were giggling and showing off for us. We observed the lesson and learned that P’urhépecha uses a base-20 system of counting, so the students also learn bilingual math! They use two different number systems and are able to easily move between them. As someone who is not mathematically inclined, I was extremely impressed.
Once the lesson was over, Bonnie (our amazing Spanish teacher/translator), helped us introduce ourselves to the class. Using the map in the room, we were able to show the students where we were from. Among the 5-6 adults in the room, we hailed from NJ, Connecticut, and Manitoba, Canada! The students then told Bonnie that they wanted to learn a bit of English from us. I volunteered to teach them, and it was wonderful! We began with numbers, teaching them 1-10 in English. The children would repeat the English word, say it in Spanish, and then tell us how to say it in P’urhépecha. Then were learned our colors in P’urhépecha after reviewing them in English. The students thought that blue and purple were the funniest sounds in the world! Despite the language differences, standing in front of that classroom was just like standing in front of my students at home.
Next, we handed out our bilingual books. The students loved them! They then surprised us by giving us an amazing gift- P’urhépecha literature books and grammar books (from the 2nd grade class, as we couldn’t read the 6th grade books!). We spent about 20 minutes hanging out with the students, looking through the books while they attempted to teach us P’urhépecha words. I was working with three young girls, ages 10-14; Anna, Maria Jeni, and Maria Antonia. They tried very hard to teach me P’urhépecha, but the sounds were difficult for this New Jersey gal. They would burst into fits of giggles whenever I attempted to repeat a P’urhépecha word, then they would slowly repeat it until I said it correctly (or close to correct!). They would point to a picture and I would say the word in English and they would repeat it in P’urhépecha. Every time I stumbled over a word, we would all laugh! However, my teachers were very patient and did their best with this student. I was impressed! Right before we left, Anna presented me with a cheat sheet she had made, listing words in Spanish and then their P’urhépecha counterpart. It was the sweetest gift I have ever been given by a student!
While the students went to lunch and recess we were shepherded into an empty classroom for an impromptu international faculty meeting with the staff of the school. They took the time to ask us questions, and it was fascinating to see our teaching methods and our own schools through their eyes. It was a once-in-a-lifetime dialogue between 3 nations and multiple cultures. We discovered we have a lot in common. Many of the Mexican teachers admitted that they surf the internet, looking to the US/Canada for the newest teaching methods and ideas, which they then attempt to implement in their own classrooms. Without compulsory schooling or a standardized, national teaching certificate the country does not spend a lot of time or energy on education. These teachers are on their own for the most part.
They also shared their worries regarding illegal immigrants in NJ. They desperately want their people to stay home, and to create opportunities in Mexico. They hope that educating more of their people will encourage them and create those much-needed opportunities so that they do not need to flee to the United States.
Sadly, they also brought up a much harder topic to deal with. One of the teachers asked us about the numerous school shootings that have taken place in the US over the last few years. They see the shootings on the news and can not understand how or why they happen. We told them that this is something teachers and parents in the US struggle with, too. None of us have those answers. We did tell them about Code Blue Drills and other similar practice drills that take place in our schools. But the question was definitely a tough one.
As we prepared to leave the school and head back to the bus, we passed through a gauntlet of students. Many of them had raced home during their lunch break and had returned with gifts for us. This made many of us very emotional….it was an amazing gesture on behalf of the students and was completely unexpected. Many of the students’ parents are in the ceramics business so we received mugs, piggy banks, and ceramic necklaces. The school also presented each of us with a beautiful mug, with the date and school’s name inscribed on it.
As we loaded back into the bus, it was very quiet. We were all very touched by the experience and were still digesting everything we had experienced as we moved into our next destination…..Los Yacatas. (to be continued)