Monarch Teacher Network: Day 5 in Mexico (Part 1)

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.

cimg2102.jpgThe 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 wecimg2107.jpg 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.

cimg2121.jpgWe 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-cimg2137.jpg 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 cimg2144.jpgstumbled 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, andcimg2161.jpg 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)

Monarch Teacher Network: Day 4 in Mexico

February 19, 2008


This morning I decided to skip the breakfast buffet and just grab one of the Poptarts I had packed for the trip. Before checking out, we walked around the hacienda and just took in all the scenery. We picked limes from the lime trees, birdwatched a bit, and just breathed in the fresh mountain air. But by 8:00am we were back on the bus and ready to go to our second reserve, Sierra Chincua.

About two hours from the hotel, on a mountaintop not far from El Rosario, Sierra Chincua is a wilder colony. The ejido who own the land have only recently begun to develop the area into an eco-tourism attraction. The road to Chincua was bumpy and wound its way up the mountain like a snake. When we pulled into the parking lot we could immediately see the differences between El Rosario and Chincua. To begin with, there was no parking lot at Chincua- it was just a grassy area. The shops and restaurants were much smaller and there were a lot fewer of them. It was a sharp contrast from the day before.

Once we unloaded from the bus, we were able to rent a horse for the ride up the mountain. The ejidos at the bottom of the mountain told us that the Monarchs were only over the first hill and only a 5 to 10 minute ride by horse. After checking our altitude (10,700 ft) we mounted our horses and were led up the mountain. The horse ride was enjoyable and relaxing. My legs and lungs were very happy to get the break the horse offered- no walking and hiking!  The ride was quite short- after about ten minutes, the horses had gone as far as they were allowed.  We dismounted and prepared for the short walk to the colony.  Due to the warm weather, the monarchs had moved further down the mountain and were very close!

When we arrived at the top of the Mountain we were greeted by Francisco who is the head Ejido and who is in charge of cimg1920.jpgall the money for the Sanctuary of Sierra Chincua.  Francisco is very passionate obout preserving the Oyamel Fir forests for the Monarchs, and has spent the greater part of his life battling illegal loggers and working towards re-foresting the tracts of forest that were illegally cut down.  Francisco received a big boost a couple of weeks ago when the President of Mexico, Felipe Calderon visited Sierra Chincua and  rode horses with Francisco into the Sanctuaries to see the Monarchs.  Francisco said that President Calderon has pledged to help stop the illegal logging by giving the Mexican Army more of a presence in the Sanctuaries  with the responsibilities of protecting the forests for the butterflies.  He also explained that the colony has allowed his town, down the mountain, to begin local improvements.  They were recently able to purchase a new bell for the church for $9000 pesos and begin renovations on the church.  They will soon begin to build a high school in their town.  Francisco was extremely passionate and his attitude was contagious.  Many of the teachers became teary-eyed during his speech and we gave him a round of applause when he finished.  He was just as grateful to meet us- he was grateful to us because he said it was our work with the students in the US and Canada that convinced the President to visit the colonies.  The popularity of the monarchs in the US/Canada has shown the Mexican government that other countries do care, too.

As we climbed the small hill, the path forked ahead of us.  To the right, the downhill path was dark and cool.  We could see the oyamel covered in monarchs, like fur on the trees.  Many of the butterflies were lifting into the air as the warmth from the sun hit the branches higher up the mountain.cimg1937.jpg

To the left, you climbed up into the peak of the mountain, where the sun shone like golden fire.  The light blue sky was alive with orange and black, fluttering, flapping, diving, and streaming down the mountain.  The river of monarchs, mariposas, flowed around us.  There were no ropes separating us form the monarchs.  It was and absolute avalanche of orange and black.

For a while I just sat on the mountain and absorbed the scenery.  Soaking in the wonder of the colony.  It was as close to being one with nature as I can ever imagine being.  You could hear the breeze blowing through the trees and the quiet flapping of cimg2016.jpgmillions of butterfly’s wings.  A monarch even landed on my head!

The ride back down the mountain was also on horseback.  It was even better going down the mountain- the steep, gravel-filled path looked treacherous to this blogger!  After we dismounted from our horses, we perused the shops.  We decided to eat our brown-bag lunches in a corner of the reserve, out of the way of the busy shops and restaurants.  We were soon joined by two small children, ages three and seven.  They laughed and signaled to us as we struggled to communicate, despite our language barrier.  They giggled and showed off, playing catch with each other.

We spent about three hours at the colony and then drove an hour west to visit Alternare.  On the way, we passed through a large crowd of men, women, and children carrying fireworks, singing, and dancing.  At the back of the crowd we saw a small coffin with glass sides.  We were shocked and horrified at what we assumed was a ghastly funeral ritual.  However, Marcos explained that it was a very important tradition in Catholic villages.  The coffin contained a baby Jesus and represented his death for their sins.  The coffin was carried from town to town on a daily basis, and it was a very big honor to host the coffin in your church.  The crowd would set off the fireworks before reaching the next town, so that the townspeople were prepared to receive the baby Jesus.  It was fascinating!

About 45 minutes later, we reached Alternare.  Alternare is a Mexican non-profit organization that works with the natives in the monarch sanctuary areas to promote sustainable living- food  production, forest conservation, and environmentally sound economic activities. We visited their training center just outside of Angangueo, where they educate instructors. These instructors then go back to their homes, carrying the knowledge from Alternare with them.  They then work as leaders in their community, sharing the knowledge and spreading the ideas.  We were introduced to a young boy, no more than seventeen years old, who had spent the last year training at the facility.  At the end of Februarycimg2081.jpg he would be going back to his home to begin sharing his knowledge with his community.  The young man spent about 30 minutes explaining Alternare and their work to us.  He looked so nervous!  You could tell this was some type of final exam for him, and he looked terrified.  But he did a wonderful job!

Much of what they teach at Alternare is knowledge that the local people knew many generations ago, but has long since been forgotten.  For example, they teach crop rotation, adobe as alternative building technique (instead of oyamel wood), construction of wood-saving stoves, tree nurseries, reforestation and sustainable use and management of the forest, use and preparation of medicinal plants , and honey production.  After the wonderful presentation, we passed a collection hat around and made a wonderful donation to Alternare.  A few teachers (who had been on the trip before) delivered donations from their schools and students.  The men and women at Alternare then offered their goods to us, and many teachers bought honey and herbal medicines.  It was wonderful!

Monarch Teacher Network: Day 3 in Mexico

February 18, 2008


This morning we overslept a little! Luckily, we made it down to breakfast on time, where Chris and I tried cactus juice for the first time. It was pretty good! It was as green as newly-cut grass, with a taste of pineapple in it. After racing through breakfast, we boarded the bus to go to El Rosario, our first monarch reserve!

cimg1771.jpgThe 2.5 hour drive to the sanctuary was amazing, with mountains that are actually dormant volcanoes hovering above you. Some of them reach as high as 12,000 feet above sea level. Remember, here in NJ we are at sea level. As we drove up the cobblestone road that leads into the sanctuary, Marcos explained that the local townspeople had laid the road by hand in order to make it easier for tourists to visit the sanctuary. About halfway up the mountain we saw our first monarchs, a breath-taking sight since none of the teachers on the trip had seen monarchs since last fall, when we released them in the US and Canada. As we drove up toward the mountaintop, we could see the effects that years of mining and logging have had on the oyamel fir forests that blanket the area. For years the local Ejidos have cut down the forest to meet their everyday basic needs for shelter and wood for heating and cooking. More recently, the forests have also fallen prey to illegal logging because the wood from the oyamel trees is extremely valuable and can be cut down and sold for a very large profit in some parts of Mexico (especially Mexico City). If this illegal logging continues, then the migration of the monarch butterfly will become extinct. Thankfully, the Mexican government has begun to work with the local Ejidos and number of local non-profit organizations to restore parts of the de-forested areas and educate the locals about taking better care of their environment. A big part of this is the designation of the Monarch Biospere Reserve in this part of Mexico. In this reserve the Monarchs’ homes are now protected by the government and the local people who live here. El Rosario is one of these reserves.

As we drove, Marcos took the time to explain the background of the Mayan and Aztec calendar. The MesoAmerican cultures used an anthropomorphic calendar. This means that it is based on the humans and not on the sun. There are 260 days in a year because the average amount of time that a child spends in the womb is 260 days. It is absolutely fascinating!

Finally, we arrived at approximately 8,000 ft above sea level, to the parking lot of the El Rosario Sanctuary. We de-bussed and headed toward the mountain path. We passed through a gauntlet of shops and restaurants, and Marcos reminded us to “Be-a strong!” Anything we bought at the bottom of the mountain would have to be carried to the top and back down again. No thank you! However, our senses were assaulted by the sights and smells of the shops, making our mouths water and our eyes wander from item to item. It was hard to be strong!

After paying at the visitor center, we began our ascent. The ejido members have built concrete steps into the mountaintop for about half of the climb. This made the climb a little easier! As we reached a slightly higher altitude, we began to see a few monarchs flutter by our heads, headed down the mountainside to the flowers closer to the bottom. As we reached the Plains of the Rabbits (a meadow halfway to the peak), we entered a river of monarchs, flowing down thecimg1806.jpg mountainside. As the warmth from the sun hit the clusters of monarchs on the bowed branches of oyamels, thousands more monarchs lifted into the air in search of nectar and water. It was surreal to stand in the midst of thousands upon thousands of monarch butterflies, tumbling down the mountain like flakes of orange snow.

As we kept climbing we saw more and more monarchs. More than I ever imagined possible. We came across hundreds of them puddling in small streams. We even got pictures of Mariposa (our class mascot) with a few other classroom mascots from around North America. They puddled with some of the live monarchs and even had a real, live monarch land on them!

Throughout the hike we would meet people on their way down, encouraging us to keep climbing. “It only gets better! You haven’t seen anything yet!” They were right! At the peak, the scene stole your breath away. Because the warmth of the sun had not yet risen to that height, the boughs of the oyamel trees were weighted down by cimg1835.jpgmillions upon millions of monarch butterflies. We spent about 45 minutes just sitting at the peak, surrounded by orange sunbursts flitting through the sky. It was serene and tranquil, like a silent snowfall. The only sounds were the wind blowing through the trees and the flapping of millions of butterfly wings.

As we descended the mountain later that afternoon, we stopped every few feet to lift sunning monarchs off the path. You had to watch each step to ensure you did not mistakenly step on a monarch gathering its strength in the afternoon sun. It was magical. The climb down was much harder than the ascent, though. It was so steep that you would have to grab into trees to keep your balance while scooting downhill. Because of the altitude and the length of the climb, many climber’s legs began to tremble as they walked.

Once we reached the main path we were inundated again by the shops and restaurants. The native people were shouting prices but the language barrier presented a problem. They began holding out goods to attract our attention, while slowly repeating the prices in Spanish. We were able to work together to determine the prices and even to bargain a little! Icimg1856.jpg purchased a few t-shirts which were hand-embroidered on the site, along with pine needle baskets made by hand down the mountain. Even now, when I open the basket, it’s like a Pandora’s box of Christmas. The scent of pine and winter is overwhelming. We browsed through all of the shops, and even though I love to shop it is not easy when you don’t speak the language. It made shopping an intellectual experience if nothing else!

We had lunch at one of the small shacks on the side of the trail. The homemade blue corn tortillas were delicious! We don’t raise blue corn here in the States, so it was a treat to see blue tortillas. And fresh tortillas taste nothing at all like store-bought ones. I had quesadillas, and it was the best grilled cheese sandwich I have ever eaten! Almost everyone in the group ate at the restaurant and we all raved about the food. At one point we heard a cell phone ring, and we were amazed that anyone had service. Then, we saw one of the young Mexican girls grinning. It was her cell phone receiving a text! Even though the Masawa people have retained much of their own culture, technology like cell phones has made the leap over the great divide and become a part of daily life.

cimg1793.jpgWe finally got back on the bus later in the afternoon for the 2.5 hour journey back to the hotel for the night. I spent much of the long ride back thinking about what I had witnessed in the sanctuaries. Words can not describe what you see in the sanctuaries, and I wish that all my students could have the opportunity to see the magic takes place there. When you are here and you see, hear and feel the billions upon billions of monarchs, you are overwhelmed with the fact that we really are just a tiny part of this giant universe. It is a truly life-changing experience. Looking back at my pictures, video and words I realize that nothing can accurately describe the sanctuaries. The emotions that run through you as billions of Monarchs cling to the towering trees overhead and dance and play in a river of orange with a stunning blue sky behind them are indescribable.

I received a fellowship for this trip from the Monarch Teacher Network/Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.  MTN is a fantastic organization that gives summer workshops, “Teaching and Learning with Monarch Butterflies”, all over the country.  Anyone who attends the workshop (you do not have to be a teacher!), is eligible to go on one of the 3 yearly trips to Mexico.

Monarch Teacher Network: Day 2 in Mexico

February 17, 2008

After a frantic morning spent hunting down our lost luggage, (I wanted to hug my suitcase when it finally arrived) we boarded our tour bus at 8am. As we began our first leg of the journey we were treated to a tour of Mexico City while our tour guide, Marcos, gave us a brief history of the area. I was shocked by the poverty we saw. Marcos explained that while there are wealthy parts of the city, too many politicians offered land to the poor in exchange for votes over the years. Sadly, those same land areas lack electricity and running water. It is a very crowded city- in 2006 Mexico City had a population of almost 20 million, making it the largest metropolitan area in the western hemisphere and the second largest in the world.
We drove for about four hours, slowly making our way into the Transvolcanic Mountains. We finally arrived at ourcimg1697.jpg destination 8,000 feet above sea level- the town of Tlalpujahua. Tlalpujahua is not a tourist town. However, it does have a storied history. In 1937 a landslide wiped out the entire town, killing over many people, but sparing only one building in the town; the Church of San Pedro y San Pablo. The church was built on sacred ground, so that the natives (Aztecas) would attend mass when the Spanish completed it. The people in the town are extremely religious. We were in town on Sunday and many of the local people were in the church attending Mass. The inside of the church is breathtaking. Instead of being dark and intimidating, it is bright and cheery. The walls are pastel pinks and blues, covered in flowers. Flowers were sacred to the Aztecs so this was another way to encourage them to attend mass. At the top of the cathedral, the ceilings meet with a large white daisy. It is stunning!  I loved seeing a church that was so different than those I was used to- ornate and intimidating on the outside while bright and inviting on the inside.  It was a great experience.  Plus, even though the hymn the celebrants were singing was in Spanish, I recognized the melody as one that I grew up singing, just in English!

The locals see Sunday not only as a day of religious observance but also an opportunity to dress up and go to church, and to visit the huge market where the locals sell handmade pottery, handcarved wooden goods, fruits and vegetables and all kinds of hand-made souvenirs and baked goods. We walked around the market, doing a little shopping. Despite being 2000 miles from home, it reminded me a lot of the local market/auction. Chris and I bought a handmade terracotta bowl and spoon, painted with small flowers. There were also mass-produced items available- we even saw a teddy bear wearing a t-shirt proclaiming, “Someone at TCNJ Loves Me!” He was certainly a long way from home!

We had lunch at a local cafe (which thankfully produced an English menu for us). I had the Azteca soup- spicy cream of tomato broth with avocado, tortilla, and pork rinds. Chris tried Manzana, an apple soda, while I stuck with Coke.  My taste buds weren’t used to the assault of spices, but I enjoyed my lunch.

cimg1706.jpgAfter a relaxing lunch, we took the bus a few miles up the road to the Two Stars Mine, a silver mine that the locals have reopened as a museum. As Marcos reminds us, this is another opportunity created by the locals to help their economy. It is an extremely important place in Mexican history because most of the villagers worked in the mine in the early 1900`s and the town was actually built on top of the mines. Today, you can walk into houses in Tlalpujahua and find the entrance to many mine shafts. The restaurant where we ate lunch even had an entrance to the mine! The mine is also important because thousands of men from town died there over its short 40 year period of operation, in very unsafe mining conditions. Men were forced to sometimes work naked in damp mines, almost a thousand feet below the earth’s surface. Because the mines are located in the volcanic mountains, they get hotter as the shafts go deeper. Even worse, the owner and overseers made the men work naked so that they wouldn’t try to steal any of the gold or silver at the end of the work day. They also paid the men 7 cents a day and the money that they were paid with could only be used to buy things at the store at the mine, because the money was especially minted by the mine to pay the mine workers and was not good anywhere else in Mexico. So whatever they earned they had to give back to the mine owners just for basic necessities like food for their families. The mine also had a credit system for purchases and in many cases the men working the mines owed the mine more money than they earned. Of the mine profits, less than 3% made its way back to the town. 97% of the profits went to France, where the owner of the mine lived.

Two Stars Mine was one of the most prolific gold and silver mines in the entire world. We were able to tour the small museum, with a young girl from the area telling us about the objects in the museum. After the tour, we were allowed to enter the mine shaft. The shaft we entered was on the ground level and it was comfortably cool and moist. Below us, there were 14 more mine shafts with 30 meters between each level. Just imagine being that far below the earth’s surface! And the lower you go, the hotter it gets, because you get closer to the magma in the volcanoes. At some depths, it was almost 150 degrees F.

Approximately 150m into the mine shaft we were able to see the altar used by the mine workers. Each day, as theycimg1709.jpg entered the mine, the men would leave an offering and a prayer at the altar. They would pray to the Virgin of Carmen for their safe return at the end of the day. The Virgin of Carmen was their patron because she was the only relic to survive the landslide that destroyed the town many years before. The Virgin thus became the town’s patron saint of disasters.

The mine was a bit claustrophobic and I couldn’t imagine entering everyday and climbing even further below the surface. However, the men who did so had little choice. It was one of the few economic opportunities at that time. Today, there are beautiful murals painted outside the mine which depict the history of the mine. The natives are seen as abused and treated as the US treated African slave, if not worse. The owners of the mine are living the high life, practically blanketed in gold and silver. The murals were heartbreaking.

After the Two Stars Mine, we headed to our hotel for the night. Before reaching the hotel, we made a quick detour to a cactus orchard. Marcos gave us a short explanation of the many uses of the giant Maguey Cactus in Cultepec. Some of these cactus are 8 to 10 feet tall and after the cactus matures in seven years in sprouts this asparagus looking tree from its center that is 15 to 20 feet tall. Marcos explained that if the stem is cut, a sweet liquid, like water, can be harvested. This may be fermented to produce the drink called pulque, which is the “happy drink”! After fermenting, it becomes a strong alcoholic drink that the locals love to drink. The leaves also yield fibers, known as pita, which are suitable for making rope, matting, coarse cloth and marcos demonstrated the size of the fibers for us by cutting the tip of a stem.. Both pulque and the fiber were important to the economy of Meso-America. They even made paper from the cactus!

cimg1743.jpgWhen we reached the hotel we would be staying at for the next two nights, we were stunned. The Hacienda Cantalagua was stunningly gorgeous. It was an original hacienda built in 1771. The original buildings still stand. The gardens and fountains throughout the property were lush and serene. The hacienda wall extended over the horizon in all directions. However, we were so exhausted from the day’s activities that we quickly logged onto the computers in the business center, ate the delicious buffet dinner, and fell into bed!

Monarch Teacher Network: Day 1 in Mexico

Between the days of 02/16/02-02/23/08 I was privileged to be a part of a life changing professional development experience. When I began my student teaching a few years ago, my cooperating teacher introduced me to the Monarch Teacher Network. The Monarch Teacher Network is a growing network of teachers who have received training to use monarch butterflies to teach a variety of concepts and skills, including our growing connection with other nations and the need to be responsible stewards of the environment. Even though I am now a language arts teacher, I use the monarchs as an overarching theme for the entire year. “Journeys” is the theme for this year, as my 6th graders end their journey in our school and begin to plan the journey that will be the rest of their lives. The monarchs serve as a community-building activity in the beginning of the year, when we raise them as a class.

I took the workshop two years ago, worked as a staff member last year, and finally applied for the fellowship to Mexico this year. When I received the fellowship, I was ecstatic! The trip was 8 days of intense professional development and I changed the way I look at my teaching and the world around me. I HIGHLY recommend taking the workshop this summer if it will be near you. We are expanding nationwide over the next few years and would be thrilled to hold a workshop in your state if you are interested. The workshops for this summer are as follows:

  • June 18, 19, 20 – Birmingham Southern College, Birmingham, Alabama
  • June 23, 24, 25 – Texas A&M University, Texarkana, Texas
  • July 28, 29, 30 at Webster Hill School, West Hartford, CT (minutes from Interstate 84)
  • August 6, 7, 8 – Forest Park High School, Woodbridge, VA (Prince William County)
  • August 11, 12, 13 – Waples Mill School, Oakton, VA (Fairfax County)
  • August 11, 12, 13 – Knox Agri-Center, Galesburg, IL (Knox County close to Interstate 74 exit)
  • August 11, 12, 13 – Brookside Elementary School, Columbus, OH (Franklin County)
  • August 13, 14, 15 – Cox Arboretum, Dayton OH (Montgomery County)
  • August 18, 19, 20 – Paramus, NJ (Bergen Community College; New York City area)
  • August 19, 20, 21 – North Branch NJ (Raritan Valley Community College; Somerset County, Central NJ)
  • August 20, 21, 22 – Sewell, NJ (EIRC facility, Gloucester County, Philadelphia area)

Info for Canadian Teachers

  • Kingston, Ontario – July 23, 24, 25thFrontenac Secondary School
  • Brighton, Ontario – July 29, 30, 31st – Brighton Public School
  • Wiarton, Ontario – August 5, 6, 7thPeninsula Shores District School
  • Winnipeg, Manitoba – July 22 – 24th

If you are interested in the 3-day workshop, I can forward the brochure to you! This 3-day workshop was the most rewarding workshop I have ever taken!!

Journal Entries

*taken from my moleskine journal entries, written daily over the course of the trip.

February 16, 2008

It’s been an interesting day. Chris and I left the house at 3am, ready to arrive at the Philadelphia Airport with plenty of time to make out 6:10am flight. (As an aside, 6:10am is entirely too early for a flight). I was nervous and excited about the trip, a jumble of emotions. This trip is something I have looked forward to for years, since my first introduction to the Monarch Teacher Network. I couldn’t wait to get to Mexico City!

We checked in, made it through security, and even had time to spare before boarding our plane. We took off on time and enjoyed watching our in-flight movie, Martian Child, starring John Cusack. After the movie, I started to feel like we had been on the plan for too long. We had hit a lot of turbulence, so it was a rough flight. I fell asleep for a few minutes and when I woke up I knew it had been longer than the predicted 3.5 hour flight time. Moments later, the captain announced that due to a severe weather pattern in Dallas, we had been circling and rerouted for over an hour. The storms were too severe and we had been unable to get near the Dallas/Ft. Worth Airport. He then announced that we were running low and fuel and would be heading to Little Rock, Arkansas to refuel. About 45 minutes later, we landed in rainy Little Rock.

Let me tell you what I learned about Little Rock- it’s flat, brown, and there is a huge Waffle House near the airport. On the plus side, I do get to add another state to my list of “States I Have Physically Been In”.

While we were on the ground in Little Rock, I frantically attempted to get through to American Airlines. There was no way we were going to make our connecting flight to Mexico City and I wanted to see if they had also been delayed. I finally got through and was informed that our connection was already on its way to Mexico City. The very sweet customer service agent let me know that we should be landing in Dallas at 11:22am and that she could rebook my tickets on the 3:25pm flight to Mexico City. I was upset because this meant we would not make it to Mexico City in time for the Museum of Archeology tour. But I took the flight and chalked it up to experience.

About 2 hours later we finally landed in Dallas, in the middle of the same storm that had prevented us from landing earlier. We had spent over 6 hours on the flight instead of 3 hours! This left us with some time to explore the Dallas/Ft. Worth Airport, which is gorgeous. It is absolutely ginormous and has many stores and restaurants in the various terminals. My favorite part was the Skylink, a monorail system that connects the various terminals.

After having lunch, the weather in Dallas (and all over the South) worsened. There was a terrible thunderstorm going on. One crash of thunder was so loud that it shook the terminal windows in front of our seats! The severe weather led to many more cancellations and delays. Thankfully, though many flights were canceled, our flight was only delayed by an additional hour.

Our Mexicana flight got off the ground around 4:30pm. On this flight we had an entire row to ourselves! We also were fed dinner and watched an episode of the CW’s Life is Wild. And between the two flights and the extended stay at the airport in Dallas I was able to finish reading Tunnels (review coming soon).

After we landed in Mexico City we went through immigration. The line was a veritable melting pot of international flavors- around us we could hear French, German, Dutch, and Chinese. The English accents we heard were American, British, and Canadian. The wall behind us was covered with a gorgeous mural depicting the most famous aspects of Mexico (more accurately, the most famous tourist areas).


The line moved fairly quickly and after both customs and immigration we headed to baggage claim. We assumed our bags would be unloaded because so much time had passes while we were on line. Now, we have obnoxious baggage- mine is sea-foam green and Chris’ and bright red. It should stand out from across the room. As we approached the baggage claim it was nowhere in sight. I began to panic slightly, seeing as we only had our daypacks and nothing else. It was 9pm, I had no contact supplies, no deodorant, nothing. I was hoping and praying our baggage had just been removed to another location.

I went up to the Mexicana counter and asked the agent about our luggage. After the initial language barrier, we were told our luggage had not been placed on our flight due to the cancellations and delays in Dallas. It should, theoretically, be on the next plane out of Dallas. Of course, that would be the last plane out before the next morning. The agent had us fill out a claim and told me my luggage “should be on tonight’s flight, arriving at 1am”. I made sure to emphasize the fact that I was only in Mexico City until 8am the next morning. The luggage absolutely must be delivered before 8am. Otherwise, I would be 6 hours outside of Mexico City with only one pair of underwear! The luggage handler promised me that the luggage would be delivered between 1am and 6:30am.

Stressed out, exhausted, and sore from sitting in an airplane seat all day, we exchanged our dollars for pesos. We were able to get an official government taxi, loaded our tired selves and backpacks inside, and headed to our hotel. Once we arrived (30 minutes later), we checked in, left a quick message telling Erik we had arrived, and collapsed in bed.

I would spend the next morning hunting down out luggage and making sure it arrived before 8am. But for that moment, all I needed in the world was sleep!