Sunday, August 3, 2014

Learning Without Boundaries


As the U.S. government works towards resolving issues near our borders, I was recently reminded that learning, and the hope that it offers, knows no boundaries. This week, our family traveled to Punta Cana, Dominican Republic to enjoy the lavish lifestyle of an all-inclusive resort. Little did I realize that one of our most memorable vacation experiences would take place during an excursion that included a visit to a small, one-room school house in rural Higuey.


Our guide extraordinaire, Angel Espinal, thoroughly explained the struggles the D.R. government was having in trying to make the Dominican schools more responsive and accommodating to an evolving economy. Angel taught himself four languages, including English, in order to become more viable in the burgeoning Dominican tourism industry. An outstanding instructor, Angel's experience, knowledge, and sense of humor served him well as a tour-guide. We learned so much during our day with the humorous storyteller.




One of the first stops during our Outback Safari was a visit to Higuey School. It was there we met Professor Silverio Zorilla Mercedes and a few of his students. Professor Zorilla is the Principal, Teacher, and Head Schoolmaster for Higuey Schools. His English was as limited as my Spanish, but Angel and the our kids assisted with interpretation. Dominican students are off from school from mid-June to mid-August. However, students that fall below 70% mastery in their core subjects (Math, Science, Geography, and History) are required to attend summer school. Students frequently stop by the school to help the teacher prepare the classroom, read books, and write in their journals.




Dominican students start attending kindergarten at age five. A high-school diploma is considered a distinguished achievement that can be earned after completing 12th grade. Students of all grade levels attend the one-room school, although enrollment declines with age as some teens get pulled away to support subsistence farming and family-run businesses. Professor Zorilla practices differentiation through necessity as he has three daily classes of nearly 40 students, ages 5 through 18. On the surface, it seems like an impossible teaching task. However, the students have classroom jobs and take responsibility each other's learning. Alan November would wholeheartedly approve of this classroom organization.

One goal of the government is to institute a full-day school schedule (8:00 - 5:30) that provides breakfast, a mid-day snack, and dinner for the students. Part of the rationale behind this is to allow parents to work full-time without having to take away time to prepare meals. Unfortunately, at this time, students attend school in one of three shifts, morning, mid-day, and late afternoon. This is due to lack of facilities, lack of qualified teachers, and a lack of resources. There is a $10 departure tax that is charged to every tourist. The bulk of this money is being put towards schools and infrastructure. Electricity and drinkable water are in short supply, but ironically nearly everyone we saw had a cell phone, including several students we met. Did the SAMR model cross my mind? You bet it did!





The Dominican people that we met had a strong appreciation for learning. Agricultural strategies and hand-made craftsmanship have been passed down through generations. However, as their economy evolves, there is a growing understanding of the value of skills learned in schools. The fifth grade students we met were writing in workbooks more appropriate for first or second graders because that was all that was available. With commendable insight, these students recognized that their school-based efforts will create opportunities in their future. They help each other learn because they know their futures depend on being skilled and educated.

Angel was emphatic with respects to his role in educating tourists about life in the Dominican outback. He is a true ambassador for authentic Dominican culture. In particular, he is proud of his children and the success they are experiencing as a result of their commitment to a school-based education. His oldest daughter is entering law school this fall. During our family excursion, we became instant friends and supporters of Angel and Professor Zorilla. We have exchanged contact information, exchanged compliments via email messages, and we have promised to stay connected in the name of learning.





Our plan of action moving forward is to request donations for school supplies and uniforms for the students. It costs fifty U.S. dollars per student for their uniforms. The students we met requested books, notebooks, maps, and pencils. We are going to help Professor Zorilla obtain at least one computer and an Internet connection for his classroom. Our hope is to establish a consistent connection where Dominican and American students can share information and perspective while becoming partners in learning. My follow up posts will include information to get actively involved, as well as, progress reports sharing our adventures into the outback of globally connected learning.

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