Monday, November 19, 2012

A Space of Their Own: “La escuelita de vacaciones” Helps Children Connect With Their Maya Culture

Paulina Yus Lopes, Director and co-teacher
Student lighting center candle

Children transported in pick-up truck to la escuelita
            The early morning routine is more like a meditation exercise rather than a wake-up call for the fifty plus students at the “escuelita de vacaciones.” Some of the children come from as far as San Pedro or Xatinap in the back of a pick-up truck, a thirty-minute drive through rough unpaved roads. Once the compañeras, Magdalena and Teresa, have prepared the inner circle, el corazón del sitio, (decorated with green pine needles as the platform, flowers of the same color scattered throughout, small orange colored candles placed in the outer rim and a large white one at the center), director and co-teacher Paulina Yus Lopes, softly but firmly invites the children, ages 5-10, to sit in a circle of woven straw mats (petates). The large room (el salón), noisy from the hammering and drilling of workmen right outside the windows, is transformed into a sacred place as children intently listen to Paulina, and follow her every word, softly spoken as if to gently stroke their heads. She uses the Mayan calendar to help children find a connection with the wisdom and values within the culture. Friday was the day of the culebra and Paulina describes its significance or application to their daily lives. Snakes use rocks to apply friction to molt their old skin as they free themselves from their worn-out skin and allow their new one to protect them. Helping children use the Maya way of life fulfills both the learning about being Maya and how to follow the spiritual guidance as they work through any negative or dubious feelings to make way for a new beginning.  The ceremony, at once uplifting and spiritual, is the anchor by which the daily activities are organized and carried out. The large candle, lit by a student volunteer, signifies the beginning of a day of learning as members of an engaging community of learners. The momentum is set and children seem to have the confidence to complete any required group activity.  Everyone participates at the same level of enthusiasm, energy, and understanding. No one drops out; each member stays focused on the task, whether they participate as writers, artists, organizers, observers, or thinkers.
            The school is sponsored by an independent, non-profit group, El Grupo Autónomo de Mujeres Mayas, which has as its main goal in this project to promote the Maya-based curriculum in area schools so children are taught to maintain their primary language, K'iché while learning Spanish as well as their culture.  There are approximately 400,000 K'iché speakers, one of the largest language groups in Guatemala.

Focus on Self-Esteem

            The activities focus on children’s expression. Every discussion centers on children’s voices: their ideas, opinions, and responses, and each one is accepted to the fullest extent. Children’s self-portraits hang on the wall; their work folders are artfully decorated reflecting their personalities. The positive social environment allows children to feel that they have something special to contribute to their learning community, and they enjoy participating.
Children work on group project


            A parent meeting was scheduled for Saturday; written announcements were handed out to the children on Friday, and they were asked to invite their parents. Only about a third of the parents attended. The compañeras, Magdalena and Teresa, lead the discussion with a brief ceremonial welcome speaking in K'iché, the language of their ancestors and still today, their mother tongue. The candle, the same one that was arranged as a centerpiece for the children, was lit by one of the parents. Paulina continued the discussion by pointing out that the ceremonial candle lighting was central to the school’s philosophy, helping children connect with their culture, their Mayan roots. She proceeded to talk about the various activities that the children had completed. We presented a photo slide show depicting the children working in small groups and individually displaying their work. The comments by the parents were favorable, but several mentioned that the curriculum should delve more deeply into the Maya culture and religion.

Group picture with teachers: Magdalena, Paulina, and Teresa
            The school provides a space for learning, reflection, and socializing with their peers and teachers during their three weeks of vacation from their regular school. If this school were not available, children would spend their time in non-school-like activities, perhaps, doing household chores or taking care of their younger siblings. Most importantly, it is a school that offers children a very different perspective to learning. At this escuelita children have every confidence that they are accepted, respected, and their identity re-affirmed. They participate in a relaxed, positive, spiritual setting. They’re happy, immersed in a different but vibrant world, even if for a brief three weeks.

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