Bend But Don’t Break Teaching in Costa Rica

Costa Rica.  The Central American symbol of progress and stability in a region historically known for chaos.  You may have heard of it as a tourist destination.  Fly in, take the tourist bus straight to the all inclusive resort and be shuttled around to places the country wants you to see.

Just like a coffee bean has various layers of skin, Costa Rica can be peeled back one by one to reveal its deeper qualities.  When you sift through all the “Save the Americans” propaganda, and go beyond the beaches and rainforests, you’ll find a culture very dedicated to becoming much more than volcanoes and sloths.

Case in point: Education.  A long way from the standard US public school you’ll find quite a contrast in Latin America. Many school systems lack any kind of technological resources, are overcrowded, have teachers that are untrained and overworked, and the majority work with rural or impoverished communities where school is not seen as a priority.

Enter Costa Rica.  Without having to support a military for over half a century, the resources available for public use have been extensive in comparison to other area countries.  Thanks to a visit from Teachers2Teachers International, a non-profit US organization dedicated to revolutionizing STEM training for teachers all over the world, those differences were put into context and many generalizations need not apply when it comes to education in Costa Rica. 

The mission was to spend a week immersing ourselves at a rural Costa Rican school observing, sharing, and reflecting on the school system.  The school serves a community of about 150 families with children grades 1-6.  Hardly a walk in the park for the teachers, they all teach two grades alternating mornings and afternoons.  A normal day starts at 7am and stretches to 5pm.  And that’s just class time.  Where they find time to lesson plan and complete the many extra curricular activities assigned to them was beyond understanding at times.  Even for them.

Our schedule was very day to day as our visit fell during “fair season”.  During the week we were there, there was an art and a science fair, plus spelling bee practice for the school’s regional qualifier.  Not to mention the principal was replaced two days before our arrival.  By day three the custodian had become the go to person in getting information.  With interruptions seemingly a way of life, we were quickly turned on to the art of improvising, which must loosely translate to pura vida

Our host school fields three full time teachers and they are stretched every which way to meet the requirements that all schools are held to, regardless of size.  That meant one teacher leaving her 5th graders working on a project by themselves so she could do administrative tasks in the office.  A larger school would have a secretary, but here that responsibility gets passed around.  It also meant one group didn’t have class one day because the teacher had to accompany another group of students to a fair at a different school.  It also meant we only saw the new principal once the whole time we were there.  It wasn’t like he was at the school either, he wasn’t.  Whether running paperwork around or attending meetings, the Ministry of Education seemed to keep somebody on the road running errands.

Having digested the shock and awe at the “organized chaos” we were uncertain we would be afforded the opportunity to share with the teachers.  Our moments may have been brief, however the engagement was sincere and I think everyone would agree they took at least as much with them as they left.  It didn’t take long for them to put us on our heels with a long division method that was familiar in operation, but completely backwards in structure.  It was like learning to read all over again, but this time reading right-to-left instead of left-to-right.

Where’s the remainder?

On a classroom level, we were also able to contribute to the learning process.  One of our initial observations was that students spent a lot of time sitting and reciting/reading information.  Luckily, the classrooms were equipped with flat screen TVs and access to the internet, but besides that it was hard to identify much innovation in student engagement.  That observation lasted until day two when the teacher turned to us and offered us her group for 30 minutes.  With the theme of the week to improvise, we knew we couldn’t let the moment pass, even if we didn’t have anything prepared.  It just so happened, we had shared an animal book with an adjoining tangram activity previously with the teacher and it fit right into the science review she was doing with the class that day.

tangram activity with children
Tangrams to the rescue!

Now having experienced and adapted to improvisation, we negotiated right then for the teacher to give us another section to prepare and present an activity the next day.  That day, not only did we get the class engaged in the activity, we had the teacher actively leading the activity with us.  Who thought division/multiplication practice could be so fun?

By the end of the week we were more agile than a goats in a tree in getting our objectives met.  This was my first experience on a trip like this and while it could have been smoother, I don’t think it would have been the same had it been.  One of our participants attended an art festival, another tutored the spelling bee champ, and one teacher even went next door to the high school to see how pura vida they were.

Despite all the juggling, it was reassuring to see the technology available at the school (they had a computer lab and taught programming), the manageable class sizes (<20), and the preparation of the teachers.  In Costa Rica you are required to have a university bachelor´s degree before becoming a teacher, which is a luxury in other parts of Central America.         

I think you would be stressed to find another rural school in Central America with these conditions and you could probably rank them right up with some schools in developed countries.  In my 10+ years in Costa Rica I’ve never been as involved with a school as I was on this exchange.  With the added expertise of T2T-I the sharing was much more focused and found common ground with a lot of the challenges teachers all over the world face.

teacher group shot
¡Exito = Success!

Overall, it was a very pleasant experience and a departure from the norm from what you usually think about when Costa Rica is mentioned.  When bringing colleagues together, countries and cultures apart, those extra obstacles make the experience real and the labor much more rewarding, especially since you’re educating future world citizens at a crucial point in their lives.     

Like a 7-layer cake, not all the sweetness is visible on the surface, and you shouldn’t be afraid to bite down and see what else the country has to offer.  You never know what you’ll find.  We found education, but have you tried Costa Rican coffee??

   

No Snow No Problem Winter Exchange

Wow, was this ever shaping up to be quite the cultural exchange.  After last year’s inaugural exchange, this year 50+ students and teachers from Costa Rica would brave a two week winter wonderland in Wisconsin in January, and after receiving consecutive weekend snowstorms in December, I assumed snow would be the least of our worries.

Fast forward to our 40 degree arrival and having to strain my eyes to pick out any recognizable snow banks as we pulled into the high school parking lot Friday night in Madison, WI.  Besides staying with a family and practicing English, snow was a key trip feature that had enticed students to come in the first place.  

Maybe they wouldn’t miss the snow (I sure wouldn’t) and I could smooth the disappointment by blaming global warming (assuming they believed that I believed it was real).  Luckily, there was a big enough distraction for the lack of snow, and that was the Presidential inauguration, which was happening the day we arrived.  

Students were quick to sprint into their families arms at the pickup, probably due to not having any winter clothes, but just as much due to the excitement of meeting the family. It couldn’t have been long before the topic came up though, as the town was abuzz with the Women’s march scheduled to happen the first full day the students were in town.  Those students that were interested were treated to an opportunity of a lifetime to see the march.

There is never not a good time for a cultural exchange, but there are times when exchanges are more necessary than others, and the next four years will definitively be important for cultural exchanges.  Especially with all the fake news and demeaning rhetoric, personal experience is going to end up being the only credible means to get an authentic view of the United States and its people.

So there was plenty to chat about our first weekend, but still no snow.  Wednesday was our big Chicago outing, so at least the huge skyscrapers could take our minds off the lack of snow.  At this point, we had

Drilling hole in ice
Luckily the ice was thick enough to drill holes in it?

had to cancel our sledding and move ice skating to indoor venues, which hadn’t bothered the students one bit, however I felt like we were letting them down.  Fortunately, there was some snow in the forecast for the Chicago trip, but nothing to get excited about, yet.

One thing I always joked with the teachers was how difficult it is to plan a snow day into the itinerary.  We had to assure that all our host schools would close for the day and then figure out how to rearrange the schedule to still get everything in around the snow day.  

Well sure enough, the day of the Chicago trip we began the day under a winter weather watch.  Our departure was scheduled for 6:30am and by 6am the first host school had already closed for the day.  That was great for those students, but I was still inclined to get them on the bus so they wouldn’t miss out on Chicago.  Then, about 15min later, Madison schools closed.  That knocked out another school and we only needed one more school to close for the trifecta.  Madison schools are one of those districts where they only close if they are expecting the worst, so based on that information I was ready to cancel the trip and send the remaining students to the high school to shadow, when the message board began lighting up signaling that their school had been closed too.

Snowman with girl
Poor man’s snowman

I don’t think anyone could have exhaled longer or more deeply than I did at that moment.  Gone was the necessity to make a tricky decision and potentially put students at risk, and I picked up a much needed catch-up day to re-confirm and re-arrange activities with the snow day having now been added to the itinerary.  I still found time to make a snowman and even do some shopping, but what was most satisfying was watching the photos come in of everyone out in the snow (of course, with me tucked in at home in front of a warm fire).

Thank goodness for the snow day, as it came right in the middle of the exchange and proved to be the only opportunity to catch our breaths.  The students didn’t need any downtime, but it was invaluable for the families and teachers.

The reactions from the visiting teachers were also very interesting as a lot of them had been to the United States before, but had gone to places such as Disney or New York, or went to visit Costa Ricans already living in the United States.  It was interesting because they already had experience, but having a family stay was completely new for them.  They saw a lot of things on their previous trips to the US, but didn’t have the chance to necessarily experience them.  For example, a host family treated our group to a bonfire and taught them how to make smores.  This was something that even if you had been to the US, you wouldn’t have experienced unless you were with a family.  Also, for being Wisconsin, the teacher’s hosts made sure they got to experience a brewery tour, which was definitively a novelty coming from Costa Rica.  

tshirt signing
Making memories

Thankfully, the snow day was a dream come true for everyone and we still managed to fit in most of our activities.  What really made the experience stick though were the going away parties.  At the parties you could really see how much the students and families had bonded over the two week experiences and they displayed their affection in various ways.  Some made banners to say good bye, one student put together a video of the experience, and everyone made sure to sign each other’s t-shirts as a going away momento.  

good bye poster
Time to say goodbye…

I addressed the families, but I didn’t have much to say.  By then everyone had created their own experience and at most I could do was recount what I had told the families at our pre-trip meetings in that the experience you will make on your own and no two experiences will be alike.  The “tingling” sensation that you get when you are sharing your culture impacts people in a variety of different ways and I couldn’t possibly give a blanket explanation that would cover everyone’s experience.

I’m super thankful for the families that opened their homes for this experience and I hope they will continue to communicate with their exchange students and encourage other families to take part in this experience.  We won’t get inaugurations nor snow storms every year, but in the end that won’t really matter, despite all the hype we give it.  What will matter is the experience itself and how it can impact one’s future.  

All home safe and sound, I can take another big exhale knowing I won’t have to worry about snow again till next year.

group of students
Cultural Exchange class, Winter 2017

This post was written by Dustin Dresser, director at Costa Rica Frika and winter exchange trip coordinator.  Dustin is from the Madison, WI area and now lives in Costa Rica with his Costa Rica wife.  You can read about the 2016 winter exchange here, and find out more about exchange opportunities here.