Impact

Take it Outside

How one Colombian teacher is rewriting the curriculum.

Words and photos by ambassador James Roh

Surrounded by thick jungle vegetation, this school looks just like the numerous other simple rural Colombian schools I’ve visited recently—one classroom, a cafeteria, and a large playground. But by the end of my visit, I’d learn that this school is anything but simple.

Upon seeing us, a big smile lights up across Flor’s face. Flor, the mastermind behind the school’s ingenuity, is eager to show us what she and her students are up to.

The tour starts at a booth where students knit clothes, make jewelry, and use recycled materials to create art pieces. Afterward, I watch as the group of students enters a large fenced-in area and then scatter. Some begin feeding chickens while the others hunt for laid eggs. The tour continues to a hog pen. Then a man-made fish pond. Then a huge garden full of beets, onions, and other greens. All the while, the students tend to the projects enthusiastically.

So do these students ever actually go to school, I ask myself half serious. The answer is a resounding yes, as Flor explains the rhyme and reason.

Like many other rural regions throughout the world, urban migration has had a big impact on Flor’s community. They’re located in the coffee-growing region of Colombia, where large corporations are buying up land to produce their coffee and, in essence, squeezing out the locals. Families are flocking to urban areas in hopes of better jobs and opportunities, and, in Flor’s opinion, leaving their culture and heritage back in the countryside.

But she doesn’t think it has to be this way.

As a school using Fundacion Escuela Nueva’s (FEN) educational model, Flor has the freedom to design her school’s curriculum in a way that caters best to the students and community’s needs. The classroom isn’t the only place students can learn, she tells me.

So with that flexibility and an impressive amount of energy, creativity and passion, Flor has designed her school to be one of a kind—providing students with both a classroom education and a healthy dose of experiential learning. Activities like planting red beans, harvesting coffee, and making recipe books give the students practical skills, enable them to appreciate their culture, and help them feel inspired to stay and find economic opportunities in the region.

“Activities like planting red beans, harvesting coffee, and making recipe books give the students practical skills, enable them to appreciate their culture, and help them feel inspired to stay and find economic opportunities in the region.”

That is all nice but I can’t help but wonder if the students are losing valuable school time to learn skills they may never need to know?

As if she’s been asked this countless times before, Flor responds with a slew of succinct connections. She has carefully designed each project to correspond to an educational lesson. The gardens are an obvious hands-on science experiment learning about plant life, soil selection, growing variables, etc. And those eggs the students were collecting are a continual math lesson—counting eggs, weighing them, categorizing them, selling them at a local farmer’s market, etc. Writing a recipe book requires creative writing skills. Working together requires a variety of social skills such as teamwork, patience, communication, and ethics—all key values of the FEN model.

To top it all off, any goods sold to the public generate a revenue, albeit modest, for each student. So far it’s not enough to drastically impact their lives, but it’s enough for a new pair of shoes or a fun activity that they may not otherwise be able to afford.

So will Flor’s efforts result in a decrease in urban migration? It’s hard to say for certain at this point but what is clear is the quality of education the students are receiving thanks to her passion and adaptability of FEN’s educational model.

As I leave for the day, I notice some turkeys taking shelter under the playground’s slide. Clearly, they’re part of yet another project I didn’t have time to ask Flor about.

Ambassador James Roh traveled to Colombia this year to visit Cotopaxi grantee Fundación Escuela Nueva. The nonprofit’s unique teaching methodology was created for rural Colombian schools with limited resources, but has proven to be so successful that it has spread to urban schools and numerous other countries.

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