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A Call to Reflection in Mexico

September 5, 2017

Facilitator Annick Dall and other members of our workshops team share their reflections on a recent professional development trip to Mexico.

This past June, our entire Project Success workshop facilitator team traveled to Mexico City and Cuernavaca, Mexico – a sister city to Minneapolis in the state of Morelos, where we had the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the culture of Mexico while developing a deeper understanding of the students, education and school systems in Morelos.

A large percentage of the immigrant population in Minneapolis Public Schools hails from the state of Morelos, and the experience was part of a growing emphasis from Project Success’ leadership on global competency for both its students and staff. The trip’s itinerary was designed with global competency in mind. Our team was joined by Elia Bruggeman, Assistant Commissioner of Education at the Minnesota Department of Education and anational expert on English Learner (EL) populations. The focus for the trip was modeled after Harvard Professor Fernando Reimers’ definitions of global competency, which focus on thinking critically about global processes and developments; learning and appreciating non-dominant languages; and holding positive feelings towards different cultures, building the framework to engage across difference.

We began our trip by exploring cultural context through art and history. We started in Mexico City, visiting the Frida Kahlo and Anthropology museums, the Zocalo with its National Palace, the Templo Mayor ruins and impressive Cathedral. These foundational experiences prepared us for the remainder of our trip, visiting schools and meeting students in the small towns surrounding Minneapolis’s sister city, Cuernavaca.

When we’re facilitating workshops in classrooms, I think about the “zone of proximal learning” – casting a net wide enough for multiple young people at multiple levels to engage in meaningful ways. This might mean designing activities that will work for various learning styles, or creating materials that invite varying depths of interaction or reflection.

One crucial part of creating this experience for all of our students is a competency, on our part, to understand and connect with each of our individual students’ perspectives – and our trip to Mexico was a chance to do this through a completely immersive global experience.

The “zone” is like a wading pool of engagement – some might be treading in the deep end, some might be tiptoeing in, but we’re all in the pool together.

Mexico made us think about how to widen and deepen the pool for our students from other places and cultures. How can we let them be the experts sometimes? How can we connect outside of language? Eye contact, games, images, and experiences – how can we better leverage those things we share outside of difference, those things that can unite?

We thought about this as we visited a school for children indigenous to Morelos, where they learn in Spanish and Nahuatl, an Uto-Aztecan language still spoken by about 1.5 million people in Mexico. In a classroom with kids ranging from second to fifth grade, our program director Laura translated while the kids’ teacher talked about their school’s philosophy. The teacher explained that, despite the challenge of evaluating all students on the same scale, teachers notice that once a student finds that one thing they are passionate about, and the teachers are able to engage with them on that level, the student lights up.

During this presentation, I was sitting facing one of the smallest students in the front row, diligently copying the Nahuatl words on the board into his notebook. He’d also been in the front row of students who danced when we arrived in the school’s small courtyard that afternoon, unforgettable in his tiny loafers, stepping and pointing his toes perfectly in rhythm. He couldn’t have been older than eight, and if he’d been a student in my classroom, I would’ve leaned forward and complimented him on his dance earlier, but I wasn’t confident in my Spanish. I was nervous to speak.

I just watched as his eyes tracked the words on the board and penciled them in. He saw me looking and spread his hands over the page, grinning – don’t look! Not finished yet! I picked up the corner of the page and turned to the one before it, gesturing, can I see what you wrote? But he stopped my hands. His face became serious and he closed the whole workbook; then looked up at me again. He opened to the first page. He took me through every page, one by one, pointing out shapes and graphs and word match-ups. Ten out of ten on most of them. If there was work unfinished, he’d throw his hands over the page again and look up at me with that grin – oops! – until we returned back to the page where we’d started, a blank one.

I didn’t feel so nervous anymore, so I asked “como te llama?” And pointed to the page. He wrote I – K – E and said “Ee-kay” and I repeated it. He pointed to Ryan, standing next to us and listening to the teacher. I said “Ry-an” and Ike repeated it, loudly, startling Ryan. We laughed, and something so simple became a game: learning each other’s names. Our ability to communicate with language was limited, and despite my incomplete Spanish vocabulary, we still connected. We connected through learning, laughter and fun.

Here is what I want to bring back with me as I start this school year: the knowledge that difference is a gift and is a way to connect. Every student in every classroom has a story, and some of those stories will be more complicated and will need more care, more patience, and more love from us. That is a gift. A difficult gift, but a worthwhile one to pursue – like the feeling of being in a country you’ve heard so much about and realizing you never understood how rich, how deep, how beautiful it is.

Every one of our six short days felt like an exercise in opening up, in laying assumptions aside, in discovering just how much room the heart has for love and learning. Over and over again, students in Mexico came to us with arms outstretched, full of questions, with chess sets and soccer balls, wanting to engage somehow. And, outside of difference, regardless of language, we were able to connect.

There is so much I don’t yet understand, but want to learn. When I return to the classroom this year, I want to bring a presence that exudes my enthusiasm for difference, that invites questions and that is okay with not having an answer – not yet, not today, but maybe tomorrow. By not being afraid of the unknown in ourselves, not afraid to say, “I don’t know, will you show me?” we can start the work of moving past the fear of difference. It’s an imperative mindset when traveling – turning one’s lack of knowledge or confidence into an open mind, a question, or an opportunity. The challenge (or responsibility) for us now is to use it here too, to see every difference among all of us as an invitation to engage.