Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Value of a Catholic Education

I am no longer in Guaimaca, but I recently had to write this essay and thought I would share it, in case anyone were still out there to read it and wanted to see what some of my post-service thoughts are.

The development of students into responsible young adults and moral citizens is an essential characteristic of Catholic education because Catholic schools teach a set of morals and values based on faith.  Faith cannot necessarily be expressed in the public school system, therefore allowing Catholic schools to occupy an important niche in our educational system.  In my recent work at the Marie Poussepin Center in Guaimaca, Honduras, I saw and experienced the effectiveness of a Catholic education.  In fact, the school environment I taught in was not only beneficial for the students, but for me as well, where every project I started and every relationship I had with my students took on more meaning and worth as I grew closer to my faith.  
The Marie Poussepin Center (CMP) is an all-girls boarding school for girls from the poor villages around the rural town of Guaimaca.  Normally, these girls would have studied up to sixth grade in a one room schoolhouse in their villages, and then stopped studying so that they could work with their parents in the fields, take care of their families’ homes, or start their own family despite only just haven become teenagers.  The  Dominican Sisters of the Presentation started the CMP a decade ago as a place to teach young women manual skills and help them support themselves, and has since evolved into a school with grades 7-11, with a health clinic and organic farm also associated with the Sisters’ mission.
I began working at the CMP in January 2011 as a year of post-graduate service, and ended up renewing my service commitment for a second year because, despite the advances and improvements I was a part of that year, I felt that my calling was not over and that I still had more to accomplish.  In my first year, I mostly taught the senior class, with the academic subjects taught included Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Math, English, and Philosophy.  I also taught review classes, test prep for the University admissions exam, Physical Education, and workshops such as Poetry.  My classes were completely new to the girls because in years previous they had used a radio distance learning program, where they were supposed to listen to a CD, answer some questions in a booklet, and then ask questions of a tutor who would occasionally come into the class.  So, in addition to the initial language barrier, I was challenged every day to bring the girls out of their comfort zone and think for themselves, to answer and ask questions, to investigate, think and form arguments, and above all, to develop a sense of self-worth and confidence that is traditionally non-existent in young Honduran girls.
In the classroom, I accomplished much in my first year at the CMP, but when I look back at my most significant points of growth, I find myself reflecting on the school’s motto of Respect, Responsibility, Honesty.  These values are the core foundation to everything at the CMP, which in turn are founded in a strong Catholic faith.  Every day after the academic classes, we stayed at the school supervising and instructing after-school activities, until we walked the girls to and from mass at night.  Throughout the entire day, starting with the morning prayer and ending with evening mass, I found myself leading the girls in an integral formation of their character.  This work, when I reflect on it, would have been impossible if I was not fueled by and guided by the Holy Spirit, if I didn’t see Christ’s face in each of the faces of my students, laughing, crying, thinking, and growing.  
For example, one of my senior students had an incredibly hard time with her home life and her health, and had to fight hard each and every day to meet the demands placed on her by her family, by myself in the classroom, and perhaps most significantly, by herself to succeed and study in the University.  There were several moments throughout the year when I approached her to offer my help and guidance, but her problems were so immense that I did not know what to do to help.  However, I found guidance in prayer and in a commendation of our problems to Our Lord Jesus.  With His help, I was able to help guide her away from the darkness of depression and suicidal thoughts, into His light.  This student will always have a heavy cross to bear, but I know that today she continues to manage her problems trusting in the Lord, and is currently studying at the University--no small feat for a Honduran girl from a poor village who has been faced with so many obstacles.  Her plans for after graduating with a degree in Agricultural Engineering from the University include helping the Sisters with their farm, and then returning to her village to help her father and community with their work.
This story is just one example of many I have from my first year, but to me, it speaks directly to the value and importance of Catholic schooling.  Without the expression of our Lord’s love, this student and so many others would have been lost.  Without my trust in the Lord, I would not have been able to continue into my second year of service, which presented even more challenges each day.  In some ways the second year was easier, such as my improvements in Spanish, but in many ways, the second year was much more challenging.  
For instance, after a year in the CMP I knew most of the girls pretty well, and throughout the second year I began to develop stronger relationships with many of them, even those I did not teach in my academic classes.  The trust I developed with the girls led several of them to open up to me about their personal problems, much as my senior students had done the year before.  However, I found these problems even more difficult to deal with, because I was now facing situations I had never even remotely experienced.  Cases of abuse, of rape, of incest and beatings, of family members disappearing...the list could go on, but basically, I was surprised some of the girls even had the strength to get out of bed in the morning.
Again, being in a Catholic school was very important for the girls, as much as it was for me.  Without the community the girls and the Sisters had built around the faith and the values of Respect, Responsibility, and Honesty, we would have all felt lost and alone in the face of these issues.  But, as a teacher, I fell back on prayer and on the Holy Spirit’s guidance.  I opened myself to Him in moments of despair, and found the answer within me.  My gifts are that of a teacher; I am driven to help others and to serve.  Therefore, although I initially reacted to the stories of rape and abuse with shock, anger and frustration over my inability to protect my students or to seek justice, being open to the subtle whisper of God speaking within me compelled me to fulfill my purpose.  
As a teacher, friend and mentor to the girls, I realized that the best I could do for them was to teach, comfort, and counsel.  To that end, I began devising a curriculum for a Sexual Education course, based on the school’s values, to educate the girls and try to do my small part to prevent the violence, abuse, and uninformed decisions that had traditionally caused several girls to drop out of the CMP due to pregnancies.  I also continued my efforts to converse with and counsel the girls, always relying on our faith and the school’s values.  In Honduras I learned that my place in the world is not to cause huge movements or changes, it is to help a few find their way, so that they can in turn become respectful, responsible and honest citizens in their own families and communities, each one propagating God’s word and Jesus’ teaching, each one in turn spreading His love.
Catholic education is a unique opportunity to affect the world in a positive manner, to spread Jesus’ teachings and love in small ways.  It gives us the capacity to augment every decision we make with respect, responsibility and honesty, and to find the way, even when everything appears dark in our lives.  From my experiences teaching at the Marie Poussepin Center, I can personally testify to the value of a Catholic education, to the student, to the teacher, and to the community.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Change in the Santa Rosa de Lima Parish

This past weekend Father Craig, the pastor at our parish, left to return to the Fall River Diocese after almost eight years of service here.  In my time here, his presence has been a blessing, not just because he celebrated American holidays, but because his guidance and expression of faith was a very important part of my own journey since coming here more than a year and a half ago.  I have gone to hundreds of masses here, but I didn't I sleep during any one of his homilies!  More than just staying awake, though, he always had something to say that we connected to and took home to think on more.

On Saturday the Cardinal came with the new priest, Padre Jonathon, to officially install him in his new community and to give thanks to Father Craig for all the work he has done here with the mission.  It was a beautiful mass, with the church more full than I have ever seen it; many people came from the aldeas as well as from town, which is difficult for them to do and doesn't happen often.

Here are some pictures of the mass:

Padre Jonathon with the Cardinal and Fr. Craig sitting

Half of the packed church welcoming Padre Jonathon

Future Extension Volunteers will come to a very different Guaimaca than the one I came to last January, for many reasons, but I have confidence and faith that they will continue to have fulfilling and challenging experiences.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Great teaching moment today

I walked back into my classroom after the break and found all of my students working on a math problem we left half finished in the class time before. Not only were they all working without being told, they were helping each other out!  It's even more incredible because what high schooler actually wants to do Radioactive Decay problems?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Lessons from last week

  1. Identity is communal, not individual.  Even if you try, you can never distance yourself from those who have had an impact on your life, no matter how big or small, because you will always carry them with you.  In the same way, you can't run away from your problems, these conflicts will always be a part of you, and the only thing you can do is confront them and hope to learn from them so as to make them a part of your strength, not a part of your weakness.
  2. Hondurans generally don't understand #1.  Especially not young girls, even those here at the school who have one hundred times the education and the opportunities that others in Guaimaca and the aldeas have.  I first dealt with this when Sandra ran away after last this past week Diana, a very intelligent, responsible student in my senior class, one of the strongest personalities and leaders in the Center, ran away with her boyfriend to escape some difficult situations with her mother.  She at least came to the Center and canceled everything, but it was very frustrating and sad.  At this point in her life, 16 or 17 years old, she sees no other option but to run away, when there are so many people who care about her and are willing to help her.  
  3. Nothing is simple, especially not in a different culture.  I know very little about the culture here, even after more than a year.  Last year I was astounded that so many things I took as normal are only normal for where I grew up...and this year as I meet more people, develop stronger relationships, leave our bubble of comfort in the house more, I am learning so much more.  It's hard not to be insensitive at times, when you don't even know that's what you're doing.
  4. I like dancing bachata!  Alex tried teaching us in the beginning of the year, that didn't go so well, but last week some people from the HOPE group who know how to dance taught the girls during our gym class, so I practiced every day with them.
  5. I always tell the truth, and have an impulse to do so that maybe I should try to curb more often.  The truth, in the form of bluntness, certain facial expressions, and unnecessary information, isn’t always a good thing.
  6. Nothing worth having comes easy, and if it comes easy, maybe it’s not worth having.
  7. From my friend’s six year old sister, “Don’t be sad that she died because even after people die they continue living in our hearts.”  The sick woman I have been taking care of every weekend died on Thursday.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Book Drive for the Library

Please help out our school library by checking out the wishlist below and making any contribution you can.  The library is in desperate need of some fresh material, so thank you very much in advance!

Also, thanks to Cassie, who has been putting this together.

Book Drive Wishlist

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

School Update

I have a lot of classes this trimester, double what I had last year in the first trimester.  I am teaching Biology, Chemistry, and a Math Review for both Primero and Segundo Bachillerato, as well as the workshops--English and theater--and Physical Education.  So, it’s a lot, but so far I’m doing well with all of it.
I really enjoy being in front of the classes teaching, but I’m finding it harder and harder to meet my own expectations with preparing beforehand.  I want to be very prepared, and to engage my students in more ways than a straight-forward lecture, so I’ve been trying to develop different methods and to switch it up.  For instance, I’ve been doing a mix of lecture, PowerPoint, activities, guided work, and of course the labs that we do every week at the farm.  However, I have never been good at continuously working on projects, usually leaving things to the last minute.  Last year and this year with teaching, I have begun to realize that it’s not just that I’m lazy, it’s a big part of my personality.  A lot of times I surprise myself while teaching because I come up with examples or ways to explain things that I can’t do while planning ahead, but when my brain has to work fast, it makes more connections.
So, I’m not sure I would be cut out to be a teacher for the rest of my life and have to prepare even more than I do now.  Like I said, I love being in the classroom, but that time is probably only about half the total time it takes to teach.
My students this year have been great, so far.  Because they knew me from last year and were more used to my teaching style than my students were in the beginning of last year, they are much more open and participate well.  They are also able to think a little more abstractly and critically, and it’s been pretty rewarding to teach them so far.  For example, I have started giving some surprise, short timed quizzes in class, something I didn’t really do last year, and they have been steadily improving and learning how to study between classes and how to take tests.  Last year I really struggled with how to improve test performance, and how to get them to manage their time, and this has so far seemed to be working out.
Outside of class, my relationship with the girls is different.  As I mentioned earlier, they are more comfortable with me.  They no longer see me as the new person/gringo, and I feel much more a part of the daily life.  This has been great with the classes, with being able to relate to them on a deeper level, and with helping out Christina and Alex, but it has also been a little tough at times.  I know I’m not going to be here next year, and it’s hard looking at some of them, who have become such important parts of my life, and realizing that I might not see them much after this.  However, the girls often don’t seem to see this, and act around me as they would for someone who is a constant in their life.  

So far, life at the Center has been pretty tranquil and very enjoyable.  Just as it did last year, the experience there with the girls has already helped me through some really difficult times.  Part of the reason I haven’t been posting regularly is that I’ve been really busy outside of school (I’ll post about that later), but also that it has been really hard for me to reflect and write recently, with some difficult experiences I have encountered.
This is kind of a general and brief update, but hopefully I will be able to get back into the rhythm of posting, and things will be more specific and informative.  Until the next time we talk, God bless you!

Monday, January 30, 2012

Tomorrow is Another Day

I just re-read last year’s journal entry from the day before school.  Reading it through, I smiled a bit as I read last year’s worries and concerns and remembered sitting here, writing about all of them.  
Looking back at last year, the first two weeks seemed to go on forever.  This year, however, they seemed to fly by, because I knew more about what to expect, and because I’m enjoying every moment in a different way than last year.  It’s no longer the new experience (some of it is but not all), it’s a great experience that I want to savor every minute of (I only have one more year here?!).  My perspective and enjoyment has changed and matured in the last year.
One of the biggest concerns last year was the language.  It’s still a concern, but more so that I’m concerned for Christina’s sake, as I’m aware of how difficult the initial couple of weeks are.  But, she has been practicing a lot and already improved, so after a while of keeping her head above water she’ll learn how to swim.
I talked a lot about the relationship with Manuel at the farm and Andrea at the school...those are still two of our most important relationships.  When I saw Manuel for the first time he gave me a huge, unexpected, hug, so obviously something worked last year.  Andrea is someone I really lean on and count on for a lot, and a great friend.  I’m really excited to continue to develop these, and other, relationships.  But, because I over-think everything, again, I’m already dreading saying goodbye.
I’m still excited about that one poster I made last Alex would say, BOOM.
But, this year my workload has pretty much doubled from what it was in the first trimester last year.  Things that I have going for me are that I now speak the language decently well, that I already know the system, that I already know most of the girls, that I know more of what to expect in the classroom, and that I have a lot of material and ideas from last year.  Last year I mentioned that it would be nice to have materials and more of a curriculum to pass on to the next year’s teacher...who would have thought that would be myself?  It will be nice to have another trimester to solidify and expand what I have.  Expand not only in detail but in depth; I am now the science teacher for the juniors in addition to the seniors.  
I’m also excited for some of the workshops we have, including theatre, art, English, and an hour of free “fun” time on Monday nights, in addition to the Gym classes.  
I’m going to close out this entry the same as the entry exactly a year ago and ask for your best wishes and luck.  We’re all a little nervous, but I know from experience that we’ll do well once that rubs off.  And now, I’m more excited than nervous.  I didn’t realize just how excited until tonight during our reflection, but I can’t wait!