20 de noviembre parade

Obstacles on the path to online learning in rural Mexico

Despite diversions (often amusing), el Colegio Patria makes slow progress toward accessing online educational resources. And I access my inner Mexican.

We did not begin the Khan Academic tomorrow as Armida had excitedly announced on the day of my arrival back in Mexico.

Nor the day after, or the week after that, not even during the remainder of that whole academic year. But I was not discouraged. The Khan Academy Pilot Project, the Khan Academic as Armida puts it, was our plan to improve el Colegio Patria’s math education by augmenting it with online instruction.

The first phase of our three-year pilot project was devoted to set-up. I’d specified 2 first year goals — a computer lab and secure access to the internet . We had both, or so I thought.

Right on track. We’d reached a point where students could spend the last term of the school year using the lab to search online, and teachers could begin to familiarize themselves with the Khan Academy site.

I’d planned this stage of the project deliberately, giving us plenty of time to iron out the wrinkles. And wrinkles there were.

El Colegio Patria had grown from 140 to 180 students (partly because of the draw of the computer lab), and we had only 18 computers. We had a start, but where to begin? Armida had scheduled lab time for every student in the school, but the computers were completely booked with classes for basic word and report writing programs. The time I’d imagined for children to access online sites became a paper illusion.

Nor could the teachers familiarize themselves with the Khan Academy site. I’d overlooked a basic fact: none of them had any experience with computers. Not a single one owned a computer themselves. Even if they had, they had no time for experimentation. They spent the whole school day working flat out, and not only on the demands of the curriculum.

When they weren’t teaching, which is to say before and after school, and at their lunch break, the teachers spent their time grading and preparing for Colegio Patria’s many extra-curricular activities, including food fairs, and sports days and science presentations of questionable safety.

The most engaging and time consuming of the extra-curricular activities were parades. Two were scheduled in the weeks before Christmas, followed immediately by the town’s parade honouring the Virgin of Guadalupe.

When I arrived, the school was in the thick of preparing for the 20 de noviembre parade. 20 de noviembre (pronounced Ben-tay day no-vee-em-bray) celebrates the beginning of the 1910 Mexican Revolution. It’s the equivalent of Independence Day in the US or Canada Day at home. All the schools in Las Varas participate in the annual parade, and no school will be shown up in its revolutionary zeal. Every year, the streets fill with tiny heroes dressed as Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa. It’s the best entertainment in Las Varas and crowds line the route.

Never a parade without a tractor; Revolutionaries travelling by train
Revolutionaries: Tired, Shot Down by Government Forces, Negotiating

Not long after the 20th of November parade came el Colegio Patria’s own annual Christmas parade, a solo act. That year, the school was celebrating the Olympics, performing the national dances of eleven countries on flatbeds pulled by tractors and trucks.

Small Arabians; Hawaiian hula girls passing the carniceria (meat shop)

In the brief period between the two parades, during which we all spent more time in the classrooms, I discovered that the school’s internet connection could not handle 18 computers at a time. Did Lety and Armida even know about this?

Armida took the news calmly. “Paso a paso (step by step),” she advised. “We will need to get a second line. Antonio (the biology teacher) will set it up.”

“Do you have the money for a second line?” I asked.

Armida gave me a patient smile. No advancement comes without cost, I realized. In attempting to improve instruction, I’d unintentionally increased the financial burden on the school. “No te preocupes (Don’t worry),” Armida said.

“Si Díos quiere,” Lety added. When God wishes, or, in this context — All in good time.

I was beginning to recognize the sisters’ division of responsibility. Armida organized, scheduled, advertised and took care of financial matters, on top of her day job as an accountant. Lety managed the day-to-day working of the school, on top of running their mango farm.

“Do you ever disagree?” I asked.

Siempre (Always),” Lety laughed.

Armida confirmed. “It makes us a good team.”

I allowed myself to be guided by their equanimity in the face of impediments, remembering that the distractions of parades and fiestas and fairs are what makes el Colegio Patria so joyous. These kids get a school experience as rich as any I’ve ever seen. Paso a paso. At least the students were developing keyboard skills and beginning to know their way around Word and Powerpoint.

Although the Khan Academy project was moving slower than I’d hoped, the pilot project was improving the school in ways I hadn’t anticipated. When curious visitors came to the school, they often became friends and donors.

One couple brought an electronic microscope from the States, the first electronic microscope in all of the schools in Las Varas. Antonio the biology teacher/ internet installer/ electrician got so excited, he thought he must be suffering a heart attack, much to the amusement of Armida and Lety.

Microscope donation; Armida touching the racing heart of Antonio, the school’s biology teacher

The project’s delays gave me time to contact the Khan Academy in California to see if any other Mexican schools were using its online videos and exercises. The Khan Academy put me in touch with Enova, an award-winning group in Mexico City who were building computer labs in large urban centres. Enova had matched the Khan Academy videos to the Mexican math curriculum and were willing to share their material with us.

The Mexican school schedule is regularly interrupted for fiestas and holidays commemorating saints and national heroes — it all adds to the experience — but school directors and teachers also have to contend with the unending and mostly punitive demands of the federal education ministry, la Secretariat de Educación Publica (SEP).

At least twice a month, Armida and Lety, and a teacher from each level of education (pre-school, primary, secondary), are called to make the hour-and-half drive to the state’s capital of Tepic for some pointless administrative directive. That year, in one of those meetings, the directors of all the schools along Nayarit’s sunny coast were advised to begin the school day one hour later due to the winter cold.

“What!!?!” I’d exclaim to Armida, at yet another delay. “Can’t any of these meetings and directive be addressed online?”

She simply smiled. Paso a paso.

Paso a pasito, I thought. Step by very small step.

Faxes and emails do not appear to be legitimate forms of communication in this country, at least not for rural schools. SEP insists that every document be hand delivered to their offices in Tepic, which open and close on bureaucratic whim. I’ve since learned that most schools appoint a full-time SEP coordinator to negotiate SEP’s challenges, but el Colegio has no budget for that luxury. As a result, Armida and the teachers had little time to work on the technical problems of the computer lab.

Throughout all this I learned — no, I was forced to learn — to drop my Canadian expectations. I followed Lety and Armida’s example, paso a paso, and I began to accept the Mexican pace of progress.

Armida and Lety were not my only models. Every day, when I drove from the cool tranquility of ocean breezes in Chacala to the noise and heat of the school in the dusty pueblo of Las Varas, I passed the village’s roadside shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Foreigners may love the feisty painter Frida Kahlo, but Mexicans revere Guadalupe, their own brown-skinned virgin. Guadalupe represents the resilience of Mexicans, their long struggle for justice, and their passion for their country. She embodies strength and humility, and she had another convert.

This is the 17th story in the weekly publication A Remarkable Education: Lessons Learned in a Mexican Rural School. The next story describes the many virtues of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The story after that will return to el Colegio Patria and two different approaches to improving math instruction.

The previous story lists major developments in the school achieved by goodwill and an infusion of very little cash.

Starting in the winter of 2009, Diane Douglas volunteered three years in the two-room school in the fishing village of Chacala, north of Puerto Vallarta. Since 2012, she’s been working to improve online learning at el Colegio Patria, a remarkable rural school in the poor, agricultural town of Las Varas.