Dreaming Up an Education in Oaxaca

10 May


Do you think your school looks like a prison? What is your school like? Are you bored and tired of the same old things? Have you thought about having classes under the trees instead?

These were some of the brilliant, attention-grabbing ways that my first year students introduced the topic of their ideal school. Okay, maybe I fixed their grammar and tweaked them a bit so as not to plagiarize my students, but still- brilliant, right? Makes you want to keep reading, doesn’t it?

It was an apt week for me to discuss education with my students, since we also pulled our 3 year old out of preschool this week. Here in Mexico, school is mandatory from three years and up, but there’s no big authority that will come looking for us if we don’t send her to school (which is nice for us, but maybe has different implications for students who might want to go to school and can’t afford it.)

Y’all already know I was angry with the daily homework situation at my kid’s school (homework for babies?!), but then it got worse. They informed me that she was supposed to be writing her name on all her homework. She doesn’t even know her letters yet, so it seemed particularly stupid to me, and I pretty much “forgot” about doing it with her. Her teacher kept reminding her, though. Then el colmo, the straw that broke the camel’s back, was her worrying that her teacher would be mad about her coloring part of her homework that wasn’t part of the assignment. She asked me if she could color it, and I said yes, of course. But then she said, “But my teacher’s gonna say, ‘No, Lucia, that’s not the homework; don’t color that.'” And I thought, hell, no! My daughter is too young to be afraid to color on her page. There shouldn’t be any age where it’s cool for kids to be scared to express their creativity, but not-quite-four is not gonna be the age for my kid.

Meanwhile, this week’s unit in our first year English book was about education. Because my students’ teacher (yours truly) is a fanatic of alternative education, I made them try to imagine the school of their dreams. We talked about the different aspects of education- location, methods, evaluations, teachers, schedule, subjects, materials, social activities- and they got started.

It was slightly depressing seeing how basic some of the things they want are- how simple and yet so far out of their grasp. They want things like colorful classrooms, lockers, and organized sports. A couple of students dream of a large library and laboratory. They want a gym and a pool. They’d like on-campus housing, instead of everyone having to struggle to find an affordable room close by. Many expressed their dream of air conditioning in every classroom as a must-have in their dream schools, since there is crazy, constant humidity here. They want a dance class, and a handsome man. (“Just one handsome man?” I asked my student, who quickly changed her spelling.) It was frustrating that these were some of the most outlandish, alternative things that they could dream about for their education- things that are mostly a given in universities in other places.

They’re dying for more chances to have social and recreation time, in a university where there’s no kind of student activities center. In fact, here they pretty much discourage kids from having fun or getting together. If more than a couple kids are sitting out on the library steps, it’s only a matter of time before some administrator comes along and tells them to move along. There’s a little bit of grass on campus, but no one is allowed to sit or walk on it. There’s a slab of concrete and a couple rows of concrete bleachers where they can play sports (and where I play volleyball on a regular basis), but there’s nothing organized. So it wasn’t shocking to see that their ideal schools come with green areas to rest, space to relax, sports fields for their organized teams, and study areas that are social, too.


This may look prison-like, but at least these kids can sit on the grass.

The other sad thing in their paragraphs was about scheduling. Y’all might have heard me mention before that I love pretty much everything about my job, except the horrendous schedule. I work from 8AM to 1PM, then back again from 4 to 7PM. This is based on the Spanish (aka from Spain) idea of the siesta, which even the Spaniards now want to do away with because nobody actually gets to take a nap. The siesta only serves to lengthen our day, not to mention making us waste more time going home and back and/or fighting for transportation. It stinks for everybody, but it’s especially bad for the students. They don’t get to pick when their classes are, and they all have classes 7 hours a day on this schedule. On top of their class time they have homework, of course. Not only is there no time for them to have jobs (which is frowned upon anyway), there’s not even enough time for them to get a decent night’s sleep half the time. That must be why so many of them dreamed up a space to nap at their ideal school.

So of course most of them wanted a different schedule, but it only occurred to ONE of them to invent something other than the 5 days a week / 8 hours a day schedule. Many of them just dream of something like 7AM – 3PM or 8-4 because it would be so much better than our split schedule. One student wants two days without class every month. The wildest scheduling dream of all was 3 days a week of classes. That, along with the student who wanted a school in the forest or others that wanted classes not in classrooms (gasp!), were by far the most creative, outside-the-box requests for a dream school. Sigh.

Technology was another common topic amongst students. However, it didn’t occur to them to ask for a school with wifi across campus, although that’d be one of the first things I’d dream up for them. It would be uncensored too, since currently they can’t even get on Facebook or Youtube. I’m always griping in my office because our campus-wide internet censors (the hook-up kind, not wifi) won’t let me open any site that contains the word “game” (again with the anti-fun campaign around here). Let’s see you invent new review or grammar games without using the word game in your search (grumble, grumble, complain).

While most of our classrooms have a hook-up for a projector, that’s about as technologically advanced as it gets. There are a couple of computer rooms but often they are occupied for classes, and so it’s not always available to students. Thus I saw several students wanting “actualized” (up-to-date) technology, Smart boards, and tablets to replace notebooks- for conserving the environment, of course. So, okay, they might be pushing it in asking for an escalator, since there is only a maximum of two stories (and only in two of the buildings). But the rest isn’t so outrageous.


Before I started teaching here, I thought maybe students wouldn’t like English much because it is a required course that’s not about their major. But then I discovered that all of their classes are things mandated to them; they don’t get to pick any electives! Every semester they have a set schedule of classes, and that’s that. No wonder many of the students enjoy English class, even if language isn’t their favorite thing. It meets their desired criteria of having games, competitions and music, if nothing else. They can learn by playing and talking, although I can’t fulfill their dreams of not having quizzes.

Some might have exaggerated their love of English, however, by claiming they dream of “more English class” or a “special classroom for English.” (Suspected suck-ups, although I tell myself that they really do love English!). One perfectionist wrote a 5 paragraph essay (with help from a translator and someone else, which was not the purpose, but I’m a recovering perfectionist myself, so I forgive him.) Speaking of over-acheivers, one group of them wanted a special study room where only students with the highest grades would have access.

The most requested desire, though, despite all these other shortcomings, was about teachers. My sampling of students really would like some funny teachers, very intelligent teachers, more communicative teachers, no angry teachers, not bad teachers. They want teachers with more instructive materials, and “more prepared teachers,” meaning qualified (preparado in Spanish).

I was taken aback when I saw this in more than one student’s description, so I asked one of my classes if they felt like their current teachers weren’t very qualified. They said yes, they definitely felt like that about some of their teachers. Whether it’s true or not, just the fact that they feel like they’re not receiving a quality education is really disheartening. I suppose that living in the poorest state in the country, it’s hard not to be accustomed to poorly-qualified teachers. The university level doesn’t have the mafia-style union that public primary and secondary schools do, but I can see how it would be difficult to attract and keep a whole staff of amazing teachers to our small, hot and humid little town. It made me even more determined to do my best for them. I can sleep at night knowing that at least I fall into the category they asked for of friendly / not angry teachers. (I’m pretty sure I’m funny, too, but who knows if they all agree.)

I want to do more, though, for these (grown) kids, for my little kid, for all the other kids who are scared to color outside the lines. Maybe we should’ve been talking to the teacher and principal at my daughter’s school more this year instead of just thinking that our values at home would prevail. Maybe I should take my students’ paragraphs and send them to administration. It occurs to me, now that I’m writing this, that talking isn’t enough. Sending my kid to a different school isn’t enough. Trying to make fun and interesting classes for my students isn’t enough.

We’re failing our students- stifling them, turning off their joy of learning, starting at such an early age. Not just here in Southrern Oaxaca, but in so many places. Accepting this as the norm fuels inaction, and will just continue the cycle of failing our students.

I don’t know yet what I’m going to do about it all. I’m accepting ideas! But we all could surely be doing something more for our education systems- for the kids, and for the adults that they’ll become and the world that they’ll create.


P.S.- Just to clarify, this is a problem with the educational system, not with the schools or the teachers particularly. The school Lucia was going to is actually a really good school, but still I just don’t agree with the things that are supposed to be taught to her age group or the methodology in how schools here are teaching these tiny learners. At the university, too, I know that there are good teachers (because my students tell me about them!), and I know that there are some other really good aspects to the school. It just makes me sad seeing how little independence they have over their education, how little creativity and freedom of expression they’re allowed,  both physically and intellectually- and this university is more “liberal,” you could call it, than some others. It is definitely a systemic problem.




2 Responses to “Dreaming Up an Education in Oaxaca”

  1. Rebecka Koritz May 10, 2016 at 2:17 pm #

    Reblogged this on Rebecka Koritz: catalizadora de la transformación social a través de la educación. and commented:
    Här har vi Julia Satterlee som också krockar med det mexikanska skolsytemet. Read and enjoy!

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