Tag Archives: education

Disability, Different-ability, Difference, and Determination, Oh My!

14 Aug

Despite everyone’s reassurances to the contrary, I’d had my suspicions that something was “wrong” with my kid for a few months by the time I was able to get him properly evaluated. Nobody likes to think that their kid is different in a way that’s going to make their child’s life more difficult or hurt them, in the present and/or the future, so your self-denial can work against you. Sometimes other folks even spend lots of energy to convince you that your kid is “normal,” either because they don’t want you to feel bad, or they don’t believe someone could have a problem that they can’t see themselves, or because people just love comparisons as much as they love giving advice. “Well, look at Tomas’s son! He can barely talk and he’s four.” Which is less than ideal, thanks. “My grandmother gave him parrot crumbs, and after that he started talking.” Ummm, I guess I could try that? Not holding my breath for results, though.

My two year old had been able to understand everything for quite a while, and had started talking, but he wasn’t really making progress. He was adding a new word maybe every couple of weeks or every month instead of every day. He wasn’t even putting two words together. All of that is potentially fine. And in Mexico, especially, nobody worries about kids who are slow to talk; it’s practically the norm. “Boys are slower,” people said, or, “Bilingual kids take longer to talk.” Even I sometimes thought, “It’s because he doesn’t need to talk yet; he makes his needs understood just fine with his few words, gesticulations and sounds.” I would try to motivate him to talk, but he absolutely wouldn’t even try to say anything that wasn’t something he could already say. He would suddenly pop up with a new word or new animal noise, and then that would be all his verbal progress for an extended amount of time. The whole, “He’ll talk when he’s ready” theory had started to not make sense to me, because I could see that he wanted to talk. He would try to tell big, complex stories about something that happened, using only sounds and motions. He was starting to get really frustrated with not being able to express himself enough, despite the great lengths he’d go to in order to get his point across. So I worried a bit and then set my worry aside, because there was nothing I could do about in in my small town in Oaxaca.  (I wrote this in January of this year about him, still trying not to worry about his speech: Bilingual Baby Speak, Take Two)

Less than a week after arriving to the US, though, I consulted the blessed (easy to access) internet and found a place for him to get his hearing checked for free. The screening was every Thursday and I found the info on a Wednesday; it couldn’t have been more convenient. The internet also informed me that the same place did speech screenings for free a different Thursday of the month. Truly, the universe has smiled upon us in this whole process. Let me tell you.

His hearing, as I suspected, was fine. That was just something to rule that out as being the cause of any potential speech problem. I asked about the speech screenings and the receptionist informed me that I needed to schedule an appointment for that. And then she actually scheduled me an appointment for twenty minutes later! I was elated. I was going to know something about Khalil’s speech in that very same day.

Needless to say, once I had access to these kinds of services, I was hoping that the speech therapist here in Savannah, Georgia, would tell me to just be patient; that maybe he just prefers animal sounds to words and he’ll grow out of it eventually. Or that I should go ahead and give him parrot crumbs and relax. That is not what the speech therapist told me, however.

“He has Apraxia of Speech,” she told me matter-of-factly, gently but to the point. I took out my pen and notebook and started scribbling, but she quickly handed me her notepad instead, and assured me she’d also give me a bunch of printed information in a moment. She explained that it’s a neurological problem where people can’t connect the word in their brain with the movements in their mouth in order to say the word. The brain has problems planning and coordinating that movement, but it’s not because of a weakness in the muscles. Some people have apraxia due to a severe accident, but in most cases the cause is not known. Most importantly, it is not something that kids just grow out of on their own. It requires frequent, one-on-one speech therapy specifically designed for apraxia.

“But it’s treatable?” I wanted to confirm. “Yes. It’s very treatable. But don’t Google it. I’ve even seen college professors say, ‘There’s nothing we can do for these kids,’ and that’s absolutely not true. I know because I’ve worked with these cases for years, and they do progress. It’s amazing, but they do.This is actually my passion. I am always careful not to over diagnose apraxia, because it is my specialty.”

So of course after the formal evaluation the next day, in which he was diagnosed with severe apraxia of speech, I questioned how sure she was about her diagnosis. “Well,” she started, “I’m very sure, since we can pretty much rule out everything else.” He’s not autistic. There are no other cognitive problems. There’s no muscle weakness, since he’s eating fine. It’s not a lack of wanting to speak. She listed off some other things that most certainly don’t fit the bill for my kid. OK. Convinced. And regardless, I figured, having a special type of speech therapy is surely not going to hurt him. If it doesn’t help then we can reevaluate.

She also recommended that we start signing with him, and she gave me a giant laminated foldout with a bunch of basic American Sign Language (ASL) signs for kids. I’d already learned a few signs before this and thought about learning more before the diagnosis, so her recommendation seemed like another positive.

The best part, though, was that she told me that it could be treated right there, by her, a specialist and passionate teacher. She was taken aback when I told her we’d only be in town a month, but said that at least we could try to do twice a week for that month. Not only was she accommodating and positive, but also the administrative staff was FABULOUS to us. They figured out a way to get around needing an official referral from a US doctor, and then they made sure that we received a major scholarship for his treatment and formal evaluation. Everyone in that building has been so welcoming and helpful to us from the moment that we walked in the door. I feel like the universe put us in exactly the right place at the right time to do what needs to be done for my family.

We headed up to my hometown for a two week visit after that, even though that meant delaying the start of my son’s speech therapy. It was a trip that had been long planned, and something I really needed to recharge my spirit’s batteries. So I got started learning ASL with the kids, and we all started having a good time with that. ASL is a fascinating and very intuitive language. The coolest part was realizing that two of my son’s self-invented signs were actually the official ASL signs for that word. (His sign for little and his sign for eat, in case you’re wondering).

Not only did he like being able to express more things with ASL, he also started trying to produce more words verbally. It was a really cool and unexpected (to me) effect. When he signs “help,” for example, he says something that sounds like “houp”; not very clear to others, but at least he’s trying to produce words beyond his small verbal vocabulary. Signing also helped me worry less and treat him more like I do my other kid; armed with ASL, he, too, has to “say” please and thank you. He has to show me his “yes” rather than say “ha.” He can tell me what color cup he wants without me having to show him every single one in the cupboard. And as much as he feels he can, he tries to say the word, too- like his second favorite color, “boo.”

How do I know it’s his second favorite color if he can barely talk and barely sign, you may wonder? For one, apraxia doesn’t necessarily mean you have any other cognitive problems, although that happens in some cases. It also doesn’t mean you have fewer words than other kids; his receptive language is impressive, and he has the word in his head, he just can’t make his mouth do what it needs to do to pronounce it. On top of that all, my kid just loves to communicate. With the color situation, I knew he recognized all the colors since a while back, even though he couldn’t say them. He knew everyone in the family’s favorite color. When he saw that color, he would say the person’s name. His favorite color is green (“mah” he says when he sees green, palm on chest). But lately he started saying “mah” and pointing to blue, too. So I asked, “Ok, which one is your favorite color?” And he said, “Two! Two!” showing me two fingers in case I was still confused. (Two is one of his newer words- before this he always said “doh” for “dos”.) He can answer any questions as long as I can make I a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question, or he can show his answer or use one of his words or signs to answer. There is lots and lots of communication going on, despite his apraxia.

One of the coolest moments in the short time since this diagnosis was at the library. The librarians had found us several cool books about trucks (one of his current obsessions), and once it was time to go, I told him, “Let’s go ask how many we can check out at a time.” He said “mah, mah” and “mama no” and walked confidently up to the librarian. I held my breath, wondering how in the world he was going to ask. (We have not yet learned a sign for “how many,” and even if we had, what are the chances that the librarian would know ASL?) He walked up and stood there for a minute, I’m sure thinking the words in his head, and finally made a noise that sounded like that way your voice goes up at the end of the question. Luckily, the librarian had heard me tell him what we were going to ask, so she answered him, which made him proud and confident, as you can imagine.

At this point he’s only had 4 short sessions of speech therapy, but already he is stringing together 2 and 3 words at a time. “Moh apple juice,” he says. He wants to use his “new boo bowl,” making the sign for blue at the same time. The most interesting thing about apraxia to me is the way that sounds don’t automatically transfer when put in different combinations. Even though he can make the sound “oo” and the “t” or the “d” sound, he couldn’t put them together until now. So he could say “moo” and he could say “gato,” but he couldn’t say “two” and he can’t seem to say any other word that starts with that “g” sound. When he was a baby, he babbled the “goo” sound, but he can’t/doesn’t say it now. Funny, right? So apraxia requires lots and lots of practice with different sound combinations, in a structured way, often with visual and physical cues. I won’t try to go into any more detail on methods because I am still essentially clueless, although of course I’m investigating and observing as best as I can. If you’re interested, I recommend you check out this site in English or este sitio en español for more information.

He is adding new sound combinations on the daily now. It brings smiles of rapture to him and to me when he comes out with a new word now. Among the most important that he’s learned: dump, although he still can’t say truck. It is sure to be a whole new level of joy once he gets the word truck. And he wants to add other words to it, so now every dump truck we see on the street is a new dump. We’re practicing a specific set of nursery rhymes to focus on certain sounds, and suddenly he can say shoe. He can say home, which is huge. Tonight at bedtime he went through his list of who was at home and who wasn’t. “Papa no. Mama home. La (meaning Lucia, with the L sounding closish to a W) home. Nonna home. Hmm (makes sign for Dee) home.” He is getting closer to pronouncing this and that, although other folks probably wouldn’t understand him yet. He recognizes stop signs now in the street and if I give him the cue for the s sound or model it in an exaggerated way then he can say stop. If I don’t cue him or model it he just says top, but it’s still amazing progress. We both started jumping around in ecstasy and pride when a couple mornings ago he busted out with “shut da door.” Ok, so the r at the end isn’t very pronounced. But he went and said it to other people and they could understand what he was saying. So much learning! So much excitement, every single day!

He saw a riding lawnmower the other day and was so fascinated we had to follow it around the apartment complex for half an hour. He can say mow, so he says hmm-mow to mean lawnmower. He asks about it several times a day, pointing out the window, inquiring when it will arrive. (I just learned the sign for when, so we’re working on that.)

“If anybody was ever trying, he is,” our brilliant and wondrous speech therapist said. We call her his maestra. My son goes to his class that’s just for him, and he’s very proud about it. “Mama no,” he says, shaking his head emphatically, when I tell him we’re off to his class. “Nonna no,” “Hmm (signs for Uncle Greg) no,” “Hmm (signs for Dee) no,” “La no,” etc. “Mah,” he asserts. His class. He’s got this. I’m just following his lead- his and his teacher’s. She assures me that his brain is primed for this right now. That if we can keep this momentum going- his excitement and motivation, his brain’s elasticity- well, who knows where we’ll end up, if we just had some more time.

Hence our radical change in plans. We were supposed to be heading home to Papi and to our sweet little coast of Oaxaca at the end of this month, to our kids’ radical school, and instead we’re going back in January. Because my child will have no access to adequate services down there. I inquired and investigated and the only thing I found was a speech therapist who can only do group therapy, who’s an hour and a half away, who comes to my town every two weeks for group work, dealing with kids with a wide range of speech difficulties. There might be someone in Oaxaca City, which is seven hours away. I didn’t even inquire, because how could we pull that off?

All the research indicates that apraxia needs frequent, one-on-one, apraxia-specific therapy in order to produce the most chance of success. And the earlier these little ones start treatment, the better the long-term outcome. So here we are. Living with my very generous and helpful family, but living without my kids’ father for much longer than we planned. A father who wants to be and has been involved every day, but who can’t come here yet, because of our immigration process. How do you decide between your kids having access to their dad or one of your kids possibly being able to talk well someday? If it turns out he needs years of speech therapy (which seems likely but not definite) then what are we supposed to do after January? Leave him in Puerto for a couple years without speech therapy until our immigration case goes through? There are many more difficult decisions for our family in the coming weeks, but for now my husband and I have just made this one decision: keeping our little one in speech for as long as we can in one pass, despite all the hardship and inconvenience on all other levels. No one can know where his progress will be in January, I just know that this way we’re giving him a bit more time without completely destroying our family and the life we’ve already built in our town. Their wonderful school is holding their spots for January, and the principal (a dear friend to boot) already promised me they’d learn some signs for him, too. We have to go back for so many reasons, most of all for Papi, but we also have to make our son’s needs a priority, because he so desperately wants to talk. Staying here longer, unexpectedly, is hurting all of us in some ways, but this is what life looks like- full of difficult and complex decisions. I try to chose to feel pleased to be alive and making decisions every day. Some days it’s harder than others.

(For more about our family immigration situation, you can read The Compass at our Crossroads and Ending our Exile )


“Comparisons are odious,” my mom used to say, quoting Shakespeare, I believe. My son’s mind doesn’t work the same as my daughter’s: they are radically different in some ways. My daughter was speaking in full and complex sentences early on. She is shy and introverted and loves to live in her story-world. My son, though, is outgoing through and through. He can Skype for ages with my family, while my daughter barely wants to say hi. He has to work so hard to express himself, but because of that he forces himself, and he has different skills. He is an expert in his semi-verbal version of circumlocution. He makes connections that other people might not. Like when we were talking about somebody’s name, Johnson, and my semi-verbal kiddo said, “Papa, hahaha,” which is a line from a dumb song they listen to on Bob the Train videos. I was like, “What is he talking about?” I started my guessing game. “Something funny with Papi?” No. “Something about Papi?” No. He keeps repeating “Papa, hahaha” until finally it clicks for me: Ah, Johnson and Johnny! “Like Johnny and Johnson? They’re similar?” I ask him. “Ha,” he says in place of yes. He’s probably thinking, “My slow Mommy finally got it! When will these people learn?” Discovering the complexities of his different mind is a major parenting joy that I am grateful to have everyday.

It can be really hard to think that your kid is different in some kind of scary, lifelong, will-never-have-a-good-life kind of way, whatever that may mean for you. To me, the idea of not being able to speak your mind sounded pretty awful to me- enough to keep me up crying a couple times since the diagnosis. Knowledge is power, though, and knowing what is going on with your kid, acknowledging differences and working with that is the name of the game, for me at least. While I’ve felt some panic and some despair, more than anything I’ve felt relief at knowing what the problem is, and hope that my baby will get what he needs. I have every hope that he will indeed be one of the cases who can speak effectively and understandably most of the time, at some point. But I also am coming to terms with the idea that he might be “different” forever, and that doesn’t actually scare me at all. I have friends who are deaf, and they’re awesome. I have friends and family who need wheelchairs, and they’re awesome. Life is not ruined just by having different abilities. It can be more difficult, or difficult in ways that aren’t the same as other people’s difficulties. I am going to do my damnedest to help my kid talk, and to try to do it in circumstances that don’t destroy our family. But I also know that if he never gets completely “cured” then that’s far from the end of the world. My kid could already talk complexly with just six words; I’m pretty sure he’s unstoppable. I know that in many ways this “disability” is just that: a difference, which is its own type of gift.


My determined child with a brilliant sense of humor. What else could I ask for?

Thanks, Universe!

P.S. We are still raising money for our immigration process, which is now more necessary than before. If you’re able to and so inclined, you can donate at this site.  Thanks for reading! Hugs!



The Little School-House Built on Loving Learning

22 May

If you had asked my opinion a couple years ago, I would have told you that I suspected that Waldorf schools were just for rich hippies, and therefore had nothing relevant for me or my children. Funny how parenthood changes so many of your ideas about life and parenting, though. Parenting has schooled me hard on humility, made me more open to changing my mind, and forced me to always take circumstances and context into account along with all of my theories and ideals. Now both of my children are in a Waldorf preschool program, and I could not feel luckier or more pleased about it.

My bias, though, first of all, was that I didn’t think that I would send my kids to private school. On principle, I’m against private schools because quality education should be free and available to all, and we should all be fighting to make public schools better. Of course, I also know firsthand that too much of the time the best thing to do is to get the hell out of the system. I did not imagine that I would need that option for my kids’ preschool, however. I didn’t have any expectations for my kids to graduate kindergarten as geniuses. I figured I’d be teaching my kids to read and write myself anyway, and that I just wanted them to go to preschool to get out of the house and play with other kids. Why pay money when your standards are minimal?

Little did I know that those minimal expectations are not the objectives of public or private preschools around here. They all seem to want three year olds to be sitting around copying letters and doing homework and other meaningless and useless activities that I just can’t accept. And I’m too tired and too busy and too foreign to take on the education system just yet. Plus my littler one is still only two, a year too young for compulsory education here in Mexico. So if I’m going to pay for his schooling/care anyway, it might as well be a program that’s good for him, and it might as well be with his big sister.

My other bias was that I always wanted my kids to be in Montessori schools like I was. Maria Montessori is one of my life heroes, and I can 100 percent get behind her educational philosophies. Montessori is all about hands-on learning and giving kids lots of options and control over their learning. It meets kids where they are in the educational process, giving them the tools and guidance they need without over-structuring their lives. (Read a brief introduction to Montessori here.) But there is no Montessori option here. And Waldorf actually has some things in common, as well as some separate ideas, that make it very worthwhile. (more extensive info about Waldorf here)

Furthermore, what really sold me on this particular Waldorf program was the person who made it happen. From there I fell in love with the wonderful teachers, too, as did my children. I got to know other parents in the school, who are amazing people. Certainly the school’s inventor and director made a world of difference in my bias, however. Because she’s an unschooler* at heart, like I am- an anti-authoritarian, anti-system, humanistic, respectful person right down to her core. She is engrossed in and passionate about all things related to autonomous education. She values all children and adults for the fully human and unique people that they are. She respects and facilitates the processes of learning for everyone, without pushing anyone. She is constantly learning, with a big full and open heart, and the joy in her mission spreads like wildfire. That is what I want my children to be around. This is the environment I want for my kids, for all kids, as they build the foundation of their little fabulous selves.

The teachers she found and coached and trained are an amazing pair themselves. They are so open to ideas, and so attentive with the kids. One of them is super outgoing and exudes a sense of fun and adventure, while the other one is very tender and maternal and calm. They are both incredibly patient and caring- traits that sometimes we as parents struggle with.

My kids certainly- and from what I can see, it seems like all the kids- feel safe and secure and valued at school. They don’t treat kids like problems there, even when their behavior is problematic. They have firm boundaries for the kids, but don’t put unrealistic or impossible expectations on them. They pay attention and recognize kids’ different needs, and help teach the kids’ to respect their own and other people’s needs. (For example, when the littler ones snatch toys away, the bigger ones often say, “Oh, it’s because she’s so little.”)

Importantly for me, my kids want to go. They have a good time and they learn like the sponges that they are. When my daughter first started there, she even asked to go to school on Saturdays! I’m also eternally grateful to have somewhere “childproof” to send my irrepressibly active two year old. There’s pretty much nothing at school that sets off the string of “NO!”s that unfortunately happens at my house often. The inside and outside areas are set up for kids to explore freely, even for very adventurous two year olds. Of course both of my kids come home with bruises and scrapes sometimes, but that’s so preferable to trying to make them sit down most of the day.

The school is not officially a school, but rather called a “home extension” program, which is so much better than both regular school and day care. The kids start their day with songs and circle and community. The big kids go for a walk around the neighborhood. One day a week they cook their meal together. One day a week they bake bread together. They always sit down together and eat out of glass bowls and plates together, and the kids wash their own dishes afterwards. My kids always devour all their lunch, because they get to work up an appetite beforehand, and aren’t forced to choose between eating their food or more time on the playground.** They have a very set routine with lots of freedom worked into it. They have lots and lots of bodily autonomy and movement. They don’t have workbooks; instead they have lots of story time with real and interesting books. They sing tons of songs, which Lucia loves. They make things. They create, invent, and use the hell out of their wild and beautiful imaginations. They learn to take care of each other, play together, help each other, share, collaborate, and problem-solve together, which are lifelong skills and values that are just as important as literacy. They get literacy skills aplenty as well, it’s just worked into their day naturally, through play and real life experiences.

I still wish this amazing and wondrous house of learning were free for everyone; it’s the only fault I can find with it. But it’s not actually the fault of the school or its creator; I also know that the government would never, ever, ever fund such a thing here. Something that encourages autonomy for children? A space for parents to critically analyze the system, our parenting, and all the things we may have been taught are the right way? Not gonna happen.

Meanwhile, however, the very existence of this “unschool” is planting seeds to change the future of education in Oaxaca and in the world. Because of this school, I end up talking to a lot of parents about the benefits I see from this style of education. I have conversations about educational and parenting alternatives. (Even when I just mention that the kids help cook something on Tuesdays, other parents’ ears perk up.) I imagine that other parents at the school do the same, spreading words and ideas to other parents. Above and beyond that, though, our very same principal is out all the time spreading her wildfire passion for lifelong education. She’s all over the internet with her radical ideas. She has a regular slot on the radio about parenting and education, and the radio is the most accessible forum around here. She doesn’t just want this lovely little program for this little group of kids. She wants to set the world on fire and build a movement of autonomous education for all. And she’s doing it. Changing the world is slow going, but nobody can say our beloved directora isn’t fully committed, body, heart and soul, for the long haul.

So maybe Waldorf schools in some places are schools just for wealthy hippie types, but that sure is not a fair or accurate description in this case. Luckily for me, you’re never too old to unlearn your own biases. I’m so incredibly grateful that this hotbed of learning exists, and that my kiddos, my partner and I get to be a part of it. I couldn’t dream of a better place for our family to belong.

(In case you are wondering, especially those of you in Puerto, the preschool program is called La Casita, and the mind and heart behind it is Rebecka Koritz.)


*from those dear folks at wikipedia: “Unschooling is an educational method and philosophy that advocates learner-chosen activities as a primary means for learning. Unschooling students learn through their natural life experiences including play, household responsibilities, personal interests and curiosity, internships and work experience, travel, books, elective classes, family, mentors, and social interaction. Unschooling encourages exploration of activities initiated by the children themselves, believing that the more personal learning is, the more meaningful, well-understood and therefore useful it is to the child. While courses may occasionally be taken, unschooling questions the usefulness of standard curricula, conventional grading methods, and other features of traditional schooling in the education of each unique child.”  I was unschooled through most of high school, and I got the best education I could have dreamed of! Because, you know, there was no Montessori or Waldorf high school.

**Granted, my little ones are total chowhounds. They even nicknamed my littler one Cookie Monster. When I ask him what he did at school today, he always tells me, “uhm”- his noise that means eating. My big one is also a chowhound, but she never ate her lunch at her other school.

Corruption for All: Democracy and Education in Oaxaca

1 Jul

Somewhere between six and ten people died and lots more were injured during a protest in our state, Oaxaca, on June 19. It’s impossible to know for sure how many people died, or exactly what happened, because everyone has a different account, and you can’t really believe anybody. The government, the police, the media, and the teachers’ union are all notoriously corrupt. Both the causes of the protests and the way they are being carried out is a lose-lose situation for everyone in our state, especially for all the children and youth.

The government says six people died, but nobody trusts the government. Elections here are even more rigged and fraudulent than in the U.S. Buying votes is normal. You might get killed by the competition if you are running for office, partly because if you are elected you can (and probably will) steal enough money from the people to keep you set for life- therefore it’s worth killing over. The government is full of outright, blatant lies: just Google “the missing 43 Mexican students ” (here’s some of the info:  http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-35539727) if you haven’t already heard about the biggest government and police corruption scandal during this president’s reign. In this most recent case, in Nochixtlán, Oaxaca, the original official story was that some other organization or group jumped in and shot the protesters. Originally, reports even said the police went to the protest unarmed, which isn’t the slightest bit credible. So you can see why government and police reports aren’t believable.

Unfortunately, there are reasons to doubt the utter honesty of the teachers’ union as well. I imagine that accounts from teachers and other folks on site when it happened are more realistic than accounts by police or the media. But the union here is not really the voice of the teachers. Membership in the union is obligatory and participation in protests is mandatory, although they rotate participation some so they don’t have to be protesting every day for these month-long strikes, at least. While I don’t think our public school teachers are the bad guys in this scenario at all, and I’m in favor of unions, I think this particular union is not good for our schools or the kids, and not even particularly good for the teachers. (More info about the teachers’ union, sección 22: http://www.mexicogulfreporter.com/2013/08/oaxaca-education-at-mercy-of-omnipotent.html )

Some articles act like the teachers are screwing over the system, and it certainly sounds like it when you read that teachers’ and staff compensation account for 94% of education funding (http://gppreview.com/2016/03/10/mexicos-education-reform-what-went-wrong/ ). But teachers don’t get paid excessively, I can assure you (people aren’t shy about discussing income here, so teachers I know have told me how much they make). It’s not bad pay but it’s not outstanding, either. Thus, this statistic in context speaks way more to a) other folk that get paid, for example folks who only exist on payroll and not in a classroom, including dead people (yes this really happens here- some live person is cashing in the dead person’s paycheck) and b) just how little funding there is for education. Here, there’s no funding for transportation or food, and next to nothing for anything else. This means classrooms not only don’t have enough books, sometimes they don’t even have classrooms. (Conan and other students had to help build their own high school, for example.) Parents pay so much out of pocket that for “free” public education that school is inaccessible for many people. Not only do parents pay for school materials for their children- which is already hard on many families-, but also they regularly get asked to pay extra fees for whatever the school needs. Parents also have mandatory volunteer work days at the school (because schools can’t hire other staff), and they get fined if they don’t attend.

What Are They Fighting About? The Existing Problems, the Reform, and the General Lack of Confidence in the System

Mexico has some of the worst educational outcomes in the world. It “ranked 118th out of 144 countries in quality of primary education, behind many poorer countries, including Honduras, El Salvador, Bolivia, Bangladesh and Sierra Leone.” ( http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mexico-reforms-idUSKBN0OI0AL20150602) Within Mexico, the state of Oaxaca is pretty much at the bottom of the barrel in education. The federal government passed a bill for Education Reform back in 2013, because pretty much everyone agrees that radical changes to the system are sorely needed in Mexico.

The reform sounds helpful on paper, and in general people seemed to be mostly in favor of it before. Some of its official objectives are creating more equity, and that it be free and accessible. The reform proposes lots of money for more schools, money to improve existing schools, money for food in schools in poor areas, and other such necessary funding. Who knows if it will be enough funding and where the money is coming from, but that part sounds great. It proposes transparency about where the money goes in schools. It calls for better textbooks, more parental and community involvement, and more access to teacher training. It will also require teachers to undergo evaluations and trainings, and to justify their absences if they miss more than 3 days of class. There are lots of things that it doesn’t cover that would be nice, like changing the curriculum, teaching critical thinking, things like that- but it’s a start. (this article gives a good overview in English and here’s some info in Spanish directly from the government about their plans: http://gppreview.com/2016/03/10/mexicos-education-reform-what-went-wrong/ 


Since nobody believes the government, however, and the news can’t be relied upon for real, relevant information, either, we are also inundated with rumors and counter beliefs about the reform. The number one complaint is that they are going to use this to privatize education. The government viciously denies it, but they are working on privatizing other public things, like petroleum. The government also said the police weren’t carrying guns, among other lies; they don’t prove themselves trustworthy, to say the least. So the government repeats that the tenets of the reform are to make education free of fees, and people shrug their shoulders.

The kind of information that my students tell me they believe about the reform is that, for example, they just want to fire all the teachers. We’ve heard that they’re going to take away everyone’s retirement benefits. We’ve heard that you won’t even need teacher training to be a teacher- that anyone who can pass the exam will be a teacher (which is not a very credible claim, since so much of the reform emphasizes teacher training, but there you have it). A big concern is that if teachers don’t pass an exam they will be fired on the spot. According to the proposal, teachers with poor evaluations will receive more training and then take the exam again in a year- and have a third chance with more training if the fail the second time. Supposedly the evaluations will take many factors into consideration, including the environment and culture where teachers are, which is really important here in Oaxaca where there are many indigenous languages spoken throughout the state, and many kids growing up in a household where Spanish isn’t spoken. Of course the reform needs to take regional and cultural factors into account, and it does propose to do so- but once again, it’s easier to believe what your teacher friend down the street tells you than what the government puts out there. And the teacher may or may not believe what they’re being told about the reform, but regardless they have to protest it or there will be serious sanctions against them.

My impression before this protest was that most people do want evaluations for teachers, or at least some kind of accountability, to deal with the very real problem like teachers selling their guaranteed, lifelong position off to someone else when they retire. Some people are definitely concerned that there is ZERO oversight on teacher quality; teachers are guaranteed a position for life (and beyond, when teachers give their position to their child, for example), no matter what they do or don’t do. Parents are also sick of the strikes; Oaxacan kids have lost more than an entire school year in the past 7 years of strikes. (from this article, which was also one of the broadest and best articles I read covering the situation: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/27/world/americas/mexico-teachers-protests-enrique-pena-nieto.html?_r=0  ) And that’s not including the 6 or 7 months-long strike that happened in 2006, which was the 25th consecutive year of teacher strikes in Oaxaca under this teachers’ union. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2006_Oaxaca_protests  )

But ever since people got killed, the tides have changed drastically in terms of public support. Most people are vocally or actively standing with the teachers now (including a lot of international folks who don’t seem to know what is actually going on here), which also means they’re against the reform now. Also, people down here still revere teachers and, more importantly, lack trust and faith in government to a much greater degree than the cynicism and distrust they have for the teachers’ union. The union talks a good talk, and the demands during the annual strikes (yes, every year for the past 30 years or something now, according to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2006_Oaxaca_protests  ) always include some demand or the other related to the wellbeing of the students.

While pretty much ALL the systems and agencies in this country are corrupt, the government is seen as the most corrupt. Certainly the federal government cares very little about Oaxaca, too. (For example, when the months-long strikes were going on in 2006, for ages the federal government washed their hands of the situation, saying it was a local issue.) So the union is robbing people, sure, but the government killing people- and getting away with it, as usual- is certainly worse.

At the very least, no matter how people down here feel about the union and the striking teachers, most people doubt that the reform will actually help Oaxacan children anyway. After all, it’s been proven over and over that people can’t rely on institutions here. It’s pretty depressing, if nothing else.

The Effects of the Protests

The protest is ongoing and the demonstrations and blockades, along with its secondary effects, are widespread throughout Oaxaca- plus there’s some similar action happening in our neighboring states of Chiapas and Guerrero. Teachers have been on strike since mid-May, first of all, although it was all pretty low-key until elections in early June. Things heated up, then calmed again, and then the killings happened.


a shot from 2015 strikes (borrowed from ibtimes.com)


teachers camping out in the zócolo, the main square, of Oaxaca City- a common sight…. (image from nvinoticias.com)… Teachers have rotating schedules for when they have to participate in protests- thank goodness! They have families, too. 

Since then, the government and teachers’ union have had two separate dialogues, both lasting for several hours, where NOTHING has been gained nor lost on either side. Nobody is reporting any clear news on what the hell they’re saying in there for all those hours (perhaps they’re talking about their grandkids, a la Bill Clinton), but there they are. So far they haven’t set up a third meeting. (Here’s an example of the very vague reporting: https://oaxaca.quadratin.com.mx/reforma-educativa-no-se-abrogara-osorio-cnte/)

The union and the government are at an impasse. The union won’t accept the reform, and the government won’t rescind the reform, which is now written into law and already partially implemented. The union is promising to get more drastic and expand their actions to other parts of the country. More and more police are arriving. There are rumors of military involvement. The only thing to do is to wait and see. Here’s a lot of relevant information about what’s happening:

http://www.theyucatantimes.com/2016/07/supplies-airlifted-to-oaxaca-as-blockades-continue-in-several-mexican-states/  I suspect things will get crazier before they get better, despite the government’s vague promises that they will resolve this within a few days.

A big part of the protest is the numerous blockades that the teachers union and their allies have set up throughout the state. They’re mostly letting people pass (with some delays) but blocking commercial trucks. So some areas are short on food supplies, and the gas supply is short everywhere, although it’s coming through sporadically, here at least.

I can’t attest to the extent of the problems happening due to the protests, because there’s also a lot of misinformation and false information about it. For example, I just read an article saying that in Puerto Escondido (where I live) and in Huatulco, there’s gasoline but only for 12 hours a day and each car can only get 200 pesos of gas. In reality, the situation here is that gas seems to randomly arrive at one or two gas stations and everyone lines up to fill up. At times there are cars parked lining up hours before a pipe even comes in. At times people are waiting in line 3 hours to get gas. Sometimes you can get lucky and get a short wait. But it’s not how they painted it in the media.

The news is also stressing how much people are suffering from a lack of food, and it’s hard to say to what extent that’s true. Here we still have plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables at the market. The prices of the stuff that gets trucked in from Oaxaca City has gone up, but even that seems to still be plentiful enough. The two supermarkets in town have some empty shelves, but they are at least getting sporadic shipments of things or they’d be totally empty by now. I have been able to get most of the things on my grocery list every week despite the situation, for example. But I don’t know how it is in other areas. Supposedly Oaxaca City is seriously affected, but a friend of mine there said she’s not seeing that. The government just set up a schedule to airlift food to our state, but I’m not sure exactly where it’s going, or what food they’re taking. Our family in Juquila says they aren’t getting stuff like cookies and other commercial food, but nobody’s going hungry there, either, or at least not because of the strikes. It’s all a bit 1984-esque to me.

The strikes are hurting a lot of the small businesses, though, which a large portion of people rely in for their income. Less people are travelling, for example, so all the folks who have their restaurants along the (very slow, winding) “highway” are not getting as much business. Our friend in Juquila had to come down here for hamburger buns for his restaurant, as another example. It is making people late to work for transportation problems in some areas. It means my friend has extra hours added to her weekly journal to her Masters-level class in the next state over. It’s definitely inconvenient and costly for a lot of people who already have enough economic problems. I don’t think it’s as bad as it sounds on national news, but again, it’s hard to know for sure. I do know that people are a bit sick of it. “I don’t know why they can’t protest in Mexico City instead of here,” one friend said. It’s a good question.

selling gas photo

Surviving beyond the system: individuals selling gasoline at higher prices for desperate folks- here in Puerto Escondido (sorry it’s not a great pic- taken from our moving car)

Conclusions: What about the kids? What about a total revolution?

Regardless of the outcome of this battle, the kids are not winning. The children of Oaxaca, already living in the poorest state of this country, living in a country with one of the worst educational systems and outcomes in the world, are not benefitting in any way, shape, or form from any of this protest, and they might not benefit from the reform, either. I don’t know what the answer is to all this, but it would be nice if some institution did something with the best interests of the children in mind as their primary motivation. I’m sure President Peña Nieto and Local 22 Teachers Union are open to your suggestions, dear Reader. (lol)

We do desperately need reform, or, better yet, revolutionary improvements for our students here in Oaxaca. Yes, we need books, food, transportation, uniforms, and so, so much more. We need a different curriculum, dynamic teaching and learning strategies, a way to make school worthwhile, relevant, and accessible for kids so they’re not routinely dropping out at 12. We need institutions that serve the people, institutions that people can count on. We need police who don’t shoot protesters as the status quo. We need governments that don’t order, support, and cover up killings and disappearances. If corruption is always going to exist, we at least need a bit less corruption in all levels of our public institutions and agencies. We need much more than what anyone here in Oaxaca can even realistically imagine receiving at this point. And that’s the worst part of all, perhaps- that there’s so little hope, for our state, for our youth, for our future.



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.