As I get ready to start the new school year, I take time to reflect on my teacher’s retreat in Medellin, Colombia this summer. I flash back to traveling solo and being nervous about meeting 15 new people that would make up our group over the six-day period. However I needn't have worried. During our orientation dinner, I immediately realized that as educators, we all share a common bond; our passion for teaching! Connections between us were made quickly and grew stronger as the week went on.
Lindsay, our lead coordinator made us all feel welcome and cared for as we learned about and navigated Columbian culture. She gave us tips and clearly explained what we were were going to experience together. On the subway, she counted us, in order to make sure we all got on and off at the right times just as we do with our students on a field trip! It was comforting to know she was there for us!
Communa 13 was our experiential base for our work together. We learned that Communa 13 is a vibrant community who has dealt with a very violent past. According to our guide who lives in this neighborhood, the government has done a great deal to help create a safer environment and is still working for change. Talented street artists livened up this impoverished area with colorful images evoking strong meanings everywhere you looked. Personally, I seek out street art across the globe as I travel and there is no place I’ve experienced which comes close to the art I viewed in Commune 13!
As a photographer, it was a dream come true!
Another highlight for me was visiting three public schools in this district at the elementary and high school levels. Devoted YMCA personal who work closely with the schools arranged for the visits and explained to us the school system’s strengths and challenges. We individually and collectively reflected on our observations after the visits. We all noted the safe and caring learning environments that the teachers and school campuses offered their students and the PASSION of the teachers in working with their classes. The students were welcoming and curious of who we were and those of us who spoke Spanish held great conversations with various students. We ended our visitations with a two-hour workshop hosted at one of the schools. This was a forum for both Columbian and USA teachers to share thoughts on educational practices and challenges. As time went on, teachers realized that both groups have a great deal in common; we face similar challenges and teach towards a common theme of instilling HOPE to all our students. This event was powerful as it gave Columbian teachers space to voice what was on their minds and be heard. Teachers in our group were humbled by what they shared.
The last of many highlights I’ll write about is the service work we embarked on. After two subway lines rides, three cable cars and a small hike, we arrived at Fundaticion Huoellas, a nonprofit organization which provides education and activities for the many displaced Venezuelan children living in Medellin.
They cannot not attend school until their formal paperwork is complete. As a group, we toted bags of educational supplies and toys to leave for the organization. We played and laughed with the children for a couple of hours delighting in the fact that these children could leave any woes behind and just be children! Double Dutch skipping and ball tag was a big hit! Their easy acceptance of our group was a strong reminder of our shared humanity.
After a week of action-packed activities, school experiences, and reflections, we said our goodbyes at the farewell dinner. Each of us took away newfound friendships and memories to last a lifetime.
So, as I begin my new school year, I bring forth renewed energy and vigor from this educational retreat. It enabled me to connect with wonderfully passionate teachers, embrace the warm culture of Columbia and appreciate the students we encountered along the way.