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He watched the small six year-old skip down the dirt road. Soon they arrived at the boy's house, where he had to climb up a high wall to find the key to the dark, windowless shack that was his home.? The boy showed Max inside the desolate rooms. It was early afternoon, and he would be left here on his own until eight in the evening, when his parents generally came home from work. At times like these, Max could hardly imagine his two-story house and neatly groomed lawn back in the US.
Now a college freshman, Max took a gap year after high school to participate in a volunteering program with the organization Projects Abroad (http://www.projects-abroad.org). Max spent a month living in a homestay in the little town of Pisac, Peru and volunteered in a kindergarten classroom in Coya, Peru (located in the Urubamba Valley). He would take the bus early in the morning and help as an assistant teacher in a small school. There were approximately twenty people participating in the program, and they all met once a week to socialize and discuss their work. Occasionally the group of volunteers went into Cusco on the weekends to explore the city. After his time on the program, Max spent two weeks traveling around Peru to see some more of the country: he climbed Machu Picchu and spent more time in Cusco.
Max's initial purpose in going on this trip was to discover and be exposed to life in "Third World Countries." Growing up in an affluent town in Massachusetts with an excellent public school system, he lived quite a sheltered life. Max wanted to venture into an area of the world that is not so fortunate and where poverty characterizes the daily way of life.
The town in which his Peruvian school was located was indeed small and poverty-stricken. The school itself consisted of two small rooms, minimally furnished, decorated with a flag of Peru and one of the United States.
"It is strange when you look at the school house and there is trash strewn all around, the windows are cracked, the doors hang open, and the school looks like a dusty one-story yellow square house - and then you shift your gaze to the beautiful mountainous background with the lofty peaks stretching up into the bright blue sky; the juxtaposition of the richness of the nature and the ugly school building make for an unsettling, unnatural combination," remarks Max.
On his first day, Max met with the teacher before school started and then he started working right away. After being a student, sitting behind a desk and studying for such a long time, it was interesting to suddenly find himself on the other side of the desk. The largest differences from Max's past experiences, however, were the alternate methods of teaching employed, the methods of punishment, and the teacher's expectations. The teacher did not hesitate to hit her students with a ruler when they misbehaved. Sometimes the teacher would leave Max in charge of the whole classroom alone. "It was difficult to get my point across, at times. The children knew that I wouldn't hit them," explains Max. In this way, Max learned one of his most valuable lessons from his trip to Peru: patience is key. Interactions within the classroom require patience and understanding because the children are used to communicating in different ways. If they want something, they simply hit each other or employ violent methods to get their way.
Max often felt frustrated with his class's teacher. The children all had small spiral notebooks, and the general learning methods consisted of repeatedly tracing numbers and letters in the notebooks. Max attempted to employ more creative methods of learning to make the experience more enjoyable and fun for the children. He set more ambitious goals for the students and started to teach them to write words. Yet he felt conflicted about the teachers situation, and felt a mixture of respect and pity for her. The school's resources were minimal and "the children didn't really have a reason to go to school, it was just a way to keep them busy," explains Max. Teaching and connecting with these children is far from easy under these conditions. "It was hard enough for me to teach for a month, let alone my whole life," exclaims Max.
In addition to a better understanding of a teacher's way of life in Peru, Max also gained a dramatic improvement in his Spanish language skills. A foundational background in Spanish before coming to Peru facilitated his communication both with the children and the teacher.
Overall, Max's experience in Peru was both valuable and demanding. But the opportunity to live and work in such a vastly different economic and social environment allowed him to realize that the daily comforts that he takes for granted are not as widely available and accessible as one might think. Upon his return home, he was overwhelmed by the comfort of his own life: the hot showers, the delicious home-cooked meals, his spacious bedroom. Max says, "It was a worthwhile and beneficial trip, and coming to college, I feel much more mature than fellow students who have not taken a year off."
This article was reprinted with permission from Associated Content, The People's Media Company. Visit www.associatedcontent.com today to publish your own content and explore AC's growing multimedia library.
© 2008 Associated Content, Inc.
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