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Learning in a Second Language: My Family's 'Projecto Educativo' in San Pancho
Posted 03/01/2018 09:51AM

By Margot Miller

Twenty years ago, three days after I married my husband, Travis, we flew across the globe to live and teach in southern India at an international boarding school. It was our first travel abroad as a couple, and it planted the seed for the journey we knew we'd take one day with our family. After years of saving, planning, and researching, in 2016 Travis and I made our decision: with our children, Remy and Milan, and our dog, Astro, we would live for a year in San Pancho, a small surf town located on the Bay of Banderas in the Mexican state of Nayarit. (Thanks to Rowland Hall for approving my sabbatical and helping make our dream a reality.)

Our year in Mexico was full of amazing conversations, remarkable moments, and some hardships. We had to learn to adapt to the heat, sleeping in a home without air conditioning or even window screens, and manage the bugs that entered our living space as a result. One of our first tasks—after moving into the house—was enrolling the children in school. Remy initially thought she wanted to attend the public middle school, known locally as the escuela secondaria publica. She had several reasons why, but I think the official uniform appealed to her most.

On our second day in San Pancho, off we went to the public school to find the principal's office. We introduced ourselves and asked what was needed to enroll Remy. All it took was a copy of her passport, and 200 pesos—the equivalent of $10—which I paid on the spot to one of the most official-looking people in the school: the man in charge of maintenance and groundskeeping. The school secretary took her pencil, wrote down Remy's name on what appeared to be the class roster, and Remy was in!

Remy was excited to attend school in Mexico, and had, as a good Rowland Hall student would, prepared a small introductory speech in Spanish for her classmates. However, reality didn't quite measure up to what she had imagined: no one spoke any English and she struggled to understand what was asked of her. The teachers didn't pay attention to the students, the students didn't focus on their work, and the facilities left much to be desired. Remy would not go back the second day without a translator, and because we had only been in town for three days, there was only one candidate: me.

And so I became a middle school student again, for about a week. It was exhausting. I sat in the back of the class with Remy, translating as much as I could. However, even though Remy gave it her best shot, we eventually agreed that a year of schooling like this would not suffice. She quickly shifted gears and agreed to attend a smaller, Montessori-based school called Escuela del Mundo, which was Milan's choice from the start.

We loved the teachers, school, and setting almost instantly. However, it was also an all-Spanish-speaking school, and for the first few months, the language barrier presented a steep learning curve for Remy and Milan. The saving grace was Remy's discovery of the important role math plays in the lives of second-language learners—it was her foot in the door to acceptance from her peers and a way for her teachers to see her academic abilities. Remy also developed a love of reading during this time, and it gave her a way to understand people and places of the world and their struggles. Her newfound perspective led to amazing discussions on privilege and cultural awareness. I still cherish the moment Remy said to me, "Mommy, I will never take my education for granted again. I know how lucky I am now! Thank you!" And she added, "It's funny—I used to think we weren't well-off because our house was smaller than my friends', but now I realize we're the well-off ones. I guess it's all a matter of perspective." Yes, I said, just having the ability to live here for one year by choice is an important privilege to recognize.

As Remy and Milan settled in to Escuela del Mundo, education continued to be a focus for me too, though being removed from the teacher's classroom lens gave me a more holistic perspective on a school. Escuela del Mundo asked me to attend a meeting for their small Board of Directors, and that led me to help write desperately needed bylaws for the school. Originally, Escuela del Mundo was founded by a group of parents living in San Pancho who had a vision of a different educational experience for their children. They eschewed hierarchical thinking and embraced the circle philosophy, in which all voices are heard before the group reaches an agreement. I spent many hours in meetings listening to the struggles of a school outgrowing itself, until eventually one day they hit their breaking point: after unjust firings of faculty and staff, several teachers walked out of their classrooms.

When a community fractures, it is emotional and requires time to process. As parents, Travis and I committed to attending meetings with other parents and school administrators, and we learned a great deal: how to listen to all the voices in the room before drawing conclusions, what mediation does not look like, what happens when teacher voices are not heard...the list goes on. Ultimately we learned that when you are part of a community that decides to divorce as Escuela del Mundo did, you are still neighbors and members of the larger San Pancho community, and no matter how heated the arguments were, in the end you still kiss each other on the cheek and wish each other the best. And then you move on down your path and start to rebuild.

San Pancho students

The final five months of our year in San Pancho focused on the creation of a new learning center for our children. Four core teachers left Escuela del Mundo, taking half of the student body and their parents with them—including our family—and we began designing a new school where the circle philosophy could exist in its true form of democracy and consensus-building. Remy and Milan went to school in the homes of their teachers and in communal spaces like the plaza, the river, the beach, and EntreAmigos, the local community center. Long meetings now had energy and focus, as mission statements and teaching philosophies were created. Travis and I took the time to pause and rethink the question: what kind of education do we want for our children? We heard about the universal desires of character education, music, art, movement, and environmental awareness. Everyone spoke of the need for a balance between mind, body, and spirit. It was a complimentary mix of young teachers with passion and energy, along with veteran educators and parents who brought wisdom and experience to the table. Certain moments were truly magical. It was invigorating as an educator, and truly an experience of a lifetime—to be part of a group working on a collective dream, and for me, doing it in a second language!

I carry the spirit of this projecto educativo with me to remind me that dreams do come true, but they take work. We need to pause at times to identify what is truly important to us as educators, because when you do this work, you just might find there is some letting go to do so more dreaming can be done.

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