Popular Education in El Salvador

I have been a part of a lot of workshops.  They have been interesting, informative, painfully boring, predictable, creative, useless, and inspiring.  One of the primary goals of our time in Cinquera was that we would participate in, present, and support workshops put on by the sustainable agriculture work done by the ARDM (an organization focused on community organizing and development).  We have helped facilitate and attended several workshops.  The material and presentation of these workshops has made me want to rethink the way we teach in this type of setting.

A thread that ran through all the workshops we participated in was the pedagogy and practice of popular education.  To greatly simplify, this approach holds that each person has important skills and information to add to the conversation.  Popular education workshops utilize a wide variety of dinamicas (in the US we would call them energizers) to engage and give space for all participants to share.  In both workshops with adults and children these simple games were used to stretch out stiff bodies, break the ice, keep folks awake, and encourage engagement, interaction, and sharing.  I was impressed how these simple activities shaped the experience and pushed folks that might not share otherwise to offer thoughts, reflections, and opinions.

Another aspect of popular education that I noted in all the workshops we participated in was a willingness to discuss and introduce a wide variety of radical and revolutionary ideas.  From conversations of machismo and gender to discussions about imperialist/capitalist oppression, both workshop leaders and participants alike were willing and ready to discuss ideas that in the US we would be likely to avoid for fear of not being politically correct.  Here in El Salvador there is a degree of political education/awareness present in the everyday people of the world that I have rarely encountered in the US.  This common language of political engagement prevented the workshops from ever feeling stale or irrelevant.  Workshop topics were made eminently important by the parallels to the politics of everyday life drawn by presenters and participants.

The first workshop we participated in was with a group of campesinos (small farmers), all of whom are attempting to transition to using complete or partial sustainable practices on their farms. Sitting in a circle of plastic chairs with roughly 30 campesinos, who ranged from 20-75 years of age, I was struck by the awareness of intersecting histories of oppression that seemed almost taken for granted.  “This is revolutionary!  Sustainable Agriculture isn’t just something we do on the farm—it’s a way of life.  We are changing our health and freeing ourselves from being slaves to corporations like Monsanto.  This is why big companies don’t want us to do this.”  Thundered a man with a pale denim shirt and a baseball cap with a picture of Mini Mouse that said American Beauty.  His words were met with firm agreement.  Yes, yes, the nodding heads seemed to say, we know what is at stake and what we are up against.

11091147_10102756099057359_5449604362562846357_npractical demonstration during campesino workshop

In a workshop on climate change and metallic mining in El Salvador at the school of San Benito I was struck by the ease that ARDM organizers told the story of mining activists that had been assassinated by the mining company to a room full of students. “It’s good to learn about all this.”  One of the teachers told the students.  “It’s important that we are informed.  Also I think if they came and tried to build a mine here that we would stop them.  Yes, we would go into the streets and we would stop them.  Yes, I think we would not let them come into our community.

dinamicasdinamicas in San Benito

At the end of the workshop we had the students draw pictures of the climate crisis, its causes, and possible solutions.  On pages of white computer paper the students used pens and pencils make simple, honest drawings of rising seas, deforested hills, children picking up trash, and cars belching smoke.  As I looked at these pictures I found myself thinking that if we can’t stop this runaway race towards destruction (climate change) these children will be some of the first to suffer.

picturesclimate change pictures in San Benito

When I get back from El Salvador I’m launching into a summer of teaching with Outward Bound.  My hope is that after my experiences in workshops here I’ll bring new life and energy to my teaching.  I hope to use dinamicas to keep folks awake and engaged, bringing the pedagogy of population education into the way I imagine and experience teaching.  I hope that I won’t be afraid to introduce ideas that feel radical or revolutionary—that I’ll be able to speak with the same passion and resolve as the teachers and farmers who have taught me so much here.  Teaching can put you to sleep or it can light a fire.  Here in El Salvador I have found a method of teaching that brings life and fire into the eyes of students and participants.  Teaching this way brings the world alive.  If we expected all teaching to captivate like this truly radical and revolutionary things would be possible.

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