Edwin Canil and the Case Against a Former Dictator Head of State

        What happens to a child when, as a six year-old, he witnesses the massacre of his mother, his grandmother and four of his siblings? What could develop from such a trauma?  We can easily imagine he would be so traumatized that he couldn’t deal with life.  Inevitably the searing experience would weave through his life at some level, with flashback nightmares from time to time.  But he was fortunate to have a father and older brother, along with caring extended family members with whom he could Image 2heal and grow with purpose and determination.  In the photo Edwin is the youngest in front of his father.
        His father and brother had been off looking for a safer place for the family to hide when the military found the rest of his family and other relatives and massacred all of them with the exception of Edwin who escaped to hide behind a bush from which he witnessed the killing.  The next morning his father found him.  On the basis of the foundation of the love of his extended family he  went on to become, as a young man,  the head of a team shaping the legal case under which a former dictator would be convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity.  Therein lies a story of human resilience and courage but much more, given the racist framework in which this drama played out.

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Make School a Democracy


CreditEsther Aarts 

ARMENIA, Colombia — IN a one-room rural schoolhouse an hour’s drive from this city in a coffee-growing region of Colombia, 30 youngsters ages 5 to 13 are engrossed in study. In most schools, students sit in rows facing the teacher, who does most of the talking. But these students are grouped at tables, each corresponding to a grade level. The hum of conversation fills the room. After tackling an assignment on their own, the students review one another’s work. If a child is struggling, the others pitch in to help.

During my visit to one of these schools, second graders were writing short stories, and fifth graders were testing whether the color of light affects its brightness when seen through water. The teacher moved among the groups, leaning over shoulders, reading and commenting on their work. In one corner of the classroom were items, brought to school by the kids, that will be incorporated in their lessons. The students have planted a sizable garden, and the vegetables and fruits they raise are used as staples at mealtime, often prepared according to their parents’ recipes.

During the past four decades, this school — and thousands like it — have adopted what’s called the Escuela Nueva (New School) model.

A 1992 World Bank evaluation of Colombia’s schools concluded that poor youngsters educated this way — learning by doing, rather than being endlessly drilled for national exams — generally outperformed their better-off peers in traditional schools. A 2000 Unesco study found that, next to Cuba, Colombia did the best job in Latin America of educating children in rural areas, where most of the schools operate with this model. It was also the only country in which rural schools generally outperformed urban schools. Poor children in developing nations often drop out after a year or two because their families don’t see the relevance of the education they’re getting. These youngsters are more likely to stay in school than their counterparts in conventional schools.

Escuela Nueva is almost unknown in the United States, even though it has won numerous international awards — the hyper-energetic Vicky Colbert, who founded the program in 1975 and still runs it, received the first Clinton Global Citizenship prize. That should change, for this is how children — not just poor children — ought to be educated.

It’s boilerplate economics that universal education is the path to prosperity for developing nations; the Nobel-winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz calls it “the global public good.” But while the number of primary school-age children not in class worldwide fell to 57.2 million in 2012 from 99.8 million in 2000, the quality of their education is another matter. Escuela Nueva offers a widely adaptable model, as Unesco has described it.

“Unesco reported the successful diffusion of Escuela Nueva in 20,000 Colombian schools with poorly trained teachers,” Ernesto Schiefelbein, rector of the Autonomous University of Chile, who has evaluated the program, told me. “As far as I know, there is no other example of massive educational improvement in a democratic developing country.”

Another Nobel-winning economist, Amartya Sen, posits that political repression impedes economic growth — that prosperity requires that social and economic well-being be tethered to democratic values. Escuela Nueva turns the schoolhouse into a laboratory for democracy. Rather than being run as a mini-dictatorship, with the principal as its unquestioned leader, the school operates as a self-governing community, where teachers, parents and students have a real say in how it is run. When teachers unfamiliar with this approach are assigned to these schools, it’s often the students themselves who teach them how to apply the method. “In these schools, citizenship isn’t abstract theory,” Ms. Colbert told me. “It’s daily practice.”

In the schools, students elected by their peers shoulder a host of responsibilities. In a school I visited in a poor neighborhood here in the city of Armenia, the student council meticulously planned a day set aside to promote peace; operated a radio station; and turned an empty classroom into a quiet space for reading and recharging. I was there last Halloween, when students put on a costume contest for their pets.

PARENTS become involved in the day-to-day life of these schools, and the educational philosophy influences their out-of-school lives. Research shows that the parents of Escuela Nueva students are less prone to use corporal punishment; more likely to let their youngsters spend time at play or on homework, rather than making them work when they’re not in school; and more likely, along with their children, to become engaged in their communities.

Decades ago, John Dewey, America’s foremost education philosopher, asserted that students learned best through experience and that democracy “cannot go forward unless the intelligence of the mass of people is educated to understand the social realities of their own time.” Escuela Nueva puts that belief into practice. I’ve witnessed the demise of many ballyhooed attempts to reform education on a mass scale. But I’ve tabled my jaded skepticism after visiting Escuela Nueva schools, reviewing the research and marveling at the sheer number of youngsters who, over 40 years, have been educated this way.

I’m convinced that the model can have a global impact on the lives of tens of millions of children — not just in the developing world but in the United States as well.

There’s solid evidence that American students do well when they are encouraged to think for themselves and expected to collaborate with one another. In a report last year, the American Institutes for Research concluded that students who attended so-called deeper learning high schools — which emphasize understanding, not just memorizing, academic content; applying that understanding to novel problems and situations; and developing interpersonal skills and self-control — recorded higher test scores, were more likely to enroll in college and were more adept at collaboration than their peers in conventional schools.

But these schools are far from the mainstream. “It’s really different and quite impressive,” David K. Cohen, an education professor at the University of Michigan, told me. “I know of no similar system in the U.S.”

Rachel Lotan, a professor emeritus at Stanford, added, “Doing well on the high-stakes test scores is what drives the public schools, and administrators fear that giving students more control of their own education will bring down those scores.” Officials, and those who set the policies they follow, would do well to visit Colombia, where Escuela Nueva has much to teach us about how best to educate our children.

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Choosing to Become a Liberating Educator: Risky but worth it!

For many teachers today the goals of liberating education are attractive: that students emerge from their formal education thinking of themselves as activist citizens working for a just and equitable world.  If you are one of them you may well ask, given today’s schools, how do I get started?  And what are the risks?  What’s the model?  I offer Santa María Tzeja, Guatemala, as a kind of model that is described in my book, Seeds of Freedom: Liberating Education in Guatemala. But while it is useful, and perhaps even inspiring to know that a full program of liberating education exists somewhere in the world, it is important to recognize that  the conditions that created it in SMT can’t be duplicated elsewhere.  If you set out to introduce liberating education too rapidly in communities with conflicting political views you may well face angry resistance.  There is clearly some risk involved when you take positions that people in the community strongly disagree with if you haven’t laid the groundwork for vigorous dialogue that embraces honest disagreement.
     Creating the liberating model wasn’t easy for Santa María Tzejá, the case study village in my book.  In fact, as I note in other posts, the village was destroyed in 1982 by the nation’s army.  The liberating education journey took off in 1995 with the help of allies. Thereafter, students in its primary and middle schools demonstrated, as do marginalized oppressed people everywhere, that they have the intelligence and desire, both to build better lives for themselves and to create more just societies if they have the right stimulus for it.


José Ortiz Cox (in the photo) demonstrates that intelligence and desire, along with a determination to give hope to one small corner of his society.  I remember José when he was a small boy growing up in one of the most impoverished homes in Santa María Tzejá, the case study village described in my book.  His father had been tortured at the army base during the civil war after the village had been destroyed and sustained injuries so serious that it was difficult for him to provide for his family on their farming parcel.  The father’s one asset was a small piece of land that he inherited from his parents in his village of origin.   Continue reading

Segregation, Inequality, Concentrated Poverty: How We Got Here

Segregation, Inequality, Concentrated Poverty: How We Got Here.

Should teachers give their own beliefs on sensitive political issues?

Seeing that question in the title, some would say “never!”  But even people who believe they should—or will, even unknowingly-
-know the question is a sensitive one.  Teachers from Santa María Tzejå, the case study village in my book Seeds of Freedom: Liberating Education in Guatemala, have given careful consideration to the question and come out on the side of the truth, including with politics, as they see it, even with sensitive and “hot button” topics.  In an earlier blog I described Enma’s
conviction that students in her sixth grade class should get the accurate history of how the village was destroyed by the

Emma with sixth graders

Emma with sixth graders

Guatemalan army.  She noted her observation that official history texts (in 2007)were “full of distortions.” Magdalena said she believed that children in the older grades were old enough to understand the hard truths of history, including the way the Guatemalan army served the interests of the rich oligarchs.  One teacher told me they got push back from men in the community when they spoke up against domestic abuse (a continuing problem in the village), but continued to awaken in both girls and boys the need for full respect across gender lines.  These teachers were concerned to be both accurate and honest.

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Liberating Education and Race: The Stunning Proof of Change

Emiliano Panjoj is just one example of the potential of indigenous people in the world to succeed, indeed excel, when given the opportunity.  Below, speaking at a meeting.  As a Maya K’iche’ person he grew up in a Guatemalan population of indigenous peoples historically despised by the dominant “ladinos” who were descended, in part, from the Spanish OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAconquerors.  They, who were themselves of mixed DNA, distanced their lives from the indigenous by calling themselves “ladinos,” rather than the more accurate “mestizos” (mixed race).  Their stance was to think of themselves as a superior race—given, as they chose to think, that the racial mixing took place so long ago as to be meaningless in the modern world.  In their stereotypes ladinos named the indigenous as “indios” (Indians), as unfit for anything but manual labor and inappropriate to educate.  In that society the Maya were essentially enslaved to work in the coffee, cane and cotton plantations for the dominant ladino owners.

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Holding Up Half the Sky: Educating Girls Makes It Possible

Why is the liberating education of girls so important in countries that are male dominated? (ignoring here for a moment that all countries are male dominated to a greater or lesser extent on a continuum).  Obviously it is important for girls and women to be educated in whatever form.  But the critical point is that a liberating form of female and male education is key to humanizing society as a whole.
Recall Adelina Chom,Adelina described in an earlier post about the important place of theater in the accurate delivery of history of the violence that tore at the village in February of 1982.  In the play, “The Past Is With Us,” Adelina played the role of a mother who lost her thirteen year-old daughter in a massacre at the time of the destruction of the village in which she experienced some depth of the grief the mother had felt in losing her child.  As she cried out and spoke she was projecting her voice to many audiences as the play toured the country.
Adelina went on to become an outstanding teacher in both the primary and middle schools.  In one middle school class that included students from a nearby village, she had the students research the birth rates of children in the two communities.  The rate was much

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