How do you think teaching English to young kids will further empower them and help them become successful adults?
Learning a second language always opens doors. The availability of jobs is now dependant on knowing how to communicate with people all around the world without having a language barrier in between, and giving kids in El Chorrillo the resources and tools to develop these skills is extremely important to us. Teaching English from a young age, will give them the time to perfect the language, and will ultimately assure us they will have plenty of opportunities once they graduate. Education is the key to success, and education is permanent. Educating our students at the Instituto Nuestra Señora de La Merced will empower them, assuring them their knowledge can’t be taken away from them, ever.
What has been the most rewarding moment for you at RISE?
Rewarding moments come in small doses, and it is the combination of all these small experiences that make RISE so special to us. The bond we have created with students breaks any cultural or socioeconomic barriers one might think would hinder our relationship; to me, my students are my children, and like any other mom, I would do anything to see them grow into successful and happy adults. During every weekly lesson we teach, there are constant reminders of why we do what we do with RISE. Last week, during our lesson on “feelings”, students had to write down how they were feeling today. One of my students wrote: “Today I feel happy, because RISE came”. There is another girl, who was my student a year ago, but switched classes, so I only get to see her at the end of the day, when some students we have met from other classes go out to greet us. She loves to draw, and every week she has a sketch she made for me during the week, with a small dedication in the back. Receiving these signs of love from kids, fills my heart and soul with an inmense amount of happiness; a feeling that I can’t quite explain but that I wouldn’t change for anything in this world.
How did your personal experiences with education and impactful teachers inspire you to start RISE?
Working with a students-teaching-students method in our RISE Kids sessions gives us the power to know what both sides feel like. We know what it is like to be a student that wants an interesting teacher that uses fun dynamic ways to teach a lesson, and we know what it is like to be a teacher that is constantly worrying about parent-teacher conferences, workshops to motivate students, curriculums, and lesson plans. We try to take bits and pieces from all our classes at school, traits from teachers that inspire us, and lesson plans and fun activities we have done in the past (in conferences, in workshops, in team building activities at school), to build the most interesting classes we could possibly create. We want our students to look forward to our weekly visits, without forgetting the material we teach is as important as any other subject they study when we are not there.
How does the culture of Panama, and Latin America as a whole, affect the way young boys and girls see gender roles? How has it affected RISE?
Latin America has always had a very religious background. There are set cultural stigmas that permeate every household, and at all social levels. These cultural ideas place the man at the top of the family pyramid, the older brother has privileges the younger girls don’t have, and the father is the head of the family when it comes to decision making. Although society has become more open to equality in the family, in the work place, and in education, you can perceive a residue of its strength in the attitudes of some of our students. When we first started teaching in El Chorrillo, none of the girls would participate in class. They were all worried about the boys making fun of them, the boys seeing them, about being wrong, and would spend the class period brushing their hair and looking at their nails. When asked a question, they would look down, hide their faces, or roll their eyes to let us know they didn’t care, that this was beyond them. Now, the attitude has drastically changed. The girls participate in class every day, they raise their hands and shout out answers without showing fear of being wrong. They team up with boys during our group activities, they stand in front of the class to talk, and one of them won the Spelling Bee we had two weeks ago.
In a way, when we arrived, the attitudes of these girls shocked us, and motivated us to approach them in a more personal manner. I know I have talked to each girl individually about their lives, about the things that worry them, and also about my personal problems, so they understand we also go through similar experiences. It is important for us to make sure they know we are there for more than just school related lessons. Many of the most touching moments we have had come from personal interactions with our students, moments where they have opened up to us, and we get to instill a little positivity in their lives.
What has it been like to work with the parents of your students, as well as the Panama City community?
Our parent-teacher conference was perhaps one of the most empowering moments in our entire RISE experience. We were scared to address adults, about their children, with us still being kids as well. Asserting authority over parents was our biggest fear, but the response we received was life changing. All the parents thanked us individually, and told us stories about their children coming home to talk to them about RISE, about what the teacher had taught them that day, about the activities and games. Many parents told us their students would teach them words they learned in English class, and all of them thanked us for everything we were doing for their children. Receiving that gratification from parents, grandparents, siblings and aunts and uncles was extremely special for all of us; our work was being valued by the people who cared the most about our students, and we felt invincible. Working with the Panamanian community was always a fear we had. We were rejected multiple times for being so young, but we finally found a school with a principal that never disregarded us just because we were 17. Instead, she allowed us to come in and put our ideas into action. She opened four classes for us, and continues to let us come in and teach our lessons weekly. We are now running four classrooms, and will be opening two more with the 9th graders, along with a scholarship program and the inauguration of a new library for the school. We have worked aiding Bridges to Prosperity in a community in the interior of Panama, where we also gave scholarships to three girls last year. Now, we understand that helping the Panamanian community should instill everything except fear. It is now the force and the source of positivity that keeps us motivated to come up with new programs and projects to reach a larger number of people.
You just recently started RISE Middle School. What new challenges do you think you will face with an older age group?
Starting RISE Middle School was an idea proposed by many of our freshmen members. We dediced to start a series of workshops on self esteem because not so long ago we were also amidst middle school drama, which involved gossip, body issues, insecurities, and many confusions about changes around us and in us as well. We know that teaching an older age group brings many challenges, like asserting authority and credibility, but at the same time, we have learned through our other projects, that students teaching students brings a new outlook to education. As 17 year olds talking to 12 and 13 year olds, we create a safer, more comfortable environment. We share our personal experiences about middle school, and the problems we still face in high school, which makes the girls feel comfotable enough to share their experiences and seek for the help that maybe they are embarrassed to seek in their parents, their teachers, or their counselors. There is a mutual understanding of “I know what that feels like” because “it happened to me too”. We know that many of the topics we will address are delicate, but we also know that we will learn with them as well. We have realized with our past projects, and our ongoing RISE Kids project, that teaching is also learning. There is an exchange of knowledge no matter the age group you teach, and the lessons we learn from them are the most memorable moments of everything we have done.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions people have about young girls and education?
I think the biggest misconception comes from within a girl’s mind. They have an idea ingrained in their minds, that being interested about learning is not acceptable. Many of the girls in my class had an attitude when I asked a question, or when I was giving a lesson. They have been taught their entire lives that for girls, education is not as important; they should worry about the way they look, because to look pretty means you get a husband, who will support you and the family you create. It was sad to see that the greatest obstacle preventing the girls from appreciating their learning, were the girls themselves. This week, in conmemmoration of the International Day of the Girl, we collaborated with the United States Embassy to bring a panel of five professional Panamanian women, each with their success story (and many stories on failure as well) about their journey to success. All the speakers reitreated the importance of education in their lives, and to us, that is the message we want our girls to understand, in order to debunk these misconceptions. Education is an art, it is a gift, and it is a tool for success. But in order for us to use it properly, we must first learn to appreciate its importance.
What is the greatest message you hope these children will take from RISE as they become young adults?
I just want our students to know there are no limits when it comes to their aspirations. They come from families where circumstances are not always the best possible, and it is easy to give up and fall back in a cycle they are familiar with. Nonetheless, I hope every week they see us they are reminded that they have capabilities, just like everyone else. They have the right to an education, they have the right to be given opportunities, and as long as they seek these opportunities, there will be no one able to hold them down. There are no limitations to their right to dream, and the strength of their own potential is what they need to make these abstract ideas their reality. We support them now, and we are trying our best to give them the tools they will need in life; all they have to do is use these tools to accomplish their goals.
Natalia is the co-founder of RISE along with –