A Shining Star on the Street in Macario Gomez

by Mari Pintkowski (March 2016)

It's 3:45 on a Tuesday in the small Maya pueblo of Macario Gomez, only 20 km west of the booming tourist Mecca of Tulum, and children are emerging from their homes on the side streets off the Coba Road and are approaching the two-story green building they call, "mi escuelita."

They see the glistening beads of their name tags hanging on the racks outside and know that Erika, Moe, Sara, Kim or Denise must be inside preparing for the afternoon. They approach, often in small groups, find their names, adorn the beaded necklaces (discarded Mardi Gras beads), and leave their flip flops in a messy pile on the sidewalk out front ... as if they have no time to waste.

They enter and greet the teachers with either a shy smile or sometimes a softly spoken "buenas tardes" or, in the case of one confident little boy, Alan, "Good afternoon, Teachers!" They scurry back to the library space, choose a book or two to explore, and within minutes a purr of 15 children reading out loud fills the air. Erika is crouched on the rug reading and questioning a small group of children about the animal book they have chosen. Erika is smiling in amazement at how much they are learning. Moe slips in quietly and is looking for an interesting book to read to the group when free reading is over. She notices that since the children helped reorganize the library books last week, they are being placed on the shelves more carefully and topics are easier to locate. Yes, this is a work in progress. Erika makes comments to Moe about things the children are noticing in the book they are reading. It is a proud moment for the two volunteers.

Kids library

After 20 minutes or so, there is a natural progression from simply reading books to choosing a game like Memory or Jenga off the newly constructed shelf in the area. Some are spreading out to play a game on the straw mats, others start to choose a clipboard and paper with crayons, markers or pencils to draw or write, and others continue to read to each other or by themselves.

Kim and Sara are ready to begin the English class in the other side of the room separated by a curtain and the library shelf, so we announce that the children have five more minutes before cleanup. Today we will read a story to the entire class before we separate into three groups. All teachers and children gather on the straw mats and cushions, and Moe and Erika sit on the couch to read the story together. Today Moe chooses a bilingual book about the topic of animals they will be learning about today. She begins to introduce the story in English and Erika reads the words in Spanish. Many of the older children read along with Erika and some are starting to recognize the English words as well. Wow. We are impressed.

Sara and Kim softly tap the children in their class (children in 3rd grade or above who are able to read) and they move toward the table in their "classroom." In order to provide some structure and consistency, they begin with a calendar lesson. We hear them shouting "today is ... ","tomorrow was ..." and then the volume decreases as Kim begins to read a simple story in English that reinforces this lesson. Since it is the beginning of a new month, Kim is guiding them to make a calendar of the month; inserting birthdays of their friends in class and other important dates.

After this activity, Sara, our English language teacher, continues reinforcing "to be" verbs. The children are constructing sentences orally and in writing, often using manipulatives and games. Every once in a while we hear their voices melodiously chanting such phrases as, "I am happy" or "The policeman is not happy," and know they are growing in their use of the English language and are moving past just colors and numbers. I see the faces of the children and teachers as we emerge from the library space at the end of the day and know they are learning and having fun.

The younger children organize themselves (they are all on the same level when it comes to learning English, so it is not necessary to separate them by age or other category) into two groups, one with Moe and one with Erika. They know they will change groups half-way through so there is not such a scramble to find a space to sit. Erika has chosen to use clipboards, paper and colored pencils today with the group learning the new English words: sea, sky and earth. Moe has brought along some small animals that the children will sort and identify as to which category the animals belong in. Repetition, repetition, repetition just to learn three new words and find new ways to represent their learning. Erika and I will observe and then come up with a follow-up activity to do on Friday with the same children. On our art day (Wed.), we later decide that one group will use crayon and watercolor to represent the various ecosystems found in the sea, sky and on earth. The other children will make 3-D collages using some animal stickers and markers to show what they are learning about different animal habitats in the world. We are lucky to have a growing collection of art resources in which to explore with the children.

Again we go with a natural rhythm rather than an exact hour to end the classes. I notice that several children have gone to the storage area in the bathroom and found the brooms and mops while others have moved the grass mats out of the way so the sweepers can begin to tackle the job. Two little boys are picking up trash and taking it to the trash can by the front door. I see that several small children are starting to return art and writing materials to the proper shelves and jump in to help them with this task. Denise is close to the library when children are bringing the books back to the shelves and is helping them find the right category for each one. Two tiny little girls are working together to stack the floor cushions and place them in the corner of the room. All of these tasks are done by the children with very little guidance needed by the teachers. I observed a child sweeping the tiny scraps of paper along with dirt out the front door and into the yard and knew that what we needed that very day was a dust pan!

We all walk out together and Cristina reminds me to take my beaded name tag off and hang it on the rack with the others and laughs, "Moe always forgets." I know I will stop by the next morning to make sure the room has been cleaned properly before the next day of class and that my materials are ready for group so that when the children arrive we are ready to engage. Those of you who knew me back in Colorado when I directed and taught at The Learning Tree know that some things never change: Once a teacher always a teacher.

To see weekly photos of the work the children are doing and our current wish lists go to the Facebook page: Help the Children of Macario Gomez. We welcome new volunteers and books (in Spanish) for our library and games and art materials. Contact us through the Facebook page.

Moe Mulrooney and her husband, Lou, own and operate a B&B, La Selva Mariposa, in Macario Gomez. See Moe's many articles in Sac-Be's archives or books on www.amazon.com.

Mari Pintkowski front of school
Akumal Villas

Cabanas Tulum