Food for Thought
Ask Raul Collazos about the fruits of Maestra Vida, his groundbreaking educational experiment in the villages of El Tambo, and he may tell you that one of his biggest successes is precisely that -- the delicious fruits grown by school children and their families in an impoverished corner of southwest Colombia.
Their kitchen gardens and orchards, sown with the help of the teachers at Maestra Vida, are evidence of the group's radically different approach to education. The one-way educational process traditionally practiced in classrooms here has been replaced with a broader experience that invites and rewards cooperation among parents, teachers and children—and benefits the entire community.
"The school is not just four walls," says Esperanza Montaño, an education supervisor in Colombia and long-time colleague of Collazos. "The school is life. You cannot talk about a relationship between the school and the community, because the school is the community."
This novel approach to education is building respect across generations and fostering knowledge through projects that involve all family members. Projects such as cultivating orchards fill stomachs as well as minds, and improve the quality of life in the poor communities of Cauca, Collazos’s native province, and home to Colombia's largest indigenous population.
As a teacher, Collazos was frustrated by the strict hierarchy in Cauca’s educational system. He felt standing in front of a classroom and teaching a rigid curriculum to students was failing to reflect or value local people's lives and experiences. So he set out to create a more fluid interchange of ideas and solutions between parents, children and teachers, using an approach that takes learning far beyond the classroom.
Collazos founded Maestra Vida in 1992 in collaboration with teachers who sought to fundamentally change Colombia's education system. One groundbreaking idea was to encourage learning around what he calls "bio-orchards," where communities can grow fruits and vegetables.
The orchards are already demonstrating that local produce can promote healthier diets, while simultaneously improving the local economy. They have also enriched the relationships between parents and children. The simple act of gardening to increase self-sufficiency and the variety of food production is also providing better nutrition for children, and teaching parents to be more aware of their children's requirements.
Maestra Vida is so enthusiastic about improving the local diet that it created culinary workshops for teachers and parents on how to prepare foods, and even hired a nutritionist and culinary expert to give classes and workshops.
Running Maestra Vida has not always been easy. The school is built on the shifting sands of Colombia's long-running and brutal armed conflict, which is fueled by the drug trade. Local populations suffer as rival guerrilla groups and paramilitary squads battle for control of Cauca's territory.
Cauca is one of Colombia's most troubled provinces, but Collazos and his fellow teachers are sticking to their task, believing that educational development is necessary for other advances to follow.
"If we want to develop the community, then education is strategic," Collazos says.
According to Jorge Velásquez, director of the Christian Children's Fund’s Colombia office, which has supported Maestra Vida for several years, Maestra Vida demonstrates how a program that starts as an educational project can find ways to solve other problems. "It is not a teacher trying to show he is the fount of all knowledge. Knowledge is built, with the children."
Reported by James Wilson
What do you think?
Maestra Vida has demonstrated a working relationship between parents, teachers, and children in the rural community of El Tambo, but can this intergenerational exchange have equal success in urban areas? How can we adapt this model to address the shortcomings of our own education systems?Post your comments below: