Tag Archives: Mariposas

We made it!


We’re absolutely thrilled to announce that, due to the generosity of our friends, family and blog readers, we ha have reached our fundraising goal and will be offering a scholarship to bring a qualified and Spanish speaking teacher to Mariposas.

We know from our experience that this will make a big difference to the kids who attend the school. And, because the focus will be on getting the school working well, we know it will make a difference to future kids too.

Thank you all so much for your kindness and generosity.

We’ll keep you informed about our progress selecting a great candidate, and tell you a little about them once they’re appointed.

If anyone else wishes to donate, but hasn’t yet had the chance, we’ll keep the donation page up for a little while. Mariposas runs on donations. Any surplus funds beyond the scholarship will be donated directly to the school.

Revisiting our decision to volunteer

DSC06621Our decision to volunteer and to do so at Mariposas was not taken lightly. Two and a half months ago we wrote about how and why we chose to do so. Now that we’re done we wanted to revisit what we said with the benefit of hindsight. We made a great decision; most surprises we encountered were good ones.

Bigger benefits than we thought

Our starting point was to acknowledge that our volunteering would mix benefits to us and to others. We weren’t doing the most virtuous thing, but we were doing something that would benefit others. We stand by this as a way to think about things. Any short term volunteer who doesn’t acknowledge this balance is naive. But our experience was that the benefits to us, and to others, exceeded our expectations.

Benefits to us

  • We got the benefits we’d expected – learning Spanish, living in the real deal Colombia and feeling useful along the way – but also a lot more.
  • The kids weren’t an amorphous blob watching the whiteboard and raising hands. We got to know them well, and learned lots about the lives they lead. Actually just spending time around younger kids was refreshing and different for us.
  • We became more emotionally invested with the project than we expected, and we got a bigger kick out of the kids’ victories.
  • We underestimated what we’d learn from working in primary education: what you had to learn when you were six and how to teach it is not simple.

Benefits to others

  • Revision proved the kids were learning things. Some of them had significant breakthroughs with us.
  • Kids seemed to be lacking in attention and affection at home. Giving them that was easy. It made their day.
  • Little extra things we could contribute mattered: ukulele songs, stories, art projects
  • We were also able to make contributions to Mariposas as an organisation. We talk about that below.

Continue reading Revisiting our decision to volunteer

Leaving Mariposas

Final goodbyes: student tries to convince Fiona he can come with us in our backpack.
Final goodbyes: student tries to convince Fiona he can come with us in our backpack.

What we take away

  • Crystal clear memories of all the good times, of all the victories: Hedgehog smiling full of pride and delight and confidence when she learned something new or surprised herself by sounding out a new word; the prescolar who normally never talks to adults but suddenly burst out with “Good Morning” in English class; the sudden and unexpected increase in volume when kids go from not knowing to knowing a song; the hugs hello; and, the hugs goodbye…
  • An abiding respect for teachers of all stripes, and especially those who teach in difficult communities.
  • Improved Spanish, especially in the imperative forms.
  • A reaffirmed belief that it’s not fair how drastically difference our experience of life is depending on where we’re born.


What we leave behind

  • Stuff: two ukuleles, six picture books and a red sports bag that is surplus to requirements.
  • A functioning timetable and system to plan classes from week to week.
  • Three songs the kids can sing, and hum to themselves between maths problems.
  • A second grade class that can: add and subtract three digit numbers (borrowing, carrying and all); look up a word in a dictionary; write a story; measure in centimetres; read aloud to preschoolers; and; quietly to themselves.
  • Knowing we have – with the help of many of you – the resources to arrange for a qualified Spanish speaking teacher for six months.
  • The kids. With other volunteers, or even other travelers it’s easy enough to exchange facebook details and the belief that you’ll see each other in someone’s home country some time. As much as we care, that’s not true for the kids. We’ll never know how their lives work out, though we know the possibilities go from terrific to disastrous. We’re grateful to the volunteers we know will follow us, and the chances they will give to the kids to improve their chances in life.

The Secret Life of Volunteers


One of the great things about working with Mariposas is the pre-prepared community of friends that is the international volunteers. The constant comings and goings means there is always a good reason to get together and go out for dinner. And then ice cream. And then some drinks. After siesta time there’s rarely a day when you couldn’t find another volunteer on the beach at Taganga. On the day the below photo was taken all but one of the us found ourselves at the same spot. We also travel further afield in the weekends to other beaches, or the mountains.


Often our conversations resemble what a school staff room might sound like. We talk about our favourites and our frustrations with particular kids. We talk about funny things that happened in class and things that worry us. We talk about things we wish were different, and we acknowledge the many reasons they can’t easily be. We gripe about organisational bits and pieces.  There’s no union, and no striking, though our wages are a scandal…

We also talk about our homes, the foods we miss and the weather we don’t. Our conversations float between English and Spanish depending on who’s more comfortable with what. Surprisingly given Colombia’s location, there are more European’s than North Americans. That’s good when it comes to another of our favourite conversations: the difference between American and other English. I have recorded an objective catalogue of these discussions for posterity:

  • We say entres and mains. Amercians say appetisers and entres. This is plainly ridiculous. Entre is clearly associated with something you do before something else. Think entrance, or the French word for before: entre!.Oh, and entrada in Spanish. One point to us.
  • Americans swim in the ocean. We swim in the sea. To be fair to Americans, if they swim off the vast majority of their coast they will be swimming in an Ocean, whereas plenty of other swimming is in the sea. So, absent overwhelming logic we go to a tie breaker: what does Spanish say? In Spanish you swim in el mar – the sea. Sea it is. Another point to non-American English.
  • We call 7Up and Sprite lemonade. Americans call it 7Up and Sprite and reserve lemonade for non-fizzy lemon tasting stuff which you might make yourself at home. They’re on to something. 7Up and Sprite have very little to do with lemons. And, by calling them lemonade, we’re left without a specific term for the lemon tasting stuff. Point to America.
  • Americans say apple cider when we’d say spiced apple juice. They say ‘hard cider’ when it’s alcoholic and we’d just say cider. This hass some merit because it also allows them to say, for example ‘hard lemonade’. However wine is not ‘hard grape juice’. Glaringly inconsistent. Still, us non-Americans be call that a draw and be ahead on points.

Sports day

Once a week on a Thursday the full school heads down to the local open dirt area field, for sports day. Often the local giant rodent and other neighbourhood kids join the fun.

The kids are always bursting with energy, eager to get their feet as dirty as possible, and  occasionally interested in following instructions. We play games, like:

  • Candlesticks (also known as stuck in the mud)
  • Variations of bull rush called toros or sharks and fishes
  • Running races and relays

Vamos en circulo! Getting them in a circle is just the beginning of our challenges.
Vamos en circulo! Getting them in a circle is just the beginning of our challenges.

And often we relent to the growing cries and let the kids play football. Football is massive here especially in this world cup year where Colombia has a genuine shot at victory.

Our kids take themselves most seriously when they’re playing football. Although actually there are a couple of key differences between what they play, and football. Scoring goals is still the nominal aim, but touching the ball is the real goal. So they all swarm around the ball and charge up and down the field like killer bees chasing the ball. And when your team begins losing the appropriate response is to either a) go and sulk on the side of the field or b) push over the competition, both of which are counterproductive.

Time out. Your Spanish doesn't have to be perfect, so long as your tone of voice is clear.
Time out. Your Spanish doesn’t have to be perfect, so long as your tone of voice is clear.

So while the kids love it, we’re not especially enamored with football. The last few weeks we haven’t played, and we’ve just about managed to hold the kids attention with other games. Some new volunteers with sports backgrounds have taught games that focus on team work, jumping through a skipping rope together.

It’s still a struggle to hold the kids’ attention when you’re asking them to run around one minute then sit still and listen the next. Fighting isn’t rare, and Time Out is common. But every time we trudge back up the hill for water and bananas without the kids having chanted for football, we chalk it up as a victory.

Game twenty four

When Fiona was ten she was the Waikato Regional Game Twenty Four Champion. Such was her prowess and dedication to her sport that she would probably have gone all the way to a national title had their been the forum for her to progress beyond the contest at the Hamilton McDonald’s. At the time small Fiona recorded in her diary: “Can you believe it, diary? Is it really true?… I am the happiest person in the world.”


So, as you can imagine, Fiona was pleased to share this game at Mariposas. We’d brought it from home thinking we could use it in maths class. But the modest multiplication and division skills it requires puts it out of reach of most at the school. Still for the older ones, and those who are more competitively inclined, it’ll be great. Fiona even let them win a couple of rounds.

More on absenteeism

We’ve written before that absenteeism is a big problem. Two of our students spent most of the week away from school last week. They returned today and we asked them why.

Their answers varied somewhat in reasonableness:

  • One said her stepfather (the family breadwinner) had been sick. He couldn’t work and so wasn’t earning. The family didn’t have enough money to feed the kids so sent them to their grandparents, which is too far away to commute to school.
  • One – we found out via the brother who dropped her off – had simply told her family there was no class that week. And they believed her!

Violence around school

Here’s a thought experiment:

You teach a first grade class. There are two brothers in your class who are very quick at maths, so you’ve taken to offering them extra problems to solve. They usually lap this up, but one day you hear one brother cautioning the other that if they have more homework their mum will hit them both. You think you might have misheard so you don’t think much of it. But just in case you emphasise that the extra work is for class time only, not for homework.

Fast forward a week or so. One of the brothers comes to school with a not insignificant cut above his eye. One of the local staff asks him what its from. He says his mum kicked him because he didn’t know one of the letters. You’ve no reason to disbelieve him. But practically you’ve no ability to access government services that might intervene in this family, as there aren’t any.

Should you keep setting the brothers homework?

The issues we deal with

You may have guessed that, sadly, this is not just a thought experiment, but a real situation that some of the other volunteers have been dealing with. After consulting with local staff the conclusion was, yes, you keep setting homework like normal. There’s a strong cultural expectation of homework – called tareas here – and parents use it to measure whether their kids are learning anything at school. The brothers might just as easily be abused if they come home without tareas.

But we’ll redouble the questioning about how things are going at home, especially the process by which homework is done. Apparently the only next step available to us would be talking directing to the family.

It’s an uncomfortable feeling to know that your actions as a teacher could have violent consequences for your students. One preescolar was especially misbehaving one day and  was sent home with a note to his parents. He was conspicuously absent at school the next day and his step-father is known to be abusive. His big sister reported that he had been suspended . That wasn’t the outcome we were looking for. And we worried that ‘suspension’ was a euphemism.

We’ve limited sight into the homes of the kids we teach and next to no influence over them. It seems like the best we can do is model an environment where violence isn’t a component of discipline. Hopefully it occurs to the kids that they’re sitting in time out, waiting for glitter to fall to the bottom of an upturned soda bottle full of water, rather than being struck.

If the kids report this back to their parents though, they’ll probably think we’re balmy. The anti-corporal punishment norms we grew up with are the polar opposite of those here. One parent came to pick their son up on a day when he’d made all sorts of mischief. A volunteer told her so. “Well” said the mother to her son “you need to be careful because if you misbehave at school again they’ll hit you. Very hard.”

Um, no we won’t.

*Alternative title considered and discarded: It’s not okay. But it is okay to blog about it.


We’ve got a new student in our class joining fantail and hedgehog and the others. We’ll call him Tigger because he’s got a certain amount of bounce in him.

Tigger’s mum is the school caretaker and teaches preschool. They live in a one room house with a single bed next to school. They use the school bathrooms as they’ve no running water of their own. Tigger’s dad isn’t around. His older brother has just been called up for military service.

He’s of the age and the disposition where going to shake your hand and pulling away at the last second is still hilarious. He’s chirpy and smart. Genuinely one of the loveliest kids you could ever hope to meet. Which is remarkable and heartbreaking all at once.

Tigger has a range of serious health problems. He’s diabetic, has a problem with his heart that we don’t understand, and an inoperable brain tumor. We say inoperable because his mum says inoperable. We can’t bare to try and figure out whether the same prognosis would be given if Tigger was being treated in the west.

The tumor will kill him eventually, but no one is sure when.

Tigger has been getting worse in the ten weeks we have been here. Mostly he’s fine, but sometimes he’s gotten crippling headaches. He becomes disoriented and faints. In the past week he’s been hospitalised for further investigation, but it doesn’t sound like they’ve found out anything new.

For some time now doctors have been saying that Tigger shouldn’t be attending school anymore. But he’s been going to a local Colombian school in the afternoons because he’s a bright and engaged twelve year old and he wants to be a Normal Boy. Seems like the recent stint in hospital is the final straw though. At least he can attend Mariposas, just steps from his home, and come and go as his pain allows.

Having him in second grade – when he should be in sixth – will bring some special challenges. But we, and the volunteers that follow, will do everything we can to make it a good experience for him. We’re hoping he’ll learn the ukulele.

The situation is a tragedy of the most beastly kind. Of course no one deserves to get what Tigger has gotten. But it seems extra capricious given he’s a bright, charming and good hearted kid.

Sharing a book


When we arrived nine weeks ago this girl couldn’t and wouldn’t read aloud. Now, here she is, sitting in front of the preschool class and reading to them. We were stunned. We’d been planning for this all week, and she’d basically memorised the book, but we still thought she’d chicken out.

She did a great job – the preschoolers were attentive and engaged. And she was delighted with herself at the end. She hugged the preschoolers. She hugged all the volunteers. And you couldn’t wipe the smile of her face until maths class…