By Francoise Heyden, Middle School Spanish Teacher at Carolina Friends School in Durham, North Carolina
What a gift this Nobis World service-learning trip to the Dominican Republic was! And on so many levels! This intense and powerful week immersed in cultural learning was well worth the effort of scraping together the funding for it! The Nobis World program prepared us via carefully constructed e-learning to understand the historical background and social context of what we saw; once we were there, the program gave us plenty of tools for processing our experience with our colleagues; and the forum will stay open this academic year for discussion and sharing of materials. Nonetheless, however well-prepared I thought I was, having traveled extensively in the past and dealt with issues of poverty in other places, I had to be on the island physically to appreciate the reality of the lives of the girls at the Mariposa Center for Girls in Cabarete. The Nobis Big Ideas framework and various group activities helped me unpack what we experienced on our trips to the school and different communities and I enjoyed our group discussions as each teacher shared his or her impressions. The intensity was both exhilarating and exhausting, making it challenging to provide the help we wanted to the school and to fully process how we would apply our service learning ideas to our own classrooms. Ideally, we would have had a couple more days to spend time with the Mariposa teachers to see how to help them most effectively and to formulate our own plans for service learning once we returned home. As a Spanish teacher at the Middle School level, I have lots of ideas for cultural exploration with my classes. As someone very interested in promoting service learning at my school, I knew all about the challenges of engaging students (and staff, for that matter!) in meaningful community outreach. While I did not find any easy answers to my questions, I did enjoy having the time to discuss and reflect on the plans I was starting to formulate. They may not all be feasible for logistical reasons, but I am inspired to try supporting the Mariposa Center for Girls with lesson plans my students create to teach Dominican children’s stories (especially by Julia Alvarez) and with fund-raising. More ambitious is a plan I have for an elective service class in which we would create a short documentary segment in the style of the Girl Rising stories about Alba Rosa, the eleven year old girl who teaches children in her neighborhood after attending Mariposa Center for Girls.
This amazing and thought-provoking trip strengthened my belief from working on a number of such school projects that service learning has to meet several criteria to make it meaningful for the givers and the receivers. These include: 1) a commitment to establishing a long-lasting relationship between schools (this requires deep listening to their needs, cultural sensitivity, and respect for their way of doing things), 2) personal contact, if not actually physically meeting each other or skyping, at least exchanging photos and letters, 3) solid understanding of how the center operates, what works well for them, what does not, good communication with the staff and parents, 4) assessment of the community resources, history, and relationship with, as well as support for the center, and 5) flexibility and patience as plans evolve. The Nobis Global Action Model and program on the whole gave us a good foundation for elaborating our own school’s service learning projects by giving us a close-up view of helping address Dominican poverty through education at the Mariposa Center for Girls.