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Update: Visiting Xela

I spent the last two weeks of July visiting Shirley Lopez Yancor, Mi Casita Montessori’s founder and lead directress in Xela, Guatemala. It had been 5 years since I last saw her, so it was a truly lovely reunion, especially now that we share the common language of AMI Montessori. We were quite busy those two weeks. We brainstormed construction ideas for the space, we talked more about fund-raising and creating connections to other Montessori communities worldwide, we held a conference for  interested parents giving a brief explanation of the Montessori Method and we plotted out our long-term goals for the project.

Donations: THANK YOU!

Depositing donations into the school's bank account!

During the month of June we worked to raise $4,000 in 40 days. Not only did we meet that goal, but thanks to your generous donations we surpassed it! We raised $5,050 and while, the fund-raising platform we used, takes a cut, we still had enough to buy and ship an entire classroom’s worth of authentic Montessori materials. These materials are in the mail as we speak and are set to arrive in Xela on August 28th or 29th.

We also had money remaining, which is amazing because with this Shirley is able to start the construction process on the school site. If you are interested in donating to the construction fund, please contact us at We have about $3,000 more to raise in order to complete construction on the school.

The School Site: Construction!

The school site is located on land adjacent to Shirley’s family home in an outalying neighborhood of Xela. The actual school room will be in what used to be a basketball court. There are already three walls, drainage, water hookups, and a cement foundation. What the school currently lacks is a roof, flooring, windows, bathrooms, doors, and painted walls. Additionally, there is work to be done on the garden and orchard areas outside of the building, as well as the construction of the furniture. Check out this video here to see a walk through of the projected school site:

As you can see below we spent a lot of our time in Xela running around to various construction locations to get estimates on glass, flooring, roofs, tables, chairs and shelves, etc… Explaining the tiny sized chairs and tables to the carpenter was especially amusing!

Our contractor, measuring the school site to give us a quote on the roof.

Checking out flooring options. We ultimately decided to go with wood. It's cheaper and Shirley and her family can install it themselves.

Shirley at the glass store. The front of the school will have child-level windows that look out into the orchard.

Shirley with the first chair prototype, unfinished. Subsequent chairs will have backs that are flush with the seat width, as well as varnish!

Our First Conference: What is the Montessori Method?

We whipped up this flyer and our conference in about a week!

When I arrived in Xela, after much hugging, giggling and exclaiming over not having seen each other for so long, Shirley and I decided that we should put on a conference. Over the course of about one week we put together a power point presentation, as well as informational material to explain what Montessori actually is to the people of Xela.

Information table at the conference

This first conference was small with about 10 people in attendance. However, the feedback we received was incredible! Everyone was visibly excited to learn more and those with young children have already told Shirley they would like to enroll. A big thank you to Meg at Sew Liberated for allowing us to show her photos of the children she worked with near Juarez. The amazement on people’s faces when they saw a young girl de-graining an ear of corn and then making tortillas was priceless. Watch here as Shirley gives the water pouring demonstration to one of the conference participants. They were so excited by this that afterward, several people came up to try their hands at water pouring.

Shirley will continue to hold a conference every month through December to further educate interested parents and community members about Montessori. Most recently, she was on Xela radio, and the woman who interviewed her has decided to enroll her children!

Shirley and Zil at the Conference.

Long Term Goals: Education for Peace

Talking about the long-term goals for this project meant talking about the current needs of Shirley’s community. We spoke, often tearfully, about Guatemala’s long history of violence, and how education is unavailable to many children there. When it is available, it often lacks materials, properly trained teachers, and opportunities to become inspired by learning. Traditional schooling in Guatemala is frequently based on a model of recitation. Children are not encouraged to become creative, inspired learners. School is a place to listen and do as you are told.

I have also been reading The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop by Francisco Goldman. In it he describes how the U.S.’s long-standing economic power in Guatemala has encouraged the country’s continued state of corruption and violence. The United Fruit Company effectively reversed the agrarian land reforms made in the 50’s and the U.S. then supported the training of special forces units of the Guatemalan army. These forces went on to become the killing machines used in the 80’s to destroy over 600 villages and murder over 70,000 people. This is the history that the parents of young children right now grew up with.

This is their story and it is a story that continues. The murder rate has continued to climb between 2000 and 2009, and the United Nations rank Guatemala as the third most murderous country in the world (See Rosenberg’s 2011 New Yorker article). The looming September 2011 elections have created another excuse for violence. During the scant two weeks I was in the country, I read about 3 political assassinations in the local papers. Violence is a norm here, and it is one that desperately needs changing.

For us, starting this school is a way to actively combat the rising violence. While Shirley has many years experience working as a therapist with children who have been the victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse, and homelessness, she, like I, sees the powerful potential of Montessori to create an educational foundation for peace, community, and tools to become life-long learners. The beauty of Montessori is that it offers an opportunity for children to work in a living community together, to learn to think critically, and to be joyfully engaged in their learning. It is education for peace. In a country where only 62% of children attend school through the 5th grade, and where 36 years of a bloody civil war shape the life stories of its people, education for peace is vital. We hope to help provide a safe place where  learning is not only fun, but helps children learn to help themselves and one another.

As part of our mission, we ultimately aim to hold 1/3 of the spots open for children whose families cannot pay for school. In January, we will begin our scholarship program with one child. His name is Antony, and I had the privilege of meeting him and his grandmother on one rainy afternoon in late July. He, and nine other 2.5-3.5 year old children will comprise the first cohort in Mi Casita Montessori. We only hope that this project continues to grow and in growing, promote our mission of peace.

Antony: The first child to be enrolled in Mi Casita Montessori!

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