Amún Shéa is happy to announce the imminent opening of the William Brinker Laboratory for Plant Tissue, Soil, and Water Analysis. The lab is the direct result of donations of many supporters but owes its existence to the efforts and generosity of Dr. Brinker, who saw that donations targeted towards such a project have the opportunity for an enormous impact on both the students of Amún Shéa and the community of Norther Morazán.
The laboratory will take on many roles at Amún Shéa. It is an incredible hands-on resource for the students, a gateway to career opportunities, a link to upper education, and a source of income to help support the growing efforts of the school. Stainless steel lab furniture and high-quality laboratory materials are being installed at this very moment and we have the great honor of working with CENSALUD, a prestigious medical school in El Salvador, in staffing the lab and developing a diploma focused around lab work and plant genetics.
The diploma will be available to any interested students at Amún Shéa and will hopefully grow in the future to be available to students from nearby schools as well. Although not every student at the school will elect to participate in the diploma, all students will go through a basic course in lab work and have the lab as a resource for their education in the sciences. Those students that do chose to pursue in-depth work with the lab will be well prepared to continue into higher education or begin a career as a lab technician, a much sought-after skill in Central America.
Furthermore, the lab provides a much-needed community resource. Northern Morazán is replete with farmers, businesses, and organizations that need lab-testing done to determine water quality, soil-suitability, or plant health. Getting these tests done is, at the moment, only realistic for a lucky few, as the current labs are over-burdened and unable to manage the huge number of requests that they receive. Providing this service will give us a steady source of income to augment the donations that pay our teachers, allow us to give scholarships to our students, and generally keep us doing what we are doing.
The William Brinker Laboratory is an inspiring example of what your generosity can help accomplish, especially considering the potential for the life-altering changes that it may bring to our students. We are excited to see it grow and impact Amún Shéa and we hope you are too.
Now that the first week of the new school year is over, it is time to reflect on the developments that we have brought to Amún Shéa in 2017. Were you to take a walk through our campus, many changes would be very clear. The CIAC (Interactive Science Learning Center) continues to receive additions as we prepare for its February opening and our greenhouses become more and more efficient. To prepare for the huge number of visitors we anticipate the CIAC to draw from the surrounding school districts, our cafeteria got a face lift and is in the midst of a transition to a full-service restaurant (although our students will continue to be served as they always have been).
A tour of the classrooms belies the changes in our school-wide methodology for the 2017 school year. Each classroom is an open space with groups of students working together across grade levels. A series of learning communities (kindergarten, first and second grade, third through fifth grade, sixth through ninth grade, and high school) make up the school. Mixed-grade classrooms are a cornerstone of Amún Shéa’s methodology. They allow older students the opportunity to guide and mentor the younger students and, conversely, give the younger students a role-model other than the teacher, which encourages student independence and fosters social and emotional learning. Teachers become more like resources and students develop in whichever direction they chose.
Rather than students being confined to classrooms for the entire school day, you will see kids of all different ages working around the school in small groups. Sometimes they go with their computers or notebooks in hand, sometimes with art or technical supplies, and sometimes they bring only their creativity. They all have something in common: problem based learning (PBL). This methodology is something that we were developing throughout the past school year in a pilot classroom and we are thrilled to bring it to the entire school this year. Students work together with their mentors at the school to identify a real problem or project that can benefit the school or larger community and spend the semester or entire year developing a solution. The existing curriculum from the Ministry of Education, which is fully available to the students, is incorporated into the larger project. Theory is put into practice, learning is made tangible, and every student learns in the way that best suits them.
There is a palpable sense of positivity that pervades the air of Amún Shéa this year, and this has just been the first week! Stay tuned for more amazing developments from Amún Shéa.
It’s almost time for us to get rid of the “pilot” in “Pilot Project”! Come the start of the next school year in January, the nearly six-month experiment of the Pilot Project will become the full-fledged methodology for all of Amun Shea. We’ve come a long way with your help on this project but we still have a big task ahead of us in the formalization and institutionalization of our methodology.
The cornerstone of our work with the pilot project is problem- and project-based learning along with a focus on our students’ autonomy and self-directed learning. At the time of this writing, we have two classrooms, 23 students in total, that fully practice this methodology. These students make up a third of the school and represent all ages apart from kindergarten. The progress that we have made has been hugely helped by the generosity of our donors for both the internet microproject and our donors for the larger Amun Shea project.
Beginning next year, we will divide all of our students above second grade into three classrooms, all of which using the methodology developed in the pilot project classrooms. One class will contain students from third, fourth, and fifth grade, while the two remaining classes will be made up of sixth grade through high school. This organization allows us to retain the multi-grade class structure without having a classroom where the youngest students are outpaced and discouraged by the oldest students.
We have also revamped the schedule to allow time for all aspects of what we are trying to realize. Three hours every day will be dedicated to core subjects and the requirements that come along with our agreement with the Ministry of Education. Each core subject (math, science, oral and written expression, social studies, and English) will get three hours of focus each week under the new schedule.
The schedule also sets aside one hour each day of self-structured learning for the students and two hours in the afternoon for student-led clubs. Both of these additions ensure that our students have a greater level of control over their learning and more practice in leadership roles.
So what do you think of the new Amun Shea?? Let us know by getting in contact with us on Facebook. We'd love to hear your feedback!
Pilot Project Update
If you’re passionate about education, and you probably are if you’re a supporter of Amun Shea, I think you’d be interested in hearing about how your support has helped the Pilot Project, our experimental classroom methodology, to progress. Seeing as this past week marked the conclusion of the penultimate semester of the school year, now seems like an appropriate to check in!
As an entirely new venture for the students and teachers, and as a method that holds huge potential for the future of Amun Shea, myself, our school director, and the other teachers were hugely anxious to hear what the students thought about our progress so far.
We sat down on Wednesday to hear just that and, to our immense relief and satisfaction, the response was overwhelmingly positive. In fact, we couldn’t get them to give us any constructive criticism because they couldn’t think of anything to criticize! Here are a few student quotes and feelings about the Pilot Project:
“99% good and 1% bad, just because nothing can be 100% perfect”
“I wouldn’t change a single thing”
“The class has allowed us to control what we’re learning and practice teamwork, critical thinking, and self-control. I feel much more in control than before”
“We’re definitely learning more than we were learning in the traditional classroom setting”
It is wonderful to hear these things, not only because they are so positive, but also because the results we’re seeing (e.g. a greater sense of autonomy, self-driven learning, critical thinking, teamwork skills, and more effective learning) are exactly what we were looking to develop when we first set out on this venture.
I want to finish up this report with a little vignette from the last day of the semester. The previous day was our STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) fair for the school where all of the students presented their projects from that semester (see Facebook for pictures!), there was nothing left for us to do save plan for the next semester. We started the day off with brainstorming for projects for the next semester and then took a hike around the Amun Shea property.
When we got back in the afternoon, the other teachers wanted to get all of the students together to play games, a nice way to close out the semester. When we told the kids this, though, there was a number of them, about a third of the class, who would rather work on their projects! Perhaps even more astounding was that these kids were not entirely the type that would always want to sit on the sideline or shy away from games. Some of them came into the class being troublemakers or kids who seemed apathetic about learning. Yet, here they were, wanting to work on their schoolwork rather than goof off, even though they had our explicit permission to do so.
This was absolutely incredible for me. More than perhaps all of the other goals we have with the Pilot Project, inspiring genuine curiosity and love of learning is the ultimate achievement that we can reach. Knowing that this new methodology is really reaching the kids is absolutely inspiring and I cannot wait to get back into the classroom next week to see what will happen next.
If you are as inspired by this progress as I am, please consider donating what you can spare to help us further our goals in this area. As always, keep in touch with us through email or our social media pages, and if you have any questions or suggestions about the Pilot Project, we’d love to hear from you. You can contact me directly at email@example.com.
Thank you so much for your support
I want to tell you a story. There has, up until now, been a conspicuous lack of personal narrative to our mission. We can talk about our goals, what you’re making possible at Amun Shea, and why we need your help all we want—and we’ll keep doing it. It’s a vital part of our work and our outreach process and it’s something that you rightly care about. But it’s high time that we bring you a firsthand account of the impact that your generosity has had.
I do want to say a word about this story and its protagonist, and more particularly about my process in picking this story and this protagonist: I didn’t have a one. It was getting towards the end of school today and one of the students had finished his work before everyone else. I saw this as an opportunity to do an interview with him, something I had been (and still am) planning on doing with as many students as possible. I didn’t have many expectations going into it, but I definitely wasn’t prepared for what I got. This is Diego’s story.
We walked outside of the classroom into the bright afternoon and quickly found a spot in the shade on some nearby steps. I had prepared a set of questions in my notebook but I felt silly using them here. I just wanted to talk with him. So I just jumped in.
“So, Diego. Tell me a little about yourself.”
He looked a little caught off guard by such a general question but he jumped in quickly. “Well… My name is Diego. I’m a student in seventh grade but right now I’m in the pilot project class. I’m twelve years old.” He paused briefly, contemplating what to say next.
“My mother’s name is Elsa. And my father… I never met him. He left my mother and me when I was two months old. It’s always just the two of us now. But my mom, she made it possible for me to study at Amun Shea. She’s studying to become an engineer.”
“From kindergarten to second grade I went to a private school (colegio) where I suffered from bullying. In third grade I started at a public school where I was bullied. They told me to give them my money, my toys, anything I brought to school. If not, they would hit me. I moved on to fourth grade at the same school and these two boys kept bullying me. Then I moved on to fifth grade but I only spent three months there in fifth grade.
“They broke my arm two times and on top of that they hit me in the mouth with a bat and now I have false teeth. I returned to that private school halfway through the year in 2014. I started here at Amun Shea for seventh grade and I think here I’m good.”
I wish I could say I responded elegantly or supportively but pretty much all I could do was stammer out, “Wow… But, um, you feel better here?”
“What do you think the difference is between other schools and Amun Shea?” At this point I had just reverted to my prepared questions, being at such a loss for words.
“We learn better here, in a different way from other schools. It’s… I don’t know how to describe it. It’s… the education is through examples, through showing. It’s good.”
“I’m happy to hear that!” I say, because I am. All of the teachers here work so hard to provide a better, more hands-on learning environment. It’s hard to know if it comes across unless you actually hear from the students.
I already know the answer to the next question I have written down but I need to ask it anyways. This is the question that really matters, after all. “Could you say that your life has changed because of this school?”
“Definitely. Even though I was beaten up and have false teeth and don’t want to talk about it sometimes and push it down, I don’t want to cut it off completely. Yeah, it’s different here.”
“If you could change anything about the school, what would it be?”
“The truth is, I wouldn’t want to change anything.”
I chuckle, “Really?”
“Yeah, I think it’s good the way it is.”
“Good!” It’s always nice to know you’re meeting standards. “Is there anything new that you would want to see here?”
“Well, there’s one thing. One project we tried to do in 2014 a kind of playground out of recycled materials. Tires and stuff like that. A good place for us to play. That would be nice.”
“How cool!” That’s definitely a future microproject. I continue, “Well, Diego, this story is for our donors to see how the school has impacted your life. Is there anything you want to tell them?”
“Well, yes. There’s a good quality of learning and we all get along with the professors and the other students, and the volunteers too.” I think he snuck that last part in for my benefit. I certainly appreciate it.
“Is there anything else you want to say?”
“I think that’s it.”
“Well, thank you so much Diego. Thank you for sharing your story with us. I know it’s a difficult one.”
He nodded somberly and went back to class. My eyes were brimming with tears sporadically for the rest of the day.
I was flabbergasted. Not only was the story shocking and tragic, albeit with a happy ending, but Diego’s bravery, his ability to tell his story so openly and candidly was amazing. I hope not to come across another story like this at the school, but I don’t know if I will be so lucky. His spirit, though, is something that permeates the entire school.
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