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Giving Back to Leganes

Ever since I met the wonderful students and dedicated staff at Leganes National High School in the Philippines, I have been thinking about how my school community in the United States might help them gain access to much-needed resources. The staff do their work without adequate books or technology, and pay for many needed supplies, even photocopying for lessons, own of their own pockets from their meager salaries. When I returned, I shared the story of Leganes with our school’s leadership team, and asked for ideas for how we could make a difference.

Our extraordinary media specialist Anita jumped right on the idea and suggested centering a fundraiser around International Literacy Day on September 8. Since the school year started on August 31, we needed to move quickly to spread the word and generate enthusiasm.

We organized a “hat day” event on September 8 and 9, where students could wear a hat to school, normally not permitted, in exchange for a one dollar donation to the Leganes fund.

Sixth grade students and I on Hat Day.

Sixth grade students with me on Hat Day.

Seventh grade hat day participants

Seventh grade hat day participants.

Eighth grade Hat Day

Eighth grade Hat Day students. Note the giant squid hat!

We also wrote announcements to publicize the event, sharing some statistics about Leganes. Student members of the National Junior Honor Society collaborated to create informative posters and announcements. I also spoke to a gathering of parents at our school’s Back to School Night to explain the purpose of our fundraiser. I connected our goals to the school’s International Baccalaureate program, which encourages students to be internationally minded and to serve others.

Raising funds -- and awareness.

Raising funds — and awareness.

Result? We raised over $400 which will shortly wing its way to the Philippines to support the school resources fund of Leganes. Even more rewarding than the money raised were the conversations I had with countless teachers, students, and parents who had heard about the fundraiser. Here are some of the repeated themes of those conversations:

  • We are so fortunate to live where we do.
  • My school (in Ecuador, Morocco, Uganda, Peru, El Salvador, and so on…) also lacked resources, so I can connect personally to the experience of the students at Leganes.
  • I’m from the Philippines originally. I love it there, but the poverty can be overwhelming.
  • I’d like to learn more about Leganes and communicate with the students there.
  • So, when are you going back?
Literacy king and queen in our royal hat day gear!

Literacy king and queen in our royal hat day gear!

Leganes, you are always in my heart. I’m so glad we can do one small thing for you to return some the infinite kindness you showed towards me.

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I shall return

I am back in the land of reliable Internet, bright lights, functional crosswalks, dependable air-conditioning, consistently flushing toilets, and water I can drink straight out of the tap.

I am missing the land of crazy jaywalkers, uncomfortable “comfort rooms,” boku halo, warm smiles, ubiquitous Jeepneys, endless coastline. I miss being greeted with a smile and a “good morning Ma’am,” pronounced with an accent that made it sound just like “Mom.” I miss feeling that everyone is family.

I am already plotting my return to the Philippines, but I plan to make a few changes next time. During my next trip to the Philippines, I will:

Visit some more places

Even the youngest Filipino can rattle off the “must visit” places of their country: the beaches of Boracay, the unspoiled paradise of Palawan, the mountains and rice terraces of the Cordilleras.

Beautiful Palawan

Beautiful Palawan. Image source: Flickr

Cordillera rice terraces. Image source: Flickr

Cordillera rice terraces. Image source: Flickr

Engage more directly with students

Much of our time was devoted to official meetings with government representatives and administrators. Next time, I’d bypass most of those meetings in favor of interaction with students. Less schmooze, more kid time.

Selfie with students

Selfie with students

Spend longer in one school

I appreciated the opportunity to see the range of public and private schools in the Philippines, but I longed to spend more than a few hours at a time in one school. Ideally, during my next visit I could spend most of my time getting to know the students of a single school better.

Leganes students (picture by Sana Mahmood)

Leganes students (picture by Sana Mahmood)

Shoes outside the classroom at Leganes National High School (picture by Sana Mahmood)

Shoes outside the classroom at Leganes National High School (picture by Sana Mahmood)

Be more cautious about food

All of the endless meals and snacking in the Philippines finally took their toll. I ended up combating tummy trouble during the last week of my journey. Next time, I’d heed the advice of medical professionals and stick to cooked foods and bottled water only. Raw fruits and vegetables are tempting but are probably to blame for my distress. Don’t worry – a dose of antibiotics when I returned home cured me!

Hold the halo?

Hold the halo?

Learn more of the local language

I visited the Philippines believing that most residents spoke Filipino and English. While it’s true that those two are taught in school, in reality the languages of the Philippines encompass a much more diverse range. In fact, over 100 languages are spoken at home. In the area we visited, most residents speak the Ilongo language. While learning a few words and phrases of Filipino was helpful, even better would be mastering enough Ilongo to navigate a conversation.

Students writing in English, their third language (picture by Sana Mahmood)

Students writing in English, their third language (picture by Sana Mahmood)

Visit old friends and make new ones

I will never forget the friendships I made in the Philippines, especially the kind teachers and students of Leganes National High School. I want to visit them once again, and I also would like to meet more of the friendliest people in the world.

During World War Two, General Douglas MacArthur made a promise to the people of the Philippines: I shall return. And he did. And I shall.

With new friends

With new friends in Leganes

Saying goodbye...for now

Saying goodbye…for now

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Magic Penny

Over the last several days, we had the opportunity to visit a variety of schools in the province of Iloilo: elementary schools, high schools, and colleges. Most private schools had affluent students with plentiful technology and other resources, while most public schools functioned with large class sizes and severely limited resources. The desks housed in a museum of historical artifacts at one fancy private school would have been welcome additions in the classrooms at some of the public schools, where students sat at broken, rusted desks or had no desks at all.

Typical public school desks.

Typical public school desks

Private school students.

Private school students

No matter the setting, the best resources in every school we visited were the teachers. Universally upbeat, they teach with passion. Each teacher we observed focused not only on imparting knowledge but also on creating a warm, family-like classroom atmosphere. We witnessed no negative interactions between staff and students. Zero yelling, zero put-downs, lots of supportive comments and occasional gentle reminders, always delivered with a genuine smile.

A high school teacher supports a student as he presents.

A high school teacher supports a student as he presents.

An elementary school teacher models respectful listening.

An elementary school teacher models respectful listening.

Like their teachers, students displayed a consistent attitude of resilience. While I was teaching a journalism class, a storm hit, knocking out electrical power. Strong winds blew through the open windows and shattered glass objects in the classroom. The students calmly closed the windows and continued their lesson, completely unfazed. Their American teacher was a little fazed!

Journalism class in the dark

Journalism class in the dark

Intrepid journalism students (with their trepid teacher)

Fearless journalism students (with their slightly fearful teacher)

As we became more comfortable in different school settings, my teaching partner and I eschewed formal presentations for open dialogue with staff and students. Their insightful questions impressed us. Here’s a sample:

How do you think gay marriage will affect life in the United States?

I think it will improve life in the United States!

Is life in the United States as violent as portrayed in movies?

Nope! One student wanted to know how many shootings there had been at my school, and was surprised when I answered zero.

What will you miss most about the Philippines?

That’s an easy one: the people.

What do you really think about gay marriage?

I support it! At one Catholic school, I quoted Pope Francis, “Who am I to judge?” and students applauded.

When are you coming back? And will you bring those guapo stepsons of yours?

Soon, I hope, and yes, I hope so!

Music is a central part of life in the Philippines. At each school, students sang or danced for us. The fifth graders at Leganes Elementary performed “Magic Penny.” For me, the lyrics exemplify the attitude of the students and teachers of the Philippines:

Joy is something if you give it away,

You end up having more.

So let’s go dancing till the break of day,

And if there’s a piper, we can pay.

To the wonderful students and teachers of the Philippines: like a magic penny, I hope to return to you one day! Salamat and palangga ta ka! Thank you and I love you!

Thank you notes from Leganes National High School students. Gratitude is something if you give it away - it comes right back to you.

Thank you notes from Leganes National High School students. Gratitude is something if you give it away – you end up having more.

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Testing the comfort zone

Back when I was a timid middle school student, my PE teacher (the terrific Mr. Canzanese) encouraged me to take risks by saying, “You’re only really learning when you’re out of your comfort zone.” I’m learning a lot in the Philippines as I test my comfort zone daily.

Transportation

Our daily commute to school involves two Jeepneys and a tricikab, a motorized bike with an attached passenger compartment. There seems to be no limit to how many passengers can be squeezed into these contraptions. Roma and I have navigated the process of paying, transferring, and asking for a stop, all in the local Ilongo dialect.

Tricikab

Tricikab

Stuffing into a trikab. Not pictured: the two or three  riders often dangling from the top.

Stuffing into a tricikab. Not pictured: the two or three riders often dangling from the top.

Riding on a Jeepney. They are the size of large vans with two side-facing benches. The open sides have plastic covers that can be pulled down in the rain.

Riding on a Jeepney. They are the size of large vans with two side-facing benches. The open sides have plastic covers that can be pulled down in the rain.

Communication

Personal questions and comments are the norm. It’s not considered rude to ask someone age, income, or marital status, or to comment frankly on a person’s physical appearance. “You’re so white!” and “You don’t eat much, but you’re chubby” are no different from mentioning that someone is tall or has blue eyes. One woman introduced her daughter to me by saying, “She’s chubby,” and another greeted her friend with, “Wow, you are much fatter since I last saw you!”

With some students at Leganes Elementary School. Can you find the white, chubby American lady?

With some students at Leganes Elementary School. Can you find the white, chubby American lady?

In the spotlight

We have needed to adjust to a constantly shining spotlight. We stand out as foreigners and people are eager to converse, take our picture, and see us perform. Every day we are asked to speak publicly to large groups at the schools we visit. Our audience often insists that we follow our speech with a dance, to an accompaniment of uproarious laughter and copious photographing and videotaping as we muddle our way through. I cringe to think what evidence might have crept onto YouTube! Our hip-hop performance was atrocious, while our Tinikling (traditional Filipino dance of hopping quickly between moving bamboo sticks) continues to improve.

Tinikling dancers at Barotac Nuevo National Comprehensive High School

Tinikling dancers at Barotac Nuevo National Comprehensive High School

Food

As guests, we are offered multiple meals each day, prepared by our wonderful and generous hosts. While unfamiliar, nearly everything I’ve tried has been quite tasty, and sometimes downright delicious.

Typical spread

Typical lunch spread.

Mangos, rice cakes, boku, and other traditional dishes

Mangoes, rice cakes, boku, and other traditional dishes.

Enjoying a refreshing drink of boku (coconut juice)

Enjoying a refreshing drink of boku (coconut juice).

Learning, growing, testing and expanding my comfort zone; Mr. Canzanese would be proud.

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A spirit of community

The theme that pulls together our weekend experiences is community. We saw it everywhere we went: a resilient and proud community of people working together and enjoying life despite enormous challenges. The more time I spend in the Philippines, the more impressed I become with this spirit.

Early Saturday morning, we met volunteers from the school and other local groups who have transformed an abandoned fishpond into the thriving Katunggan mangrove plantation. Volunteers unearth and bag delicate mangrove seedlings to improve their survival chances. Mangroves provide essential wildlife habitat and flood protection. Since 2009, the community has worked tirelessly to protect 82,000 mangroves. Well, make that 82,005 thanks to the efforts of Roma and me!

Transformation from abandoned fishpond to mangrove sanctuary

Transformation from abandoned fishpond to mangrove sanctuary

With volunteers at mangrove bagging

With volunteers at mangrove bagging

The Philippines is the land of festivals, celebrating both religious and non-religious events. Our guides might not have exaggerated when they told us that a festival happens 365 days a year in the Philippines. We arrived in the midst of the Biray Paraw festival in Leganes, held at the Riannes Beach Resort. A paraw is a double outrigger sailboat traditional to the Visayas region. Roma and I experienced biray-biray (enjoyment of sailing) when one of the riggers took us for a ride. We also enjoyed some exercise in the form of sandbar soccer and a dance-off with local performers. We had a great time chatting with the young people attending the festival about school, sports, and music.

Biray Paraw Festival, Leganes

Biray Paraw Festival, Leganes

Paraw sailboats

Paraw sailboats

Dance-off? Yes, please!

Dance-off? Yes, please!

Biray-biray, enjoying the paraw ride

Biray-biray, enjoying the paraw ride

Sandbar soccer

Sandbar soccer

In the afternoon, we attended a BINGO fundraiser sponsored by the Leganes National High School Alumni Association. The association hopes to build an Alumni Hall, the first of its kind in the town, that can be rented out to raise revenue for the school. This community-supported and self-sustaining project exemplifies the Filipino sense of community and ingenuity that we have seen in evidence everywhere. While did not win BINGO, we were happy to contribute to this worthwhile endeavor.

Bingo in the rain

Bingo in the rain, with pebble markers

After BINGO, we had perhaps our most candid conversation so far with educators from the school, aptly held in the faculty room. Roma and I asked more about the challenges they face: lack of resources, family difficulties, crushing poverty (estimated at 95%), nearly obsolete technology, and not enough support for students who are falling through the cracks. Teachers at the school regularly pay out of their own pockets for basic supplies, for food for hungry students, even for photocopies so that they can conduct their lessons. I asked why the overworked teachers don’t transfer to another school with more resources or an easier workload, and the answer was simple: this is their community and they love it. What an inspiring, remarkable, dedicated group.

Ideas are percolating in my brain for what we can do back in the United States to unite ourselves with this wonderful community. How can we make this resilient, spirited community even stronger?

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Tangled up in Iloilo

Welcome banner at Leganes National High School.

Welcome banner at Leganes National High School

After three days in Manila, our TGC cohort split into groups of two and three for our field experiences. Roma and I traveled to Iloilo City, on the island of Panay, where our host Zoilo met us and guided us around the city. Once in town, we visited some historic churches and the old port area.

Iloilo palms

Iloilo palms

At the Iloilo CIty port

At the Iloilo CIty port

Colorful Iloilo

Colorful Iloilo

Iloilo City

Jaro belfry, Iloilo City

Worshipers at the Our Lady of the Candles shrine.

Worshipers at the Our Lady of the Candles shrine

Roma and I were treated like celebrities when we arrived at the high school in the morning. Students greeted us with a parade, complete with marching band and baton twirlers. Never before have I felt so important!

Welcome banner at Leganes National High School.

Welcome banner at Leganes National High School, complete with life-size photos of our faces

After meeting the mayor and posing for approximately 254 photographs, we presented a brief introduction to the US education system and our schools to an audience of Leganes High School staff and students. Dr. J, our Julius West mascot, was a hit!

Dr. J, now famous in the Philippines!

Dr. J, now famous in the Philippines!

Food has definitely been in abundance ever since we arrived in the Philippines. One teacher joked that TGC (Teachers for Global Classrooms) actually stands for Teachers Getting Chubby. Today we were offered two breakfasts, two snacks, and two lunches. I look forward to our two dinners. I may transform into a hobbit, or a blimp, by the time I leave the country.

Local specialties: lumpia, mango, monkfish.

Local specialties: lumpia, mango, grilled bangus, chop suey

Even more food!

Even more food!

In the afternoon we conducted team-building games with a group of 80 students. We tangled up in knots while building our communication and cooperation skills – and our patience. Of course we couldn’t resist jumping in and joining the fun!

All tangled up during our team-building activity at Leganes National High School.

All tangled up during our team-building activity at Leganes National High School

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Welcomes

Among the students at Makati Science High School.

Among the students at Makati Science High School. Can you spot the teacher?

We have now been in the Philippines for three days, but it feels much longer. Each day is jam-packed with experiences. In our time in the Manila Metro area, we visited three schools. Each offered a warm welcome and a different perspective on education in the Philippines.

St. Paul College Pasig is a Catholic all-girls school with over 4000 students in grades K-10. Everywhere we saw encouragement and a positive attitude, from an English teacher who radiated joy to the students who spoke eloquently about a school where they felt loved and inspired. The school’s mission statement, which each staff member could recite by heart, summed it up perfectly: nurture giftedness, shape character, fire excellence.

St. Paul College Pasig welcome sign.

St. Paul School welcome sign

English teacher at St. Paul College.

English teacher at St. Paul School

St. Paul students

St. Paul students

At Ninoy Aquino Technical High School, over 5000 students learn trades such as dressmaking and electronics. Students and staff repeatedly commented that the school was like a family. We saw evidence of close and nurturing relationships both in the structure of the school and in the interactions between and among students and staff. The students and staff even had a habit of finishing each other’s sentences, like many a family around the world!

"I love this school so much."

“I love this school so much.”

English lesson at Ninoy Aquino Technical High School.

English lesson at Ninoy Aquino Technical High School.

Across town at Makati Science High School, we met students who passed competitive entrance exams for the chance to attend a top-notch public school with a rigorous curriculum. In some cases, the students commuted up to two hours each way, stretching out an extended school day even longer. One student I met described how she had trained herself to study on the Jeepney (jeeps converted to small city buses), no matter how crowded the vehicle or bumpy the ride, during her 90 minute commute. Again, we witnessed encouraging, engaging, energetic teachers. A smaller class size, around 30 compared to 50 in the other two schools, allowed teachers to incorporate more movement and interaction in their lessons.

Science lesson at Makati Science High School

Science lesson at Makati Science High School

In a panel discussion with local educational leaders, one of the TGC fellows asked what strengths the leaders saw in their teachers. They cited dedication, resilience, and teaching from the heart. From what I saw, I couldn’t agree more.