I recently participated in a tour in Guatemala with the Cooperative for Education, an NGO that works to improve education in Guatemala. I had so many amazing experiences, and the only way to really understand what it was like is to go on a tour yourself (which I highly recommend!), but I wanted to share some of the highlights of the trip.

We started the day with breakfast and an orientation meeting, getting to know our fellow tour members and hearing a little bit about the work that CoEd does.

The education vs drop out rates in Guatemala are alarming. Literacy rates are shockingly low. It’s common for rural kids to drop out of school after grade 6, when middle school begins. Families often can’t afford school fees, or they need their kids to stay home and work to earn a little extra income.

CoEd’s Culture of Reading Program provides a good foundation of literacy skills to primary students (grades 1-6). Their Textbook Program ensures middle school students have access to resources that will help students learn, and their Technology Program allows students to gain skills on computers or laptops. 60% of jobs in Guatemala now require digital literacy skills, but many rural schools don’t have access to computers, let alone teachers who know how to teach computer skills.

CoEd partners with Rotary Clubs around the world to gain funding for their programs. Many programs are also funded with grant money. And individual donors are also key to the work that CoEd does.

Are these the cutest little school kids ever? Yes. Yes they are.

So. School visit.

Our first school was about an hour and a half away from Antigua. After driving through the mountains, we arrived at Xetzac primary school. We were there to inaugurate their CORP (Culture of Reading) Program. We entered the school in between staff members lined up on either side, applauding. Our path was strewn with pine needles and edged with flowers in our honour. Students all stood and applauded as we entered. They were dressed in their very best – girls in their best huipil and corte (the traditional blouse and skirt that are woven and embroidered) with their school sweater over top. Most girls had elaborate French or Dutch braids, often with cloth or ribbons braided in.

Our pine needle and flower path.

I love these French braids!

I felt a little uneasy about how very honoured we were as their guests. What accident of birth had me born as a white person in North America? That has given me many opportunities and advantages and privileges, but that doesn’t make me better or more valued than anyone else. I later realized that the honour given to us was given because we were guests, not just because we were from North America. We can certainly learn a lot about hospitality from Guatemalans. Still – more to think about along these lines.

The flag bearers (the best students from each class) carried in the Guatemalan, US, and school flags. They wore special white outfits along with a banner in the colour of the Guatemalan flag, and white gloves. I couldn’t help but smile – my Spanish teacher Jorge had always called me the abanderaba because I loved getting right answers and showing off my newfound Spanish skills in class.

Proud flag bearers!

We had songs we sung together, special music played by middle school guests on the marimba (Guatemala’s national instrument), the cutest dance ever by kindergarten students (whose parents proved that parents are the same around the world as they gathered at the front to capture the dance on their cell phone cameras).

After opening celebrations, we went into a grade one class to observe a lesson. The whole floor was strewn with pine needles. Flowers were taped up to the walls. Strings were stretched across the class from wall to wall and filled with balloons. We were the honoured guests, and it showed. There were also very typical grade one room decorations – labels on common items, and a word wall filling one wall of the class.

This classroom is seriously decked out in our honour!

Our very brave teacher (seriously – teaching grade one students in front of a bunch of strangers who, let’s be honest, are really distracting to these little kids!) introduced the new vocabulary words from the book she would be using. She had students name the parts of the book – the front and back covers, the spine, pages, and then they made predictions about the book based on the cover. They also talked about the author so that students would remember that this book is actually written and created by someone. (I thought about all the typical preliteracy skills we take for granted in North America – that the majority of kids come into school having had lots of books read to them before. They know how to hold a book, how to look at pictures for extra comprehension help, which direction to turn pages, and even that the letters create words that the person reading is using. In a country where only 1 out of every 10 adults reads for fun and the only book many homes have is a Bible, these are not skills you can take for granted.)

The teacher read the book a page at a time, taking the extra time necessary to walk past each student gathered in a semi-circle in the open space in the room so that students could see each picture. At the end, each vocabulary word was reviewed and then hung up by a volunteer under the appropriate letter on the word wall. Students got the chance to be active and consolidate understanding as they got up and all acted out the events of the story as the teacher retold the major plot points.

So excited to see the pictures!

Finally, the demonstration ended with another game. Each student received a paper on a piece of string which they put over their head. They went out to the patio for more space, and had to pass by where I was sitting to get out. One student stopped as he was filing past me to proudly read his word out loud to me. After that, each student had to stop and read their word aloud. Kids played sort of like a dodgeball game, but with only one ball, and the thrower had to read the word on the person they hit. It was great to see kids with varying levels of fluency work to read the words.

Ready for the game to begin!

After the game, we went back into the classroom and paired up with individual students who practiced reading out loud to us. The flag bearer (abanderado) was the student who read to me 🙂

My reading buddy (on the right) and his seat partner. So proud to show off his reading skills!

All too soon it was time for kids to get packed up and walk home (anywhere up to 5 kilometres to get home). We ate lunch with the Guatemalan teachers, and I got the opportunity to talk with the grade 5 and 6 teachers. (I was so grateful for my two weeks of Spanish classes prior to the tour!)


After lunch, we loaded back into our buses and wound our way through the mountains to Panajachel. I’m not kidding about winding – mountain roads with sheer dropoffs beside us and very few guardrails! The views were pretty amazing, though!

When views beside the road are equal parts inspiring and terrifying…

In Pana, we boarded a boat and crossed the incomparable Lake Atitlan. It was a perfect day – sunny, warm, a little breezy. Most of us climbed up to the second level to sit outside in the breeze. We also made some purchases from souvenir saleswomen who crossed the lake with us.

I seriously have about 50 photos of this boat ride that are only microscopically different from each other.

I’m just happy to be on a boat ride that’s not making me feel sick!

We sailed toward the San Pedro volcano and disembarked (on the sketchiest dock) in Santiago Atitlan. We were immediately surrounded by street vendors hawking their wares. Walking uphill past every stall meant a lot of attempted sales when you even glanced at something. We stopped for ice cream, where my new friends the Becks treated me to a cone.

I was grateful for our security (yes, security!), since the road wasn’t very wide and had no sidewalks, yet was travelled by pedestrians, tuk tuks, cars, and even the occasional transport. A security guard stuck with our small group to ensure that no one was run over by a transport. (On security guards – It felt a little extra to have security guards with us when I had spent more than two weeks in Guatemala already and had never felt unsafe. Still, someone stopping traffic for us when we were trying to cross the road, ensuring our belongings were safe in the bus when we went into a school or restaurant, or making sure we weren’t hit by cars or pickpocketed – that was pretty nice. Being in a big group with obvious security guards made us safer; it was a good precaution. Being with obvious security guards also meant some strange looks as people wondered who we were and if we were famous.)

Once we made it to the main square in Santiago Atitlan, we hopped in the back of some pick-up trucks to ride the rest of the way to our hotel.  Our buses didn’t drive around the lake – only the CoEd pick-ups with our suitcases. Our social hour before dinner was spent down by the lake, watching the most beautiful sunset behind the volcano. First busy day done!

Can anything be more beautiful?

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