I recently came across a local charity organisation, The KKIS Project (Keeping Kids In School), who run a volunteer English teaching program at a primary school north of Playa del Carmen. After traveling the world for a year, settling down in Mexico for a while is the best thing we could be doing, but even still, I am restless by nature and need to find ways to stay challenged.
I thought spending an hour each week teaching English to school kids sounded like a fun way to break up my week and connect with the community in a way I wouldn’t be able to if I was just passing through. I’d never volunteered in a formal way before, so thought it was about time I give it a go. Plus, with my recent cluckiness over missing my little nieces back home, it sounded like just the thing I needed.
When the day rolled around, I was actually a little nervous. I had connected with some other volunteers via email, and had arranged to meet them in the car park of a local supermarket for a ride out to the school, but was a little anxious about the unknown.
I met the group of volunteers and jumped into a car with three ladies from Paamul, a quiet bay south of Playa del Carmen. I told them it was my first time volunteering, and a lovely tanned lady next to me reassured me by saying, “Mine too, and don’t worry I’m nervous too!”
Feeling more at ease, I resolved to go with the flow and enjoy a new experience. We flew up the highway towards Cancun, then turned left, heading inland from the coast. The streets were lined with rows of tiny double-storied houses, butted up to each other like Lego. Pre-primary aged children in crisp uniforms were being led home from school by their mothers, some gathering to gossip on corners or stop at small, makeshift eateries.
We arrived at the school, a modern concrete building which was certainly spiffier than I expected. We met the other volunteers and received our instructions for the lesson ahead. Upon entering the classroom, impeccably dressed little people in blindingly white polo shirts stood to greet us excitedly in their best English.
“Hello and welcome to our classroom, thank you for coming!” they sung together in unison. I thought they could probably teach me a thing or two about learning languages as their English was already a cut above my Spanish.
It was a grade three class, and our activity for the day was based on body parts. Fortunately they were too innocent to take that one and run with it, at least I hoped as much as I sat down at the low wooden desk with eight sets of dark lashes blinking at me.
They were so cute!
We were given a page with a human figure and a list of body parts printed down the side. In the middle of the table I placed a sheet of paper with the words to “Heads, shoulders, knees and toes,” which we would be singing at the halfway point.
The students were very diligent, almost too much so. I wanted them to sound out the words and point to the parts on their own bodies so they really understood the meaning and pronunciation, but their only concern was getting the right answer down on the page.
Of course, their levels of English varied greatly. One little boy was almost fluent, answering every question, even those not directed at him. He kindly filled me in on the fact that a couple of the other kids spoke “No English,” with a shake of his head and a not-so-subtle point of his finger.
I had to stifle a laugh.
The little girl to my right, Martitza, would have crawled under the desk as far away from my prying questions as possible, had I let her. The poor thing could barely make eye contact with me she was so shy, and it took all my coaxing to get her to speak her name in a tiny, raspy voice.
The little charmer next to me, lets call him Don Juan jnr, spoke to me in Spanish the whole time, whilst stroking my arm and giving me the hugest grins.
We made our way down the list; head, ears, eyes, mouth, shoulders (that’s a hard one) and arms, but when we got to ‘thumbs’ they seemed to have a bit of trouble pronouncing the ‘th’ sound, making e a hard ‘t’ sound instead. I was losing them a little by that point; they were skipping ahead down the list without me, chattering between themselves and copying answers from each other.
To regain their attention I tried to teach them, “One, two, three, four, I declare a thumb war,” a game they were obviously familiar with, because suddenly our table broke out into an all out war-zone, little thumbs thrust into the air in excited anticipation.
I had to put an end to it after about ten rounds, however, for I had unleashed a monster I feared I may not be able to control!
Thankfully, it was time for the song, which we stood up to sing and act out with the other kids in the class. Of course, they absolutely loved it, and it reminded me of learning the same song in Japanese when I was a kid, “Atama, kata, hiza to ashi…”
I studied Japanese for three years at university, of which I remember pretty much nada, and yet I remember a song I learned over 20 years ago. Music I tell you! It’s the way to go!
Unfortunately the song had a limited lifespan, and once we had done it super fast (mas rapido!) a few times, it was back to the exercises.
I skipped a few ‘fill in the blank’ questions on the next page such as, ‘The _______ is an internal organ that secretes bile.’
Umm, yep, we’ll skip that one children…
But of course, my diligent students did not let me get away with it. Trying to explain, or act out, a liver, charades style, wasn’t something I had really prepared for, let alone, bile, but I muffled my way through until I received a tap on my shoulder telling me that our time was up.
Already?! But we haven’t got onto the pancreas yet! How will they survive this world without knowing it?!!
My rebellious nature was coming out a bit there, as my favourite thing to say to teachers when I was at school was, “Are we really going to need this in the real world?” (yes, I was a very annoying student), so I guess old habits die hard.
The students looked at me worriedly because we hadn’t yet finished the worksheet, so I drew bright blue stars and smiley faces on their papers and told them they could finish the others exercises at home, if they really wanted to.
And you know what? I bet they did too.
You can read more about the KKIS program on my new Community Page , which contains some info on the great charities you have helped me support. KKIS also collects school supplies to donate to local schools in the area, ensuring all kids in Playa del Carmen have access to basic supplies, so if you’re coming to town and can fit some school supplies in your luggage, I know some very diligent kids who will make the most of them.