Friday, March 08, 2013

A New Lesson Plan Discovered Abroad

By Erin Shepard MAT '05

Since graduating from Pacific in 2005, with my Masters in teaching, I have been incredibly fortunate to work for the Hillsboro School District. I’ve been navigating the teaching world in 2nd, 3rd and 4th grades since 2006. The daily challenges and triumphs of teaching are very inspiring to me. I’ve feel as though I’ve truly found my niche in education. Adapting and growing with this ever-evolving field, brings me a lot of joy. 

Teaching has also provided me with some pretty incredible learning opportunities! I am a firm believer that the best teachers are life-long students themselves. I also think that one of the most powerful ways to learn about the world around us and to inform our teaching practices is through travel. Getting out of our comfort zones and learning about other places in the world can often lead to a greater understanding of the students we teach in our classrooms.

Just last spring, I was awarded a Fulbright-Hays educator travel grant to study in Mexico and Colombia. My trip began mid-June 2012 as I met up with my new travel comrades, 15 elementary teachers from across the United States, in Austin, Texas for a few days of orientation at the University of Texas. It was such a unique and special opportunity to connect with other educators and share experiences! 

The title of the travel seminar was “Mexico and Colombia: Beyond the Headlines.” The media coverage from both countries that we see in the states is often very negative. This experience was aimed to highlight the incredible richness of culture and diversity of people in Mexico and Colombia; to show the other side that often goes unnoticed. We visited local schools, traveled to rural villages, attended lectures and experienced ancient cultures, cuisines, arts and music. 

One of the most powerful experiences for me while in Mexico, was visiting a small village outside Puebla, called Tlaplanala. This community experienced some of the highest rates of immigration to the U.S., and its residents’ income was primarily from remittances from family members living abroad. This village, among so many others like it, was not providing enough economic opportunity to live off of. 

In response, local leaders applied for several small grants from both the public and private sector that supported families in raising chickens and pigs and growing their own vegetables. Kids from the village learn the entire process from purchasing the chickens, tending to them and even profiting from selling their very own chicken-sausage. Efforts are also being made to document language, folk stories and art from the community to preserve their rich culture. These economically tangible changes combined with feeling proud of ones’ heritage are supporting younger generations and giving them reasons to stay in Mexico. It seems to be a very powerful combination. 

In Colombia, we began our travels in Bogota. This sprawling city of just over 7 million people, sits high at 8,612 feet. I highly recommend bringing along altitude sickness medication if you plan on visiting! We toured the Universidad de Los Andes and visited a preschool there that focuses on whole child education. Bogota served as our “base camp” as we would fly out from there to the other cities on the itinerary including Medellin, Armenia, Cartagena and Santa Marta. 

Colombia’s mountainous and lush landscape is breathtaking! Our trip went up through the coffee-growing country and finished on the beautiful Caribbean coast.  The people we met along the way were so welcoming and eager to share their culture with us. Much like Mexico, the traditions, music and food vary greatly depending on what region you are in. 

Over the past ten years or so, major efforts have been made to help create access to jobs and education for all Colombians. A very emotionally moving experience for our group came in Medellin which was once ravaged by violent drug cartels. We walked in a neighborhood which most would describe as a slum, called Comuna Trece. It is traditionally the most violent area in all of Medellin. 

The people here live in a sea of tightly packed and poorly constructed houses. In Medellin, the most economically disadvantaged areas sit precariously on vast hillsides surrounding the thriving city. Knowing the hardships of the past and need to change the situation, funding for a project called the “electric stairs” helped build outdoor escalators that extend most of the way up the hillside. The escalators, also patrolled by security guards 24 hours a day, have provided better access to jobs, healthcare and schools for the residents here. 

They have also greatly reduced criminal activity and helped people feel safer in their own community. It’s an amazing success story and so inspiring to see first-hand. 

Through my travels, I learned there are many Mexicos and many Colombias. Each region, city, village and neighborhood has its own unique culture, history and traditions. My five weeks of travel left me with many things; new friendships, life-changing experiences and most of all, the desire to keep on traveling and learning. 

My teaching will forever be changed from this experience and I can’t encourage other educators enough to travel as a means of informing your practice. During the fall, I completed my curriculum project, titled, “Discovering Diverse Mexico: A Culture Box Adventure!” designed for 3rd graders. This can downloaded soon at

In the meantime, you can browse through many incredible units of study all prepped and ready to be taught that were designed by former Fulbright-Hays participants. If you are interested in educator travel grants, I am would be happy to speak with you. I’d also love to come to your classroom and talk with students about my experiences. Now, on to the next adventure!

Shepard MAT '05 currently works in the Hillsboro School District. To see the trip in its entirety, please visit her travel blog at,

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