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July 12, 2020

Observe, ask, test: Immersing in the imagination of the rural child -Valeria Ramirez Ensastiga MA NCSS ‘21

by valeria rze

I am finishing my fourth week collaborating with THP-Mexico and I have enjoyed expanding my perspective on what it would really mean to achieve sustainable development for the pluriverse, as Arturo Escobar and other academics say, which is a universe where many cultural and ideological worlds coexist. I am very happy because this internship has been an interesting intersection between my different interests: non-formal education, product design, and also all the reflections around social and environmental justice which had constantly arisen in my Master’s classes.

Following the well-known “Observe, Ask, Try” mantra to collect information that informs the development of a product, during this internship I have devised mechanisms to obtain the necessary data, even without being in the field.

Observe. – As I had already commented in the previous post, looking for information on rural education, I came to find the documentary “The sower”. Exploring a little more the same digital platform, which hosts a large collection of Mexican cinema, I found a category about rural life in Mexico and decided to take it as an opportunity to expand my ‘ethnographic’ research. To set boundaries and not to go too far I focus on selecting films with certain characteristics:  being produced within the last 10 years; having protagonists who were children or young people; and being focused on issues of education or daily life. I have chosen a few large and short films that I carefully analyzed and which were useful for me to ‘settle’ in the rural living and that have allowed me to take note of which natural or social phenomena affect these populations and the strategies they follow to overcome them. 

One of them (“De tres.. uno”) specifically shows the complaint of young people from a community in southern Mexico regarding how the education they receive in technical school becomes useless to work or create new businesses within their communities forcing them to migrate to urban populations if they want to continue studying or if they want to put into practice the skills learnt in the school. Along with other films, this documentary exhibits the need to create an educational plan that focuses on rural development so that children and young people can have a decent life within their communities. Otherwise, these children and their families consider that they only waste time and a large part of its scarce economic resources to study something that will not yield some tangible benefits. For this reason, I seek that, at least in my work for this internship, children can find their context represented and see some examples of respectful development in those terms.

Ask. – Mexico is a country with extraordinary cultural diversity, though it hurts to recognize it is a country with enormous inequality too. During this internship, I constantly seek to be receptive to other realities in order to develop a product that reflects empathy. In my attempt to become close with children, who are a necessary piece for my task, I decided to talk by phone with children between 6 and 12 years old that live in peri-urban or rural areas in Mexico.  To achieve my goal, I turned to my family or friends network who have children with these characteristics and explained to them I was researching the perceptions that children have about their habitat, care for the environment, and natural disasters.  I told the parents my questions in advance to get their authorization,  but I asked them not to say anything to the children in advance so that I could have a casual conversation. I was looking for some honest and spontaneous answers and I didn’t want children to think this was an exam. I am aware that this recruitment is biased and has its limitations at the research level. However, given the health contingency and that I only wanted  to reinforce my ideas rather than generate definitive data, it seemed to be a good option for me .

During this process, I managed to interview 12 children. Some of the findings I did were that some children confused climate change with the change of seasons; some children said indigenous people are only the pre-Colombian civilizations; and that for them poor populations seemed like a thing from very distant countries. When I asked about environmental caring, children in peri-urban regions answered things more related to waste management and avoiding waste of water or electricity, while those living in rural environments were already more aware of how to care for extensive green areas, such as properly extinguishing bonfires or caring for wild animals. Definitely, it was very refreshing to have these conversations and to remember again what the ‘important things’ are when you are a child.

Try. – Finally, I started to review non-fiction children’s books.  I did this review while wearing my ‘rural kid glasses’, wondering, if the avatar that I have developed in all this research saw these books, what would these books say to her? What kind of doubts would arise? Which book would hook her the most? Which info could become a source of confusion? Which ones would invite her to know more about the proposed topic? What would a book on sustainable development in which this child feels identified and inspired look like?

I have to confess that I am a big fan of non-fiction children’s books, but it bothers me that sometimes we, as adults, are not clear on what constitutes a good informative book. A non-fiction book must explain true and clear information while also it should be appealing to the child, inviting him to reflect, to imagine , and even to make use of that information in informing his or her decisions and to take actions in his or her  daily life. A good non-fiction book is not an educational book that just tells the child what to do without reflection, nor should it contain a lot of random information to memorize, nor should it treat the child as an empty reservoir that needs to be filled with information. The child already has a world around him/her that is worth respecting.

After doing some research, I have attempted to brainstorm, compiling everything I consider included within an Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) context but translated to rural areas. Also, I have recalled that some of the fundamental topics to include in the educational system are: promotion of healthy lifestyles, biodiversity, poverty reduction, climate change, and disaster risk reduction. Of course, sustainable development is a very broad concept, and wanting to talk about it in depth would be too ambitious for this internship and not very productive within the context so, I have decided to develop a pamphlet that gives children an overview and I will design worksheets so that both teachers and parents can participate in the reflection of what is sustainable development in rural environments and how they can participate in its construction.

I had a meeting with Diana to review the list of topics and verify which ones are more relevant or a priority. In general, I had good comments from her and we concluded that the goal of the booklet is not only to have information for the child but also to give a call to action. We also agreed that she would contact some of the community partners so that they can also participate with their comments. Although getting their comments might take many days, it will be vital for the project they begin to appropriate the material. Moreover, we were also talking a little more about the format of the text because, as I have mentioned before, this internship has the challenge that the product to be developed must be aimed at multilevel and multilingual education. Therefore, including too much text can be unattractive, but having some appealing illustrations might become a powerful tool to achieve our goal provided they are done appropriately. Diana also commented that if the text is short, it can make it easier to find a future collaboration of THP with translators of indigenous languages ​​to translate this work at least into the native languages ​​of the communities where the organization works, which has given me great joy.

During this week I have been writing the first draft, hoping to submit it for review in the next week and then begin the illustrations that it will contain. I feel that the text still needs some work, but I’ll be reviewing it while doing the illustrations and the layout. In the next post, I will share how this booklet has evolved.

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