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Oaxaca Amigos (2008)

Photo: Gerhard Buttner, Stormy evening (Used with permission)

This page revisits the 2008 endeavor, Oaxaca Amigos: English Classes for Community Guides and Rural Artisans led by Gerhard Buttner.

This page documents the lessons learned from the experience of the Oaxaca Amigos English classes conducted in Teotitlán del Valle during 2008. While a few of the conclusions are specific to this town, many of these lessons are relevant for similar projects elsewhere in Mexico and around the globe. Consider, for example, why artesanos may need to learn a foreign language, the resources available for adult education and the opportunities that travelers themselves have in expressing a respect for Indigenous culture and craft.

The weavers from Teotitlán del Valle proposed the idea for Oaxaca Amigos. This is the way to work with communities in an effective and respectful manner. Some history. During 2006 Oaxaca experienced social tensions that caused a sharp decline of visitors and the sale of crafts. It was during the fall of 2006 that artisans told Planeta.com’s Ron Mader that they wanted to improve their English as a way of engaging with visitors on the ground and via the Web.

There were two challenges – finding the appropriate teacher and finding the financing for the course.

In discussions in 2007 we had two substantial breakthroughs – Gerhard Buttner came on board as the instructor who was also involved in the entire project, from fundraising to keeping donors informed, preparation visits to the community and regularly updating the wiki and Instituto Amigos del Sol gladly provided the curriculum and its backing to the project.

Ron and Gerhard got stuck into searching small-time donors online using Chipin.com and promoting the course through social networking on planeta, wiki, facebook and more. Another of Planeta.com’s Ron Mader’s involvements was to personally invite weavers, starting with the very families that approached Ron during 2006 with the course would take place and would be open to all interested weavers.

Developing the course
It was important to be inclusive in this project, to ensure that the classes are open to everybody. The neutral venue and having announced it by loudspeaker and posters throughout town helped in the inclusivity.

In small communities there are often local rivalries or jealousies and Teotitlán del Valle is no exception. This must be accepted as part of the context, and it is quite probable that such rivalries might cause some potential students not to participate.

It is important not to be aligned too closely to individuals for promotion especially if there are divisions in the community, to ensure wider access.

Personal contact before and during the classes is definitely a great help. Some of the students have had contact with planeta.com for an extensive period. This creates trust in both directions.

English classes sounded like a good idea to just about anybody we spoke to in Teotitlán del Valle. However there is still a large step between liking an idea and acting on it and actually committing to participate for an entire course.

We could far more easily have filled the class with children, but the original request was from adults working directly with visitors. The decision to accept only ages 16 and above was taken in collaboration with several people in Teotitlán del Valle. A class of only children could have changed the dynamics to such an extent that the actual target audience decides to stay away, a risk we managed to avoid by setting the age limit.

While the pace in community life is relaxed, people are always busy, and one has to accept that students might miss classes due to other work priorities including travel to events to sell their weavings. The annual village festival was also an essential break for classes.

The course
The course began in mid-May it was conducted on Monday and Wednesday afternoons. The course was split into two parts. For the first 6 weeks we used the tried and tested method of Amigos del Sol of introducing students to new common verbs on a weekly basis and creating basic sentences right from the start. The second part of the course had its focus on different topics about the need in their potential visitor contact. Topics included basic introduction to visitors, explaining the weaving process and the natural color creation, weaving designs, talking about prices and sending weavings.

Educational materials included verb posters of the Amigos del Sol curriculum, adapted by adding some weaving-related verbs, photos from flickr and elsewhere, student-drawn vocabulary cards and the actual loom and material during special classes in the workshop.

Outside financing was obtained by promoting the project online – including the use of innovative social networking and inviting interested individuals to donate US$50 or more via the fundraising website chipin.com or by contacting the organizers directly.

Those donating US$100 or more received a special gift, while all received a thank you note (in English) from one of the students. All contributors were also entered into a raffle of a special Teotitlan bag.

Those who completed the course were satisfied that their knowledge of English had improved and their anxieties diminished. Students were also happy to have made new contact.

Beyond the course, other advances included the editing of an inclusive directory of weavers and a first draft of a Zapotec-Spanish-English dictionary. Planeta.com attended and covered community events, including the Danza de la Pluma and the Tamale Fair. For the Tamale Fair, we created a dictionary of indigenous foods. These resources are all included on the Oaxaca Wikispace and will be updated in the future.
Taking a traditional English language class from Oaxaca City to the country-side …

Outside financing or innovative financing is a must as the artesanos lacked funds to pay for a traditional education.

Using place-specific resources and photos was helpful

Will the course continue?
There will be follow-up activities. Among the proposals is a visit by some of the weavers to Amigos del Sol for an opportunity of further English practice with foreign students at the school and other interested visitors as well as the chance to sell a rug. For the students and other visitors this is a chance to help the Teotitlan English students keep their English language active and even improve further.

What communication tools were used to communicate with the students? With the donors? With the public in Teotitlan? With the public around the world?

How was Flickr used?
Flickr was the main way of visually documenting the course for the participants, funders and anybody else interested. Flickr also served as valuable source of visual class material.

How was the Oaxaca Wikispace used in developing and documenting the course?
The wikispace served as homepage accompanying the chipin.com fundraising period. Material for promotion in the community were designed in a collaborated fashion. There were regular updates and photos online during the 3 months of classes.

What recommendations do you have for visitors coming to Teotitlan?
Visit more than one weaver! If you are ambitious, learn a bit of Zapoteco before you arrive so you can attempt to say “good day” and “thank you.” (If you don’t get it right on the first attempt, ask the weavers for some help!

Key points – capacity building, crafts, communication, conservation, consultation, collaboration

For visitors – If you wish to support this work, visit the weavers in Teotitlán del Valle and purchase a weaving for yourself or friends.

Oaxaca Amigos was developed as a response to lowered business in Teotitlan after the 2006 protests. In 2007 Amigos del Sol agreed to initiate an intensive English-class course in the village. The first five months of 2008 were spent listening to weavers who expressed an interest in learning English as a way of connecting with visitors.

Future work:
Collaborative projects beyond the 2008 classes will be discussed with the students, community leaders and donors.

News (September) – The classes have come to an end for the moment. The participants are happy and hope to practise their English in coming months. Some follow-up visits were done in September to some weavers who had specific questions) and other occasional activities are planned for the future. Congratulations also to Corrie McCluskey for winning the Oaxaca Amigos raffle of a Teotitlan woven bag.

(August 16) – As we prepare for the last week of classes in Teotitlan, the Flickr album of the classes is growing and even more photos will be added soon: flickr

(July 7-13) – Classes were postponed this week as Teotitlán del Valle held its annual festival.

News (July 1) – The classes continue every Monday and Wednesday and we are reaching the half-way stage of the three-month course. The first half of the course had the focus of increasing the general vocabulary of students and ensuring an understanding of basic sentence structure. For this purpose we adapted the basic verb list used by the Amigos del Sol Language Institute to the Teotitlán context. Now the students are ready to enter the second stage by using this vocabulary in a variety of very practical situations using role-play with topics like: first contact with visitors, explaining designs and processes, talking about Teotitlán – an excellent moment to introduce the past tense – and discussing common visitors questions.

Later during this second part of the course we will also have time for a raffle of a typical Teotitlán project in which one of our sponsors will have the chance to win a product created by one of the students. We are also looking forward to the Teotitlán fiesta 7th to 12th of July which includes the Indigenous Food Festival and Tamale Fair (July 9-13).

Teotitlan English class 3

(June) – Classes began on schedule Monday, May 19. Class size has varied each week as the course takes form. About ten students are taking part and not even the heavy rains of June 4 could diminish the enthusiasm of the class. Gerhard is teaching two classes a week on Mondays and Wednesday afternoons. Ron accompanies him on Wednesdays and visits weaver families during the class. As a result this wiki has details about the upcoming Indigenous Food Festival and Tamale Fair (July 9-13).

It was interesting to see that several people wanted to send their young children to learn, rather than giving this a try themselves. We could much easier have filled this class with children but that would be slightly defeating the object of offering a course of English for tourism. We set the age criteria as 16 years and above, but with some flexibility in the case of younger people who on occasions help their parents directly with the visitors and the selling of weavings. After all the Teotitlán workshops are all family ventures with young and old participating in various activities.

(May 17) — A class for beginners is ready to start on Monday, 19th of May in Teotitlán del Valle. We now have several students registered and expect more to join us in the next week or two as the word spreads. We once again wish to thank our sponsors listed below who have made this possible. We also wish to thank the municipal authorities for allowing us to use a classroom next to the village library and for helping to promote the course among residents. Watch this page for further updates, photos and videos.

(April 29) — Thanks to some additional donations during April we are now preparing to start classes in a few weeks time – we include the list of donors. Several artisans have expressed very keen interest (in fact the original idea arose from comments by some of these artisans who noticed that their lack of English is complicating their communication with visitors). The local village authorities are keen to help with promotion and supplying an appropriate venue for the classes.

(April 1) — We have received more than $600 to begin the English classes in May, including contributions on Chipin (see below) and direct donations. Donations are still open and donors will receive the benefits mentioned below. We still require a few hundred $ to ensure an efficient full three month initial course.

About Oaxaca Amigos
Assist the Zapotec artisans and local guides of the town of Teotitlán del Valle (Oaxaca, Mexico) to benefit from tourism-specific basic English classes in their own town. Training will be offered in 2008 to help the artisans connect better with travelers. Many have asked for English classes as a way to communicate with visitors and clients.

Oaxaca tourism received serious setbacks during 2006. Tourism is recovering and this initiative is designed with the community guides and rural artisans to make the most of in-bound tourism.

Since many of the visitors from other countries have a limited level of Spanish the need for English language skills for rural tourism have been identified as priority by the weavers themselves. At this time, most artisans and guides don´t have the needed financial resources to take the classes. Apart from achieving a basic level of functional English competence the program includes aspects of instilling natural and cultural awareness in their ecotourism and rural tourism initiatives.

The format of the planned project is adapting the existing English course of the well-respected local language school Instituto Amigos del Sol (with more than ten years of experience in English teaching in Oaxaca) for specific needs of those working in rural tourism in Teotitlán and taking it to the village itself with experienced English teacher and ecotourism advisor Gerhard Buttner as trainer and teacher.

The funds collected will be used to pay the study fees of the students and the teacher traveling expenses from Oaxaca City to be able to hold the classes in the community itself for an initial 12-week course of 4 hours per week.

Benefits for contributors:
Financial contributors were named on this page.
Everyone received email updates on the progress of this initiative and were be entered into a raffle draw with a Teotitlán product as prize (draw to take place during a class exercise).

Participants received personalized English instruction including tips on interaction with visitors.
English classes focused on practical usage as requested by artisans and visitors.
Classes were photographed and presented on Flickr.

Relevant links:
Teotitlán del Vale – Planeta.com
Instituto Amigos del Sol

With thanks to our donors:
Gold Class Donors ($1,000 Mexican Pesos and above):
Jennifer Rosenberg (in honor of Melissa Biggs)
Heinrich von Fintel
Henry Wangeman
John and Barbara Mader

Other donors:

Ron Mader
John Mader
Marlene Ehrenberg
Robert Healy
Corrie McCluskey
Jeffrey Rickin
Wendy McIntyre
Vivian Velasco
Ann Crew

Special thanks to Canyon Travel for supporting the Oaxaca Amigos project.

Oaxaca Amigos (Cartel Para Teotitlan)
Teotitlan English class 4


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