If you are near the UA's Education Building around noon on a weekday, you may walk past a group of visiting Mexican teachers sitting on the grass, sharing food and soaking up the sun before heading back to their Project SEED class.
Breezing through the College of Education’s third and fifth floors, the voices of lively debates in Spanish may echo through the stillness, with names of scholars and theorists such as Paulo Freire, Ken Goodman or Guillermo Bonfil-Batalla projecting from the open classroom doors.
This is Project SEED, an in-service professional development program designed for educators serving indigenous elementary schools in Mexico.
Each August for the last three years, supported by funding from USAID, Georgetown University and Mexico's Secretary of Public Education, the program has hosted 40 educators motivated and committed to join the intensive program for durations of five months and 11 months.
The lives of those involved with Project SEED is rigorous and, at times uncomfortable, but always full of activity. These educators leave their families and their authority as teachers, school principals and teacher-coaches to become students at the UA in a very unfamiliar context.
The weekly load of academic courses, service-learning in local Tucson schools and nonprofit organizations, like the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, are bundled into a demanding program linking theory to practice.
Longer than half a millennium of colonization has imposed rigid, hostile and often violent regimes of schooling upon indigenous communities throughout the Americas. Mexico, like the U.S., has its own particular history with schools as public spaces used to stamp out indigenous languages and diverse ways of living.
Project SEED hones a unique opportunity to work with in-service educators to critically analyze what schools have done, and imagine with each other, what schools can do better.
So, we ask our educators to examine and propose alternatives for some of the most pressing questions in indigenous education: Is schooling serving our children? How do we change the culture of schools to reflect the interests of indigenous families? What would my classroom look like if I utilized my students' linguistic and cultural repertoires as strengths for enhancing classroom learning?
The power of educational exchanges geared toward specific interests, like Project SEED's focus on strengthening indigenous education in public schools, can be ambiguous in the many layers of activity and encounters in a full program like ours.
However, we are reminded in small ways of the meaning each small step we take works to bridge what may seem to be cultural and linguistic divides.
One recent exchange with a Roskruge Bilingual Magnet School kindergarten class reminded me of the hope in small triumphs.
Our program invited the class of 45 students to come on a walking field trip to the UA. Arriving at the College of Education's Worlds of Words international children's library, our Project SEED participants hosted the little ones in small learning centers, engaging them in hands-on activities about the distinct languages and cultural practices of Mexico.
Accompanied by parents, teachers and a handful of UA undergraduate students, the Roskruge students made books inspired by the character of a little Yucatecan Mayan girl and how they learned to count in Nahuatl. They also practiced telling time in the Zoque and Spanish languages.
Toward the end of the activities, a young student told me, in Spanish, with slow, contemplative articulation: "I think that I like it here," referring to the University.
I pointed to the adult women on their way to class and asked, "Are you going to come and study here when you're big like those women?" She said yes, but said she would have to bring her baby sister along. We agreed that was possible. Her 5-year-old voice echoed powerfully as I considered the potential of educational exchanges when people are made to feel comfortable and respected in historically hostile spaces.
The work of changing the culture of schooling is truly a grueling, uphill and time consuming battle. However, every moment of silence, pause or contemplation of new possibility is an opportunity.
These encounters can become much more than moments, helping to give way to change and greater possibility for those whose cultures and languages are too often unrecognized in schools and public institutions.
As we go about our daily business at the University, my reflections on the small impacts a program like Project SEED has on our lives helps me to take more notice to the many other acts engaged by many other programs throughout our university community. They, too, may be chipping away at regimes of exclusion, helping give way to authentic human exchange – paso por paso, step by step.
For three years, Vanessa Anthony-Stevens has served as the program coordinator of Project SEED in the UA department of teaching, learning and sociocultural studies, which is within the College of Education. On June 17, some of the Project SEED participants will be presenting posters at the American Indian Language Institutes summer conference, "Revisiting the State of Indigenous Languages," which will be held June 17-18 in Tucson.