By Katherine Alexander, Early Learning Center Teacher
Inspired by the new Bahá’í Temple in Santiago, a house of worship for all people, I decided to travel to Chile to increase my knowledge of the education systems in our world. I needed to adjust my research plans because my trip coincided with their winter vacation weeks, and my limited proficiency in Spanish proved challenging as well. I am honored and thrilled as the first teacher in the Early Learning Center to travel for Global Studies. I also visited Baha’i schools in the rural south and strove to learn about their practices to reinforce and enhance Beauvoir’s spiritual curriculum.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the Baha’i teachings: As a Baha’i, I believe that every soul on the planet is created by, and can choose how to worship, the same God as everyone else, that all people are equal in the sight of God, and that education is vital to help individuals and society reach their highest potential. “Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit therefrom.”
Chile is known for being one of the longest north-south countries in the world, which contributes to its wide variety of climates and terrain, including the Andes Mountains to the east, desert to the north, the Pacific Ocean to the west, and glaciers to the south.
For example, the city of Valparaíso has a system of funiculars (cable railroad) to transport people up and down the city’s many hills, which provide beautiful views of the city.
I stayed in Chile for three weeks and only slept in a hostel for three nights. For most of my time there, different Baha’i families in various regions opened their homes and treated me like family. Upon landing in Santiago, I needed emergency dentistry. Friends of friends quickly connected me to a Baha’i dentist who provided quality care. Her family then asked if I would join them to travel to Valparaiso, the port city on the Pacific Ocean, and Vina del Mar, for a weekend trip. Chilean winters are milder than ours, so I witnessed kids running on the beach in Vina del Mar with their winter jackets zipped up and their toes in the sand. My new dentist’s family then hosted me for another week in Santiago while I explored many aspects of the city, including the zoo.
Inside the Bahá’í Temple in Santiago, silence is required and photography is not allowed; however, a Google search will give you a glimpse of the beautiful interior. Bahá’í children learn virtues like generosity by acting out the fable of those whose arms were so long they had to feed one another to find heaven. I was also pleased to perform a half-day of service at the Temple – helping build a greenhouse for their plant nursery. The Temple is located on the outskirts of Santiago, in the mountains, and the soil is not adequate. The community there is working to improve the soil and find plants that will thrive. Santiago is plagued by smog, partly because of lack of regulations of emissions and partly because of the lack air flow caused by being situated in the valley between two mountain ranges.
Traveling in a country where I am not fluent in the language reminded me of what it felt like to be a child, which is a large reason why I started my teaching career. I want to advocate for children, understand them, and empower them to own their learning. Watching adults and children speak to me, assuming I would understand fully what they were saying, truly put me back in the place of a child’s mind – I would often understand bits and pieces of words spoken to me but not comprehend the entire message. Many were gentle and patient to take time with me, speaking slowly and clearly. The best conversations were had when they made me repeat back what they had said, and when they repeated back to me what I had said, to saturate the comprehension. I think we all can use this model as a way to converse with our children, especially when we talk about new concepts together.
I walked through the cities of Santiago, Pucon, and Temuco with the lens of searching for family life. I visited the outdated and updated playgrounds side-by-side in the heart of Santiago and observed the glamorous trampolines on the beaches of Vina del Mar. I visited an antique car museum and attended a wake with one of my host families. I noticed their Metro has a water filter to encourage hydration and using one’s own water bottle. I found an antique train museum and saw many parks, unique sculptures, and murals. I also witnessed a gentle culture of playfulness among many Chileans.
I visited two schools in the rural province of Nueva Imperial, outside Temuco in the Lake District – just north of the Patagonia region. The schools I visited served largely Mapuche families. Mapuche is the native tribe to the Chile area, marginalized similarly to our Native Americans. While there, I stayed in volunteer housing that was very cold – Chilean winters are also much shorter than ours, so they do not invest in central heating the way many in the United States do. Often, a small home may only have one small fireplace.
Similar to Beauvoir’s foundation of Life Rules, the Bahá’í schools I visited place a primary importance on social and spiritual development, believing that the children need this kind of nurturing in order to learn academics well. They start each day with interfaith prayers, choose one virtue every week to weave into all their lessons, and train the children to acknowledge virtuous behavior in themselves and others. For example, when asked, a young child said, “I was generous when I let my friend stand closer to the fireplace”. And another: “I was thoughtful when I gave my friend the ball.”
In a pre-kindergarten class, they include a boy with autism. The class routine to assist him during his struggle to join circle time involves assuaging his need for human touch – the children gently patted him on his back and provide what he needs to participate.
Each classroom has a routine where, at the end of every class, the children line up to say something kind to one student in the doorway as they exit. The face of little girl who had received 20 compliments (often virtues acknowledgements) was joyfully beaming brightly during her turn.
I am so grateful for the opportunity to expand my mind through travel to South America so that I may share knowledge, observations, and new understandings with our Beauvoir community.