Tuesday, April 24, 2012

"Who dares to teach must never cease to learn"

A two-week teachers' seminar at the Institute for Foundational Learning

Dear friends & family,

Last Friday I returned from a two-week training seminar for teachers out in the province of Laguna, Philippines. There I accompanied four of my Filipino teammates and friends (Tin Tin, Toph, Rico and Raymond), each of whom also teach or volunteer in our Educational Daycare for street kids (aka "Educare"). The seminar was organized and subsidized by a non-profit Christian organization called the Institute for Foundational Learning (IFL). Specifically, the training was an intensive crash course in Early Childhood Education (ie., preschool to kindergarten). We were so thankful for the opportunity to equip and formalize "Educare" with a more extensive curriculum and a qualified staff.

Toph, Raymond, myself, and Tin Tin in the training hall at IFL.

Actually, to call the training "intensive" seems like an understatement. In just two weeks we completed 100 hours of lectures in addition to various oral and written exams, teaching demos, and other written assignments (including a 1,500 word essay). For my teammates who hadn't completed any post-secondary education, this was an immense challenge. In addition, everything had to be done in English! In Manila, Tagalog is spoken in the home and in informal conversation, but English is the language of formal academics and business (thus English fluency is considered essential for most Filipinos hoping to get a good job). The majority of the lectures at IFL were also in English or "Taglish" (Tagalog/English). I was particularly proud of my teammates for stepping up to the challenge and even receiving praise from many of the IFL staff for their hard work and gifted teaching skills. Some of the staff were shocked to discover the very humble upbringings of my teammates. Even though my teammates had grown up in poverty themselves and had no formal training in teaching, they were gifted teachers because of their love for children, their faith and determination, and their volunteer experience in our daycare.

Experienced teachers observe and critique a teaching
demo from Tin Tin - our head teacher at Educare.
Rico and I demonstrate what we've learned regarding how
to teach a "three-period lesson" through one-on-one instruction. 
Let me paint for you a picture of a typical day at the IFL training seminar, just so you can better imagine what we experienced. Almost 200 trainees attended the conference, and we were divided into groups at night where each of us slept on a mat in a room with 18 other trainees. The key to getting a decent sleep was trying not to think too much about the heat. We woke up each morning at 5 am for a devotional before breakfast at 6. Then we had lectures all day until 9 or 10 pm. Late at night was therefore the only time to work on assignments and to study for exams. Most of us typically didn't get to bed until 2 or 3 am, and so after a few hours of sleep we were already rubbing our eyes and finding our way back to the lecture hall to do it all over again the next day.

Raymond double checks the word count in his essay.
Forget the convenience and luxury of personal computers,
each assignment at the conference had to be hand-written.
Literacy was one of the main components of the
seminar. Each day we practised teaching phonics.
For me though, the biggest struggles were actually more cultural than academic or physical. As the only foreigner at the conference, I felt a bit isolated at times and had to fight the temptation to hide away. When I'm most comfortable, I'm very outgoing and I crave just being with others, so it was hard to overcome that dissonance between my naturally sociable side and my struggle to fit in when immersed 24/7 in the culture. That part is hard to explain, but anyone who's lived in a very different culture for an extended period can surely relate. Believe it or not, the other most difficult part of the seminar was eating rice three meals a day! Around two-thirds of a typical Filipino meal is white rice, while the other third consists of meat, fish, and/or vegetables. I've had the luxury of cooking Western foods in my own apartment these past several months, so my belly is still not quite accustomed to eating so much rice. But thanks to IFL, I'm getting there!

In fact, all of these struggles were really blessings in disguise. I have nothing to complain about when I remember how blessed I am to experience trials for the wisdom and experience gained in return. Each of the trainees came out of the conference with much more knowledge, strength, and resilience than before. The training was really a "trial by fire", but we came out on "cloud 9" (...sorry, cliche overload). I remember two specific moments during the two weeks when I was reminded of exactly why I was there and why I had nothing to complain about. The first was during a lunch break when I wandered outside to the playground to visit the kids from the orphanage. Besides the training facilities, the IFL compound has an orphanage for street children, a farm (where most of their food comes from), an elementary school, a high school, and even a college! After just a few minutes of simply playing and laughing with the kids, all my worries and frustrations felt so small in comparison to the joy of a career in teaching and loving kids like these. Over the next few days, I also took the time to learn some sign language to communicate with the hearing impaired students.

We'll never forget Mirasol (left). Her and I would sing songs together
and joke around during our breaks. On the last day, she squeezed me
tight and shouted "I won't let you go! I love you Kuya (brother) John!"
The IFL training hall, school, and orphanage
are surrounded by beautiful gardens and farmland.
The second experience that reminded me of how much the blessings of the seminar outweighed any costs was when we had a worship night with all the trainees and staff. Instead of an evening lecture, we all came together and sang worship songs in Tagalog and English for countless hours. Everyone's energy seemed to be miraculously renewed, and we didn't want to stop worshipping into the morning hours as we continued praying and worshipping out in the hallways when we were dismissed. I distinctly remember God reminding me that nothing is impossible for Him, and that He will use trials and sufferings to develop greater faith and wisdom. Nothing is impossible. Somehow God can take people like me (from another culture and language) and people like my teammates (from such humble beginnings in the streets) and He can use us to share His compassion and wisdom with little children in Manila.

We were stretched and inspired alongside many other Filipino
teachers, pastors, and administrators. These are just a few of the new
friends we met (left-to-right: Michelle, Tin, me, Pastor Ariel, Jowell).
Finally, the most memorable day at IFL was the last day. We had a complete graduation ceremony with certificates, awards, and speeches. I was even asked to share a testimony of my experience at the training. My teammates and I won the first place award for best original song composition (we wrote and taught an educational song for a science lesson on body parts). I also somehow won an award for "best male dancer" at the conference - yes, I am just as surprised as you are! Each day we did morning exercises through singing and dancing as part of teaching physical education, and the staff kept an eye on the style and enthusiasm of the trainees. Now, while I still believe that "white guys" truly can't dance compared to Filipinos (I know it's a stereotype, but rightly so, as there's just too much embarrassing evidence for it), I was nevertheless glad to somehow be the exception to the rule, even for a moment.

Let's be honest, great teachers love to fool around just
as much as kids ...of course, only when it's appropriate...
After all of that, the best moments of graduation day were yet to come. One particularly unforgettable moment was so deeply spiritual that it's difficult to put into words. It happened after the grad ceremony when Rico waved the five of us towards him. We stood together in the middle of the crowded training hall and naturally placed our arms around each other in a circle. At that instant, tears begin flowing from all of our eyes, and I recall Rico praying in Tagalog "Who are we to deserve this blessing? God, why did you choose us?" We all gave thanks because we felt that together we were receiving a divine calling to care for the street children through education. Somehow, that same day, support came in from unexpected places to fund our curriculum materials. All five of us had revelations of how God would use us if we continued to trust Him. Raymond, for instance, has experienced years of abuse and belittlement from his father for choosing to volunteer in the church instead of getting a better paying job. However, He finally felt a real sense of pride in his new vocation as a teacher. Rico's past role for Educare has primarily been picking up and dropping off the kids with our team van. However, now he's equipped to teach as well, and he amazed me with his leadership skills and his teaching talent at IFL. Toph and Tin Tin also grew in leaps and bounds. I couldn't be more proud of them and of the compliments the IFL staff gave to both Tin, our gifted head teacher, and to Toph, our inspired administrator.

Whew, that was a lengthy blog entry! I'll keep it more brief next time. There's been many things to be thankful for. Please pray for Educare as we prepare for the upcoming school year which begins in June. Also pray for me as I'm back again in Tagalog school for the next few months.

Take care and God Bless,


Saturday, April 7, 2012

Dinner with the Street Children in Manila

The Last Supper of Christ with His Closest Friends

Dear friends & family,

I recently fell in love with a painting titled "Hapag ng Pag-asa" (The Table of Hope) in which renowned Filipino artist Joey Velasco portrays a different version of the Last Supper of Christ. Here, Jesus shares his final meal with a group of street children. All of the kids seated at the table are actual poor children from Metro Manila between the ages of 4 and 14, and the child searching for crumbs underneath the table represents Velasco himself. He explains, "This painting reveals a story of greater hunger than a plate of rice could satisfy. What these children are starved for is love."

"Hapag ng Pag-asa" by Joey Velasco
The reason I chose to share this painting with you is because I want to be honest about something that's been on my mind since I started blogging. It's about that guy at the center of the dinner table. I've always been aware that many of my donors and friends who follow my blog are not Christian. Because of this, one my fears is that I might alienate them when I talk about Jesus or my faith. As you may have noticed, this hasn't exactly stopped me from talking about my faith throughout the blog. Of course, I do work for a Christian NGO, and all of our programs for street children operate out of local Filipino churches. My faith is central to what I do here. That said, I know that many of my non-Christian friends still support me because they know and respect me for the kind of person I am (independent of my beliefs), and because they value a cause that is universally respected - my cause to educate and empower children in poverty.

Nevertheless, the question of how much I should "toe-the-line" on discussing spirituality in order to maintain my appeal to a broader audience will continue to plague me, until I can simply and honestly address it. The reality is, the longer I work in the field here, the more I recognize the centrality of my faith in everything I do. It's undeniable. Without my faith, I never would have come to the Philippines in the first place, and it's what keeps me going in the most difficult of times. The miracles I've witnessed here from prayers alone are startling and unexplainable without that faith. Then I look at my friends. Many of my most respected Filipino friends were once involved in gangs, prostitution, and drug use. Most of them have personally experienced hunger, rape, and violence. They tell incredible and hopeful stories of complete recovery and personal redemption in spite of those experiences. In the most drastic cases of "lives turned around", they don't emphasize how they'd received help from a relief organization, a social worker, a religion, or a church. Time and time again, they only want to talk about how Jesus Himself saved them from their past. And that inspires me. I have probably learned more about the loving and redeeming character of God through my Filipino brothers and sisters who've come to believe in Jesus than from anyone else. Together, we love to spend time in prayer and worship, and we live out our faith by loving others and delighting in knowing God.

For most of my Christian supporters and friends, not much of that comes as a surprise. However, for others (and actually for many Christians yet) spirituality can a very strange and scary thing. For some, it's really uncomfortable or alienating to read or hear too much about it. All religious terms are "loaded terms" nowadays, and each of us comes at them with our own preconceptions. I do want to apologize if you've ever felt alienated by anything I've written here. I really do. Living in a vastly different culture away from home, I experience alienation and isolation daily from the things I don't understand or can't relate to, but which I do hope to try to understand. Please don't hesitate to ask me anything at all if you have questions or if you want to better understand my work, my faith, or my life here. I'm happy to chat about it with you, and happy just to hear from you! It's very important to me to always be open and sensitive to others.

And so, at times I will be very open about Jesus and about my faith. I pray that I can do that in a sensitive way. For in all honesty, He is the driving force behind my strength and compassion in serving the street children in Manila. Regardless of what you believe about Jesus or spirituality, you can be assured that I am always incredibly thankful for your trust, support, and encouragement in my work and in my life. I don't take that for granted.

Thank you for following along with me! Take care and enjoy this Easter weekend with your loved ones. I'll be spending it with the street children here - and thankful to do so!