By Catherine Del Valle
On Sept. 20, 2017, the tiny island of Puerto Rico braced itself as Hurricane María tore through its tropical landscape. Nervously, I watched the news reporters give their descriptions of the damage that María was causing. My family is from Puerto Rico, and I prayed that they and my friends still living there would be kept safe.
Days went by with no communication from any of them. My concern was contagious, as even my students began to inquire about whether or not I had heard from my family. Fourteen days after Hurricane María destroyed lives, homes and the island of my ancestors, a call from my cousin came in the middle of class to tell me they were safe. My students saw the relief and tears of joy that overcame me.
How does this all relate to global competency? As heart-wrenching and tragic as natural disasters of this magnitude can be, they’re also vital to educators as teaching moments. By providing students the opportunity to work with their peers, my students were not only able to practice their language skills by watching, listening, reading and speaking about news reports and interviews, but I also was able to impart to them the importance of being globally competent.
After being exposed to the devastation through news outlets and personal accounts, I wanted to take action and so did my students. A good friend and colleague, Susann Davis of Western Kentucky University, and I discussed ways we could help. We found one common denominator we shared was through our connections with various individuals, family members and friends, all of which crossed paths in the field of education. An idea was born from this discussion.
In order to learn about Puerto Rico, I taught my students about the history of the island, its status as a U.S. territory, the environment, geography and the reasons why aid workers were having difficulty in helping, culture and foods. Concurrently, we listened to newly written songs in Spanish inspired by the devastation of the hurricane.
Eventually, The Puerto Rico Project was created. Through my position as the Kentucky state director of the Sociedad Honoraria Hispánica – an honor society for high school students enrolled in Spanish and/or Portuguese – schools with a chapter, as well as my friends or family members who also are/were educators, were invited to be part of the project. We have 12 Kentucky schools committed to participating, as well as one school in West Virginia, one in Indiana and the Chrome Angelz International Riding Club, whose founder is a teacher in New Jersey.
The schools share a common goal – providing assistance to aid in the re-establishment of schools in Puerto Rico while learning about each other’s country/state, culture and for some, practicing language via letters and video exchanges.
Longbranch Elementary School (Boone County) did a project-based learning activity in October, culminating in an event on Nov. 14. Second-grade students learned and performed authentic songs and games, and other grades sold items at an activity called “mercado” (market). There was a Puerto Rico themed potluck dinner too. The art teacher, along with students from various grade levels, designed Taíno petroglyph tie dye t-shirts. Longbranch was able to raise $2,500 from that event, and along with monetary donations that were raised by Notre Dame Academy’s Spanish and French Honor Societies, were able to directly aide Colegio Nuestra Señora de Valvanera in Coamo, Puerto Rico.
Ramón Power y Giralt High School in Las Piedras, Puerto Rico, received solar lights, batteries, portable fans and mosquito spray for use in their classrooms provided by the combined efforts of Beechwood High School (Beechwood Independent), Sacred Heart Academy of Louisville and the Chrome Angelz International Riding Club. Apollo High School, Boyd County High School, Greenup County High School, Russell High School (Russell Independent) and St. Henry District High School have sent school supplies – such as notebooks, pencils and educational materials – to Ramón Power y Giralt High School, Ileana De Gracia High School in Vega Alta and Agapito Lopez Flores Elementary School in Punta Santiago.
Students also will be able to have personal interactions with the students of Puerto Rico through their exchanges. Additionally, educators have been able to form a relationship with other educators and share their ideas and materials.
As heart-wrenching and tragic as a natural disaster of this magnitude can be, for an educator it provides the bittersweet opportunity of a teachable moment. Projects such as these take an abstract concept – such as global competency – and make it a tangible notion that connects and humanizes us all. A simple idea can create a world of difference in the lives of students all around the world.
If you wish to be part of this project, contact Catherine Del Valle at email@example.com for more information.
Catherine Del Valle is a Spanish teacher at Russell High School (Russell Independent). She is the current Kentucky state director for the Sociedad Honoraria Hispánica.