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Volunteering With the Achuar: How You Can Help and Why You Should

August 28, 2013 | By Alan Pierce

For one month I taught English in a small Achuar community in the Ecuadorian Amazon. This is a glimpse into that life-changing teaching experience and also a call to others to support this amazing program and these wonderful people.

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In a previous post about my time living with the Achuar, I detailed what I learned from the people I met and the culture I experienced. However, I was also there to be a teacher myself, to step into my volunteer role as "el profesor Alan" for one month and hopefully leave my students with a better understanding of the English language.

This is a glimpse into this wonderful teaching adventure and a heartfelt call to those in the global community who wish to help this program, the Achuar, and their children.

My Jungle Teaching Rhythm

As a volunteer English teacher I lived alone in my own Achuar house and had classes everyday. I taught in the mornings from 7:30am to 10am and in the afternoons from around 4pm to 5:30pm. Each day of morning class, Monday through Thursday, I had a different age group. I rotated through four classroom buildings during the week with classes of 6 and 7 year-olds to classes with teens on the verge of adulthood. I also taught some eager adults in the afternoons who wanted to learn as well.

It became quickly apparent that the level of English of the youth (and adults) in this community remains very basic. Volunteers have come to this community in the past, but I learned that such visits are very intermittent. Having one month of English learning every three to four or more months is an extremely difficult, if not impossible, way to learn a language.

With that said, the students are very bright. They learn dutifully and joyfully, eagerly and happily, and with a curiosity that knows no cultural bounds. The energy of children is equally culturally blind, and some of the groups were certainly a handful!

I have experience teaching and mentoring youth in California and this certainly served to help, however one's materials are limited so I tried to make the learning (and therefore teaching) a more embodied experience. It helped release the exuberant and often seemingly endless energy of my students and provide an atmosphere where learning wasn't a rote experience, but more like the daily life of the Achuar, active and dynamic.

An Active Life, An Active Classroom

I challenged myself to find innovative ways of transferring language vocab and grammar, and challenged the students to overcome their often quieting shyness to vocalizing this strange sounding language of mine.

On my first day living amongst the community I had seen some children tossing paper airplanes. This gave me an idea and with some of the younger groups later on I brought in some paper airplanes I made and held a throwing contest. We practiced using English to count the number of steps from the place of the throw to the place of landing.

We also played pictionary, each team sending a participant up to the board to draw an animal I whisper to them. Answers in English only! With the youngest group, we played a version of duck-duck-goose using jungle animals. Deer...Deer...Jaguar, RUN!

In one of the older groups we had learned jungle animal vocab, and spoke about the way the animals are in the world. What do they sound like? How do they move? To their horror, I eventually had them come up and act out an animal that the others had to guess.

This didn't initially work so well. I was very shy as a child too, so I knew some extra encouragement and safe space needed to be cultivated. I had them all come up at the same time and told them to pick whatever animal they wanted. We'd all run or hop or swim, and howl or roar or hiss together across and around the room.

Once they saw "teacher" transform into a wall climbing howling monkey, they were at first too giggly to follow suit. When "teacher" came at them as a roaring jaguar they became the jungle animals we'd studied, rabbits and birds and turtles fleeing from this wild cat. While we caught our breath, we reviewed our animal choices and movements and sounds.

With my older and more advanced students in the afternoon classes, we put their learning to practical, applicable use. I had them lead me into the jungle, notebooks in hand, to practice being the Achuar guides they wish to be some day. I'd ask them something like, "What is that?" and they'd respond, "That is a snake. Do not touch it!"

I'm not sure who had more fun, the teacher or the taught. Either way, it was an experience I know I'll never forget and one that I hope inspires others to share in the beauty of teaching these Achuar students, and to realize how life-changing such an endeavor actually is.

Why The Achuar Want to Learn English

I would often ask my students and members of the community why they felt English learning was important to them. The specific answers I received were slightly different, ranging from education to work opportunities, however they all invariably rested on a belief in one fundamental motivating factor: knowing how to speak English helps preserve their culture.

Among other reasons, the Achuar I lived with believe strongly that ecotourism has and will continue to provide an avenue through which they can share the richness of their culture and the pristine beauty of the environment they coexist with. English is, of course, a key component of this industry.

The more they are able to interact and engage with an ecotourist community, the more demand and appreciation there will be for such experiences, and the more pressure there will be on the government to maintain a healthy and thriving rainforest destination. As crass as it may sound to reduce cultural preservation to economics, this is often the reality in a world driven by a short-sighted dependence on fossil fuel.

How You Can Help

I wanted to write this piece for several reasons, first and foremost to give the Volunteer English Teaching Program more visibility. I hope to encourage people to grab this opportunity to do something important, something so personally formative, something that is immensely life-changing for both the volunteer and the Achuar.

The reasons why one can't or why one shouldn't naturally arise. But what are the reasons why one can? What are the reasons why one should? For me (for many reasons) these far outweighed the cautious, uncertain, it's-easier-not-to thoughts.

I am truly grateful I decided to go, not only for the learning I cultivated there, but for the personal growth I experienced as a result. I challenged myself to embody my ideals and my values, and my hopes and my aspirations so that the future I inhabit, and the future my children and their children inherit, lives up to those dreams.

So at the very least, please pass this opportunity on. Tell your son or your niece or your neighbor. Share this opportunity on Facebook or Twitter. Tell a recent college grad you sit next to on a bus. You can also make a donation to the program or send a package to help this volunteer program continue to serve.

Like any child in any classroom, these children depend on their teachers and materials to nourish that twinkle of childlike wonder to help co-create opportunity and success, perspective and hope, learning and growth.

Now that I've had the chance to be that nourishing spark, I am passing the proverbial torch because I strongly believe there are many people out there who want to go and do this, who can go and do this, or who simply want to help in whatever way they can. And if you've read this far, aren't you one of those people?

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