This summer, I was given the opportunity to participate in a Where there Be Dragons course on Climate Change in Bolivia to bring back more knowledge about climate change and find new ways to incorporate global components to our fourth grade curriculum on Energy. “How was your trip? Was it amazing? Tell me, did you really find anything that could be useful in the classroom, or was it just a chance to take an amazing vacation?” These are the questions I returned to from both friends and colleagues. It has been hard to explain one of the most intense, educational and thought provoking experiences of my life. It has taken time (more than a month now!) to process and reflect on what the most impactful piece of the trip was, and how the trip with my fourth grade colleagues and friends has changed me both personally and professionally, but I will try to do it justice.
Yes, it was amazing! Traveling to new places that you didn’t imagine you would ever go to and only read about is amazing. The Bolivian landscape stark, imposing and vast was awe producing. With the Andes as our backdrop and omnipresent, it was impossible to miss how the Bolivian people are shaped by their environment and how deep and immediate their dependence is on the health of their mountains, forests and glaciers. I lived with a Quechua family whose life depended on the crops they produced and sold daily in the market. I traveled through the mountains to a mining city and delved one hundred meters deep into a working mine and saw working conditions I never thought existed. I spent time marveling at the juxtaposition between the old and the new in the city of La Paz. I climbed (yay for the 46 year old!) and hiked to a glacier. I saw more llamas and alpacas in one place that I ever thought I would. I stood at the shores of Lake Titicaca and viewed the sunrise. I experienced the efforts of an Aymara community to become leaders in agrobiodiversity to preserve their existence. I met governors, historians, ecologists, glaciologists, spent time with one of the ministers of education as he explained how climate change education is implemented in the school systems, and met teachers with passion to make a difference in the world through their students. I learned so much. Yes, it was amazing!
It was also intensely emotional and thought provoking. The trip challenged my life, my choices, and cemented my commitment to teach my students and make relevant their own dependence on this world of ours, help them realize their privilege, and help them feel empowered to take action for the health of our environment. During my trip to Bolivia, climate change and its effects was not an abstract idea people talked about, it was a lived reality that people had to respond and adapt to. Bolivians are living with the effects of climate change now. They are well aware of how their lives are constantly changing to adapt to new weather patterns. My host “mom”, Rosa told me of smaller crop sizes, and lower yields which directly impact her ability to provide for her son. Pablo, a glaciologist shared his research with us and told us about glacier melts and retreats, and the fact that some communities that depend on the glaciers for their water will fail to survive if the melting rates continue. I learned that a country that relies on mining so heavily as Bolivia does, has irrevocable impact both socially and environmentally. With such tangible evidence of the impact of climate change on real people’s lives, it was hard not to be despairing. I learned that societies are complex and inextricably linked to the place they live in, and how we go about caring for our little piece of the world matters. It wasn’t a concept that I cared about or thought I knew enough about, it impacts me and my family. It was intense and thought provoking.
The trip was also an opportunity for growth in empathy and hope, which I trust will turn into some useful action for the good of the children I teach, myself and my community. Despite of the hard nature of the things I was learning about like the impoverished conditions of the people that I met and became friends with, or while experiencing the harsh realities of miners and those communities fighting for their survival, I learned that human beings are resilient and hope can shine through with very little. People are happy and live in communities that help and care for each other in tangible ways. People can grow, adapt and learn with very little resources at their disposal. This trip made me grateful for the opportunities that I have, made me aware of my own privilege, and renewed a hope that my students can face the challenges ahead if I can teach them kindness, empathy, and make real and relevant the importance of their environment and how they interact with it.
As friends and colleagues continue to ask how the trip to Bolivia was, I will continue to answer “yes, it was amazing, but it was so much more” in hopes that I can engage in a meaningful conversation that can convey the importance of becoming more connected and aware of how our choices impact the world around us. As the new school year quickly comes into focus, Christina, Louisa and I are already planning on making changes in the way we frame, introduce and talk about energy use and climate change knowing that it is not an abstract concept that we have to teach, but that it touches the lives of people we know and impacts the relationships we developed on this trip. I am so very grateful for having this opportunity.