My First Visits to Intercultural Bilingual Schools in the Cusco Region
Last week I ventured into rural Cusco with the local UNICEF team to visit schools that we have shortlisted for our study on Intercultural Bilingual Education. Several rural schools in Cusco are among those with the best national test scores for both Spanish and Indigenous Languages (in this case, Quechua). We are using these scores as a base for selecting schools but our study with be qualitative – we will spend a week in each school observing classes, interviewing teachers, speaking with community members, etc. with the goal of identifying factors that contribute to the academic success of these schools and to showcase their other successes. The initial visits are to introduce ourselves and to see if the schools are interested in participating.
Peru is divided administratively into 25 regions, each subdivided into provinces, and then into local districts. The city of Cusco is the capital of the Cusco region which has 13 provinces. The city is a marvel – it was the capital of the Incan empire and is an UNESCO World Heritage Site – but the opportunity to travel through the Andes mountains to remote towns was so rewarding, both for personal learning and the for the landscape (see picture above).
Visits to Canas and Quispicanchi Provinces
On Thursday morning, we were up bright and early to make our way south to the province of Canas where we hoped to visit a school in the remote town of Chirupampa. Up through the mountains we went, passing small towns and colourful chacras (small farms) that line the mountain valleys. The landscape was breathtaking, at times affording views across several Andean peaks, some topped with snow. It took us about two and a half hours to arrive in Yanaoca, the capital of the Canas Province, where we headed to the local government offices to meet with the Director of Education to get his approval for the study. He was thrilled with the idea but he let us know that we wouldn’t find many people in Chirupampa because they were in town for a provincial sports’ day.
So we headed over to the local stadium to watch some of the sports activities and to find the school principal. It was interesting to see the mix of the traditional and modern in Yanaoca. While a few internet cafes have made their way into the mostly adobe town, you still see many women wearing the traditional clothes of the Andes – thick wool tights, a knee-length pleated skirt, an alpaca sweater, and a bowler hat. They often have a brightly-coloured shawls or blankets tied to their back loaded up with goods or carrying a child. The teachers, children, and family members at the stadium evidenced a mix of traditional and modern styles.
We found the school principal and met with him and one of the teachers on the bleachers. We learned about the composition of the school (72 students in split-grade classes), and the school’s history with bilingual education. It was interesting to hear some of what I have been reading in my research. For example, a few years ago when bilingual education was formally implemented, the parents didn’t want it. They wanted their children to learn Spanish only so that they could overcome the discrimination they faced for speaking Quechua, and have more work opportunities open to them. But once the teachers started with the bilingual program, the parents saw how much faster their children were learning to read and write in both languages, and they came on board.
This history of rejection of the program but then support after seeing the results seems to be the case across the Andes. Because of the painful history of discrimination and exclusion based on language, many parents worry about their children not speaking Spanish well enough. But it is fascinating for me to notice that almost everyone I meet in Cusco is bilingual Spanish-Quechua, whether they are from the city or the provinces and regardless of their education. Bilingual education policy has been around for several decades in Peru but it hasn’t been taken seriously until the last few years so it’s quite beautiful to see that bilingualism has thrived even so.
On Friday, we visited the province of Quispicanchi which included going over a pass that was 4185 meters above sea level. After getting approval from the government in Urcos, we were able to visit two schools near the town of Ocongate. The first school in Tinque was quite large with 247 students and it has a well-developed bilingual program. We were able to observe a class where the students were doing Quechua writing practice. All of them were clearly fluent in the language but it was also interesting to note that, at recess, most of them were speaking Spanish on the playground.
We were also able to visit a smaller school in nearby Yanama where we got to enter several classrooms to see their activities and greet the kids who were quite excited to have visitors. In both schools, the bilingualism was clear with classroom walls decorated with images and posters in both languages. Most were created by the teachers or students since a lot of government resources don’t arrive at these schools. It was great to see that many touched on local knowledge such as plants and animals of the region, and most classrooms also had posters about protecting the environment and/ or children’s rights.
Support for our Project and for Each Other
Everyone was very welcoming and excited about our study. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to see the reality of these schools first-hand. It was also great to work with my team which includes my research partner Moisés, a professor who has taught bilingual education methods (including to several teachers that we met along the way), and Bersi from the local UNICEF office. The trip gave us the opportunity to get to know the schools but also to get to know each other. I am so grateful for their support – they both know the context very well and have been filling me in where needed. I think they appreciate my approach to the research and everyone is excited that UNICEF is taking on this important project of showcasing the success and ongoing need for Intercultural Bilingual Education in Peru. There is work to do yet but it’s all coming together and we are all looking forward to the first case study in a couple of weeks.