Education for Liberation

Jorge Chojolán founder of the Miguel Angel Asturias Academy in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. photo | John Abernathy

Empowering students to understand and transform society is the mission of the Miguel Angel Asturias Academy in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. The Academy and its founder Jorge Chojolán were profiled in Issue 4. Chojolán visited the US to present a workshop about his vision of education at the international Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed Conference “Mad as Hell? Now Move (or Draw, or Act…): Organizing for Social Justice” this weekend in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Chojolán modeled his workshop on the Academy’s teacher training about Paolo Freire’s theory that education can be a tool for liberation. Conference participants discussed the limits of the traditional teaching style that conceives of children as blank slates that the teacher imposes knowledge on. Students at the Academy are instead treated as active learners supported by teachers. Chojolán describes an incident when the Academy’s radical approach enabled students to stand up for their community: “We visited City Hall and the kids got a chance to ask the mayor questions like, ‘Why is there trash all over? Why isn’t this a priority of the municipality?’ Teachers from other schools asked why I did not quiet the students, but I think it’s important that their questions be heard.”

Director of development Steve Mullaney (right) and founder Jorge Chojolán (left) challenge preconceptions about teaching and learning at the PTO Conference.

In contrast with traditional education, experiences outside the classroom are acknowledged as learning opportunities. Schoolwork at the Academy is framed in the context of students’ lives and used to solve real problems. Chojolán gave the example that in math class, students don’t work with abstract numbers; they add and subtract how many of their classmates have experienced violence, or how much food their families have.

The Academy endeavors to eliminate prejudices through education. The indigenous 65 percent of the student population encounters racism on a daily basis. They are often treated as second-class citizens when they wear Mayan clothing or speak the k’iche language. Sexism is equally problematic in Guatemala, where women are discouraged from taking on roles outside the home. After a class discussion about women and housework, Chojolán says, “a student went home and saw his father watching television and his mother washing dishes. He said, ‘Why don’t you help out and I’ll help too.’” Students apply their learning by challenging the status quo in their homes, community and society.

photo | John Abernathy

Chojolán is committed to extending educational opportunities to the wider community as well as students. The Academy’s library will be open to everyone when construction is completed. “We would like the library to give birth to a love of reading both in students and in community members,” Chojolán says. In Guatemala, the high tax imposed on books make them prohibitively expensive, costing as much as two week’s wages for an average book. The two university libraries in Quezaltenango are only open to students, and the local government-run library isn’t much more accessible. Visitors can only request books whose titles they already know since browsing the stacks is not permitted.

Prejudice, poverty and limited education make it difficult for Guatemalans to envision a better future. At the Miguel Angel Asturias Academy, students and teachers are overcoming those obstacles to transform their community. Once the library is built, Chojolán hopes to expand this educational model to other locations in Guatemala with the Academy as the prototype.

Miguel Angel Asturias Academy
Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed Conference

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