School Home and Abroad

by Cindy Vaquero and Kevin Rothman

One of the highlights so far has been our work with the children in the after school program at Casa Victoria. On the first day, we were excited and nervous for the local children to arrive. Although we talked amongst ourselves for months and heard from Mamalicia what the typical schedule is for the program, we still did not know exactly what to expect. How many kids would come? How old were they going to be? What do they like to do? These were all questions that lingered for us.

When the students first arrive to Casa Victoria, they have an hour of free time. While IMG_6937many of them choose to play, others use the time to take care of their homework so they can participate in the planned activities for the second and third hour at Casa Victoria. We noticed a few young ladies that came inside and sat at a table in a quiet corner and took out their school work. We overheard them talking about how they did on their reading test and what they had for home work. Hearing this sparked our interest so we decided to join them at the table. When Cindy asked about their test, the girls all wanted to tell her their grades. This helped break the ice and opened the door for us to see more of their school work.

The first thing we noticed was that their home work involved copying worksheets and textbook pages exactly into their notebook – including pictures! img_2423-2.jpg When Cindy asked if this is a typical assignment, they all said that this is the normal routine for their learning. We were shocked to hear this. As a student, this has not been the learning experience for Cindy.  Although there are times when she is asked to answer questions from textbooks and on worksheets as well as copy definitions of words, she has never been asked to copy these items exactly.   Mr. Rothman could only think about how he, as an administrator, works very hard with teachers to move away from rote learning experiences in an effort to involve students in more authentic learning experiences. Both of us wondered what value the teachers of these young ladies thought there was in having them copy things directly into their notebook. We also thought about how students in the United States would react if asked to do this every day. Not very well, we thought.

On the second day, we again decided to help students with their school work during their free time. Cindy helped one of the young ladies, Johanna, study for a science test on circuits. Johanna was trying to read over her notes – keep in mind this is an exact replica


of the textbook. Cindy noticed that she was struggling to memorize the definitions for the test. This was an opportunity for Cindy to introduce flash cards, a tool she often uses to study to help her memorize definitions. Because this was totally new to Johanna, Cindyhad to show her step by step how to make the flashcards (cut from paper) and how to use them as a tool for studying. Johanna really appreciated the help and it really seemed to help her remember the information. The other exciting aspect was the fact that she was learning about circuits. We happened to bring with us, as part of our donation to Casa Victoria, Snap Circuits, which is a hands on way to learn about the same content that was going to be on her test.


We are happy that we were able to see a bit into the school life of the children here in IMG_7021Ecuador. We are also glad that Cindy was able to introduce a new tool for studying and that our donated items will provide authentic learning opportunities for the children at Casa Victoria. It helped us appreciate the school system we have in the United States and especially the learning opportunities at Excelsior Academy. This experience has also left us with a few lingering questions: What does a typical school day look like? Are the teachers strict? What resources are available for learning in school? Is there high school and how is it different from our school? 


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Exploring Quito


JAYSWAN: “Elise was so excited that it was her birthday!!!! To start off the day, all of us gathered in the dining room to surprise her with flowers and a song.”


The ten minute ride up the Teleferico not only offers a beautiful view of Quito, but also gives passengers time to reflect on their experiences as travelers.


Maribel: “After the ride up the Teleferico, we were able to get at least one picture that everyone is in to capture this happy moment.”


Cindy:  “It was a long way to go for us to go up Pinchacha, but some of us decided to go on a horseback ride even though we were exhausted.”

Aidan: “Running up a steep hill at 13,000 feet with friends was hard at first, but got easier as we adjusted to the altitude.”

Aboya: “The sweet taste of victory when we reached our goal of making farther up the mountain than anyone else in our group.”


Colton:  “All my years of hiking, and yet this is the most beautiful view I have ever seen.”


Taina: “Looking out into the city and seeing the beautiful things we were surrounded by made the hike all worth it. Sharing this view with some of my best friends was and will be an unforgettable moment.”


Iggy and Nestor taking horses for a ride at 12,000 feet!

Iggy:  “Even with how insignificant we seem when we are looking down at the city, we still plan to make an impact by sharing individual expertise with each other and the kids at Casa Victoria.  I was thinking about this as we all wrote on top of the mountain.”


Alejandro: “Inka burger reminded me of home and was delicious. The food truck court had all of the choices anyone could want.  There was one truck that had a signature dish from every latin American country.”


Lili: “Four meats in one burger! I’m surprised Colton finished it… and then went back for more wings.”


Elise:  “Here we are looking down admiring Guayasamin’s artwork from above in the Chapel of Man.  We could see a huge circle of red, which represents the suffering of man, specifically the Latin American people.”


Nestor: “Outside of the Guayasamin art museum by the pool, we  sent our love to our friends back home who couldn’t be in Ecuador with us.”


Addison:  “The Virgin of Quito is a landmark that lets people know which direction they are facing wherever they are in the city.”


Gabby: “The beautiful view of Quito from the restaurant that we visited, Pim’s, reminded me of the stars at night.”


Brendin:  “We finally got to see the Virgin of Quito up close, after seeing it in the distance from Casa Victoria, and everywhere else we visited in the city.”


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En Espanol, por favor!


Being outside the United States, especially in a country where people primarily speak a different language, poses many difficulties. Simple situations can easily become a hassle. Buying food, telling a taxi where to go and talking to children, become much more difficult when you don’t speak the same language. However, to make it through day to day life and make sure we’re teaching the kids to the best of our abilities, these obstacles must be overcome.

When walking through the streets of Quito and working with the children of Casa Victoria, we are constantly reminded of the language barrier. All around signs hang, written in Spanish, as children play throughout the street. Street vendors sell their wares shouting them out in Spanish. All of this makes it nearly impossible to interact without some knowledge of the language.


The author, Brendin, teaching snap circuitry

As facilitators we feel it is our responsibility to make sure our students get the most out of each lesson. However, this goal comes with many challenges. There is a unique challenge for the few who grew up in a Hispanic household, hearing Spanish but never learning to fluently speak it themselves. Knowing limited Spanish often puts them in a situation where they can understand what a person is saying but be unable to formulate a proper reply. This is especially frustrating when a student asks for help and the facilitator knows what they want but can’t tell them what to do. A similar frustration also arises when you know the translation for a word but don’t know the word associations or grammar needed to properly use it. This endeavor is magnified for those who know very little to no Spanish. Not only can they not respond to the children, but more often than not, they don’t even understand what a student is saying. Despite this, as a facilitator, communication is vital and this gap must be crossed.

IMG_9473To compensate for a lack of fluent Spanish a few facilitators have made use of a more universal language. This language primarily consists of body language and tone of voice. No matter what part of the world you’re from or what language you speak, some signs mean the same thing to everyone. When someone is angry their posture or tone typically gives it away; the same for when someone’s happy. Through laughter and a common appreciation of music people can bond without ever saying a word. Knowing this, we try to accurately depict our emotions though such messages. That way even when we don’t know what to say the students can still 


understand what we mean. I personally took to simple hand gestures and my basic understanding of Spanish numbers to teach my students how to use the snap circuits. Since all the pieces were labeled, I was able to communicate most of my lesson without a vast understanding of Spanish. Then through smiles and high-fives I was able to cheer on my students as they completed their tasks. Many facilitators have also made an active effort to learn more Spanish, taking opportunities like buying things at a local store to practice what they’ve learned. We are all enjoying pushing ourselves to learn more over the next five days so that we can make the most our of our last day with kids at Casa Victoria.

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Adapting to Communal Living

While some people might not be used to living close to each other, some people are.

Communal living can be hard for those who prefer to be alone. Introverts have a difficult time being around many people for too long. Some even feeling physically drained or sick after awhile. Many need time alone to unwind and process the day’s events. Being used to a lot of alone time might make it uncomfortable to be living with 20 people.

On the other hand, for someone who has a very open and extroverted personality, it’s easy to live in close proximity with people.   Knowing these students for all these years really helps with homesickness. Living with people who you spent 3 years with made it easy to feel at home.  Although obvious challenges in communal living will occur, we have the mindset ready to overcome anything. The family-relationship we all share as a group has strengthened our willingness to interact, allowing us to grow.  One of the definite pros of communal living is the teamwork skills we are all learning.  Living here at Casa Victoria, and having some students help Alicia and Dan with the cooking and cleaning, makes us feel included and helps us with different family values.  All chores in our living space have been done as a team, allowing us to strengthen our communication and leadership skills, preparing us for our student-led impact projects upon our return.

IMG_2238Here we have Nestor doing some cooking for all 21 of us on our first day in Casa Victoria.  He says ” given this great opportunity and everything that comes with it, I wouldn’t be satisfied if I wasn’t able to pitch in.”

We are all grateful to be here and to be able to do everything we can to help Dan and Alicia with their amazing foundation.  We can’t wait for the days to follow with the kids and also to experience more moments with these students while living together.

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Pizza Night!

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Today we had the amazing opportunity to stand with our feet in both hemispheres as we played around with the science of the Equator and learned about indigenous tribes of Ecuador at Mitad del Mundo.  Scroll through some pictures below and check out the video at the end.

IMG_9230Jason takes a minute to pose with a traditional Ecuadorian mask-wearer.


During our informative tour, we learned that in the 19th century muraiya Shuar became famous  for their elaborate head-shrinking processes and were able to see a real shrunken head ourselves.


Everyone peeking in to see the head (which we could not photograph due to it being part of a private collection).


Aboya posing with her new “friend.”


A replica of a shrunken head.



Here we are learning about the environmental movements in Ecuador and the actions taken to protect biological diversity.



We learned how certain Chiefs were buried in chambers such as this with their (still alive!) wives.


…and visited an actual hut built by natives.


Can’t take this guy anywhere 🙂


Dangers abound…


Listening attentively to our guide about how their are no hurricanes, typhoons, or tornados along the Equator because of centrifugal force (pictured above and below).



Chaperone photoshoot!


Taking every opportunity to capture the moment.



Intense one on one competition as we took on the egg balancing challenge.


Proud holders of egg balancing certificates of excellence.



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Reflections on Leadership

Leaders are able to bring about change by effectively being able to inspire others to take action.

One of our goals on this trip is to further develop our leadership skills. Not only are we partaking in leadership activities, but we’re also implementing them by leading activities for the children of Casa Victoria.

Our first leadership activity was a desert survival situation. We had 15 minutes collectively as a group to rank a list of essential items for our “survival.”  It was a boys versus girls task, so the competition was a little heated.  While we narrowing down our most crucial items for survival, some members of the group took on a leadership role while others kind of fell to the back. This activity taught us a lot about the good qualities that a leader demonstrates. We ended up coming up with 5 guidelines or rules that we believed we could improve upon in the future. The boys and girls both came up with similar rules, most of which followed along the lines of including everyone, understanding when to step up and step back, putting smart structures in place, being confident, and empowering others. After a similar activity the next day, there was a general consensus that we had a major improvement from our first activity. Everyone was a lot more conscious of the things they had to work on and intentional in trying to do the right thing. During our nightly debrief sessions, we also decided to acknowledge the small things that people did throughout the day that made them leaders. This helped us realize no matter how big or small an action may be, it can still demonstrate positive qualities of a leader.

Learning the qualities of great leaders provides the foundation for us to take initiative in whatever cause we believe in, which is why this opportunity to strengthen our skills is so significant. Our improved leadership skills will be enacted when we come back to Newburgh and become leaders for our community impact projects in which we will work to better our own community. With practice and experience, we can be the next great leaders of the world!

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Screen Shot 2017-06-26 at 6.48.31 AM

Despite our hesitations as we loaded fifteen 11th graders onto a bus to LaGuardia on the last day of school, traveling with students has been fulfilling in so many expected and unexpected ways. Being removed from our routines and comforts alongside our students has created spaces for us to gain a new perspective on one another.  We are learning who loves to cook, who naturScreen Shot 2017-06-26 at 6.38.13 AMally nurtures and protects others, who can spend the entire day socializing with everyone and who needs time to step away from the constant bustle of living alongside twenty three other people.

We are realizing how much expertise we all have to lend during this time together.  Our students obviously come to us with knowledge and skills we might not know about and which aren’t always applicable within our content-based curriculum; but by being together in a country where we are all foreigners, that dynamic changes to one where teachers and students are able to see one another’s strengths and use them to contribute to the success and happiness of our newfound community.  


As educators who travel, but lack the ability to fluently speak a language other than English, we are used to communicating with the people we encounter in a foreign country by cobbling together words into awkward phrases, ignoring tenses and gesturing to get our message across.  Yet as we travel with our students, several of whom are native Spanish speakers, we are able to rely on them when our ability to speak and understand comes up short. Today during Catholic mass, which Alicia invited us to attend, we both needed help to understand the service, and our students were happy to translate. The benefit of being able to lean on one other was also apparent when several students went out to buy soda at the corner store and cookies at the panadería down the block and quickly realized they needed their Spanish-speaking peers to complete what would normally be a simple transaction.


One crucial piece of our first two days of travel has been carving out time to come together, be still, write, reflect and share.  After our first busy day, we invited our students into a big room with comfortable couches and listed all of the things that we had experienced throughout the day.  Once complete, the list had over thirty items and it was gratifying to see what stood out to everyone.  We laughed as we recalled the boys who bought a whole chicken from a street vendor and shared it in the afternoon sun and recalled our inspiring tour of a building that was once a prison, now transformed into a school for higher learning.  From that list, we each wrote quietly for several minutes about what stood out most to us and why.  Then we all wrote a bit more about something that pressed us, either intellectually, emotionally, or physically and thought about how we were processing that challenge.  As we shared out, Alejandro spoke first about his IMG_2210realization that we take many things for granted in the United States.  Maribel was moved by seeing young children working on the streets.  Brendin spoke about the challenge of balancing the desire to live in the moment and wanting to digitally capture everything he was seeing and experiencing.  Aboya discussed the excitement of leaving the country for the first time and seeing beauty in a new place and then brought up the dichotomy of witnessing conditions of poverty alongside the historical architecture of Quito.  All of the students agreed that making the time to come together, be still and reflect was so important to processing everything that was happening.  As we walked away from our first debrief of many, we couldn’t help but reflect ourselves on the ways in which these conversations and moments would impact our future relationships with this group of students. We are inspired by the power of experiencing the real world alongside students and look forward to the remaining days we have together on this journey.


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Daily Reflection

Our first day in Quito was amazing. The city was magnificent, and our tour guide was wonderful. While walking around the city, we were exposed to everything: the good and the bad.  As someone who has lived in the United States for all my life, I’ve been privileged with all of America’s nice amenities; I have lived in some ways, in ignorance of the rest of the world. I’ve been to Mexico before and lived in pretty bad conditions, having to shower with buckets, and having no wifi, or service; so I knew a little of how privileged I am. But, even with that experience, going through Quito almost felt surreal. Seeing kids as young as five selling ice cream for extra cash, seeing all the stray dogs wandering around, and other sights that really made me think about what I have in the city of Newburgh. It just all hit me all at once and I found myself taking a step back, reflecting on what I have.  This experience is strengthening my believe and passion to help others, and be involved in my community, as well as learning about communities around the world, like Quito, and helping out in whatever ways I can.

-Alejandro Juarez


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Wondering how we’re doing down here?

DAY ONE:  We were super-busy taking in everything our host city had to offer today, and adjusting to the altitude, so here’s a little picture collage to sum it up:


Ms. Hesse and Nestor standing on the rooftop of Casa Victoria.


Chefs Jason, Dan and Nestor cooking up our locally-sourced breakfast.


Cindy and Liliana in Plaza Grande.


Taina, Colton,  and Aidan standing in front of a well known memorial.


Global To Local’s donations to Casa Victoria; amazing how our hard work and dedication is making a different.


Aboya and Mr. Harvey


Brendin and Alejandro taking a break from the heat.



At the foot of the 900 steps leading towards the Virgin of Quito statue. Will be tackled some time during our trip!!!IMG_0125

Day One group selfie by me (Iggy).


One of many hummingbirds that frequent the garden at Casa Victoria all day long.


Jason, Aidan, Aboya and Colton.


Mid-day soccer tournament in the front yard of Casa Victoria. Colton, Addison and Ms Mac went undefeated.


Best soccer field background ever.


Checking out a local convent.


City-scape of Quito, with the Cathedral in the background.IMG_8496

Aboya and Elise enjoying the walking tour (above and below).



Starting construction on Colton’s Eagle Scout Project into the wee hours of the day.


The statue that overlooks the city and Casa Victoria.

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Mamalicia (our host and the inspiring woman who dreamt up Casa Victoria) and I on the roof at the end of our great first day.

For more pictures and videos, please check out our Twitter feed.

Look out for a post from Alejandro Juarez later today.


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