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What happens when animals go to school?

by Silvia Parmeggiani, Community Officer, Belize

As we (we being the BV Belize team) wait for our new batch of volunteers to arrive and join us for the third expedition of this year, we ‘re getting very excited. They arrive throughout the day, some by boat and others by bus. It isn’t always easy getting to Sarteneja, but once arrived everybody is amazed by this calm little village by the sea. While they get settled with their homestay families we make plans for their first week in Sarteneja: it will be full of activities, as we want to give volunteers an opportunity to get to know the community, and get a taste of Belizean culture, as well as conduct all science training before everybody goes out to Bacalar Chico Dive Camp, where the diving begins!

Cycling around Sarteneja with a tour guide to discover hidden corners and bits of Mayan history spread around the village

Cycling around Sarteneja with a tour guide to discover hidden corners and bits of Mayan history spread around the village

The first week is always very busy, but between science lectures, touring the village and the swim test, we dedicate time to educational activities. On the previous expedition, a group of volunteers visited one of Sarteneja’s pre-schools. Belize has outstanding bird life, and this lesson focused on three particularly magnificent Belizean species: the Great Horned Owl, the Roseate Spoonbill and the Keel Billed Toucan.

The children really enjoyed colouring in the beautiful outlines Field Scientist, Pippa, had prepared

The children really enjoyed colouring in the beautiful outlines Field Scientist, Pippa, had prepared

Winnie had written a lovely poem about the birds, which turned into a song – while having fun learning the words and the corresponding moves, the children learned about the birds’ different habitats. We hope the step from loving birds today to protecting them tomorrow, as the children grow up, will be easier now.

Two preschool students proudly show off their drawings

Two preschool students proudly show off their drawings

During this particular expedition, a group of volunteers joined me at one of the primary schools in the village, where we often hold creative writing workshops. The volunteers were enthusiastic at the idea of helping with the class, and so were the children! After welcoming us with big smiles, we all read a story together, “Mary the Manatee” – written by Blue Ventures’ volunteers back in 2012, and still a firm favourite. We use this simple, short story to get an idea of what we need to create a story of our own: characters, setting and plot. Each volunteer then takes a small group of four children to work with.

To break the ice the volunteers ask each student in their group which is their favourite animal.

To break the ice the volunteers ask each student in their group which is their favourite animal.

After learning the children’s names the group gives names to the animals they have chosen and these become the characters for the new stories. We ask the children what they think their characters like to do and what role they will play in the story. All of the characters seem to enjoy eating very much… swimming is also a favourite. As the young students’ imaginations start running freely, the room fills with dolphins, lions, toucans, monkeys and much more. The best part comes when they choose the setting, we have tigers living in restaurants, and sharks and alligators going to school together.

Gill listens to the students in her group as they practice reading their presentations

Gill listens to the students in her group as they practice reading their presentations

As the time starts to run out, the children copy out their story nicely and make beautiful drawings of their characters. Before we leave we want them to share their stories with each other, showing their great work. This seems to be the most difficult task, certainly standing up in front of the class and reading out loud isn’t a favourite for the students.

Tom stands next to his group of students encouraging them to share their wonderful story

Tom stands next to his group of students encouraging them to share their wonderful story

In the end everybody is very happy and I wonder who had more fun: the children or the volunteers? It was certainly a very positive experience on both sides, volunteers got to know more about the local culture and way of life by visiting the schools and meeting the children, while the students encounter people coming from all around the world and are motivated towards learning, thanks to the different stimulations they receive.

Our volunteers, Susan, Teddy and Frida, with Pippa at the end of their day in the preschool.

Our volunteers, Susan, Teddy and Frida, with Pippa at the end of their day in the preschool.

Silvia Parmeggiani

About Silvia Parmeggiani

Silvia coordinates all of our community education and outreach in Belize, especially working with school children in the main fishing village of Sarteneja. She comes from Italy, and has experience working in Peru.