The school in our little village of Colonia Carlos Pellegrini has no textbooks, no workbooks, no internet, and a painted sheet of composition board that is resistant to chalk. There are three instruction books, one for each of three grades, but there are no copies of the pages because the printer cartridges for the printer cost too much to use for anything but essential business. So every activity and exercise used in teaching has to be written out on the “blackboard” and then copied by each of the students in their notebooks, much as medieval copyists did before Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press. So at least half of all teaching time is spent copying. You could call this a dreadful waste, except the kids are always learning, even when you were sure they weren’t.
There’s about 15 kids who are learning English as a second language. Some of them are not yet old enough to learn how to write in their mother tongue of Spanish. They all speak English at different levels of proficiency. Their worst English is better than my Spanish. Their brains are like hungry sponges and they learn without trying, as long as it looks and feels like fun.
Learning the basics of entrepreneurship from a vegetable stand
Last week we studied some basics of business and entrepreneurship. The parents of most of these kids are entrepreneurs, although I don’t think anyone ever told them that. They just do what they do. It’s called survival. This is a village of about 1,000 people confined in an area about ten blocks by nine block square at the end of the world. The village is completely isolated, with only two terrible dirt roads leading in or out of the village. It’s hours to the next place. Virtually everything is trucked in from outside the village. Everyone in the village in one way or another is part of the support system for tourism, and the big attraction; indeed the only attraction, are the birds. Everyone comes to see the incredible birds. And a few other things like caimans and rheas and of course the capybaras, big, fat, overgrown rodents that sort of look like giant groundhogs.
So about one out of every five houses is a tiny country store selling a few vegetables or meats or pasta or bread or cerveza (Argentine beer). When there are no tourists they seem to sell to each other in the village. There are no banks and no ATM machines. To the best of my knowledge there is only one bar in the village, but it must open after I go to bed, because I rarely see it open. The electric, which is brought into the village from over 120 kilometers of soggy wetlands is erratic and goes out about every other day, for a few minutes or a few hours. It was on one of these dreary, rainy days, when we were sitting in the semi-dark one-room school with no lights and a chalkboard that was not cooperating, and I was wondering what to do with these kids who had way too much energy for the situation.
Of course, this was the perfect time and place to teach them the basics of retailing, theory and practice. We had a 20-minute kick-off meeting in which I introduced them to the concepts of inventory and merchandising, which they grasped quickly and easily. I told them everything they needed to know they could learn from one of the local vegetable stores. We pretended one of the longer tables was a vegetable stand and I asked them which bananas they would put up front by the customers, the beautiful yellow ones, the ones slightly overripe, or the black ones. They got the point, and this was merchandising. You put the chocolate candy in front of the cash register line and customers would make impulse purchases while they were waiting in line to check out.
Nothing like competition to improve performance
We divided up into two teams, with one team organizing a Spanish book store, and the other team organizing an English one. We had lots of books, which had to be separated into the two languages. I explained to them the importance of display, which is an essential part of merchandising. And of course there would be a contest of which team had the most attractive display. Each team could only select six books out of an inventory of dozens, and I suggested they pay attention to dogeared corners and other factors that might detract from the overall appearance of their displays.
I was absolutely amazed at the focus, energy, and hard work they brought to the task. They were oblivious to everything else. None of the usual distractions interfered. This was serious business! And the creativity was fabulous, the use they made of what they had to work with, to produce an attractive retail table.
Managing cash flow
We had play money, and at the beginning each team was given the same amount of money and they had to negotiate with wholesalers (my colleague/teacher Mili and myself) to purchase their beginning inventory. If they spent too much due to poor negotiating, they found themselves in the situation of being short of operating capital to run their business. They cleaned up all the books, organized them by categories, priced and promoted them through attractive merchandising and table displays. A couple hours flew by.
We asked them to pose for a photograph with their retail displays, and here they are:
Learning values and language together
These kids, and others not shown, are learning to work and they are learning values such as honesty and courtesy and fair dealing that will form the remainder of their lives. It truly amazes me what they can do with so little, compared to how little others do with so much. The teachers are mostly volunteers like myself, and we rotate in and out regularly. A new teacher arrived here in Mercedes, from where I write, only yesterday, a British woman who has been teaching English to Chinese kids in Hong Kong for the past 15 years. The school year here ends on December 15, but when it resumes next March another teacher is slated to come here from Ecuador, another Brit retired as a high tech worker from IBM. What marvelous exposure to other cultures and careers for these children!
And as teachers who really care about these children, we teachers are conspiring to see what we can do about getting a real blackboard into this classroom, and textbooks for every child. We take vocabulary-building field trips in and around the village even now, but the day will come when these kids deserve to discover the outside world and the wealth of opportunities for learning that it offers them. I’m already thinking about a next step educational field trip to Mercedes. First Mercedes and then the world! I am writing this from Mercedes, a town of 40,000 and the closest good internet, and it has quickly become my own window to the world outside of the Ibera Wetlands.
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