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Wednesday, 30 January 2013

ITSA Goes to Latin America!

New team member Isabel Sacks blogs about working with ITSA and her project in the Dominican Republic.

Before starting my freshman year at Swarthmore, where I am now a sophomore, I took a gap year and spent four months living and teaching at a beautiful, bright blue school nestled among the sugarcane fields of rural Dominican Republic called Santa Maria del Batey. Founded in 2000 by Augusto Casasnovas and run by several nuns, the school serves the children of Dominican subsistence farmers and Haitian sugarcane workers, who live in housing clusters called bateyes (hence the school’s name). SMB is the only high school in the immediate area and provides its students not only a quality education from grades K-12, but daily breakfast and lunch and health care. From August to December 2010, I designed and taught my own English curriculum to the third and fourth grades and served as an assistant teacher to the school’s full-time foreign language teacher for the fifth through twelfth grades.

The school’s logo, painted on an outside wall.

In December, I was lucky to be awarded a Lang Opportunity Scholarship work with ITSA to spread its methods quite literally across the globe, from Ahmedabad to Hato Mayor. The Lang Opportunity Scholarship, which also supports ITSA, is awarded annually to six sophomores at Swarthmore College. It provides funding and resources for Scholars to “conceive, design and carry out an Opportunity Project that creates a needed social resource and/or effects a significant social change or improved condition of a community in the United States or abroad” ( This summer I will be working with the ITSA workshops, in particular the new Faculty Fellowship Program, and then implementing the method at Santa Maria del Batey in the summer of 2014. The ITSA Faculty Fellowship Program, currently under construction, will incorporate teachers directly into the ITSA model; they will work side by side with ITSA interns to conduct the workshops.

In my mind, the ITSA method is really important in any school or community, anywhere in the world, for two reasons. First, it raises awareness of social justice issues—blatant or invisible, across the world, next door, or in our own lives—and what we can do to address these issues. Second, the development of critical thinking skills through participation in the ITSA workshops makes learning more interesting, empowering, and useful for students. Although I believe that any school could benefit from ITSA workshops, they are particularly applicable to Santa Maria del Batey because of the school’s context (based on my observations and interactions during my four-month stay and three shorter trips). Many students face poverty, malnutrition, violence, abuse, and/or gender discrimination. Religion and Haiti/DR relations cause tension in the community. Electricity and running water are unreliable and most of the students’ parents are illiterate. Despite hardship, though, about 20 teachers and 400 students of all ages travel daily to the school on foot or by motorcycle, sometimes from several miles away, and make learning happen. The students are highly driven to succeed, while the teachers are committed to their students’ academic and personal well-being and the state of education in the DR on the whole.

I have enormous respect for the teachers of Santa Maria del Batey, most of whom have been teaching at the school since its founding, and I will therefore be partnering with them to replicate ITSA at the school. Their dedication and knowledge of the students, school, and community will facilitate the success of the project. I can’t wait to work with ITSA this summer and then return to my home away from home at Santa Maria del Batey!

The fourth grade class in 2010, with me and four of the elementary school teachers.

Me and several girls from the eleventh grade class in 2010, in front of the school.

The eleventh grade class in 2010, with me and several of their teachers.

The class of 2012 (eleventh graders in 2010, as pictured before) at their graduation last June.