Sunday, October 4, 2015

Reflections on the Teachers for Global Classrooms Philippines Experience

"Even today, in a supposed postcolonial age, colonial images of the Philippines...linger on in global discourse like an invincible virus...Inheritors of that formalist history (as opposed to living, unwritten traditions) occupy the exact same spot where stood the original observers and the with the same bent: viewing themselves as though they were Other, perpetuating a decidedly painful colonial hangover." -Filipino author and historian, Luis Francia

I'll be the first to admit that I am an outsider, an inheritor of colonial privilege, and I only spent three and half weeks in the Philippines on 3 islands out of 7,100. I am not a Pew researcher, nor am I an expert on Filipino culture, history, and societal trends. I am, however, asked often what I think about the Philippines and her people, and the purpose of my blog was to document this experience. So here is my disclaimer: The views, ideas, and perceptions in this reflection come from a rather short time in the Philippines, albeit full of rich experiences, meetings with leaders and educators, and observations of schools, by a non-Filipino. Still, I must acknowledge that like the colonizers of the Philippines, the Spaniards and later the Americans, I stand here writing this piece (ironically) as both an observer of the "Other" and a critic of the cultural imperialism that has woven itself throughout the fabric of this archipelago.

That being said, I went to the Philippines with my own set of assumptions, one of which was that as a post-colonial nation, I would encounter dissent and the revolutionary spirit of Jose Rizal. Not unlike Luis Francia’s reflection in the opening quote, I found mostly adoration of the American way of life among the Filipino people I met, and I can’t say that I encountered open and obvious dissent in Filipino society during my visit. I know it's out there, but I didn’t find it outside of the Rizal museum and a few cursory news articles about "militant" students protesting American interference in the conflict with China in the outside of the American embassy. The Filipino national hero is Jose Rizal, a firebrand and highly educated non-violent revolutionary against Spanish colonialism. He is present everywhere. Streets are named after him, every student reads volumes of his writing, and one can easily find shrines in his honor. Interestingly, Rizal, like Francia, was just as self-critical of Philippine acquiescence towards Western domination as they were critical of Western imperialism itself. Before going to the Philippines, I thought that I would find a society rich with dissent and challenges to American exceptionalism. Instead, I found incredibly caring and loving and vibrant people who are obedient to both country and religion and desperately wanting to be Western. Here’s an anecdote that illustrates this desire. In the United States, the word “progressive” means forward-thinking and connotes equality and egalitarianism. I heard Filipinos using the term “progressive” several times, and the contexts in which they used that term caught me off guard and compelled me ask what they meant by “progressive.” I learned that by “progressive,” Filipinos mean “developed” and “Western.”

I think that dissent is there, I just don’t think I was in the right places at the right times with the right people, nor was I the right person (an American teacher brought there by the U.S. State Department), to see it. I did, however, find dissent in the literature that I read. A Brief History of the Philippines by Filipino historian Luis Francia is teeming with critique of Western domination and attempts to paint a “people’s history” of the Philippines in the spirit of Howard Zinn. The novel Illustrados is a story of a dissident author who uses his novels to push back against the corrupt politicians in Manila and subsequently pays with his life. Jessica Hagadon’s Dogeaters included an array of characters, all of whom break the rules of Philippine society in their own ways. Contemporary Filipino poets write prolifically about the paradoxes and contradictions faced by individuals in society. Although contradictions are not necessarily “dissent,” I have to say that I noticed contradictions constantly. For example, there seemed to be an genuine acceptance of the gay community throughout Filipino society, which was unexpected given the power of the Catholic Church in both politics and society. I also met several openly gay teachers who are incredibly devout Catholics despite the Catholic Church’s history of intolerance. It’s almost as if the church’s intolerance is ignored when it’s not relevant to the way people want to treat each other, or perhaps diverse conceptions of gender identity and sexuality pre-date Spanish colonialism and were impossible to undue, even for the powerful Catholic Church.


I had many questions before I went to the Philippines, and some of them went unanswered, some changed, and new ones emerged. Before going on my trip, I read a lot. I read newspaper articles, novels, poetry, history books, and short stories. No matter which genre I was reading, I noticed a dominant theme emerge: the Philippines and their “struggle” for identity after a long history of Spanish colonialism and American imperialism. And so I began to wonder if this “struggle for identity” actually existed or whether this was struggle imposed upon the Philippine people/nation by presumptive Westerners, and perhaps even Filipino ex-pats, who assume that Filipinos are confused and don’t really know who they are. But aren’t all nations in a struggle for national identity? We, Americans, seem to also be struggling for our identity, and look no further than national politics and the “red state/blue state” divide to see it quite clearly. Some want it to be a conservative Christian nation, other see it as a bastion of progressiveness and equality. We’re constantly struggling for a sense of identity, and perhaps, in this way, the Philippines is no different, despite the colonial and imperialist legacy. The question of whether or not the Philippines is struggling for a sense of identity is impossible to answer. Although I noticed so many contradictions in Filipino society, I never got a sense that they don’t know who they are. The people I met in Bacolod were proud, confident, joyful, constantly singing, and seemed to know exactly who they are.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Long live the legacy of Jose Rizal

Without struggle, there is, too, no freedom....Without freedom, there is no light. - Jose Rizal, Noli Me Tangere (1887).
I love Jose Rizal, and so do the people of the Philippines.  He is, after all, their national hero.  Streets, and schools are named after him. Every student that goes through the education system here reads volumes of his work.  Around the turn of the 20th century, author and doctor Jose Rizal and his fellow "illustrados" (enlightened, educated Filipino revolutionaries) led the non-violent struggle for independence from Spain and the unity of the 7,100 islands in this archipelago into nationhood.  He is THE symbol of national unity and dissent in the Philippines.

He was born privileged, but he recognized and used this privilege to not only unite his people, but to convince the rest of the power-players in turn-of-the-century global politics (namely, the West), that Spain's 333-year rule was over.  He also recognized the hypocrisies of the high education system and bravely critiqued his professors.  His words are still potent and relevant:
During college, the professor, often forgetting the lesson,  would lecture about our race and our country; and we, trembling before his omnipotence, cowardly swallowed our tears and kept silent...Later, at the university, despite the fact that the professors did not understand themselves, I understood better the world I was in; there were privileges for some and laws for others, and certainly not according to merit. - Jose Rizal, La Solaridad (1889).
Rizal was prophetic.  I wonder how he would assess our economic and political systems that continue to confer privileges on some, and create laws for others, as clearly illustrated by everything from the high-stakes, corporate-led, standardized testing movement to our own flawed American justice system. Still, I think he would not be without hope.
The country will again become cheerful, happy, joyous, hospitable, and daring.
And from what I've seen from my experience in the Philippines, it has indeed become cheerful, joyous, and hospitable.  We have a lot to learn from Rizal, and I am so happy to have made his acquaintance on this trip.  I am forever grateful to have been able to visit his birthplace and the museum dedicated to him, and I'm looking forward to reading more of his work and including his  writing in my Global Studies classes along with others who have used the power of the pen to push back against colonial power.  May the legacy of Rizal live on!

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Poetry Without Borders: Where We're From (Bacolod edition)

As many of you know, Fortuna High 10th grade Global Studies students collaboratively composed a poem and contributed art and photographs to a giant poem/collage that I brought with me in my suitcase.  Over the last two days, their teachers graciously allowed me to take over their classes, and 7th and 10th graders at Colegio San Agustin-Bacolod did the same.  Below you will find the vibrant poem they are sending back from the Philippines.
Where We're From: Bacolod 

We are from chocolate hills and perfectly parallel banaue rice terraces, 
hot springs of Mambukal, and the delicate beaches of Borocay.
We are from volcanoes, active and dormant,
the perfectly shaped cone of Mount Mayon.

We are from the rays of sunshine hitting the ocean,
a blessing of natural beauty.
We are from the sweet nectar of santan flowers crowing our heads,
fragrant sampaguita flowers, jasmine of the Philippines.

We are from hundreds of dialects to express our feelings 
palangga taka, ginagugma taka,
the sounds of the guitara
original pilipino music and the melodic ilonggo language,
birds chirping and roosters crowing, our morning alarm clocks.

We are from the barefoot tinikling dancers
outdoor basketball without shoes,
the brightly lit masks of the Masskara Festival to chase away sadness,
We are from larong pinoy,
the ageless games played and loved across generations. 
We are from jeepneys, tricycles, and padyak, and street foods,
people selling inasals and lechon baboy on the side of the road,
adobo chicken, barbeque, and monak,
vibrant fruit stalls filled with rambutan, lanzones, and mangoes.

We are from chatting while eating
and taking pictures to document our joy, smiles, and friendship.
We are from Sundays are family days.
palanga ta ka and salamat,
I love you and I thank you.

We are from the traditions of our ancestors.
We are from 7000 islands.
We are from the City of Smiles, Bacolod.
We are from the true colors of Filipino tradition.

Friday, June 26, 2015

First Impression of Bacolod = Joy!

Masskara Festival
Many Americans carry with them the assumption that lack of material wealth automatically means misery.  Truth be told, we have a lot to learn from the amount of joy and warmth present in the community of Bacolod.  The streets are teeming with life.  Everyone says hello to us (granted, we kind of noticeable). Our welcome meeting began and ended in joyful song.  The graciousness of our hosts has been nothing short of inspiring.  Many of the readings I have encountered before coming here referred to Filipino culture as struggling to form a sense of identity after 333 years of colonial rule by the Spaniards followed immediately by American imperialism.  But I'm starting to believe that this characterization of a confused, and perhaps even inauthentic, culture are misguided.  From my short time here, a sense of joy and "grit" permeates Filipino culture. 

Here are some things that I adore about the Philippines so far.

1.  You have to become one with the chaos.  What appears to be chaos to us really works for them.  It feels like we're playing "Frogger" when  we cross the street.  It feels like there is no good time to cross the street, as cars, jeepneys, busses, and pedicabs appear to never stop and are often quite haphazard in their movements.  But really, anytime is a potential "good time" to cross. You just have to feel it. 

2.  Don't be shy.  Just sing!  Karoake is everywhere and highly valued.  

3.  Smile.  Bacolod is the City of Smiles.  Although it was explained to me that this is because of the history of sugar plantations in the region, and thus, an overindulgence of sugary foods, I think there's more to it than that.  There is a joy of life here that is contagious.

4.  Education and educators are highly respected and valued.  The Philippines invests heavily in education, and the level of respect given to educators by their students and communities is clearly visible.  Students at Colegio San Agustin have a special bow that they give their teachers when passing them in the hallway and when entering a classroom. 

5.  Environmental stewardship education seems to be the norm here.  It is present in the clearly labeled recycling bins all over the school campuses.  It is present in the beautiful school learning gardens in many of the schools.   Teachers are also incredibly interested in the ways we teach environmental sustainability and stewardship in the States.  I've visited schools in Indonesia and Nicaragua, and I did not witness the level of environmental concern that I'm seeing here.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

5 things that Americans should know about Spanish and American colonialism in the Philippines

1.  Before the United States arrived, the Philippines was ruled by Spain for 333 years.  In fact, the island group was named "Philippines" in the 16th century in honor of King Philip II of Spain.  The Spanish were highly successful at converting the people to Catholicism and organizing the efficient (albeit brutal) "encomienda system" through which the "weak" native population was controlled and extorted of resources in exchange for the "protection" of the Spanish crown.

2.  Mexico sustained and fueled the colonization of the Philippines.  Spanish colonization of the Philippines was largely fueled by Mexican silver which was highly valued in China.  The profits of this trade brought wealth to Manila for the Spanish who literally "walled" themselves in the Intramuros district of Manila.  The Chinese community also thrived off of the galleon trade, but were restricted to the Parian district with Spanish cannons trained on them at all times.  Over time, trade with Mexico also brought new species of crops and Catholic clerics to the islands in great numbers.
Manila Cathedral in Intramuros.  Photo credit:  Michael Cruz

3.  Filipinos have a rich history of fighting against the oppressive rule (whether it be against Spanish colonialism, American imperialism, or abuse by their own dictators).  The Propaganda Movement of the 1880s and 1890s, led by Dr. Jose Rizal (Philippine's national hero) and the Illustrados (non-violent, reformist Filipinos educated in Europe), attempted to create reform throught the spotlighting of Spanish abuses in the Philippines to the Spanish public.  Intense social upheaval of the late 1890s, however, gave rise to a more militant brand of revolution led by Andres Bonifacio and, later, Emilio Aguinaldo.


4. The United States eventually got control of the Philippines after winning the Spanish-American War.  The handover of the Philippines to the Americans was interesting in that both sides orchestrated a fake battle outside of Manila so that the Spaniards could save face in front of their native subjects.  American rule of the Philippines was led by a desire to tame the "barbaric" and "backwards" native populations, educate them, and Christianize them (despite the fact the the people of the Philippines were already largely Catholic except in the southern region of Mindinao, which continues to be a majority Muslim region).  Many of the American generals sent to colonize the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century were veterans of wars against Native American tribes.  A desire for natural resources and a market for manufactured goods propelled American imperialism in the Philippines.   American imperialism can be characterized by some of the same brutality, racism, and oppression practiced by the Spaniards.  Filipinos launched an unsuccessful insurgency known as the Philippine-American War and did not get full independence until 1946 following Japanese occupation.  In the United States, imperialism in the Philippines was not universally accepted and was highly controversial.  Mark Twain vehemently opposed American imperialism.

President McKinley trying to fend off Philippine "insurgent" mosquitoes.
5.  The Americans brought the education system to the Philippines (not the Spanish), which is why the prominent Filipino authors write in English and one of the two official languages of the Philippines is English (the other being tagalog). The Americans also brought vocational and agricultural education.  America is also often credited with major economic developments of the country, rather than the Spaniards, who were virtually bankrupt towards the end of its colonial presence.  During Japanese occupation during World War II, elementary school curriculum included Japanese militaristic dogma.  Today, the education system very much reflects the American educational system and public schools are free and compulsory.
 Luis C. Francia. (2014). A History of the Philippines: From Indios Bravos to Filipinos Overlook Press, New York.

Lecture for Teachers for Global Classrooms by Norberto Erandio, 2011 ILEP fellow,  Leyte National High School, Tacloban City, Philippines.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Where We're From: A poem takes a trip to the Philippines

Sure, it's easy to send a poem to anyone in the world via email, blog, SMS, or any of the other millions of high-tech apps out there in cyber space.  

This poem, however, is traveling a suitcase.

I'm headed to the Philippines in three days with the State Department's Teachers for Global Classrooms program.  This is the exciting "fieldwork" part of the year-long professional development program designed to engage teachers in global education leadership.  During this phase, small cohorts travel all over the world to learn about the education systems, histories, and cultures of their host countries, and we even have the opportunity to teach in host classrooms.  The Philippines is in the middle of an education overhaul involving a controversial transition to a K-12 system, so it is a very interesting time to be visiting and engaging with teachers. 

All of the teachers in my cohort are taking gifts with them to the Philippines to give to students and host teachers, and part of me loves this idea, but another part has been struggling with this idea.  I'll blame my hesitation on a healthy dose (or overdose?) of post-colonial critique,  but what it comes down to is that I want to do something more than hand out pencils and erasers (although I'm super-excited about the Halloween- and cosmos-themed pencils and skateboard erasers that I'm bringing along).  

Poetry has become a part of our school culture, so I decided that I would bring along a poem collaboratively written by my students, as well as some art and pictures of our school community.  I love teaching "Where I'm From" poems (modeled after George Ella Lyon's poem of the same name). So I decided to adapt the "Where I'm From" poem and turn it into a "Where We're From" poem and pull it together from the contributions of all three of my Global Studies English classes.  I also asked students to contribute pictures and art, and I pieced it all together into a collage. 

Here's my big dream for this project.  I'm hoping that I can teach or team-teach the "Where We're From" poem to an English class at my host-school in Bacolod, and bring back a poem to California. Perhaps it may continue and grow, perhaps it will not, but I'm okay with that.  I do think that art, poetry, and photography are wonderful ways to share culture.  What might make this experience different is that these projects are not going to be on a screen.  We can get close to them, feel them, and know that they were touched and crafted by human hands on the other side of the world.  I'll let you all know how this emerging poetry exchange develops.

Where We’re From

We’re from the tallest trees in the world,
ancient redwoods, swaying high in the wind,
towering upwards to the sky,
rays of sunshine still finding their way
through the thick canopy.

We’re from the cold Pacific Ocean
and its misty beaches,
seals popping their heads over waves
before they crash into rocky cliffs,
the sporadic spray of families of gray whales
migrating north.

We’re from fog as thick as tar
rolling into the damp forests in the morning.

We’re from green soccer fields
filled with the laughter of children,
rope snapping in the dusty rodeo arena,
the stitching of the softball gripped tightly
before being thrown.

We’re from deer hunting and cattle ranching,
the racing stampede of horses
at the Humboldt County Fair.

We’re from dancing, and singing,
and playing in the marching band.
We’re from reggae, country music, and rock and roll,
the rumble of earthquakes beneath our feet.

We’re from hamburgers and chicken
sizzling on the grill,
salmon pulled fresh from the ocean or river,
tamales, posole, and horchata.

We’re from the Eel River Valley,
the Van Duzen River,
California’s North Coast,
the salty air of Humboldt County.

We’re from Wiyot, Mexico, Norway,
Ukraine, Ireland, and Laos,
but the thread that ties our multicultural mix together,
we’re all American.