Passing Through

Screen Shot 2016-08-08 at 11.09.36 AMI am a practical guy. I learn through experience. Typically, life lures me down a few extra random paths before I learn my lesson. This type of learning has its advantages and its disadvantages. I bring this up simply because of my current living situation, which led me to today’s lesson. For the past few years, I have been envisioning a living environment that feels like a seamless blend between the indoor and the outdoors. I simply have a need to be closer to nature. I had planned to build a tiny home on a trailer with some sort of large opening on the side with a drop down porch so that I could instantly be outside and in some sense, bring the outdoors inside. Life delivered, just not how I had foreseen it. I ended up in Sayulita, Mexico living in a small eco-community on a hill with an ocean view. The front of this house is a half circle and the back is built into a hill.Screen Shot 2016-08-08 at 11.10.13 AMSliding glass doors open up the entire front portion of the house providing me with a direct view of the ocean and well. There is neither window nor doorframe obstructing my view. From the furthest room in the house it takes about 10 steps to be outdoors and while this certainly feels like a constant invitation from nature to come visit, it poses another interesting situation. Everything outdoors that is alive and can move, is also seemingly interested in visiting the inside of the house. I had not quite worked out this minor detail in my head as I designed my tiny home but now I’m living it and well, learning the practical lessons of this design.

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As of two hours of being awake, a fourth dog has come to visit and is currently napping beside me. Thousands of bugs, insects, crawly, slithering, and flying things, buzzing and biting things have come and gone and I’m barely finishing breakfast. I have bites all over, it is 9am and already 80F, I am dripping from the 70% humidity, but there is a pleasant breeze…from the ceiling fan. As long as I am here with the doors open, nature is just passing through. I watch as a centipede-type looking worm slowly inches its way across the floor. As it finds nothing of interest, it turns and heads another direction. It is not here to chitchat. It is here to live and it is looking for whatever a centipede-type looking worm needs. What do they need? Some of them climb the walls and some are swept out with the other insects that for some reason or another meet their doom on the floor of the house during the night. Do insects just have a short life span? The morning looks like a battleground after a massacre with insects everywhere on the floor, table, and countertop. Some seem to have met their doom, while others have not heard the alarm clock and as I sweep them out, they wake up. One might wonder why not just put in screens, but a neighbor made a good point about them just keeping in the bugs and to be honest, no matter what, bugs will get into the house. Even in the zipped up airtight homes of modern society, one will find spiders and scorpions. They are not human predators. They do not come in looking to bite people. They come in possibly tracking a food source and cannot get out or find that it’s easier to hang out inside where other insects seem to congregate.

Screen Shot 2016-08-08 at 11.11.01 AMOne of the advantages of this open-air home design is that with the thousands of things that come in, 99% go back out. I’ve had just about everything with wings, except for a taradactyl, fly in one entrance and find different exit—‘excuse me just passing through.’ And yes, insects use run on sentences and don’t capitalize. In the evening, with lights, there is a special breed of insect that is attracted to the light. Relentless light addicts, they dive bomb my headlamp and inevitably miss and smash into my face, head and neck or hang out on the counter where light is shining. They get what they need (which I have yet to figure out) and leave when there is no more light; I feel so used. Some come in to feed on me, on drops of water, on the fruit and others are just strolling along their morning walk through the jungle and come across a concrete patio. Some learn that the inside of a house is a great place to set up for finding meals. Some climb up the short patio wall, walk in the house, and out a another opening, arriving home days later, wondering what kind of weird universe they passed through. It is no doubt a weird relationship I have with the bugs and the bugs have with this indoor space. We are both equal foreigners.

It makes me think about relationships we have with other people. When it comes down to it, one could say we are all just ‘passing through’ each other’s lives. Some people come into our lives to feed on us and leave when they get what they came for. Others might hang out a while and suck us dry, like parasites or amoebas. Others come in for a short period of time, change our lives and leave. Some ask nothing in return and others will not leave until they get what they came for. And when I say others, I mean you and me. We all approach people looking to get something from them, some of us more than others. What if we shift that and instead of always looking to gain something, we look to serve or to simply receive? Instead of getting discouraged when we do not get what we want, maybe we can assume that we are providing another person with something they need and that sometimes it is a one-way street….and it is not about us.

In the end, it is a perfect system and there are just as many human personalities as there are insects. Well, that is not a proven fact, but I am sticking with it. Other times, maybe we just run into someone for no reason whatsoever and there is no point in trying to figure it out. We do a little dance, spin around, maybe go for a walk together and arrive at home a day later wondering what the hell that was all about. Instead of questioning it, maybe we can let it go and just be OK with no answer. Maybe it comes later. Maybe never. We are part of a larger symbiotic system of energy bouncing around into other energy matter. Sometimes it hurts, sometimes it feels good, sometimes we do not feel it at all and that is OK too. So, for me, the moral is to open the doors and experience it all. If you put up screens, you’ll filter what the universe is trying to bring to you. We are all just passing through each other’s lives.

Posted in Life Lessons | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Looking to the Past for Answers

As with most of my thoughts, I tend to focus on how to improve the health of the inhabitants of this planet and the actual Earth itself; I find no other goal as equally important. I also enjoy studying why we make certain decisions despite knowing that the outcomes are detrimental to our health and to the Earth. This leads me to examine how we study history in school. Ask people why we study history and most will say that we do so in order to not repeat our mistakes. If this were the case, we would no longer be engaging in the act of war. There are certainly other aspects of history but I have not met a person yet who does not believe human life is of utmost importance so I do not see the need to study war, as it is a simple lesson; we should stop killing each other. I believe we should study history to learn from the things that have actually worked and that have actually made life better for humans by not destroying the only place we have to live.

Although it may seem harsh to say, there exists a pervasive sense of ignorance in modern society that transcends professions and I find it a result of not putting into practice what we know about history. In other words, our past/knowledge is treated as something we simply study. In an attempt to educate and ‘make advancements’, we forget that our past has many answers that actually make more sense than our so-called technical advancements. Instead of using technology to our advantage, we are claiming that these advancements are actually making life better. It is here where my interpretation of the word better typically diverges from the mainstream mind and takes the path less traveled. For me, “better” of course means what is healthy for the inhabitants of the Earth and the Earth itself. For most of society, “better” equates to money; we are convinced an economy is more important. Trading money for our health is, in my mind, a lack of common sense. I would like to identify two areas in society that seem to have lost the ability to use common sense as well as the ability to look at our past for answers to our future.

 

Current farming techniques involves chemicals to grow food as if nature forgot how to do it.

Current farming techniques involves chemicals to grow food as if nature forgot how to do it.

In modern agriculture we teach how to grow food by using chemicals. Although agriculturists are soil and plant scientists, they have lost focus of the power of nature. That, combined with the fact that we basically have a corporate controlled farming system, has led to the belief that our farming techniques are good for everyone. Instead of looking back at what plants and soil need to be truly sustainable, or better yet regenerative, we have convinced everyone that using chemicals and genetic modifications are the only way to grow food. In the same sense, traditional/modern building continues to use highly processed materials (which undoubtedly produce toxins) instead of truly taking into consideration the environment and its inhabitants. By looking at the past to identify what has worked traditional/modern building could eliminate destructive and unhealthy building techniques. Both professions have lost focus of what and whom we should keep in mind first and foremost: the Earth and the living things that inhabit this place.

 

It makes sense to eliminate chemicals and allow nature to do its job--this is organic!

It makes sense to eliminate chemicals and allow nature to do its job–this is organic!

A small group of volunteers here in the Santos region of Costa Rica is making an effort to transform current coffee farming techniques back to not just organic but to ecologically certified farming. Green Communities, a local organization founded by Jonathan Cerdas and Carlos Marin, began as a thesis project and has turned into a movement to educate local coffee farmers on the destructive techniques that have been become the norm and that have many thinking this is how it has always been. The Santos region has around 5,000 coffee farmers with plots along most of the steep valleys. They plant coffee only after clearing the land, either by cutting down trees from the dense cloud forest or by burning it. This first step, although seemingly normal to most, leads to erosion and a loss of plant and animal diversity. Agriculturalists know this but there is no attention paid to this issue. After eliminating the biodiversity that many plants and animals call home, they begin the destructive application of chemical farming. As with most traditional farming today, instead of using the biodiversity to help eliminate pests, we turn to chemicals for the answer and simply overlook the fact that we are sterilizing the soil of all living organisms, ingesting the toxins, and polluting the air as well as water supplies near chemical production facilities. By sterilizing the soil, we control weeds, pests, and dis-ease and can grow more food in the short term. This is the goal, more food production in a short amount of time as if we do not have enough food for everyone. In other words, all of the destructive practices are acceptable because it leads to a higher yield, which leads to…you guessed it, more money. However, this is a short-term gain, and only for the middleman. So the focus is on money, not the health of people, animals, or the Earth.

Besides the obvious negative effects of traditional farming, the rise in cost of chemical fertilizers leave the farmers with almost no profit, at least here in the Santos region in Costa Rica. Instead, the profits go to the middleman. This type of farming, all over the world, supports corporations, not local economies. Since the Industrial Revolution, we have seen this pattern over and over. The food producers, the ones in the fields growing the food, historically make very little money, while corporations reap the benefits and the end user, not knowing any better, ingests toxic products and supports the destruction of the only planet we have. Green Communities is educating farmers on the benefits of ecologically grown coffee. By not clearing the land, Costa Rica can continue to claim 5% biodiversity of the entire planet! By not clearing the land, the roots of endemic trees and plants actually help prevent erosion. By creating a food forest, growers will also be at an advantage because their crops will provide yields for many more years longer than chemically-grown crops. By not sterilizing plants and allowing them to build up their own immunity, many pests actually cause no harm to plants. And finally, by not using chemicals there is less pollution in the air and water supplies and toxins in our bodies. Farmers using ecologically sound techniques are actually saving money in the long run and claiming more profits. So, why is this not the norm? The answer is same for anything that we believe; we have been blinded into thinking this is how is it supposed to be and we have lost our ability to discern the information from the truth. The end user is willing to trade health for lower prices. And when presented with the facts/truth, we will argue that what we think is true even when the facts are clear. We spend a lot of money on education but we are really only graduating experts in economy, short-term monetary gain, and destructive practices. If agriculturists, who understand soil and plant science, do not actually use this knowledge, what advancements have been made?

The same lack of awareness is found in the residential building industry; however, since I have spoken in depth about this in other blogs, I will not spend much time discussing the topic here. Every person reading this was probably born in a modern building structure, full of toxic materials that were highly processed, meaning that coal is burned to make the product and high levels of pollution were released into the environment. It is all that we know and for this reason, it is all that we have come to expect. We simply do not have experience with natural building and so we cannot be expected to know anything other than what we experience. However, I would hope that architects would be educated about all types of building and would make decisions that are best for the Earth and its inhabitants. But, as Michael Reynolds says in his documentary, Garbage Warrior, architecture does not take into consideration people or the land. Is it possible that education only focuses on graduating experts in economy to support the systems in place that simply prioritize money? People often scoff when I talk to them about building with earthen materials questioning how long they last, how nasty it must be to live in a dirt home, and what a ridiculous concept it is to build out of the earthen materials when one can just go buy

Every aspect of processing involves burning coal.

Every aspect of processing involves burning coal.

 

How can we look at this and feel justified in using cement?

How can we look at this and feel justified in using cement?

drywall, cement, and brick at the local Home Depot. We spend billions trying to reduce the amount of pollution created by processing such building materials when we could simply use earthen materials and have almost no negative effect on the environment. By learning about how dwellings used to be built and continue to be built by people all over the world and by simply making some minor improvements we can build beautiful homes that solve many of the environmental and personal health issues we deal with today. Little thought do we give to the fact that builders are only interested in profits and cut corners all over the place, leaving the homeowners to fix things on their own after a short warranty period. We forget how often we hear about people having to put a new roof on their home or how cracks suddenly appear. We pretend we have not heard about how someone’s foundation was not built properly, not knowing that about 50% of California homes are built on expansive soil. In the end, we simply ignore the problems with residential building because we believe this type of construction is how it is supposed to be. We put our belief in the building industry, just as we put our belief into any other part of society, thinking the way we do things now must be the best way.

A typical natural building site has very little waste.

A typical natural building site has very little waste.

Natural building promotes community. It is about building equality, not equity.

Natural building promotes community. It is about building equality, not equity.

A traditional building site uses a dumpster because of the amount of waste!

A traditional building site uses a dumpster because of the amount of waste!

Earthen buildings can last indefinitely with a lot less maintenance than traditional homes, they provide more protection from fire and earth quakes and natural disasters, allow for cleaner indoor air, and since they use mostly earthen materials which can regenerate, have less of a carbon footprint on the Earth. They require less heating and cooling and typically cost less to build than a traditional home. A great example is the $22 electrical bill I saw for the month of July for the first straw bale house built in Tempe, Arizona, which is about 1,200sq. ft. In other words, just like agriculture, if we look to the past, we see that earthen homes make more sense all around and that the ‘advancements’ that have been made in modern building are not really advancements at all.

So is it possible that we are focusing on the wrong aspects of history? Maybe we teach history to make us feel intelligent, so we can say that we are avoiding the same mistakes. It sounds great but until mainstream education focuses on creating a healthier planet with healthier people, you will not find me supporting the ‘economy’ as if it were a living organism. The planet is a living organism yet we give more importance to something we made up. When will we learn that the economy will not provide for us what the Earth already does and has been doing for a long time? I would like to end with a quote, and although difficult to trace, it speaks the truth that we are not ready to hear. Some sources say it is a Cree prophecy, others say it is from Alanis Obomsawin, who was described as “an Abenaki from the Odanak reserve. In either case, it is a powerful thought.

“Canada, the most affluent of countries, operates on a depletion economy which leaves destruction in its wake. Your people are driven by a terrible sense of deficiency. When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.”

Posted in Earthen Buildling, Education, Energy, Environmental Sustainability, Food Production, organic farming, Sustainable Housing | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Common Sense in Education

It doesn’t take a genius to understand the definition of common sense: good sense and sound judgment in practical matters.

With such a simple definition, why is it so difficult to actually use common sense? Good sense, sound judgment and practical matters are all subjective matters. This is where opinion comes into play and quite simply, opinion in our society is driven by money and power, so common sense better grow some wings because it will be tossed out the window.

I am not arguing that common sense is perfectly clear all the time. I mean, Hitler thought he was making sound judgment. Granted, there are complicated matters in life and discussions are necessary. However, going into the teaching profession, I figured my focus was pretty clear: to ensure the mental, social, and academic health and advancement of my students. Of course, I made that definition up using good sense, so I suppose even this is debatable. Teachers and administrators like to say things like, “We are here for the kids.” I figured that if we knew our goal (the kids), we would at every turn make common sense decisions. We would use prudence, discernment, wisdom and insight to drive our decision-making. It seems easy enough, right? As a teacher or administrator, I guide my actions by simply asking, “Is this in the best interest of the students?” As it turns out, it is not that easy. Although the number one variable in the success of a child is the teacher, who makes direct contact, there are many decisions behind the scenes that affect the jobs of teachers. This is the part on which I would like to focus.

Budgets have always been a central issue in education, but recently it has become the main one. Teachers are being asked to do more with fewer resources. And by resources I am referring to anything an educator uses to meet their goals. Although every district has a different ‘motto’, we are all after the same thing, to improve the mental, social, and academic health and advancement of students. We want them to learn. Since money is directly tied to resources, I find it interesting how money is blatantly mismanaged. I will admit that I’m not an administrator and do not have direct experience with budgets but I think sometimes when we step away from a problem, we can see things that are right in front of us. I have seen an incredible misuse of financial resources in education, resulting in teachers given fewer educational resources and being paid significantly less than they are worth. Most people I meet, when told that I am a teacher first say how honorable of a profession it is and then claim we should be paid more. In other words, the financial situation is clearly seen by all, not just those of us in the trenches.

At this point, I would like to point out considerations I feel constitute ‘practical matters’ in how finances are misused. I understand that not everyone will agree with my views as we all have various ideas of what is practical, but this is my blog, so…

I have worked in a few districts where Superintendents sent out emails asking staff to provide feedback as to how the school district could save money. Years ago I would have responded, but I have learned that the ‘vocal minority’, as some colleagues and myself have been labeled, are typically ousted for opening our mouths against the powers that be. What Superintendents want to know is how can we save money by doing what looks good on the outside, not by following common sense principals, so I do not bother wasting my time or anyone else’s time anymore as I know my thoughts simply fall on not ‘deaf’ ears but on ears that belong to people who do not have the backbone to take a stand and make change even if it is not the norm. In other words, I think administrators have good intentions but they are concerned about something other than ‘the best interest of the student’, which is directly related to providing teachers with the resources they need to teach effectively.

So let us take a look at a typical day and see where we can identify some financial issues. Arriving to school, I walk into my classroom and like most people I probably have to turn on lights. However, there is always an emergency light that is on 24 hours a day. Of course, this is probably a ‘regulation’ in most buildings and lacks common sense. I am sure some fire marshal or building inspector would love to tell me why emergency lights are needed, but the only thing an emergency light does after everyone is gone is…wait, nothing. Nobody is at school. Yet the emergency lights are on. School is not in session during the evenings so I am confused. I’m sure there is a way to install a timer so that emergency lights are turned off once everyone is gone and are turned on once everyone arrives. Come to think of it, I think that is called a motion sensor.

I typically hope for a classroom with windows for multiple reasons. First of all, it’s depressing to not see outside and secondly, we have this thing called the Sun and it provides natural healthy light, as opposed to the detrimental affects of fluorescent lighting. In my last classroom I had large windows, which allowed me to use that Sun for the entire year, without ever having to burn fossil fuels. I controlled the overbearing light of the Sun with an incredible invention called ‘blinds’. This allowed me to let more light in on cloudy days and block the sun on bright days. I have a Masters degree so I know how to work them. I also had two lamps in the room to provide light in the areas where the amazing natural sunlight does not reach. In two years, I have had exactly zero kids mention that they wanted the regular lights on. When testing day came around, I was told to turn on the lights and all the kids hated it, not to mention that the lights were not needed.

Another situation related to electrical use has to do with computers and peripherals that are used in classrooms. More and more we are seeing an increase of technology in the classroom, including some rooms with 30 student devices, 2 teachers computers, a printer, and a video projector. Sure, we can argue that individually, a computer pulls very little current, just as a fluorescent light bulb, but add up all the lights and technology in one district and the numbers are staggering. I’ve seen classrooms with video projectors left on overnight as well as 30 computers in a cart left on and plugged in overnight. Again, a simple solution would be to cut electricity to all classrooms since many teachers simply forget to unplug devices each night. The counter argument is that student laptops will not be charged. Again, our incredible advancements in technology would allow us to turn on electricity a few hours before students arrived to charge up devices.

Sometimes after the school day I catch a glimpse of the cleaning crew outside cleaning walkways. I’ve seen gas powered blowers used to move small pepples, leaves, and dust. I’ve also seen, on many occasions, someone cleaning off the walkways with a hose. Before I can comment on water usage, I have to ponder why anyone is doing this in the first place. When did it become customary to clean walkways to the point of removing all debris? I understand vacuuming insides of buildings once in a while but outside is….well…outside. What is our concern here? Are we concerned about a lawsuit from a child tripping on a pebble? I am pretty sure no kids are concerned about leaves, dust, and a few pebbles on the sidewalk. Again, we have a common sense solution; they are called shoes. What it really seems to signify is a concern with the visual aspect of a campus. In other words, if a visitor comes to a campus, we could not possibly allow the sidewalks to be littered with things from our natural environment. How insane would it be for pebbles to find their way from nature onto concrete sidewalk? Now let us move to the energy aspect of it. A blower moves stuff from one area to another so that is not very efficient and it puts dust in the air; no common sense here, simply a complete waste of energy. Then there are times when the sidewalks are watered to remove all dust, which lasts for a few hours. I’m sure by morning, it is dusty again. We live in the desert so someone please tell me where is the sense in watering cement? Let me say it again, “watering cement.” Let that phrase settle in for a moment and if you do not laugh or cry, something is wrong. I am not a gardener but I am pretty sure if you water cement you will never grow a tomato plant. If you really want to be efficient, use a shop vac. Suck up all the dust, leaves, and pebbles and walk across the street and toss it into the desert so it can rejoin its family. But really, the best response to our infected sidewalk situation is that there is no need to do either of those. We should be embarrassed to be caught watering cement, especially when school districts are having budget issues.

Let’s continue with the water waste. When in Rome…you know the rest. We live in the desert so I find it fascinating that we plant grass. Actually, fascinating is a nice way to say I think growing grass is ignorant. Learn more about why growing grass is pointless, detrimental and insane. In my last district we had a huge patch of grass in the middle of campus with very few trees. The grass was usually in decent shape but it takes a lot of maintenance and it seemed like at least half of the year students were told not to walk on the grass so that it could grow. Once again, it is there for the visual aspect. It has nothing to do with student achievement. We teach students to not judge a book by its cover but when it comes down to it, we are putting money into our own book cover instead of the contents, our students. Instead of worrying about ridiculous things like planting, fertilizing, watering and cutting grass, I could think of 100 things maintenance staff could be doing and about 100 more that could be used with the money saved by not growing grass. As educators, we should be ashamed of ourselves for not being financially efficient nor being leaders in areas like environmental sustainability. We are educators. We are leaders. We should start acting like it. People look to us to do the right thing. What is the common sense solution? Stop planting grass. If you want to waste water, why not waste it on fruit trees or a vegetable garden?

I have only mentioned a few areas of concern. However, I would argue that using common sense would add up to a significant amount. In the past year, districts have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars updating locks on doors to keep children safe, as if that will do anything against a shooter. They spent a ridiculous amount of money painting numbers on rooftops in case helicopters have to land there for emergency situations. Our fear-based society is draining us financially and emotionally and we do not have the guts to stand up and say that it makes no sense. The fact is that the educational system, being a microcosm of society, is failing as a whole. And as I mentioned in a previous blog, instead of looking at the real issues, we are focused on what the perception is of our school. Education a sinking ship with a huge hole in the hull, but all we do is buy a new sail each year; and not just a regular sail because we have to have the newest sail with that special material so we all can feel proud of how it looks as if that will change student achievement.

I could keep going but I think my point has been made. We have lost sight of common sense decision-making and it makes me ill. We ignore solutions right in front of us and are in fact, throwing common sense right out the window. My hope is that as a whole, education could become the leaders in ethical and common sense decision-making and become the leaders we all hope to be.

ps—I want to add that although my outlook may be taken as negative, I want to acknowledge that there are amazing things happening in classrooms because of the dedication and leadership of teachers. However, more and more I am hearing about teachers leaving their profession so I think we should be looking at our educational system with a different lens instead of making the same mistakes.

 

 

Posted in Education | 3 Comments

A New Type of Vacation

Isletas del Lago CocibolcaIn this ever-changing world, you may not be surprised to know that vacations look quite different from years past. More and more people are opting out of sitting on a beach downing rum-filled fruity drinks and soaking up ultraviolet rays for days on end. On a whole, people are less satisfied with sheltering themselves at an all-inclusive resort where there is no connection to the outside world. Vacations today are actually brain-stimulating, meaningful experiences which result in physical, emotional, and spiritual satisfaction for us while many times helping others.

Time off is now combined with volunteer work, language immersion, cultural and historical education and quite simply, doing something important for the earth or humanity. It is a sign that we are evolving. Travelers are waking up to the needs of those in their local and global communities and are actually doing something about it. We are realizing that our own level of privilege provides us with opportunities to make differences in the world and it is a win-win situation; we help others and we feel good about it.

Enter Travel to Learn… TTL provides exactly the types of vacations that one can feel good about on many levels. NicaVentura, our premier ecotour in Nicaragua, focuses on cultural and Spanish immersion, volunteer work, and a character development program for kids. We typically stay in hostels (much like B&B’s) so that participants can connect with fellow travelers and locals. Travelers can opt to take Spanish classes at a local orphanage where class sizes are kept between 2-5 people. We spend time doing various types of volunteer work with local students. Participants can swim in the volcanic crater lake of Laguna de Apoyo,  hike though a rainforest canopy at the top of volcano Mombacho, ride a zip line above an organic coffee plantation with howler monkeys in the trees above, we visit  and visit some amazingly colorful markets. Statistically,  Nicaragua, the safest of all Latin American countries, has been growing slowly as tourists realize its cultural and ecological beauty.

So, if you are ready to have fun and make your next adventure vacation a meaningful one, visit our web site and sign up for a summer trip in 2014! .

Posted in Education, Global Travel, Language, organic farming | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Not Your Typical Travel Experience

cedrela lodgeI have always followed the less traveled path as a result of my experiences growing up. I simply find more joy in this type of travel. This summer, I am a mentor for the GLA Spanish Service Adventure Mountain program, a combination of leadership, environmental sustainability, Spanish immersion, authentic cultural experiences, and ecotourism. Having spent so much time in Nicaragua doing Travel to Learn programs, I have not had a full Costa Rican experience and quite honestly, I have not been very keen on spending much time there. However, I have only been here a few days and already I know that this will be exactly the type of trip that will be life-changing for students and will provide for me yet another experience far removed from the typical educational travel program.

To see the full photo blog, click here.

The program is located in the South Central region of CR called Los Santos. It consists ofCedrela Lodge close up three towns: San Pedro, Santa Maria and San Marcos. And when I say town, we are talking about 3-5 thousand people, a church, plaza, soccer field (as important as the church) a grocery store, a bar, and a soda (small restaurant). Our home base in Copey, the beautiful Cedrela (Cedar) Eco Lodge, is located about three miles uphill from Santa Maria and sits around 6,000 feet. It is at the end of the Oak and cloud forest, which begins in North America. It consists of seven cabins, staff quarters and a beautiful dining hall built four months ago. The cabins and all the furniture are built using local Cedar and Oak. The cabins range from one-floor units to three story winding staircases, balconies, lofts, and large glass windows to take in the breathtaking view of the rolling hills and valleys below. There are over 50 species of birds in this area alone and a trail that winds through the hundreds of acres of forest above and behind Cedrela. One will find coffee, avocado, and various fruit trees growing in this high elevation. The weather is not at all what I planned for with cool weather dropping into the low 60’s at night. The days are hot and the afternoon rains are cooling. In the evenings we trade flip flops for socks and shoes, cold water for a hot coffee, and a t-shirt for a warm hoody, not at all what I expected on my visit to Costa Rica.

The dining hallOur international team (coming from the US) consists of Andrea, Mar and myself. Although we met on Thursday, we immediately connected and have been planning and prepping for the students as if we have known each other for a long time. They both have extensive experience in a variety of areas and together we truly create a diverse and fun team. We combine forces with a fantastic organization called Santos Tours, which in turn has a program called Green Communities here in Los Santos. The co-founders are two young, motivated, modern-day environmentalists who are truly fighting a battle here to educate people on many sustainable projects. Carlos and Jonathan both grew up here in Los Santos and have worked hard to turn a college project into an international educational program. Their goals are perfectly aligned with ours; they want to educate people about environmentally sustainable practices in a multitude of areas while providing participants with an authentic cultural/educational experience. Their role while we are here is to handle all of the projects in the community, transportation, and the various weekend trips. Although some of the adventures may sound like a typical Costa Rican experience (rafting, canopy tours, climbing up the inside trunk of a tree and rappelling down the outside, visiting volcanoes, and beach time) they are in areas that have only recently been exposed to tourism, mainly because of the initiatives of Carlos and Jonathan. These two young men educate local coffee farmers about the advantages of growing organically, not only for increased production and taste, but also for environmental reasons. It is quite possible we hit it off because they picked me up in a 24-valve Dodge truck running on biodiesel, which they make themselves. Our immediate camaraderie also could have something to do with the fact that they have a desire to infiltrate society and educate people on how to revert their farming practices to be completely organic. They see the firsthand destruction of the environment and want nothing to do with regular tourism, as it really does very little to change what is happening.

Currently, students are working on two projects. The first is to continue building a GLA Groupsidewalk for children who walk miles through the hills and narrow winding roads to get to school. The second is to prep eight organic coffee plots by weeding and adding compost made from the left over coffee shells. After four hours of morning work, the women from the community make all 24 students and staff a typical Costa Rican meal. After lunch, students have three hours of Spanish classes and I have to say that I have been impressed with the level of participation and willingness to learn and practice Spanish. We do have a few native Speakers and some that have been taking Spanish for over four years but even the beginners are stepping outside of their comfort zone and using their Spanish. After class, we head back to Home Base at Cedrela Eco Lodge and students have free time. After dinner we have our meetings consisting of helping students internalize leadership. We show TED Talks and other motivational videos, have large group discussions and run small mentoring groups to give students plenty of opportunities to reflect and share their experiences. The students have blown me away with their motivation to internalize leadership. They are ready and willing to learn and to change things in the world. I can truly say that although I have only been here three days with students, this experience is giving me hope for a new generation of student, one who appreciates cultures from across the world and who is open-minded enough to listen and be the change that is so desperately needed in our society.GLA group

Posted in Education, Environmental Sustainability, Global Travel, Language, organic farming | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Brown is the New Green! Part I

Why We Believe the Things We Believe

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I recently gave a lecture for the City of Scottsdale Green Building Lecture Series. The lecture theme was, “Exploring innovative and trendsetting projects that excel in energy efficiency, material resources, water reuse, and unique building design solutions.” It just so happens that natural building addresses each of those issues so I applied and was accepted to speak. After giving the lecture and learning more about Green Building, I realized it’s another area in which the decisions made don’t logically address the problems they set out to solve. And so here I am once again trying to make sense of something. The purpose of this blog series is to bring into focus distorted societal views, how they relate to education, and to examine how perception creates reality.

I will use building (Green vs. Natural) as my example of how we are missing the boat on important societal issues. However, before I can delve into the Green vs. Brown building scenario, I find it important to outline some of our societal beliefs and why we have come to accept certain ideas as reality. This is the first of a series of blogs under this title.

As a teacher, I am constantly looking to the educational system to solve our problems but in many cases I find that it actually perpetuates the dysfunctional aspects of society. One of the issues is that we don’t teach students how to discern information. The classroom can no longer be a place where students are just fed information. It must become a place where students use creative problem solving to come up with logical solutions to real-world problems. Too many classrooms simply give students information, expect them to memorize it, regurgitate it for an exam, and then move on to another topic. The result is twofold; students don’t discern information and their creativity, to either invent or problem solve, is not developed. Check out Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk on how education kills creativity. (http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html)

The first step to making changes is to acknowledge that there is a problem. Our society is a measure of our educational system’s effectiveness. Let’s just look at three areas: environment, health, and relationships. It’s quite clear we are destroying the natural environment and polluting the things that sustain life (water, air, ecosystem) We eat foods that don’t promote health and are in fact unnatural, and the result is obvious; we have the highest rates of preventable dis-ease. Finally, divorce rates, violence, and military invasions signal our inability to have healthy relationships at every level.

To blame teachers for poor student achievement holds the same logic as blaming a dentist for the cavities of each patient or a doctor for obesity rates. Teachers do play a vital role in academic achievement but there are many more variables to consider. The educational system, as a whole, is very confusing to a student. About the extent of environmental education in school is a blue recycling bin in the classroom. We tell students to be healthy but look at what we feed them and what we allow them to purchase in snack machines. We talk to them about getting along with each other, yet as a society we support war. We have endless opportunities to educate students about these issues but we simply don’t. I do want to say that I’m speaking in general terms as there are plenty of schools doing amazing things, but as a whole, our schools are failing.

What I see is a total disconnect between societal issues and what we actually teach our students to prepare for. Few actually step up to address these issues and those that do step up are labeled radical. I’ll give just one example. At a school improvement meeting a few years ago we were talking about taking a holistic approach to education. In other words, we wanted to improve how we supported the whole child as he/she went through our school. There were plenty of brilliant ideas related to learning but it ended there. I recommended we eliminate snack machines on campus. The only sound was that of teachers munching on sugary snacks and slurping their sodas laced with high fructose corn syrup. With the facts about how sugar affects attention, I wanted to know why we would keep snack machines available to students, not to mention how we could justify allowing students to slowly kill themselves on our watch. The only response was that snack machines brought in ‘X’ amount of dollars used to buy uniforms for school sports. Nobody else, out of a room of 15 educators, would take a stand. After that, I was labeled ‘radical’ and the ‘vocal minority’ on campus, along with a few other logically thinking revolutionaries.

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plastic bottles in our oceans

Radical is what we’ll have to do when we run out of clean drinking water.

Radical will be the changes we’ll have to make when we run out of fossil fuels. Imagine riding a bike, horse, or walking? That’s insanely radical!

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US invades Panama Dec. 20, 1989 and bombs a residential area

Radical is bombing a residential area in another country under the name of national security.

The truth is that we mislead students in school and make them believe things like concrete, Wal-Mart, and fast food are actually OK and they are NOT! We prepare students to simply perpetuate the ignorance of our consumer society and the result is that when they get into the real world, they don’t question anything. That’s the way things are and how things have always been, according to students. Children think we’ve always been drinking out of plastic water bottles and that if we put them in a blue bin, no harm has been done. Nobody ever talks about the other ‘R’s in Recycling (Reduce and Reuse) and these are quite a bit more important and will make more of a difference in our natural environment than recycling. Reduce means that instead of using plastic water bottles, you reduce your dependence on them. You buy a reusable water bottle and use a glass to drink water at home. We used to carry water bottles with us when we left the house but now we actually drink bottled water at home. That’s radical! Find out the facts about bottled water (http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/water/bottled/) and watch an excellent documentary about water. (Flow: http://www.flowthefilm.com/)

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We have done an amazing job at creating an unsustainable reality. None of this happened by chance of course. We like to say that we are ‘moving forward’ and ‘making advancements’ as a society but that’s only because we are evaluating using different benchmarks: cheap, fast, and convenient. That’s how we measure things today. Concrete is good because it allows things to be built faster and can last a long time. Wal-Mart is great because it’s cheap and it houses everything under one roof so you don’t have to drive anywhere else. Fast food and processed food is awesome because nobody has time to cook since our favorite reality TV show is on. I’m not going to go into the reasons why concrete, Wal-Mart, and fast food is bad but if you really don’t know, email me. I’ll be happy to share that information with you.

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The reason I know education isn’t teaching children how to discern information is because the general public simply accepts what its told. Once mainstream media has published something, a viewpoint different from theirs is labeled a conspiracy. People lose the ability to see the possibility of another truth. It wasn’t long ago that the tobacco industry paid doctors to market cigarettes. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gCMzjJjuxQI) In other words, ask a child in the 60’s if smoking was bad for you and they’d say that it wasn’t because that’s what everyone was told. The research had been done on smoking but the tobacco industry threw an exorbitant amount of money spinning the information, marketing, perjuring themselves in court and settling out of court. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZOIspYHik2g&feature=player_embedded#!)

By then it was too late and the addictive hook was set and there was no turning back. Smoking caught on and just to give you an idea at what kind of money we are talking about, in 2008, the CDC reported that the tobacco industry spent an average of $29 million each day on marketing smoking and smokeless products! That’s radical! Ask any child today if smoking is good or bad for your health and they’ll tell you it causes lung cancer. This is a result of years of anti-smoking campaigns. If that much is spent on advertising, imagine the profits. Imagine the amount of money spent on anti-smoking campaigns and the amount of money it costs us in health care. My point here is that the truths have changed. You would have been labeled a conspiracy theorist back in the 1960’s if you said smoking was bad for you because doctors were endorsing tobacco. Today, you would be labeled an idiot if you say that smoking is good for you. Did the truth change? Of course not. Smoking has always been bad for your health; only our perception of it has changed.

It wasn’t long ago that 99% of births took place in the home and today 99% take place in the hospital. (The Business of Being Bornhttp://www.imdb.com/title/tt0995061/) I won’t comment on my personal beliefs about birthing but the point is that children think it’s normal for a birth to take place in the hospital and think it’s absurd and unsafe to have a child at home. This is simply not true. GM built an electric car, the EV1, that could go 60mpg (in gasoline equivalency) but because of political reasons, they ended up recalling and crushing all of the models. This was a truth large corporations were not ready present to the public so we think we don’t have the ability to build a car that gets good gas mileage. As long as we dumbed down, we have no control. (Watch Who Killed the Electric Car http://www.whokilledtheelectriccar.com/)

There are literally hundreds of examples of things that are no longer what they used to be because we’ve either learned the truth or we have successfully masked it.

The sooner we can actually see the truth in front of us, the sooner we can start to educate our children to make better decisions than we have made. It will be, at that point, that we can begin to heal ourselves and the natural environment. More importantly, we will be raising a generation of children that can discern information and who won’t be persuaded by the distorted realities that are so readily promoted.

Posted in Education, Life Lessons | 3 Comments

Natural Building Workshops

-Hosted by Travel to Learn and Life Energy Awakenings

Come learn through hands-on workshops how to build a cob structure from foundation to living roof. Cob is a combination of clay soil, sand, straw, and water. It’s basically adobe, but applied right after mixing, so it has a lot of moisture and is very pliable. Cob can bear the load of walls in homes, can be used to build beautiful courtyard walls and benches, as well as ovens. Cob has thermal mass properties which allows a building’s inside temperature to stay cool during the summer and warm during the winter. Using the earth to build is not new at all; it has been used for tens of thousands of years and something anyone can do with a little guidance. Natural building is typically less expensive than traditional building. Many people build homes without ever having to take out a mortgage. It will save you money through lower utilities and most importantly, earthen buildings are less toxic for you and for the environment.
All workshops will be hands-on and will include lunch. The workshops are at a lovely desert property where Leanne runsLife Energy Awakenings.

Sign up for a workshop here
Follow as we build the cob cottage here

Hands-on Group or Private Workshops Date/Lunch Included
Price
FOUNDATION: Site selection/solar passive design/rubble trench/stem wall
Learn about site selection and passive solar design as well as the features of a rubble trench foundation and why it is used. We will be building a rubble trench and installing a french drain so there will be physical labor. In our second workshop, we will build a stem wall that will hold our cob walls. This is also a lot of physical work and for those who have a lot of patience as we will be building a wall by stacking rocks.
recommended: work gloves, boots, hat, sunglasses, sunscreen
Completed
$45/day
Building cob walls/benches
*To get familiar with cob we recommend working with it for at least two days. We will have options for those who want extended experience working with cob during the weekday.
You will learn how to mix and apply cob as you build a wall structure for the building. This hands on workshop will not only be fun but informative as you’ll learn about soil testing, which materials to use for cob, various techniques for mixing and applying and ideas for cob projects you can do on your property.
recommended: boots and clothes that can get muddy and stained, hat, sunglasses, sunscreen 
March 10, 11
March 24,25
March 29
April 7, 8
April 14, 15
10am – 4:30pm
$75/day
Earthen plasters (rough coat)
In this workshop you will learn how to mix ingredients to make a rough plaster finish. We will be applying a rough coat to the entire building.
recommended: clothes that can get muddy, hat, sunglasses, sunscreen
TBD (2 days)
$75/day
Earthen plasters (final coat)
In this workshop you will learn how to mix ingredients to make a final plaster finish. We will be applying a final coat to the entire building.
recommended: clothes that can get muddy, hat, sunglasses, sunscreen 
TBD (2 days)
$75/day
Living Roof
In this workshop you will learn how a living roof functions. We will be actually working on the ‘living’ portion of the roof installing the liner, soil, plants, and irrigation.
recommended: hat, sunglasses, sunscreen
TBD
(1-2 days)
$45
Earthen floor 
You will learn how to mix all the ingredients and actually pour an adobe floor.
recommended: clothes that can get muddy, knee pads, hat, sunglasses, sunscreen 
TBD (1 day)
$45
Natural Paints
In this workshop we will teach you how to mix materials and how to apply clay-based paints. We will be painting the inside of our structure.
recommended: clothes that can get dirty although clay-based paints wash right out, they might leave light stains.
TBD (1 day)
$55


Posted in Earthen Buildling, Sustainable Housing | Leave a comment