Middle school connects with Panama for cultural exchange

Middlesex Middle School has a thing for Darién. The tiny Panamanian province has received more than $30,000 in aid for school improvements in Nicanor, Darién, thanks to donations by the Darien to Darién program. To keep the giving ball rolling, Middlesex will host Variety Show 5 on Thursday, May 5, to raise money for the Pueblo Nuevo School of Darién.

Alex Hager, 13, has hosted the past three Variety Shows and is helping to host Variety Show 5. “It’s fun for everyone to go up there and show what they’re capable of,” Alex said. “It feels good to help out. We have so much in Darien, I feel obligated to help out.”

Watching the school in Panama develop has been exciting, Alex added. Dirt roads are now paved, the school has a kitchen with tile floors, there are computers with Internet access and sturdy, newly constructed buildings.

The students in Darién grow all their own vegetables for school meals, and thanks to the efforts of Darien families, the kids in Panama now have chickens to raise and eat along with their veggies.

The nonprofit Fundación Pro-Niños de Darién administers all money sent from America and was voted Panama’s most effectively run not-for-profit organization in 2008. The Darien to Darién program has also received official approval from the Panamanian government.

Darien Spanish teacher Jon Smith grew up in the small Panamanian province, which happens to be the last place in Central America before reaching the southern continent.

Smith visited the Pueblo Nuevo School last year and was welcomed with a “Dance of the Tapir” performed by children of the Wounaan-Emberá ethnic group. The tapir happens to be Smith’s students’ favorite animal, he said. The Wounaan-Emberá also carved a tiny tapir figurine from a palm tree nut as a gift for Smith and his students. Smith said the Wounaan-Emberá are excited to receive the much needed donations.

The Variety Show is only one element of a thriving cultural exchange program.

In an effort to deepen the already strong bonds between towns, Smith utilizes a little bit of modern technology. On Monday, April 25, Smith connected to Darién, Panama, for a video conference via Skype on the Internet. It was the first time he and his students had a face-to-face conversation with their neighbors of the same name. “We’ve waited a long time for this,” Smith said, just before joining the video conference.

Smith’s students also communicate in Spanish with the students from Darién through a blog that the schools set up. Students from each country talk about their hobbies, music, food and their dreams.

Stephen Barston, 13, said that the cultural differences are fascinating. “We learned that they have an orchard,” Stephen said, “but they asked about our orchard. Obviously we can’t answer that question because we don’t have one.”

Kimy Saez, a Nicanor fifth grader, writes in Spanish to a Middlesex student, “Our winter is just beginning, and it is raining heavily each day.

You said you wish you could see monkeys. Listen, there are so many monkeys in the trees around my house that they wake me up each morning.

Here we breathe pure air, because the jungle is very close.”

Nicanor principal Fulvia Torres said that the connection between the two towns has gone far to improve relations between the two countries. “It is deeply moving and gratifying to know that now we may communicate with all of you,” Torres wrote in Spanish on the Darien to Darién blog.

Smith said it’s important to exercise a bit of cultural sensitivity when exchanging notes on the blog, as many pupils in Panama may not have experienced many of the same things that Americans take for granted, such as international travel.

This summer, Smith hopes to take several students to Darién to visit the school. A glass case in the hall at Middlesex includes a large poster signed by the Panamanian students, with many of them noting how excited they are to host American kids.

Merrill Vandenbroek has two kids at Middlesex and said that Smith “goes above and beyond” expectations of a teacher.

One of Smith’s students, Luke Sheridan, has expressed such a strong interest in learning Spanish that Smith created an after-school immersion program that includes several students. “We’re even studying Spanish literature,” Smith noted.

Smith’s father, Ralph, was stationed in Panama during World War II and helped create Panama’s first television station. Darién, Panama, is also the only missing link in the Pan-American Highway which runs from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to Ushuaia, Argentina.

There may be a physical gap between the two continents, but at least the cultural gap is closing thanks to programs such as Darien to Darién.

The Darien to Darién program started three years ago under the guidance of Principal Debi Boccanfuso. Variety Show 5 tickets are $10, and there are 400 tickets available, Smith said. Students will emcee the event, as they have in the past. For more information, e-mail Jon Smith at josmith@darienps.org

Originally published in The Darien Times.

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