Building a Classrroom

Trip Start Jul 29, 2012
Trip End Aug 01, 2013

Loading Map
Map your own trip!
Map Options
Show trip route
Hide lines

Flag of Mexico  , Central Mexico and Gulf Coast,
Sunday, May 5, 2013

At our very first parent meeting of the year at Micah and Zola's school, Papalotes, way back in August, I remember seeing a model of a classroom building being passed around the room. I could understand little of the discussion (in Spanish) surrounding the model, but Leah whispered to me, "It’s a model of the classroom they’re hoping to build.  Open air, natural materials, not too expensive, easily deconstructable…"  Shortly thereafter, during a budget discussion, Leah whispered, “There’s no money in the bank.”
Construction on the classroom began three months later.  There was still no money in the bank, but the project moved forward with a kind of “money, schmoney” air about it.  I got a lesson in doing things in a much different order than I was accustomed to.  When I suggested to my friend and fellow Papalotes parent, Mark, that we do some fundraising before we begin construction, he explained, “That approach wouldn’t work here.  Unless we actually start the project, potential donors will wonder if we’re really serious about building this classroom.  They might suspect that their donations would end up going toward something else … like our own well-being.”  Hmmm.  ~shrug~  Okay. 

I then asked about the permitting process.  Indeed, there were permits to be obtained.  That is, if you go for that kind of thing.  Mark’s reply left me shaking my head, and amused by the lack of structure of the whole project.  He told me that the school powers-that-be had decided to not apply for the proper permits.  It would be too expensive and take too long.  Basically, to their thinking, the permits were just an unnecessary pain in the butt.  I was relieved to hear that they had touched base with the landlord/landowner, upon whose land they were hoping to build the classroom.  He hadn’t said “no”.
As a member of the three-person Papalotes maintenance committee, I was to be intimately involved with the project.  The really cool thing was that Micah and Zola also got to be intimately involved.  We were bootstrapping, which meant that all hands were welcome.  The idea that the kids would help build their own classroom also jibed with the school’s Waldorf influence.  One of the other Papalotes parents is professor in the Architecture department at the local state university. She arranged for another Architecture professor, and Italian named Salvatori, to give a workshop focused on working with natural building materials.  Our project would be the lab.  Voila!  A free, student-powered workforce.  We were off to a good start. 

To get ready for the workshop, Salvatori gave Mark a list of materials that would need to be on site when the students arrived.  We dove into the list by visiting the lumber yard at the Abastos Market.  I was brought along for my muscles (stop snickering).  Salvatori negotiated the price of some long wooden poles.  The price started at about US$11 apiece.  We paid US$6 each for ninety some of them.  Mark gave directions to the school to a truck driver.  When the driver appeared confused, Mark suggested I ride with him to keep him heading in the right direction.  Much of our "conversation" in the truck consisted of him pointing at attractive women along the way and raising his eyebrows.  I could do little more than nod.  When in Rome.  His old truck couldn’t make it up one of the steep hills en route to the school, so we took a roundabout way and made it to the school in good shape - all of our cargo was still on board.  There were some extra hands at the school to help us unload, so we made quick work of it.    
The next thing on the list was something called “carizo”, a bamboo-like reed-grass that grows rampantly in Oaxaca.  The third member of the maintenance committee, Oliver, had spotted some carizo near a stream close to the school, so early one Saturday morning, Oliver, Mark, and I, with our kids, met to cut and haul carizo.  Wielding machetes, we whacked and hacked down hundreds of stalks of carizo.  During the machete stage, the kids mostly played in and around the stream.  When it came time to drag the carizo up the hill to our vehicles, the kids joined in.  Tired after a hard day’s work, I felt a great sense of satisfaction in having shared the work with Micah and Zola.

The next materials, sand and dirt, arrived on trucks and were dumped in the schoolyard.  Bales of straw magically appeared.  A backhoe came to prepare the site by leveling the ground and digging some holes for footings.  Then the workshop began.  Assembling the overhead structure came first.  The wooden poles were cut and bolted together to create the structure that would support the roof.  That was then moved off to the side in two pieces while the walls were built.  That’s where Micah and Zola played their biggest part.
The walls were made by hydrating a caldera of dirt, then mixing in straw and packing the mixture onto carizo wall skeletons.  Mixing was difficult with shovels, so Micah, Zola and I, and a number of the students, doffed our shoes and pretended we were squishing grapes for wine.  Then we all worked together to pack the mud onto the walls.  For nearly a week, we went home with mud on our clothes.  Again, very satisfying. 
While the walls were being formed, professionals began placing footings for the superstructure, which was then moved into place partway through the wall-building process.  Those same professionals also covered the walls with lime wash to harden them and provide protection from the elements.  After the Christmas break, metal panels then went on the roof, along with gutters.  Finally, a brick floor was laid on top of a bed of sand. 

At the beginning of February, the primary school students moved into their new classroom.  I was really impressed.  The new classroom simply feels like a great place for learning; open air, and with views of the mountains and the burro-filled field abutting the school yard.  Shortly after the classroom went into use, all of the parents received an email requesting that they loan the school about US$250 so that the workers could be paid.  The email explained that Spring fundraising efforts would allow the loans to be repaid.  I won’t be hitting all of you up for donations right now, but don’t be surprised if I post a link to an online fundraising effort in our remaining two months here.  We’ve had a fantastic experience at Papalotes.  Micah and Zola now both speak Spanish and look forward to going to school every day. They have learned to embrace all things “natural” including the spiders and cockroaches, which are frequent houseguests, and to care for the school pig, Pepe. They have made wonderful friends who have been one or our family’s immersion funnels into Oaxaca.  The school community has been welcoming and supportive.  We have even enjoyed our 20-minute trek to and from school each day.  Stay tuned.  
Slideshow Report as Spam
  • Your comment has been posted. Click here or reload this page to see it below.

  • Please enter a comment.
  • Please provide your name.
  • Please avoid using symbols in your name.
  • This name is a bit long. Please shorten it, or avoid special characters.
  • Please enter your email address to receive notification
  • Please enter a valid email address


Uncle Bob on

If only US universities could build facilities so easily...

Uncle Ralph on

More fun than Cub Scouts!

Hunt on

HI Steve thanks.. what a fun/creative/beautiful experience for the kids.... and you too! I think I would have enjoyed doing that too.

Katie on

How cool that the kids got to build their own school?! What an experience for them-the year will be unforgettable!

Liz on

So fantastic! Where can we donate?

Use this image in your site

Copy and paste this html: