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When Cultural Experiences Don’t Add Up to Round Numbers

Our guest blogger today is Dustin Dresser of Costa Rica Frika. We invited him to Antigua, Guatemala, last month, to serve as an interpreter for T2TGlobal’s math education conference for local teachers. Here are his reflections….


Dustin, in the middle, at a math education workshop

“Do you agree?”

“Can you explain your reasoning?”

You could imagine this line of questioning coming from someone who just discovered you’d been living abroad for years in a foreign country, which is usually my scenario. However, I recently learned at a math conference in Guatemala that if you are a teacher, questions like these come second nature.

I was invited to this conference to serve as an interpreter, and I just couldn’t pass up the chance to return to Guatemala. Connecting top US educators to Guatemalan elementary teachers with math as the bridge was something I had to experience. The conference was organized by T2TGlobal, an innovative nonprofit out of North Carolina that is changing the world of how mathematics is taught. Guatemala is one of their primary implementation sites.  What started four years ago as a one-day, 20-teacher conference has grown to four days and hundreds of teachers.

At minimum, you had to have a master’s degree to present at the conference, however the vast majority of presenters had doctorates or above. The paradox was that despite all this knowledge, we were using it to break down beginning math concepts for elementary school teachers. Things like organizing blocks by number, size and color. Or using a jump rope to teach students to count. It made sense, but I never had imagined the amount of research that goes into understanding how to teach these math concepts.

So why are all these experts traveling to Guatemala? Couldn’t places in the US benefit from this training? Why? Can you explain your reasoning?  

I may have thought coming into the conference that I wouldn’t have much in common with the presenters, at least academically. I soon realized we felt the same pull towards Latin America and its culture.  

For example, I had the opportunity to interpret for Chadd McGlone, executive director of this nonprofit, and every day he wore a traditional Guatemalan sweater to his workshops. He even had a custom blazer made for him with the same local designs. I also interpreted for a retired educator who has been to Guatemala numerous times to coach teachers. She just can’t get enough of the people, so she volunteers for any opportunity to get back to the country. 

I could tell that all the presenters had been inspired at some point by this marvelous country and were anxious to further immerse themselves and share their knowledge. I was no different.

Two Guatemalan interpreters also attended the conference, and I did not waste one moment picking their brains. Whether it was how to translate square numbers or what souvenir to get my wife, they were my go-to people. They even helped me get over my fear of riding a chicken bus (a decommissioned school bus from the States that gets a radical paint job and its own personality).

The famous chicken buses of Guatemala

In previous trips to Guatemala I’d been only in the tourist bubble or extreme poverty areas doing mission work. On this visit, I was shoulder-to-shoulder with educators, so  could see what an education will do for you. Up until recently you could be a teacher without a college degree. I found out that all higher education in Guatemala has to be free and open to the public, however the government cannot afford for everyone to attend.

Having lived in Costa Rica for so long has gotten me accustomed to the lifestyle, so much so that it doesn’t feel new to me. After this conference, though, I could look back and really enjoy the experience and the new cultural perspectives I gained.

I could understand why the presenters were returning for a second, third, or tenth time. Each visit gives a unique glimpse into Guatemala, which creates the urge to see and learn more.

I can’t pinpoint any one certain thing that drew me to Costa Rica (I didn’t meet my wife till my fourth visit), but it was probably a combination of little discoveries like these that added up over time and made me want more. Adding up rich cultural experiences isn’t like doing math, though. You won’t get a round number, but you’ll always get something special.

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