09/28/2011 04:37 pm ET Updated Nov 28, 2011

Schools Should Not Be Islands: Building Bridges in Mexico Through Academic Encounters

The town of Turuachi is six hours south of Chihuahua, Mexico. As you speed through the desert, you'll pass Parral, which has the last Walmart for miles. From there the trees get taller and greener as you ascend into the Sierra Madre Occidental on the winding highway 24. About 800 people live in Turuachi, most of them indigenous Raramuri. The town gets no cell phone signal and you can count the number of landlines on one hand.

As remote as it sounds, the town of Turuachi was picked by the minds behind an educational reform effort called Proyecto de la Sierra to be the site of a recent academic exchange. They invited students, teachers, parents, and educational officials from towns in two Mexican states to join them in Turuachi because it was the most convenient spot. If Turuachi is a dot off the highway on Google satellite images, then the towns in the states of Chihuaha and Durango where the event's participants came from are barely specks on the mountainside.

Despite the long journey, the teachers in these towns were convinced they had to attend this encuentro, or encounter, with their students and parents to teach and learn from their counterparts at schools in the other state. These teachers who struggle to educate students in the most marginal towns -- places that are nonetheless hooked into deadly supply chains of the Mexican drug trade -- left this event energized. If these teachers find they benefit from working together with people far away in schools in other towns and states almost bimonthly, why is this kind of collaboration so rare in the United States, where we may not even know the colleagues who work in the school upstairs?

As a teacher in New York, I remember the public middle school where I worked in East Harlem was part of a formal network of schools all of which served similar populations and faced similar challenges. We attended some retreats with teachers from these other schools, but didn't interact with them beyond sharing PowerPoints about our "best practices" in a big auditorium. We never collaborated one-on-one to improve our instruction or to advance our content knowledge. Principals and union chapter leaders may interact with their peers more frequently, but to teachers, schools can feel like islands. We have our own struggles to manage -- why would we spend time helping some other school with theirs? I couldn't even imagine what a collaboration across district or state lines would look like.

Until I arrived in Chihuahua. The zone supervisor greeted the 200 students, parents, teachers, and educational officials in his native Raramuri, and then everyone dispersed to start working. The heft of the two-day event was in exchanging tutoría: one-on-one tutoring sessions that arm tutees with the tools they need to successfully reason through specific exercises and clearly explain how they arrived at their answers. The tutor guides the tutee towards understanding through questioning, and never gives the answers away. This methodology is the hallmark of a new federal program to improve the bottom performing schools in Mexico called the Integral Strategy to Improve Academic Achievement (or EIMLE, for its Spanish abbreviation). At the encounter, children helped children from other states use a Cartesian plane to create picture frames. Parents taught each other how to crochet. Teachers pored over history textbooks together to investigate causes and effects. Educational authorities whittled the wooden pieces they needed to learn and play a traditional Raramuri game.

After lunch, the pairs were reassembled: children tutored parents. Teachers worked with educational officials. The face of one fifth grader, Yajahira Payan Palma, lit up as she helped one teacher coach, Aaron Pacheco Martell, notice an error he made as he attempted to solve a problem about fractions. After he discovered the final answer, he shook her hand. She beamed again. (This moment is captured in a video we made about the encuentro you can find here.)

The buzzing enthusiasm amongst the event's attendees made me forget that the towns where these folks come from are beleaguered places. One of the event's coordinators on the Durango side of the border, Elva Salazar Rangel, mentioned that some of the teachers assigned to work at these schools find themselves drinking water they collect from ponds and puddles. Several students and teachers arrived from one town in Durango which is known for being almost entirely populated by women: most of the men were recruited by the cartels to be sicarios (hitmen) or have immigrated.

This is not just a story of the resiliency of children and adults in distressed communities. It is a moment that demonstrates how important it is for educators -- and students and families -- to communicate and collaborate with each other to promote learning. Since the non-profit that is now associated with the federal program (Redes de tutoría, formerly Convivencia Educativa) started working in the Sierra in 2005, teachers have begun networking with each other nearly every two months to plan and execute their own encounters independently from the state project coordinators.

There is no doubt that people leave these exchanges invigorated. But now the next step is promoting the academic rigor and critical thinking that will lift these communities up in the long term. As I wandered around at the encounter interviewing students about their work, I noticed some of the student tutors demonstrated weaker understandings of the tutoring process. Many were giving their tutees instructions, rather than asking questions and initiating dialogues. They were engaged -- a huge achievement for students in such marginalized communities -- but their work lacked some substance.

Luis Gerardo Cisneros, the coordinator for the project at the federal level, recognizes how far these schools have to travel before students, teachers, and parents engage in the most meaningful kind of learning experiences. A child of the 1960s and an educational radical who follows in Paulo Freire's footsteps, Cisneros remembers his first days working in the Sierra. He would backpack from community to community, usually greeted by silence and circumspection. These days when he comes up from Mexico City, people write and perform corridos (traditional Mexican story-songs) about him. He is pleased that educational entities have gotten on the same page, but said the tutoring sessions had become "in some way mechanical, stilted."

The solution he proposed involved building bridges between the islands. "If there are no bridges, the student just sits there with his copy of Romeo and Juliet saying the same thing about it all the time," he said. There needs to be more communal reflection and modeling by expert tutors within the state, he added.

And many more encounters.