July 2015

Community as Classroom


Rebecca Darling and Alexandra Nevárez


We ask our children to absorb all that they can to pass the next exam, go on to the next grade and move on to the real world. All the while, fieldtrips are becoming folk tales, and textbooks can often be outdated by the time they reach students’ hands. Although classroom-centered education has reigned for decades, community-based learning is an option that provides a valuable and enriching opportunity to bring learning to life and life to learning.


The Community Learning Network is a New Mexico nonprofit dedicated to providing hands-on learning experiences for groups of students and young adults. Tailored to fit a school’s curriculum while simultaneously supporting the needs of local communities, these unique service- and educational-immersion programs shine light on the rich cultures and beauty of New Mexico while bringing students to the region from high schools and colleges all over country.


This past month, we served as interns and were fortunate to work with a group of 24 high school seniors and four teachers from San José, California, who immersed themselves in a week of real-life learning in real-life places with real-life people. At Tesuque and Taos pueblos, the group concluded a semester class on Ethics, Justice and Native American Culture by putting their lessons into action. Unlike typical tourists, the students came to learn and serve. They met, ate and worked with local community members and did labor-intensive work on community-driven projects including farming, irrigating and adobe plastering.


With limited exposure to where our food comes from and the work that goes into it, we gained a much greater appreciation for the food cycle, water conservation, seed preservation and waste mitigation. Plus, we learned the importance of sharing a meal. The students worked on community garden projects in both pueblos, learned about acequias and helped build a traditional Zuni waffle garden at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe. We were also able to help prepare the Santa Fe Rodeo grounds for the upcoming rodeo and participate in the tradition of resurfacing the adobe at the San Francisco de Asis Church in Ranchos de Taos, where we worked with community members of all ages, as has been done annually for 200 years.


The students who visited New Mexico experienced a different, new way of life and learned valuable lessons about sustainability and appreciation for the earth. We also discovered that when the community is the classroom, everyone is a teacher. When sharing across generations and cultures, we found, too, that we grew to understand each other better and were able to respect and appreciate one another.


From our experience, it was apparent that human beings were not created to simply sit at desks all day and get fed just enough information to pass a test. Rather, we were made to be in relation with one another and to be part of a community. The Community Learning Network provided the students a chance to get out of their comfort zones and tangibly explore and discover the world.


Seeing, feeling and actually doing what they read about in books was truly transformative for the high-school visitors. One of the students said that he felt as if he “lived in the San José bubble,” and this trip allowed him to be able to see outside it. Similarly, another 17-year-old student said, “I believe it is extremely important, especially for privileged and somewhat-sheltered students like myself, to learn about and immerse ourselves in a different culture and open our eyes beyond our own small world.”


To learn more about service- and community-based learning and educational immersion opportunities in the Southwest or to volunteer, visit www.communitylearningnetwork.org



Rebecca Darling is a student at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. She hopes to join the alternative learning community as a teacher when she graduates.


Alexandra Nevárez attends the University of Texas, McCombs School of Business, in Austin. She is currently on a quest for balance between her love for art, her interest in marketing and her fascination with human interconnectedness.





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