Member Spotlight: Lessons from Botswana

By Cristina Casillo, Mat-Su EA Member

Cristina Casillo on top of Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa

Cristina Casillo on top of Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa

I have loved every single big, beautiful snowflake that has fallen outside my window this winter. It’s March now, and you may be cringing at the sight of all the snow and are convinced it’s never disappearing, but my heart swells every time I look outside. I left Point Hope at Christmas last year knowing that on January 6th I would leave the United States for Gaborone, Botswana for five months to research how teachers were integrating local culture into their daily curriculum. I had received a Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching grant and could not have been more excited. Having spent six and a half years teaching in rural Alaska, my topic was of utmost interest because I have lived firsthand the struggles teachers face when trying to integrate the local culture into their western curriculum. My research topic and personal frustration stemmed from feeling as if district offices had a checklist for “integrating culture in the classroom” and felt that they could check that off if an educator completed a two-week unit on a cultural topic once or twice a year. My view has always been culture is a part of one’s daily life, and since children spend six hours a day at school, it should therefore be represented in their daily classroom life as well. The reasons why this is not happening throughout rural Alaska are extensive, but I wanted to identify specific teaching strategies to bring back and share with teachers so they could start integrating culturally relevant lessons and strategies into their daily curriculum in classrooms throughout Alaska.

Cristina and colleagues celebrating a successful training!

Cristina and colleagues celebrating a successful training!

So I left, only to arrive in Botswana in the middle of a drought on one of the hottest days of the year – 112°F to be exact. To make matters even more interesting, another participant and I were the first to arrive in Botswana and be shown our housing. We were living on-campus at the University of Botswana in the Graduate Village. Our housing was apartment-style with six individual rooms and a shared kitchen and bathroom. I asked someone about air-conditioning and they pointed to the fan in the shared living space. When we asked about our shower, they pointed to the countless jugs of water situated throughout the kitchen. We were in a drought, and the water would be on and off at will, so bucket baths were our answer over 70% of the time. There was a water faucet that always had water for filling up our buckets conveniently located right outside my dorm room for all 200 of us which meant I could have stayed up to date on all of the local gossip, had I been able to speak the language.

I did not stop sweating for three months. With no air conditioner, I would wake up in the middle of the night covered in sweat and move over to find a new dry spot on my extra-long twin sized bed. I think I finally slept under the covers in April. I took two to three bucket baths a day and if I was lucky, I squeezed in a cold shower. I cried. I laughed. I wondered what on earth I had signed up for. And, in February, after two months of this, I wondered how I could do this for three more. I had lived and taught above the Arctic Circle for over seven years. My body understood -12°F, not 112°F. I was beginning to wonder if receiving the Fulbright was considered such an Award, why did I feel punished most of the time?

Participants at the Different Learning Styles training

Different Learning Styles training

And then it was April. I was walking my laundry across the campus and the wind blew a cool breeze. The temperature was just right outside and I smiled. One of my favorite lyrics is ‘cause there’s beauty in the breakdown’ from Frou Frou’s, ‘Let Go.’ At that moment, I realized I had found my beauty in the breakdown. My interviews were done, almost all of my papers were written, and all I had left to do was reflect on what I learned and how this experience had impacted me.

Throughout all the tears and sweat, I realized I was capable of more than I had ever thought possible. I witnessed teachers work with nothing and create something magical. I stood in classrooms full of students who knew pieces of my language and taught lessons in counting and adding. I led two day-long workshops for primary educators in Gaborone on the different learning styles of students. I traveled by myself, let an elephant eat out of my hand, and met friends from all across the world.

What I Learned

Students creating a collage using items from nature

Students creating a collage using items from nature

So what kind of impact did this opportunity have on me and my career? While I was able to identify specific strategies for integrating local culture into the daily curriculum, my greatest ‘take-aways’ extended far beyond my research project. I was reminded of the impact and influence a superb teacher has on their students. I was in classrooms that did not have an electrical outlet, much less a SMARTboard, computer, or even books, and I witnessed incredible lessons taught by incredible educators. These teachers worked with little to no materials and brought lessons to life through song, dance, and storytelling to relate to their students. In a digital world, it was empowering to be reminded just how much responsibility we have as educators to help our students embrace their passion and see it through to connect them to the greater world around them. Teachers are the driving force that brings lessons to life, not computers and tablets.

Group of children outside during tea break

Group of children outside during tea break

I stop to eat lunch now. In the past, I would often give up my lunch to make copies, prep for my next lesson, or answer emails. Now I eat and talk to people over the age of 5 years old (I teach kindergarten). I take a break. I enjoy my food. In Botswana, many people are poor, so every meal is celebrated. When you eat, you stop what you are doing and appreciate the food that is nourishing your body. Teachers embrace the British ‘tea break,’ so at 10:00 am for thirty minutes teachers visit together and have tea and a snack while their students play. Then when it is lunch time, all students and teachers stop to enjoy and appreciate their food. Very little food is wasted. Now I do the same. It bothers me to know that students are given such a short period of time to quickly eat their food, and a lot of it goes in the trash. Access to food here is fairly plentiful for so many, so it is not valued like it is in Botswana. Instead of encouraging children to eat as much and as quickly as possible, we should take time to teach children how long it took the carrot in their salad to grow and help students learn to appreciate and understand the work that was put into their food.

Cristina and her advisor visiting her advisor's family and local village outside of Gaborone

Cristina and her advisor visiting her advisor’s family and local village outside of Gaborone

I ask for help. I am vulnerable, and I am okay with it. As the oldest child in my family and a perfectionist, this was a hard lesson for me. In Botswana, I had to ask for help all the time. I am now a better teacher for it. I have no problem reflecting on my teaching practices, seeing a gap, and searching for a respected teacher to help me meet my students’ needs. There was a time when I would have seen this as a weakness, but now I see it as a strength. I am a stronger team player, and I am more open to thoughts and advice because of this.

I have been back for 10 months now, and not a day goes by when I do not think about and am grateful for my time spent in Botswana. The application process was long and arduous, but all the time and effort was worth it. If you have a topic you are passionate about researching and would like the opportunity to live abroad for an extended period of time, I would encourage you to apply for the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching program. Many educators who participate in the program have families, and family members often travel with them for some, if not all, of the time abroad. Since the program is 3-5 months, your Superintendent will have a sign a form giving you permission to do the program in your initial application. You will also have to describe in detail your research project, so start thinking about it early. I was overwhelmed at first and thought there was no way I had a chance, and I almost cried when I received the email informing me I was selected.

Nature and culture corner - elementary classroom has one!

Nature and culture corner – elementary classroom has one!

If this is something you have ever considered doing, I encourage you to take the risk and complete the application. If you have questions about the application, my experience, the teaching strategies I identified, or my research, feel free to contact me anytime. If you are selected for this unique opportunity, you may believe you are only going to be living someplace new while researching your topic, only to realize you will learn so much more.

Cristina Casillo spent two years teaching third grade in Selawik, Alaska. She then moved to Point Hope and spent four and half teaching kindergarten. From January – May of 2016, she was in Botswana researching how teachers integrate local culture into their daily curriculum. She has a M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction from Keene State University in Keene, NH and a M.A. in Social Justice in Intercultural Relations from SIT Graduate Institute in Brattleboro, VT. She is currently teaching kindergarten at Tanaina Elementary in Wasilla and can be reached at