music is magic

After my first day at Centeno Guell, I’ve spent most of my time there working with the same two classes. On Monday and Wednesday morning and Tuesday and Thursday afternoon I work with Marcela’s class. Monday and Wednesday afternoon and Tuesday and Thursday morning I work with Silvia’s class. Both of those teachers work in the same classroom but, as you might have guessed, one is there in the morning while the other comes in the afternoon! Both Marcela and Silvia have little kiddos that are around five years old.

Although I have enjoyed working with both classes, I especially like working with Marcela. She’s very bubbly, friendly, and open with me. Through her friendly nature, I hear a lot from her about the personalities of her students and what each of their strengths and weaknesses are. Having that knowledge has helped me to feel more comfortable with the kids in her class because I’m not relying solely on what I’ve observed through working with them.

Another thing I really like about Marcela is the amount of music she plays for her students. Part of their routine at the beginning of every class is to sing and sign along with a few children’s songs. Later in the day, they sometimes have either a little “relaxation” time or yoga, and she plays calm, relaxing music for those parts of the day. There are a couple things that I really wanted to share related to the music that Marcela plays.

I’ll start off by talking about Alexa, a little girl in Marcela’s class who has Down Syndrome. And when I say little, I mean little. Alexa is the smallest in her class. She is so tiny and cute, especially because she always wears her hair in pigtails. Although she doesn’t have a huge vocabulary, she is very social, talks quite a lot, and is rather bossy. She’s always calling me over to her, saying, “Venga! Venga!” and motioning with her hand for me to come. But even though she wants me to come, she always wants to do things on her own. Like when we were brushing teeth after lunch and she pushed me away, declaring, “Sola!

I discovered rather quickly that Alexa likes music and loves to dance. When they sing songs at the beginning of class, she’s always clapping, signing, and singing along excitedly, and looking over to make sure that I’m doing the same. Marcela has a hard time getting her to lie down during relaxation time or do yoga because she’s always sitting up to dance along with the music.

Yesterday at recess Alexa’s love for dance became even more apparent. Today is a national holiday in Costa Rica, celebrating the annexation of the Guanacaste province. So yesterday morning one of the preschool classes was having their snack time outside, eating food that’s traditional in Guanacaste, and playing music while they ate. They happened to be right next to the playground, so the music was blaring while Marcela’s class was at recess.

At some point during recess, a few of the teachers noticed that Alexa was standing in the middle of the playground, all alone, dancing to the music. Soon all the teachers were watching and some pulled out their cameras and phones to take videos of her dancing. I watched her for at least five minutes, but I know she had be dancing long before I started watching. She was totally doing her own thing and entirely focused on doing it. She just danced her little heart out and it was so amazing.

I’ve also noticed that one of the only times that all of the students are engaged (besides maybe recess) during the day is when Marcela is leading them in singing and signing along with the songs at the beginning of class. I love watching them all smile, laugh, wiggle, and sing along with the music. It really opens some of them up when their norm is to be very much withdrawn.

This is true for Nancy in particular. I’m fairly certain that Nancy is autistic. She doesn’t talk and doesn’t interact with the other kids much. Usually she sits quietly until she’s told to do something else. But when the music is on, she lights up. She follows along with the movements that Marcela demonstrates for them. She smiles and laughs. Her laughter is beautiful. There have been a few times that she has actually made and held eye contact with me while they’re singing. When the music is playing she’s a different little person altogether, completely full of joy.

Music has influenced my life so strongly. I know that without music, the relationships I’ve made through it, and the lessons it has taught me, I would be an entirely different person. I can’t help but think about how crucial it must be for these kids to have music in their lives. It allows them a way to express themselves and an opportunity to come out of their shells. I don’t know if I’ve witnessed many things in my life that are as beautiful as watching those two little girls experience music.


el centeno guell


Last Tuesday (the 16th) was the first day I went to my volunteer placement at the Centro Nacional de Educación Especial Fernando Centeno Guell (which is often just called “el Centeno Guell,” as I learned throughout the week!). I was expecting (based on my experience with ELAP in Spain) to learn how to get there, meet the person at the school that I would be reporting to, and have a chance to talk about what I would be doing during my time there. But it didn’t quite turn out that way.

I did learn how to get to the school, which was pretty important, considering that I would have to get there on my own every day. When Andréa (the ISA staff member who came with me) and I got to the school though, it turned out that they weren’t really expecting us and hadn’t received a form they were supposed to have received from ISA. So Andréa and I filled out the form and then left. I didn’t really even get introduced to the volunteer coordinator that I am supposed to report to (I later learned that her name is Doña Lily). It was a little disappointing to have gone all the way there but not have any more idea of what exactly I would be doing during my time here in Costa Rica.

The one cool thing about the outing was that Andréa took the time to show me around San José a little bit. We walked around the city center and she pointed out places like that National Theatre, a couple of museums, a few markets with lots of souvenir shops, and some other similar things. It was nice to have an idea of where to find the touristy types of things if I wanted to, especially the museums. We then went to the second ISA office here (which I hadn’t been to yet) so that I would know where it was for the ELAP meetings that are held every other week.

Saying I was nervous to head to Centeno Guell on Wednesday would be an understatement. Not only did I still not know exactly what I was getting myself into, but I was nervous about getting there on my own. I ended up getting there just fine (I take two buses every morning. It takes about an hour to get from the first bus stop to the school), and then sitting and waiting while Doña Lily figured out what to do with me. After about an hour, Doña Lily took me to the special education department of the school (there is also a department for the blind and another for the deaf/hearing impaired) and dropped me off with the teachers I would be spending the rest of the morning with.

Although I started in a classroom with three teachers and only three boys, it was the most intimidating and overwhelming group that I’ve worked with in the five days that I’ve worked at the school so far. Two of the boys were very autistic (Joel and Aaron) and the other had Down Syndrome (Randy). None of the them had any spoken language skills. Each one of them was a handful in his own way, but I realized pretty quickly that Joel was the most difficult of the three of them. When Kaylin (one of the teachers) was trying to start a lesson about the parts of their face with them, he refused to sit in his chair, and spent a lot of time throwing chairs around the room and pushing things off of the teacher’s desk. On top of that, Aaron kept trying to run away (I’ve been learning that this is a pretty common thing among autistic children).

To be honest, I felt pretty useless in that classroom. I had no idea what I should be doing to help because I have no experience with kids with special needs, especially severe cases like those boys are. For a little over two hours, I basically just stood there and waited to be told when to bring something to a teacher or to lock the door. At one point, Flori (the assistant teacher in Kaylin’s classroom) asked me if I was scared. I answered honestly and told her I was. She then explained to me that these kids were some of the most difficult in the school and that it was okay to be a little scared. If I learned anything that first day, it’s that the people (mostly women) who work in the special education department at Centeno Guell are extremely nice and compassionate. They are so encouraging and friendly, which made going back after that first day so much easier.

After lunch the students and teachers that are there in the morning leave and another group comes in for the afternoon, so I spent the afternoon in a different classroom. I was so relieved to discover that not all the classrooms are as intense as that first one was. In the afternoon I worked with Rebecca’s class, which consists five kids from ages 10 to 13 who are fairly independent. Working with them was night and day from working in Kaylin’s classroom. Most of the time I spent with them they were working on a craft, and later had recess. The most frustrating thing in that classroom was the fact that I had a lot of trouble understanding the students. There was one in particular that kept trying to talk to me and I had no idea what he was saying.

Needless to say, that first day was super overwhelming, especially in the morning. It was definitely scary to be in that room, and I spent some time wondering if I had made the right choice to come here and work in a special education center. I knew it was going to be challenging, but I hadn’t been expecting to be thrown into such an intimidating situation right away.

But despite the ways I felt overwhelmed that morning, there were some moments that were really beautiful, too. Like when Randy looked over at me from his chair and waved at me with his hand by his waist and smiled when I waved back. Or when Aaron came over to me while I was sitting down and hugged me and kissed the top of my head.

There are sweet moments like that every day, and I always look forward to those moments the most. I’m increasingly thankful for the opportunity to be here, and I can’t wait to see what else I’ll learn.