Educator returns from Costa Rica with life lessons

David Riley, Daily News staff
Townonline.com

Boston Day and Evening Academy math teacher Janet Platt of Ashland spent five weeks in Costa Rica.

Ashland, Mass. – On a five-week trip to Costa Rica this summer, a math teacher from Ashland found countless lessons to bring back to her students.

At a banana farm, Janet Platt discovered ways to teach high school teens about the economics and science behind their food.

In cooperatives run by Costa Rica’s indigenous people, she found ways to talk to students about what it means to live a sustainable lifestyle.

Platt, who teaches at a public charter school in Roxbury called Boston Day and Evening Academy, made the trip with a grant from the Fund for Teachers. The nonprofit Boston Plan for Excellence awarded the grant in the spring.

“I’m really grateful to have had this opportunity,” Platt said yesterday, four days after returning to her Rodman Road home. “I wouldn’t have been able to afford this on my own.”

During the trip, she spent weeks in an intensive program to learn Spanish, toured indigenous farming communities, and saw such sights as a volcano and a mountain cloud forest.

Platt traveled to the coastal Central American country with a science teacher from her school, Alison Hramiec. Last winter, they worked together to complete an elaborate application for the grant.

The Fund for Teachers offers grants for teachers to pursue special interests that can play a role in their classrooms.

Platt said she and Hramiec picked Costa Rica in part because the nation has a good record of sustainability – limiting humanity’s impact on the environment and society. Both teachers wanted to bring that concept to their classes.

“We also teach in Boston, so about 50 percent of our students come from Spanish-speaking families,” Platt said. Though many speak English, knowing Spanish can help in talking to their families, she said.

The teachers also wanted to learn through community service, something they urge their students to do.

Platt left July 14, two weeks after school ended for the year. She began the trip by attending Centro PanAmericano de Idiomas, a language school in Monteverde where she took Spanish classes for four hours every morning.

Platt then toured organic and fair trade farms and cooperatives in indigenous towns and villages, where she said people are trying to hold onto their culture as they do business in the wider world.

“They’re trying to stick to their old farming practices, but they also realize they can’t live apart from the rest of Costa Rica,” Platt said.

She also learned about the Central American Free Trade Agreement, a new set of trade rules countries in the region are struggling to understand.

That leg of the trip was organized by Global Exchange, a human rights group that supports the communities it tours, she said. She said she was impressed with the organization and stayed with families or in Costa Rican establishments only, traveling with local guides.

Before the trip, Platt said she mainly thought of living sustainably in environmental terms, but came back seeing it differently.

“I went down thinking it was about the environment and recycling and being green,” she said. “But in Costa Rica, it’s also about preserving their culture while making sure people have jobs.”

In her down time, Platt said she toured Tortuguero on the Caribbean coast, where she saw turtles lay eggs en masse; the volcano Arenal, where she saw lava flowing down its side; and a cloud forest where she saw sloths and toucans.

“Their beaks really are like Toucan Sam,” she said.

Platt, who spent three years in the Peace Corps more than a decade ago, said she hopes to talk to her students about sustainability by relating it to their own neighborhoods and cultures.

She and Hramiec also are working together on teaching about the economics of trade and food, and the science of growing crops organically.

Even puzzling over an ATM to figure out how many Costa Rican colons add up to an American dollar, she thought of a lesson on currency exchange rates.

But one of the biggest lessons was a personal one, which Platt found while staying with a Costa Rican family.

“People in general don’t have so much stuff. We really have a lot of stuff here that we think we need,” she said. “People there might not have everything we have, but they may still have everything they need.”

(David Riley can be reached at 508-626-3919 or driley@cnc.com.)