In 1987, an English professor spent three weeks on a teacher-training project in war-torn Nicaragua. Back home, she visited an inner-city middle school where she told students about the effects of civil war on Nicaraguan children: In addition to fear, hunger, insecurity and violence, they attended schools with no books, no pencils, no paper. The middle school students, poor immigrants themselves, wanted to help. They suggested collecting pencils or sending old toys. A 12-year old boy raised his hand. “Why not write books?” he asked. From his vision, Working Classroom was born.
For three years, students and the professor met twice weekly at a local community center to write and illustrate books. They recruited friends. Cousins. Parents. Local artists. By the time the project, called Books for Bluefields, ended, they had delivered over 5,000 copies of 32 original books to primary schools in and around Bluefields, a small town on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua.
The Albuquerque student authors studied Central American geography, culture and botany (A is not for Apple in the tropics) and improved their reading and writing skills. In Nicaragua, teachers traveled for miles along rivers and through fighting to pick up boxes of Books for Bluefields for their pupils. Hundreds of children learned to read.
The young authors were invited to Washington, D.C., where they were honored at an embassy reception hosted by the Nicaraguan ambassador. In Washington, this group of poor middle school students was invited by George Washington University and the D.C. Children’s Hospital to teach psychologists how to design a similar program for Salvadoran refugees in local schools.
Inspired by the national and international recognition, the young authors wrote their first play, Sueños Sin Fronteras/Borderless Dreams, the saga of a Nobel Prize winner who penned his first words in a book for children in Nicaragua. They studied acting and then performed at community and cultural centers in Albuquerque, the Bronx and Off-Broadway in New York City. Two authors sold their work to Houghton Mifflin Publishers. All graduated from high school, and some went to college.
The student-generated idealism and creativity that inspired Books for Bluefields continue to resonate through all our programs, as does a commitment to craft and education.
Over 21 years, Working Classroom has expanded and matured. Together, our students, staff and parents have created an internationally recognized model program that now includes a street conservatory where students study art and theater, a bilingual theater company, a student gallery, academic tutoring center and college scholarship fund. Every project and program emphasizes community advocacy and incorporates academic, entrepreneurial and life skills. For example, acting students have written, performed and toured original plays about alcohol and domestic violence, AIDS, immigration and New Mexican history. They have performed across New Mexico, at the Latino Chicago Theater and the World Congress on the Family in Columbus, Ohio; represented the United States at the VII International Festival of Theatre of the Oppressed in Rio de Janeiro and represented New Mexico at the First United Nations Congress on Girls. Art students have written, illustrated and published a comic book about predatory lending and a fotonovela about domestic violence. Their landmark public art brightens homeless shelters, food banks, community art centers and clinics and is anchoring a major cultural tourism project in one of Albuquerque’s poorest neighborhoods.