EDUCATION

Commute, Cook, Clean: A “Diskarte” program teaches kids important life skills

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Blended Learning Center's Diskarte Program teaches kids many life skills such as camping and survival to aid them in their education outside the usual curriculum. But due to the pandemic, the classes are now online, supervised by their parents and teachers. Photo courtesy of BLENDED LEARNING CENTER

What's a skill you never learned in school but found out you badly needed it as an adult?

For me it was filing paperwork. Dealing with any bureaucracy to acquire documentation that proved I was a productive, money-making member of society is something I dread. My first time opening a bank account in the ancient days before the convenience of online apps was an experience fraught with anxiety and frayed nerves. To this day, I still get a mini-panic attack every time I need to go to my account’s physical branch to hash something out with a real, in the flesh bank teller. What flashed through my head every time I needed to push paper was “Why wasn’t I taught any ‘how to file stuff’ all those years in school?”

For Zeena A. Pañares, Head Teacher of the Blended Learning Center (BLC) in Quezon City, the gap in life skills she discovered was an inability to execute basic cooking. She only discovered this when she started to live alone, confessing that trying to feed herself on her preferred vegetarian diet sans culinary knowhow in those days was “very sad.”

“I couldn’t cook. Living alone, that experience taught me how ill-equipped I was to rough it as a single person,” said Panares. “When I had my daughter, of course I couldn’t force my vegetarian diet on her. I knew I had to learn how to cook meat. The results were horrible!”

Brainstorming with other BLC instructors, Panares set about to remedy that. Eventually in 2016 they created the “Diskarte Program,” a life skills and street smarts class for the children under their care.

Students learning how to do laundry in a Diskarte Program Class pre-pandemic. Photo courtesy of BLENDED LEARNING CENTER

Diskarte — the root of “madiskarte,” a synonym of “mapamaraan” — has no direct translation in English but can mean canny, strategic, and street smart rolled into a single trait. The Diskarte Program is composed of gamified, escalating activities that teach children the practical and essential survival skills they need through the school and with the help of their families.

While the activities are divided into age groups and are age-appropriate, they do run from the super basic (sweep the floor with a broom), the slightly complex (cook edible rice without a rice cooker), up to the pretty challenging (commute to the wet market, buy the best fresh fish through “tawad”). That last activity was a suggestion from a parent but it was still something that made John Louie Galang, BLC’s Araling Panlipunan teacher and the main Diskarte Instructor for the elementary grades pretty nervous.

“Medyo natakot kami with that,” said Galang. “Punta tayo sa palengke, try natin tumawad. Commute tayo, yung mga bata ang magbabayad sa jeep. But I always say: magtiwala lang tayo sa mga bata. Kaya nila yan. And they did!”

The motivation was partly personal for Panares. “I wish I had this when I growing up vibe was strong,” she said. But also it’s partly the parents realizing a gap in the traditional education system existed. During their quarterly meetings the parents would mention to Panares and the teachers, “Sana yung anak ko ay matuto ng ____” It fills in what should exist beyond DepEd’s HELE, MAPE, or EPP (Edukasyong Pantahanan at Pangkalusugan) programs.

“Tala wouldn't normally sit down for virtual lessons but since some of the activities required actual slicing and cooking on the stove, it became memorable for us as a family,” said April. “Diskarte improved her Filipino conversation and cooking — both skills she'll need someday.”

“‘Diskarte’ was intended to be a fun time learning life skills. And also a more creative way to go about it,” said Galang. “Most important for me was consultation. Tinatanong ko sila, both parents and kids: ‘Anong gusto ninyong matutunan?’”

BLC is a blended and homeschool educational facility inside a house on the corner of Lantana Street and New York Street in Cubao, Quezon City. Inside the compound there are six dogs, a few ducks, a turtle, fish in a pond, and a pig the kids named Steak (but he had a heart attack and died). While they do follow the DepEd’s K to 12 curriculum, it is their partner school, Headway School for Giftedness (HSG), that has DepEd accreditation. It’s a small, boutique school with a few hundred students from Grades 1 to Grade 10, with a maximum of 10 students per level, catering to families who believe in adaptive, non-traditional education.

This “adaptive,” alternative kind of learning means there are no traditional classrooms — instead, there are learning spaces and the education is removed from the academic and transferred to the experiential, self-paced, and “non-judgmental” (according to their website). The Diskarte Program fits right into this milieu as a once-a-week, extra-curricular class on the school sched.

“We post the time [of Diskarte classes] and they are free to come in and participate or not,” said Panares, who turned away from a life in the corporate world because she fell in love with teaching from the days she spent at her mother’s art school. “I believe we are re-interpreting the curriculum because the gamification has proven effective in that these small changes do add up.”

The program’s life skills are divided into: self-care skills, care for the home, and care for the school and the environment. Activities are determined at the start of the school year by what the kids might need the most at their age, the fun factor, and what best gets the message across.

The program has evolved since its start in 2016 and now definitively covers personal and domestic household skills including hygiene and self-care, house cleaning, garbage segregation, laundry (both manual “kuskos” and washing machine), cooking, and even gardening. Because it’s done as a community activity and monitored at home by the parents, the students are taught how the skills they learn are applicable to daily life. While at the same time, interacting with their fellow students engages them, illustrating group dynamics, compromise, and even encouraging healthy competition.

Cooking itself presented many teachable moments like how to safely handle a knife, why you should wash your hands thoroughly, how to avoid bacteria and salmonella.

“The kids in Grades one to four, they can cook simple stuff like pancakes — we even made matcha green tea cupcakes,” said Galang, who graduated with a Political Science degree and brought his passion for teaching IPs and the marginalized to BLC. “Those in Grades five and six can already be taught to cook ulam dishes like adobo or caldereta and the challenge is nagluluto kami on wood.”

In gardening, the students were able to grow chili and okra, while in basic buy-and-sell, they sold Sampaloc candy. “One student even bought ballpens and sold them to the teachers,” said Panares.

The parents think it’s a stellar class. April, the mother of 6-year-old third grader Tala, liked how in one class, Teacher Louie discussed the origin of Filipino recipes. This got her child interested in one of the Diskarte cooking sessions even if they were only supervised virtually, due to the pandemic’s online learning workaround.

Students are taught one of the most essential life skills: cooking. Photos courtesy of the BLENDED LEARNING CENTER

“Tala wouldn't normally sit down for virtual lessons but since some of the activities required actual slicing and cooking on the stove, it became memorable for us as a family,” said April. “Diskarte improved her Filipino conversation and cooking — both skills she'll need someday.”

Meanwhile, 17-year-old Bowi recently graduated after five years at BLC. Aimee, his mother, was glad to see how he regained his confidence, especially when he joined the Diskarte classes in the final two years of his stay. That was when Bowi learned how to commute.

“That was the best thing that came out of it,” said Aimee. “He could now go by jeep, bus, or tricycle. Before, he used to take Grab Car rides all the time but it was in BLC where he learned to take public transport.”

She described her kid as someone you wouldn’t really label as madiskarte. “He is smart and creative, but lacks some of the practical skills because he is quite sheltered.” Now, Bowi doesn’t just commute with confidence within Quezon City, he also cooks for his family. “Bowi cooks really well now and he has come back to BLC to teach. He also bakes and may panlasa siya,” Panares said.

Galang, Panares, and the instructors at BLC had so much fun making fresh activities for the program every year that they’re glad the students feel competent and able to accomplish simple goals of upkeep on themselves and their surroundings. They’ve also been able to invite lecturers from adjacent subjects like martial artists (arnis and Japanese jiu-jitsu instructors have come over), a pet therapist, and even an athletics PE coach.

“I wanted to integrate our Filipino culture into it so at one time it was a street vendors’ tribute: make taho, make sorbetes, cook fishballs,” said Galang. “Imagine we made homemade sorbetes with no machine and no freezer!”

“Diskarte needs to be holistic and enabling,” said Panares, who is continually surprised at some of the essential skills that are overlooked in classroom academics. “One time we had a boodle fight and we discovered most of the kids didn’t know how to eat with their hands. Tinuruan namin silang mag kamay.”

One thing that the BLC instructors are still trying to integrate into the activities is the skill of negotiation. “I think it’s the very definition of what 'diskarte' is,” said Galang. “But we are always guided by three things: teach a life skill, make it fun, and be able to replicate it at home.”

Growing up as a latchkey Gen X kid, having something like the Diskarte Program back in the day would certainly have taken some years off the guesswork and embarrassing mistakes I’d made to acquire essential life skills I really needed early on but only learned as an adult. With BLC’s Diskarte Program, today’s students can take an early step towards filling in the gray spaces usually left by a traditional classroom curriculum out in the cold.

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Contact the Blended Learning Center at their website.