Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Hey! Teacher! Leave them kids alone

While I’m sure it’s interesting to read my thoughts and feelings about this African life;  get some good ol compare/ contrast courtesy of your’s truly, I would like to step away from my perceptions and emotions for a bit.  I don’t want to tell you about how I passed the time on my rainy day painting my toe-nails and watching Indiana Jones (which may or may not have actually happened)... not now.  Now I want to talk a bit about my job.  My primary assignment as a Peace Corps volunteer is to teach English to Secondary School students.  I am attempting to do exactly that.  I’ve written a few e-mails recently that explore the theory that I will be the one learning in this situation; I will be the one experiencing new things everyday, adapting my habits and experiencing growth throughout my time in this country.  I think this is absolutely true and relevant.  But, I am also here to be a teacher, to try and facilitate some sort of exchange.  Already, I have been shocked into realizing just how different my learning experience was from those of my students.  In the states we get taught at an early age to think for ourselves, to develop our own thoughts and opinions and to express ourselves in the ways we desire.  Now, as we all know, the education system in the states isn’t perfect, but it does lead to the students producing varied responses.  A prime example of this: the other day, PCV Keira (my closest volunteer neighbor) was over, and we were opening packages from our families after she retrieved our mail.  Her mother teaches 3rd grade in Washington, and she had her students write letters to Keira.  Not only were these adorable, they were varied and individualized.  Some kids wrote about cakes, some wrote about stars, some wrote about Keira’s family, some about Africa... and even the ones that were extremely run of the mill were at the very least worded differently from the others.  Over here, when we assign homework that is meant to be creative, meant to try and push the kids to create individualized response, we get the same thing written on 50 different papers.  These kids grow up on bland note copying and rote memorization, and while they are great, intelligent kids, getting them to produce creative responses is like pulling teeth.  Every once and a while a student will surprise me with some elaborate tale that shocks even the other students, but for the most part, these kids are on auto-pilot, writing what they know to be acceptable text book answers.  
The kids I teach are smart, and many of them are quite motivated, but they are reluctant to step outside the box.  Well, that may not be true... it’s probably not reluctance keeping them confined to the box, but rather fear and lack of training.  If these kids were told that they must do things a certain way, then they are going to continue on in that manner until something (or someone) forces them to change.  Enter Allison, their zany American English teacher, with her crazy ideas, difficult to understand accent and rule-bending propensity.  I’m not saying that I’m going to totally rock these kids worlds, but I am already asking them to change their classroom manners.  I want them to SPEAK LOUD and I request this is a LOUD voice so they get the idea.  I start class with a stretch session and a request to “get ready for English class.”  We do lots of group and pair work, and the notes I give them aren’t perfectly copied from a text book.  I don’t want to derail them and go to extremes to make class hard to follow, but I do want to help expand their horizons.  
I am running into my fair share of challenges over here, and as you may expect, I’m no were near perfect at this job.  Once again, dear ol’ mum recently told me exactly what I needed to hear; this time via e-mail. “Hope the week continues to go well for you. It really takes a while to adjust to the dynamics of your classes and to adapt your teaching methods. Every class is different and what works for one might not work for another. Continue to work hard -(it will pay off)- you are making a difference in your kids lives and they are counting on you! You make me proud no matter what!!”  Thanks mama!  And, while this may be the same thing I’ve been told countless times since coming here, it’s always nice to hear.  As much as I don’t want to claim to be making an impact on the lives of my students I’m sure that in some ways, for some students I am.  In the very least, since I’m the first American that these kids have really interacted with, they will remember me for that.  And if I can leave them with one small piece of wisdom or helpful information, I’ll be happy.  I have many grad goals for my teaching practice, but hey are still in a fragile sort of developmental stage; not yet ready to be shared with the internet.  
I mentioned in the previous post that we avoided a surprise holiday yesterday.  These crop up all over the place, and if it’s not a surprise holiday keeping us from class, it’s an impromptu meeting or some administrative task that needs to be completed.  Today I walked into my Senior 1 class to find no students.  They were all outside harvesting the corn that we grow on the school’s property.  Being friendly with the Secretary has it’s advantages... I went to her and said “Jane, do I get students today or will they be harvesting for the rest of the afternoon?”  We laughed about it for a moment then she went to light a fire under their butts to get their share of the task finished so they could come back in for a stimulating English lesson.  
Songs are a good class activity for these kids; and I remember that when I was in High School, learning songs was my favorite part of Spanish class (in fact, I still remember a few of them).  Notes written on the board will get copied and homework will occasionally get done.  Overall they are good at group work and pair work.  The main problems lie in our communication barriers.  It is hard for me to keep my diction and syntax in check and my accent just ices the cake... they really do have a hard time understanding me.  I am working on this but overall there is not much I can do.  Speak slowly, write many things on the board, keep a slow pace in class... It’s not ideal, but it works.  Gone are my visions of conducting classes full of stimulating discussion, conducting innovative and exciting class projects and  eliciting work from my students that is ground-breaking and inspired.  As with everything here, the old African saying applies: slowly by slowly.  The fact that these kids CAN understand 50% of what I say is pretty good.  Their ability to complete work and spend hours studying is impressive.  And the ones who are extra motivated to work hard make my day every time I talk to them outside of class.
In my Senior 3 class we are in the midst of doing a debate segment for their English Listening and Speaking hours with me.  We had a class debate on Monday; topic: no money, no life.  This was a topic that the students chose (next Monday we get to do: birth control; should it be obligatory?).  We had 4 groups of students: support, opposition, judges and spectators.  The spectators from this week will be the participants next week- the only way I could think of logically breaking up the class in to manageable groups.  I never did debate in school, nor do I know ANY of the rules or protocol that accompany “professional” debate... but I can wing just about anything over here.  And, it worked out really well.  These kids have had some sort of debate training (I think they had a small debate club last year) and they needed little guidance from me.  This is proof that all the blood sweat and tears I’m having to put into my Senior 1 classes will one day pay off.  The judges kept track of the arguments and evaluated which side had stronger points, used better English and debated more effectively, and I sat in the back of the class and monitored from there.  
Like I said, I’m not changing the lives of my students, not really.  And I’m not forging new pathways in the realm of English education.  But I am learning a hell of a lot, I am enjoying this (most days) and I am helping my students (at least somewhat).  Now I just need to find the best ways to ACTUALLY help them, and I’ll feel pretty good about this whole teaching thing.  I am certain that this is not going to be an overnight success, and I am quite certain that the only way I’m going to improve my teaching is by allowing myself to make mistakes, to try something new and to hopefully learn from whatever ensues.  I don’t want to think of this as any sort of trial run, because I want my students to benefit, but I think that if I do this correctly, this will be one of the craziest periods of time of my teaching career (which itself may be very short).  
Also, even though it’s far too early in the game to make this sort of decision, I think I am cut out for some sort of less traditional teaching.  Call it informal if that makes you happy... I really like to teach, I do, but teaching in a formal primary or secondary school setting is not my favorite medium.  Can I just go ahead and jump the ranks to professor?  Or maybe I can go back to education via museum programs... OR I can get a job at a fancy private school that has a 10 student maximum class size?  Or, I can turn entirely benevolent and continue to help the students that need it most.  Those that don’t get to go to fancy private schools or universities; those who may never step foot in a museum, yet are still motivated to try and gain a higher level of education than their socio-economic situations predestine.  Who knows... all I can do is keep on trying over here.  Trying and hopefully not failing too miserably.  
All of that being said, if you (like my mother) have any words of wisdom, great class activities, advice or coping strategies you’d like to share, please do so.  

Oh! I am in charge of the newly completed school library.  I will be brainstorming on how to turn this into a functioning resource that will remain purposeful after I leave this place.  This will probably be a bigger focus of mine towards the middle of the school year, but if you have any ideas/ hear anything about how to run an extremely low-budget and resource stripped library, let me know?


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