"Life in the Peace Corps will not be easy. There will be no salary and allowances will be at a level sufficient only to maintain health and meet basic needs. Men and women will be expected to work and live alongside the nationals of the country in which they are stationed—doing the same work, eating the same food, talking the same language. But if the life will not be easy, it will be rich and satisfying. For every young American who participates in the Peace Corps—who works in a foreign land—will know that he or she is sharing in the great common task of bringing to man that decent way of life which is the foundation of freedom and a condition of peace."

-President John F. Kennedy

Monday, October 28, 2013

Another week in the books. Revamping my teaching methods.

My little times table competition is going well but is much slower than I anticipated. Not because they can’t memorize it, but because they are afraid to come to me outside of class or something, I’m not really sure. I’ve had to come to them between classes and say that I will be sitting outside the room and they can come say their multiples for me. It has been fun seeing some of the students keep coming and coming and getting stuck, but persisting to get it correct when I make them practice more or start over. One person, a girl, has finished saying all and I rewarded her with some of my precious American treats that were sent from home. She was super happy and also shared with her friends even though they were hardly trying to memorize the thing.

Had a quite peculiar experience one afternoon. Without my knowing, a group of about fifteen white people showed up in cars to my school. I hadn’t seen that amount of white people since I was with my whole group in training. Also, they were just stopping through with an NGO or something and were taking a bunch of pictures and being touristy. If I was them, I would probably be doing the same, but from my new point of view, as someone who lives here, it was weird to see them all come in and be tourists. They were in and out, and accomplishing who knows what in that amount of contact time. They were mostly European, and incredulous that I lived on campus here and didn’t have running water or a toilet. I guess that means I’m getting used to it all.

I was teaching a lesson about sets, and describing infinite and finite sets. I put up an example of a set being all the people in the world, and I was hoping that even though it is a very large number, they would still recognize this as a finite set. No way. They couldn’t understand that we can count all the people in the world and that there is a final number in the set. But, to their credit, I realize it was a poor example, because people are constantly being born and dying. It was just funny. On that note, teaching infinite and finite sets should be fairly easy, right? Since the word infinity means never-ending, and finite means it stops, then a set would be easy to distinguish. Well, when you have students who can hardly read and form simply sentences in English, they of course have never heard the word infinity, and thus teaching the math concept becomes that much harder. I’m finding this with other things in class too, where they don’t know the English word so I have to teach a definition, they have to store that, and then be able to apply it to math. The textbook that they are supposed to be using (but there aren’t enough of to distribute) uses so many words that would be unfamiliar to them which would render the textbook useless even if they did have it. The writers of the textbook (it is Ghanaian) wrote toward the best students instead of the lowest and least English-speaking, so that is a whole issue in itself.

I’m fairly certain that the girls who live next door rarely get dinner. One always comes over and asks me for bread and desperately takes it. It sucks because they live with and work for the headmistress of the elementary school, but for some reason she doesn’t feed them all the time.

One of them also comes to me and asks to do things for me and get some money. She knows that she is “supposed” to do things for me without getting compensation (says her elder and says the Ghanaian culture) but I will gladly give her some small money if she does my laundry for me. She said she really wanted to buy headphones to use with her little radio, so I’m helping her out with that. She also comes by and asks a simple maths question and then wants to borrow my phone. Smooth move.

I am picking up more and more on some of my students’ names, but with 140 weird names and similar faces is no easy task. I have a new plan which I should’ve done from the beginning. I’ve written all their names on a playing card so I can shuffle and randomly choose people to answer questions and that way I will see their names and face together. I really want to be able to call them all by name, it will give me more commanding power and respect, at least that is what I hope.

On Tuesday afternoon, I was informed by one of my fellow teachers that I was “grounds master” for the week. I was supposed to have started on Monday morning with my duties, but I had no idea it was my turn. I also had no idea what my duties were. I found out that it means I am to say announcements in morning and closing assemblies, come early to make sure they are sweeping and cleaning the grounds well, make sure they are all behaving during breaks, and other little things like that. Usually the grounds master does most of the caning for things, but since I don’t cane, I let the other teachers keep that duty. Most of the kids got off easy for the duration of the week. I try to put on a tough mien, but I can’t back it up well since I don’t cane and that’s basically all they respond to. I ended up just having fun with them at assemblies instead of lecturing/caning them like the other teachers usually do. I tried to teach them “the wave” but it failed….twice. More practice is needed.

Sometimes I get legitimately frustrated, but I’m finding that all the teachers are struggling. It isn’t just me thankfully. The root of the problem is that the students can’t read/write/understand English for the most part. Many of the teachers speak a good bit of Mampruli in class even though the teaching is supposed to be done in English. It’s a fine line because it’s easier to get through to them that way, yet it doesn’t help them learn and get better at English, which will help them get somewhere in the world. I’m realizing though how hard it must be to be bilingual and have to do all your learning of new concepts in your weak language. Also, their parents for sure don’t speak English in the home, so the students don’t get any practice in English except for in the classroom, and like I said Mampruli is still spoken in the classroom quite a bit. I’ve realized that if I have to speak my “Ghanaian English” to my fellow teachers, then of course I can’t expect to get through that well to the students who have much less English than the teachers. I just have to accept the fact that going slow is the only way to ensure they understand the concepts and benefit.

What I’m starting to realize, though, is that Africa will reach a tipping point, and relatively soon at that. If you haven’t already, read Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, for an interesting look at how many, if not all things, have a tipping point. I believe that Ghana, and maybe even Africa as a whole, will tip in 10-20 years. As of now, the youngest children are being taught English more and more. I’ve been told countless times that to learn Mampruli, I should talk to the little kids because they are able to translate and are more bilingual. Even my JHS students speak way more English than their parents. Once these young people become adults and have children, English will be spoken primarily I believe. Once English becomes the primary language and is spoken at home, it leads to easier and quicker learning of all subjects in school. Added English language skills will certainly do much to ameliorate the education system. The more students that can read and do well in primary and JHS, the more that will enter high school. Also, JHS is now free and mandatory for all, and soon enough SHS will be the same. These aspects, coupled with the technology boom that is finally getting here and taking off (cell phones, computers, and unlimited information from the Internet) Africa will take off. They have the natural resources, they just don’t have the people to capitalize on most things and run businesses well. But with English, education, and technology growing and spreading rapidly, this will all change and Africa in 30 years won’t be anything like the Africa that is today. Anyone wanna make a long-term wager?

On Friday afternoons, we have “entertainment block” where the students can play football or dance or do whatever. I told all the students in the morning that if they were on their best behavior for the day, they would be allowed to play football and I would also play with them. They did well all day, so at about 12:30, just in time for the sun to be perfectly roasting and 100+ degrees, we went out to the all-dirt football field. Since it has been so dry, it was basically like sand, and a whole cloud of dirt was hanging over the field as we played. I was a toasty, dirty mess after playing for a half hour and trying not to make too much of a fool of myself. When the other kids started seeing that I was playing, a crowd started gathering. Soon enough, there were a million little primary school kids and other JHS kids out there hooting and hollering at every little time I touched the ball or got into some action. I held my own, had a good time, and I think earned some respect from the students for playing decent. It felt good to get out there and play and not exactly be in the role of teacher. It’s also humbling to enter their element and step out of mine. Out there in the sun and playing football, they are far superior than me.

One day at school we all saw a plane up in the sky. It was the first time I’d seen one since being here, and they rarely see one and had all these questions. I hadn’t really realized, but in America we’re so used to seeing all the jet trails in the sky, and here it just doesn’t happen. It was neat to see and have them be all excited to see.

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