29 June 2010

Preliminary Thoughts On Teaching

I’ve said in my previous post that I’ve experience soo much already as a Peace Corps trainee that now, all of my posts are just exercises in recall. Just be patient and bear with me, I will eventually get caught up with everything in due time.

So we’ve finally started practicing what it is we came here to do as PCVs…Teach. We had our first micro-teach here in Bo this past Thursday at Milton Comprehensive School. The students weren’t actually supposed to attend class that particular day but the principal of the school had the students come under false pretenses. If she hadn’t have done so, none of the students would’ve showed up! We each taught our respective subjects for two 40-minute sessions to a class of students at the lower Junior Secondary school levels. It was a little soon to begin teaching in front of foreign faces for most of us, especially considering there are some PCTs here who have never thought a class before. Before our micro-teach we did about two peer teaching practice sessions, one 15-minute session on one day and a 35-40 minute session the next. The overall purpose of those practice sessions, presumably, was to help prepare us for our micro-teach. For my 15 minute peer teach, I taught about the structure of a bean seed, and for my 40-minute peer teach, I lectured my colleagues on a somewhat advanced ecology subject, species/species interactions and how they alter fitness through evolutionary changes. Both of my lectures were good (although I ran out of time), unfortunately I had to drastically lower the difficulty level of my lecture and completely change my method of delivery, lest my Sierra Leonean pupils students fail to comprehend any aspect of the lecture (An all too common reality given the nature of teaching styles and the levels of comprehension in this country).  I taught two classes with three PCTs total in each class (Hannah and Michael were in my first class, and Bryan and Chris were in my second). Here are some quick thoughts on how both teaching sessions went for me:

Class 1: I went after Hannah, but later felt guilty because it started pouring rain and the tin roofs made it almost impossible to hear anything, let alone a lecture. Hannah has a soft voice, so she basically had to stop speaking during the rain. I could have gone first and probably should have, because I can talk loud if need be. All in all my first class went remarkably well. I spoke SLOWLY and LOUDLY, something that is very important to do for students who have a hard time understanding our American accents. I also spoke with a Sierra Leonean English accent, which helped TREMENDOUSLY. I spoke using local colloquialisms and body gestures (West Africans speak in a manner that seems like loud, belligerent shouting to westerns and gesticulate wildly as well) and made references to local foods, plants and animals. All of the examples and terms I introduced were reinforced with class exercises which I believe helped my students understand arcane ecological topics like commensalism, competition, mutualism, fitness and the like.

Class 2: The only difference between this class and the first was the actual size. There were a lot more kids in my second class, and it was difficult to keep my students focused on the lesson. However to be frank, that scenario more closely approximates the reality we are likely to face once we are placed in our work-sites where the class sizes can be as high as 100 students with 60 students considered the low end! So we’ve been told. Fortunately all of the methods I used above worked for this particular class as well, and I left Amadiaye feeling pretty confident in my teaching abilities.

I think an observation that all of the PCTs had was how far below the students are in the comprehension of material they are supposed to know. We are all going to have to lower our standards as teachers; otherwise in trying to do too much we risk accomplishing nothing. I was surprised just how exhausted I was after teaching those two classes! I remember telling Michael later that day at the PCT training site just how hard I felt it would be for me to teach with that energy level day in and day out, all year long, through all the frustrations I will experience as a PCV teacher. I guess I just have a work at finding a teaching style I’m comfortable enough with to be able to implement on a consistent basis.

We start our summer school pretty soon, next week I believe. It is going to be pretty intense, but necessary for us to practice our own unique teaching methods in front of a class of eager students. I think on the whole, the students that will be attending this summer school are the over-achievers, so in that sense, it may or may not be realistic, but it is close. The summer school is one of three teaching practice ums we will be utilizing as PCTs: peer teach, micro-teach, and summer school.  I think it’s the opinion of a majority of the PCTs here that summer school is going to be the most useful in gauging our progress as teachers in the Sierra Leonean system, although peer teach is very useful because we get critiques from our training staff and fellow PCTs on areas of improvement.

On an unrelated note, Richard and Catherine Frazier arrived in Bo yesterday, along with one other RPCV and a few other teachers. They were PCVs back in the day (70s or 80s?) They were a great resource for me in the months preceding my departure for Sierra Leone and I’m glad that they are here. Unfortunately they are here for only a few days I believe before moving to New Dehli. India to teach at one of the American Embassy School there (Not sure if there is more than one in Dubai). They are going to be running a teacher training workshop for us PCTs to participate in and it is going to be great for us to hear from RPCVs who know what it is like to teach in Sierra Leone, especially since not much has changed. I’m also glad because Richard brought with him a Mende Natural History book he mentioned to me sometime ago. If I get my sight preference, which is to be placed near a protected wildlife or forest area, chances are I will be in a Mende speaking region. Richard and Catherine both were visibly excited to see us sitting there, especially Catherine (OH MY GOODNESS). They have been working hard for a long time, in conjunction with friends of Sierra Leone, advocating for the Peace Corps to return to this country. I believe one thing they can help us PCTs with is how to teach effectively using innovative methods despite the limited teaching materials.

The lack of resources is a palpable fear among a lot of the PCTs, me included, so I’ve been practicing incorporating local resources in my practice teaching lessons. I’m really glad I brought my 10+ lbs general biology textbook with me, although you can never have enough materials to mine from. Our training staff has been reiterating the persistent problem of the lack of resources during our cultural sensitization sessions (things work very differently here in Sierra Leone than they do In the U.S. as you have probably guessed…more on that another time). In fact, Richard mentioned to us on Friday how during past teacher training workshops, host-country national teachers have complained over and over again about the lack of resources. But I think, and I’m not alone in believing this, that the belief in a lack of resources comes with the assumption that all the knowledge you will ever need to learn can only come from two sources: 1) the text-book and 2) the all-knowing teacher who cannot be questioned under any circumstances. To me its pretty clear, especially with teaching subjects in biology and environmental sciences, limiting myself to these two methods would not be my best interest as a teacher and would not be in the best interest of my students. There is a wealth of resources here in this country to use for teaching the sciences. One just has to think outside the box. As a science teacher at the Secondary school level, I’m going to have a Sierra Leonean curriculum to abide by, but how I go about teaching the material is my decision. I definitely plan on being a dynamic interactive lecturer; the rigid, British based system of the unassailable lecturer and rote-memorization is simply not going to work in my classroom.

19 June 2010

Much Needed Update

At the sacrifice of considerable detail, this post will be devoted to summarizing my experiences thus far as a Peace Corps Trainee (PCT). It has been a long time since I’ve last blogged, but it’s not entirely my fault. I haven’t had any reliable access to the Internet since leaving for Sierra Leone, and now that I’m actually in-country, my access is severely limited. It will only get worse after our swear-in ceremony, where we will make our transition from PCTs to Peace Corps Volunteers (PCV) and we’re all shipped off to our worksites, isolation and all.  We are all training currently in Bo, Sierra Leone, affectionately known as the second city, with Freetown coming first.

Our staging even was pretty fun. It was great getting to know everyone and hearing everyone’s hopes, aspirations, and fears for service, as naïve as they may have sounded (Mine included!) We all arrived on Tuesday night, 1 June at the Holiday Inn Georgetown, went out to eat together, and came back to the hotel for the next day of staging activities. That whole Wednesday was devoted to turning in paper work exercises, activities, group skits, etc. The basic premise behind all of these activities was to remind us of the hardships we were all about to face as PCVS, in addition to making sure we didn’t forget the three main goals of the Peace Corps, which escape me at the moment! (I know, I should be ashamed huh?) It goes something like: 1) to bring our technical expertise to needed people and areas, 2) to create a better perception of Americans on the part of people who have served as PCVs 3) and to create of better perception of the people served in their respective countries.  We also attended a ceremony at the Peace Corps headquarters that day, heralding our return to the country as PCVs for the first time in 15 years. Peggy Murrah, the Executive director of Friends of Sierra Leone, was there. A LOT of Returned Peace Corps volunteers (RPCVs) were in attendance, Sierra Leonean expatriates, as well as Peace Corps dignitaries, NBC news and the Peace Corps press were there. It was a great event, with great food and interesting people. I was actually interviewed by both the Peace Corps and NBC. The NBC interview didn’t necessarily surprise me because I was expecting to be interviewed. I had a phone discussion with one of the producers assigned to cover our return to Sierra Leone. What surprised me was how scripted it felt. The interview was a bit rushed and it felt unnatural for me. Having to direct my answers to an individual (the Peace Corps director) who wasn’t the person asking me the questions, all the while making clown faces was a bit awkward, I would have to say. But it was a fun experience nonetheless. Not many people can say that they have been interviewd by NBC news. They are actually coming to Bo on Monday and are coming to my host family house to interview me and shoot some footage of me handling my business around the compound!! That should be interesting…More on that later.

We checked out of the hotel on Thursday the 3rd, did our medical, and then left for Reagan International Airport. There were a couple of hiccups along they way. A couple of us, me included had a few luggage problems. One of my bags was overweight, so I had to redistribute the weight into my lighter bag. After I did this, I placed my bag on the scale and before I had the opportunity to lock it, the ticket desk attendant threw my unlocked bag on the conveyer belt. She actually did this twice! And the second time I had to get another assistant to go deep in to the bowels of the luggage security system to find my unlocked bag amidst the thousands of bags, and lock it. We nearly had another, more serious scare within our group. Andre, one of the PCTs, misplaced his passport at the airport before our departure to Brussells. Luckily he found it in one of his pockets, and we were on our way.

We landed at Lungi International Airport in Freetown about a day later exhausted and excited. We exited the plane and were immediately greeted by our country directors, Joel and Gale, as well as other members of the Sierra Leonean Peace Corps Training staff and the Sierra Leonean media (We made the news a few days later!). It was all just so overwhelming. All of the staff members were so excited to see us arrive. The Sierra Leoneans in attendance were absolutely mad with excitement. Many of them have had experience with Peace Corps volunteers in the past, and were happy to see us land. It was interesting for me though. I actually wore one of my traditional African clothes complete with a kofia hat and kente cloth, so I stood out from my other colleagues, all of whom were dressed in western clothing. I also think it played a big role in how I was perceived by the host-country nationals (HCNs). Honestly for me, It was just something comfortable to wear and I knew that I looked good, a no-brainer.

We spent the duration of our stay in Freetown at the stadium hostel near the national stadium, which has an interesting history of its own (That I wont go into for now). According to Annaliese (One of the PCT staff members) they were slowly trying to wean us off of the western mode of existence. We were lucky to have electricity, air conditioning, and running water in our rooms, although those amenities did not work perfectly for everyone! Basically our training began there at the hostel. We were introduced to all of the PCT-staff members that we would be working with for the remainder of our 10-week training. We weren’t allowed to leave the premises of the hostel for any reason whatsoever, save ‘Peace Corps approved’ field trips. There were however, a couple of notable trips. We all took a visit to the U.S. embassy house where the Charge d’ affairs (gle lived. His home was absolutely spectacular, although conspicuously out of place amidst the general poverty in Freetown. It was on the top of a large hill, giving us all a birds-eye view of all of Freetown. The Sierra Leonean ambassador to the U.S. was there, and two RPCVs, Scott Bode, and Jordan Kimball, who both work in Sierra Leone in the natural resource management sector. I enjoyed talking to them both because they are doing the kind of work that I would eventually like to get involved in after my service, and I wanted to hear how their service as volunteers lead them to their current careers. Before our arrival in Sierra Leone, we sent in our shirt sizes. We all received these styling clothes made by traditional Sierra Leonean tailors. We all went to the state house in Freetown and had a meeting with both the president and vice president of Sierra Leone. Plattitudes and speeches were given and we all shook hands and took a group picture with both the president and vice president which was great.

We left for Bo, Sierra Leone on the 9th where we will spend the remainder of our 10-week training. I can't even begin to describe the level of excitement and celebration our arrival inspired. Before our adoption ceremony (our adoption to our host-families who will house us for the remainder of our stay), we were greeted by traditional Mende (one of the dominant language and cultural groups in Sierra Leone) dancers who performed for us, and plucked a couple of PCTs from the crowd to dance. Gavina was one of the PCTs chosen and she absolutely KILLED it...my goodness I enjoyed watching her. And I bet you can guess the other individual chosen to dance for the crowd?...ME...yes,  I was pulled against my will to the center to dance to the beating drums. So I did. Simple as that; and it was great. It was funny though because somehow I knew in my gut that I would be chosen, yet I stood there like a man, and accepted my fate, instead of slinking to the back after Gavina was plucked from the relative safety of the crowd. Apparently everyone loved it and they are expecting me to perform for my birthday...that will be interesting.

There were a few glitches during my adoption ceremony. The family I was initially paired with wasn't happy because the head of the household was our of town for one reason or another, and he would have been extremely upset to return and find that another man had been in his house while he was gone, so I was swiftly transferred to another host family and so far it has worked out well. There are around 16 individuals in my family, some of whom I don’t even see regularly so it is difficult keeping up with the names of everyone. The language is also difficult. Krio is the Lingua Franca of Sierra Leone, and it is relatively easy for a native English speaker to understand, but to speak it fluently is another matter. On top of that, my family members speak a sort of village Krio which is much more difficult to understand, but I learning little by little everyday and my speaking proficiency is slowly improving. Baby steps now….”Small Small”.
Picture with some...emphasis on some...of my family members

Picture with Mohamed Kabia, my first Krio language instructor

So there you have it. Again, I have neglected a lot of detail in writing this post. But an update was needed. I will post photos and some more fillers another time. The Internet connection here is agonizingly slow, although it is faster because I have my laptop with me. I’m currently at the Mars Internet Café in Bo. This is supposedly the best café in Bo!