31 July 2010

Summer School Commencement and Supervisor Workshops

It’s kind of late to be blogging about this, but summer school is finally over and wow was it an eye opening experience! We taught for about 2 weeks and 2 days; the first term lasted from Monday till Friday with exams on Friday and the second term lasted from that second Monday till Wednesday with exams on Friday and the award ceremony on Wednesday. The Sierra Leonean Peace Corps staff and the staff at Ahmadiyya Senior Secondary School really did a good job at advertising this summer school to the local community. I guess the opportunity to get taught quality lessons by the wacky pumuis (Englishman) and black Americans…oh, and Chinamen (To the average Sierra Leonean, those are the only races of people that exist in America) was too good to pass up. This was also apparent by the fact that during the first few days of school, we kept turning people away eager to join a class who missed the preliminary registration.

For the first term, I taught a JSS level 1 class for the first period (830-1030) and for the second term, I taught a JSS level 2 class (1050-1250). There were three of us to a class spread out across three subjects: English, Math, and Science. Our JSS1 kids were awesome! Even though these kids were fresh from primary school, they were incredibly bright and eager to learn. There were mostly girls in the class (literally only a handful of boys in a class of 50+ kids) I taught integrated science, Gavina taught English, and Kat taught Math. It was obvious that the kids were way behind and we all had to adjust our lessons to fit this sobering reality. Especially for Kat and I, who taught the kids relatively dense science subjects.  If there is anything  I learned from teaching this JSS1 class is that I do a pretty good job of feeding off the energy of my students. I really get excited when my students understand a concept I’m trying to convey. I should also thank Jesse and Jarrad, two former Peace Corps volunteers in Guinea and Liberia (They moved to Liberia after political unrest in Guinea). There was one teaching practical they held where they talked about effective comprehension checks to use on the students. If there is one endearing-if not maddening at times-fact about the students is that they are so damn polite! They are all so prim and proper; they will always say they understand you but when you ask them to repeat or paraphrase a simple concept you literally just explained they usually aren’t able to, either because they weren’t listening or because they don’t understand your English. A quick side note: I ditched the Sierra Leonean accent. It didn’t feel natural and honestly, if you speak slowly enough, and I mean SLOWLY the students will understand you. The Krio accent is only good every once in a while, when used quickly and obliquely referencing a culturally relevant aspect of Sierra Leone, be it food, music, geography, or what have you.

Our second period JSS1 students were a whole nother story! Teaching them-and I think Gavina, Kat, and the rest of the PCTs can attest to this-really tested our classroom management skills. It was clear from the very beginning that most of the students assorted themselves to the classes that would take them, and didn’t necessarily attend their appropriate grade level class. As a result, I had a lot of older looking students in my JSS 1 class and a mixed JSS 2 class. I don’t know if it was pre-pubescent restlessness or what but the JSS 2 students were the most unruly group of students attending the summer school. Teaching these kids definitely forced me to be a stern presence in the classroom. If you don’t earn your students respect from the very beginning, you can forget about ever getting it further down the line. The kids were so bad, that shouting at them when: they were talking during a lesson, or slapping each other during a lesson, or cheating on a test, or throwing paper, or even eating it, proved futile. Your best bet was to threaten to throw them out of class and do it if they refused to comply, and give them a zero for the term, although I didn’t have the heart to do that for a summer school.

I was glad to be able to teach SSS students for the second term. It was a science specific class with Erin, Scott, and I teaching math, physics, and biology respectively. The kids were a bit older, and pretty bright. It was good to be able to teach some more advanced material to the students, seeing as though my ultimate preference is to teach at the senior secondary level. My second period students were again JSS 2 level students, and while they weren’t as rowdy as my first term JSS 2 students, it was definitely a step down from my first period SSS class in terms of classroom management and behavior. It was Eric, Kristen and I (Language Arts x2, and Integrated Science respectively), and let me just say that Kristen may be little, but she is a force in the Classroom! I swear, there were times when she had me  quivering at the knees! Based on what I observed in her classes, I can guarantee that that she will be a teacher who commands respect, end of story.

 I actually had an incident in my SSS class that deserves some mention. In order to discourage cheating, I had my students take two tests, an A and B test. I had them write down on their test paper test A or B, then I had them write down their test letter on a master list which would stay in my possession so that if the students changed their tests, I would know and give them a zero for not doing the correct test. Afterwards, I noticed that there were only two students who actually did the incorrect test. When I handed them back their exams, one of the students didn’t try to contest it at all-He was actually one of my students who did a little dance number to Michael Jacksons Beat It in class the day before the award ceremony. The other student, who was one of the brighter students in my class, was incredibly disappointed when he saw that he did the incorrect test and swore on the bible that he did the correct test. I wasn’t inclined to believe that I made a mistake, but out of respect for him, I told him that I would look at the master list to make sure that I wasn’t the one who made the mistake and change it if I did, this being after I gave him a lecture on how he should have followed my directions. I also told him that he shouldn’t let this discourage him. I was well aware of just how bright of a student he was, and I told him that this summer school was more for us as Peace Corps trainees to practice our teaching methodologies. I told him that I admired his work ethic and that he should keep it up once the school year begins. Well, I bet you can guess what happened?? I was the one who made the mistake, so I kept to my word, and graded his exam and changed his final grade., to his delight. In looking back, I’m glad I didn’t waver in my decision to change his grade without looking at my master list, but I’m pretty sure that I earned the respect of that particular student, just by letting him know that I’m only human and as a human being, I’m liable to make mistakes.

The award ceremony was pretty special. We awarded the top boys and girls from each class who had the highest averages across all subjects from both terms. When the students were called to receive their awards, they came up to the stage and received them from their class masters. There were two class masters for each class per term, and some were class masters for both terms (Including me). A class master’s responsibilities included making sure all the grades in all the subjects taught for a particular class were tallied and averaged, so that the top performing male and female students could be recognized for their efforts. When Chrissy and I were called to give our JSS 2C top performing students their awards, something happened that made me more aware that with regards to standards of discipline, things are done completely differently here. One of the girls in the JSS 2C class, (which was one of the classes that I actually taught during the second term), when called, failed to show up and receive her award so we all assumed that she either wasn’t in attendance, or had momentarily left the premises and would later return to receive her award, and most of the staff on stage assumed this as well. However unbeknownst to me, there was at least one staff member who knew what was up.

Eric, Kristen and I

Erin, Scott and I. We taught the SSS science only class.

I went back to my seat, and a short while later, I noticed a girl to my left crying uncontrollably, but I couldn’t quite understand her Krio, so I asked the gentleman sitting next to me, who tried in vain to console the girl, exactly what was bugging her. He told me that there was a man in a plaid collar shirt (It ended being Dauda, one of the science technical trainers) who told her she had to leave the assembly and that was the reason she wasn’t around to receive her award.  I was a bit confused, but me not seeing it as a major problem, I assumed that she would be able to get her award since she was now here. I brought her to the stage where Abubakar, one of our cross-cultural facilitators, was standing. When I explained to him that there was a female student who didn’t receive her award, he was going to hand it over to her when Dauda, appeared out of nowhere and said she would not be receiving her award.  Feeling outraged, I asked why this girl who worked hard enough during the summer school would not be receiving her award that was owed to her. Dauda shouted at me saying that the girl would not receive her award because in the beginning, when the students were asked to set up the benches for the ceremony, she allegedly, obstinately refused to carry any benches, and for that reason alone, she would not receive her award. What really annoyed me, was how all of the Sierra Leonean staff members mindlessly agreed with Dauda, even though none of them witnessed the incident. I should state that Abubakar himself wasn’t even immediately sure why she wasn’t  to be given her award, and he would have handed it to her if Dauda hadn’t have appeared. His verdict was final, and my student (Elizabeth was her name) was not going to receive her award. After a few minutes of loud arguing, Sesay recommended that I let it go and go back to my seat; I did everything I could to stand up for this girl, but I had to let it go. Luckily the fact that I made a lot of noise must have made someone feel guilty, because Sesay later approached me to say that the award had been given to the girls parents and that for the one bench she refused to help set up, they made her put back five benches. Ultimately, I thought that the punishment was fair, rather then penalizing the girl for something done outside of the actual summer school. Maybe Im a bit to relaxed, but I do believe in rewarding hard work. Yes, there is responsibility that comes along with it. But rather than withhold her reward, why not punish her in a manner that fits the actual crime? I know that this is just one of the many challenges I will face as a teacher within the Sierra Leonean context: disagreements on over how to enact discipline, teaching methodologies, language barriers, priorities in setting up and maintaining secondary projects…and many more…Sigh.

I caught a chameleon near my home-stay and brought it to one of my classes when I taught my JSS kids the difference between mammals and reptiles. It freaked the kids out!

We ended our supervisor workshop last week before heading out to our sites where we will be posted for the next few years. It was an opportunity for the PCTs to meet and greet with our respective supervisors/principals (for those whose supervisors didn’t show up). My own supervisor, Theresa Conteh is a short, but incredibly lively and talkative woman who exudes confidence and self-assurance. I would expect nothing less from someone who was educated by a Peace Corps volunteer and also had assistance paying for her education by a Peace Corps volunteer. It’s interesting because there is one language and cultural facilitator here, Allie, who is actually my Limba instructor (I’m the only trainee out of the 38 other trainees who is learning Limba) who grew up with Theresa. He told me that all of the kids at the time were intimidated of and admired Theresa because of her beauty and also because she had the Peace Corps hook-up. Numerous people have told me that Theresa has a lot of power and influence in Bumbuna. She is a teacher at St. Matthews where I’ll be teaching and sits on numerous boards and committees in town. Generally she is just highly visible figure in Bumbuna, and everyone knows her. I’m fortunate to have somebody like that on my side.

The actual workshop lasted for two days, and we did a lot of ice-breaking exercises to get us talking to our supervisors. There were also a host of presentations and group activities wherein the primary goal was to make sure that all parties involved understood the ways that supervisors and trainees can work together and address issues and problems that are bound to arise throughout the next few years. I got good vibes from my supervisor form the very beginning; She was very excited to see me!

I think the workshop was effective in preparing us to deal with our supervisors. We actually visited our sites last week and for me it was an amazing and exasperating experience! I’ll write about it next time because unfortunately, my writing time here at Mars Internet CafĂ© is running out, and I need to take the time to post this entry and my photos…which takes FOREVER…..


18 July 2010

Bumbuna, Sierra Leone

So I finally found out where I will be posted for the next two years: Bumbuna, Sierra Leone. I don’t have much time on to post, but here is what I know about my village/worksite:

Approximate population: 7000

School location: St. Matthew’s est. 1978. It is a Government assisted mixed school (Junior Secondary School 317 and Senior Secondary School 18). The advantage to those numbers is that my class size will be small for the first year, but once those JSS kids come up to the SSS level, the class sizes will be on par with the average Sierra Leonean classroom.

Languages spoken: Majority Temne and some Limba

My house will be a two bedroom house with a parlor, outdoor house and outdoor kitchen and a palm tree, with ample space to start a mini garden or farm if I want. Bumbuna itself had a market every day so finding food won’t be an issue. Another plus is that I’m in the north, and the weather is much cooler then the southern part of Sierra Leone, although I’m a bit isolated from the most of the other volunteers. My supervisor in Bumbuna, Theresa Mabinty Conteh, was educated by a Peace Corps volunteer back in the day so its special for me and no doubt for her (I’m pretty certain of that) to be interacting with a Peace Corps volunteer once again. Later this week, we will have our site visits, and spend 4 days living my ourselves at our sites in order to orient ourselves at our site and workd situation, and figure out what we will need once we move permanently. We will also be asked to find our own way back to Bo via public transportation so that it wont be so intimidating to do it by ourselves the next time

I have one small request before I have to go:

If there are any RPCVs who have anymore information on Bumbuna, Sierra Leone please don’t hesitate to contact me!

Some quick updates:

We went to Tiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary yesterday and hiked in the forest and spotted some monkeys (Red Colobus monkey and cool birds (Yellow Casqued hornbill and African-Pied hornbill) that I have never seen before.

Summer school is almost over at Ahmadiyya Senior Secondary School. There were two terms and right now we are grading exams and putting together progress reports for the awards that will go to the brightest student. It has been a rewarding experience, more on that later.

And we are now officially down to 38 volunteers. Mylinda unfortunately has left us and it was sad to see her go, more on that later

A bad picture of a Red Colobus monkey, but well worth the effort
Kat, Gavina, and I showing off our chalk stained hands. If you look closely, you will see that I have some trouble keeping chalk of my clothes.