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Posts tagged ‘peace corps classroom’

Month 13: patience truly is a virtue

I get inquiries every now and then from people who read this blog and ask about my Peace Corps service. One of the things I tell everyone is that it really does take a year for everything to settle – this two year timeline is completely logical. I can’t imagine what it’d be like to volunteer in a foreign country for less than a year. 

My whole life people have told me to “chill out” and “be patient”. My personality is one that is all over the place – oh, and just a tad high strung. I’m a person that’s gotta be on the move. Then I came to the Peace Corps and calmed down a bit – cliché as it is, patience truly is a virtue.   

My village really felt like home-home after about eight months living there. I think that’s commonplace for many PCVs because we take a huge step out of our comfort zone. We leave everything we know in the States and trade it all for some obscure place and culture we’ve never been before or experienced. As welcoming as everyone is, it’s still overwhelming and takes some time. In the back of mind, I knew everything would feel normal eventually – and it did (really, this is the best advice I can give to any PCV or soon-to-be PCV).

As the months go on, my relationship with my host family only gets stronger. My sister and I have bonded a lot more and my mama is really my mom. My family also understands my American individualism now – just because I’m alone sometimes, it doesn’t mean I’m lonely or sad. It’s just my culture.

My counterpart told me this month that when I first arrived to my school, the staff all talked about how young I looked and how I wouldn’t last here. I’m 24, but am often mistaken for a lot younger. My co-workers gossiped, “Oh! But she is so young. How can she be away from her family so long? How will she adapt to this way of living?” South Africans find it puzzling that a young woman like me can leave her home for two years because in this culture, that would never happen. Women my age are supposed to be with their families – or close enough at least to see them every now and then. Family and home is very important.

Then I told my counterpart it just takes some time to get used to, but I expected that – I knew this experience would unfold with great patience. 

Something I've learned that gets my class's attention -- pronouncing any Zulu word with a Q click; qedile = finished

Something I’ve learned that gets my class’s attention — pronouncing any Zulu word with a Q click; qedile = finished

It’s term three at school now and my first year of teaching will soon come to a wrap. The past school terms have definitely some of the most challenging times in my life. I have the largest class at my school – 40 kids – and inherited all the kids who are consistently held back; I believe grade 5 is the year kids get stuck in (if only I had known this… because those kids just talk and talk and talk). My class ranges from some extremely clever kids to kids who can’t read in their home language. 

I have no idea how to address the kids who struggle in all the subjects. I adopted the attitude that I would impact the kids who are at a middle level and try to bump them up (thanks for that City Year!) So, I tried just about everything to give these kids stories – and even wrote my own – and vocabulary and grammar that are lower than a grade 5 level. I do notice that the kids are speaking more and more – but I’m not sure if my approach to giving these kids easier things worked. The middle kids are still struggling, but the top of the class is killin’ it.

It took eight long months at school to really understand these kids – to know their names and perfect that Q click as best as I can, their culture, their strengths and weaknesses. Now I know what works and what doesn’t through countless hours of trial and error. I’ve even been able to finally implement a luck of the draw system in my class – I pick names out of a hat now to make kids participate (but took the names out of the hat of kids who I know cannot read). However, it’s a shame because term three is jam-packed with district assignments and the annual national standardized assessment. I have to rush through this term, hit all the assignments as well as try to prepare grade 5 for ANA. And I’ve attempted to follow the national curriculum, but it’s frustrating when three quarters of the kids aren’t at the level to do the work and I only have an hour a day. 

If I had my grade 5s as grade 6s next year, we would be a dream team together. Unfortunately, I will be leaving early August 2014, which is only half way into their school term. It would be unfair to take my own class again.

Well, everything’s finally making sense on this end after a year – a little too late in the South African school system timeline, but right on track with the Peace Corps timeline!  

It’s true my peoples – patience really is a virtue. Everything takes time and it’ll all eventually come together.

On an unrelated note, I have been having nightmares about the GRE lately – high anxiety levels in my hut. I am busy getting my graduate school applications movin’. It’s actually been quite fun revisiting my service stories and finding the best for my statements of purposes. I can’t wait to see what the future holds!

A best friend from my hometown booked her ticket to visit me in November and one of my City Year teammates also booked a ticket for December. I’m so thrilled I get to share this incredible experience with two people who are very important to me. I am patiently counting down the weeks!

Yours patiently in service,

Small heartLiz

Help! In need of suggestions for my grade 5 class story

Nicely put, the South African English curriculum for grade 5 is absolutely unrealistic for rural kids and is a load of eloquently written and presented nonsense.

Instead of sticking to the books, I created a class story for my English class. The kids get two different stories each week that build upon each other. Each story is simply written and has bolded vocabulary or a punctuation concept. My main goal for this ongoing story is to help the kids who can barely read, read a little better, and the kids who can read, critically think. I debated about going on with the story because some of my smart kids finish the work so quickly, but whatever, I’m all in now.

A short summary: The class story is about a boy named Umhaha (greed in Zulu according to my Zulu book). The boy lives in a village and is bored with his life; all he wants to do is travel the world and see different things. He walks to a birthday party with his best friend Thobile (humble in Zulu) and gets cornered by a talking horse, Amandla (power in Zulu). Amandla gives him them the option to each make three wishes. Thobile doesn’t think it’s a good idea because he thought the horse was lying, so he leaves Umhaha and goes to the birthday party. Umhaha, however, decides to make three wishes. The next time he meets Amandla the Horse, thinking that he can make his first wish, Amandla tells him he must complete a task first and will know if he doesn’t because he’s magical and can see everything. Umhaha then realizes that Amandla is pretty powerful horse and could maybe do harm. The task Amandla has Umhaha complete is ridiculous stuff – like steal his sister’s sweater and put it on a goat. After he completed the task, he finally got to make his first wish, which was to travel to other countries. As soon as he made the wish, he and Amandla ended up on a beach in Mozambique.

That’s as far as the story has gone so far: All I know is he is going to travel all over the world and have an adventure in each country –whether that is running into trouble, trying new food, seeing a new part of a culture, whatever. Then, I’ll show the kids on the world map mural at my school where he is in the world. If the kids are good (unlikely), maybe I’ll make guacamole during avocado season and Umhaha travels to Mexico.

I ask the kids questions that evaluate Umhaha’s decisions and what they would do if they were in similar situations. Then (starting this term) I will have them draw pictures of the sequence events in the stories each Friday. Critical thinking and comprehension points! I asked some of the kids last term if they thought Amandla was a good or bad character and some actually said a bad character because he told Umhaha to steal. I was STOKED! Then, there are the kids who copy word-for-word things out of the story to answer questions…a helpless battle so far.

Alright, I may be creative, but I also get writers block more than often. That’s where YOU come in!

Where do you think Umhaha should travel? What kind of trouble do you think he should run into? Why? What lessons will he learn? What should be the major lesson he should learn? What other two wishes should he make? Should Amandla end up being a good character or continue to be a manipulative character? How should the story end?

Got ideas? I have some, but am looking for more. It would be pretty awesome to use outside suggestions. E-mail: Lizinservice at gmail dot com or comment away.

Term Two starts tomorrow. Not in the slightest ready, but it can only get easier from Term One, right? Currently dealing with severe-post-vacation-village-shock.

Yours in service,
Small heartLiz

Month seven: you can try to Americanize, but Africa always wins

Back in PST, as naïve little Peace Corps Trainees, we visited schools close to our training sites. We watched teachers write notes or exercises on the board with little explanation. How BORING for the kids! WHAT AN ABOMINATION.

Now we’re doing that.

Hypocritical much?

This is an observation the mini-Los Angeles Volunteer Support Network my fellow PCV bud George and I have made. (George and I enjoy discussing and helplessly laughing at school issues and reminiscing about Los Angeles taco trucks and freeways in our Mini-Volunteer Support Network. Angelenos thing alike, thank God there’s one here with me!)

I thought because I was different, I could do something different in the classroom too. I could make my own rules, my own discipline system, play games with the kids and make my classroom a mini-America. The kids would love that – something different, interactive and creative for a change.

ERRRRRR. These kids aren’t ready to handle “different” – whether that is because of their age or the language barrier. Now, instead of setting expectations before I jump into something, I am learning to mold my expectations as I go. I expected them to love my new style of teaching so much that they would be interested and listen, but now I just expect them to copy what’s on the board in a timely manner.

The learners really only respond to the board or violence. If I don’t want to deal with constant chitter-chatter, I must write exercises on the board or I could (but wouldn’t) hit them. Only busy work like that keeps them focused and on task. My learners even hand me the corporal punishment stick when the kids won’t be quiet. It took me less than a month to realize the genius idea that sometimes teaching is just making sure the kids are on task and at least attempt to complete classwork.

Last year, the infamous uncontrollable factors at Markham Middle School were helicopters, the fire alarm and lockdowns – most of legitimate concern. Here, the uncontrollable factors are a little different and of very little concern – teachers randomly popping into your class and making announcements, asking you questions while you are lecturing, yelling at the kids when you ever mention any problems to the teachers and my favourite of all – a student’s little brother that wanders the grade 5 class. Of course we can’t forget African time and time management – teachers not finishing their classes in time and using some of your teaching time, kids not able to follow a timed schedule, kids leaving your class to play soccer at another school etc. It makes me laugh writing this – I went from outside factors that really could involve life or death to factors that South Africans treat as if they are life or death situations, like signing a paper with an announcement on it. And I can control very little about it.

What I can control, I will control. As mentioned that my kids are far behind grade level, few are at the level of the grade 5 workbooks I have access to. I have taken upon myself to write two stories a week for the students with ten vocabulary words that are tested on on Friday. The stories will also focus on one grammar or punctuation concept.  It’s been hard so far, but I’ve only given them three stories. Eventually I won’t have never-ending writer’s block.

The story is about a boy, Umhaha (greed in Zulu), his best friend Thobile (humble in Zulu) and Amandla, a taking horse (power in Zulu). Amandla grants Umhaha three wishes. Umhaha’s first wish is to travel the world and see other countries. So after the horse hazes the boy, Umhaha will go off on this grand ol’ adventure through the world and I will show the kids where he travels to on a world map mural a health PCV painted at my school last year. Unfortunately, the stories aren’t illustrated so I had the kids enter a drawing contest and draw each character. We will use the winning illustrator’s drawings to illustrate the rest of the stories! Africa hasn’t won just yet on this one – their classwork is officially Americanized and that’s one thing no one can do anything about because no one can change my lesson plans or weekly structure focusing on the two stories a week.

Back at home sweet home, we can Americanize many more things. I’ve Americanized my hut with endless inspirational quotes and pictures of family, friends and former students.  I can semi-Americanize the way I dress – I still can rock skinny jeans and over-sized shirts here (the Liz style). These few things help keep my sanity here and are totally harmless.

Inspirational hut quotes!

Inspirational hut quotes!

IMG_6167

Pictures upon pictures

But there’s always a “but”. South Africa Volunteer Group 26 is the first group of Peace Corps South Africa to be “full-time” teachers. We are expected to teach at least two classes a day and be at school Monday-Friday from start to finish unlike previous groups. I am teaching a little less than that, but it’s how my principal and I worked out my schedule. Teaching even one class is extremely time-consuming, especially if you’re making up your own classroom material like I have been doing. It takes at least a full day to lesson plan for the week because we’re new at this and reinventing the wheel as we go.

Work comes home with us. Work outside of work is unheard of here – my host family doesn’t understand what I mean when I say I have a lot of work to do. “Weren’t you at school all day though?” is the common response I get. Yes, yes I was, but I was trying to juggle at least four different things at once (in my arena, my girl’s club, my library, my classes and helping my counterpart with her English class) so is it really possible for me to get everything done? Yeah, but I need sleep too!

In America, it looks good if we bring work home or do extra work. It shows we really care about what we are doing. Here, because people place so much importance on relationships, bringing home extra work means you’re too busy to spend time with people and don’t care to, which can be seen as an insult. And on the weekends, most PCVs want at least one day and night to ourselves to read (I am intellectually dead), watch movies, study for the GRE, relax and do absolutely nothing, blog or clean and do all the laundry after a long week at school. We don’t have much time to integrate into the community fully and most of the time we want our free time as our free time, not as the community’s. If a kid comes to my door on a Sunday and asks to visit, I generally will say hello and talk for a little, but after that I have to close my door because I’m busy with something.

I have Americanized my weekends, which may be detrimental to any community projects in the long run and my language exposure. I speak English at school Monday-Friday; Zulu gets a little peep. And I know I could push myself to an extreme, but I’ve also gotta keep my sanity. The new structure of our Peace Corps program sometimes makes me and other PCVs feel as if we are teachers abroad and not Peace Corps volunteers. I understand this is what the country needs, but our expectations as Peace Corps Volunteers in our community may not be the same as expectations of other education Volunteers around the world because our education program has become streamlined to teaching only. You think maybe America would win in this sense because I still get to have “American-me” time, but in my opinion, Africa won this battle too. Few Africans understand “American-me” time even after explaining. No matter how much or how little work we do, Africa will always win.

As Peace Corps Volunteers, that is something we must come to terms with because Africa has a home advantage over us in this upward battle. We can control a couple of things, but need to also be okay with the things we cannot control because this is not our home country.

But, at the end of the day, I can still come home to my Americanized hut. Mini-America does exist here after hours!

So far:

Liz vs. Africa

  • Classroom rules: Learners follow rules they have known in school their whole lives
  • Classroom incentives: Only few care enough to get sweets
  • Classroom crafts: TAKES WAY TOO LONG
  • Classroom decorations: Kids don’t use them for reference when writing
  • Classroom games: Kids get too riled up to control 40 of them
  • Explaining things in Zulu:They just laugh at me
  • Time management: Jokes
  • Coming up with my own story/curriculum: YOU GO AMERICA!
  • Reading outloud and acting out picture stories:  Kids can’t sit still
  • Keeping kids at break: Teachers have “break duty”
  • Explaining things in English: Language barrier
  • Doing extra work after school: Cultural misunderstanding
  • Doing work at all times: Cultural misunderstanding
  • Decorating my hut: GOD BLESS AMERICA
  • What I wear to school: Yea, you a Los Angeles wannabe hipster!
  • How I organize my lesson planner: Red, white and blue.
  • Speaking English: Native language!

As you can see, now that I’ve figured out few of these things I can really Americanize I will either have to make a hybrid plan or just deal with it. I call that cultural understanding!

Sorry I write so much. One of the things I never really learned in journalism school was how to follow a strict limit, somehow I always talked my professors and editors into giving me a couple more words…

IF Amandla the Talking Horse gave me one wish, it would be the ability to be in two places at once.

Yours in service,
Small heartLiz

Meet my 2013 grade 5 learners!

For the first graded assignment in my English class I had the learners make “Who Am I?” books — an idea I borrowed from my City Year partner teacher from last year. Each of the learners got to decorate the front and the inside pages.

Each page had a different subject:

  • All About Me: Their names, age, date of birth, what their names mean in English, etc.
  • Friends: A “descriptive” paragraph about their best friend using adjectives to say what he or she looks like and what they like to do. I had to use sentence starters for this one because writing a real paragraph at this point would be far too hard for many learners.
  • Home: Write about their home and draw a map of how they get home from school
  • Favourites: Food and music they like and dislike
  • School: Favourite subjects, what their school looks like, what they do after school, whatever they decided to write about school
  • Goals: What they want to be when they grow up

This project took far longer than expected (I’m running on African time over here), but it helped me associate names with faces and learn the age/home life of my students. After they were done I had them present the book to me as a speaking task and I asked them simple questions about their books. I was able to knock out two of the “curriculum” examination standards for the first term with this assignment!

All the books!

All the books!

Some were pretty funny, like this one:

Hmmmm... guess someone doesn't like to eat shark?

Hmmmm… guess someone doesn’t like to eat shark?

Now, meet my grade 5 2013 English learners! Favourite thing they’ve asked me so far? “Miss, do you have a mom and dad?” “Miss, do you have a baby?”


Small heartLiz

Month seven: I struggle, you struggle, we struggle [present tense]

I already did something I was trying not to do. I yelled, very harshly, at my students. My “everyone’s hands are in the air so it must be quiet” method wasn’t working — too much chitter-chatter. Another group was stealing each other’s rulers and hitting each other. One girl even started to cry during reading time. I couldn’t take it anymore – it had been a week of childish games. They’re just children, damnit, just children. I closed the book I was reading, told them we would try again tomorrow, and walked out of the classroom holding back tears of frustration.

I told the other grade 5 educators that the grade 5s were being “naughty” (a favourite South African term) and that they were disrespectful. Two teachers went and yelled at them, and likely threatened to beat them, or did. I know it’s hard to fathom that a child may have been beaten or threatened in my name, but this early in the game, I have no choice. I either get the other educators to help me control the kids and speak to them in a language they understand, or wade my way through a neck deep river until the student’s finally trust me, which could possibly be never.

To effectively teach, one needs to build relationships with the students to gain trust. I can’t just pop into their classroom and expect them to respect me just because I am different from them. My PCV friend George couldn’t have summed it up better — right now all the students see is, “OMG OMG LOL LOL UMLUNGU (white person)” instead of someone who cares and is here to really try to give them an adequate education. They don’t know much about me, and I don’t know much about them (although I am learning a lot through their journals!) Also, they know I won’t hit them, so they aren’t scared, which opens a whole ‘nother can of worms.

The day after the grade 5 educators addressed the class, they kids were angels. They earned a lot of rocks in their “rock jar” (if they’re good, they get rocks. If they’re bad, rocks are taken out. If they fill it, I will give them a class prize like an English movie).

After class, all of my girls came to the library and gave me a card. They tried their best in English — it was a “Happy Birthday” card (too cute) from Mr. Verb to Ms. Noun. Inside it reads, “Mr. Verb loves Ms. Noun. They agree all the time.” If you’re wondering what the hell that means, I made these stupid-childish-looking cardboard puppets named Mr. Verb and Ms. Noun. I introduced them to the class as our classroom friends and as the year goes on I will ask them, “Do Mr. Verb and Ms. Noun agree in your work? Remember they really love each other so they agree a lot!” I told the kids Mr. Verb paid a heavy lobola to marry Ms. Noun. Cheesy, but that’s the kind of stuff you’ll get in my classroom. Any oddly creative thing that can stick in their heads I will try.

The girls are mostly well-behaved in my class. The boys are usually the ones who are acting up. However, a couple of the boys also came by to apologize to and then spent the day in the library reading grade one books while I worked on classroom posters.

I know they were probably told to apologize to me, but I am human and I need love sometimes too, especially in my Peace Corps lows.

After school that day, another girl, Nqobile, came by to just say hello and one of my boys, Siyabonga, came by with a friend and hung out. I talked in Zulu to him, and he basically said he wants to try to learn English and he is trying. Ngiyazama (I am trying).

I felt pretty helpless after that. I realized that their behaviour isn’t just the problem; I am the problem too. I am trying to get used to a new classroom culture, teaching for my first time, and not really knowing if my students understand me or not. They rarely will tell me if they don’t because it’s cultural that the educator is a divine being. I even have a group of students who can’t even read in Zulu — let alone understand a sentence of English.

It occurred to me that we are in this battle together. It’s like a symbiotic relationship — we both want something out of this, but we’re going to have opposite struggles. They are going to have a hard time understanding me and the work and adjusting to me, and I will have a hard time communicating with them, explaining concepts and adjusting to them. If we can get through this year together as a unit, we will all only be better in the end. But it won’t be easy and we will need to help each other.

Seeing my students read grade one books and my student Siyabonga trying his hardest to say simple things in English at my hut door, slapped me upside the head to be easier on than them and lower my expectations. During reading time, instead of reading longer grade 4/5 passages, I will read picture books. My Peace Corps leader even made the awesome suggestion of having them draw and describe their favourite scene from the book afterwards. Likewise, I will start translating some things into Zulu when necessary. I need people to translate Zulu to English for me many times, so it’s only fair.

Once I start doing sports activities with the kids, I think I’ll start bonding with them more because that is something that a language barrier can overcome. As we always say in the Peace Corps, only time will tell.

In honour of our grammar review: I will struggle. You will struggle. We will struggle. [future tense]

Eleven months from now I hope we can all write on the chalkboard: I struggled. You struggled. We struggled. [past tense]

In honour of spelling: I am now using British English.

Keep on zamaing (like my Zunglish?)

Yours in service,

SmallTransparentLogoLiz


The card the girls made me. Pretty sure they meant to say, “Simple Present Tense” and not “Simple Person” but they tried. Bayazama.

A month in photos: January 2013

  • First weeks of teaching
  • Sesotho “coming of age” traditional ceremony for women
  • Sports “interhouses” (intramurals) at school and learners running barefoot along the gravel road in the summer African sun
  • Purchasing mobility (bikes) and attempting to bike back from Dundee to Rorke’s Drift (47 kms) with PCV friend Will, but failing. Pathetic on my part.