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Posts tagged ‘peace corps esl’

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

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.