Friday, February 25, 2011

Let the teaching begin...

Caros Amigos (this means “dear friends” in Portuguese - “caro” is short for “querido”- not to be mistaken for “Amigos Caros” which would mean “expensive friends”) and random readers of this blog,
      I'm having a wonderful time here in Northern Mozambique thus far. The house I'm living in is ridiculously nice even by American standards, especially for someone fresh out of college. It's a 2-bedroom suite with tile floors, hot shower, brand-new gas stove, full-sized fridge, dinner table with six chairs (and a Nelson Mandela tablecloth which I bought), 3 comfy couches, running water (very few of my PC colleagues have running water) and -this is the part that would make any American love this place -the location is amazing. We are nearly at the foot of a majestic mountain that to me looks like the hand or foot of God (you'll see pictures and you might agree) and from our porch, I can watch beautiful sunsets everyday.
      Charlie, my awesome housemate, and I are teachers at Ribaue Secondary School, a school that holds an important place in Mozambican history. It was one of the first schools opened by FRELIMO, the revolutionary front  that led the fight for Mozambique's independence  and that still holds a virtual monopoly on Mozambican politics.  It's purpose was to educate the Mozambican people during a time when access to education was limited to the Portuguese and Assimilados (the black elite who probably talked and acted more like white Europeans than their fellow Mozambicans).  Considering the historical import of this place, it's interesting to see how bad it looks 30 years after its glory days. Windowless, wall-less, desk-less, and door-less classrooms (most of the walls are still intact, but they are falling apart). The past couple of Saturdays, I've had to use these classrooms for my English Choir (I've had over 20 kids each week chanting “We Are Mozambicans, Mighty Mozambicans”-adapted from “we are the titans”-and last week they were singing “I like to move it, move it”-from Madagascar- except I had them replace “move it” with other action verbs and I had them make sure they noticed the difference between “I like” and “He/She likes”. It was awesome.) So since these classes don't have doors, I've been able to use them on Saturdays, since I don't need a key to get in. But during the week, I have the good fortune of teaching in our brand-spankin'-new school building, built adjacent to the old school with the help of Chinese tax dollars and Chinese construction workers, where every one of my 200 students (I teach four 11th grade classes of 50 students each) has their own desk, and where I have a huge green blackboard (I'm supposed to be teaching them British English. So I write on the blackboard and erase the chalk with a duster).
      It's kind of funny how the school calender works here. Classes were supposed to officially start on January 17th, but that entire first week was spent creating the schedules for the teachers and students (this varies entirely by school. Some of my PC colleagues started teaching on that day). The following week, classes kind of started, or at least, I started teaching, but by the end of the week, only about half of my students had shown up. So I just did a bunch of get-to-know-you activities in English, taught them a few songs, and played some games. It was fun. The following week I finally had full classrooms and I started teaching testable material. But it was interesting to note that while all the students had arrived, only about half the teachers were teaching during the first two weeks of actual teaching (which were the 3rd and 4th week on the official calender). Teacher absence seems to be a huge issue here. I'm not sure if my students have ever had a day when all their teachers showed up. I think a big part of the problem has to do with the lack of accountability. It wasn't until the 4th Saturday on the official calender that we had our first teacher's meeting (and we probably won't have another 'til the next trimester) and one of the four main points on the agenda was “Profesores, o ano ja arancou entao vamos dar aulas” (Teachers, the year has begun so let's start teaching). I haven't had one  person look over my lesson plans (of course, they are in English, so only the other English teachers would understand them). But I could really be doing whatever  I wanted to  and nobody would know.
      I gave my first test last week and because of the variation of scores, I think it served as a good assessment to see where my students are at. About 1/3 of of my students failed miserably and I don't see things getting better for them over the course of the year. It's sad to say, but a lot of these kids have a very difficult time reading, so you could imagine how hard it must be for them to learn English, especially when their schedule has them taking French and Portuguese everyday. That's just too many languages. About 1/5 of my students seem to have some sort of idea about what I'm talking about, and the rest are in the middle. Scraping by, not fully understanding what's going on, but I'm hoping that they'll be motivated enough, and that I'll be a good enough teacher, that they'll learn a thing or two. Last week I started using a fourth-grade textbook from South Africa. Our dinky school library had over 100 copies of this book, so I took 50. During class, each of my students is able to have a text book in hand (they have to return it at the end of class). Most of these kids have never had a text book for any of their classes, so this is a huge deal. I've never been so excited about a textbook in my life. So for the past two weeks, my students have been reading about Sabelo (the main character in this text) and his friends Thando, Nkululeko, and a bunch of other characters with complicated African names. My first two weeks were a bit up and down, since I sometimes was not sufficiently prepared, or would run out of material. But this text is helping a lot and I now feel that these kids might actually learn something.
      One of the big issues with education here is the lack of books, or just the lack of reading material in general. The only place to get a newspaper is Nampula, the provincial capital 4-7 hours away from here (the variation in travel time is due to messed up roads, unreliable transportation, wait times, etc.) and that's also the only place someone can buy any book. But the only books that are accessible to the public are the old boring textbooks being sold by street vendors. Any decent reading material is far too expensive for even someone like myself to want to buy. I'm hoping that once our new school library is open, I'll be able to help make it a space where students could go to to just sit down and read a book during those periods when their teachers don't show up for class. I believe that if these students had a chance to read more, it might help them think a bit more critically, and in a country where all learning is based solely on what the teacher says, and not on what other sources say, or what your peers might think, there is definitely a dearth of critical thinking. Observing this here has made me really value the importance that is placed on critical thinking in American education.
      Alright. I think I may have bored you all enough with all this education-speak. In a jiffy, I'll just list some of the other highlights of my time here in my new home thus far:
·        eating cornbread, chocolate cake, mashed potatoes, breaded and fried okra, goat, and salad this past weekend when we had a few other PC volunteers visiting us.
·        Making pumpkin soup and cooking other delicious meals (I've virtually been a vegetarian since getting to my site, except for that goat and one other time when we killed a chicken for a special occasion)
·        visiting a different church every Sunday that I've been in town. I'm fascinated by religion in Africa. While it resembles the same general form as most churches in the US -people in the crowd, minister(s) up front addressing the people, people giving money, singing songs, dressing nice -the way this all looks, in a Mozambican context is soooooo different, and what religion means to people here is something I'm trying to figure out.
·        Meeting a few awesome missionaries when visiting other towns. I met a black Brazilian woman who is serving as a nurse for a Catholic order, a Costa Rican priest who just arrived a couple of months ago and who will be presiding over a catholic church deep in the bush, and a white American evangelical missionary who has been serving in Africa for 25 years and who made us pinneaple cake in her home.
·        Watching movies on the health volunteers projector with my bumpin', usb-powered HP speakers.
·        Listening to This American Life on my long journeys away from here.
·        Admiring the tons of Obama gear (shirts, belts, pants, bags, wallets, keychains, pens and even underwear) in every market I go to.

2343 words. I think that's all I got for now. Hopefully, if the internet is kind to me, I'll also be uploading a bunch of photos on fb this weekend (I took individual portraits of all my students. It was probably one of the quickest and best photo things I've ever done).

Goodbye for now.

p.s. I also have a girlfriend for the first time in my life and I like her a lot. Her name is Patricia Orozco aka Patti and she is wonderful. She is not Mexican, as her name might suggest, but Filipina (when I told my mom this, her response was, “Oh, so she's Asian”). We spent a lot of time together during training taking long village walks, visiting churches, and talking, a lot. But now she is serving as a health volunteer in Central Mozambique which is pretty far from me. While the distance between us kind of sucks, we've been having some great phone conversations and I'm looking forward to spending every break from school with her. Also, her Peace Corps service is part of her master's degree program from the Uni of Washington, which means that she is almost done with her master's degree, which means that she's way more legit than me, and she went to Columbia, which is also pretty legit.