Monthly Archives: February 2012

Roots

Standard

An unexpected but very clear sense of pride rolled over me as I listened to my students sing back ‘My Country Tis of Thee’ after just one time hearing me butcher any sense of melody the song offers.

In honor of President’s Day, I deemed it ‘America Week’ and taught about the good ole’ U-S-of A in all of my classes. I teach all levels of students at my school and so I tweaked some parts of my lesson based on the levels (for example, the lower levels had a focus on basic American facts and then making poems about America, while the upper levels created a dialogue about the differences of America and Rwanda, reinforced with a listening exercise of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech in which they wrote their own dreams in their notebooks).

I certainly was in my element. I touched on cheeseburgers, geography (no, New York is not the capital, and in fact, the continent America is located is called North America), and in some classes, even 9/11. I suppose after a bagillion dollar education from Hendrix with a piece of paper indicating Heather Michelle Newell as a holder of an American Studies degree, well, I should be in my element, right?

Man, I sure do love America.

The best part is, I think, is that I’m learning to love where I come from without a heavy dose of self-righteousness and with a real grasp of where my country of origin stands in the world.

American study majors everywhere are cheering: this is what it’s all about. Knowing what it means to be an American outside the physical and cultural sphere, and yet still staying true to your unique and distinguishable roots.

CASE AND POINT: many responses from my students about their dreams (see list below) involved coming to America. Over and over again. Obama was a popular buzzword too. What gives? Why America? I mean, I get the whole superpower thing, believe me. America is dripping in Rwanda everywhere; and I presume the same is true in many countries around the world. But, beyond Beyonce, 50 cent, and the explosion of American music in Rwanda, I also believe these students see America as a land for opportunity; a place that gives anybody a chance to succeed.

The liberal arts woman in me immediately wants to stop this classic American rhetoric and make a case that this just isn’t true; America has problems like any society, and one of those includes the problem of exclusion. You see, not everybody gets an equal playing field (if you want more information, feel free to ask for a copy of my SENIOR THESIS…this is at the core of what I wrote about). I still believe that, but as I look into the eyes of my students, as I get laughed at during sector education meetings for suggesting a new way of doing things (i.e. not placing discipline above the actual education of our students), and as I watch women tirelessly till the soil, probably reaping just enough to eat for the day, I realize that even with all the problems, America is at least open to new ideas more than many countries in the world. I can’t emphasize enough that the US isn’t any more immune to cyclical poverty than other places around the globe (I’ve seen plenty of this myself right in my backyard of Denver, in New York, Atlanta, Birmingham, New Orleans, and Little Rock) but what I’m saying is that at least social mobility is a concept, an idea. It’s the America my students see, and I’m learning to see too. It’s nice to see the good things about your home—instead of focusing on all the criticisms, negativity, and problems—as American Studies majors tend to do. Really, it’s true: in our senior seminar course last year, we learnt from hard data that the vast majority of American Studies majors actually held a very cynical view of the very country they invested all their time studying.

Another thing I love about America?

Hold your breath.

Yes.

The education system.

I know, I know, I know.

It’s also pretty messed up by a lot of standards. There are so many problems in so many places, both urban and rural. But, let’s have a little perspective.

Imagine a room with three shelves of books, stuffed to the rim with textbooks. To the left, there are easily 25 boxes filled with, yes, more books. Are the students using them? No.

Teachers come to class. Most of the time. But, accountability isn’t always a high priority.

The students can’t speak English very well (especially considering the official language just switched to English a couple of years ago, along with French and Kinyarwanda). Yet, their notes are exact copies (handwritten) from American textbooks that teachers are using to serve as their lectures and lessons. Their notes hold all the information they have access to and in most cases, they don’t know what most of it means.

There is a computer lab, though. Full of 25 computers! However, with no electricity and malfunctioning generator, the students are instead taught computer skills with a paper keyboard or a keyboard drawn on an old dusty chalkboard.

The biggest issue at every staff meeting? Discipline.

Discipline. Discipline. Discipline.

If half the energy put towards discipline was put towards methodology and the education of students, then maybe we’d see a little progress.

My school is the lowest performing school in my district.

I’m teaching at an under resourced school in Rwanda and an underperforming school to boot.

It makes me look fondly on my years of American public education; I had knowledge consistently on the edge of my fingertips.

I’ve maybe painted a hopeless picture of what I’m up against for two years, but all of this leaves me more energized and devoted to doing the best job I can while I am here. I believe in my students 110%. Plus, the mayor of my district came for a visit last week to “evaluate” our school (the mayor would be the equivalent of an American governor) and gave us a really positive report. And, much to my delight, he visited some classes, gave comments, and reminded us of the importance of our jobs, and that is to focus on the students. My point was simply this: it’s easy to criticize when you are enveloped in something. But, step away a bit and it’s like seeing something for the very first time. I’m more grateful for my education than I have ever been in my life, and I’ve never been further away.

Yes, I sure do love America. I love the bountiful amount of parks, the clean water, American traditions, Southern hospitality, and the fact that you can choose to eat any kind of food at any time of the day. Oh, and I love the drive to succeed that so many Americans have. It’s engrained in me, and even in a small rural African village I feel my Americanness (is this even a word? It should be!) all around me: my to-do lists, my running schedule, my insistence of using any kind of cheese in my meals whenever possible, and reading a book, newspaper, or magazine if I have spare time (which, admittedly, I have a lot of).

But, like I said at the beginning of all of this, I’m seeing how America is seen in the world and embracing that view only without the insistence that America rocks at every single thing.

By no means will I be canvassing outside my home to villagers and proclaiming that America is the best. In fact, a lot of the time, I share America’s issues to prove that no country is perfect. I want to level with them—to show that there is good and bad whenever it comes to culture and physical places in the world. Even with good ole America.

Rwanda has a lot to offer as well, and I think when it comes to development, the challenge is helping people see their own self-worth and the possibilities in front of them. I want people to see that Rwanda, despite its small size can bring a lot to the world: culturally, historically, and politically. The country has been to hell and back and considering the leaps that have been made in just under two decades, well, there’s your proof.

The other day I walked the 5K to the main road from my village. It was around 8:30am, oh, and it was pouring rain. I couldn’t get a hold of my regular moto driver and due to a Peace Corps meeting that I had to attend, I just bit the bullet and walked.

About 10 minutes in, a small family, huddled under their tin roof next to their tiny gravel-mud home called me over. They offered me their umbrella to use for the rest of the walk.

Success in a society starts with the people.

It’s gestures like that that offer hope.

This country is beautiful. America is beautiful too.

How blessed and fortunate I am to know two such places.

 The best of the “I have a dream” responses from my students—

WHAT IS YOUR DREAM?

“I have a dream to be a superstar.” –Felicien

“My dream is to be an honest man in my family.” –Emmy

“My dream is to be a light to many people.” –Emmy

“My dream is to do well and to be a person who love with another people.” –Alphonse

“Teacher, I dream to visit you.” –Legis

“My dream: I will be good parent.” –Abou Bakar

“My dream: I want to be like Barack Obama.” –Patrick

“I have a dream to change my life.” –Silas

“My dream is to help all old man who haven’t power to work.” –Robert

“My dream is I want to be like Martin Luther King Jr. because he is a good person.” –Robert

“I want to be a teacher like you.” –Robert

“My dream-I will support my family and country.” –Julienne

“My dream is to be a pilot.” –Richard

“If I finished my schools I bought a car and help my family and helps ourphones [orphans] and widdos [widows] and thanks to every person can help in my education.” –Joyce

“I will be a shopkeeper or commerce trader and I will be a rich man.” –Aphrodis

“I have a dream that I will meet with my God in heaven and I will meet with Jesus.” –Ismael

“I have a dream that I will be a stronger man who may resolve many problems in society because of my knowledge I have got.” –Ishmael

learning to fly

Standard

Not to sound like a cliche from Cheers (“sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name…and they’re always glad you came…”) but yeah–sometimes you just want to be known, to be understood. Actually, as a people and as a society, I would even suggest that more than sometimes, this is actually the very basis of having relationships with others in the first place. We thrive in understanding others and also when sharing our identity and personhood with the world.

That little Cheers jingle came into my mind today as I was seeped with dirt under the hot, unforgiving sun, running a new route to keep things interesting. I have started to name the roads and backroads that I run on…that kind of sounds crazy. But hey, whatever you have to do, right? Anyway, the further I got from home, the less I heard my Kinyarwanda name, Impano. More and more it was, “umuzungo! umuzungo!” It was a little disheartening to realize the work that lie ahead of me–and not because it’s about a name–it’s about having a relationship with the people and the place, but, this of course, begins with a name. I often wonder, how long will it take? How much time will pass until I will be really known–or at least known for more than just being that white girl that lives in the village? Or, is that unattainable?

Perhaps it felt even more disheartening because I felt like I was dragging 15 lbs. of potatoes behind me. On each leg. Running has been an outlet for me here. It’s amazing; I used to dread running back home, but here, it’s like the greatest thing I have. I have grown to love it. But some days, quite simply, I just drag. Mentally, I was in the same condition.

Class was just not good.

I taught my first Senior 4 class (equivalent to high school sophomores in America), which is an upper level class here in Rwanda. To my amazement, I only had 7 students in the classroom for my first day of teaching them (they came to school late as they were waiting for national examination results). It threw me off a bit; just yesterday in a Senior 1 class I had nearly 55 students. But, I imagined that the small class size would make my lesson even stronger, as we could have a small group discussion of the day’s topic, democracy.

Yeah, it bombed. I tried asking them what they knew about democracy in about 8 different ways and got nothing. The plan had been for them to rank by order of importance (to them) the elements of a democracy…but instead, I found myself trying to find basic ways to explain things like majority vote and freedom. The lesson was salvaged a tiny bit upon discussing elections, but for students whose education focus happens to be HEG (History-Economics-Geography) I was slightly concerned. They will present dialogues next class. So. We’ll see what happens. I’m well aware not everyday of teaching will be perfect, but the perfectionist roots within me have a hard time with this sometimes.

The next period of my teaching day was a mix up (long story) and so another English teacher kept teaching during my lesson.

And, for my last class of the day, the students were rowdy and laughed at me when I spoke in Kinyarwanda to help them understand a concept. I want my classroom to be a fun place, I want my students to know that I support them in every way that I can, but being laughed at, well, it kind of sucks, honestly. I feel like it drains away at any authority you have, and when you lose that in a classroom, well, you lose a lot. Sometimes, I laugh with them, and it’s okay, but know that it’s contextual; there is a time and place for that. I felt off balance when giving my lesson. I went home and just had to sit for a good 20 minutes alone. I didn’t cry. I wasn’t upset. I was just…deflated. I gave them an assignment to draw their communities and so I will be intrigued with what they come up with.

NEVER TRUST A TIMETABLE

An update on my schedule: I don’t have one.

The schedules have changed several times and then again. Just when you think it’s permanent, nope! My school now wants me to teach all sections (we have 10 total) for two hours a week for each section, bringing my total hours in the classroom around 20. It’s more than the PC recommended 15, but I’m flexible. I told them I just want to help the school in whatever way I can. This way, with having all levels, I will really get to understand the variances in levels for the education system in Rwanda, and for that I am excited to get to work! And. Well. No matter what my schedule is, I WILL have Fridays off. YES. Three day weekends!

4 MICE DOWN…?…TO GO

My PC friend Sarah gave me 4 sticky traps to get started on what Rachel has called “constant vigiliance” (yes, a Harry Potter reference) in catching the evil rodents taking residence in my home. They worked really well; 4 traps down, 4 mice caught! I stationed the trap by the hole in the wall (quite literally) below my bedroom door. Success! That’s the good news. The bad news? 3 of the 4 were babies. Which means…well. There could be a lot more. Glad mom is sending more traps from across the pond!

HOME IS…

In a lesson about HOME (what it is as an idea and what is physically inside a house) I had students answer the question, “what is home to you?” Here are some of the more interesting, great, and telling responses…

Home is:

-where my family is.

-many people.

-peace.

-fetching water.

-personal responsibility.

-where we sleep with our parents.

-when I am happy.

-bad.

-cows.

-eating food.

LIGHT UP THE VILLAGE

ELECTRICITY IS COMING!!

I’ve seen workers, power lines, and poles.

My eyes will soon be saved from the abyss of darkness.

They say in about 1 month it will be here.

If it’s here by June, I’ll consider it right on time.

NEWLY ENGAGED

I’ve decided to take my romantic status into my own hands. As far as old, creepy men in Rwanda are concerned: I am engaged with every intention to marry following my two year service. It’s my first imaginary friend that I’ve had since I was like 4, but it’s pretty darn necessary, as I’ve had a little too many marriage proposals or requests to find be a husband this past week. Luckily, they usually don’t press for details. Although, one man did request a photo of my fiancee. Um. Well, if he follows through, I might just use a photo of my brother and I. Sorry, Lance. Love youuuu.

PAPARAZZI

I’ve noted before that I live across the street from school. The school includes my school, but also the primary school. Lately, my life as a celebrity has been totally maximized by the presence of over 2,000 children under the age of 12. Seriously. They watch me drink tea outside. The bang on my gate insisting on a visit. EVERYWHERE I GO…there they are. I love children. But man, it’s a little much. Actually, it’s a lot much. They grab my arm to touch my hair, they run from me if they are really scared, and if they are bold, they might even scream “bite?” (what’s up?) approximately 15,000 times. Like I said, I love children, but when they act like I imagine the paparazzi would, well, it’s not so endearing. This has led me to timing when I leave and go out on the road. If, for example, I leave around 5:00pm when they finish their lessons, I will literally have NO room to walk. I wish I was exaggerating. Oh well. Like old PCVS have said: enjoy this time being a star. I remind myself of this when I am smothered my screaming children. Yes, yes, I am a rockstar. Right?

EVEN STILL, I AM LOVING THE PEACE CORPS

Amazingly, I’m happy here. It might seem otherwise when I focus on the mice, the marriage proposals, or the life of living in a bubble. But, I am. The great thing too is this:

I’m genuinely learning how to not be obsessed with being happy. 

It’s a problem I have struggled with for so long; if and when I found myself just a little off, not so upbeat, or crying for no reason, I became very upset with myself. The closest people to me know about this little problem I had, and I never quite mastered the art of just accepting the emotions you have just as they are. I got a lot better last year, as I finished with college and prepared for a new part of my life, and living here, I’m growing even more. If I have an off day, I know it’s okay. Not every day can be exceptional; not all moments are going to make you feel as if you are truly changing the world. That’s not real, and honestly, if life was like that, you wouldn’t appreciate the genuinely beautiful moments that we experience as we go through life. Sometimes they are big, and you can’t miss them. Other times, many times even, they are much smaller. You have to be in tune with yourself to see them, and now that my life has slowed down, and I’m living in a different culture that values time to rest and think…well, I’m seeing that being happy all the time isn’t really the end goal. It doesn’t have to be.

Crazy enough, a shining light for me here is a 3 year old. Go figure.

His name is Baraka (which means ‘gift’ in Swahili, but every time I say his name I just think of Obama) and he’s the pastor’s son. He’s full of life and energy. Seeing him run to greet me, screaming “Impano wanjye” (meaning ‘my Impano’) brings the biggest smile to my face.

There’s also Josiane, a young 18 year old woaman I tutor twice a week. She lives with her mother (I think her father was killed in the genocide) and her 6 other siblings. She can’t afford school fees (probably equal to about 10 USD for the term…that’s perspective, right?) so I am helping her to learn English, little by little. She finished her primary school, so she has some background with English, and that helps our sessions. I don’t know what it is exactly, but I think it has something to do with how much she wants to learn. She yearns to learn, and in turn, I yearn to teach.

Yes, life is not easy here all the time. Many times, it’s hard. I can get lonely, frustrated, sad, angry, or apathetic. But the good, always outshines the bad.

There’s a song, Learning to Fly, originally by Tom Petty that I’ve been listening to non-stop, only listening to the Lady Antebellum version. I like it because it expresses all that I’m feeling without much explanation, and it just reminds me that this is a learning process. Each and every day. I don’t know where I’m going, but maybe that’s the point all along. You learn as you go. I’m learning to fly.

Well some say life will beat you down

Break your heart, steal your crown

So I’ve started out, for God knows where

I guess I’ll know when I get there

I’m learning to fly, around the clouds

But what goes up must go down

teaching 101

Standard

On paper, the job seems relatively straight forward. Prepare some notes and information in a clear and concise fashion, show up to school, deliver, answer questions, and head home. Repeat.

Except, I grew up surrounded by educators and so I knew there was more to it. I often reveled in the noble cause of teaching, how important it is for future generations of society and that the best teachers went well beyond the basic method of preparation. I saw that the best teaching  often had nothing to do with the strung together lesson plans, methodically planned to fit together. The really good ones took spontaneous teaching moments and just went with it. Even as I entered this whole teaching experience, it was my dad who consistently reminded me that in addition to always having a backup plan, it’s equally necessary to let the teaching moments come, and to not be afraid to veer a little of track.

I knew all of this and so after three months of intensive training with Peace Corps, I felt pretty darn ready to lead a classroom. What you don’t think about though, is all the little things that go into a profession such as this.

Nobody told me how giving 6 or 7 lessons straight would feel on the legs. Was it possible to feel equally tired after a day of teaching as it would after a grueling field hockey practice? Yes.

Also, um, chalk? It gets everywhere. My clothes. Under my clothes. My nose. My hair. Each day I come home from class kind of looking like a woman who spent all day clumsily baking with flour. Not the best look for me.

Oh, and come to find out, students want to know everything about you. Certainly, when I was a student, I wasn’t that obnoxious…well. Now that I think about it…

Granted, I’m kind of in a special situation here, being the only white American girl around, but still.

Do you have a boyfriend?

Do you have children?

Will you get married soon? Ever?

I just want to be like. Please. You really don’t want to get into my dating life. Believe me.

Oh, and upon showing pictures of my family during a lesson on collective nouns (nouns that are groups of people or things, hence or focus on family), I started a small incident of chaos in our little classroom with the endless rows of students seated in three person desks.

“Your father! He is a SUPERSTAR! He is so nice looking.” Good. I’ll let him know.

And when seeing a photo of my mom and I together, grasping my field hockey stick after senior day, I literally heard screams. Gasps.

“You are the same! It is the same person! Which one are you? Which one is your mother?”

And best of all, when brainstorming concrete and abstract nouns (don’t worry if you don’t know what these are; I am relearning all this stuff as we go) from a photo of Prince William and Kate Middleton, I was interrupted mid-sentence with a proclamation that it was indeed, me, in the photograph. It went something like this:

(cue very slow awkward voice, as if speaking to a 4 year old) “Class, this is a photo of the Prince of England. His name is William. Here, he is smiling with his…”

“Teacher! It is you! It is you! You brought this from America!”

“Uh…no…actually it is from what we call a mag-a-zine. You know magazine? Class. Repeat. Mag-a-zine.”

“Mag-a-zineee….Teacher you are so beautiful in the photo. What are you wearing?”

Okay. Whatever. I’ll be Kate Middleton. Fine.by.me

As a student, I never fully realized how classes could be so different too, to the point that they take on different personalities and the teacher has to adjust, readjust, and teach in a variety of ways because of this.

Case and point: right now, I teach three sections of what is called Senior 2 (like 8th or 9th grade aged kiddos): Senior 2A, Senior 2B, and Senior 2C. Senior 2A is the easiest to teach. I tell them we are taking notes, and like clockwork, the notebooks are out and we’re off! There’s a little cluster of girls in the middle of the class that I really enjoy, particularly the girlfriend besties that are Yazina and Maisara. They always are smiling and when I lean over to check their exercises they are enthralled with my hair, touching it softly, and always telling me, “oh! Teacher we love you. And your hair is beautiful!” I smile, gently remind them to speak in English while in my classroom, and move along with my red pen to give the students marks. They’re delightful.

Senior 2B is definitely harder to motivate and are much more willing to test the boundaries with me. They’re smart, clever even, but I’ve noticed that I know less of the students’ names in this class and I’m not sure why. They’ll tell me they are tired (and of course they are—they’ve been sitting in the same uncomfortable desks all day) but I have to get them the information anyhow, so in the long run, I think I’ll have to be quite a bit more creative with them.

Then, there’s Senior 2C. They are the wildcard class for sure. They are fun! They are the best at cheering (yes, I’ve taught them to cheer for their themselves when they do a good job or when their classmate participates) and I feel relaxed around them.

It’s amazing how things change when you are standing on the other side of the classroom

Most importantly, nobody clued me in on how it would feel to genuinely want your students to succeed. Like being a die-hard fan of your favorite NFL team, you feel through thick and thin (unless you happen to be a fair weather fan). I found myself grading last Friday night (yeah, the village is just popping with nightlife here…) and with each quiz I earnestly wanted them to get the best score possible. And, it’s like well, yeah. DUH. You’re the teacher. But, it’s more than that, you want them to really get it. I didn’t anticipate how badly I would want that. My heart broke a little when grading some students’ quizzes because it became clear that I didn’t explain one portion of the quiz well enough. I had an extra credit at the end with three sentences to fill in the blank:

  1. We                          with our eyes.
  2. We smell with our                           .
  3. We taste with our                            .

We had covered the 5 senses the week before, so I wanted them to have a chance to get extra points, especially if they struggled with the portion of the quiz on personal and reflexive pronouns. So, I labeled this section as “extra credit” on the chalkboard. I explained as best as I thought I could, and waited for them to finish. Turns out, the message wasn’t well received for all because some students wrote either “extra” or “credit” in the blanks. Oops. I guess you can’t win them all.

The biggest problem with teaching I’m discovering (and would also suggest plagues every country in the world) is when teachers see their role strictly in a professional sense. After all, yes, it’s your job, but it could be something so much greater. Why settle?

Why settle when you can be a motivator, a role model, a friend, an ally, a mentor, and a teacher all at once?

It’s hard. I’m only one month in and I’m already developing strategies to maintain my energy level all day long. But, I do my best to have conversations with my students, to teach them about where I come from, but to also listen about where they come from too. As many good things are in the world, teaching is no different. It’s about a relationship—giving and receiving—and to let it grow unobstructed.

And as everything is with Peace Corps, it takes time.

So for now, I’ll do my best to teach, but to also build something greater as time passes.

I don’t really know what I’m doing. But, it never hurts to try.

My dad has always said that half of life is showing up; so, I figure as long as I show up, with goals in mind, and a dedication to really help and reach these students, the outcomes seem limitless, even if working with limited resources.

And, if my students continue to think I’m a spitting image of Kate Middleton along the way, well, I’m fine with that too.