10 April 2003
There is an ironic quote on the calendar of Ministry of
Basic Education that says, ďEvery minute lost learners suffer.Ē
I always scoffed at the quote, because all they do around here is waste
time. But I think Iíve figured it
out. Learners only suffer if minutes
are lost. If an entire month is
lost, well, thatís ok. Exams began on April 7th and will continue until
the end of the month. During this
time, learners do not have classes. Exam
month occurs every trimester, meaning approximately 3 months out of the school
term are spent on exams. Now for
English, we use old exams that are set by Cambridge. Essentially, the exams are standardized tests, which we
all know are quite controversial in America.
Here, their entire trimester grade will be based entirely on the result
of this exam. Never mind anything
Iíve taught them in class.
The whole exam system here is entirely new to me, so
I have no idea what Iím doing and I made several mistakes. For example, I foolishly gave my ninth graders an exam from
the subject file without thoroughly investigating it. When I came to mark it, I discovered that there were several
errors in the question paper that confused the learners.
But that was a very minor problem in comparison to the fiasco with the 11th
graders. I thought they knew all
about the exams, so I didnít prepare them by explaining the format and time
limits. I essentially sent my poor
learners into the exam cold. The
primary mistake I made was to remove the cover sheet of the exam.
My subject head had suggested this, since we are using old exams, as a
means of preventing the learners from knowing which exam they are taking.
Two problems ensued. Without
the cover sheet, the learners did not know what the time limit for the exam was.
When I gave the question papers to the teachers who were invigilating the
exams, I told them it was a 2 hour test, and I had it clearly marked on the
folder. However, the learners were
mistakenly following the timetable, which had allotted 2 hours and 30 minutes
for the exam. So even if the
teacher told them it was only two hours, they were still thinking it was 2 Ĺ
hours. Even my best students did
not complete the exam because they were counting on an extra half hour.
The second mistake was that without the cover sheet, the pages were off
one, meaning that the text was printed on one side of the sheet and the
questions on the back, making it impossible for the learners to easily look
between the questions and the reference text.
But with 108 copies of a 10 page test already made, what could I do?
I realize my mistakes too late. Tuesday was only the beginning though.
On Wednesday, my 11th graders had the
listening comprehension section of the exam.
As the owner of one of the three tape players on the school premises, I
invigilated one of my own classes, 11C, for this part of the exam.
I emphasized that the exam was only 45 minutes long, regardless of what
the timetable said. Then I passed out the question papers and instructed the
learners to put their names on the papers and also glance through them to
familiarize themselves with the format. I
happened to notice one learner in the front row start to write something under
the first question. I thought he
was just confused, so I jokingly reminded the class that they had to wait until
they listened to the tape before they could answer any of the questions.
The class teetered with nervous laughter.
Ah, the foreshadowing of life that becomes evident in retrospect.
I started the tape and they took the exam, while I watched them
vigilantly. After the exam, I
collected the question papers and gather up the tape player to go to my next
invigilating duty. On my way out
the door, I notice a large group of my learners huddled together studying
something. What could be so
interesting right after the exam? I
went to them and discovered that they were all eagerly looking over a copy of
the exact question paper they just took. But
this one has already been marked, and had the corrected answers penciled in.
Ah-ha! This explains a lot.
I confiscated the paper as evidence and stormed away amidst a barrage of
I was so angry!
I know there is an inherent danger in reusing previous exams, but my
supervisor assured me that it was a common practice and so the question papers
are never given to learners to keep. Teachers
are supposed to return the exams, go over the correct answers with the learners,
then re-collect them. There was
evidently a security breech somewhere. But
more than this, the naÔve optimist in me was angered by the learnersí
incessant drive to cheat. This is
why I am a critical cynic: humanity keeps disappointing me.
But I was also angry at myself. Maybe
if I were a better teacher and could prepare them for the exam better they
wouldnít feel the need to cheat. I
was also upset about a system that put so much emphasis on one exam.
And maybe I should have gone to great lengths to set my own exam, but
make it parallel to the Cambridge ones. I
was also frustrated because I didnít know what to do.
It would be impossible to pinpoint everyone who had cheated, and I still
donít know how they knew which exam I would be giving them.
I couldnít count on anyone being honest.
All these problems, which seemed so dramatic at the
time, were solved easily enough. It
turns out the security breech was in fact committed by my supervisor, who was
extremely apologetic. I donít
blame him, because these things happen. He
simply suggested that he could choose a different question paper, one that he
was sure learners did not have a copy of, and everyone would retake the exam.
This was a very good solution for a number of reasons.
I would retype the cover sheet myself, to include the duration of the
exam, and make sure the copies had the text and questions on facing pages.
Furthermore, the learners, those that hadnít cheated, would now have an
idea of what to expect and how to pace themselves with a two-hour limit.
And maybe on the listening section, they would all have to wait until the
tape started playing to know how to answer the questions.
I often wish I had a secret video camera, but I
especially needed one today when I went to each of my classes to inform them
that they would be taking a new English exam next week.
I could have recorded the various reactions of the learners at the exact
moment I broke the news to determine who had cheated. Most were happy at the prospect of having another chance, and
the announcement was greeted with applause, but I noticed a few learners who
looked genuinely disappointed. One
girl was particularly angry and started to argue with me, until I hinted that
maybe she was angry because she wasnít going to be able to cheat on this one.
She instantaneously plastered a smile on her face and feigned delight at
being able to retest. Ugh. I keep
teetering on the border of utter contempt for some of learners here.
I just tell myself to remember all the good ones, and to not be
discouraged by a few conniving ones.
After being here for over five months, Iíve finally
gotten homesick. I donít miss
America per se; I just miss some people and a few things that happen to reside
in that country. I miss my family
and friends the most. Thereís
just something special about being around older people that care about you that
I miss. Although weíve
formed good friendships with the other volunteers here, itís not the same as
people youíve grown up with. We
all sort of feel like weíre in this time machine together, and the vessel is
lost in space. We like each other
just fine, but our mission is to get each other through these two years so we
can return to our families in a mentally stable condition.
Second to people, I miss food. Although weíve become good cooks by necessity, there are
only 20 items on the Arcaro Rest Camp menu, and weíve been eating those same
things, all of which consist of some combination of rice, pasta, potatoes and
chicken, for five months. Donít
believe Zac when he says we can find almost anything to eat here. Heís just being a silly optimist. What he means to say is only that weíre not starving to
death. Some days I would give
anything for a chip burger (you know, those delicious creations with vanilla ice
cream generously sandwiched between two giant chocolate chip cookies), a big
slice of ham, a giant Olive Garden salad, a can of ravioli, a box of macaroni
and cheese, a burrito, a kiwi, Indian food, a Subway turkey breast sandwich,
tiramisu, cherry cheesecake, Papa Johnís Pizza (that I ordered over the
internet!), hamloaf, milk that is drinkable (we only use the milk here for
cereal and cooking), cream soda, pretzels, etc.
I also miss entertainment.
I didnít think I would, but I genuinely miss movies.
I miss watching classic chick flics with my mom or Shanu and Laura.
I miss going to see dumb action movies at the theater with Zac and all
his housemates. I miss ushering
artsy movies at the Wexner Center. I
miss NPR programs like Wait! Wait! Donít Tell Me! and Terry Grossís Fresh
Air, All Things Considered, Morning Edition Ö.everything.
I miss understanding what is going on around me.
There is a little motto among new Peace Corps
volunteers: Donít Think. It just
means you canít even start thinking about home, because once you doÖ. well,
two years in a foreign place is quite tolerable if you just donít think about
everything you left behind. Itís
true that distance makes the heart grow fonder.
Itís easy to remember only the good things about that life when it
seems so far away and unattainable. I
mean, Iím sure once I ate an entire package of chip burgers, I would realize
they werenít really as great as I remembered.
I probably wouldnít even want to eat one again for at least another
As much as I miss home at times, I know that I
wouldnít give up these two years for anything. All those things will be
waiting for me when I get back, for now I must enjoy this bizarre time-machine
voyage and all the experiences it encapsulates.
We send our love,
Sera and Zac