31 January 2003
"And now the rains had
really come, so heavy and persistent... Sometimes it poured down in such thick
sheets of water that earth and sky seemed merged in one gray wetness."
--Things Fall Apart by Chinua
I sit here writing to you as a heavy rain drenches the
landscape, thunder rumbles in the distance,
and a cool breeze sweeps through our
house. Zac just made some cookies,
and our dinner is simmering on the stove. The
learners have all gone home for the “out” weekend, and a sense of peace and
calm settles on us this Friday evening. We’ve survived week two of teaching. It was a long week.
They finished the timetable on Tuesday, so we can
finally settle into the random routine of classes here. I’m sending you a
picture of my timetable so you can fully understand just what I mean by
“random routine.” I warned my
learners that I am going to be confused for the entire year, and that every
day I will greet them by saying, “What class are you?” or “Is today day 6
or day 7?” I explained to them
how simple schedules were at my school, where, for example, 3rd
period was exactly the same, every day of the week. They were amazed. Of course, Zac’s timetable is even more of a disaster
because he has to remember what grade he’s teaching that period and what
subject—and he has the same kids for both math and physical science so
there’s no way to tell just by looking at them.
The biggest challenge in our teaching so far has been
that the learners don’t have exercise books to write in. The Ministry of Education provides learners with writing
books, but this year there is some problem, so the books have not arrived yet.
So my classes have been doing a lot of speaking for the past two weeks. With my
11th graders I’ve been having debates on different controversial
topics of their choice. I’m very
impressed with their knowledge and opinions on a variety of topics--considering
they don’t have access to newspapers, the internet, or even books to read.
There is a TV at the school that I think they watch the news on
sometimes. But even then, I’m
afraid they aren’t getting the full picture.
One learner asked me if Afghanistan was still bombing America, and if my
house got burnt down in the September 11 attacks.
The main thing contributing to the “longness” of
the week was Sport. Everyday from
3-4:30pm we teachers were forced to force the learners to participate in the
Namibian version of field and track. This
daily ritual began with the teachers “chasing” the learners out of the
hostel and onto the “field”—a soccer field of packed sand. Then the learners are clumped into 3 teams, that congregate
under various trees. Teachers then drag various age groups out from under the
shade to run races like 100m, 200m, etc,. although the distances are actually
very imprecise. The learners all
pretend to be sick, or of various ages to avoid running.
There is no such thing as an organized practice-they just run races, we
write down the winners (no stopwatches are involved in this process at all), who
then raced each other today, at the interhouse competition.
The amazing thing is that these kids are fast—without ever
practicing or training or anything. They’re
running in skirts, jeans, whatever they have, and everyone runs barefoot.
With a little proper training, half of them could get track scholarships
in the U.S.—but they’ll never have that chance. As far as I know, sport is
now over, but I don’t really know because communication is entirely lacking
One of the more interesting things that happened this
week was I had my learners, who sit in groups of 4, create group names for
themselves. One group, in a cruel
twist of irony, wanted to be named Ku Klux Klan, having no idea what the name
meant until I explained it to them. Another
group named themselves W. George Bush. Some other
names were Bongolution, Edens, Negative Group, Yizo-Yizo, Omo, Coagm, Yankees,
Dominance, New System, and The Big Three.
And finally, in a cross-cultural breakthrough, we
have brought the gospel of Euchre to the African continent.
The learners aren’t allowed to play cards in the hostel, so as soon as
some of them discovered that Zac and I had cards, they wanted to play.
They taught us a game, and asked if we could teach them one of our games. Seizing the opportunity, we taught them Euchre. We told them
if they could learn this game, they could come play it with us any
weekend—we’d always be willing to play.
It was a bit difficult at first, because although they have complicated
games, they didn’t know Spades or Hearts, the usual games you can compare to
Euchre. So we started from scratch, explaining trump and bowers and such
concepts. They still need a lot of
practice, but I think they got the gist of it—so we may have some people to
play Euchre with after all. During
our training, we played all the time with the other volunteers, but since then
we haven’t played at all until now.
I hope you are all doing well, and enjoying the
wintry weather. I showed my
learners pictures of snow that my parents sent—they were fascinated. I had to explain that the houses have heat inside, so that
although it is very cold outside, it is comfortable inside.
I don’t think they believed me. Whenever
it rains here and the temp drops below 80F, they all wear coats and complain
about the cold.
Take care (and stay warm!)
Well my first weeks of school involved a lot of
learning, at least on my part ( I’m not quite sure about my learners yet).
As you know I am teaching 11th and 12th grade math
and physical science (physics and chemistry).
Here, the 11th and 12th grades are spent entirely
preparing for the exams (one in each subject)
at the end of the 12th grade year.
There are, of course, going to be many tests during the two years but
these are the big ones that make the difference.
These exams are “set” by the University of Cambridge and the same
exams are used in many different countries.
In the US, the state tells the teachers what to teach and the SAT and ACT
do the job of comparing everybody on a level field for college.
But here, in the Cambridge system, Cambridge “tells” the teachers
what to teach by giving a complete curriculum guide, which details exactly what
topics will be covered on the exams. And
instead of having to also take the SAT or an equivalent, the results of their
exam already compare them to students everywhere else who took the same exam.
What this all means for me is that the materials I am told to teach these
students is no joke. I mean, this
is basically the same stuff I learned when I was in High School; some of which I
haven’t used since high school.
So, while the challenge for most of the other volunteers here in Namibia
will be struggling with serious language barriers, learners not behaving well
and/or not showing up, and struggling to teach even the most basic concepts.
(I won’t have to deal with these hardly as much because Ekulo is well
run, a boarding school and the kids that make it to me speak English pretty
well.) The challenge for me will be
more like what a teacher in the US faces. For
example, balancing my lessons so as not to bore the smart kids and not totally
confuse the slower ones. Also I am
in a sort of trial by fire as far as daily lesson plans go.
I am taking topics I haven’t used in years and deciding how to teach
them to students I don’t even know very well yet.
I do think I am doing a good job (and that I will improve a lot), it’s
just that there was never any real warm up for me.
Anyway, I just want to say that the Peace Corps's tag line “the
toughest job you will ever love” is true so far.
The challenge here will be great but I think it will also be greatly
rewarding. The students here are
bright and motivated and it’s really neat when I can show them something and
they learn it.