Sunday, February 22, 2009

School is for CHUMPS!

“Darren, I’ll need some of the students to help build the urinal during first period. We can finish this project in 30 minutes.”

“[Laughing, but not in the good way] For Christ’s sake, why didn’t you tell me this yesterday while I was planning my lessons? I need my students; we need to finish this unit. I haven’t finished one unit yet and we are in Week 7.”

“I’ll only take some of the boys. You can still have your class.”

“I can’t. I need everyone there. Common.”

“They will be back before you know it.”

· Marching
· Urinal
· Sports
· ??????

Above are some of the things getting in the way of my lessons since the start of Term 2 of the school year. We are now just finishing Week 8, and we are way way way way way far behind, as in, I’m still teaching Form 1 material. Why is that? For starters, so many of my classes are cancelled. Apart from that, most of my students are still not studying at home (no thanks to their parents), I have to go over the basic math for most of them to understand the science we are doing, I’m at a loss for how to keep my class in order, and I’m still coming to grips with just moving on and letting students fail my tests until they get it in their heads that I’m not going to do all the work. But this is me effing and jeffing. Many days, my students are on the ball, and even impress me at times when they recall material I taught them in Term 1 and tie it in to what we are learning this term; or they would critically think about a question I pose to them (i.e.- If there are such things as non-reactive metals, why wouldn’t it be normal for, say, a machete manufacturer to strictly stick to non-reactive metals?). Some days, my students are angels. Other days I want to walk out of the room and shoot myself.

I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how being so far behind with my Form 1 and 2 students will affect their ability to pass the BECE to get into a good high school. Daily, I try to comfort myself by thinking, knowing, that I am putting my all into my job, that I am new and that my first year as a PCV is more of a learning experience; it is in my second year here that I will really be able to make a difference, this first year is just a test run. But I am not comforted by this at all. Mostly all the students are doing well on my tests and when I ask them questions in class, mostly all of them put forth a genuine effort to participate; but we are going so slow in class they damn well better know the material. I can’t go so slow anymore, but will this be to the detriment of my students? I mostly talk to the headmaster and the nurse across the way, though I’ve been having teachers over more often to get them thinking about this quandary.

Sadly, I’m consigning my PCPP project for another, far off time- too many hurdles and dead-ends. My headmaster and I have done everything we could- we talked to the chief, the assembly man, and people at the district education office. After talking to all these people, we learned that what we make from donations cannot be spent on the Science and Computer building until Phase 1 of the project is complete- the contractor must finish roofing the building. Since my headmaster and I both agree that the people responsible for finishing the building are a bunch of assholes who lied that they finished the roof even though they left the wood frame in shambles and never even started putting on the metal part, we are pretty sure that Phase 1 will not be completed anytime soon.

I’m still writing and sending out letters to potential STARS donators located in Accra, which might show more promise. In fact, that’s why I’m in Accra now. I will try not to think of the world economic crisis and how it might affect past contributor’s benevolence this year. The good news is I now have a laptop, which means I can type up things like this very blog entry, STARS fundraising letters, PCPPs and other grants, End of Term Reports, and suicide notes. I miss owning a Mac, I loved that computer, but I’d like for my students and staff to benefit from learning how to use windows, and I no longer have to use caveman-like chalk drawing to teach ICT. Now I can just go, “you see this?” and they would.

This is not to say there’s no school computer- there is. The students saved their own money and I got one in Kof for about $180. But that broke. And my headmaster, bless his ‘eart, has allowed students to use his while the other one is getting repaired. First hurdle cleared. Second hurdle- no electricity at the school until the street lights come on later in the evening. We are tapping the power from the street lights to get power to our school, and the only students who benefit from this are those living close to school, which is about a little over half the school; the other half lives about 45 minutes away in a town called Anwiem. Night classes start at 7 and go on until around 9. About 40 students show up, but since there is only one computer, things get pretty hectic. Students are anxious about being next, even though we have a number system; to curb hostility, I have them practice typing sentences on keyboard printouts so that during the typing challenge on the computer, they can get the best time. Usually, the challenge looks like this:

Darren Fleischer- Practice typing everyday! Kwaebibirem Model JHS is the best school in Ghana. I hate it when classes are cancelled. (Time: 39 seconds)

Enoch Djobo- Practice typing everyday! Kwaebibirem Model JHS is the best school in Ghana. I hate it when classes are cancelled. (Time: 2 minutes 14 seconds)

Priscilla Aseidu- Practice typing everyday! Kwaebibirem Model JHS is the best school in Ghana. I hate it when classes are cancelled. (Time: 2 minutes 8 seconds)

So I time students as they type something like what’s above, while the rest of the students are typing away on paper. One student, Charity, used to never speak English, only Twi. Recently, to these sessions has really opened her up, and she speaks all the time.

The first and last time I tried having night classes without the headmaster present, things fell apart. While my headmaster was out of town one night, I got his permission to carry on night classes. The usual group showed up at the usual time, collected the headmaster’s computer from his home, and set everything up at the school. Alright, so far so good. Then students quickly realized that I was the only adult in the room, and taking advantage of this, started fighting over the computer. Those not fighting over the computer were running around the classroom, wrestling around (one student was pretending to stab a student with a pairing knife), and disturbing the hard working Form 3 students in the next room. Just as I was about to shut the computer off and end my nightmare, things got worse- a huge lightning storm came, knocking out the power (so I no longer had to manually shut the system off) and creating a deafening sound of rain against the roof amidst the cacophony of boisterous students. Rain leaked into the room, threatening my headmaster’s computer. I came just short of crying, though lots of whimpering came from me; thank god not a soul could hear anything in the din of rain and yelling. When the rain stopped, I quickly dispatched only my most trusted students to return the computer to my headmaster’s house, freeing me of the horror that was night classes. Might I add that students carrying the computer equipment to Master’s house were walking through deep puddles in near total darkness, with lightning and thunder still overhead? Never again, folks.

It’s good that now that I have a laptop, I can inclued all students in on learning ICT, and soon, when I get internet from a wireless service in the area, my students can type to their peers in the US. “But Darren, you just wrote about that awful experience you had during night classes.” I know, but I am using an external monitor so students can poke and point at that screen, and a USB mouse and keyboard so I don’t have to worry about fatal mashing fingers on my own laptop. So far though, I’ve invited the teachers to come and use it; one of them were just about to pay for computer courses before I urged everyone to see me before or after school for free lessons. This might be my chance to get closer to the teachers.

I lost the list of things I wanted to mention in this blog, so winging it here:

A few weeks ago I went to the Kumasi Sub Office (KSO), the home away from home if you’d like, for a STARS meeting. Never mind all that. The important thing is a bunch of us made fajitas. Real fajitas. As in filled with meat. There are so many food items I miss here and fajitas are high on that list.

My parents sent me a package recently with those Jelly Belly Beans, black licorice, and Cadbury Milk chocolate bars. Upon getting these at the Accra office, I made a pact with myself that I will go slow on these, save them for when I really need them, maybe a bad day or… and they were gone before I finished my thought. Literally, I ate everything in two days. To compensate for this, I’ve been making chocolate milk with my cocoa powder, and recently adding candy canes to the mix (hats off to Danielle for that thoughtful, haha, package). To my isolated mates in the northern regions of Ghana, I have no idea how you do it in terms of food. Talking about food, I've noticed that my neighbor’s dog relies on a staple of incredibly spicy Ghanaian food. I laugh to myself thinking back to the days when I’d see little pooches in purses being chauffeured to the local gourmet dog food shop.

It was also fun trying to explain what a candle was to my Togolese neighbor. I had just finished making some pineapple jam, and I needed wax to seal a jar I was leaving in one of my friend’s boxes. I said “Wo wo candle [Do you have a candle]?” As anticipated, they gave me a quizzical look. So I took my right hand, made a striking-a-match motion onto my left palm while making a “fwissssssh” sound, then raised the invisible match to the invisible candle. My neighbor quickly went to the house and brought me matches. Ok….. Same motions, this time with candle in hand while making dripping motions. Another quizzical look. I never got the candle, but I finally traced out the object of want into the ground, and they got it. KyƐnere (pronounced chyanere). KyƐnere- candle. KyƐnere KyƐnere KyƐnere KyƐnere KyƐnere KyƐnere!

On to strange insects entering my home: One night I was walking to my kitchen when I see this huge millipede traipse? its way into my home. It looked like a black tentacle emanating from the space under the door. Creepy for some, though I was mildly joyous about my visitor. I was not so happy about the other insects that came in the night- One night, as I got up to go to the bathroom (it must have been 2AM), I felt like something was not right, though without my glasses on I couldn’t tell. In the bathroom, I felt some fairly large ants flying on me, which was gen rally unusual, and as my eyes, as terrible as their vision is, adjusted to the light, I noticed that my white walls were a large, moving black mass of, I kid you not, the largest ants I’ve ever seen. Not termites. No, those are fine, they are not bitey. These were huge, like an inch and a half, with huge mandables, and worse yet, quite functional wings. And the ants seemed ill-tempered. The scene in my bathroom and hallway leading to my room was something out of a horror movie,the walls were supposed to be white, but instead it was COVERED in ants attracted to the hall light. Thank god I’m not afraid of insects, though I still tucked my mosquito extra tight into my bed.

As for games, Parker Bros. has its Risk, Milton Bradley has Jenga, and Ghana has Rice n’ Rocks- the game where you sift through rice (or beans or maize), otherwise CHRUUUNCH, chipped tooth and a swallowed rock. Last week I thought I chipped my tooth; I bit down so hard on a rock. Whenever I get rice or beans, I always have to make sure to separate the occasional rock, beetle, or stick from the good stuff- if not, it’s Russian roulette with ever bite from a home- cooked meal.

A few weeks ago, while doing laundry, I noticed out of the corner of my eye th wooden poles holding up my drying clothing and towels were beginning to fall, and quickly running over to them, scrambled to catch at least one of the poles and salvage at least some of the clothes from a trip to the ground. I was not successful with this, and had to start all over with the wash. Before that though, I needed to get those poles back into the ground. The shallowness of the hole was only half the problem; termites had eaten away at the base of the wooden poles, and I was left scratching my head over this one. One of my students, Samuel, happened to be riding by my house when, to my great relief, he offered to help me dig the hole with the only crappy tool I had in my possession for digging, thusly saving me from a stress-induced heart attack. He advised that I paint the bottom of the poles to keep away the termites, and made a DEEP hole where the poles now snuggly lay. Afterwards, he hung around for a bit, and observed how I washed my clothing. I don‘t think I’m too bad with washing my clothes in a bucket, but he claims otherwise.

I also got a bike, but I’ll that for the next post. Bikes Not Bombs is the bomb though.

A more touchy subject involves one of my coworkers- the other day I broke up a serious fight between him and a Form 1 student, then end result being an urgent staff meeting. I was in my office working, when I heard a student getting beaten, but louder than normal. I went outside to check on what was going on, when I saw one of the teachers dragging a student by his collar into one of the staff rooms. I followed from behind. The teacher told the student to get on the floor- he didn’t. The teacher kicked the back of the student’s leg hard enough to knocked him to the floor, whereupon the student got up and put his face in the other teacher’s. I got between them, and the teacher went back to class while I stayed with the student in the office, struggling to hold him back while he tried to go after the teacher. I finally got the student to sit in a chair and just cool it while I headed outside, apoplectic and needing to cool it myself. And right when I left, the student was outside running towards the teacher with a fairly large rock. To make a long story short, I recounted the story to my headmaster, and demanded we have a staff meeting right then about all the quotidian violence that makes our school more like a prison than a place for learning. I was careful to make it clear that I was not imposing my ways, that I was not telling the teachers what to do- I’ve only been teaching in Ghana for a few months- but we needed to identify the problems at our school and think of ways to address them without mindless violence.

A second fold raison d’ Coeur for the meeting was to stress how we teachers need to lead by example, and this constant coming late or not at all behavior was at the head of the problem, is what I thought. The teachers put in their own thoughts, including how I was new and I didn’t know how things worked. I responded that I’m working hard to learn, and my only concern was giving the students a good education. In Ghana, there can be visible contention between teachers and the headmaster. I made it clear that everything I did at the school was not for attention or anything, that I did everything for the students’ advancement in education, and I couldn’t do it without the cooperation of all my fellow teachers. And it’s true. If the students get beat everyday for stupid things like dirty fingernails or coming late while the teachers themselves came late and left class to talk to friends, it undermines what I’ve been telling students about the importance of education, coming to the school, and working hard despite difficulties with English, the basics, and family responsibilities.

I’ve seen some slight improvement with cooperation between myself and the other teachers. I had the teacher who kicked the student to the ground (and accidentally caned me in the hand to my vexation) over to my place to teach him how to use the laptop. The only way I can be successful here is if I work closely with the teachers. Trust me, I’ve thought long and hard about this.

The question now is what does it mean to be successful here? Classes are still cancelled daily. I’m still way far behind. I surprised myself talking to my parents one day when it slipped out that maybe I should go home. I work incredibly hard here, and for what? Cancelled classes? I set up labs, get everything together, only to have the class cancelled without anyone telling me until the START of my [non]class. And so in my discussion with my parents, all this hard work can go much farther in the States, where I might have more sanity. But no. I’ll stay. Before, while working to get that PCPP project underway, I was even making plans in my head to stay a third year here. Everyday it’s an up or down for me. My headmaster, though absent a lot of the time, mostly for semi-legitamate reasons, was right: The grand problem at my school stems from many small things in my town that I’ve not entirely explored and understood: the parent’s lack of interest in their child’s education, a local prophet spouting out nonsense to students about praying instead of going to school, the District’s terrible handling of schooling in Otumi, and the teachers’ lack of enthusiasm at school- all these amounting to a pernicious effect on the students’ morale.

Even today, classes were cancelled even though we were absolutely supposed to have classes- I taught only 2 of the four I was supposed to teach. The rest of the time, students were marching and taking an unnecessarily long time on break, a daily occurrence. A student is supposed to ring the bell, but is consistently late ringing it. And this seems okay to the teachers and headmaster- more time to rest or eat or talk. I hate it. I hate being the one responsible for raining on everyone’s parade in the name of having students see the value of their education. All the students are full of mirth outside, they have no restraints- total freedom. All the adults are saying it’s okay. We are in a small town and it’s expected that this school produces students that mostly don’t go anywhere. No. Not on my watch.

During my last class, my headmaster walked in, said he was tired (he didn’t look well) and said he was dismissing students early. No teachers were in either classes flanking my own, and students had a hard day of marching. I begged him to let me just finish this class, stressing how far behind we are. He said he would dismiss the other form and let me keep my class. My students, seeing this, were restless. Defeated, I told them all to go. I was physically upset. It was nice to see that almost everyone stayed back when they saw this, they were doing so well in the previous class and they knew how much we needed to finish this work. But I told them forget it- what we were doing was a bit difficult and I needed their FULL attention, which was not there since everyone else was free as a bird outside.

I didn’t mean to end this entry on a sad note, but that’s where I am right now. I wouldn’t call it solace, but I don’t feel so alone after reading other PCVs’ dispatches from their sites, and how they are having similar problems. My situation pales in comparison to at least five of my friends’ situations. Visiting Martin, a Peace Corps trainer who works close to my site at the District Education office, also helps a lot. He was once a teacher at a public school very similar to my own, with the same difficulties I am now facing. The difference between Martin and the other Ghanaian teachers I’ve encountered in my town is that he is dedicated to the students he taught, and he and my headmaster I think be my most important resources in turning things around at my school, because right now I have absolutely no idea what to do except get smart and forge on.

2005 Tocai Friulano

If I Can’t- 50 Cent
Al Vaiven de Mi Carreta- Afro-Cuban All Stars
I Stay Away- Alice in Chains
Say This Sooner- The Almost
Battle for Who Could Care Less- Ben Folds Five
Play Your Cards Right- Karriem Higgins
Fluorescent Adolescent - Kate Nash
School's Out- Alice Cooper
Just Might Be OK- Lupe Fiasco
Annie- Our Lady Peace
Where is My Mind?- Pixies
What You Need Is Jesus- Public Enemy
You Don’t Understand Me- The Raconteurs
Mama Said Knock You Out- LL Cool J
I Suck- Mark Ronson
Mutha’uckas- Flight of the Conchords
Fortunate Son- Creedence Clearwater Revival
Under Pressure- David Bowie



Kumasi Sub Office

Matt V making fajitas

Rice sorting: Fun for the whole family

Up in Nkwatia, where my friend Alicia resides

Two good books- Read them!

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