Saturday, June 30, 2012

Practicum and Ewe

Friday was a big day for me.  It was the last day of practicum, our languages were announced, and I'm going to a funeral tonight.
Practicum went better than I originally expected.  Last week I was the middle school math (JHS Maths as it's known here)  teacher, and this week I was the JHS integrated science teacher.  I taught the JHS 1 students percentages and then about light energy, and I taught the JHS 2 students about rates, the circulatory system, and photosynthesis. Teaching is difficult; I want to give a special shoutout to all of my former teachers and all teachers everywhere.  I had no idea how difficult it is to get students to work on their own and think for themselves.   It's not just that the students here aren't quick learners, most of them don't try to learn (cheating on homework as nearly 100%) and they haven't been taught critical thinking.
As I was trying to teach percentages, I realized that the students had pretty much no idea how to multiply fractions and decimals.  So that made even simple percentages difficult to explain, and the more difficult percentages that required long division...forget about it!  Students here have to study for a big international test, most students take the West African Exam (think Iowa Test of Basic Skills, but way more important).  This test makes up 50-70% of their cumulative grade for the year, and is supposed to determine whether they advance to the next grade.  I say "supposed to" because in reality most students move on regardless of their grades; the reason being the parents would rather have their children obtain a degree from Senior High School (SHS) than actually learn.  PTAs have a lot of power here.
A few years back, there were some teachers in Dodowa who held students back.  The parents of those students came to the school and beat the teachers for holding their children back.  All the schools in Dodowa's district promptly closed, and the parents have since had to beg to get schools and teachers to return.  These days the teachers' unions uses Dodowa as an example of what is wrong with the education system.
Anyway, the test each student is supposed to pass covers way too much material, and I don't think teaching for a test is the best way to educate.  I talked to a couple students privately today, and they said that sometimes there's material on the tests that they've never seen before.  Even good teachers with excellent students are unable to get through all the material.  It's a little nuts, and I tried to explain to the students that I feel it's more important that they understand the material than it is for them to cram before the test and not remember anything.  I also told a girl who wanted to be a nurse that she should try to become a doctor instead because in America it doesn't matter if you are a boy or girl.  If you are smart and get good grades (marks) then you can be a doctor regardless.  I also learned that they can be caned for wrong answers. I heard about this, but didn't think it happened at our school.  The girl told me that if they had a test worth 30 points, every point off could be a lashing.  She also said that sometimes the teachers go easy on them and just make the test worth 20 points total.  She said that some students still get 0s though.  It's so messed up!
Some of these things are so engrained in the students they don't even realize how wrong it is.  The students have a lot of difficulty applying concepts to different topics (a product of test memorization), and this makes science and math particularly difficult to teach.  Providing real life examples is extremely difficult if you cannot relate even the previous topic to the current one.
Our students at Sacred Heart Roman Catholic JHS loved Victoria and me, I think they don't really like their teachers so anyone white and new is automatically cool.  Today they brought fruit for us and were going to sing, but they had to meet with the church elders to discuss education and religion and how it relates to their lives. The headmaster went with them, and as protocol demands we had to say goodbye to the headmaster.  We interrupted the church elder who was talking to the students, and we had to give mini speeches thanking everyone and saying how much we enjoyed ourselves (and we did actually enjoy in).  This sort of thing is totally normal in Ghana.  White people, especially Peace Corps teachers or well respected people, are often asked to make speeches or say prayers in front of random groups of people.  Also, interruptions are also not a big deal at all.  Ghanaians will be much more offended if you do not greet them or say goodbye than if you interrupt them or even wake them up from a nap.
After the end of practicum, Victoria and I rode back to Anyinasin and went to the Presbyterian Church (known as Presby) for our language announcements.  Presby is where we've had a bunch of Peace Corps sessions, so I just want to let everyone know what it really is.  It's a big, open-air, cement -frame of a church with an aluminum roof.  There are no walls, there are no windows, and the floor is cement.  There are maybe 20 benches/pews that are incredibly uncomfortable, and every day around 3:00pm, a herd of goats runs through the church to get to the pasture on the other side.
I found out that I'll be learning Ewe (pronounced like "evah" with a long a) which is spoken in the Volta region! I'm pretty excited about this because it means I'm going somewhere in the Volta region. As usual Peace Corps only tells us information on a need to know basis, so I don't know where in Volta I'll be going, but it's nice to narrow it down a bit.  Ewe is not really like Twi, so I'm going to stop learning Twi at home so I can focus solely on Ewe.
That's all I have for now, I'll let you know about my life as it happens. 

Monday, June 25, 2012

A Day in the Life

A Day in the Life of a Peace Corps Trainee

5:00am – Wake up.  The roosters have been crowing for at least 1 hour by now; unless it’s raining, then they are just starting to make noise.  These guys are loud though, and they call out to one another to mark their territory and their hens.  Just the other day while bathing, I saw 2 roosters fighting that resulted in a death.  One rooster got ahold of the other’s neck and managed to pin it against the ground.
I have to open up my mosquito net and walk over to find my shower slippers (flip flops) or my Chaco sandals, then I grab some T-roll (toilet paper) and get the toilet key.  We have a latrine comparable to an outhouse back in the states.  Is it luxurious? No, but it gets the job done.  You’re excused from greeting people when you have T-roll in hand, but I still say “Good morning.” and “How are you?” to anyone I see on my compound.
Next, I’ll work on some lesson plans or just hang out with my family until I’m served breakfast.  The host families are paid (pretty well for Ghanaian standards, I’m told) to host a trainee, so they are expected to provide meals for us.  I help in the cooking occasionally, but usually my mom is nearly done when I’m ready to start my day.­ I’ve also helped fetch water and done laundry during this time.
Breakfast has been an egg omelet sandwich or oatmeal.  The omelet has tomatoes, onions, green beans, and peppers in it, and the bread is sweet white bread that is made in small batch deliciousness. Very tasty!  The oatmeal is pretty basic, but Ghanaians like it like they like their tea, sweet and mixed with evaporated milk.
6:00am – I’m usually done with breakfast by now and ready to take a bucket bath.  I fill up my bucket with water from the barrel in my room, and then go into our shower stall.  Four walls each 4 feet high and a doorway make up the whole stall.  It has a cement and rock floor that is swept after each bath to keep the mold and slipperiness away.
6:30am – Time to leave for practicum.  Things start early here, and I need to get to school by 7:15.  It takes me about 15 minutes to walk to the taxi stand, and since I need to say good morning and ask everyone how they are doing whenever I see someone, it can take me up to 30 min to walk to the taxi station.
The taxis are pretty crappy around here, and they all have yellow license plates.  Usually they are pretty old cars, 10-25 years old, and are kept running by the loyal drivers who truly love them.  Only crucial repairs are done to the taxis, and it is common for the whole dashboard to be out of order.  I always hope the speedometer works in my taxis, but the drivers can’t go too fast because they need to swerve around the numerous potholes and pedestrians.
7:00am – We’re on the road now.  I head to Kukurantumi with Victoria Sicking (my teaching partner and wife when either of us get hassled about being married or harassed for being single), and we have to carpool with some other people to fill the car to 4 passengers.  Usually there are more Peace Corps teachers heading there, but sometimes we have to wait 30 minutes for two more Ghanaians to come along who are heading the same direction as us.
7:40am – Morning assembly at St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Junior High School.  This is the first place kids can be caned (beaten with a meter long stick about as think as a pinkie finger).  The other day the prefects and the late students were caned for not sweeping the classrooms fast enough.  The prefects really are the whipping boys/girls of the school.  When something isn’t done, and the whole class is to blame, the prefect will get whipped, and if it’s bad enough, every child will be whipped.  Our teacher explained that they need to be punished, or the children will not learn.  Caning is supposed to only happen to correct behavior, not out of anger, but that isn’t always the case.  As a Peace Corps teacher, I’m really not in a position to change the system, but I can make suggestions to my fellow teachers.  It’s pretty hard to watch a bunch of kids getting beaten, and I prefer to look away.  It bothers me, but I can’t really change anything.
I just teach one or two classes for practicum, but Peace Corps started us off fast.  I had one 15 minute peer teaching session, and then the next day I taught 2 classes.  I think everything is going well so far, but I’m teaching 6th and 7th graders, and mostly I just give them lectures.  It’s not very effective, but I’ve only been teaching for 1 week, and I don’t really have a rapport with these students.  I try to involve them by asking questions and getting them to participate.  I have a BA in Mathematics, but I don’t have any real classroom experience, and I only took a couple science classes in college.  But that hasn’t stopped Ghana from telling me that I can teach math and science in junior high schools.
Class time – My students are pretty good, and they still think it’s cool to have a guest teacher who’s white.  I’m constantly surprised by how little my students know.  I was trying to teach my 6th graders about percentages, but I was really struggling because they don’t remember how to multiply decimals and fractions.  Long division seemed like a brand new idea, but I was assured they learned it a couple months ago.
One day Victoria and I watched our collaborating teacher teach a math class the other day, and we were shocked.  He ran the class like a drill sergeant, and was just shouting things at the students.  They clearly weren’t learning anything, and he was just yelling at them.  No wonder our Peace Corps trainers have told us we will be the students’ favorite teachers.
12:30pm – I’m usually done teaching by now and ready to leave the school.  My mom packs me a lunch of ramen or a traditional Ghanaian food.  I’ll have a whole entry on food later.  JHS gets done at 2:00pm, but since we’re just doing practicum, we don’t have to stay the whole time.  Some days I go to an internet cafĂ© or market in a bigger town, other days I go home, and some days we head to a spot (bar) to work on lesson planning.
I’ll have a whole entry about markets and navigating the streets in the near future.
Victoria and I have to catch a taxi back to Anyinasin, and that usually requires a taxi to New Tafo first.  Per person it costs 50 pesawas (cents) to ride between Kukurantumi and New Tafo, and 1.20 cedis ($1 = ₵1.70) to get between New Tafo and Anyinasin.  The taxi stand at New Tafo is pretty busy, and you can get taxis to any town within an hour’s drive; you just have to wait for the taxis to fill with 4 people.
5:30pm – Dinner is served.  My mom is a really good cook, and I’ll make a whole entry just about food later.  She tells me to “Eat all.” pretty much every meal, and sometimes I do.  When I don’t it’s usually just because she gives me too much, and not because the food doesn’t taste good.
For the rest of the night, I usually hang out with my family, head to a spot with some other volunteers, watch a movie by myself or with my family, or work on my lesson planning.  I’ve watched football, learned some more Twi, and just watched my family members do their thing during this time.  Days start and end early here, so not much happens after dinner.
9:00pm – Back to bed and it’s time for the mefloquine dreams.  They really haven’t been too crazy, but I do think I remember more dreams.  It might just be because I’m more conscious of them

Thursday, June 21, 2012

First Entry

1st Entry!

I’ve been living in Ghana for only 15 days now, but it feels a lot longer than that.  When the 24 other Peace Corps Trainees and I got off the plane, we were greeted by a wave of heat and humidity that hasn’t left.  After a few days you just get used to it, and now the heat only really bothers me during the middle of the day if there aren’t any clouds and when I’m trying to fall asleep.  In fact, I rarely use a blanket.  I’ve been sleeping on a foam mattress with a sheet over it, and I have my sleeping bag out next to me, but I’ve only thrown it on 3 or 4 times total.
Ghana is really beautiful and almost all of the people are nice and pleasant.  We spent the first 5 nights at Valley View University just outside of Accra; it seemed like a huge leap at the time (and going from the USA to Ghana is a pretty big leap) but Valley View was more like America than we realized.  At VVU we had running water, electricity (sometimes), food served on a buffet, and we all lived within a few hundred feet of each other.  We learned survival Twi (other than English, the most widely spoken language in the South) which is mostly the ability to say, “Good morning. How are you? I’m fine.”  This seems easy enough now, but anyone who’s had to take a crash course in language will tell you it’s very intimidating.  Thankfully, Peace Corps Ghana has a really amazing staff, and almost everyone has at least 10 years of Peace Corps experience.  They are very supportive and helpful, and aside from the hot, day-long sessions about common sense safety issues, everything has been worthwhile.  I’m sure even some of the things we talked about in the Safety and Security sessions will come in handy sometime.
Anyway, our time at Valley View was fun, and I won’t forget the Accra Quest or Lou butchering me with a “haircut.”  Accra Quest was the first time they let us off campus, and they forced us to head into Accra in groups of 4.  Everyone had to go visit a few different places and make it back to Valley View in 5 hours.  This means that you have to board a tro-tro (taxi minivan that holds 22 passengers) and get around knowing only 5 major landmarks.  Since everyone is so nice and helpful we had no problems traveling to the Flagstaff House and the University of Accra Library.  I know I was initially worried about people trying to take my money or scam me, but the opposite happened.  The other people on the tro with us made sure we got the correct change and weren’t overcharged, and one man even led us to the taxi station that would take us where we needed to go.
To understand my “haircut” and why I’ll never forget it, you really need to know Lou.  If you don’t know him, then here’s Lou in a nutshell.  Luciano Triassi: Italian-American New Yorker, 5’3” tall but muscular, Army Veteran who curses like one, former teacher, former hobo, volunteer, 70 years old.  Lou has seen it all, doesn’t really care what you have to say, and will say whatever is on his mind, especially if it’s, “I don’t care what you have to say.” Or something like that. He likes to keep his answers short, sweet, and to the point, and everyone in our group already has 5 funny stories to tell about him.  I think I have the most though because I was his roommate in DC and at Valley View.  I could probably write 1000 words about him, and some of us have been talking about starting a blog for him so we can record his stories. 
The haircut has been my most traumatic Lou experience, and it happened at Valley View.  Lou plugged his hair clippers into the wall outlet adapter and flipped them on.  They made a lot of noise, and Lou said, “Hmmm, they’ve never made that noise before.” But everything seemed to be working fine, and when he offered to trim up the hair on my neck, I agreed.  The right side went okay, but the haircut was hurting me and it felt like someone was grinding sandpaper on my neck.  I asked Lou if he had cut me and I put my hand on my neck to check for blood.  Lou said, “No.” and that I just needed to hold still, but my hand said otherwise.  There was a small dot of blood on my palm.  “Whatever.” I thought, I just wanted him to finish the other side so my neck didn’t look half hairy and half bare.  Lou tried to trim the left side with his right hand and I cringed. I definitely got scraped that time.  He then said, “Maybe if I flip them over and use my left hand, this will be easier.” “Whatever, just hurry up.” The next pass was the worst and then Lou tried one more time and said, “I think I should stop. This looks like it’s hurting you.” I agreed and put my left hand to the left side of my neck, and when I pulled it back, it was covered in blood.  I rushed over to the mirror and I could see a bloody mess on the back of my neck.  “Wow, that’s crazy. I almost feel bad about that. I’m glad I tried that on you before I did myself.  You’re really bleeding a lot. I almost feel bad.”  He suggested shaving cream and a razor to finish the job since I still had a bunch of hair on my neck, and that was clearly what we should have been doing the whole time.  I went to a bar (they are called a spots here) a little later, and I got to tell everyone there about how Lou cut me up.  That sparked everyone’s Lou stories, and his legend continues to grow daily.
Enough about Lou, this is my journal/blog.  I’m very happy to be in Anyinasin, I like my host family a lot.  My mom Akua Anokyewaa is in her early 40s but you would probably guess younger if you saw her.  I have 3 brothers and 2 sisters; Appiah (18 looks 15), Cynthia (17), Arama (14), Kwame (13), and Kwaku (2).  My mom doesn’t speak a lot of English, but everyone else besides baby Kwaku can translate between Twi and English.  We live in a two-building compound with a dirt area in between that serves as the kitchen, dining room, and play room.  Each building has 4 doors to the outside and I’m currently the only one living in my building.  My mom and her family live in 2 of the other rooms in the other building, a cousin lives with her family in another room, and then another family lives in the fourth.  My building seems to be for guests and storage. Grandma stayed in a room here for a few days, but she left to go to Kumasi with another family member yesterday.  I have a large room, and I keep it locked almost all the time.  I trust my family, but I have expensive things and the area around our house is a high-traffic path.  We have electricity, but no one here has running water.  We fetch water from a well, and store it in barrels.  My brothers like the rainy season because the barrels are positioned to catch the rain water from the gutters.  We have an outhouse which is pretty nice for outhouse standards, and we have a shower stall with 3 and a half walls that are 4 feet high.  It’s not the nicest place around here, not even close, but it has a warm homey feel that I like.
Being a foodie I’m going to write another entry solely about food some other time. I eat plenty and almost everything is an oily red soup, which as you can imagine hasn’t really helped my travellers’ diarrhea.
This week was the first week of practicum and I only have 1 more week to go.  I’ll explain more about it once I finish. All you need to know about it now is that my students like me, but they don’t know very much math.  They mostly teach for a test, and the essay questions are graded very harshly.  Creativity and critical thinking are not the focus, rote memorization is.  It pretty much goes against everything I learned in school, but as we have been told many times, Peace Corps teachers are only teachers.  There’s nothing we can do about the systemic problems and the Ghanaian way of teaching.  Volunteers who focus on those problems lose focus on the children whose lives they can change and end up getting depressed.  So I’m just going to focus on helping my students learn as much math as they can, and if they truly understand the material, I believe they will succeed on the WAEC test. Check back in 1 year to see how actually teaching has changed me.
I miss lots of things about America: family, girlfriend, friends, the food, the constant supply of electricity, running water, roads without potholes, safe and reliable cars, not having to rely on taxis, internet, and the freedom to do whatever I like whenever I like.  This is definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I’m still in the honeymoon period, but I’m going to enjoy it.  My fellow Peace Corps Trainees and my host family have made this transition a lot easier and I just want to thank them for that.  Let me know what you would like to hear about in the future.
As they say around here, “Bye-bye-o!”
PS I have a cellphone, but reception is spotty around my house.  I’m also 5 hours ahead of Central Daylight Time, so keep that in mind. I’ll personal message anyone who wants my phone number, but I don’t want to post it to the internet for everyone.