Sunday, March 24, 2013

Second Term

Almost three months have gone by since I last updated this blog, and I'm sorry about that for the 20 of you who read this.  I'll try to give you a review week by week, but I have definitely forgotten a lot of things that happened.
Week 1 (January 7)
The first week of school.  As predicted, this week got off to a slow start.  I think all of the teachers reported to school by the second day, and by the end of the week, we were already teaching classes.  There was not much yard work for the students to do because the grass doesn't grow during the Harmattan.  In other news, I started my garden!  My mom sent me seeds from Seed Savers so I have some great heirloom vegetables to grow.  I used a big egg carton flat (the one that can hold 30) and planted German Pink and Italian Heirloom tomatoes, five different types of peppers (sweet bell, jalapeno, Chervena, Santa Fe, and Buran), and some herbs (basil, oregano, thyme, and rosemary).  I'm not sure when they started sprouting, but I was pretty excited when they did.  Of the herbs, only the basil and oregano have lived, and I'm not sure what I'm doing wrong with the other herbs (help me out if you have tips!)  I had a little trouble transplanting the bell peppers too, but everything else is doing really well.  Most of the things are ready to be planted in the ground, but I'm pretty sure I have to harden them off a little more because the sun is crazy hot here.
Week 2 (January 14), Week 3 (January 21), and Week 4 (January 28)
The second week of classes went well enough, and I'm just going to lump the rest of January together.  I bought some poster paper and made flashcards for multiplication (3 through 15) and turned that into a game for my math class.  The form one students were watching, so of course the next time I had science we had to play the flashcard game.  I also made some science hazard flashcards with great success (lightning bolt = high voltage, no smoking, highly flammable, etc.).  In science we have been studying soil, soil profiles, and the hazards and dangers of science.  In math we spent most of the time studying data and graphs.  Pie charts gave my class the most trouble, and I think that's because they aren't exposed to graphs and data as much as we are in the US via TV news. 
During the fourth week, I took a day trip to Accra to pick up some packages (four of them!)  I had to leave Hohoe as early as possible so I could make it back to Bodada before night fell and the taxis stopped running.  I was in the Accra van by 7am, and we were on the road 30 minutes later.  I think it took about four hours to get there and the last hour was spent in Accra traffic.  Coincidentally Pastor Jean-Paul was also in Accra, so after I picked up my packages and figured out how I was going to travel with 50 pounds of snacks, I called him and we met at the main office of the Presbyterian Church of Ghana.  I had a little trouble getting there because the Pastor said I needed to go to "OH-pare-a" Square.  I just repeated that to the taxi driver and he seemed to understand, but it took the sign "Opera Square" before I figured out what he was talking about.  Ghanaian English is different.  Anyway, we missed the bus to Bodada so we had to take a van to Hohoe and taxis to Bodada, but the trip wasn't so bad.
Also, the church elders told me that the ICT lab would be completed by the beginning of February.
Week 5 (February 4) and Week 6 (February 11)
Surprise, surprise!  The ICT lab isn't ready.  In fact, it's still not ready and it's the end of March.  All we need is a light, fan, tables, and chairs, so it really is close. 
In school, we did some review and then had a test in both science and math.  Class tests are always a little difficult because we don't have a printer or the funds to print tests, so you have to write the test on the board and then the students copy the test into their homework notebook.  To discourage cheating I usually get another teacher to come in and watch the students while I finish writing the test on the board.  They are much more scared of the other teachers because they walk around with a cane and are quick to give a rap on the head if cheating is suspected.  I excuse the other teacher and then walk around with a red pen to mark cheaters' tests.  I get at least five students flipping through their notebooks looking for the answers, and usually it's the same offenders.
The results were not too good, and I definitely made the math test too hard.  Only seven math students scored above 50% and the highest score was 78%.  In science, I did better with the difficulty and most students scored about 50% and one student got 93%.
Week 7 (February 18) and Week 8 (February 25)
Week 7 was the first week without teaching.  We got our formal invitations to the social studies quiz competition, the Independence Day celebration on March 6, and the Buem cultural festival on March 15. 
The quiz competition happened first, and it involved all the schools in the Bodada school circuit.  Instead of the quiz masters writing their own questions, they accepted questions from each of the schools.  Naturally, each school used the questions they submitted to determine which students would represent the school.  Luckily for EP, every question we submitted was used in the actual competition, and our representative had memorized those answers.  Thus, I wasn't too surprised when we won, and I was happy, but we had a big advantage.
After the quiz competition we started practicing marching and dancing.  As my fellow PCV Kevin pointed out: on March 6, Ghanaians celebrate their independence from their colonial masters in the UK by marching in the traditional British style (straight elbows and knees, lots of arm swinging, and kicking their feet out as they step forward).  This style of marching takes a lot of work and is not nearly as simple as the roll-step style of marching we used for DHS Marching Band.  I would have hated practicing marching in this style for three weeks, especially since there was no actual teaching going on.  The same is true for the cultural festival.  We practiced marching in the morning, and then in the afternoon we focused on talking drums (Ewe is tonal so using two drums you can recreate some poetry), Twi poetry, Ewe singing, English drama, or traditional Buem drumming and dancing.
One of these days we had a bye-election to replace the Member of Parliament for the Buem Constituency, and most of the teachers worked at the polling stations.  We only had a half day of school on this day, and I used it to get the students to weed my farm.  I got ten boys to bring sharp cutlasses to school and they attacked the eight-feet tall saw grass that had overgrown the school farm.  It took them about three hours to clear my farm (20 meters-by-50 meters), and afterwards we went back to the house and ate rice and stew.  Rewards aren't necessary and most teachers wouldn't give the students anything, but that goes against my American values.  The students refused to take my money so I had to get some of the school girls to prepare food.
Under the supervision of another teacher, a few students also made a bamboo bench on that day.  They cut down some small trees and dug holes in the ground to plant the posts, and then split bamboo (which I forced the boys to collect as punishment for coming to school late) and nailed the strips to form a bench.  I'll post a picture of it on Facebook; I'm pretty proud of it since I played a big part in its creation.  Also, it ended up way too big, but it's cool anyway.
Week 9 (March 4)
Independence Day week.  We focused on marching all of Monday and Tuesday, and we were told that the schools should assemble at 7am on Wednesday.  I asked the pastor about this, and he laughed and said that nothing would happen until 10.  I went to the meeting place around 8:30 and no other school was present.  By 9:30 two of the other schools had shown up, and finally by 10 we started marching to the town football park.  We paraded through town, and in Ghana, everyone joins the parade as it passes.  A couple hundred people came to watch the festivities, but the sun was strong that day and lots of people left after an hour of nothing happening.  Eventually the chiefs and elders came and we were able to get started.
It took way too long for all the schools to march past the chiefs and education officials, and some of the schools organized fancy marching routines to salute the "big men."  We didn't organize anything fancy, but the students decided to spice things up a bit and somehow they pulled it off.  By noon they were finally finished, and I went to get some fufu with some of the other teachers.  To celebrate Independence Day even more, two of the schools were playing in a football match, and then the Bodada teachers were playing against the Bodada town team. 
I agreed to play and everyone was shocked to see me come out onto the field.  I had been standing in the sun for about four hours by the time the match started and was already sunburned.  Before the game, I put on more sunscreen, but my skin was no match for the sun.  After 30 good minutes, I was completely gassed and had to get a substitute.  Apparently, we were playing with the official three-substitution rule because when I wanted to go back in for the second half, there were a lot of complaints about it.  Eventually they let me go back in, but the other team wasn't happy.  I think they only let me because I have white skin, but I really didn't know they were playing like that (there are no lines on the field, it's on a hill, and the posts are made of bamboo, and I thought the game was just a friendly match).  The game ended in a tie 0-0, and everyone I saw for a week asked me about the match.
Week 10 (March 11)
This is the week of the cultural festivities, so we practiced the whole week.  However, the chiefs and elders decided to have a town forum about the poor performance by all students on last year's BECE and postponed the cultural festival.  The teachers were not happy about this because they assumed that this would just devolve into the elders and community members shouting at the teachers.  Miraculously this didn't happen and everything stayed very civil.  The town brought in some people to give speeches and they allowed each of the headmasters to talk about the problems they faced at school.  People talked a lot, but no one really said anything.  Everyone agreed that the students needed to study hard and do better.  The parents asked the teachers to teach better, and the teachers told the parents to discipline their children more in the house.  No one mentioned that there are teachers who don't come to school, and student attendance was hardly touched upon.  I suspect this would have come up if the open forum had happened, but the forum was thankfully cut short by a thunderstorm (it lasted 4 hours and could have easily continued into the evening).
Week 11 (March 18)
On Saturday March 16, the Ghana National Association of Teachers went on strike.  Most teachers belong to this union, so schools shut down all across the country.  I didn't hear about the strike until Sunday night, and I confirmed that the teachers would not come to school on Monday.  I don't teach classes on Mondays and was already planning on going to Hohoe to buy a bicycle, so my plans didn't change.  I called the headmaster and let him know my plans, and he told me that he would go to school on Monday and figure out what was going on because the cultural festival was supposed to happen on Tuesday.  He called all of the teachers on Monday afternoon begging them to come to school on Tuesday so we could compete in the festival.
I bought a great looking 1995 Marin Stinson hybrid bike in Hohoe for 130 Ghana Cedis.  It was easily the nicest bike in the shop, but I was still overcharged.  Most Ghanaians I talked to were surprised I paid more than 100 GHC, but this is a quality frame with quality Shimano parts.  It should hold up better than most bikes here, and I'll take good care of it.  I rode my bike back to Bodada, and all I can say is, "Wow."  This area is beautiful, and I think I'll bike as much as possible.  You can see so much more from a bike than inside a car and you're going slower too.  The annoying part of biking is dealing with all the people who have never seen you and shout "Yevu!" or "Obruni!"  I greeted most of the people who shouted at me in either Ewe or Lelemi, and they were shocked to hear me.  I only wish I knew someone else who would bike around here with me.
On Tuesday, all of the EP teachers showed up at the football park, but only three of the schools came.  The other schools' teachers decided that the strike was more important, but my colleagues agreed that this wasn't breaking the strike because we weren't actually teaching.  The festival/competition was a lot of fun, and I recorded video and took a lot of pictures.  Once I sort through them, I'll put them on Facebook/Youtube.  I was very impressed by the students, and I was happy that not all of the schools were there because it would have taken all day.  As it were, we closed around 4pm and paraded back to the school as champions.  Of the five competitions, we took first place in four; I think our play took second place.
The rest of the week belonged to the teachers' strike, and I just met with the form three students to review some math topics for a couple of hours.  The other teachers are not upset about this, but I don't think they are thrilled that I'm teaching.  Various groups have come out saying that the teachers should go back to school, but GNAT has not called off the strike yet.  I'm going to meet with the headmaster again on Monday, and we'll figure out what's going on.  The strike isn't as big of a deal for JHS students as it is for SHS students because last week was final exam week at SHS.  I'm not really sure what happened, but I'm sure they made do.  I just want to get back to teaching because it has been five weeks .since I have taught an actual class.  I'm very behind, and I wish we practiced our extracurricular activities outside of normal class time, but such is the system.
Sorry if this wasn't as entertaining as my usual postings, but I've been kind of sick for the last two weeks, I'm watching a Black Stars football match (they are winning 4-0), and it has been too long since I posted.  Thanks for reading.

Thursday, March 14, 2013


Sorry it's been so long since my last post.  I'll update you on the last 9 weeks or so soon.  For now you'll have to settle by reading some parts of my VRF (Volunteer Reporting Form for those of you who don't speak Government).  The VRF is the main form of government oversight for volunteers all over the world, and it provides trimesterly proof that we actually do something.  I didn't include the activities section which has all the numbers and stuff, but there are 57 students at Bodada EP JHS, and about 63 in the primary school and kindergarten.  So here are my answers:

Community Integration
Integration requires work; simply living in a community is not enough.  I struggled with this during the first three months, and I felt intimidated by the rest of the community - not because they felt ill will towards me, but rather because they were so happy to have me.  They told us during training that volunteers become celebrities in their towns, but I did not know the effect that being a celebrity would have on me.  At first it was difficult for me to venture outside my house for simple things like groceries and toilet paper because everyone wants to know how you are and where you are going.  And you are bound to meet someone who has not met you yet and to whom you have to explain everything about your life.  I must have told the story about who I am and why I am in Ghana 100 times.  But you have to work at this, and after 100 times you get pretty good at introducing yourself.
I am happy to say that because of this struggle of putting on a happy face to meet people and walk around in the community, most of the community knows who I am (although the little kids still prefer to call me "obruni"), where I am from, and why I am here.  I should also mention that they speak a local language called Lelemi which is not closely related to Twi or Ewe.  This added to the difficulties because I was all set to greet people in Ewe (which I learned during training) and was capable of greeting in Twi.  Learning Lelemi has been difficult but also very rewarding.  I prefer to take notes and write down words and phrases as I learn them, but most of the people prefer to repeat the words at the same speed - making it difficult for me to determine the letters.  The trick is to find someone who has studied the language and build your vocabulary word by word.  I am fully capable of greeting, saying a few things about myself, and expressing my wants and needs.  The community loves that I can do this and everyone is shocked when I first greet them in Lelemi.  After the initial shock wears off they do one of two things: they either try to test my knowledge or they assume I am fluent and just starting chatting away.  The smiles that follow these interactions are very rewarding and helpful as I work to become part of the community.

Integration has been a struggle, but I've outlined that thoroughly in the Community Integration tab.  At school my biggest struggle was classroom management; after the initial shock of having an American teacher wore off, I realized just how little control I had over my classroom.  I was too nice, and I should have been stricter enforcing my rules, especially during the first month of school.  I let students talk more than I should have, and I did not enforce the "English only" policy of GES. 
These problems were compounded by a lack of other teachers.  At the end of the first week, three of the four teachers received transfer letters and left EP JHS to go to their new schools.  As is common in Ghana, the new teachers were in no rush to report to school, and for three weeks my counterpart and I were the only teachers at the school with 55 students (thank goodness we have a small school).  The new teachers showed up one-by-one, and eventually we had a full staff of seven teachers.  Most of them have been good, effective teachers, and with their help and guidance I gained some control over my class.  A more important factor than the other teachers' arrival was the respect I have gained from my students by showing up to school every day (and not caning them).  Eventually the novelty of having a white man as a teacher wore off, and the students were able to look at me like another teacher.

Lessons Learned
I am not cut out to be a celebrity, and I prefer being able to retreat into seclusion sometimes.
Teaching is not easy. I have a lot more respect for all of my former teachers, and I feel bad about the times I misbehaved during class.
As a teacher I mean it when I say, "I care less about the scores you get and more about the effort you give." And "I do not judge a student's character by the grades he or she gets."
Learning a new language is not easy-oo.
My stomach is not the steel trap I thought it was in America.
Being polite and smiling can get you through 90% of the conflicts here.

Planned Activities
I will keep teaching my classes, but the PTA would like me to play a bigger role with the ICT center.  I will work with the Primary school's ICT teacher in developing rules and learner-centered teaching methods for the new computer lab.
I would like to talk with the church, PTA, and community about the possibility of writing a grant to repair, plaster, and paint the school.  It is a sad state of disrepair, and a little money would go a long way.  Hopefully we can a get a quality appraisal.

"To promote a better understanding of the American people on the part of the peoples served"
I speak in a normal voice and try to dispell myths that America is the promised land where everyone is beautiful and rich.  Compared to most Ghanaian languages, English is spoken in a higher voice, but someone planted the idea that white people speak only in falsetto.  This is the single most annoying thing I deal with when I leave my community, and I try to speak normally (okay, I actually speak a little lower than usual) and carry on the conversation.  After I respond in a normal voice, the offender usually changes to his or her normal voice as well.  Ghanaian and Nigerian movies have also created a unique sing-songy inflection in American English.  To show that they are smart and can speak "like an American," some people will use this tone with me as well.  While it is not as annoying as the falsetto, I do usually ask them to just speak normally.
America is a highly idealized place, and most people are shocked to learn that there are poor people who can barely afford to live, homeless people, and "mad" people.  Most of the things they see about America depict it as a great place where everyone carries guns and/or knives, and people are quick to escalate disagreements to violence.  I have to constantly tell very intelligent people that the American movies are not an accurate depiction of normal American life.  Also, the news rarely shows the way a majority of Americans live.  Whether they only say it to humor me or they truly believe it is hard to say, but usually these conversations end with, "Huh, America is a lot like Ghana."  And I say, "Yes, people are mostly the same no matter where they live."

Success Story
Students do not have a solid foundation of mathematics and English necessary to learn junior high level math and science (not to mention English).  I think this is a failure of the GES and not just a problem found in Bodada.  Instead of forcing students to learn the basics of math and English in primary school, students are promoted the next grade (sometimes against the teacher's wishes through social pressure from parents and the community).  I believe that having students repeat grades when they are younger would be more effective than having students repeat higher levels when the lack of knowledge was first noticed.
My solution was to spend my own money (only a few Ghana Cedis) to buy poster paper and create flashcards.  I made flashcards for multiplication and science, and I am working with the English teacher to create English word flashcards.  The multiplication cards have enjoyed the most success, and their favorite game is World Cup.  I split the class into four or eight groups depending on the number, and each group carries out a small "round-robin" style tournament where each student competes with every other student in the group.  The winners of the groups are put into the championship bracket and the losers are put into a consolation bracket.  Then we go through the bracket to determine the champion. 
The game takes a lot of time, but they all love playing and they even practice on their own now.  The results are obvious and the whole class is better at solving multiplication and division problems.  I plan on using a game/competition method any time memorization is required as that seems to be one of the most engaging and enjoyable activities.