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.

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