Wednesday, March 20, 2013

My little heartbreaker

I have a student who I have completely fallen in love with! He is such a smart kid and he tries so hard to study and improve in all ways he can. I have been spending more and more time after school time with him to improve his English. To be honest, his English needs little improvement, just some tweaking. I thought that he must have parents at home that speak English to him. But, it's not the case, his father died several years ago and he just lives with a guardian. He hasn't seen his 3 sisters in over a year. Yet, this little 14 year old will try to be the best he can be is so apparent. I worked on an essay contest with him and he needed to answer the question of why is water precious? in at least 500 words. He did it! I helped him with some grammar points, but they were 100% his thoughts and ideas and 95% his grammar. It has been noted in several publications that when a student is acquiring vocabulary, the average student can attain 7 new vocabulary words in one lesson. He can acquire about 20. Now that the essay is finished (one week of after school work with him), I have been giving him flashcards to memorize vocabulary. At the rate we are going, he is attaining about 100 new vocabulary words per week.

Recently, he came over to my house and we were having a "chat session". A session where we don't learn new vocabulary but where I ask him questions and he responds and then he can ask me questions. We only speak in English. His questions were these: when you are on an airplane to Tanzania, how do you eat? how do you bath? what do you do for that many hours? Then, he asked me if it's true that Americans have pictures of the sun, moon, and the planets. I told him it's true, they exist and that I will show him pictures of space His smile was ear to ear and he responded with I will become so smart!

Selfishly, Jon and I want to keep him at our school because he's so great to work with and it's so rewarding, however, we are looking into the possibility of having him accepted into a better boarding school about 1.5 hours from our school. The students at the boarding school are much brighter than most of our students. He will excel at a better school and be surrounded by smarter students. We asked him first if he would want to switch schools and he said yes without hesitation. We hope to work it out, if possible, before mid-April. He is just so smart and bright, he deserves a better education and we're going to do all we can to try to make it work out for him. In the meantime, I am ecstatic to be spending so much time with a Tanzanian student who aspires to be the President of Tanzania when he grows up. He's so hopeful and studious, he just breaks my heart with how adorable he is!

Friday, March 8, 2013

Life Skills or Sex Ed 101

Since arriving to my school and learning about the opportunity to work with female students on life skills, I have always been interested in teaching the topic. Peace Corps provides an easy-to-follow curriculum that addresses things from decision making skills, communication skills, to learning the truth about HIV/AIDS and pregnancy. I kept putting off teaching the material because Peace Corps strongly encourages us to do it with a Tanzanian colleague. After waiting around for a year and assessing which teachers might be interested in doing this with me, I didn’t come across one teacher who seemed responsible or willing enough to teach with me. First of all, I only wanted a female teacher to work with me. My plans were to only work with female students, I didn’t want a male teacher who might make things real awkward for the teenage girls. That narrowed down my teacher candidates to 4. One had a baby, one got married….that narrowed it down to two. One beats students excessively, now that’s just one female teacher left at my school. The remaining teacher is scared to talk to me. That left zero. So, I put it off. This year, I decided, F-ck it, I’m going to teach it without a Tanzanian. The major road block? My Swahili. I openly admit it, I have been one of the laziest volunteers to attempt to learn Swahili. Sure, I can get around, I can have easy conversation, however, am I going to be able to discuss sensitive and delicate issues such as teenage pregnancy, HIV, and birth control options? Am I going to only make things worse by not speaking Swahili well enough to get my message across? Well, I decided to go for it. It’s now or never.
I decided I would teach it to the grade 9 females. They were all my students last year, so we’ve built a relationship over the course of the year. They like me. I went to gauge their interest. I got all of them into one classroom. I explained my interests and asked for a show of hands on who would attend. Every single hand flew into the air, 110 hands waving around like they’re at a soccer match. Well, it looks like I can’t back out now.
My first class was 3 weeks ago. I had about 100 girls in a classroom and I was incredibly overwhelmed and unsure how I was going to manage this. Of course, the boys are all curious and jealous about the girls receiving a special, secret lesson. A lot of the discussion was interrupted by the necessity of telling boys to stop watching through the windows. They all pretended to accidentally enter the room. I needed to put a desk in front of the door and a sign on the door saying, do not enter. The girls were enthusiastic and excited. I had to enlist a few helpers to keep the girls from giggling too much. We took a vote on the topics they want to discuss first. First request: relationships. I had them ask anonymous questions to me in Swahili. I took them home with me and spent hours translating them. My Swahili concerning sex, STDs, birth control, and other related terms has suddenly increased tenfold.
To try to improve the situation of boys, my second class consisted of moving the lesson to a more secluded classroom at the school. I still had a few intruders, but it was negligible compared to the first lesson. My friend informed me about these wonderful FAQ booklets where you can get one in English and one in Swahili. The FAQs are completely geared towards the type of questions my students are asking. There’s a booklet for various topics such as : growing up, pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, healthy relationships, love relationships, drugs & alcohol, etc. These books are what is making this class possible for me. I translated their questions, then located the answer in the English version of the book and found the corresponding questions in the Swahili books. I organized my next lesson so that the first thing I did was draw the male and female reproductive parts on the board. Then, I let the girls giggle for about 3 minutes. Then I broke out some condoms and asked what is this? I showed them the proper way to open a condom, I let the girls who were curious to touch it and pass it around. Then, I did a condom demonstration. I showed the girls how to properly unravel the condom using a wooden penis. I then showed them how it’s not possible to use the same condom twice and that they should not try it. Finally, I showed them how to undo the condom, tie it up and told them to throw it down their pit latrine. The girls were giggle, giggle, giggling, but when I asked follow up questions, they understood what I said.  The students took turns reading the Swahili out of the FAQ booklets to answer the questions. We only were able to get through a handful of questions in this lesson but they really like the books and want to continue in this format for the lesson. I think I have found a successful format to convey the correct information in a way that the students can understand despite my lack of Swahili skills. I am working to move the class into either our computer room or the library where it’s even more difficult for boys to try to be a nuisance. It’s times like these that I feel my school is such a zoo that I can’t do anything productive without having to deal with behavior issues. Or to have a classroom properly constructed where outside disturbances are minimized by the walls, windows, and doors.
Just to give you an idea, here are some of the questions asked by my students:
If I use a condom, can I get HIV? If I use a condom, can I get pregnant?
What is a good age to get pregnant?
If the condom breaks, can I get pregnant?
If I sleep with a man who has HIV, can HIV transmit to me?
If I use birth control, can I get pregnant?
What is puberty?
I am 16 years old, am I old enough to have a boyfriend?
If I don’t have my first period and I have sex, can I get pregnant?
Are condoms and birth control the same thing or different?
Why do boys want to have a relationship with me?
If I kiss a boy, can I get HIV?
If you talk with a person who has HIV, can you get HIV?
If you have sex only one time without a condom, can you get HIV?
If you have sex with a boy younger than you, can you get pregnant?
If I use a condom, can I get syphilis?
As you can see, they have little to no information on how to protect themselves both from pregnancy and HIV. On top of that, if a girl gets pregnant while in school, she gets expelled, meanwhile, the boy gets to continue his education with just the speech that he should try to help pay for his baby, but without any real pressure to do so. I think what I am doing with these girls is super important and can change their lives if they are informed well enough to make the best decisions for their body and future.
And for all of you wondering, here is my wooden penis:

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Jon & Lia

Jon teaching math to Lia. She knows that 1 fish + 1 fish = a fully belly now.


Saturday, March 2, 2013

Letter Reading

A large thank you to everyone who not only requested a letter, but wrote back to their Tanzanian penpal! The letters have been trickling in since late December. It was great timing since school had a month-long break from December to early January. I held my first letter reading in mid-late January. The students were overjoyed with their letters and even a few gifts that were sent. Even the students whose letters had not arrived yet enjoyed letter reading because it naturally ended up that everyone was showing their letters to everyone and passing them around. I provided dictionaries and Jon & I were there to help with certain words/phrases that were difficult for the students. Even though some words can easily translate to Swahili, the students are still not familiar with what the word is or means. Not only was it a great educational opportunity, it was an excellent way to share American culture with students. I held a second letter reading in mid-February to give the letters to the students whose letters arrived later. During the second reading, we showed 20 minutes of the Mighty Ducks because nearly 90% of the letters to my students involved hockey in one way or another. A former professor of mine from SUNY Plattsburgh even sent one of the students a Plattsburgh puck. Students loved learning about hockey and asked us to arrange for them to play. Obviously, there’s one major barrier to this: there’s no snow or ice. Some letters got lost on the way, some letters are on their way now. I will still return any letters that arrive after this because some students are still asking about their letter.  I have a dedicated group of girls who are eagerly responding to several middle school classes in my hometown. This has turned into letter writing club for me. It is one of the most rewarding activities I have done in my Peace Corps experience and I want to thank each and everyone of my friends and family and even people who I never met spanning 4 continents who helped me with this project! I thank everyone who is receiving a second letter because my students requested to write again. Thank you for your time and energy to make letter writing a success! Some pictures are below!





Above: helping with some vocabulary or sentence structure


Above: the crowd of students looking at one letter!






(above: Jon showing kids the donated puck before a 20 minute video of hockey from the Mighty Ducks)


Above: Happy students