Friday, February 13, 2009

“I am Madam Martin” by Tammi; 13 Feb 2009

Teachers at Ghanaian schools are referred to as Masters. As a woman teacher I am referred to as Madam.

I am Madam Martin. I am also Madam Tammi, Madam Iowa, Madam Adwoa (my Ghanaian name based on the day of the week I was born), Madam Toffee (because I have been known to reward students with candy) and Obruni (because I am white). I am more appreciative of some names than others. Students use the first four to address me in class or playfully great me on campus. On campus, I refuse to respond to the last one.

Madam Martin is uncertain that she should be attempting to teach at all. This is not due to the seemingly insurmountable circumstances that my mother made reference to in the previous blog entry. Poor facilities, lack of equipment and supplies, etc. –those are just things. My reasons are more personal and my feelings about it swing like a pendulum. I wonder if Ghana is making me bi-polar. Take for instance last Monday.

It’s nearing 7a.m. and I’m 1 of 2 “Master’s on Duty” this week, so I head across the street for morning assembly. (I am supposed to be a lot of places as Master on Duty, but what exactly I am supposed to accomplish by being at these places eludes me). For assembly we all stand outside. The students stand in sections, more or less in rows, based on which year they are. Many students filter in late, and many more are presumably absent altogether. After listening to the school song, the pledge, a few announcements and a few reprimands from the Senior Housemaster, the 7:20 a.m. bell sounds and it’s time for the first period to begin.

This morning I meet with my Form II (second year) business track students. My objective is to review the End of Term I exam so that all of the students understand the correct answers before we delve into new subject matter. (This is something that I really appreciated as a student and something that I think will interest the students.)

I do my best to engage the class. But I soon find that I am no competition for the distractions of other students wandering outside the windows, classmates inside the classroom chattering with one another after being apart for 3 weeks, or the multitude of students who wander and out of the class late. (There are no hall monitors or passes. In fact, there are no hallways). After about 35 minutes, having had enough of the teenage attitude; I clench my jaw, write a homework assignment on the blackboard, calmly announce that this is a waste of time, pack up my things and walk out of the room leaving the students to their own devices. Unfortunately this is not the first time that I, (or other teachers), have done this. And unfortunately it is not unusual for classes to be without teachers for all kinds of reasons. After being here for one term I find that it is more shocking when I walk by a classroom block in the middle of a period and see that almost every class has a teacher in it, than it is to walk by the classrooms and see that there are no instructors.

So anyway, I tramp away thinking: “This is a bunch of crap. I don’t know why I was assigned to do this anyway. Of all the things that I actually have to offer the Peace Corps, why did they ask me to teach?! I have no formal teaching experience, no teacher’s education, no kids of my own, (or any interest in having kids of my own), and I only deem myself to have basic computer literacy! So why on earth I am here trying to teach ICT to 55 uninterested teenagers? This is CRAZY”!

I pace about campus busying myself with various things until the 8:40-9:10 breakfast break. As Master on Duty I’m supposed to check up on the kitchen to make sure that food is prepared for the boarding students and see that the students are “taking” (eating) their breakfast. What I’m supposed to do if this is not happening, I have no idea! But I go through the motions for good measure.

My second class begins after the break. I am scheduled to meet with my Form I (first year) students. I consider this chalkboard lesson on basic software to be dry and boring. But the students are engaged and responsive. They even seem to be learning something and enjoying it! At the end of the 80 minute session, I leave the classroom thinking, “I totally rock! I am the best teacher ever."

So as you can see, this ride on the pendulum is a bit extreme. But I think that my pendulum may be leaning to one side. Maybe it’s the weather.

It’s hot! I stated on my application and in an interview with the Peace Corps that I do not function very well in hot weather especially when there is no relief in sight. So…now I am in Africa. I keep our bungalow as cool as possible via my strict heat management program. This means that I open and close the louvers and curtains at various times to keep the hotter air out and the cooler air in the best I can. By doing this, I am able to keep our bedroom at least 10 degrees cooler than the outside temp during the day. When I went to bed last night it was 88 degrees in the bedroom. It was nearly dawn before the temp “cooled” to 81 and then the sun started coming round to heat things up again.

Seriously though, I am very happy to be in Africa. I truly think it is great, (albeit there are cooler places in Africa where we could be). But if I were serving on another continent, I would surely be thinking, “I wonder what it’s like in Africa? I want to go there”.

Many of my co-volunteers are here to gain teaching experience. When they return home they plan to either start or resume careers in teaching or something closely related. When they describe their trials and tribulations, I hear them say things like, “The education system is messed up, but I love the kids”. I must admit that sometimes I find the students quite appealing. On an individual basis, I’d even venture to say that I like and enjoy nearly every one of them. But when you stick them in a dysfunctional institution and pack them together in a classroom, it seems to me that they somehow become sub-human. There also appears to be an undocumented rule regarding the teacher/student relationship. Apparently there is some kind of game whereby the student’s have the mission of cheating and tricking, and the teacher has the mission of catching and beating. This does not work for me. Homey don’t play that game! So what am I to do?

Take my most recent dilemma for one example: All students take end of term exams. At least 70% of their grade is dependent on this exam. While one of my classes was taking the recent ICT term exam, the senior master who was invigilating went around to each student to check their fee card. If the student had not paid their school fees (or failed to produce evidence that he/she had paid), he pulled their exam and sent them out. Eight of my students were sent out, and as a result they had to receive a zero for their test score.

To me, this seems completely unfair. Even if the fees have not been paid it is an entirely separate issue from the students’ knowledge of the subject matter. So I stuck my neck out for them. After multiple discussions with the Academic Headmaster, I decided to do two things. First, I made a promise to the students that this will never happen again. At the very least not while I’m around. (I’m sure that there will be some “interesting” staff meetings prior to the term II exams as a result). Second, because changing the term I grades was not an option, I provided another opportunity for the affected students. If they wished, they could choose 1 of 2 assignments to complete. If they performed very well, I would add up to 30% to their second term exam scores. Ample time was given so as not to interfere with other class work.

This week, 6 of 8 students opted to hand in the assignment more or less on time. Five of those students chose the option of interviewing a person in the community who has a career that is associated with ICT. Unfortunately I found that not only are most of the reports generally lacking effort, but few students, (if any at all), actually spoke to a real person! I handed them a special opportunity. They handed me a pile of bull #%$@!

It is times like these that really make me doubt why I am trying to do this at all.

I spend a lot of time laboring over lesson plans, (probably too much), trying to foresee every potential problem and playing out what-if scenarios so I am ready to flex the plan and flow with the students’ needs as the lesson progresses. So when things like this happen I can’t help but to think that instead I could be spending time working on other projects. I fantasize about small enterprise development, community action, and eco tourism projects. I fantasize about collaboration with NGO’s, funding sources, and how together we could tap into the great potential of Afram Plains.

Unfortunately I do not believe the Peace Corps is as flexible as my belabored lesson plans. My primary assignment is teaching (this is my mission, which I chose to accept). So far I have not self-destructed. I still go to bed at night with hope for tomorrow. And I still wake up in the morning ready to give it another shot. But the swing of the pendulum is uncertain. And I’m not sure how long the momentum will last.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

"Tammi’s Mom, Unplugged" by Tammi; 11 Feb 2009

Wouldn’t it be nice to be a fly on the wall…?

Here is your chance. Following is an email that my mom sent out to a few friends and family just after arriving home from visiting here. The previous blog entry was “authorized”. We’ll simply call this one “the rest of the story”. To lighten things up a little, I have added an email that I sent home just after my parents’ departure. Hope you enjoy it!

(21 Jan 2009)

There are lots of things you CAN'T tell about a school by visiting an empty campus. Wish we could have been there when classes were in session but, after seeing DASHS and visiting with Tammi and Chris, we'd like to share our impressions about their primary job assignment.

DASHS is an agricultural high school so the campus is large. We saw no ag projects but some of the teachers who live on campus have plots which supplement their income.

There are seven educational buildings and all are either unfinished or in need of repair. One of the things I noticed in a pretrip perusal of the guidebook is the frequency of the word "crumbling." In the tropical climate buildings which aren't constantly cared for crumble.

The only furnishing in most of the rooms is a chalk board made from plywood painted black with "cooked" batteries. The school supposedly has a small library but it's in storage (part of the refurbishment process).

The proposed computer lab is in an unfinished building. The present lab has eight computers operable to some degree. There are no window screens and the ceiling fan doesn't work. The air entering the room during the present dry season is smoky and dirty; during the wet season it will be extremely damp, both conditions bad news for computers and uncomfortable for teacher and students.

Tammi in front of future computer lab

The dining/assembly building has a powdery dirt floor and sheep, goats and chickens were wandering around inside. They'll be ejected when classes start but meanwhile feces is being mixed with the dust. There's an outdoor kitchen and a tin-roofed, open eating area for day students. Sanitary facilities are bucket showers and pit toilets. Piles of trash are scattered about campus.

Inside the dining/assembly hall during term break

Curriculum is set by the Ghanaian school system. The school doesn't have the equipment for all the visual arts units Chris is supposed to teach but his class sizes are small and he can substitute for what's lacking.

Tammi's assignment is to take classes of 40-60 students with limited English language skills and no keyboarding experience and turn out students proficient in MS Word, Power Point and Excel. Sound a little difficult? To me, it's pie-in-the-sky. She says most of her students, if asked their goals for computer training, would like to become knowledgeable on the internet to send out SPAM. In their defense, we didn't notice a lot of possibility for computer jobs in Donkorkrom and vicinity, which is as far as most of these students have been.

A passing grade is 35 percent. By the time some of the families scraped up tuition for the fall semester the students were so late in arriving that there was no possibility of passing. During Tammi's finals testing a proctor entered the room and removed tests from students because of unpaid fees. Hopefully, Tammi will find a way to alleviate that situation.

Students aren't alone in high absenteeism. Teachers fail to report to classes, sometimes for a couple weeks at a time, leaving students sitting in an empty classroom; there are no substitute instructors.

How do you measure success? None of us knows what we do that makes a difference in others' lives, either good or bad. In my opinion, though, Tammi is forced to set her own goals because the classroom goals she's given are impossible. Already she's faced co-ed classes (as has Chris), shown them both male and female condoms and talked to them about HIV/AIDS, probably their first sex education.

If Chris and Tammi can initiate clean-up projects which would in turn foster pride it would be a big step forward. Supposedly funds have been earmarked for building construction, renovation and new computers. Where are the contractors? Where are the computers? They're Ghana get it their own good time.

Sound pessimistic? At the very least, we suffered culture shock.

Venturing into the community, however, was lots of fun. It's a short walk into town and interacting with residents at street level is an opportunity typical tourists seldom enjoy. The word akwaaba (welcome) characterizes the country. We heard it frequently as folks came across the road to shake hands and bid us good day. They seemed to get a kick out of exchanging courtesies in Twi with Tammi and Chris, who comprise two-thirds of the abruni (white) population of Donkorkrom (a Dutch nun completes the trio).

As we get caught up on chores at the Thirsty Horse I'll probably put fingers to keyboard to record more general impressions about Ghana. One thing about receiving them via e-mail, you're not a captive audience.

Marlene & Don

School “Kitchen”

Hello from Ghana! (19 Jan 2009)

It was really luxurious having private transportation home from Accra. (We missed the ferry by just a few minutes which added about 3 hours to our journey but it all turned out fine). We were happy to arrive at home with our purchases and perishable groceries in fine condition. We got the yogurt in the fridge, the meats in the freezer, and most of our things unpacked before the power went out. Our spirits started to drop as the temp in our little fridge started to rise. We were still without power nearly 48 hours later when we started implementing our plan:

We prepared and ate as much meat as we could and I cooked the rest to extend its shelf life. We devised a low-tech evaporative system that we thought should work fairly well since right now the nights are cool and the air is dry. We decided to put the cooked meat in zip-lock bags, suck the air out, and wrap the bags in damp towels. We would then use our battery powered "nurf" style personal fan (a purchase that Terri highly recommended) to circulate the air around the meat and hopefully cool it enough to inhibit the meat from spoiling too rapidly. (I also decided that it would not be a bad idea to pray about it). Genius, right?!!

Well, while the meat was cooling and as we were trying to figure out how to "dry" our yogurt to preserve the live cultures for future use, the electricity came back!

1 Kilo of sausage- $ 7
Car, driver and gas for private transport-$230
Eating good meat for dinner at the end of the day in a developing country-PRICELESS!

As far as how school is going, students were scheduled to return to school last Thursday. Chris and I reported to morning assembly on Monday. We were the only ones who reported. Classes "somehow" resumed yesterday.

The headmaster was here for a day before he traveled again. He's back now though. We got in a little conversation in the yard between comings and goings though. We seem to have a lot of the same ideas for improving this school. So if we can get some commitment and follow through maybe...just maybe something will get accomplished.

Hope you are quickly recovering from your journey. I know that things could have gone a little more smoothly. But then it probably would have given you the wrong idea about life in Ghana.