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Circles

My job finished about three weeks ago.  There were a lot of things I wanted to say about that time, none of which got posted, partly because I was busy, and partly because everything was very complicated, and the ethics and professionalism of using one’s daily interactions as blog fodder seem very different on this side of the Atlantic, somehow.  But I do want to say something; I don’t want to let that year of my life pass and disappear without so much as a salute.

Here are some thoughts.  It’s a start.

Toward the end, I spent a lot of time sitting on the windowsill and knitting.  I find this funny, because that’s what I did when I first got there — sat on the wide windowsill overlooking Broad Street, or on a chair in the corner, and knit, and watched my new coworkers teach, and tried to get my feet under me.  It’s a very different feeling, though.  As my boss said when I mentioned this, “This is different.  Then, you didn’t really know where you fit, and you were sitting there because you didn’t have something to do.  Now, you have your own class to teach, and you’re sitting there because it’s not your time to be in charge of the class, and you can help out if somebody needs it, but you don’t have to.”

With the new batch of students, I taught Professional and Postsecondary skills.  It’s mostly a good class, incorporating the best bits of Business Writing along with things that are more fun, like presentation skills and group work and deep conversations.  One week we worked on cover letters and talked about time management; another, the students presented skits on good and bad interview skills.

One day, a student broke down in tears.  Typically, this is not something I would be proud of, but this time it was.

One of the projects I assigned is “Student and Term Association.”  I gave each student a word, a personality trait, something picked specifically for them as a skill that they have demonstrated but need to work on further.  I tried to explain the project to my mother, struggling to explain why it’s such a positive experience.  Partly, it’s the framing of the project, that I don’t say, “This is a thing you’re bad at.”  But it’s more than that: I eventually realized that this word is a positive trait that a figure of authority has picked for them and told them that they can excel in.  Many of them have never been given something like a word before, and that makes it special.  The students were proud of those words, even those who acknowledged that they weren’t there yet, and the Student and Term Association presentations were some of the best I saw in my last session of teaching.

I gave the young woman in question the word “Confident.”  I see within her a lot of talent and ability, really strong group skills, and a very fragile sense of self that occasionally expands to encompass the breadth of her personality.  Come her presentation, she stood up, defined her word, and explained to the class that she didn’t consider herself at all confident; she’d been struggling with an eating disorder and with her sense of self-worth.  I was as floored as the rest of the class — while a lot of the homework (a written exercise to guide the presentation) had been emailed, I’d also allowed hand-ins at the beginning of class, and I hadn’t read hers yet.  She promptly started sobbing so hard she could barely talk, much less finish the presentation.

I was astounded by her vulnerability, by the piece of herself that she had pulled out and laid bare before her peers.  As I stood to usher her back to her seat, Mr. Articulate also jumped to his feet.

“Group hug,” he declared, and the whole group surged forward to enfold Ms. Confident until she got herself under control.

Mr. Unflappable, a young man who has a lot of self-control and ability to take anything we throw at him at school, but who I knew really struggles in his home life, refused to identify with his word.  “That’s not me.  I don’t do that.  I let stuff get to me.”

“Excuse me.”  Ms. Perspicacious raised a hand and looked at him tartly.  “Can I say something?  Because, Unflappable, I think that is you.  You have all this stuff going on at home, but you come in to school, and you don’t let it show.  Maybe it affects you, but we can’t see it in the way you act.  You’re always respectful, and you help anyone who needs it.”

Or Mr. Exemplary, who took his word in a direction I never imagined: “I look at the two meanings of my word, and I see two options laid before me.  I can be that shining example, or I can be a warning to others, a sign post showing which way not to go.  And my decisions determine which I will be.”

I was so proud of them.  I was proud of the work they did with their words, and their degree of self-reflection.  I was proud of what they saw in themselves as a result of the project, and on the whole very pleased with my choice of words.  But above all, I was proud of the space they created together, of the safety and community and trust they had in each other.  I won’t say that there haven’t been rough patches, and that they didn’t get frustrated and disagree.  But any group has its difficulties, and a group like my students, who have been out of formal schools for so long, perhaps has more than most.  But despite the flaws, I saw them BECOMING, even when they couldn’t always see it themselves, and what they can be together is so much more than the sum of its parts.  No one else can take that away from them.  And I sincerely hope that as they grow and change over the rest of this year, they will not take it away from themselves.

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Join me for lunch?

Right about the time lunch started, I was sitting at a coworker’s desk, checking my email as today’s class finished up what they were doing and got ready for break. Another student, one of our IT students who’s currently on the academic rather than vocational side — I’ll call her Snowflake — walked in through the open door.

“Where’s Mr. R——-?”

“In Portland.”

“What?”

“He’s on vacation.”

“When will he be back?”

“Monday.”

“I need my Graduation Pathway. Who has it?”

“I’m not sure.” (I love how most of the students seem to assume that I do nothing with my brains besides store the exact details of what requirements they’ve completed, and what they still need to turn in, etc, etc. There’s a reason I write this stuff down.)

“Well, do I need to pass Business Writing?”

“You need to pass [the IT track].”

“I’m passing.”

I wasn’t so sure of that, but I didn’t have her grades in front of me.

She sat down at my coworker Lala’s desk, across from me, and grabbed a big pile of papers from the desk and started paging through it.

“You did not just take a stack of papers off of Ms. H—–‘s desk.”

“You won’t tell her.” She didn’t look up. “I just want to know who’s passing.”

I picked my jaw up off of the floor. I will admit that I do not recall exactly what I said. I know that I in some way indicated that such behavior was unacceptable — though probably not as eloquently as I would have done had I been less flabbergasted.

Snowflake shrugged and put the papers back. “Will you just tell me, am I passing?”

“I don’t know.” I did not have quite the presence of mind to point out that she did not pass my class, either time, but she knows that already. “You’d have to ask Ms. M—— about that.”

“I guess I will!” She flounced out.

Later, after I’d microwaved my lunch in the other room, I came back to find Snowflake sitting at a table, reading the Vocational Newsletter from last week.

“Will you sign my ASAP form?” ASAP is the program to make up missed time in half-hour chunks, before school, after school, and during lunch. Teachers sign off to say that a student did work for a particular period of time, and eight half-hours are eligible for a day’s attendance credit (but not the work for that day).

“If you work for half an hour.” I pulled out my phone and checked the time. 11:48. I’ve had experiences with Snowflake getting annoyed over ASAP forms before, when my sense of integrity and her sense of entitlement collided.

Some more students came in, and we chatted about life, and the review tab in Microsoft Word, what peculiar thing I was eating for lunch (steamed veggies and peanut sauce. I didn’t bother to mention that the grain was freekah greenwheat, since that seemed like too much bother, and peanut sauce was already a stretch), and You Are Not Eating At The Computers.

Snowflake looked up. “Ms. Miriam, you gonna sign my paper now?”

I shut my mouth on the automatic ‘yes.’ My hands were full of grapefruit, so I couldn’t check the time. “K—, what time is it?”

K— glanced at her computer. “12:10.”

“Snowflake, I’ll sign it when you’ve done half an hour.”

“I did!”

“I told you twenty minutes ago that I would sign it in half an hour, if you were working.”

“But I was working before you came!”

“I wasn’t here to see it.”

“Well, that’s your fault! You shoulda been here!”

“I’m not responsible for giving you ASAP time.”

“Yes you are, since Ms. J——‘s not here!”

“I didn’t sign up to sit in this room all the time and sign people’s ASAP forms.”

“You signed up months ago.”

” . . .” I think she meant that I’d signed an ASAP form months ago, which is true.

“Look, I gotta see Mr. F—- before lunch is over. Will you just sign it so I can go see him?”

“You can go whenever you want.”

“And you’ll sign my form?”

“After you work another ten minutes.”

“That doesn’t count?”

“No, it’s not doing ASAP time. You can go see him and then work ten minutes, and I’ll sign it.”

“I don’t have any more work to do!”

“Read a book. Work on [typing program].”

She found something to do for ten more minutes, and then gave me grief because I signed on the line that she had reserved for a signature from Ms. J——.

————————————————

What’s interesting about this interaction is that Snowflake is better than she used to be. I’ve seen her grow as a person over the last six months. Nowadays she asks when she wants me to proofread a paper, and she’ll move to sit in the circle for group discussion, even if she won’t participate.

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Let me tell you a story

On the way to expat American Thanksgiving in Choma last Friday, my ride picked up two of my sort-of neighbors, Vita and Fanny. (I found this enlightening, because it explained why they’re my sort-of neighbors, and also what they actually do, neither of which I’d managed to figure out on my own. Also, Fanny’s name. They both live in Choma, but stay here in Macha during the week. Fanny is a co-headmistress, or assistant headmistress, or something to that effect, at the MICS school, and Vita is an assistant teacher (explaining why she seems to be a teacher, but doesn’t keep teacher hours). Since Vita stays with Clare while she’s here, she’s a very close sort-of neighbor, and it’s nice to have a better understanding of the situation.

Also, Fanny told us a story.

Why the cow does not get out of the road

There was a cow, a goat, and a dog who were traveling. To get to where they were going, they hiked*. When the cow got to where it was going, it paid in full, which is why it is not afraid of the vehicles that pass. When the goat got to where it was going, it just jumped off and ran away, so it always runs. The dog paid, and there was change due, but the driver did not provide it, which is why the dog always chases after cars.

*That is, hitch-hiked. Walking is ‘footing it,’ or sometimes just walking.

——————-

Expat American Thanksgiving was very nice. Everyone seemed very excited about “meeting fellow Americans,” which prospect did not particularly excite me; I could meet Americans in the US without coming all the way to Zambia, and in general there is a much better selection over there (not that I’m complaining about the expats I’ve met here; they’re all very nice). This is just as well, as it turns out that I was the only person present who had met all of the attendees before that evening. And I always like holidays that involve hanging out and eating good food, especially since we stayed the night and I had the opportunity to take a hot bath.

There was no turkey, but there was pretty much everything else that one thinks of at Thanksgiving — the only staples I might have included were green bean casserole, sweetcorn, and Grandma H’s cranberry relish. AND we had chicken, duck, guineafowl, and bushpig. The guineafowl was very nice: good flavor, moist, more substantive than chicken at home, but not as much as village chicken here. Bushpig is rather generically pork-ish and somewhat dry. I don’t feel any need to have bushpig again. But I would eat more guineafowl.

We played a game that I thought was a nice acknowledgement of the origins of the holiday. Everyone was given an illustrated nametag incorporating their initials to create a “Native American style” name, and we were informed that this was the name out parents had given us when we were small, and that by dessert we should share with the group the story we had been told as children about how we got out name. Mine was Rising Moon, so of course I told the tale of how, when I was born, I was given one of those stupid names that babies get, like Ichabod or something, but that it was quickly changed when my parents realized that my sleep schedule was lunar, rather than solar. We also heard how Matt played with mountain lions when he was two or three years old; how Erma was discovered on a small hill covered in elk; how grownup-Chris’s mother had to slaughter a cow all by herself; how SALT-Chris’s parents drove the car into a ditch so that he was born in a canyon; the story of the nasty Shetland pony that Greg’s family had when he was a kid, which made his first date with his future wife a complete failure; and a few others. I thought it was lots of fun.

And I already mentioned the hot bath. I was really decadent this morning and heated water to add to my bathwater, so I washed my hair in hot water this morning, too, although out of a bucket.

——————-

I’ve been tutoring a woman in computer science material I was never taught, which is interesting. I read the (really poorly designed in all sorts of ways) book and then explain it to her. cmoore calls it “knowledge translation.” In addition to meaning that I spend more evenings away from home than I do at home, I’m getting chances to eat more Zambian food, and also to experience a little bit of the daily household interactions that I miss out on through not living with a host family. I like Monica and her family a lot, and hanging out with them is definitely worth tromping over to the hospital-area several evenings a week. I’m learning things too, which is always fun, and her husband and two youngest kids and I had a hymn sing Saturday night while we waited for supper to be ready, which was absolutely marvelous. I like the music here, and people in general sing really well, but hymns in Tonga aren’t quite the same as hymns in English, and half the music is praise songs in Tonga, which is much harder, because then I haven’t got written words (though it’s really exciting when, on the second or third pass, I can figure out not only what the words are but what they mean, which is happening more and more frequently). So it was very nice to sit down and sing Amazing Grace and gobs of old familiar hymns, and a few new-to-me old hymns. Yesterday Monica and I were talking about binary numbers, and decimal-to-binary conversion, and binary-to-octal conversion, and I could see that she was getting it, which was really marvelous, especially since I knew that she would not have understood it from just reading the book.

I’m also doing some tutoring with the boarding kids at MICS, due to not having enough work to do at work, which is fun, but also challenging, because I never know from day to day which kids I’ll be working with (and I have yet to see any of them twice, although I think that will change if I keep doing tutoring through next year), or whether they’ll have homework or I’m just supposed to come up with something on my own, or even what grade they’ll be in. 24 is my favorite game right now, although it takes a good bit of work to create cards easy enough for their maths skills that are still challenging.

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Hold on and pretend this was your decision

Life is going, here in Macha. The electricity has behaved admirably well since Tuesday night; it’s water that we ran out of for the past three nights, instead. People here are accustomed to that, so there are buckets sitting around for just such an eventuality, but I do hope this isn’t a permanent feature of hot season, because I do like having running water later than fourteen or fifteen hours.

I haven’t seen any rats for a while, but I suspect that is because Claire and her infant son have moved in, along with a number of people who I think don’t actually live in her room, but are around all the time, thereby more than doubling the ambient number of people present in The Wooden House 3. It keeps things lively and increases the amount of Tonga being spoken in my immediate environment, which I think is all to the good, just as soon as I figure out who all these people are.

I had supper Monday night with the pilot and his wife and their three children (all under the age of five). It was an interesting meal, including this highlight:
“L, Auntie Miriam is new here, and doesn’t know everyone. Will you pray that she gets settled in?”
“Dear God, help Auntie Miriam meet a nice man . . . that she wants to be friends with, and some people to give lettuce to.”

I really don’t know where that came from, especially the lettuce.

And last night I had supper with the boarding kids at MICS, the innovative school right across the street from The Wooden House. If I go back it certainly won’t be for the food, which made college dining halls look like the height of style, but it was fun after the kids warmed up to me a bit.

Today’s big news is that I started teaching the International Computer Driver’s License class. I’d been told that I would start teaching it on Monday, and sit in today (I sat in on Wednesday, too), but it got to 40 minutes after the time for class to start, and there was still no sign of a teacher, so when it came to a choice between me teaching the class or there being no class, I taught the class. They’re doing Microsoft Word right now. Even if it is Office 2007, how hard can it be?

I think it went decently. I was, unsurprisingly, horribly unprepared, but I know my way around a computer pretty well, and it helped to have the textbook sitting in front of me. Eviis (Avis?), the actual teacher, showed up about halfway through and sat through the rest of it watching me teach. She told me afterwards that I’m a good teacher. I don’t know if I would go that far. We’re still having accent difficulties, so about half the time I need to repeat myself twice before I’m understood, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I also have some tendency to assume a higher level of basic computer literacy than some of the students actually have (Yeah, I’ve taught grownups who know NOTHING about computers, to whom you need to explain the concept of double-click, but mostly just one-on-one, where it’s easier to tell when you’re losing the student. I’m not accustomed to a group of people my own age who need to be told to highlight text before you try to change its formatting. One of the guys is still having trouble just with mouse navigation). But I draw pictures of the icons on the board, and walk around a lot to see that everybody is more-or-less on the same page.

We start Mail Merge next week, which I don’t know how to use, but hey, I have the textbook all weekend, and maybe when I copy sample letters and mailing lists to each of the computers, I can fix the display settings so that none of them have that ridiculous running horse, which is really too big to be practical when trying to navigate ribbons in Office. I think I’ll need to emulate smb and start carrying around my own tea towel or washcloth for the board, because not only is chalk dust and computers a TERRIBLE mixture, the eraser provided is several eons beyond being on its last legs.

This afternoon I’ll be sitting in on the A+ engineer training class. Just as long as they don’t want me to teach that one, because while I have a general understanding of the material covered, I certainly don’t know it well enough to be able to stand up and teach it on the fly.

I do seem to recall saying that it would be very nice if someone gave me some work to do.

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