Sunday, February 24, 2008

What's my job again?

Since January, I’ve found myself in a new phase of my volunteer life. After our initial training, our first three months at site provided us with many tasks and assignments geared towards integrating us into our communities and brainstorming future project ideas. It gave us structure where there would be none and overall was pretty successful in my eyes. Now, however, I’ve reached the stage where there is no real simple objective besides the big overarching themes of helping develop our schools, our youth, and our community. In the quest to fill the void and do something meaningful, I’m trying to do a lot of things in the hopes that at least some will gain traction. We had a week long training where all the Education volunteers in my group met up and we shared lots of ideas. We got a few good resources too and I’ve been trying to put them to use. So here’s the rundown of what I’m trying and hopefully a few will be what I’ll end up doing for a large part of my time here.


This month has been Athletics month (read Track and Field). There was a big local meet at Art’s village, Perth and at first I was planning on going to help out because it seemed like all my schools were closing for the day even though only a fraction of students participate in the sports. However, Tsoe Primary proved an exception. The principal Mme Elesang was going to stay at school with a couple of teachers and hold down the fort. She felt that school must go on and even with few teachers, at least the kids could do reading and English practice. I was so happy to see a school making education a priority that I told her I’d come help out with classes for the day since most of the teachers were going with the kids to the sports event. I wasn’t sure where she’d stick me or what I’d be teaching so I unfortunately couldn’t really make a lesson plan. Instead I grabbed the Mad Minute books we received at IST and showed up to get instructions from the principal. When I showed up, I was set to watch, not really teach grade 6. The principal grabbed a stack of English short stories and had me sit in the class as one kid after another would come stand at the front of the room and read a page. Now, these pages weren’t in any particular order and I soon got the impression that this was an exercise they often did, and the kids with the best English would get up and read the one or two pages they knew well and sit down. I decided this was better than no school but just barely. So I tried to change things up. I had the kids pick one story to read and tried to get them to do popcorn reading. The popcorn reading worked but they still wanted to stand at the front of the class. After every page or two, I tried to ask questions about the story somehow trying to get kids to pay attention and actually get interested. Some kids really got it and were eager to answer, most however, stared blankly. Now, I was trying to teach mostly in Setswana with some English. The problem is, I find myself switching to English when something gets too complicated or beyond my Setswana vocabulary, which is far past where most of the kids’ English comprehension stops. Then the final straw was reached when one kid came up and I realized he didn’t have the same book as the other kids that had been reading. Soon I discovered that almost half the books that had been handed out were different. At this point, I aborted the reading plan my principal had set me on and decided to just fly by the seat of my pants.
First, I needed to do something about the lack of energy so thinking of Kelee’s singing for English practice, I got all the kids up and taught them to sing and do the Hokey Pokey. The kids loved it. They wanted to do it over and over but I put a stop to that. There is too much of a good thing. And there is definitely too much of the Hokey Pokey. With almost no prepared resources, I was unsure how else to teach literacy. I opted for a class game of hangman. It worked well, and I noticed the kids playing it during their break later. During break, I had time to actually prepare something. I decided to switch to numeracy and made copies of some Mad Minute game sheets. Back with the kids, I used the first game sheet as practice, to get the kids used to the concept. At first they were confused. They are so used to writing on their notebooks with rulers to underline everything that the concept of writing on a worksheet as fast as you could legibly write was a foreign concept. By the time we finished the first sheet though, they pretty much all understood. When I called time, most kids complied but some kept trying to fill out answers. After stern warnings, most complied, but one kid continued to ignore me. Even with me standing over his desk and the kids all telling him to stop, he kept going. In my experience here, two things that bother me about schools are the tolerance for cheating and late work. I ask the teachers why they don’t just make harsh penalties, like 0’s for copying and docking points for late work but they tell me, oh the kids won’t respond. Or the parents will be angry. Then they say the kids perform poorly on standardized tests because they are stupid. I’m still trying to convince them otherwise. When kids have expectations set in a safe and encouraging environment, they will at least try to meet them. If no expectations are set, why bother? I wanted to make it clear that my class was different than what kids were used too. When the kid continued to work after time was called, I took his paper and ripped it up. Maybe it was a little harsh, but I still think it was the necessary solution. When I gave the second game sheet, the kids all understood what to do, and though a few tried to get one or two more answers as I was collecting the sheets, no one refused to turn over their paper when I came around.
After that, I showed them the trick of multiplying by nine and using your hands. They went crazy for it but there was not really anywhere to go with it because I wasn’t about to explain to them the fact that it worked due to our using base 10… Instead, since the day was almost done, we went outside and set the chairs in a circle to do a few games of Around the World with math facts. The day ended and I went home exhausted. I don’t think I’ll offer to do that again unless I have time to plan my classes out. Still, it was a good experience and gave me some good ideas about things to talk with my teachers about.

After school coach

I proposed to have a chess club based on the success of my summer camp. My high school agreed and one of the teachers I have gotten to know agreed to run it with me. Unfortunately, due to my traveling and workshops described later, we have yet to begin. I’m hoping to begin this coming week but we’ll see. I have been working on translating some more worksheets into Setswana on my own but have trouble without someone helping me out for a few words.
In addition to chess, I am hoping to start teaching basketball and also to help grade 12 with math and science. For the classes, I’m planning on going back to some fundamentals, like associative, commutative, and distributive properties, in math, and basics of vectors and forces in science.

Workshop Facilitator

I’ve begun my first workshop series at the school. It’s about School Improvement. Basically, we start with a session to do a basic school evaluation then have a session to do needs prioritizing and goal setting, and then use the last session to assign responsibilities and develop plans for improvement. I’m doing the workshop once for my high school and once for all my primary schools together. I’ve completed the first segment. It was so-so. Almost all my staffs came and we started just a little late. That is a big positive based on what I’ve heard from some other volunteers. I had a hard time engaging the teachers to participate. A large part was probably due to my own structuring of the workshop so I’ve changed the next two to be more group work oriented. I’m also going to try to use more Setswana in the workshop. I know my teachers all know English, but it’s so much easier to take in an argument and discussion when it’s in your mother tongue. So I need to step outside my comfort zone to reach theirs. We’ll see how it goes. The second segment is scheduled for Monday and Tuesday unless they get postponed again…


I’ve informally started tutoring several kids in math and physics. They come up to me during breaks and after school, sometimes during class… and ask for help. I’m trying to be careful not to feed them answers and to force them to come up with solutions. It takes a lot more time and one or two kids has gotten frustrated and walked away when I say, “Tell me your thoughts first/ Mpollele ka go nagana ga gago pele.” Maybe the Setswana is wrong. But most of the kids stick through it and struggle to find the answer for themselves. And when it finally clicks and they think of an answer to one of my questions, it makes my day to see them light up and smile. Unfortunately, I still struggle to see how to get the teachers to realistically implement such a student centered approach when teaching a class of over 40 kids with only 35 minutes. At least for now, a handful of kids can be helped.
I’ve also been doing some informal tutoring for my teachers. My friend, Mr. Ntuli, in particular has been my most curious and excited student. He is a Maths/Maths Literacy teacher and we’ve been working on all sorts of topics. At first, I was a little taken aback by some of his questions, given his position as a teacher, until he explained, “KB, you mustn’t get mad at me. I’m supposed to teach these things in high school and no one ever taught me these in school.” Fittingly enough, the things he asks the most help with are things like data analysis and interpretation, tools of critical thinking that were considered too dangerous to teach anyone non-white under the previous regime. Ntuli is a bright guy though and he picks up what I teach him and applies it, and most importantly, always asks when he doesn’t understand. I’ve started working with him to do some Mad Minutes in his math classes to solidify basic facts and hope to eventually work more with him on teaching methods for math.

Local Computer Geek

This is the job I’ve been in the longest at site. Dealing with an increasingly large number of computers (my H.S. just received 40 brand spanking new computers) in a community that is computer illiterate and technologically fairly unconnected presents a lot of challenges. I’m now pretty effective at virus management and have an arsenal of tools to deal with an infected computer, including some fun Linux toys that I’m still mastering. I’ve also had to figure out ways to deal with super slow/old computers and how to get around their limitations. Kids like to come share music with me so and keep asking when I’ll start classes at the school (as soon as we negotiate the final connections of the computers). Speaking of those new computers, how’s this for bureaucratic hell: My H.S. has 20 old computers on a server in a burglar proofed room with lots of lines put in for electricity. That room is crowded with 20 computers. Now the group that brought in those computers and the new 40, has shoved ALL 40 new computers in the same room. You literally cannot lay out all the keyboards. The school has plans to convert another room to use the old 20 computers in. I said, back up, if we are going to wire up a new room, why not take a big hall that is unused, stick the 40 new computers comfortably in there and leave the old room for the 20 computers. My principal said, he’d love to but the group that donated the computers has designated this one room as their room and will not budge. So they’d rather have 40 computers sit unusable until they become outdated rather than put in a few wires and burglar bars. They are supposed to be coming in sometime in the next week to inspect the new computers. I’ve told my principal to let me know as soon as they arrive so we can talk some sense into them. Again, we’ll see…
I’m also a co-admin for the volunteer web forum, PCV Central. I’ve been trying to promote its use amongst volunteers and come up with ways to make it more useful. It’s provided a great way for me to keep in contact with a lot of volunteers in country and share information and tools.


At our In-Service Training (IST), we elected members to our volunteer committees. There is the Volunteer Advisory Council, or VAC which deals with general issues, and is the volunteers voice to the administration. There is also the Diversity Committee, which deals mainly with training and helping volunteers understand and embrace their own diversity so as to become better representatives of America abroad and better support for each other. Then there is the Volunteer Support Network (VSN) that helps provide a trained listener for every volunteer to help us get through tough times and also help volunteers know what to expect and provide tools for dealing with stress. Now VSN and Diversity were combined when we had the election and then subsequently re-split. I got elected so now I’m on both. I’ve lobbied that both should still work largely together and thus have meetings on the same weekends. This way we can avoid redundancy in training and resources and also cut back on travel time for those of us that are on both committees.
To be honest, my primary interest was in Diversity Committee but I realized that my interest in Diversity stemmed from my desire to see us as a volunteer community use our understanding of diversity to better support each other. As such, I saw the merger as not a necessarily bad thing but just a lot of work for one group. Now though, we can spread the work load between two groups and can coordinate.
In addition to my new role to help as a mentor for volunteers, I’ve tried unsuccessfully to mentor some of my high school buddies. One of my buddies that I used to go to the morakeng to shepherd with, failed grade 10. He decided to drop out of school rather than re-enroll. One of his friends and I tried unsuccessfully to convince him to come back, saying I’d help him out with his subjects. He said he was too tired. He was supposed to come by this weekend to visit but hasn’t showed up. He is a good kid and even tried to study extra, using my Setswana/English books to study English last year. Unfortunately, he’s chosen the route of too many kids in the village.

Diversity facilitator

As part of the Diversity Committee, I’ve already gone into action, last weekend going to help out at SA 17’s training. SA 17 is the newest group of South Africa volunteers. I was part of a panel of volunteers in “The Fishbowl” where we talk about our background in the states and about how our background has influenced our service in country. I talked about being Indian and non-Christian, as well as giving a word of support to any trainees in a long distance relationship. We also had speakers talking about being married, feminist, agnostic, gay, and elderly. Overall, it went well. Hopefully we can continue to improve on it for coming groups.


On a more personal note, I’ve been perfecting my hair cutting skills. I’m hoping that by the time I get back, I won’t need to pay for a haircut ever again. I still have a ways to go to get quite that respectable by myself.


Last, but not least, I’m making an effort to get back into my writing (blog, emails, journal, and letters) to make sure to keep track and reflect on all these things. If you ever have any constructive criticism or comments on any of my blog posts, please leave a comment or shoot me an email. I’m trying to keep some of those creative fuzzy skills alive before I return to many years of straight physics.

It’s strange that with all these things, it seems like I should be busy all the time, yet I often find myself sitting staring at my schedule, struggling to fill in things to do for the day. I definitely need to get the ball rolling on projects in my schools and community more and hopefully will be able to do so in the next two weeks. In a way, writing it all out gives me a clearer picture of what I am doing and what I should be doing. Hopefully it’s given you a little insight into some things I’m trying to do.