Sunday, March 16, 2008

Education by the Mile, Education by the Book

This is an expansion on an email that I've written to some people. I've been working on several things over the last week but I wanted to use this post to draw attention to some things other volunteers have done that I'm trying to help out with.

Education by the Mile

In my experiences working with the schools, the amount of structural changes to improve a school seem overwhelming. It may take a generation of more before things truly improve to a level where all kids can really get quality education in rural regions. Faced with this, I believe one of the biggest ways to make a difference now, in addition to the long haul work, is to provide opportunities for the kids that really show potential so they can become the leaders of the next generation. Fortunately, some previous South Africa PCVs (now RPCVs) set up a program to do just that. It's called the KLM (Kgwale le Mollo) Foundation and it selects students with high potential in rural areas to join a prestigious private school, paying for tuition, living expenses, and a small stipend. To help fund this project, the PCVs set up a partnership with the Long Tom Marathon in Mpumalanga. On March 29, about 80 PCVs along with others from SA will be gathering to take part in the race (an ultra marathon, a half marathon, and a half marathon walk). Each PCV has been raising money for KLM. I'm taking part in the half marathon walk and am very excited. I began raising money a few weeks ago and things are going very well. I would like to thank the people who have already made a contribution. I've been especially pleased to see that the majority of my donors so far are my Brothers of Phi Kappa Psi, showing true dedication to our call to service.

Please take a look at the KLM Foundations:

If you think this is a worthy cause, please donate whatever you can ($5 or $10 adds up fast). Fill in my name (A.J. Kumar) in the section to say who you are contributing in support of. With your help, we can be the top fund raising group this year!


Education by the Book

One of my peers working in the NGO sector, Rose Zulliger, has put together an amazing project.
In partnership with Books for Africa, she is going to select 30 schools to each receive 1,100 books. It's always surprising to me to realize how few books there are in the rural communities and how little reading goes on. There's a lot of time to sit around and do nothing so with a little incentive and introduction, I feel like reading could really take off in such an area. My high school has a beautiful library with very few books. We've applied to Rose's program and if we are selected, we hope to use the books to build momentum behind a literacy program. Whether we get the books or not though, I am hoping to look to more sources for books and really push reading.

The books are provided free by Books for Africa. Once in country, Rose and other PCVs will sort through them all, deliver them to schools, and work to ensure they are utilized. The one missing ingredient is getting the books from America to South Africa. To pay for shipping, each school selected will have to raise R1500 (about $200) to contribute to the cause (also making them more accountable for the books since they are investing in them). For the rest of the money, Rose has set up a Peace Corps Private Partnership Proposal. Basically, this is a way to get donations from home to cover the rest of the costs. The site is not up yet, but will hopefully be soon. When it is, I'll be posting it. So if you feel this is a project that really strikes a chord with you, or if you just want to donate to BOTH causes, stay tuned.

My Education

Lastly, I want to reflect a bit on my own education over the last few weeks which also relates to another PCVs project. A fellow Education Volunteer, Saadiqa, works with a leadership camp group. She has put togehter a girls empowerment camp for rural students called Power Girls. I've spent the last several weeks working with my high school to select girls and help them apply for the program. Along the way, I've realized a lot about how interconnected problems really are.

After a lot of prodding and explaining, I got two of my teachers to work with me to finish the nomination forms. Based on leadership criterions, we selected 5 girls from our school. However, when it came to academic achievement, none of them met the 60% average cut off. Worse, NONE of the girls in that grade met the cut off. We decided to proceed anyways. As we worked with the girls, I soon discovered one is actually older than me. She was born in 1984 but she is in grade 9. My teachers insisted that she is a leader and that she now takes classes seriously. The next big surprise came when one of the girls said her father did not want her to do the program. This is an all expense paid, leadership development program. I could not see why he'd object. Then we talked to him and found out, the girl has a toddler at home. He had tried to warn her not to fool around but she did anyway and had a baby. As a result, he has told her, as long as she has a child at home, she will never sleep outside of the house. So going away for a week is out of the question. We decided to let her complete the application just to get practice at writing a CV and essays but we cannot allow her to apply because of her fathers stance. After reading her essays, I realized that she probably understands most of all the girls how important it is to be serious, and take a leadership role in the community, and she has learned a lot from her experience. Unfortunately, it seems she'll never get the chance to be forgiven her mistakes.

Education is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty. As we PCVs work at the grass roots to help increase the quality of education, I want to thank all those who provide the financial support to allow us to do projects. For me, each of these three projects signifies a greater truth about the Peace Corps. Though scattered across a country in sometimes remote regions, we are part of joint venture, seeking to make a difference in this country. Working together, we can make great strides.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

The Good, the Bad, and the Pragmatic

As I traveled home from a day of shopping in town, crammed in the back row of a khumbi with my groceries stacked on top of me and the elbows of my neighbors in my face, I began to ponder some of the things that I am passionate about; rock climbing, chess, experimental physics, and development work. Now, my dabbling in these four areas has been amateur at best to date, although I hope to further my abilities in all three. Yet, in the way that I’ve experienced them, I’ve found a recurring theme. The fields rely on not necessarily being “good” or “bad” but on being pragmatic. One often has to deal with non-ideal situations. Indeed, sometimes it is the complications and difficulty that draws one to them. But, solutions are possible to find, though the implementation may be beyond ones capabilities. In the end, one must use ingenuity, skill, and strength of will to find a path through the difficulties, often turning obstacles into new avenues for advance.

Sending It

I preface this by admitting I am no real rock jock. I haven’t climbed since graduating last June. However, I love climbing and feel a rush when I can “send” a route or boulder problem that has stumped me. Rock climbing is in essence an act of defiance. In our language we have sayings like “hitting a wall” and “between a rock and a hard place” that describe places you really would rather not be and that offer no real way forward. In rock climbing, you deliberately hit a wall, inching yourself up between rocks and hard places to overcome what at first seemed unassailable. The fact that a route is not easy is what makes it attractive. Being able to overcome a bad section is a real demonstration of skill. On the other hand, one cannot risk being foolhardy. There is no good and safe environment of climbing in which carelessness can be allowed. Sure, there are climbers who solo, but they do so risking their life. Rock climbing intelligently requires pragmatism. Redundant safety measures are a must as well as a cool head to judge each move and one’s own ability. Inspecting a route, one could say, well, for that part, I’d rock on from that hold, do a toe hook, and then mantle to that bomber hold. Once on the route, you must pay attention to every bit of your body and balance as you attempt to pull of what you saw in your head. Every piece of rock has potential for use. I’ve often been completely stuck on a route and then asked an experienced friend for advice. The answer generally involves viewing the environment in a different way, using what looks like an obstacle as a tool (“use that overhang to do a head jam?”). It does not help to think of a route as doable, or undoable, but rather, they are just routes and must be viewed rationally without judgment.

The Gambit

In chess, there are definitely good and bad moves, but often there are many moves that are possible, each with their own advantage and disadvantage. There are lots of strategies and memorized openings, but in the end, each game evolves uniquely. Letting emotions or psychology cloud your judgment often results in a loss. One must remain rational and pragmatic above all. A good example of this is the gambit. A gambit is a sequence of moves, usually an opening, in which a piece is deliberately lost. Sometimes a gambit is a set up to force an opponent into a sequence in which they will lose a piece of greater value than was sacrificed or into a check mate. Sometimes, it’s tossing a pawn away to change the tempo or gain a stronger position. Some might think losing material for position is questionable. It is often neither good nor bad, simply a pragmatic attempt to find a way forward through innumerable possibilities.

A Leatherman and Duct Tape

Many people have written about the elegance of physics, about beauty, simplicity, and symmetry. But any experimentalist knows that although the phenomenon that is to be studies may indeed be all these things, the process of study often is not. This is not to say experiments are always ugly. Many rely on magnificent feats of engineering and design. However, few things work as planned in life and in a physics experiment, when things don’t work, the willingness to get down and dirty to make things work is a must. I remember when I first joined the Manoharan Lab in Stanford as an undergraduate, seeing MOTA, the atomic force microscope that the group had spent years building and for which a separate room was added underground on its own foundation, I was struck by the incredible engineering and custom parts fitted together as well as the pieces of aluminum foil, wrapped around numerous parts, and the rucksacks full of lead shot sitting on the spring loaded table. As I progressed through my undergraduate career in physics I soon learned the necessity of such “think outside of the box” methods. As I worked on a team to measure the dependence of the resonant frequency of quartz oscillators in liquid helium versus temperature, I always had to grin when walking up to our bench. This set up, which was able to do measurements at temperatures of 1.47 K (-271.68⁰ C), relied in part on two by fours and duct tape. Professor Moler, who taught the lab class, commented that a true experimental physicist always has two things; a Leatherman and duct tape.

As I worked on my honors thesis I realized that there is not necessarily a “right way” to do things. You have to juggle the money and tools you have in innovative ways. I had created a device to manipulate magnetic micro- (and potentially nano-) spheres. After spending many months on simulations, designs, electronics, machining, electroplating, decarburizing, and what not, I needed to figure out a way to see and record the beads if I wanted to take any actual data. Now though the lab was equipped to see and manipulate atoms, it was not particularly suited for the micrometer range. The best we had was an optical microscope that could distinguish features down to about 6 microns. However, unlike biophysics labs I’d seen, we didn’t have a fancy camera attached to a scope. Time was short and negotiating to use a different lab’s equipment did not seem practical so I took a hint from MOTA. Using a Webcam and rubber bands, I was able to make a digital microscope good enough for the purposes of my experiment. Later, Professor Osheroff, who read my thesis to judge it for a department prize, commented on how it was nice to see some real blood and guts experimental physics. The method was not good; it was not bad; it just worked.

Change We Can Deliver*

This week I completed the final installment of my workshop series on Improving School Improvement to all of my schools. The workshop has probably been one of my most frustrating projects to date, but in the end, it seems like it may have been worth it. It did not go well. None of the 6 total sessions (3 primary school, 3 high school) started on time. All but one had to be rescheduled from its original time. No one ever did their homework. The final School Improvement Plans are not done. However, it did not go badly. The workshop was completed by all four of my schools. All schools demonstrated a greater understanding of their needs and ways to make changes. Feedback was largely positive. All schools have begun and some almost completed a well thought out School Improvement Plan. To get here though required an abundance of patience and pragmatism. I had to adjust expectations and material to meet the realities of my situation. I had to make use of knowledge of each schools strengths and weaknesses as an institution and as a staff. I had to calm myself down after experiencing great anger and frustration.

In many ways, I think all of Peace Corps is like this. We deal with non-ideal situations but have to see challenges not as problems but as opportunities. Like experimental physics, we have to juggle limited funds, resources, and time to find creative ways to help our communities find beauty in life. Like a gambit, some of us have chosen to not make a head-on attack against corporal punishment, sacrificing a value, in order to put us in a position that we can make change in a school without alienating the staff. Like rock climbing, when confronted with a wall, we chalk up our hands and push ourselves to new heights.

*This is in no way an attack on Senator Obama. In fact, I personally think he is the candidate that will deliver. These comments are my own and do not reflect those of the U.S. government, the Peace Corps, yadda yadda yadda…

A Glass of Water

There is a saying in the Peace Corps that goes like this. A pessimist says, “The glass is half empty.” An optimist says, “The glass as half full.” A Peace Corps Volunteer says, “Hey, I can take a bath in that!” Blind optimism leads to unrealistic expectations. Pessimism leads to missed opportunities. We must keep a level head, look at our environment, and find new and creative uses for everything.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Vision and Mission

My previous post may have made it evident that I am in the midst of some soul searching, trying to pin point what it really is that I am doing here in South Africa. In my desire to try many things all at once, I’ve encountered a great deal of frustration as one thing after another gets in the way of my plans. An illustrative and ironic example is the current gridlock over computer instruction. A few weeks ago, my high school received forty brand new computers and a new server. They were received while I was away for training. The twenty old computers were removed from the room that just barely fit them and the forty new ones were crammed in so tight that you cannot lay the keyboards all out because they will be on top of one another. Now we are waiting for an inspection from the agency that has provided these computers and are told we cannot move them because that is the room the agency chose as their computer center room (7 years ago when they donated the first 20 computers). Even after the inspection, there is no physical way we can use all forty computers so the result is that 20-40 of the schools 60 computers will probably just collect more dust. I’ve started pushing, and will soon start shoving and elbowing, to use one of the three large empty halls as the new center for the 40 computers and return the old twenty to the old center. Teachers can then use the old computers for class prep and record keeping while the forty new ones can be used for classes and class research (all have Encarta installed on them). This is going to require convincing the donating agency to allow us to make a new computer center room, finding the money and labor to burglar proof and wire up one of the halls, and then move and setup the new computers again, return all the old computers to the old room. Then I can return to my original roadblocks of finding class time, finishing adapting and creating instruction material, dealing with constant electricity uncertainty, getting internet, and developing an Information and Computer Technology Policy for the school. But hey, I’ve got about 19 months left to get that done.

Faced with these frustrations (and I know my fellow volunteers face similar if not more daunting tasks at their sites), I feel a sense of kinship with those members of my schools staff that really care and want to provide quality education, but find themselves buried under piles of bureaucracy and pulled in many directions by the Department of Education, Teachers Unions, the village, and their own personal lives. Sometimes I think it pays to step back, take a deep breath, and answer the big picture questions again: Why are we here? What are we doing? Where are we going?

This past week, I worked with my schools in the second part of my workshop series on School Improvement. Our tasks were to re-evaluate the schools Vision and Mission Statements and then to use our previous analysis to come up with a prioritized school improvements list. There are many ways to define Vision and Mission but I focused mainly on the questions they answer. A Vision statement answers the questions: Where are we going? What is our ideal position in the future? A Mission statement is a bit less pie in the sky, answering the questions: Why are we here? What are we doing? Both should be succinct and clear and created with support from major stakeholders.

Here is a sampling of the fruits of my workshop and my own introspection.

Old Visions (verbatim…not my spelling/grammar errors)

Tsoe Primary School: To further the interest, well being and education of all learners.

- Upgrading of school premises

- Improve the financial status of the school

- Creating a conductive and safe learning environment for our learners

- To promote excellence in school

Ba-Ga-Lotlhare High School: To produce an Education Process which will yield a responsible, high quality, relevant and independent individuals, capable of participating fully in the society four years from 2005.

New Vision

Tsoe Primary School: To produce learners that are productive to the entire country.

Ba-Ga-Lotlhare High School: To develop learners into accountable South African citizens who will achieve excellence in global society through their initiative and creative thinking.

Old Mission

Tsoe Primary School: To commit ourselves to maintain high quality standard of education for our learners.

- To promote the culture of learning and teaching

- To promote and foster sound relationships among stakeholders

- To elect an effective and accountable governing body in our school

Ba-Ga-Lotlhare High School: To improve and develop skills, talents, guidance and capabilities of school stakeholders which will establish all democratic structures and also produce people who can deal with different challenges and situations inside and outside our country (R.S.A)

New Mission

Tsoe Primary School: To provide quality education by involving all stakeholders in order to produce learners who will be responsible and independent thinkers.

Ba-Ga-Lotlhare High School: To provide all learners with quality education, and to motivate and develop them in totality through the involvement of all stakeholders.

The difference

Besides the obvious changes in structure, both old and new may come off as nice idealistic statements. The biggest difference though is that the new statements were created by almost all the teachers and management together and so now I have something to hold up to them and say, “This is what we committed ourselves too and I am going to hold you to it.” And I hope that that will be at least marginally more productive than using something the teachers have never seen or heard before.

My personal goals

Vision: To have schools effectively and autonomously setting goals and monitoring and evaluating progress towards those goals, to lay the foundations for a culture of accountability and high expectations amongst both students and school staff, and to have youth leaders that foster and encourage constructive activities.

Mission: To work directly with school staff and students to empower them to realize their goals by providing them with ideas and advice, helping them secure resources, and training them with new skills to enhance their work, while at the same time keeping an open ear and eye to community needs so that opportunities for larger community development can be spotted and supported.

Last week, I found myself heaping my outrage on various groups outside my control: the computer donation company, the government, text book writers (who’s rewriting history now and incapable of doing science and math?). They were impossible challenges that made me feel powerless, useless. Thinking and reflecting on the big picture has helped me breathe out and realize that even though there is a lot outside of my control, there is still a lot I can do as long as I am positive and creative. Getting those things done while I’m here is my real challenge.