Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Back to School (part 1)

Things are peaceful today. I left the front door open to enjoy the gentle, late afternoon breeze and perfect temperature. I’m waiting to see if some students drop by to join me on a bird walk by the river. On Monday I saw a crocodile for the first time in Mozambique! I was running over the bridge and some ladies were leaning over the rail pointing to something swimming upstream. I’m hoping it gets left alone since fewer people are bathing and washing their clothes in the river this time of year, but you can’t really blame the locals for hating crocodiles. One of the other teachers told me about his friend getting killed by one in that very river. Anyway, I’m hoping to see it again during my bird walk.

I took it easy today but I need to get back to planning soon. Classes began last week. I’m no longer teaching English or Computers since I’m working full time at the Agricultural Institute teaching Biology and Chemistry. The Chemistry got added on at the last minute. Actually, I only received my class schedule on the first day of classes (Monday)! Needless to say it’s been a hectic week trying to plan my lessons the day before and write my curriculum at the same time.

Teaching two sciences in Portuguese is tough, but I’m enjoying the challenge. So far things are going well. The students at the Agricultural Institute are more serious and better behaved than those at the regular secondary school where I was teaching English, despite the fact that many of them are younger (8th grade equivalent). My Portuguese is good enough to communicate my points, but does cause occasional confusion. The students are pretty forgiving and I make a point to say we are “learning together.” This week I gave a general introduction to studying science and tried to get them excited about it. We learned about the Scientific Method and performed a few small experiments as a class. We’ll have to move faster next week to cover more material, but I still want to do lots of demonstrations and group activities to keep them engaged (and to give me a break from lecturing in Portuguese).

A note on the curriculum: it’s impossible! For the technical high schools, they squeeze three years’ worth of material (8th, 9th and 10th grade) into one year. Each of those curriculums is overstuffed as it is and the end result is a curriculum that covers more material than any college-level intro science course. In Chemistry I’m expected to take them from “define a solid, liquid and gas” to the basics of Organic Chemistry and protein structure. There is pressure to cover the material since there is a national exam for each discipline. Not surprisingly most kids fail the national exams. Some of those kids drop out and others repeat. I have a quite a few repeaters in my class.

Another challenge has to do with the school itself. While our school was being renovated, we moved into the upstairs of the neighboring superior technical school (a very small university). There’s not enough space, so the dorms and offices and classrooms are all on top of each other. There are classrooms connected to dorms without even a door to separate them. Bunk beds are crammed into very tight and uncomfortable living quarters and students have little space to live, let alone hang out.

Last semester there was a shortage of classrooms. This semester there are more students and an even greater shortage. Since I’m teaching first years, we get the shaft and have to wander around looking for a classroom where another teacher hasn’t shown up. If we don’t find one, we get stuck in a large, echoey room with a tiny chalkboard propped up on a table. The chalkboard has water damage so I can only write on half of it, leaning uncomfortably over the table to do so. The kicker is that they finished renovating the old school about two years ago and it is sitting there unoccupied collecting bat droppings while we continue to suffer makeshift quarters.

Why aren’t we using the beautiful renovated school? The answer I keep hearing is that the school is afraid to move into the new building before they are provided with new desks, chalkboards, tractors and other promised school supplies, the rationale being that the Ministry of Education will deny them these materials if they think they are “making due” without them. Apparently the money is there and hasn’t made it through the chain of bureaucracy. It’s been two years, which makes me wonder if it ever will…

A third challenge is student life at the school. So far I’ve been impressed with the students, but they are pushed very hard. First of all they have an intense course load. On top of that, they spend the mornings working hard in the fields. When they’re not working in the fields or in class, they’re cleaning the school compound. The kids who live in the dorms have to do a lot of this work on an empty stomach. A lot of days they don’t get breakfast and sometimes they don’t eat anything until late in the afternoon. On Friday I had to delay my 2:25 pm class by 20 minutes to let them eat lunch. They hadn’t eaten all day. When they do eat, all that is served is rice and beans. They eat beans twice a day, every day. Apparently they used to get meat once a week, but they haven’t seen that for a while.

When I heard about the living conditions of students I was appalled, but at the same time I can see that the school is struggling just to keep afloat. There isn’t much money coming in from the ministry and although the students pay to attend, it isn’t very much. Still, I am inspired by the eagerness of some of my students and I look forward to getting to know them. There were very few enrollments this year so I only have 33 students but I’m teaching them two disciplines - a total of 10 class periods a week. Each period is a new lesson, so that’s a lot of planning on my part but it’s enjoyable work and it keeps me busy.

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