Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Teaching Challenges

"Challenges" here could refer to my darling students or to the situation, depends on my mood. Some of you have heard this rant, but it bears writing about. I think it’s important for readers to understand the root challenges I face as a teacher. It explains a lot about the Mozambican school system. These are things that occupy my mind on a daily basis and have proven to be far more difficult aspects of Peace Corps service than, say, having to carry water or deal with a hot climate.

I am feeling frustrated with school at the moment, as I always do after correcting tests. On my last Biology test only 12 out of 35 passed (34%). It’s incredibly discouraging after dedicating so many hours to planning quality lessons, making beautiful posters, grading homework, giving extra help sessions... to find that it doesn’t seem to be working!

I'm encountering three main problems:
1. Biology and Chemistry are the two “key” disciplines of first year. If they don’t pass those disciplines they can’t go on to second year.
2. Both Biology and Chemistry have national exams that the students must pass. These exams are ridiculously hard.
3. The students lack the prerequisite knowledge and skills to learn the material in the curriculum, which combines 8th, 9th and 10th grade in an accelerated one year course.

The grading system in Mozambique is different than in the US. First, they grade out of 20 instead of out of 100. Second, the expectations are set very low compared to US standards. You can pass with 50% and many students are thrilled to get even that. 70% is considered exceptional.

Even with the low standards, the bar is set high. Students cannot continue to the next grade if they don’t pass Biology and Chemistry. With other disciplines the administration can decide to let them go on even if they’re failing (one of the reasons for the problem in the first place). Since I am teaching Biology and Chemistry, there's a lot of pressure on me to pass these kids/inflate their grades.

Students who pass with a grade of 10 or above (50%) still have to take the national exam, but if they pass with a grade of 14 or above (70%), they get to skip the national exam. The latter is preferable since the national exam has a very high failure rate. It’s almost impossible to prepare for it because the questions are specific and cover an unreasonable amount of material. The curriculum for regular secondary schools is jam-packed as it is and in a technical school like mine the problem is compounded by condensing three years of material (8th, 9th and 10th grade) into a single year. Did I mention that the Chemistry curriculum is from 1986, when Mozambique was in the midst of a civil war?

I’m looking at an old national exam now and wondering why, when there are only eight questions, they dedicated an entire question to naming the twelve parts of the microscope. Why is that important? It’s all the more ironic when you consider the handful of schools that actually own a microscope!

The first two issues wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t for the third: the very low level of my students. I am trying to teach a course that surpasses the difficulty level of American high school AP classes to kids who struggle in the most basic skills. Many of them still have to read aloud and I can hear them softly murmuring during a test. Many of them have trouble writing even when they are directly copying a text (I’ve had kids misspell their own name!). Math skills are also appalling. Many still have trouble with addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Things we take for granted, like reading a table or a graph, summarizing a paragraph and writing something in your own words are near impossible tasks. These kids belong in fifth grade, not 1st year technical (i.e. 8th, 9th, 10th grades accelerated).

So how do these kids end up in my class when they really don’t belong there? There are a lot of reasons. Three that come to mind are:
1. Many Mozambican students pass a grade by cheating, bribing or performing sexual favors.
2. It is now possible to pass 5th grade then skip 6th and 7th grade by taking a test.
3. The technical schools changed their calendar so that students must wait around for 6-7 months before starting their first year of technical school.

The latter is a new change that has negatively affected our school. The youngest incoming students are 13 years old. Who would let their 13-year-old sit around the house for 6-7 months waiting for school to start? Most parents found a different alternative. The result was a very small incoming class (about 40 students total) that was largely comprised of students who simply hadn’t found something else. I hate to say it, but it was essentially “scraping the bottom of the barrel.” That said, I do have some jems in my class and a good group of hard workers. They keep me going.

I guess all I can do is my best, but the students will have to meet me halfway. I’m planning on dedicating an entire class period to teaching some basic study skills and I’ll be giving a project based on national exam questions. This on top of quality lesson plans, graded homeworks and extra help sessions, is all I can do right now.

The purpose of this entry was not to complain. Ok, maybe a little bit... but also to give you an idea of what my job is like. I'm sure American teachers can relate to many of my frustrations. These challenges are not unique to Mozambique. If you have any suggestions or encouragement don’t hesitate to send it my way!

Photos - pumping water

Neighbor boys sharing a bike

Filling up jugs, cooking pots, buckets...

Young girl carrying water

Taking my turn at the pump

Girl with her baby

Students at the pump

Making one of several trips back to the house with a heavy load

At the Watering Hole

“Vale a pena ter nada mas ter agua.” (“If you have nothing else you must at least have water.”) That is what Josefa said this morning as we helped her get water at the pump. The electric pump that services the school is broken so now we have to go to the manual pump behind the teacher’s neighborhood, fill our water jugs and carry them home. We didn’t exactly have running water before (it came on for about 10 minutes three times a day) but it was a whole lot easier than going to the pump.

The nice thing is that we get a taste of water pump culture. There are students, working members of professors’ households (i.e. relatives they’ve taken in) and people from the mud hut village behind the school compound. Changana is the predominant language and some people don’t speak any Portuguese, but there’s really not much to be said. One jug can be filled at a time so everyone sits around and waits their turn. People trade off working the pump (which is surprisingly tiring!) and help each other put water onto their heads or (should they be so fortunate) into a wheelbarrow. It’s a quiet atmosphere of waiting, mostly silent save the non-stop chugging of the pump.

It’s normal for young girls to be sent in pairs to get water. Some of them look younger than they are due to malnutrition but are surprisingly strong. Today there was a girl of only 6 or 7 sent all alone to fill two 25 L jugs of water and bring them home in a wheelbarrow. She waited a long time at the pump and eventually got frustrated, crying and trying to push her jug under the water to the annoyance of the others. When she did fill the jugs she made it no more than five yards from the pump before she could go no further. The other people started talking.
“How can they send that girl alone to get 50 L of water? She’s too young. What kind of mother does that?”
“She lives with her stepmother.”
“Oh, that’s it then. Her stepmother sent her. Stepmothers are no good.”
“I live with my stepmother and she’s good.”
“Ok, well some are good but most are bad. It’s better to have a mother.”
“And her father?”
“He lives with them but he has no voice for his children.”
“What a shame.”
“Does she go to school?”
“I think so, but they won’t let her go for long.”

I finally got tired of listening to their idle gossip and went to help the girl. I carried her wheelbarrow through the school compound, up the small hill behind and all the way to the beginning of her village. I knew that if her stepmother saw me helping the girl would be beaten, so I left her there and said to go home and ask for someone to take it the rest of the way. When I left my hands were bright red, my arms hurt and I had broken a sweat. It’s no easy task. I can’t imagine doing that at age 6.

When Valerie came to help at the pump the conversation became more lighthearted.
Joesefa said, “When you marry a Mozambican you will come to the pump and get water like this.”
“It’s a good work out.”
“You don’t have to go running, just come here and pump.”
“Valerie is a Mozambican woman now. Look at her pumping water with her hair in braids.”
“Yes, but a Mozambican woman pumps water with a baby on her back.”

In fact, there were people with babies on their backs, including a very young girl of maybe 14. I know it was her child because she was breastfeeding it. I was happy to see the baby fat and healthy, but sad to see a young girl’s life changed forever.

There is a lot to be learned at the water pump. You realize how precious water is, you begin to understand life in the villages and, most importantly, you gain an appreciation for the Mozambican woman. When life gets tough the man takes off. It’s the woman who stays. People celebrate male politicians and war heroes but it's the women who keep this country (and every other country for that matter) running smoothly.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

More photos!

Here are some more photos I took last night at our neighbor's birthday party.

Val's gone native.
Nino and me

What a spread!

The neighborhood terrors (ahem!) I mean kids

Kids are kids no matter where you are

Nino feeding cake to his godmother

Sharing champagne for a toast

Para cima, para baixo, para esquerdo, para direito, para centro, para dentro!
(up, down, to the left, to the right, to the center, inside!)

DJ's working the music

Valerie and Louise with neighbors.

Nino and Dona Adelia

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Photos - miscellaneous

Hello Friends! I thought I'd brighten up my blog with some miscellaneous photos I've taken recently. Enjoy!

sweet potatoes from my garden

Josefa helping me wash sweet potatoes

The girls at our picnic spot by the river

Valerie (my roommate)



Jenna, Yours Truly and Louise

We biked 4 miles out into the "bush" for our little picnic

Ceremony in the town plaza for Tourism Day (I was the only tourist)

Girls with traditional beautifying face mask

My neighbors braiding hair in our backyard at night