Sunday, November 26, 2006

One year or two? The decision doesn’t have to be made till around February but it is a constant question. Here are my pros and cons.

For staying:

Training weekends

School visits

I want to really know Ethiopia, and Adwa, and I’ll need more time to do this, and to adjust more fully

Coffee ceremony invitations, which always seem to include lunch

Children I barely know coming up to hold my hand

Mountain scenery

For going:

Being alone every night

A diet of white bread and shiro

Having to have a translator for all my workshops

Children I don’t know yelling “Money, money” at me

Not seeing Nicholas (my nephew) growing up

Training weekends / 7 day workweeks

Ethiopian English

Cockroaches and fleas (while my populations are more or less under control, there’s the constant fear of a resurgence)

Last weekend I was certain I would stay for two years, and this week I’ve been pulled towards one year. Nothing bad has happened; I just seem to be struck by a rather strong feeling of homesickness and tiredness. I know I’ll continue to bounce the decision round right up until it has to be made… Onto other news… macchiato and goiter.

The College has purchased two large espresso/macchiato machines, one for the Staff Lounge and one for the Student Lounge (we still have no students). Much of the College budget comes from aid programmes (USAID and TDP-Teacher Development Programme- from several EU countries), so I find it quite difficult not to question this purchase, especially when we can’t afford decent books for the cluster schools and we’ve just been told to scale down our English training for teachers. Maybe this isn’t fair, but I think an aid budget is different from a gift: it needs to have strings and responsibilities attached. Of course, I say this from the comfort of my shiny indoor bathroom home, rent paid by the College. Anyway, my conscience has yet to be tested on the macchiato issue, as nobody knows how to work the machine or read the instructions, so we’re still enjoying traditional coffee.

At the Ahferom workshop, I noticed that most of the women have a goiter. Apparently, soil erosion is contributing to iodine deficiency. The problem mostly affects rural people, and more so even in the south of Ethiopia than in Tigray. Goiter itself is essentially a cosmetic problem, but I understand that iodine deficiency is the number one cause of preventable mental retardation in children. There is iodized salt available in Adwa but in the rural areas it’s not usually accessible and people often don’t know the connection.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

I had my first real training session on the weekend. It took place at Enticho Elementary School in the village of Enticho, for all the key teachers in the woreda of Ahferom. Many of the schools are very rural and very hard to get to. I realized what a skewed perspective I’ve gotten from the Adwa Town schools and even the more accessible rural schools that we’ve visited so far. In Enticho School, the walls of the classrooms are practically bare, although both key teachers do have charts of the Tigrigna alphabet which is good; the more rural schools have far less. The problem in Adwa Town is almost the opposite: they have received so much inappropriate material, and misdirected training, that the walls of some of the classrooms are covered in useless, confusing and misspelled charts.

The official class size limit for grades 1-4 is 50 children, and so far in Adwa Town I haven’t seen any class above 50 (at least not in grade 1 or 2, at which training is focused). So I was a bit surprised to find that at Enticho there are 70 children in grade 2 (51 in grade 1). As they were planning and sketching their classes I asked one of the teachers from one of the rural schools how many desks he had, and the answer was none. Apparently, some of the schools that don’t have desks have built raised benches out of clay right on the floor (like at the library at Bete Yohanis School, but in the classrooms), but not at this particular school… in some ways, it does make it a lot easier to set up your classroom when you have no furniture.

In Adwa Town, the problem is more that the teachers think they are doing active learning when they’re not, and they have all their tables in groups but some of the groups have 12 or 13 children in them, and they don’t do any group work anyway. In the rural areas, the teachers are fresh (as my Ethiopian colleagues would say), and although they seemed to struggle with some concepts, I think they enjoyed the training and are interested in trying out active learning strategies. The training we’re doing is called Model Classroom and it’s a topic that most Cluster programmes cover as standard; it’s basically about how to set up your classroom with materials that promote active learning. After visiting the Adwa Town schools I realized that we would have to focus on active learning strategies rather than materials, so that the teachers would really understand, and then hopefully be able to make informed decisions about what materials they need. This is especially important for the rural areas where there are very few materials provided at the schools. Teachers also need to recognize the simple materials around them and let students use these materials. While some teachers use bottle tops in their classes as counters, they’re only for the teacher to hold up to demonstrate. So one of the key points of the training is that in model classrooms you need simple locally available materials such as bottle tops and stones for students to use. The need for active learning, or some kind of improvement to mathematics teaching and understanding is obvious: although basic multiplication is on the grade 2 curriculum (children are 8 in grade 2), many teachers had a lot of trouble with the multiplication lesson I demonstrated. They may know their multiplication facts (although many don’t), but they don’t know what it means: one example of many is that several teachers at the Ahferom workshop, one of my training colleagues, and a Grade 8 Physics teacher have all used bottle tops to demonstrate multiplication as if it’s addition, eg.: 2 x 5 as (the asterisks represent bottle tops) ** x ***** .

Although teachers of grade 1 to 4 are expected to teach English (which is a very questionable expectation), most of the teachers at this training had extremely limited English (some probably about as much English as I have Tigrigna). Again, my expectations were based on the Adwa Town teachers, but after about the first five minutes it became very clear that I’d have to have one of my colleagues to translate everything I said. This certainly makes things a bit bumpier, but it was manageable.

There are a lot of complaints among administrators and college staff about the unmotivated teachers who won’t come to trainings unless you pay them a perdiem. And I was quite frustrated about this at first. However, what I’ve found at both the Pedagogical Centre Training and the Model Classroom Training is that there is perfect attendance (this is for 2 or 3 day workshops away from home!) – whether this is because of the perdiem or fear of consequences if you don’t attend or genuine interest I don’t know – the teachers are always enthusiastic and hard working, asking questions and spending their breaks visiting our model classroom and writing down ideas. Many of the teachers are quite young (probably all the men are very young, because they tend to climb the ranks as they get older; there are some older women, but the majority are probably under 25 and even under 20). The starting salary for a Grade 1 to 4 teacher is 400 Birr/month, and I think the maximum is about 900 Birr (compare this to my “volunteer” salary of 1200 Birr plus accommodation with no one to support other than myself).

We’re reducing the perdiem by providing most of the trainings for teachers at four different sites, like Enticho, instead of at the College, so that the teachers don’t have as far to come. This was the first Model Classroom Training so there are three more to go. I quite enjoyed it, and am looking forward to the one next weekend. It will be for Adwa Town and Geter Adwa teachers, so I think the level of experience and English will be a bit different than Ahferom, and than the last two training groups, so that will be interesting.

Probably the most frustrating part of the training was working with my two colleagues who are supposed to be Cluster trainers. Although I did most of the workshop, they did a couple of sessions and it was very obvious, not that I was surprised, that they had a lot of difficulty understanding active learning and how to plan a lesson that would help the teachers understand active learning. My problem is I had been tending to forget that part of my job is to train these colleagues, and I was becoming quite frustrated that they weren’t doing it properly. And my fear was that they would not be open to feedback. But today we spent most of the day together revising and replanning their parts of next week’s workshop, and although I’m not expecting perfection (I certainly can’t expect it from myself), I do think it was time well spent, and I think we all felt happier afterwards. (Unfortunately I have so much paper work and training manuals that I’m expected to write that spending a whole day away from my computer was a little unsettling, especially as I got so little work done last week because we had visitors from Abi Adi: both Jenny, VSO volunteer, and her habesha (Ethiopian) colleague were here to “experience share” about the Cluster Programme, which was actually extremely useful and it was nice to have a houseguest, but no Continuous Assessment Manual, or any other concrete product, was produced.)

Books and Money for Ethiopia!

The question has been asked, I think after I posted a picture of one of the school libraries, about whether you should send books. As the Christmas season is coming, and many people like to share their wealth at this time, I thought I would answer this question, and as usual, it’s in my complicated way.

If you’re interested in making a very large donation, it’s better not to send books because of the high cost of shipping. There are some organizations that will accept donations of money and will then buy books internally or in bulk for Ethiopia, including books in Amharic and other local languages, and I encourage you to explore such organizations.

If you would like to make a donation more generally, I continue to believe (perhaps it’s just that I read Stephen Lewis every night before I go to bed) that UNICEF is the organization most poised to make significant structural and systemic change for children in Africa. Finally, although I think I have pretty much reached the $2000 mark, you are certainly still welcome and encouraged to make donations to VSO, which I do believe is supporting good work in Ethiopia and the other countries in which volunteers work.

Finally, however, I came here with only three children’s books (Eric Carle) and I would like to have more books to share both with the children on my street and with my colleagues as samples of the kinds of materials we should seek out and promote. So if you’d like to send two or three books to Ethiopia, I will happily put them to use. In Adwa Town, we already have stacks of books - many of them never opened - about snowmen and other materials that are completely inappropriate and inaccessible for Ethiopian primary school children, so I’ve been trying to think of books I know that are likely to be interesting and relevant to young children in Adwa. Here are a few. You can probably think of more.

The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch

Swimmy by Leo Lionni

Something from Nothing by Phoebe Gilman

Planting a Rainbow and Growing Vegetable Soup by Lois Ehlert

Aesop’s Fables

Ten Black Dots by Donald Crews

Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin Jr.

The Lorax and other books by Dr. Seuss

Counting books and math themed books

Children’s picture dictionary or word books

Children’s atlas

Nonfiction (there are some good books by Claire Llewellyn, especially those with an environmental theme)

Postscript: I’m sending this on Tuesday afternoon. We’ve just received some money to buy books for the satellite schools, and although it was surprisingly easy to convince my colleagues that we need to buy story books and information books rather than grammar books, our problem is that we can’t find any place that sells such books (in English or Tigrigna), and our funds are rather limited. I’ve just spent the whole afternoon visiting Adwa’s single bookstore and (slowly) scouring the internet, with limited success.

Monday, November 13, 2006

I’m writing this at lunch time and I have to rush to get back to work (I do get a 2 hour lunch break, which balances out my 7 day work week). I thought my laptop wasn’t working because the battery wouldn’t charge, but I think it was a problem with insufficient electrical current rather than the computer, as it’s okay now. I had to write Friday’s entry by hand and then type it in. The problem was that my stabilizer started to smoke last week and so I’m understandably afraid to use it. It happened as I was ironing my sheets. Ironing your sheets, you ask? Yes, since coming to this house, I’ve been engaged in an ongoing battle with fleas. I’ve been trying to outdo them through ironing (sheets, underwear, my mattress, my clothes ..... ) and very frequent laundry washing. However, shortly after the smoking stabilizer incident, I finally gave in and used bug spray. I’m not happy about it, but I believe I have had a few flea free nights since then, and it’s very nice (it’s hard to say for sure though, because flea bites seem to last for quite a while, not to mention the new bites that I get whenever I’m outside in the evening, or in my office, or Furwaini’s cat rubbing up against me ..... Anyway, if anyone has any insight into environmentally friendly solutions to the flea problem, I’d be happy to hear them, because although the battle may be won, I think this will be an ongoing problem.

We had the Pedagogical Centre Workers training on the weekend for teachers who also work in the pedagogical centre – making teaching aids and instructional materials for the school as there is no catalogue from which to order such things. Again, it was very frustrating to see that a lot of teachers had a lot of trouble recognizing what’s useful for active learning. Part of this is Abebe and Meresa’s problem too. What is the point of spending two hours carving fruit out of Styrofoam (granted, you’re reusing materials) to make a chart of healthy food when you could just draw them or have students bring in fruit and vegetables? So, this is my challenge.

Friday, November 10, 2006

I spent most of the week working on setting up the model classroom (a room at the College that’s supposed to look like a Primary classroom, more or less, where we do most of the teacher training). I enjoy this, and I do think it’s a very important training tool. Yet I feel a bit like it’s part of an imaginary model world that doesn’t have a lot of bearing on real people’s lives ..... I go to buy mats for the model classroom and we drive past a little boy who looks like he can hardly stay upright, pushing a cartload of something, and I do nothing. Was there anything I could do? I don’t know.

Most of the rural schools have shut down till early next week as all the children are helping their parents bring in the teff crop before it rains.

Anyway, the model classroom is now up and running. Even for the College instructors I think it will be useful in terms of building understanding of active learning, a term that’s much used but little understood. Working with Abebe and Meresa this week has been nice but frustrating. I don’t know how much they’re understanding when I say instructional materials need to be produced that can be used by students and for multiple purposes. They seem quite keen, but then the manual for the Pedagogical Centre Workers Training contains more of the same. So much material, time, money and learning opportunities have been wasted by Pedagogical Centre workers making useless materials, or things that the students could be making themselves.

In one of my brief forays onto the internet, I was reading on All Africa News that Ethiopia is expected to be one of the African countries hard hit by climate change – in fact it already is. You can’t escape climate change and environmental degradation anywhere you go. Even before I read the article I was thinking about it – the unseasonable rains that are wreaking havoc with farmers, the floods in the south of the country that have killed thousands, the soil erosion that even I can see on the drive to Mekelle. And as Western technologies and values and materials become more common here, the lack of infrastructure to support them is evident – there are batteries but no safe disposal system (although Abebe and Meresa tell me that they will take them apart and use the carbon (?) inside to make blackboard paint), same problem with the aerosol cans, and of course there’s no recycling of any kind for paper or other materials, although most people are a little more innovative about reusing them than we are in the west ( and pop is only sold in refillable glass bottles). There’s no system of composting so for those who live in cities and towns all those great vegetable scraps end up in the garbage.

It is very worrying that Ethiopia is building up many of the same practices that in the west have already led to global climate change and overuse of resources. And yet in the model classroom and in so much of teacher training, although the focus is on using locally available materials, it’s still on using materials: using more, having more paper, more things in your classroom. It’s only fair that children in developing countries should have as much access to teaching aids (and quality teaching) as elsewhere, and yet ..... there needs to be attention to the environment and to resources at the same time ..... probably in western schools as much or more than here.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Allen, one of the VSOs from Abi Adi is visiting Adwa TTC this week to provide some training in writing newsletters on the computer. Abi Adi, Adwa and Mekelle are the three places in Tigray Region where there are currently VSO volunteers. Although Abi Adi is only a little more than half the size of Adwa, there are 3 (soon to be 4, then 3 again, then 2) VSOs at the Teachers’ College there. (I’m the only one in Adwa, although the TTC has submitted a request for an IT volunteer, who is desperately needed.) I haven’t visited Abi Adi yet. Allen says that there is no electricity until 5:00 in the afternoon. Again, I feel like I’m living a life of luxury here in Adwa.

It’s not that there’s not poverty, there is. But increasingly there are improvements to basic infrastructure like electricity. But relatedly, and most importantly, if you have enough money, which even as a volunteer I do, there’s decent housing to be had, and the food, although somewhat limited in variety, is nutritious and delicious (so much so that I’m becoming very worried that I’ll gain more weight in Ethiopia rather than lose it). The problem of course is that the majority of people in Adwa and especially in the rural areas don’t have the security of a decent, stable income. Some NGOs, especially the Catholic missions, as well as government programmes, provide food aid to people in and around Adwa, like both my maid and my guard. I don’t know whether people in the isolated rural areas receive food aid. Lately, there have been some heavy rains that were unexpected as the rainy season ended over a month ago and it’s now the time of harvesting teff. Almost everyone has been saying that this is very bad for the farmers as their harvested crops are likely to be ruined.