Monday, April 30, 2007

Sunday April 29, 2007
During yesterday’s “Active Learning” workshop, I was trying to get a group thinking about what good group work would look like. I (foolishly?) asked “would you see children hitting each other?”. The answer was yes, so I took it as a language problem and called my translator over…it wasn’t a language problem. Many people really do see hitting as an acceptable way to solve problems, and although children often hit each other in the classroom, it’s not seen as a concern, by most teachers. In fact, older children are usually charged with disciplining their younger siblings, and this discipline usually takes the form of hitting. And, in the classroom, one child will often be assigned as a monitor to ensure good behaviour; he carries a stick and swats the children who misbehave. I’ve actually never seen a teacher hit a child in class, but in the yard, there’s constant stick swinging and stone throwing.
The other day, walking down my street, I saw a little girl who often walks with me, and is very quiet compared to the many friendly children who usually hold my hand. She was being hit by a man, maybe her brother, in the middle of the street. I wanted to say something, but I doubted that we’d speak the same language, so I just gave him a really bad look. It’s as pointless as it sounds, because I’m sure he had no idea why this ferenji was staring at him, and if anything at all, it probably made things worse by adding to the negative energy.
I’m embarrassed to write this, because I haven’t really done anything. It’s been discussed at the Classroom Management workshop, and, of course, it came up at the Active Learning workshop, but still, when it happens in front of me, I don’t really know how to deal with it. Fortunately at least, change is happening in the home of my friend with a six year old son, who has been making a big effort not to beat her son.

A nice thing about living in a small town is that people can be very trusting. When I went to the shop yesterday to buy vegetables, (no time for Saturday market on a workshop day) I only had a fifty birr note, and my shopkeeper didn’t have enough change, so she told me to pay the next day (which I did). It’s a small thing, but it’s a nice thing.

It’s been raining a bit lately. It’s often very dramatic when it rains, with thunder announcing the coming storm long before the clouds have hidden the sun. Often the electricity will go out when it rains. And the rain brings insects: big flying termites, and more crawling insects like cockroaches which I hardly saw during the dry season.
Thursday April 26, 2007
Aesthetic Vision
I’ve been complaining that many of the teachers don’t seem to have a well-developed aesthetic sense, as it’s so common to go into a “model classroom” and find letters and charts hanging crooked on the wall, and tons and tons of materials produced without the aid of a ruler, even though most schools do have rulers. To me, it seems impossible not to be bothered by these things, but many teachers really don’t seem to see them.
My new theory is that it’s not carelessness; rather, it’s about how well you know and understand something that enables you to see it in detail. For example, while I keep a reasonably neat classroom, I make shiro (that Ethiopian bean powder convenience food I’ve mentioned before) that I’m quite happy with but I would never serve to an Ethiopian, because I can’t be bothered to cut the onions into the near-slivers that an Ethiopian woman would produce. To me, it’s really not a difference worth noticing, but to an Ethiopian it’s a difference between good food and barely edible. I can’t notice it because I’m not used to looking so critically at food, but for Ethiopian women who spend so much of their lives cooking, it’s easy to see.
Or, there’s my new Ethiopian-style scarf, or netella,the kind of scarf worn by most Tigrayan women, with a little fringe at the edge. Even close up, I have difficulty seeing the difference between my fringe and anyone else’s, but several women have come up to me and shown me how I have to twist together two strands in order to complete it. One teacher offered to do it for me: “It won’t take long”, she said “only about two hours”.
So, as anyone who’s seen the churches could easily have argued, my conclusion is that Ethiopians have no worse aesthetic sense that I do, it simply hasn’t been developed in the context of education. Crooked charts are as important to them as underchopped onions are to me. Hopefully, as they continue to be exposed to “model classrooms”, and to the harder task of making active learning work, they’ll become better at looking critically at their classrooms and their teaching. And maybe some day I’ll be able to invite people over for food I’ve cooked myself, without fear of it sitting untouched on their plates.

The Other Kind of Vision
About thirty years ago, Tigray was not the relatively peaceful place it is now. The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front was active across the region, and many people were anxious and angry enough to do strange things like keep homemade bombs in their homes. One of the instructors at the college, who is a good friend of mine and has embraced new methods of teaching and learning, grew up in this time. As a curious seven-year old, he and his cousin and younger brother found a bomb and decided to investigate. His cousin was killed, his brother received some minor scars, and he was blinded.
He was fortunate enough to be able to go to the school for the blind in Asmara, up to grade 5, and received a good education after that, has a degree in History, and has been teaching at Adwa CTE for the past 15 years.
There are many people with disabilities who struggle to live on the fringes of society, and what my friend and I were talking about today is that very few children with disabilities are in school (I’ve seen one child – a mentally challenged boy – in all the schools I’ve visited; the statistic is that worldwide, at least 40 million children with disabilities are out of school, that’s 95% of school-age children with disabilities!). However, as an educated person, my friend is respected, and generally accommodated fairly well, although there are times when he has to struggle to get what he needs - like when the ferenji cluster coordinator (yes, me) did a workshop for college staff that included a sample English lesson that was very dependent on being able to see.
I don’t think I’ve spent any time with a blind person until now, and as a teacher it’s a good check for me to recognize whether my lessons are really inclusive, and really using a variety of ways of learning. And, walking alongside him, I’m forced to be more aware of my environment. At the college, it’s easy, because even though he will usually hold someone’s hand for guidance, he knows the layout very well. But when we went to Dessie, and I was once in a while the guide, it was easy to see how hard it is to navigate without all your senses. I needed to be very alert to upcoming obstacles or changes, and it’s hard. My friend is very adept at figuring out what’s happening around him and where people and things are. Much of it is himself, but I think that the five years he had as a child at the school for the blind really served him well.
April 10, 2007
Knock on wood that I won’t be screaming in frustration next week, but the Cluster unit seems to be taking on more of the shape that I want and I’m starting to have an occasional sense that the work I’m doing now might be a little bit sustainable. I think working with the college staff is very important to the sustainability and real improvements in teaching, as they are the ones (hopefully) training the teachers. It can be very frustrating, though. A group of college staff have gone out this week to observe teachers at schools, and a few of them have already called and said that exams are going on (there’s a serious case of testing taking the place of learning here, but that’s another issue) … oh well, Meressa, my colleague, whose calm attitude will hopefully rub off on me, responded by saying it’s a learning experience and next time we should ask the schools for their exam schedules in advance… good idea.
Also, the frustrations extend to the college staff skills: from the work we’ve done so far, it’s clear to me that my ideas of active learning and their ideas of active learning are not the same, and despite the orientation we did, I worry about the kind of feedback they will give teachers. Anyway, it’s really all a learning experience.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Monday April 9, 2007
Yesterday was Easter Sunday, and today is a regular workday here in Adwa, Ethiopia. I had made the mistake of eating salad, which I guess I didn't wash well enough, on Saturday, so I was feeling a little off yesterday. But I still made it down to Freweini's where she made a gigantic omelet for me, which I struggled with while the family ate sheep. In the evening, I went to my friend Mehari's mother's house. I had tried to cancel, but been guilted into coming because she had made a whole lot of vegetarian food just for me which nobody else could eat because they had to eat meat.
Fasting time was nice, especially on the trip to Dessie when we were eating out every day, and every restaurant served vegan food all the time. Most of the year there's fasting on Wednesday and Friday, but unfortunately, I've just found out that for the next fifty days to make up for all that fasting, there are no fasting days. It will be very challenging to get vegetarian food anywhere but at home.
What is this with the spelling? Are you noticing that I keep spelling Freweini's name differently?I'm looking for the best fit. Because the Tigrigna/Amharic and English alphabets are so different, it's very hard to find a firm spelling for most Ethiopian names. At first I was spelling Furwaini but then I saw that other people spell it differently so I changed to Freweini, but I still see Freweyni and Frewaini and I just don't know. Fisseha is probably one of the worst names. I've seen Fissha, Feseha, Fesseha, and every combination in between, many of them spelled by the same Fisseha, who seems to be experimenting with the best way to spell his own name.
Saturday April 7, 2007
At the English workshop, I introduced sight word Bingo. Of course, I’m not the biggest fan of Bingo of any kind, but as the teachers are having so much difficulty giving the students more opportunity for active involvement, I thought this might be a good stepping stone. And English sight words are very much something worth practicing. So, Meressa and I visited a Grade 2 class at Bete Yohanis School last week, where we observed Number Bingo, English Bingo and Tigrigna Bingo! Meressa was very impressed with how much the teacher had applied the ideas of the English workshop, and to other subjects too, which is something that we’re trying to encourage. I was also impressed but hope that she’ll go beyond Bingo. Unfortunately, what we’ve seen at other schools as well causes me to be a bit worried that we may be entering an era of Bingo overload.
The end of meat...
As I write this, I can hear the Easter sheep crying outside. My landlady, like mostEthiopian Orthodox Christians, is ending her fast (the no-meat time before Easter) and has bought a sheep. It cost 250 Birr and will probably feed the family for about a week. A larger sheep would be more, and a goat would be closer to 500 Birr. A hen costs about 30 Birr, and there are a lot of those around too. Compared to this, a family could eat shiro (beans) for a month for about 10 Birr. I’ve promised a few people (or so they tell me) that I might eat meat at Easter. While so many people eat a pure vegan diet for the fasting period, they do this rather stoically, looking forward very keenly to Easter so they can eat meat again. The idea of being vegetarian full time is rather shocking to most people.
My main argument for not eating meat in Canada is the poor treatment of the animals, as well as the environmental impact of raising meat, and the fact that I just don’t want to. Although there are few factory farms here, animals are not necessarily treated well. I saw a horrible attack on a horse the other day. Cats, and other smallish animals, are routinely kicked when they’re in the way. And it’s obvious that the final days or hours of a goat or sheep’s life are not happy. They lose their freedom, no longer wandering through the streets or the field but tied by a rope. They dig in their heels quite literally, and often fall down or go backwards. Sometimes a child is leading the animal and isn’t strong enough, so he will resort to kicking or pulling it. And then the animal waits, tied up in someone’s compound, until it’s finally slaughtered. Apart from the issue of how animals are treated, there are the environmental implications, and in this place where soil erosion is so serious, it’s not really something I want to contribute to.
Cluster News
My boss has taken a job at Axum university. There’s a bit of competition, I think, among other higher-up people at the college who would like to take over his position, as the Cluster programme is a little bit prestigious, and also, given the state of the college, the only position that is (more or less) guaranteed to exist next year. I want my two lower-down colleagues to be moved up to a more senior coordinator position, which they’re very capable of handling, and would be very good at. Unfortunately, there’s so much awareness of status that this is going to be a bit of a challenge. However, during our visit to Dessie, we learned that the Cluster coordinators there also had lowly roots as pedagogical centre workers (like my colleagues, the people who make teaching aids, as there’s no Scholars’ Choice to order them from), so hopefully this will work in our favour.
Efforts to get the college academic staff more involved in the Cluster programme are continuing. Most staff members will be spending the coming week visiting schools and providing feedback to teachers. I’m hoping that their feedback won’t conflict with the training we’ve already given. Although the college has been training grade 1 to 4 teachers, almost none of the college staff have any experience teaching at that grade level. Many of them are in their very early twenties so their experience of any teaching is very limited. They are aware of their need to learn more, which is good. And I’m hoping that involvement in the cluster programme will help them develop their skills as well as helping the teachers in the schools (hopefully it will help the teachers in the schools).
Ethiopian English Gem
Meressa moved his bicycle into the shade because it (the leather of the seat) was being attacked by the sun. (does it still sound funny in writing?)
How is my Tigrigna? Well, when I asked the cost of a kilo of carrots in the market today, the children selling tried, and failed, to answer in English. Then the lady beside me chided them for not using their common sense and responding in Tigrigna, as I had asked in Tigrigna. So they did, and I bought my carrots, and all was well. So, I can speak enough to function in the market and when people use gestures and simple words and numbers to speak about predictable things, I can understand their gist, but other than that, I have not really been studying responsibly. While I can laugh at Meressa’s English mistakes, there’s not much to laugh at in my Tigrigna because it’s pretty much limited to Good morning, Good afternoon, Thank you, small, big and How much? (although, come to think of it, some people do laugh, just finding it quite thrilling that I can say anything at all.)

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Sunday April 1, 2007

Thankfully, this weekend is a public holiday (the birth of Mohammed and also Hosanna/Palm Sunday) so we have no workshops. We came back on Monday from our trip to Dessie and since then I’ve been busy with a follow-up workshop for the college staff as well as ELIP and catching up on paper work and what not. I was very tired and ready for a weekend off.
Most colleges take an annual college tour so that the staff can share experiences with another college. We went to Dessie, which has a very well established Cluster programme (in-service teacher training, what I do) with a busload of college staff and the directors of the cluster centre schools we work with and the woreda school supervisors. It was a week of driving on Ethiopian mountain roads, some paved and some not, and almost all very curvy and bumpy and narrow. Even the high-end college bus couldn’t make it comfortable - and there were a few carsick people - although it was certainly a lot better than a public bus.
Lately I’ve been noticing that there’s not a lot of variety in Ethiopian food (okay, by the end of the trip, eating out every day, I thought I’d go crazy if I had to eat shiro again), but there were a few moments (few and far between) on this trip when I encountered new and exciting foods, like the porridge in Adi Grad (see pictures) and sugar cane in Alamata. Also peanut tea (heaven) and ginger tea - both of which I think you can get here too, but since I don’t go out that much here, and when I do I usually go for machiato or regular tea - I wasn’t aware of these options. Apparently, the peanut tea is mainly a fasting time substitute for machiato (many Orthodox Christians don’t consume any animal products in the fifty or so days before Easter).
We saw some of the rock-hewn churches near Wukro, as part of the tour. These are ancient churches (the priests claim that they were built around 350 C.E., but others have argued for later dates) that are still in use today, and that were actually carved out of the mountain rock. They’re incredibly beautiful and it’s amazing to think of how they were built. It’s also strange to me that they’re not a bigger tourist attraction. With some of the other VSOs that I stayed with in Dessie, we were talking about how strange it is that nobody knows about the incredible wonders of Ethiopia, outside of Ethiopia.
It’s very dry in Adwa. I’ve been feeling this more and more lately, I guess as we get deeper into the dry season, as my skin gets drier and a walk down the street always means dust in my face. But I could really see the difference when we got to the southern part of Tigray region and into Amhara region, and everywhere we looked it was lush and green. There are two rainy seasons in most of Ethiopia, but in this part of Tigray there’s only one. (We did bring some rain back with us, the first rain in about six months: big thunder and lightening storms last week, and lengthy power outages, but I’m told that this is just a tiny taste of what’s happening to the south, and that we won’t have a proper rainy season till about June.)
It was interesting to see Dessie’s cluster programme. The organization of schools in Amhara region is a bit different than in Tigray, and that was good to find out about. There are two volunteers and two Ethiopian cluster coordinators in Dessie, and the programme is well established. They even have their own office photocopier (no chasing down the photocopy guy, and then finding he’s somehow managed to copy the wrong page!) One of the goals of the trip is to inspire college staff to be more involved in the cluster programme, which is a good idea for always, but especially now that they’re being paid for signing in and doing nothing. However, as I found at the college staff workshops I did last week, and as I feared already, coordinating them to do this is going to be a very difficult task.
When we got back, one of the college staff members invited everyone for his daughter’s baptism celebration. In Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, baby girls are always baptized after 80 days, and boys after 40 days. I was so surprised when I heard the invitation, and thought at first that there was some kind of language gap. This staff member is someone I work with quite closely, and I had had no idea that his wife had been pregnant or had a baby (in fact, I hadn’t realized he was even married because he had been referring to his wife as ‘my fiancée’… apparently in his understanding of English, since he and his wife were not living together for financial reasons, he thought fiancée was a better time than wife). But it wasn’t just me (that could be explained by the language gap) - almost everyone at the college was surprised by this baby. Just as I was trying to figure out why my friend would keep it a secret, I found out that another college staff member was also celebrating his new son’s baptism, and had also kept his birth a secret (actually it’s still a secret – sometimes I get left out of things because I don’t know the language, and other times I get special information because I guess I’m considered different). So are these two isolated cases or is there an epidemic of Ethiopian men keeping quiet about the births of their children? Hmmm