Monday, June 21, 2010

Arm Wrestling Champion

This is Fatimata. Do not even try to challenge her to an arm-wrestling contest, as I have so naively done. She has biceps of steel. She also beat me in every thumb war and even a game of Uno. She fires a mean slingshot. 

I have not even mentioned her incredible skills in grinding millet, chopping wood, or effortlessly carrying immense buckets of water. Of course I was incapable of even beginning to accomplish any of these tasks. 

Fatimata might be the strongest eleven-year-old in the world. 

Sunday, June 20, 2010

World Refugee Day

Everyday I meet people who ask me how I came to Mauritania. The answer is one word: Aminata.

A mutual friend first introduced me to Aminata in 2007, a few days after she arrived in New York. She lived in the Central African Republic where her father worked as a trader until the war forced them to leave, then they moved to Togo, followed by Senegal, and then back to their home country of Mauritania. Aminata's family originally left the country to search for better opportunities and were forced to spend many years in exile because of the 1989 conflict.

Although Aminata was already ten-years-old, she had only completed two years of school. Her education was interrupted by conflict and displacement. She couldn’t add or subtract and she spoke only her mother tongue, Pulaar. Aminata’s father came to the United States as a refugee nine years before her, working hard to finally bring his family to join him and be able to access all of the rights they had been denied for many years. Education was one of his greatest ambitions for his children, since neither he, nor his wife, had ever been to school.

Unfortunately, her school district didn’t have a sixth grade so when her father tried to enroll her in the nearest primary and middle schools, he was turned away with no clear explanation. I met Aminata the day before school started but she was not yet enrolled in school. After many phone calls, I was able to finally advocate to the NYC Department of Education and the Principal of the primary school for her to be placed in the fourth grade. This prevented her from being forced to commute by public transportation to the next school district with a sixth grade. This was also a more appropriate place for her developmentally and academically, since she had so many years to catch up with.

After winning the battle of getting Aminata enrolled in school, I thought my work for the family was over. I didn’t think that it would be possible for a diverse and high-needs neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, to be so ill-equipped to help Aminata. There was no after-school tutoring, very little ESL support, and no classroom assitants. The Principal suggested placing Aminata in the small Special Education class so she could get the extra support she required but I refused because that was not an appropriate solution for her. 

While I was researching programs and extra support for the family, on a temporary basis I started visiting Aminata at home to help her complete her homework and also to show her how much I believed in her. If there was a night I couldn’t come to her house, Aminata would call me and leave a pleading message on my phone, “Please come over, I have so many homeworks.” I would always find myself changing my plans and doing everything to be there. We read books and added triple-digit numbers. The day Aminata read her first book, “Green Eggs and Ham”, by herself brought tears to my eyes. Before I knew it, Aminata became one of the most important people in my life.

I continued visiting her many evenings a week, since I had realized that there were no tutoring programs available to low-income families. I treasured every second I spent with her and would look forward to hearing her opinions about the things she encountered in her new world. Pizza? Not so good. Fried chicken? Delicious. Hot tamales? Not so good. Sugar Daddies? Delightful. I made lists of all the things she liked and didn’t like and enjoyed making her my favorite foods. Aminata could not get enough of my chocolate chip cookies. She couldn’t even take one bite of freshly baked apple pie, despite weeks of begging me to make it for her.

Within a few months, Aminata started making friends at school and started finding her way through her new life. In the Spring, I received excited phone calls from her teachers. Aminata had performed the best in her class in the state-wide standardized math test. No one could believe that she could achieve so much in one year.

The next year, Aminata changed schools and none of her classmates would even believe her when she told them she had just come from Africa the previous year. Her English was nearly perfect and she barely had an accent. The endless hours she spent watching Disney movies and t.v. series paid off, as well as the extra hours she spent doing her homework and visiting the library. By the time she reached the sixth grade, Aminata had already become the top student in her class. Her favorite subjects are reading, writing, and math. Now preparing for the seventh grade, there seem to be no limits to her potential. I am waiting to hear of her future triumphs and I know I will never be disappointed. 

After three years of knowing Aminata, in addition to the hundreds of Fulani refugees I taught in the evening classes through my volunteer work at the Fulani community center, I started wanting to learn Pulaar and understand more about their culture, values, and traditions. I wanted to spend time in the places where all of these friends grew up and understand the lives of all of the family members they left behind.

I came to Mauritania in search of myself and a better understanding of the conditions that drive people from their homeland, force them to live as refugees in foreign countries, and endure the hardships of living in a low-income and high crime neighborhood in one of the biggest cities of the world.

Visiting Aminata’s village, meeting her grandmother two months before she passed away, and spending time with her cousins was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. I am so proud to know Aminata because her achievements are a reminder that anything is possible in this world and if we set out to succeed we can accomplish amazing results. Aminata has taught me many things and I know I will carry these lessons with me for the rest of my life. 

Thursday, June 17, 2010

American Dreams

This week I helped six of my students apply for a Fulbright grant to take education courses in the U.S. and teach Arabic at the same time. The students would leave for the U.S. a couple of months after completing their courses here next year. They are all over-the-moon excited for this opportunity. The final day of the application process was a stressful time, with frantic phone calls 45 minutes before the deadline about essays corrupted by viruses, missing letters of recommendation, and faulty internet connections. I was literally editing papers until the final minute. Thankfully, they all submitted on time and I wish them all the best in their applications.

All of this stress, hard work, and and form-filling reminded me of the Fulbright application I completed in 2008. I wanted to research the impact of adult literacy interventions among the Fulani community in Senegal, near the border with Mauritania. This was an extension of the volunteer work I was doing in New York. The day I found out I didn't get the grant was the same day that I found the fellowship that brought me here. 

I applied for the program immediately and nine months later I was on a plane to Mauritania. This program actually fits my professional goals much better and brought me to the country I wanted to visit the most, which was not available in the Fulbright program. Working to train teachers puts me in the classroom, where my heart feels the most happy and where I continue to learn the most about myself and the world. Teaching uses all of my energy, creativity and intellectual abilities. Training teachers pushes me to be even better than the best teacher I can be!

I am wishing my students the same success: If the Fulbright door closes, another amazing opportunity will open. I am always grateful when life presents me with reasons to remain optimistic! Living in Nouakchott this year has been a rich and meaningful experience.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Teaching Reflections

Last week Abdoulaye, one of my second year students, came up to me excitedly, “teacher,” he said, “I just read about the Writing Workshop strategy and I realized that is exactly what you have done throughout the entire year! We wrote drafts, discussed them in groups, edited them together, and then you displayed the work on the walls and published them in a book!” He was beaming, like he had uncovered a secret treasure.

Abdoulaye had just received the book students produced about teaching strategies they had researched and summarized in class. In this project, students worked in groups to research various types of strategies to teach speaking, reading, writing, and listening. This book was presented to students before the final exam so that students could read and study it as a sort of textbook. For the exam, I asked students to select their three favorite strategies and be ready to present them to me.

Most of the students ended up including “writing workshop” because we had used this strategy in our class so they knew it well. Yet I had never introduced it, I didn’t need to because they learned all of the steps by putting them into practice.

During the final exam, this same student explained the strategy perfectly, with enthusiasm and excitement that could never be duplicated through any kind of memorization or lecture. This students’ passion for this strategy came as a result of his personal experience as a learner. I should not have been surprised when most the students included this strategy in their answers to the final exam as well. They were all convinced that was effective because they had seen it work first-hand.

Although throughout the project I worried that students were having difficulty in grasping the idea of a “strategy” as introduced in class, I was also determined to make sure that the project was successful. The central goal of my class was to demonstrate to students (through modeling, group work, research, and student presentations) that an effective teacher always carries a toolbox. This toolbox has many ways of introducing ideas and methods to make their classes come alive for their students. I wanted my class to equip each student with the tools they would need to be able to engage their students in meaningful learning activities when they became teachers.

This idea is in direct contrast to the typical lesson in Mauritania, which far too often uses little imagination and variety. This lesson relies on the same strategies every day, practically oblivious to the needs of the students in front of them, and often do not include reflective teaching. If students fail in the exams, the fault is placed on the students, who are required to repeat the year.

In this typical classroom, the teacher writes a long text on the board (taking over 30 minutes during which the students sat in the seats- and also create many distractions for themselves) and then reads it and instructs students to spend the next 30 minutes writing it into their notebooks. Then the class is over. With only two hours of English per week during secondary school, and courses that do not require students to actually speak a single word of English, it is easy to see how students arrive at the University without even being able to introduce themselves in English. Or finish University without even being able to write a grammatically correct complete sentence.

At the end of the project. I presented this "standard" lesson to the students. I tried to instill in my students the understanding that this is just one out of hundreds of strategies that teachers can use. It may be effective to use it sometimes, but is not effective to use every day. In only a few minutes, the students were able to brainstorm over twenty strategies that they could use to diversify the ways that material is presented. These ways often included games and group or pair work. Furthermore, these ideas tried to put language in context and promote the use of the language itself by students, through role-plays and other participatory activities, where students created knowledge and not simply "received" it. 

Of course, I will have no idea if the students in my class actually internalized any of the information I presented. That is the disappointment in teaching, where we are often just planting “seeds” that may or may not take root. Yet moments like this, when Abdoulaye revealed his clear understanding of class objectives, are good indicators that my hard work will one day bear fruit.

Last week Abdoulaye called me and told me that he was preparing a present for me. I replied that he had already given me the greatest gift: Reason to believe that my students represent the future of teaching in Mauritania.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Paying My Bills

Each month I have to visit many office to pay my bills. One day it is the electric company, the next the internet provider, the following day the water. Often I don't even receive my bill; I have to keep track of when I owe them money and make sure I pay the bill on time. I live in a state of worry that one service or another will be cut. Last week my electricity was cut and when I went to see the Director to find out why he was apologetic and said that it had been a mistake.

This task is made even more difficult by the companies themselves, who keep odd business hours and are often closed for unexplained reasons. My internet provider is the worst. Each month I have to taxi around to many locations trying to find one that happens to have a cashier in the office. Yesterday the cashier at one location was sick, two other offices didn't provided cashier services at all, and the third was open with a long line out the door.

It is easy to get frustrated but I always try to take a deep breathe and remind myself that I am lucky- at least I have reliable access internet! At least I have running water! At least I have steady electricity! Running around to pay my bills is actually a small price to pay.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Recreating the News

This year I posed a challenge to my first year students in speaking class at the teacher training college: Did they want to each research a topic and present a speech or did they want to do an interactive, collaborative video project, requiring much more effort and time, but ultimately producing a video they could each take home?

I must admit, I thought they would definitely pick the first choice in our class vote. I was so proud the day they accepted my video challenge. I was also a bit wary, as I had never actually done a video project with students before and I had neither opened the iMovie software on my computer, nor turned on the video camera to see if it even worked. 

The students were also nervous as most of them had never been either in front or behind a camera before. It was a lot of firsts for everyone. Nonetheless, the students started working on their stories by conducting research and dividing the necessary tasks among their groups. It was an enormous endeavor and the students were still anxious about what to expect. 

I was even more nervous because I knew if the project was unsuccessful, my course would be a disaster. I was even more determined than my students to make sure that the final product would be something that we would all be proud of. 

As I edited the first drafts of their storyboards, I became even more nervous that the project would fall flat. With constant encouragement and enthusiasm, I tried to keep the students motivated and optimistic about the project.  

The first day we sent the group out to film at a local cancer research center, the students returned to campus with smiles that stretched across their cheeks as wide as possible. It was at that moment that I knew for certain that the project would achieve its aim, by giving the students self-confidence in their skills and transform them from students in a classroom to real-life journalists and experts on a topic. Each group returned from filming with the same results. I could see the students’ attitudes towards the project changing from caution to anticipation.

After all six groups finished filming, we tackled editing by meeting with one group at a time to select the best takes and add music and transitions. This was a tedious task, but students laughed throughout the process and seemed to genuinely have fun watching themselves on video and enjoying spending time together.

After the editing phase, three of the groups decided to go back to film things they missed during the first round or parts where they wished they would have performed better. Two of the groups spent over 15 hours recording, while the rest of the groups spent at least five. The students were engaged in the project and did not accept mediocre work from themselves, pushing themselves to memorize pages of text and record each sentence multiple times.

In regard to the group work, the students also shined. Although I had to spend a lot of time with some groups in the beginning to put out fires and negotiate conflicts, by the end of the filming all members of all groups worked together like a family. That in itself was an incredible transformation to see among my students, and a positive outcome of the project.

The completed video is nearly 40 minutes long and filled with much creativity and passion. The students were directly involved in every aspect of the project, from selecting the news components (sports, international news, etc.) as well as the stories (i.e. obesity), filming and acting on camera, editing, and even creating the rubric for evaluating the project. I know that I could not be prouder of my students’ achievements and I look forward to designing video projects with my students in the future. I would not be surprised if some of my students developed a further interest in journalism! Mauritania may now be ready for its first nightly news broadcast in English!

Follow the links to view the projects here:

Part Six: Weather Report (not available online)

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Celebrating Mauritania's English Teachers

One of my secondary projects here is to help coordinate the Mauritania English Teacher's Association (META). I love working with this association because they are a group of highly committed and motivated individuals working to create professional development and networking opportunities! This is exactly the kind of work that will build momentum and create sustainable change in teachers' capacities. Since I love being surrounded by inspired educators, I always feel refreshed after our meetings.

Each month we meet for an hour and half to share a teaching point and an icebreaker. We also use this opportunity to share news and resources. Following this same idea, we recently decided to plan a one day "META DAY" filled with six teaching points and six icebreakers. A volunteer committee of 15 teachers met many times to plan the activities and logistics. Everyone was delegated an important role to play, from welcoming participants at the door to purchasing the drinks before the event, and working on the clean-up committee. 

Over 60 teachers came out for the day to share laughter and ideas. All participants seemed to genuinely enjoy the sessions and the opportunity to all meet together in celebration of their work throughout the year. I hope this will become an annual event and I can't wait to see what else META has in store! I feel so privileged to work with this incredible group of people!