Monday, December 20, 2010

Universal Love for Toys

Recently I was lucky to be able to help distribute some toys to an orphanage in Nouakchott. This orphanage is not a sad, broken place. It is a house overflowing with love and happiness.

This was especially true when the box of gifts was opened to reveal wooden cars with wheels big enough to roll over some seriously rough terrain; baby dolls complete with hand-knitted hats and blankets, lovingly tied with a ribbon; jumpropes; and hand-sewn "footballs" made with cotton fabric and filling, perfect for toddlers to juggle, toss, or use for an extremely micro-sized pillow fight.

The care and thoughtfulness invested in each toy truly impressed me. I could never have imagined a more perfect assortment of toys for children here- each one with a hand-made element and definitely rugged enough to last a long time. Also, even though the toys were sent from the United States, most of them were made with materials that could be found here. I love how anything destroyed could easily be reproduced or repaired locally. 

I hope that the kids won't mind that I took a few toys for myself! I plan on sharing the joy with the children in a village near the Senegal river where I will visit soon. I can't wait to see their faces when the next box is opened. 

I am starting to believe in Santa after all!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Sugar Plum Fairies

My friend asked me to download the Nutcracker for her because for some confusing reason I can download iTunes in Mauritania while she can not. I was happy to be of help. 

Once I downloaded the songs and started listening to them I was transported to my youth when my grandmother took me to the ballet. We would always go to the Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota. I would wear my best dress and hope that I would be a classy enough date. We always went to Annie's restaurant before the performance for milk shakes, french fries, and cheeseburgers. 

We continued the dinner and Nutcracker tradition as I grew up and went to college. I believe that my sister and aunt have continued to carry on this annual family outing. It has been a long time since I have been able to participate because of my extended stays far from home. 

My favorite part of the Nutcracker is when the Prince dances with the Sugar Plum Fairy. The music captures the magic of this time of year. Lately I haven't felt very much in a holiday mood, which is easy to understand in an environment as unlike winter as Mauritania. Yet in an instant, this piece brings back all of my memories of the holidays in Minnesota. It makes me miss my family and treasure all of the time we spent together. I am sure I will watch it many times before leaving Nouakchott for my winter travels.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Nouakchott Night Life

I live in a pretty quiet, sleepy city. It is not often that Nouakchott has a big concert... but when there is I always try to be there! Of course, the concerts always start after one a.m.! Needless to say, my yawns instantly disappeared when Baaba Maal entered the stage!

This time, I was in the audience with some of my students... and for most of them it was the first time they had ever seen Baaba in concert! It was a night to remember. I wish all weekends in Nouakchott could be so exciting! I will have to wait until the next time!

Finding Fieldtrips

Last week in class we were discussing teaching strategies and one of the books had a list of strategies connected to class field trips. He called me to his desk and asked how these could be adapted to Mauritania. Indeed, next year my students will be sent all over the country to remote villages to teach. The schools where they will teach will likely have four walls, a simple corrugated iron ceiling, desks that will cram together four students, and a worn-out chalkboard. The school building will be a long cement structure, with little around it in terms of inspiration. There probably won’t be a school garden or any other possible “attractions” nearby.

Fieldtrips are a privilege, even in America, where schools often have so much bureaucracy and red tape to get through that teachers decide not to even bother. Not to mention the lack of funding or resources available for such important experiences. Yet everyday, all over the world, teachers make the effort to bring their students to see performances, art exhibits or places of natural beauty because of the inherent value in removing students from the four walls of the classroom and sharing in a new experience together.

I tried to brainstorm with my teacher-trainees what some alternatives could be. We decided that we could turn our classrooms into “museums” by asking our students to bring in objects from home, the outdoors, and create artwork themselves. This seems to be the most simple solution in these challenging circumstances. I also suggested to my students that perhaps a fieldtrip site could also be set up outside, under a tree, or in some other easily accessible location within the school compound. I keep trying to show my students that there is always another path to reach any goal. An isolated school environment is definitely difficult but does not mean that creativity must be kept outside of the classroom.

Then I had a realization. Our school (teacher training college) is also a research site for an important national project documenting the native plants of Mauritania. This project has many international donors, including the Natural History Museum of Paris. I asked the class how many of the students were aware of this research conducted on our very campus? The class drew a blank. No one knew. Often, we aren’t even aware of the opportunities around us. Every day there are hundreds of potential “fieldtrips” to take.

The next time I saw the Professor (who happens to teach a class at the same time, right across the hallway), I asked him if he would be willing to show my students around the secret garden and research facilities. He said he would be honored.

I met up with Professor Vall and followed as he led my students through the corridor and into the forested garden. He carefully showed my students the trees and plants for aloe vera, jujubes, henna, gum arabic, and many others. He even let my students taste the cactus fruit, which I peeled with my bare hands, as I had stupidly done the first time someone gave me one in Ethiopia. My hands were covered in tiny blond needles for the next 12 hours.

Perhaps the best part of our class “fieldtrip” was the guide. Professor Vall’s pride in his work and achievements was infectious and made him an excellent role model for my students. Even if the place itself wasn’t of strong interest to some of the students, the passion of the presenter certainly made the experience worthwhile.

I am now thinking of more fieldtrips that I can take with my students. I would love to organize a class retreat of some kind. There are too many ideas going around in my head.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Drawing Portraits

At some point, without trying, we all became portraiture artists.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Piecing it Together

Last Spring, I was overjoyed when a local cafe owner contacted me to donate his book and magazine collection. Disappointment set in when I realized that most of the materials were about cooking, not the best subject for teaching because how many pictures of food are really needed? 

Since then, I have tried in vain to get my English teacher colleagues as excited about these "free" resources as I was. I carted boxes around to various meetings only to left alone to cart the boxes back. 

This year, I introduced the idea of a book club in my classroom and brought the magazines along with me to class to use as a source for pictures and decoration for the posters made to present the books.

I showed my students how to cut pictures of strawberries out to make flames when no picture of fire is available. I demonstrated how pictures can be layered and not organized in a linear way. Eventually, I saw my students posters come to life and not only is our classroom now gorgeous, but hopefully my students can share the art of collages with their future students as well!