Monday, February 28, 2011

Motivated from Within

During graduate school, I spent two years learning from a professor who didn’t believe in extrinsic rewards. She didn’t provide positive affirmations but instead gave detailed evaluations of the strengths and weaknesses of each assignment. I deliberately selected the Evergreen State College because of the non-conventional approach to education and the absence of “grades.” It surprised me then when I became anxious about each assignment and I felt terrible about the work I submitted. I was shocked when my professor asked another student to look at my paper as an example because the red ink covering the pages had convinced me that I didn’t meet her expectations.

One night I had a vivid dream that I received all “A”s on my transcripts. I woke up happier than I had felt in months with a deep sense of security from within. Then I realized that it was only a dream. In reality, I had a full-page narrative for each class, which used evaluative words for every assignment, such as, excellent, good, or the dreaded, “adequate.” At the end of two years of intense work, one day my professor said, “Your thesis paper was the best I read all weekend.” I ran to give her a hug, nearly knocking her over. Despite her efforts, I still craved words of praise!

I didn’t realize at the time that my professor was trying to recondition me. She wanted me to develop an ability to accurately evaluate myself and to not rely on the positive feedback from those around me. Although to many this may seem cruel, I believe that her training was vital to my current ability to be successful.

My professor was preparing me for a battle. To learn how to be a non-traditional teacher, I also needed to learn not to rely on the support of the traditional teachers around me, who may or may not agree with my methods. My professor was training me to be an independent teacher, who could resist pressure to resort to brainless test-preparation and rote-memorization skills. She wanted me to be able to remain firm in my commitment to become a teacher who will teach students the critical thinking skills they need to survive in the world outside of the classroom.

To be a strong teacher, I also needed to understand how to evaluate myself. Teachers do not have bosses monitoring every assignment they give to students. I would only have my students’ performance as an indication of whether or not my methods were effective. To be successful, I needed to be self-reliant, self-aware, and self-critical.

As it turned out, I haven't spend the past nine years since graduation as a full-time classroom teacher. However, the skill of being self-reflective has been equally important in my work for large organizations, which had different goals and objectives for my position than I did. Yet to me it didn’t matter as long as my employers still allowed me to follow my vision and achieve my goals. I didn’t do my work for the sake of my employer. I worked because I believed that my position made a valuable difference in the communities I worked with. 

I am still grateful when I receive positive affirmation. Yet, deep down I know that I do not need it to stay focused on achieving my objectives. My secure belief that I am making a positive difference is enough reward for me! 

This video I recently watched reminded me of the factors that drive and motivate me and how truly important this intrinsic motivation is!

Teal Traveling Teacher

This past weekend I had the great privilege to travel to Rosso with an Inspector from the Ministry of Education to facilitate a workshop for all of the teachers in the Trarza region. I was thrilled to have 33 teachers participate in the workshop! They were exceptionally enthusiastic and appreciative. I love working with teachers. I learn more each day we spend together! 

While we were at the local office of the Ministry, I saw the military personnel who also work at the border control office I always meet when I am traveling to and from Senegal. I made sure to remind the one I see the most to make sure to stamp my passport more quickly the next time I arrive at the border! He promised to do so. 

Now I will be anxiously waiting to see if a gendarme can keep his promise!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Something Old, Something New

This past weekend my student invited me to attend the wedding reception for his cousin. It was such an honor to be included in his family celebration!

I was treated like a real VIP! I spent the first hour greeting all of the women in my student's family and I was delighted to finally meet his mother, who he always speaks so fondly about. After that I was led into a room to feast on some meat and potatoes. My student helped me out by eating the meat! 

When we were ready to leave the house to go outside to join the festivities, I didn't see my shoes outside of the door where I left them. Instead, there was a tiny pair of plastic shoes sitting there. My student urged me to wear them instead but I couldn't even fit my toe inside. He went on a mad search of every room and got everyone to help him look for the shoes. 

Finally, he came back with a pair of blue high heels and said, "you'll have to wear these." In fact, they were more appropriate than the ones I was wearing to begin with. I bought the other pair in Senegal to go with all of my jolie new bazin outfits. It was the first time I wore them but I wasn't attached to them. I am actually grateful for moments like these that provide everyone with something to laugh about. We will all be laughing for a long time about this one! In Mauritania it seems that we all end up with something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue!

With my new shoes, we went outside to a big square where there was drumming and dancing taking place. I was given a chair directly in front of the performance. At dusk, the bride arrived wearing a traditional wedding dress and everyone took turns taking pictures with her. Meanwhile, the groom was busy having his own celebration in a village 400 km away, near the Senegal river. I don't know about the village but I do know that in Nouakchott we danced, clapped, and sang our way through a real party!!!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Happy Valentines Day

Last week I was invited to my friend's wedding. Her mother is the cousin of my friend in New York, so she is like extended family to me. I was delighted to join the family in celebrating this important occasion. It was my first time to participate in a wedding in Mauritania.  

The wedding lasted two days and I attended the final part of the ceremony- the reception! I arrived at my friend's house at 9:00 pm and every room was overflowing with people dressed in their finest attire, shiny, colorful, hand-dyed "grand boubous"! I also wore my best ensemble, with the newest style of embroidery in Senegal. 

Everyone was busy when I arrived. I greeted all of the griots, praise-singers, and they sang my name over and over so I that I would be forced to give them some money. Everyone laughed, clapped, and sang along. I was happy to contribute to the festivities by encouraging these rambunctious women to keep singing. After a little while, I found my friend Aissata who just had a new baby seven days before. Her name is Binta. I wrapped her in my arms and stayed in the same place for the next two hours.

Eventually, my friends came to find me and took me outside where a big tent was set up. There was live music and everyone was busy dancing, taking pictures, and talking to their friends. A little later, plates of popcorn, cookies, and doughnuts were passed around. 

At midnight the bride arrived wearing a gorgeous pink dress and a cameraman followed her around as she greeted all of the guests. A queen for a night!

At one a.m. plates of food were carried out for all of the guests to enjoy. I had class the following morning at 8:00 and took the opportunity to head home. I returned to the house the following day to say goodbye to the bride, who will now go to live in her husband's house in a large town about 400 km from Nouakchott. I was happy to meet her lucky husband who stopped by at the same time as I did. I wish my friends a long and joyous marriage. I dedicate this song to the groom:

Happy Valentines Day!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

25 Things You Didn't Know About Me

1. I think almost anything can be put in a sandwich
2. I have never owned a television or a microwave
3. My favorite subject is African literature but I never studied it in school 
4. I got my first credit card six months ago
5. I have done nearly every job imaginable except working as a barista
6. I love watching Somali, Ethiopian, or Eritrean tv channels
7. I add coconut milk to everything, including coffee
8. I have never had a manicure
9. I want to spend more time in the Caribbean
10. I speak French and Kiswahili; I have tried to learn Pulaar, Tigrigna, and Yoruba
11. I have no idea where I will be living this time next year
12. I add ketchup to most recipes
13. I consider long hot showers an incredibly wonderful luxury
14. I adore nearly every kind of music
15. I am intimidated by technology
16. I never rocked the pony tail in Harlem
17. The DRC is the most beautiful country I have visited 
18. I love trying out new kinds of fruit
19. I have a passion for textiles
20. I can literally dance all-night-long
21. I look like a clown in make-up so I don't wear it
22. I have never tried smoking 
23. My favorite colors are brown and pink
24. I have always wanted to play the guitar but lack the patience to learn
25. I got a "C" in ballroom dancing in high school

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Surviving Student Teaching

This year my second year students are required to complete an eight-week student-teaching practicum. These students are near and dear to my heart because we spent many hours a week together throughout the entire school year last year. They are a very motivated and engaged group of students and I am genuinely impressed by all twenty of them. They are perhaps the best group of students I have ever taught.

The students each teach for one hour a week. They have to wear white lab coats with the word “ENS” sloppily stamped on the front in blue ink. The coats look ridiculous over the men’s preferred clothing item, the daraa. The arms are all bunched up inside and the “skirt” pours out from the knees like an overflowing river. One student came to school in the morning without his lab coat. The Director of the school looked at him from head to toe and gave orders that the coat must be worn. My student moaned, rolled his eyes, and reluctantly put on the coat. On one hand I really like the coats because it makes the students seem official, on the other hand the coats may make the students self-conscious or insecure and they need all the confidence they can get!

Observing my teacher-trainees teaching is a brutal process. While I sit silently in the back of the room, rapidly jotting down notes, there is a voice inside my head screaming about one thing after the next. Despite my efforts to teach classroom management this past Fall, it was clear that the students (not my trainees) were in charge in most of the classrooms. Most of my trainees completely ignored off-task students, continued talking even when the room was so loud I doubt if even one student could hear what they were saying, and let a few students dominate all class responses. One trainee spoke like a robot, another became a brutal dictator, and another transformed into a mouse, invisible to the back of the classroom. It was very difficult not to intervene. I confess that I tried to give many students the "evil eye" in out-of-control classes but even that didn't seem to have any effect. Oh how much I adore adolescent behavior!

Seeing my students teach has been one of the highlights of my work in Mauritania so far because it seems at the heart of what I am really here to do. I believe that my trainees have the potential to become the kind of teachers who they have been telling me for the past year-and-a-half that they want to become. Now I need to figure out the best way to guide them to reach this potential.  The moment is now. I better get back to work!

From Cairo to Chicago

I believe that every month is African-American History month. I am currently helping some of my students conduct research for an African-American literature project they are working on as part of their undergraduate coursework (they finished everything but the final thesis paper). I came across this poem at the library today. It was written in 1957. Reading it sent chills down my spine because it could have been written this morning:

Memo to Non-White Peoples
by Langston Hughes

They will let you have dope
Because they are quite willing 
To drug or kill you.

They will let you have babies
Because they are quite willing
To pauperize you -
Or use your kids as labor boys
For army, air force, or uranium mine.

They will let you have alcohol
To make you sodden and drunk
And foolish.

They will gleefully let you
Kill your own damn self any way you chose
With liquor, drugs, or whatever.

It's the same from Cairo to Chicago,
Cape Town to the Caribbean,
Do you travel the Stork Club circuit 
To dear old Shepherd's Hotel?
(Somebody burnt Shepherd's up.)
I'm sorry but it is
The same from Cairo to Chicago,
Cape Town to the Carib Hilton,
Exactly the same.