Monday, January 30, 2012


Today at the high school I visited there were 39 out of 106 students present in class. My dictators-in-training kicked out eight students in the first twenty minutes of class, which left just a meagre 31 students. 

I think my students may have discovered a new path to student-teaching success: Teaching to an empty room. I will give my students credit, it is much easier to teach a class with only 31 students. 106 students is a world apart! 

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Classroom Continuum

I was just thinking about LeAnne, a student I taught during my student teaching experience in Olympia, Washington during the second year of my teacher training program. One day in class LeAnne looked at me and said, "Ms. Delia, you missed your calling in life." "How so?" I asked." "Well," she explained, "I think you were supposed to be a social worker." I smiled at her and said, "I am." 

LeAnne was in my thoughts this week because I have been giving out a tremendous amount of advice and support to my second year students during my observations of their student teaching. I feel like part-cheerleader, part-counselor, part-supervisor, part-body guard, and part-police officer. Tonight one student told me, "you have become very philosophical." I told him, "I am a fountain of philosophy." 

I have spent many hours this week taking meticulous notes during my students' lessons and then providing analysis and recommendations. I also complete a rubric with the key areas I want them to focus on mastering. So far, my students are demonstrating a great deal of courage, charisma, and effort. Of course, there is much room for improvement, but that is what makes this process so important.

While observing my students I went through a complete range of emotions. I felt great pride as I watched one of my most shy, polite students become an assertive, commanding and respectful teacher. It was incredible to see him successfully take on a different role. 

I cringed to watch an entire hour-long lesson where my trainee barely said 30 words, which were spoken in a nearly inaudible voice. It was a new way of teaching, called "the silent teacher." Fortunately, this trainee was open to the feedback and requested a "do-over." The second lesson of the day showed a dramatic improvement. It was inspiring to see this transformation practically happen before my eyes. 

One of the students said, "This week was much better than last week, I think because of your feedback. Can you come next week?" I felt the value of my presence too, the lessons got better and better as the day moved on. It was incredibly rewarding to see my students maximize the learning potential of their own experiences as well as the experiences of their peers. I think my feedback has provided a sort-of crystallization for my students, where they finally saw their actions through the perspective of an outsider and were forced to acknowledge that some of their lesson delivery and design did not meet the needs of the 50 teenagers sitting in front of them. Now they have to reach within themselves to become the effective teachers that they want to be.

Tonight while I was preparing for my class tomorrow, I came across this quote and it seemed like the perfect message for today: "A leader is best when we hardly know he exists. When his work is done, his aim is fulfilled, his followers will say, "We did this ourselves!" -Lao Tzu
I have come a long way from my student teaching days (see the picture above from the first semester of my teacher training program) but I know that I have much further to go to reach my own potential and be the teacher, mentor, leader that I want to become.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A Lesson About Past Actions While Trying to Ignore Present Ones As Recounted By Mohamed

Today my second year students started their student teaching. I saw one of my students this evening and he recounted this story of his day at the school:

"While the mentor-teacher was in the room the class was good and the students behaved appropriately. Everything was going all right and the interaction between the students and the teacher was good. The students followed directions and they listened to the instructions.

The student teacher’s lesson was wonderful. The topic of the day was "past actions." He explained the directions first in the beginning of the class. For example, he said that the students don’t need to say, “Teacher, me” but instead can just raise their hands and they will all be called. Throughout the lesson the students behaved responsibly.

The student teacher used the blackboard very well to demonstrate the vocabulary. The   word “childhood” was written on the board. Then the student teacher divided it into two words and asked the class, “Do you know the word child?” “No,” the students responded. “Do you know the word children?” The students said, “Yes!” The student teacher added, “So children is the plural of the word child, and then childhood is the term to describe the state of being a child.” The students all nodded and understood the term.

Less than one hour before the end of school day, at 13:00, the mentor-teacher announced that she was leaving the room. Not more than ten minutes after she left, the class turned upside down. When the mentor teacher left, she took the students with her, substituting 40 devils in their place. Students started talk wildly, grab each other’s clothes, and endlessly  commented on Turkish television series. One girl event insulted the student teacher’s lab jacket (which he is required to wear), saying, “He thinks of himself as a doctor!” All of the students were laughing.

The student teacher could not finish the production stage of the lesson. Things were unbearable and the student teacher looked forward for the time of class to be over. In the midst of the craziness, the student teacher sat down, and started correcting the students’ papers. He later said that he deliberately chose to ignore the students’ noise explaining that, “I shut my eyes so that the students wouldn’t even know that I saw them and the way that they were acting.” He added that he knew that there was no way to control the students so he decided to focus on helping the few students in the front of the room who wanted to learn. 

Finally, the end of the class arrived but not before the students took away the young teacher’s soul."

Monday, January 23, 2012

Professional Hand-Shaker

I live in a country where most religiously conservative men don’t shake hands with women. Since many men are religiously conservative, many men won’t shake hands with me. At first, this was a difficult adjustment for me because every other country in Africa where I lived placed a high value on shaking hands at every encounter. After so many years of living and working with the African Diaspora, I became a professional hand-shaker.

My first months in Mauritania were filled with many awkward moments of holding out my hand and having it suspended there untouched, in mid-air. This movement is not easy to take back. It was always followed by an uncomfortable silence. 

Now, the first time I meet someone I try to remember to wait until he offers his hand to me. Yet even after more than two years here, I still find myself in awkward situations. Some Mauritanians do shake hands and feel offended by my failure to offer my hand right away. The delayed hand-shaking situation is tricky to navigate. Usually I try to pretend that I simply didn’t see the hand offered. I try to smile to make up for this perceived rudeness on my part and I try to remember to offer my hand to this man the next time I see him. In my head I have a running list of who shakes hands and who does not and every time I see someone I try to remember his status. I am always delighted to see a woman because thankfully all women shake hands with other women!

I have formed strong friendships with many of my students. For those who don’t shake hands, I am careful to never touch them. However, we have devised our own way of shaking hands without touching. My student will offer me one-half of his book, cell phone, or other object and I will grasp the other half. We “shake” the object and show our appreciation to the other person while still respecting the divide between us. This code has never been broken. I have never questioned it. I am happy to have a secret handshake with students and of course I want to respect their cultural values.

In December I organized a workshop for 155 teachers teaching throughout the country. The Ministry of Education selected the teachers to participate. I am not sure why, but they chose many of the newest teachers. This meant that I was reunited with many of my former students. It was a happy reunion and I was so proud to see my students enter into their professional roles. I was especially thrilled to see them take a leadership role when working with other more experienced teachers. 

Some of the students are teaching as far away as 1,500 kilometers from Nouakchott. Because many of them teach in the areas where their families also live, they don’t have a reason to travel all the way to the capitol city during breaks. That means that I may never see certain students again. This makes me sad because after spending two years together, often more than 20 hours per week, we have become close friends.

On the last day of the workshop, many of the students expressed their appreciation for everything we learned together over the previous two years. It was time for another goodbye. Another celebration. Another graduation. 

One of the most conservative students in my classes came to say goodbye to me. He was traveling the same day that the workshop ended, anxious to get back to his village. He had two full days of traveling ahead of him. We both knew that we probably would not see each other again. I told him to travel safely, greet his family for me, and stay in touch. He nodded and told me the same.

I held out a notebook, our usual tradition, and he grasped the other half. Then he pulled the notebook from my hands and offered me his hand in its place. Shocked, I stared at his hand, and he offered it again. I held his hand for just a moment and tears started streaming down my cheeks. I couldn’t explain why but I knew that I would never forget the encounter; my student’s willingness to break a cultural/religious boundary to show a genuine feeling of friendship.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Market Treasures

One of the best things about Africa is the amazing markets. There are endless treasures to find, like this amazing bargain-priced Panasonic, I mean, Panmic stereo!  

This is the textile building in Cotonou... imagine the magic of three floors filled with African fabric! The last time I was there I spent three hours inside the labyrinth and I barely scratched the surface! 

One of the highlights was finding a vendor selling Nigerian woven fabrics and she was happy to dig in the massive mountain of cloth to find some scraps for me to use as scarves. I was delighted at first but as I was deciding on the best pieces I felt that crazy "just buy it all" frenzied-shopping-feeling and I nearly walked away empty-handed. She expertly roped me back in and now I wish I would have bought more... 

Of course I had a difficult time deciding on the print of the wax fabric, the sheer quantity of choices overwhelmed me and I also almost left without making any purchases. In the end I chose a couple simple designs and was proud of myself for not completely indulging in my love of textiles. It is so easy to do but I already don't know what to do with the piles of fabric I have at home... 

Next time I hope this fabric goddess smiles down upon me and points me in the direction of more gems! African markets are indeed fabulous places!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Where I'm From

I love doing creative writing projects with my students. I view these projects as an essential part of developing a sense of community in our class and also modeling for my students how these types of projects can fit into any curriculum. I hope that my teacher-trainees will one day encourage their students to express themselves creatively as well. Right now, there is little of this happening in Mauritanian classrooms.

I am lucky to have a new group of first year students who are passionate and open-minded. We spent the first day of class writing "Where I'm From" poems, after we listened to a recording of George Ella Lyon reading her poem that provided inspiration. We have also started recording our own poems. Here are a few of the students' wonderful poems! 

 I Am From -Mikailou by deeleeya 

 I Am From - Sekou by deeleeya 

 I Am From - Sarr by deeleeya 

 I am From - Habib by deeleeya 

Saturday, January 7, 2012

We Count the Same

The highlight of my visit to Northern Benin was meeting the people who live there. I loved the Tata Somba houses, many of which were over 100 years old. 

I also loved visiting a Fula compound and meeting the distant relatives of my friends in Mauritania. Fula people live in 18 countries throughout West and Central Africa. In many countries, like Benin, they are primarily still living as pastoralists, but even the family we visited had a small area for agriculture. 

When I told one of the women of the household that I lived in Mauritania and asked her if she knew where it was, she thought for a second and then responded, "the place with the big river." She was exactly correct! When I tried practicing my morning greetings in Pulaar, she smiled a little and repeated the words I said quietly under her breath, "jam wali." She understood but didn't use the same phrase. When I told her "ajarama," meaning thank you she didn't understand at all. I asked the guide how to say thank you and he asked her. She said, "gole." I explained that gole means "work" in Mauritania. She smiled again and said that it means work in their dialect as well. So they use the same word to mean both "work" and "thank you." I guess that perhaps good work and thank you can be used interchangeably, although I don't usually think of the word in that way. 

The breakthrough came when I counted the number of houses in the courtyard and another woman counted along with me. The numbers in both dialects are exactly the same. It was so amazing to travel so far from the villages in Mauritania and find someone who speaks the same language. It showed me how strong the roots are that bind people together and how resilient language can be. Despite many generations of separation, language proves that Fula people in Benin and Mauritania are the same.

Like Chocolate

During my recent trip to Benin I was really amazed to see shea butter trees. I have bought shea butter many times but never visited a place where it actually grows. Shea butter is sold across Africa, usually in the form of an enormous, yellow mountain. The vendor uses a big knife to cut off the amount that the customer wants to buy. The shea butter has a strong, not entirely pleasant smell.

I was intrigued to watch a woman pound the butter in it's natural state. I was surprised to see that it looked, smelled, and even tasted like chocolate. I had no idea!

The butter is pounded until smooth and then it is boiled until it separates. The final product is a light, soft, yellow cream. Locally, it seemed to be primarily used in cooking as the oil in sauces, etc. It is also used on the outside of houses to keep the walls strong and water proof. Of course it is also used as a skin cream and hair treatment. I bought about a pound of it at the market for less than a dollar. It was wrapped in leaves, soaked in water, and rolled into little balls. Luxurious! I will definitely not be using this precious cream in my cooking!