Thursday, February 16, 2012

Disappearing Act

Many people ask me about my diet in Mauritania. I think that I live a pretty comfortable life here and I can eat most of the things I want to eat. Somethings are expensive to buy but surprisingly most things are available if you are willing to pay the price (the other day I even saw Ben & Jerry's ice cream!)

My biggest challenge to eating healthy is myself. I can't explain why but I suffer from a lack of appetite here. I just don't feel hungry. It is not because I am busy, lazy or a lack of variety of food. I just don't have an appetite most of the time. When I am hungry, I tend to eat a lot of fresh produce and I am amazed at the huge amount of food I can buy at the green grocer for just a few dollars. Who doesn't love salads with chickpeas, tahini, cucumber, parsley and carrots? 

Most of produce that we get here comes from Morocco. Some things are fabulously cheap, like pomegranates and clementines. Avocados are expensive but I allow myself to splurge whenever I see them. The sudden appearance of dill or spinach is always a sweet surprise. Today I found a huge bin of crisp, red radishes! Yum! 

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Fist-fight with the Director

Last Sunday I took a day off from my student-teaching supervision duties because I lost my voice and needed to rest. I ran into my students yesterday and I asked them how their classes went. 

Ahmed (three out of five group members are named Ahmed) told me that he was in the middle of giving directions to the students for an exam when men appeared at the door of his classroom. The men tried to enter the room and Ahmed told them to leave immediately. The men refused to leave and started ordering all of the students to evacuate the room. Ahmed started yelling at the men and then he looked outside and saw a huge crowd of men, all ordering the students to leave.

Then he realized that it was students from the University of Nouakchott who had entered the school compound and forced all of the high school students to go on strike with them. The students, of course, had no say in the matter. Ahmed, and the rest of the teachers, had no say in the matter, either. It was at that point that Ahmed said that he glanced to his right and saw the Director yelling at a group of students. Before the University students could start a fist-fight with the Director, a group of teachers and school staff were able to separate them. 

The University of Nouakchott is located about one kilometer from the high school. Their campus is closed until March 25th and it has been described as a "police state" by some of my students who have tried to go there this week. The University students are on strike because they want an increase in their monthly scholarships, as well as increasing the number of students who get scholarships to include all students. They have many other demands but those seem to be the primary concern. 

I do not know enough about the situation at the University to make a comment. However, I do think that it is wrong for the University students to threaten high school students and prevent them from studying. 

My student-teacher trainees are in the battle field. If they can survive teaching in Nouakchott they will excel anywhere else they go!    

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Valentines Day

I wanted to do a silly, fun activity in my class for Valentines Day. In the last 15 minutes of class, I cut out paper hearts and and distributed markers to each table. I told my students to write a message on the card for a classmate, focusing on writing something they appreciate in a classmate (not about love), such as always having a positive attitude. I asked them to write a card to someone that they don't know very well (I should have asked the students to write a card for the person sitting next to them). I thought it would be a good opportunity for community-building by showing our appreciation for each other.

At the end of class, I was left with a huge pile of valentines day cards for myself! It was thoughtful and nice but not exactly the activity that I had in mind. I hung the cards up on the door of the library and I have to say it makes me smile when I look at all these sweet cards. Next time I will have to give clearer instructions!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Why did the dinosaur cross the railroad tracks?

To pose for a picture with his lovely, red hot lady friends, of course! 

They were waiting with knives

I believe in the importance of creating community spaces. I have been lucky enough to take a leading role in the development of one at the teacher-training college where I teach (thanks to the amazing support of the U.S. Embassy in Mauritania). Today I was reminded of the importance of centers like this one when it provided a much needed opportunity for a group of teachers to share experiences.

The teachers came to the library to check their email, meet with me, or borrow a book but ended up talking to each other about their busy lives at school. Amadou, who teaches far from Nouakchott, starting telling the group about his English club at his school and the annual "English camp" he organizes with his colleagues. The other teachers were intrigued and pressed him for details. They congratulated him and took down his contact information.

A teacher in Nouakchott, Mariam, told the group about the club at her school that she has run for the past nine years. She said that this year she has been having a difficult time organizing meetings because of a group of "bad boys" who disturb her students. Another teacher interrupted her to say that it is not good to label students as "bad boys" and that all students had a right to learn. This led to a discussion about "bad boys" who roam empty classes and cause trouble. I think these are the same "bad boys" who graffitti'd "fuck the teachers" in one of the classrooms I visited last week.

Mariam explained that the "bad boys" were not students at her school but just a group of kids who came to the school to cause trouble. The other teachers nodded along with her story, it resonated with them as well. Now I understand why class attendance is so low! Kids leave class to go to other schools where they can be anonymous and stir up trouble. Last year one of my trainees nearly got expelled from my school for punching one of these "bad boys" while on school property.

Mariam further explained that the boys search for girls to talk to. They even interrupt classes to sit next to girls and refuse to leave. Mariam explained that the teachers need to protect the female students from these boys but that it was not always easy. She gave an example of an Arabic teacher who refused to let a group of boys to enter his classroom. After school, the boys were waiting for him around the corner from the school. They threatened him with knives and stole all the money he had, which was fortunately only about $2.00. He was not injured.

The teachers in the room roared with laughter at the Arabic teacher's misfortune. It was not malicious, but just an unexpected and dramatic twist to the story. This sort of violence is practically unheard of outside Nouakchott. The teachers were sympathetic with the Arabic teacher and Mariem's dilemma. How can she meet with her students after school when she knows the students (particularly females) will be harassed by these boys? Mariam needs to be able to create a safe meeting place or she can not hold meetings at all.

Mariam told everyone about how she avoided the knives by offering bread and other gifts to the boys and the teachers encouraged her to continue doing so. Mamadou said, "Yes, make them your friends and lead them back to the right path." All of the teachers nodded in agreement.

These young men come to the school to meet, not to attend classes. Perhaps they need a "safe space" of their own. If they had one, perhaps Mariam could go back to coordinating her extracurricular activities after school. 

I love hearing about teachers' challenges and I love it even more when I am able to help facilitate a dialogue about how to overcome them. I think that perhaps I need to work on starting a violence prevention program for Nouakchott teachers! I recently ordered the film The Interrupters and as soon it as arrives I will organize a screening in my library. Oh the joys of having a safe space for important conversations like this one! 

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Whispering Teacher

I came back from a long weekend in Senegal with a hoarse voice that quickly deteriorated. For the past two days I have had no voice at all. It has been interesting to be in Nouakchott without the ability to speak. My phone rings often and I try to answer but all I hear is the person on the other end of the line saying, "Hello? Hello?" and then hang up. I send messages saying "I lost my voice." I also ask whomever is standing close to me to answer my phone and explain to the person that I am here, but can't talk on the phone. This also causes much confusion. Maybe it would just be better to turn my phone off until I get my voice back! 

I have been reminded of the two other times in my life when I completely lost my voice: In a refugee camp in Ethiopia and while teaching in Chicago. In Ethiopia, I didn't go to class and tried to sleep a lot. I remember waking up in the middle of the afternoon  to a crowd of students and colleagues gathered around my bed. They brought me juice and hot tea. They were very worried about me and I couldn't convince them that I was not really THAT sick, just needed to rest. Their constant "checking in" on me actually prevented me from getting the sleep I really needed but I was so appreciative of their concern and thoughtful care-taking. 

One night our cook came to my room and asked if I wanted to try traditional medicine. I nodded my head affirmatively and a few minutes later she returned with a small stove. She also carried a large blanket, which she placed over my head and told me to lean over the stove. On top of the hot coals she placed many herbs, the only one I recognized was  eucalyptus. After a few minutes of breathing in the smoke, she lifted the blanket and pulled it over my shoulders. She instructed me not to get out of my bed or touch water until morning. I did as I was told. The next day everyone looked more than a little disappointed that I still couldn't utter a word. 

In Chicago, I tried to keep teaching despite the obvious difficulties of teaching in a very challenging environment with no voice. On the first day the students were so sweet and helpful, they read from the board and cooperated with my silent directions. It seemed like nothing short of a miracle. The spell broke on the second day when Durrell, who was usually polite, came to class with a basketball. He walked right up to the front of the room, dribbled the ball dramatically in front of me and said, smiling, "What'chu gonna do, Miss Delia? What... you.... gonna... do?" He knew that I was not going to do anything at all. I let him have his fun and after he got the attention he wanted from the entire class he sat down. The rest of the day was basically the same. The third day I didn't come to class. Fortunately, I was saved by the winter break and had enough time to recover completely before returning to class.

Although my colleagues and students in Mauritania would understand if I missed class,  I really wanted to teach this week. Last week was a shortened week due to a holiday and I felt like we had some important material to cover. I was confident that my students could manage class, even with a quiet teacher. 

I found it more difficult than I predicted. My class has 33 students and they have a lot of energy and it is sometimes challenging to get them to re-focus between activities. I practiced a new style of teaching without talking, where I flailed my arms around, clapped as loud as I could, banged on the desks, and stomped my feet. It was classroom management TPR (total physical response)!

It is amazing how much information can be communicated without words. I wrote directions on the board and pointed to different students to read the text out loud. I whispered what I wanted to say and called on a student to be my translater. In this way, many students practiced giving directions and getting the attention of their peers. Teaching became a community effort. 

Since the second-half of the class was a sort of "review party" we played Jeopardy, drank soda, and ate cookies. I elected a student to be the host of the game. The host was a "bad" student who has missed a lot of classes and his role enabled him to still actively participate, despite being behind on the material covered by the questions.

It was the first time my students had ever played a game like Jeopardy and it was a bit difficult to explain the rules and control the crowd without being able to speak. During the time between questions there was an explosion of excitement with each group yelling at top volume to vie for the attention of the host and take control of the game. Since each group had a different noise to get attention, and all groups chose to make animal noises, the room sounded like a zoo! I fear to think of what my colleagues think of my teaching methods. I had flashbacks to my classroom in Chicago... 

My students were a little bit out of control, but in the best possible way. They got a bit carried away by the competitiveness and chaos of the game. Next time we play the game I can do better to help them respect the students trying to study in the neighboring classrooms. I was amazed at how quickly they understood the game and more importantly, how well they answered all of the questions! It was impressive to see them competing to be the first to yell out the correct answers. I hope that all of our classes in the future can be filled with so much passion, excitement, and enthusiasm, and learning- voice or no voice.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012