We, in fact, did not fall off the face of the earth and are chugging through our second year down here in SVG. We had a wonderful time back at home with our families and friends, catching up, reliving our adventures and eating a lot. I mean, like gain 10 lb lot. That’s a long time ago now, but I still wanted to mention it because we were very thankful for the opportunity. So thank you to everyone who made it a wonderful.
I don’t have much inspiration at the moment, but as a quick note I’d like to say that the donations requests came through in full and then some for the reading sponsorships and headphones for the lab at Shannon’s school. The kids have been working on the program now for some time and have shown quite a lot of progress — even for a the short time they’ve had with it. Plus, there are some possible big things happening with furthering the program, but it’s still too early to say anything.
For now, I’d like to get back into the habit of sharing things here and so I’ll start with more regular pictures. Bless up.
Dear Friends and Family,
Over the past year I have been volunteering my time and efforts at Georgetown Secondary School in the community where I live in St. Vincent. In many ways a challenging work assignment, GSS suffers from various problems that also affect other “country” schools (those farther away from the capitol, Kingstown) — lack of qualified teachers, an abundance of remedial level students, less resources, poor discipline, and in general, a tangible feeling of hopelessness to tackle the many issues. In particular, my school has an alarmingly high proportion of students who enter secondary school unable to read. Last year, there were approximately 200 students designated as “remedial readers” and most of these students were reading at a 2nd grade level or below. (Note that although Vincentians speak an English-based dialect at home, Standard English is taught in all the schools, from Primary school upwards). There are at least a dozen students who I am working with now who don’t know all of their letter sounds, something typically mastered in Kindergarten. Because of the large class size, noise level, and chaotic nature of the school, it is incredibly challenging to remediate these students in their regular classroom.
I have felt since arriving here that computer-based reading remediation would be an excellent approach to both captivate and hold the attention of these low-performing, easily distracted students and to provide a way to differentiate instruction based on skill level. In an exciting step forward, this past year the school received a grant with which they were able to purchase 20 new computers to create a lab in the lower school. Unfortunately, in this grant there was no money allocated towards software or headphones. Still, for the past 3 months I, along with the remedial teachers, have been bringing the remedial classes to the lab for 1 hour per week to use a phonics software program which I downloaded from the internet. Although the program is “kiddish” in content and light on actual instruction, and despite the fact that it is difficult to hear the sounds on the program without external speakers or headphones, I still feel it has been a huge success. When the students go to the lab they are quiet, working continually, and I often hear them congratulating themselves when they master an activity. Their behavior is like night and day when compared to trying to teach them in their classroom. The experience has solidified my opinion that computer-based remediation can have a great effect on the students at GSS, in their behavior and attitude, reading performance, and confidence level.
Starting in January I am planning to use trial versions of two different highly regarded remedial reading software packages with a select group of struggling readers. To do this, all of the students need to have headphones for their assigned computer, something which the principal has told me there is no money available for. Because I’ll be visiting home for two weeks during December, I am trying to get enough headphones donated during that time that I can bring back a full set to be used at the school when the term starts back in January. If you would be willing to fund a pair of headphones as a Christmas gift for my remedial students, it would be much appreciated. The school headphones are about $15 each, and donations can be made through this blog site on the right side of the page.
In addition, one of the reading remediation software programs that I am interested in trying out with our students, Academy of Reading, offers a special program through which a student living anywhere in the world can link up through the internet with a computer in Canada to use the software for a year on their school computer. The cost for a student to use Academy of Reading for 1 yr. through this special linkage program is $80 per student. If you are interested in sponsoring one of my students, you can also make a donation through our blog site. Once I determine the exact group in January, I would be happy to send you a picture of your sponsored student, as well as information about that student and how they are coming along in their reading.
I know that times are tough right now, but even a small donation can make a big difference to the struggling readers that I work with. I want to thank all of you for the love and support you’ve shown Steve and I during the 1st year of our great Peace Corps adventure. When we’ve gotten frustrated or felt overwhelmed, we’ve relied greatly on the strong friendships and close bonds that we have back home to get us through.
I look forward to seeing many of you in a few weeks!
The title of this post is the new motto of my school. Not kidding. It is emblazoned on a huge, hand-painted banner that hangs above the auditorium, a painted portrait of two GSS students in the center, books in hand, “forging forward.” And yes, there are 8 dots in the ellipsis, not the normal 3. To me, this says, “Well, we know the odds aren’t in our favor, but what the hell.” The banner always makes laugh because it is so depressingly accurate. The odds are certainly stacked against Georgetown Secondary. The Education Revolution has flooded us with low-achieving students, and suddenly education isn’t such a hot commodity anymore. There is such a pervasive feeling of uncaring on the part of the students that it is reflected everywhere you look — masses of students refusing to go into their classroom, roaming the halls and running away from teachers, newly fixed furniture already broken and graffitied, trash all over the stairs and hallways everyday after lunch…
Yesterday I went into a class with another teacher and witnessed this scene: desks and chairs were everywhere, students did not notice, or care, when myself and the teacher came in, or even when we started talking, one girl got up and left in the middle of class to take a call on her cell phone, another girl yelled “f— you” at a fellow student and had to be walked out to the principal, students continued to carry on loud conversations while the teacher attempted to teach, frequently interrupting and complaining about how “class boring,” and the list goes on. When I took one student out to reprimand him for his behavior, I witnessed the principal beating with a belt what looked to be the majority of the class across the hall. And you know what? Sadly, I didn’t blame him.
The recent conclusion that I’ve come to is that students run the school. Want to get an idea of what happens when unrestricted young people make all the rules? Read Lord of the Flies. This conclusion was magnified even further these past few weeks as the students waited for their promised check of $200 to be delivered from the Prime Minister. Recently, as an Independence Day present, the P.M. decided that he would give $200 to every school child, which the schools would distribute. So, a few weeks ago, the government official comes and passes out the checks at the Primary school. But at the Secondary school (which is directly across the street), no checks. Okay, so it comes to light that Primary schools will be getting their money first, then secondary schools. Still, a week goes by, and no checks. I was actually in St. Lucia for my Peace Corps Mid-Service Training during this week, but I heard from the teachers that it was horrible. Students accused teachers and staff of hiding the checks. They threatened mutiny. I returned the next week, and finally, at the end of the week, the checks came. Upon suspecting that they were getting their money, almost all of the students rushed out into the hallways, although class was still in session. I did not envy the teachers having to hand out money to the very students who had acted so appallingly disrespectful towards them in the previous weeks. I know that it was not intended this way, but it did seem as if the kids were getting paid for their bad behavior. And what kind of message does that send?
But, teachers and staff have to keep “forging forward.” Myself, I go through stages — sometimes (well, let’s be honest, most of the time) I feel like the situation at GSS is totally hopeless, and other times I think, if we only came up with enough good ideas…
Yesterday was actually an accomplishment of sorts for me, in that I conducted a professional development training with the teachers on understanding and teaching the remedial reader. Even though I had offered to the principal to do this session, I was still incredibly nervous. I feared that the teachers would think I was criticizing the way that they did things, or think, who is she to tell us how to teach? However, I actually think it went really well, and some teachers seemed genuinely interested in applying some of the strategies I discussed in their classrooms, which was great. AND only 2 teachers were sleeping, which is a strong indicator of success, haha!
Although I am often tempted to jump ship on the school, there are a few things that keep me going. For one, I know almost all the teachers, most of whom I really like, and a great many students. I also feel like I’m involved in quite a bit, including a fledgling peer counselor program, which I’d like to help see get off the ground. I’m still holding onto the belief that our new computer lab can revitalize reading remediation if we are able to get the right software. But the main reason is that, I’m not a quitter, damnit. And I get the sense that America, annoyingly, has made me that way.
Every four months we’re required as volunteers to complete a Volunteer Report Form (VRF). It’s something most of us loathe to do, for a number of reasons which I won’t go into because your time is valuable and the exchange rate isn’t in your favor. One part of it asks you to share a success story. I always end up leaving this blank, not becuase of a lack of success (though in practice I often wonder) but more so because I try to leave it to the last possible moment and consider the whole thing a bit contrived at capturing what effects we actually have. I’m not sure what struck me today as I filled my third one out for the year, but I finally wrote in that section. Shannon said I should post it because I need to keep my prolific posting streak up. Here it is.
It had been a rough 6 months at my primary assignment, Marion House. Working with teens++ (actually 31 yrs was our oldest student) had never been a desire of mine, yet there I was day in and day out leading sessions on everything from condoms and safer sex practices to character education and current events — even genocide. I had never lesson planned before, never really taught on a day to day basis before, never counseled teen issues and behaviour, but for the past months I had been in the thick of it. On top of that, these were the kids that the formal system had left behind or at least not let thrive.
It was now June and we were in our last month of in-house training. There were times during the past 6 months where I was burning out from the daily grind, from the lack of organization of the programme (thus necessitating weekly emergencies on my part), and so on. But here it was, the end of the tunnel. They were all about to be spit out into their training attachments and I was exhausted and ready to be rid of them.
Now as I write this it’s two months later and they’re all (well almost of them anyway) off working in their skills attachments, learning trades of all sorts each day. Some are plumbing while others are tour guiding. Some are installing electrical junction boxes in the new Library (I hope they have a fire supressant system) and others are learning how to make a mean cocktail. A number of them I knew would have no trouble succeeding. They’d performed well and cared for most of the in house bit, but the thing that washes all that stress from those months of grinding is the outcomes of some of the students that probably for the first time in their life are succeeding in a positive venture. Those few that frustrated me nearly every single day – whom I battled with over behaviour, attendance; dress, on and on ad nauseum. They’re succeeding… and what a wonderful feeling it is to know that.
Today, wheelbarrow before us, Steve, Tony, myself, and little Kellene set off to the ocean to gather rocks for a soon-to-be-realized (we’ve been saying this for awhile now) walking pathway in our backyard. Little did I know, or I would not have left the house, that at the first corner we would encounter another wheelbarrow, this one being pushed by Andre* (A barrel-chested acquaintance) containing a leatherback sea turtle hacked to pieces. I’m not sure if Andre called out first or just waved one severed flipper at us to get our attention. Either way, the horror of seeing what I would easily say is the most exquisite animal I have ever gazed upon in nature chopped to bits turned both Steve and I into shocked, gaping statues. As Andre and his two friends wheeled further down the street, we still stood there until I felt, as I often do, that I had to say something. I screamed out, “You know that’s an endangered species?!” To which he responded laughingly, “Turt-lo meat tastes good!” To which, flustered, I shouted something which really made no sense, like, “But would you eat a human?,” although humans are not endangered at all. Then, seething with anger, I double flicked off the whole crew. Right in front of the church, and who knows how many peeping neighbors. Real mature, and also I’m sure, effective. I might as well have stuck my tongue out at them as well. As I stalked off towards the ocean I suddenly had a very clear understanding of what turns passionate environmentalists, and in particular animal-lovers, into crazy, blood-flinging zealots. The night that we witnessed that mother sea turtle laying her eggs on Byera Beach was easily the most blissful moment of my time here. This creature is absolutely magical, pre-historic. And to know someone, a very non-starving someone, who would mutilate it just because it apparently “tastes good” (or more likely would increase potential virility) made me want to scream “Murderer!” and demand that he be placed behind bars. As God would have it, my complete disgust at humanity was topped off by discovering that the beach where we went to collect stones could have passed for a landfill with a view. I found an old tire, and, as I often do, cried.
*Note: Steve, who doesn’t typically let anger turn him into a babbling fool, insisted that I change the name of the turtl0-killer. However, Andre*, if you read this, I do hope you feel guilty.