Chained to the computer


          The overhaul of Lesson Plans that Work is massive and time-consuming but doable, as well as enjoyable. There is new material that has to be typed – some twenty-nine lessons to be added to the ones already in the book. Some of the teachers don’t have access to computers, so it means taking their lessons and typing them so that they can be integrated into the new document.  

          In addition to that, some of the lessons that already exist from the previous edition have been added to or clarified for better understanding, making more changes that have to be made. What has been particularly time-consuming has been the re-formatting of the work, in that many lessons take up more space than they need to; if I can save space by using fewer pages, it will cost less to print each book, which means freeing up money to print more books

          A few of the teachers said that the previous editions did not present the lessons in any kind of order. It seems that the originators of the book had the lessons put together according to their degree of difficulty, with the easier ones first. But students in different regions of the country have altogether different experiences with these lessons: what is simple in some areas is harder to grasp in others.

          One of the factors in this has to do with the previous knowledge that some students have of other languages. Typically, those who have written, read, or spoken French before trying to learn English have a much easier time with English, whereas those who speak and read only Arabic have a much tougher time because they have to learn a new alphabet, orient themselves to the alien left-to-right sweep of reading and writing, and learn about such features as capitalization and putting spaces between words, which Arabic does not have.

          At the end of high school, the students take an exam called the baccalaureate (“bac”). If they pass this test, they are allowed to enter the university. The passing rate is very low – usually less than ten percent of all students who take the exam. Therefore, one of the suggestions for improving the usefulness of Lesson Plans that Work is including more copies of the previous bacs and practice bacs, so that students will be able to have greater familiarity with the format of the test, as well as opportunities for improving their expression in English. We got seven new bacs to add to the book; four already existed electronically, so that was easy, but three had to be typed. Kristen has been a big help, typing up some of the new lessons and bacs.

          My APCD wants the new version of the book completed by the fifteenth of this month (that’s this coming weekend!) so that it can be printed and distributed to teachers by the end of the school year. I worked all weekend typing and formatting the lessons. It’s been both tiring and exhilarating seeing this project come together. In the end it will be a much better resource tool for the teachers. I take a great deal of comfort in the fact that I am doing something to improve teaching and learning here. That’s what I came here for in the first place, though I was to do it in a slightly different manner.

          Lisa came through Nouakchott last week on her way to Senegal for a few days, and she brought her laptop for me to use while she was gone. I am not sorry that I don’t have my own computer to use for such projects, but I have to admit that it is convenient to be able to stay inside and work, never having to be concerned about getting dressed, showered, shaved, or any of the other activities that one has to do before going out into the world for the day.

          Two thoughts came to me during the weekend as I was typing away:

          The first one is something that came about several months ago, in thinking about marking some sort of observance of the Sabbath. I remembered that my friend Andrew, a writer in San Francisco, does not use his computer on Saturdays. As I pondered the symbolism of his act, I thought that I would be able to do the same thing. Thanks to his influence, I have not gone onto the Internet or used the computer for any other reason on Saturdays for about five or six months.

          Then, as I pondered the work that had to be done on this project, I felt dedicated to having it done well and on time. As a direct response to my having been here in an Islamic Republic for the last (almost) two years, I thought, This will be done - no inshallah about it.

          All of which means that this job presented itself to me with something of a dilemma – or at least something to think about. I felt the need to keep the work going so that it will be accomplished – come what may – and flout my self-imposed interpretation of how I was going to observe Shabbat.

          I also recognize my arrogance with regard to the “no inshallah about it” attitude. It’s an area where I have a significant amount of ambivalence. In the one hand, I hold the very American attitude of taking responsibility for my actions, which is something that many Mauritanians do not identify with. I frequently feel that their “inshallah” is a way of saying, “I don’t have to make much of an effort to get anything done. It will only be done of God wants it to be so.”

          On the other hand, I believe that there are, indeed, forces greater than those which we can understand, that each of us is here for a reason, that even if we do not have a way of knowing why events unfold as they do, there are underlying reasons for them, and we do not necessarily understand what these forces are.

          During the years that I was a teacher, I always worked on weekends – not in the classroom, but at home. It seemed like a necessary part of the job, being able to keep my work going. Any teacher will tell you that her/his work is never done – that it will take as much as you are willing to put in, and then some. I always thought that, in principle, observance of Shabbat was a good idea, but it was difficult to put into practice. Looks like work trumped it this time, though.


          Last summer, our training director and Country Director sponsored a first-ever retreat for the four married couples (three couples were Volunteers at the time and one was in training). They spent a long weekend in air-conditioned comfort in Nouakchott.

          That got some folks to thinking: if there can be a retreat for couples, what about other segments of the PCV population? One of our lesbian Volunteers proposed a retreat for the queer-identified PCVs. Our supportive Country Director agreed. There were four of us who got together here in Nouakchott for a few days this past week.

          I was the only man in the group, and since we were here in Nouakchott, I still had work to do, so I was only able to join them for a few informal get-togethers. It was good to see each other for a few meals and talking.

          Generally speaking, we agree that the Peace Corps itself has been very supportive of us. The women, however, are in remote sites, so they have issues dealing with not having more emotional support. One of the proposals that came out of the meeting was that they will ask for a session at the upcoming PST to address the needs of all minority PCVs, including sexual minorities. In this way, all people can feel that they can get the emotional support that they need in order to function well in a fundamentally different and altogether alien society, especially with regard to perspectives about sexuality.