Singing the counterpart blues


Now that I have been at my site for four months, the actual work of writing a textbook has begun! As of right now, there are principally four of us on the team: "D", my counterpart; "H", an inspector from another Ministry of Education agency; Kristen, a PCV who arrived one year before I did and is posted to that other agency; and me. "S", an English teacher at a local lycée, is also available occasionally and says that he can miss school in order to attend meetings.

(Most of our PCVs have counterparts. They are people who do roughly the same job as the PCV and serve as a work and cultural liaison. In case you have been reading my entries from the beginning, I remind you that my counterpart is the guy who stole my water bottle during training in Kaédi, the same person with whom my predecessor was assigned to work, but she left in the middle of her service, frustrated with the slow pace of work.)

Our first order of business in arranging our work was to determine what times we had in common so that we could schedule the hours in which to do our job as a group. In order to figure this out, we divided each work day, Sunday through Thursday, into four two-hour blocks of time (8-10 AM, 10-noon, noon-2 PM, 2-4). This gave us twenty two-hour periods during the week during which we could possibly meet.

Pre-existing commitments that might interfere with our work would be classes that we were either teaching or taking. H explained that he is unavailable for three of the time slots, Kristen is unavailable for two, I am unavailable for two, and my counterpart D informed us that he is unavailable for thirteen of them! I was tempted to ask him what else he was doing, considering that this, after all, is his job. But I couldn't think of a diplomatic way to ask, so I kept my mouth shut. Keeping in mind that I want to be successful in my work here, I find it best not to say what I am thinking in regard to his behavior.

When we posted our hours on the chart, we could see that there is a grand total of one two-hour period during the week - from 2-4 PM on Thursdays, the last two hours of the work week - when everyone is available to work together! When I mentioned this to my APCD, he suggested something that is most obvious to me: that we may have to plan to do much of the work without D. Overall, that is probably the wisest solution, as he is a man who is in love with his own voice and continually finds ways to use it, despite the fact that he has nothing to say.

Our first deadline is the first day of March. By then, we need to have the first six lessons of the first book completed. The goal for students in these lessons is to "Produce simple sentences mainly in speech talking about oneself, one's family, and friends."

So far, we have decided on a format for each lesson, to include: a statement of the objective of the lesson; a visual for the student and/or a model dialogue; an opportunity for students to repeat what the teacher says; a guided exercise for students to attempt while in the classroom; an opportunity for students to work with others during class time; exercises for students to do independently; grammar point(s); culture point(s); and a word play.

Our six lessons, as we have currently planned them (and which are subject to change, of course), will be: (1) introducing oneself; (2) greetings and farewells; (3) talking about others - home and family; (4) talking about others - friends and school; (5) talking about time; (6) talking about dates. We have to keep in mind that the students using this book will have only one two-hour class of English a week for their first year - not a lot of time devoted to learning a new language!

H and D are not only opinionated about how these lessons should be written, but have strong ego attachments to their opinions. So far, the meetings have been taking place in my office, with me at my desk and the two of them facing me. The discussions have gotten very heated and raucus, to the point that I have had to explain that I was sitting right in front of them and they didn't need to speak so loudly. They also have a tendancy to talk to me at the same time, to which I have had to explain as calmly as possible that I can't understand either of them when they are both talking at the same time.

I don't know if D is trying to be difficult, but he is certainly is being successful at it. Our first meeting was at 2:00 on Thursday afternoon. At a little after 1:00, he came into my office and told me that he was going out of the building and would be back in twenty minutes, in time for the meeting. The others showed up on time, but D was not there. We began on time, showing each other the work we had done on our own the day before. D walked in 25 minutes late; as a result, we all had to go through our presentations again for his benefit.

On Thursday, H and D spent half an hour arguing about whether or not it was appropriate or correct for a person to say "Hi" or "Hello" to another person at the same time he made his introduction. That was thirty tedious minutes on the relative merits of saying either, "Hi. My name is Jay" or just "My name is Jay," with H insisting that in his experience, it is natural for people to say hello first before giving their names, and D taking the position that greetings and introductions are statements that are never put together and, therefore, belong in two separate lessons.

At another time, a debate ensued when one of them wanted a set of instructions to read, "What's your name and where are you from?" while the other insisted that that was terribly complicated and would be made infinitely simpler by deleting the word "and," thus turning these into two separate questions.

I am fully aware that in a group this size, each of us will have different ideas and that we can only come up with one way to write everything. It's the contentiousness of their attitudes that I find most disturbing, with each of their "I am right and you are stupid" attitudes.

I tumbled out of that meeting and into the weekend, during which I worked on some sample features of the first lesson. We needed to get it ready for yesterday, Sunday morning, because a representative of the Belgian agency that is overseeing this work was going to meet with us at 10:00.

As it turned out, the Belgian didn't show up, so we were left to our own devices, which, as I see it, was mainly to keep D and H from killing each other in my office. They were well rested from their weekend, and ready to take up their struggle anew. They looked over the work that I had done. As each responded, there was not a comment that either of them made that went unnoticed or un-criticized by the other. If H said that he liked the phrase, "We can work together," D said that it would be better to say, "We can interact." Occasionally - but not often - they pause long enough for me to speak up and say (as I did in this instance) that beginning learners of English are going to find that "work together" is a more common and useful phrase than "interact." At that, they both nodded in agreement, but H had a devilish smirk on his face, as if to tell D, "Gotcha!"

H wants the first lesson to be very easy, so that beginning learners of English will find it enjoyable and feel successful from the start. To that, D says that H's approach is going to bore the brighter students. D wants us to spell out how many minutes of each two-hour session the teacher will spend on each section of the lesson, while H says that the teachers will take the time they need, slowing down and speeding up as their students need it.

D alternately calls me "Dr. Jay" and "dear." He is in love with the word "exactly," which he inserts into as many sentences as possible, such as these direct quotations from yesterday's session: "This is exactly one way of introducing oneself." "I'm trying to see exactly the content of the lesson." "I see exactly in this lesson we have cardinal numbers." "It's just to see exactly if they can do it." "This is exactly scrambled." "I see exactly my neighbor." "I know exactly they speak only Arabic." And if you think that this gets to be annoying after a while, you're exactly right!

At one point Sunday morning, for no apparent reason, D put on his sunglasses, to which H snidely commented, "Would you take off your glasses, please? You look like a drug smuggler. You're confirming what I think you are."

You'd think that all my years of dealing with six-year-olds would have prepared me better for handling with this kind of behavior, but I am sorry to say that I am feeling useless in negotiating their squabbles.

Today, Monday, the Belgian showed up. I introduced myself to him and he asked me to tell him about the Peace Corps. I took a breath to prepare my explanation. That moment's hesitation was D's signal to answer the question for me, and he went on with his own interpretation of what the Peace Corps is all about.

Mr. Belgium liked the framework that we had established. Then we told him that we had the first lesson completed for him to inspect. When he did, he remarked that we are on the right track, but he thought that we had a little too much in there - that it would be extremely challenging as the first English lesson that these students ever had. I noticed that H smiled when he heard that that, folded his arms, and tried to make eye contact with D so that he could give him an "I told you so" look.

The meetings of yesterday and today were held during times that D said he could not make it, but he showed up anyway. So he wasn't really unavailable. Or perhaps he just couldn't stand the thought of our doing the work without his valuable contributions.

My friend Tina in Denver asked me about the progress of my secondary project, the American Civilization class at the teacher training institute. I am enjoying it immensely. The students are receptive and engaging. There are seven of them who do not speak English. My APCD has arranged for the Nouakchott English Center to give them English lessons at no charge, as something of an exchange for the fact that I am teaching this class and will also conduct the English Conversation Club when it has enough participants to meet.

During the last class, we completed our discussion of the list of core American values. We were talking about freedom and all that it entails, including freedom of speech. One of the students remembered seeing an American movie in which a boy called his father a liar. Other students said that they, too, had seen this. They wanted to know if it was true that this could happen in America, because here in Mauritania, such a statement to a parent would be, as they put it, "impossible."

And how does one respond to that? I explained that yes, it is rude for a child to say that to a parent, but that many parents accept that kind of talk - and worse - from their children.

At the beginning of each class, there is no telling where our discussions may lead. I usually ask them for the Mauritanian perspective on each of these points. This week, as a result of our discussion about parenting, I found out that in Mauritania, if one is at a family gathering with one's children as well as parents, aunts, and uncles, that it is considered to be rude to correct your own children in front of your elders - that this is something reserved for the elders to do, not the children's own parents. How do you suppose that that would go down in the US?

One of our Volunteers has a parent who is a French citizen, which entitles this PCV to a French/EU passport. That, in turn, gives him access to a twice-annual event to which all French citizens can avail themselves: the order of wine, beer, and spirits from the French embassy. Individual orders can be quite sizeable, so our friend opened this up to other PCVs. We placed our orders through him in the fall, and the shipment just came in. Even though some of these items are available in various unpublicized places in Nouakchott, they are much cheaper this way. It's an enjoyable amenity for us to have. We have come to find out that certain diplomats don't have to pay for their alcohol, as they receive, as part of their salary, a "wine allowance."