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
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
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
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"
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
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
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
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
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