The teachers gather


Last week, all the PC teachers gathered for five days of in-service training, which started on Tuesday in Nouakchott. There are five teachers in the group preceding mine and ten in my group, including one Curriculum Development Specialist (CDS, my job title) in each group. Also included in the group for the week were the teachers' counterparts, most of whom teach English at the same school as the PC teachers. My counterpart was inexplicably and blessedly absent from the event.

A few people arrived early and stayed with me at Château Jay. Volunteers who live outside of the capital are allowed hotel vouchers for seven nights per quarter when they are here for official business. Three people who had used up their allotment for the first quarter stayed with me.

One of the other nights, I had a group over for dinner - homemade soup with whole grain bread. It was an enjoyable time for getting together with some of the people who don't get to town very often.

The in-service began with an explanation of the new curriculum and then went on to share lesson plans and to talk about classroom management. A large focus of the classroom management was on the problems of cheating. This is evidently endemic here, and some of the first-year teachers appreciated getting ideas from the second-year teachers concerning how they can deal with the situation.

Understandably enough, when students are seated three to a (small) desk and packed into a room with eighty others, it's hard to keep eyes from wandering. Girls wear mulafas, which have yards of material covering them; it is easy to slip pieces of paper in there, and no teacher would ever ask a girl to remove or loosen her mulafa.

Another problem is that many teachers do not proctor their own midterms and final exams, which means that colleagues are brought in to watch the students. Many of the Mauritanian teachers cooperate with cheating students by helping them figure out answers and by not controlling the distribution of papers.

One of the popular methods of cheating is to get extra papers from the teacher, which, in turn, get distributed to students in later classes that will be taking the same exam. The PC teachers can control this by passing out papers to one student at a time and, in the event that a student asks for a new paper, the teacher collects the old one before giving another one.

After the first day of the in-service, the focus changed to the topic of gender equity in the classroom. One of the realities here in schools is that the older the girls get, the more likely they are to drop out of school and discontinue their education.

An imam (Muslim holy man) addressed the group and explained that Islam as a religion offers equality to both sexes. The problem, though, in girls and women not being treated equally is not in the religion but in the traditions of the society, in that they are asked or required to be kept at home to work there.

The idea of gender equity in the classroom is not a new one to the PCV teachers, though it is a newer concept to the Mauritanian counterparts. These two days of lectures, discussions, and proposals of action plans were of more use to the Mauritanian teachers, whereas the rest of us started to fall away from the event, one by one, or some used the strategy of sitting in the back of the room, physically present, but reading books or writing letters.

It made me wonder if there was something of a Global In-service Pact, a worldwide treaty to which all participating nations agreed that these required gatherings be as boring, as useless, as repetitive as possible. There must be. It was like that when I was teaching!

After lunch on Thursday, we went to the town of Boghé (boh-GAY) for an additional two days. We arrived there in the dark, and shortly after that there was a power outage, which meant that we had to find our way around in total darkness, from the school to host families.

I stayed with the host family of one of the health Volunteers who lives in Boghé. In addition to the resident PCV, there was another teacher with us. The mother of the family turned out to be the aunt of my Mauritanian friend in San Francisco.

There are eight children in the family, two of whom are attending high school in Nouakchott, leaving five boys and one girl at home. In the evenings we had our dinner in the courtyard, with the various small buildings of the compound surrounding us. We sat in a dirt/sand area in which the chickens and goats roamed freely. There is a garden, fenced off from the goats, but two of the kids, in their relentless search for food, kept finding ways to get in to eat the vegetables.

I slept in my tent on the roof of one of the buildings. The evening temperatures were pleasant, in the 70's, with a gentle breeze two nights and a wind the final night. During the heat of the day, it was not very comfortable outside, but the rest of the time it was quite pleasant.

There is a PCV house where Volunteers from the region gather, and there was a party there on Saturday night, with three people playing guitars and lots of singing along. One of the Volunteers brewed some wine, so we got to sample two batches of the home brew - the "white" (looks like grapefruit juice, tastes like Crystal Light) and the "red" (looks like Kool-Aid, tastes like rubbing alcohol).

The purpose of our being in Boghé was to have Model School similar to the one last summer during training. Some of our second year Volunteers have created a collection of lessons called Lesson Plans that Work. This was printed last summer in its first edition for general use by all the teachers. During the classes, teachers tested the lessons and came up with suggestions for ways in which they can be improved.

It was surprising to see how many students signed up for and attended Model School, especially considering the circumstances: (1) that it was held not only on a weekend but that (2) it was the first weekend of the spring break.

There were six classes a day: four in the morning (8:00, 9:00, 10:00, 11:00) and two in the afternoon (3:00 and 4:00). I began by observing in one of the classrooms. I lasted about fifteen minutes before my body was not able to take sitting in the uncomfortable desk and I had to leave the room. Most of the time, then, I spent in the large assembly room with the PCV organizers of the event, either talking to them about the lessons or reading.

The teachers gave good ideas for revising the lesson plans. Kristen (the other CDS) and I will integrate these into the lessons that we are writing in the textbooks and teachers' editions that we are working on. Our work is cut out for us!

We returned to Nouakchott with several new requests for visits to Château Jay. The teachers are out for spring break and, of course, with Nouakchott's world-famous reputation as a party town, I am sure that there will be lots of action. We're all looking forward to the wet mulafa contests.

Return to Nouakchott also meant seeing all of the current second-year Volunteers, even though it was briefly. They were assembling here so they could all go together to their Close of Service (COS) conference, which is being held in the far north of the country in Nouadhibou. This event will help them make their post-PC plans. When this group entered the country in June, 2002 there were 46 of them; 19 remain to COS.

It's time to review my latest reading material. I thought I had been reading a lot, but when I was talking to other teachers during the in-service I found that there were several - especially those living at sites without electricity - who have read much more than I. Two of these books are by Peace Corps writers.

The Difference Engine: Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer, by Doron Swade. The author tells two fascinating stories. First, there is the life and times of Charles Babbage (1791-1871), whose machines, the Difference Engine and Analytical Engine, are acknowledged as being forerunners of the modern computer. Following that tale is the modern-day account of the building of one of these machines, according to Babbage's plans, from the inception of the idea in the mid-1980's, to the machine's completion in time for the bicentennial of Babbage's birth.
The author masterfully kept the language of science within my reach, as I am decidedly not a science type.

Mango Elephants in the Sun: How Life in an African Village Let Me Be in My Skin by Susana Herrera. The author was a teacher in a village in the northern region of Cameroon. She entered the Peace Corps with the legacy of a difficult childhood and a divorce. Much of who she is and how she sees herself is a result of her painful past. I admire her honesty for laying herself bare as she did to the reader.
This is yet another book in which the Volunteer writes only about what happens in the village where (s)he is working, with nothing about Peace Corps trainings or vacations to other places, as well as very little information about other PCVs. Perhaps the publisher wanted that kind of story and filtered out what was not related to the life in the village.

Dear Exile: The True Story of Two Friends Separated (for a Year) by an Ocean, by Hilary Liftin and Kate Montgomery. Kate and her husband David head off for the Peace Corps in Kenya, leaving her dear friend and former college roommate Hilary in New York. It's hard to imagine a more disparate juxtaposition of world views and daily lives than those between New York and a Kenyan village. They really are worlds apart!
It's easy to see from the title that Kate did not finish her service, so I was curious to know how it would come to its premature end. After the first four months, Kate and David complained about the color of the drinking water (brown) and the chunks floating in it (!). The water was tested and the Peace Corps deemed it unfit for consumption, which led to their getting a site change. They were high school English teachers. School was crowded and difficult in both places, but it was in their second location where the students went on strike, leading to a chaotic situation, including the suggestion that they leave town. They were offered yet another site change but, having done that already, decided to pack it in and return to the USA.