Monday, October 7, 2013

Chain of Fools

My middle school math teacher was Mrs. Long (no relation) and it is from her that my passion for teaching math springs. There are countless things that I learned in her classes that I still recall today, but perhaps none more vividly than "Same, Change, Change". Like many concepts in Mrs. Long's math class, this clever mnemonic, used to assist in the addition and subtraction of negative numbers, is to be sung to the tune of some (previously) well known song. We had Paula Abdul's "Straight Up" for dividing with decimals, MC Hammer's "U Can't Touch This" for prime factorization, and for Same, Change, Change, "Chain of Fools" by the one and only Aretha Franklin. Now this song has become so synonymous with negative numbers in my head that I still sing it to this day when it comes to adding and subtracting negatives, even though four years of being a math major has left me with more than enough conceptual understanding to not actually need it. Anyway, the point is that Chain of Fools has become part of my mathiness.

Enter Onamutai. Here I am, trying for the umpteenth time to get my kids to understand basic integer operations, and on a whim I decide, "what the hell, might as well teach it to them. " I had been though Same Change Change with them before but without the song, and it hadn't stuck. So I told them the story of the first Ms. Long and sang the three notes for them while they all laughed. I told them I knew they didn't know the song (as most grade 9s in America probably don't know it at this point) but if anyone wanted to come up with a new song to sing it to that they all know, they could earn a bonus point or two. This did not garner as much reaction as I had hoped, and I began to doubt that this would stick either. However, I kept it up throughout class and lo and behold, a few scattered people were singing the Chain of Fools version, even if they weren't actually using it at the time. By the end of class, almost everyone was belting out "Same Change Change", albeit slightly off tune (yes, these are the same kids that can do perfect 4 part harmonies every morning. I'm going to say that I was the one who was off key and they were just matching pitch). 

They loved it so much that they continue to sing it at random points throughout class, and throughout the day. I also played them the actual song so they could here more of what it was that they were singing to. They ate it up. So much, in fact, that a few of the boys have requested I give the song to them on a USB. 18 year old Namibian boy wants to jam to some Aretha Franklin in his spare time? I would be happy to enable him.

Village Life

On Friday I was showing my ICT kids some software that allows me to monitor their computer screens from mine, and also let's them send me messages and "raise their hand" when they need help. I was letting them message me anything they wanted just to try it out and was getting a lot of "I luv u mis long"s and "heelo"s when I saw someone said "I want you to come visit me in my village". I had been wanting to see a learner's house for a while now, so I quickly looked at who it was, hoping it was someone whose name I knew, and sure enough, it was Sarafina (whose name I only remember because a friend from college lives at Sarafina Way...) As they were leaving class, I told her I would love to visit her house one day though I couldn't that day, but she should let me know a day the following week and I would be glad to go.

Today she showed up at my door when the bell rang and asked me if we could go. I asked her about how long it was, since I had some things to do, and she said "not far, only 15 minutes". I should have known better. After dropping my bag at my house and filling up my water bottle, I offered to carry the backpack that her and her sister share, and after triple checking that I was serious, they gladly handed it off to me. I slung the backpack on my shoulders and the three of us headed off. The sun was beating down on us as we walked the sandy path toward the gravel road. Thirty minutes into the walk and I was sweating and tired. Though the girls offered to take the bag back, I insisted on carrying it the whole way. My learners do this walk twice a day without complaining a bit and I was determined to get the full experience, sore shoulders and all. An hour later, we came to their house where I met their siblings, one of whom was another one of my learners. They showed me around the homestead-- their rooms, the kitchen, where they pound mahangu, where the store it, where the chickens sleep, and curiously, the area where they sit outside and listen to the music that comes from "that room". I tried to get more information about this magical, musical room, but none was given. After the tour, it was time to head home. I told them they only needed to take me as far as the gravel road and I could make it back from there, but they wanted to come the whole way.

The third learner, Naemi, accompanied us as well, and along the way we ran into two others who were out collecting firewood. The girls also showed me what they called a "lake, or maybe a pond." To me it was very reminiscent of a query, but instead of rock, it was sand. Although the water level was extremely low due to the drought, and it was very murky, to me it looked like a great place for swimming- complete with a little beach and everything- but they told me that only the boys sometimes go in it, as most of them can't swim. (Makes sense when you've spent your entire life in the desert). The walk back was much more pleasant due the sun setting and lack of backpack. It was nice to chat more candidly with the girls, though they were still pretty quiet. They asked me to teach them a gospel song, but the only gospel song I know is "This Little Light of Mine", and I only know the chorus. I sang a few others for them too, but they couldn't really pick them up since the English was fast and my tone was off due to my slightly laborious breathing. I give these kids so much credit for doing this walk (and longer ones) twice a day all year and thinking nothing of it. If kids at home had to do this to go to school, classrooms would be empty.

We finally reached home and I said goodbye to the girls. I went inside to get more water only to discover that it was off. It had been off the night before, but on a little bit this morning. However now the taps were bone dry again. Luckily the ladies next door have water, so we're just filling up jugs over there till we can figure out what's going on. I also discovered that the water in their shower is actually pretty's probably a good thing I only discovered this now, otherwise I would have been over there quite a bit this year!

Not having water for this brief time has also given me another tiny bit of insight into how many of my learners live. The majority of them do not have running water in their house, and for those that do, it comes from a single tap in the middle of the homstead, not from sinks, showers, toilets, etc. We live near the public tap, and every day I get to see ton of people (mostly kids) rolling huge water containers or carrying them on their head to and from the tap. "Fetching water" is the most common chore for my kids, and they have to do it often as water goes quickly (as I've recently discovered), even when you're doing everything you can to conserve it.  I give my kids so much credit for how hard they work just to do basic things that we all take for granted, like washing dishes. It makes me sad though to think that a lot of them can't imagine life any other way. I hope that I am able to remember these short periods of inconvenience when I return to America and begin to appreciate things like constant electricity and running water (plus HOT water!), but if I forget, and I start to take advantage, I hope I will remember my learners and the process they must go through just get a bit of water to drink.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Trials and (Tiny) Triumphs

Today is October 3rd. Can we talk about this for a minute? When did this happen? Since when I have been in Namibia for 10 months? Nobutreally...

This week I came to the realization that although I have been officially teaching for more than a year, I have not completed a full year of teaching. This means that this is my first experience with the serious condition known as end-of-the-year-itis, and this wretched disease is wearing me down. Let me paint a picture for you. It's hot. Over 100 degrees hot, every day. Sun beating down so hard I can feel my skin burning just walking between classes. Even the breeze is hot. The kids are a bizarre mix of drowsy and full of energy. No one can pay any attention to a thing I am saying, but they have an extreme fascination with the group of students standing outside across the schoolyard. The are tired of learning and I'm tired of trying to get them to learn. The following conversation I had with a learner upon entering my last period math class pretty much sums up this time of year:

Me: "Afternoon everyone! How are you?"
Learner: "Miss can we watch a movie today?"
Me: "No. Ok take out your notebooks!"
Learner: "Why not?"
Me: "Do you want to pass your exam?"
Learner: "Yeah."
Me: "Then we need to learn math."

I'm not sure what gave him the idea that I would ever possibly say yes, especially since I've been reminding them daily that they have to keep working hard for these last few weeks so they can be prepared for the exams, but there it is. 

The end of the year also means an increased level of chaos around the school. The grade 10 and 12s have already started exams, which means that learners are now stationed in their rooms while teachers rotate, many classes have had to move rooms to accommodate for testing rooms and camping rooms (the 10 and 12s live at the school during exams) and the timetable has been interrupted. All this combined with a collective need on the part of teachers to fit in every spare minute with learners means that no one ever knows where they should be at any given time. Lovely. 

However, the end of the year has not come without its share of successes. When I can manage to get my learners to pay attention, it seems that they are really learning some things. My grade 9s (many of whom started the year at around a grade 6 level, at best) are starting to improve a little. I have begun doing Mad Minutes (remember those from elementary school?) with them and they are slowly but surely losing their dependence on calculators for basic calculations. Not only that, but they actually enjoy doing it because they can see the improvement too! And ending the year with a geometry unit means that all my extremely visual/concrete learners can experience an increased level of understanding and success right before exam times when a confidence boost is crucial. 

In science we have been working on physics and my personal love for the subject is shining through. I've added lots of activities and topics to the syllabus simply because I just think they're so cool! (Who doesn't love a good Free Falling Bodies experiment?) The kids are getting so much better at doing hands on activities and and learning to predict and use their critical thinking skills. It's pretty cool. Also, I've officially got them hooked on the Magic School Bus to the point where they attempt to sing the theme song any time they see me. (Wait, does this mean I've become Miss Frizzle?! Dream. Realized.)

In the computer lab, we've finally started getting some of the equipment sorted out and functioning properly, including the Classroom Management software for the laptops. This means I can monitor them all from my computer at the front, control their computer if they need help, and disable all the computers momentarily with a click of a button when I need their attention. Of course, I could have used this ten months ago, but better late then never right?

And the last thing that's been boosting my spirits a little is the success of Girls Club, which has been officially renamed Women's Health and Education Project. (WHEP might not be quite as catchy as WHEN, but they picked it themselves!) Each week, about 20 girls gather in my room for a discussion on whatever topic I've decided to talk about that week (they are free to suggest things, but so far no one has...) We've had some interesting discussions on teenage pregnancy, women' rights, and what it means to be a woman. Although they're still extremely shy so the discussion usually turns in to me talking, it's been so interesting to hear about these issues from their point of view. It's been an interesting challenge to try to open their minds to new thoughts and ideas without disrespecting their traditions and culture. Their worldviews are so limited that a lot of what I have been talking about is brand new to them. They are still so afraid to speak their mind which can be frustrating, but also helps to remind me of why I started the club in the first place. I'm excited to see what progress I can make in the next couple of months. My only regret is that I wasn't able to start this Term 1.

Well hopefully this has been a satisfying update for you all. It's hard to believe that my experience is drawing to a close and I'll be home in just over two short months, but there it is. I'm hoping that I'll be posting a bit more often this term with end-of-the-year happenings and just general thoughts, feelings, and emotions so stay tuned for that. In the meantime, I'd LOVE if people in the education community can keep your ears open for any potential long-term sub openings for when I return. It'd be great to have a steady income again...
Love and miss you all!