23 May 2008

The FACTOR Program

As a child, my father often joked with me that I had a serious case of schadenfreude; taking pleasure in another person’s misfortune. I suppose that’s why I was in hysterics when one of my group mates told me about his FACTOR program.

At his middle school the spoken English and literacy rates are abysmal. This is not to say that the children are slow learners, rather it is a reflect of the fact that their education up to this point has been of dubious quality. Despite this, my friend has been posted to teach grade 7, 8, and 9 science classes. But how can one teach about biological diversity, gravity, or chemical reactions when the students struggle to read or comprehend English at a 1st or 2nd grade level? One of the most common questions we, as teachers, ask is, “Do we teach to their ability or do we teach to their grade level syllabus?”

“So, I decided it was time to tackle this problem. Teach the syllabus but try and improve their English by other means. I needed something with a catchy acronym, since all good things in life need a catchy acronym. Hence, FACTOR,” he said without a hint of sarcasm or cheekiness.

“Which stands for?” I asked inquisitively.

“FACTOR: Force a child to read,” he said plainly but with a slight smile of satisfaction. “You see, once a week I take them to the library, which otherwise would remain dusty and cobweb filled from underuse. I take them to a section of books that I think is at their level, which usually means picture books with a couple of sentences per page, and I make them read to one another. I force them to read together for 35 minutes. It’s a bit hectic with 50 children all mumbling aloud to one another, but it might be the only time during the school day when they are actually learning anything.”

I’m sure he does darn well as a science teacher, but how much more effective could he have been in improving his students’ education if he were left to FACTOR his whole school? I doubt he would even desire the position of administering forced reading to all, but I think it’s clear the long term impact it could have.

I couldn’t help but laugh. Laugh at the absurdity of the situation he has been put in, and the name he had chosen to improve the situation. Getting (forcing) a child to read in a library is something that we might have to do in America as well, but to give it such a name as Force a Child to Read gave the whole program such a policed and regimented feel that made me think of some sort of horrible punishment being struck upon these children. I imagined kids being led down the the library kicking and screaming in refusal. I imagined his face with a paternal look of tired frustration, as if to say, “You’ll thank me later for this...” Therefore, my laughter. Schadenfreude.

In reality, everyone in my group has been duly impressed with his work. The children are learning and they are doing so quite willingly. In fact, one might even say they look forward to reading time. My group mate has demonstrated an immense amount of patience and resolve to get students to read on a regular basis. Moreover, by bringing them to the library week by week, he is creating the habit of utilizing a place of education. With that success in mind, Mr. EA, FACTOR on.

19 May 2008

The Art of Conversation

When facing the prospect of spending periods of time with people in a car, going on a group bike ride through the country side, or sitting in a large group with no activity to occupy the time, I’ve often said in a sarcastic tone, “Well, we’ll just have to sit together and practice the fine art of conversation.”

I have said this phrase any number of times here in The Gambia, first as we were thrown into the media desolate area where our training took place. Later in my service lack of power, spans of free time, and a national culture of chatting have led me to repeat this phrase with a metronomic consistency.

I caught up on emails this weekend and upon reading a couple of short stories a good friend of mine sent me from her Graduate portfolio, it dawned on me that I would consider her a good friend despite the fact that we have barely ever participated in the fine art of conversation.

This contrast struck me particularly strongly in the face of such consistent conversation here. I reflected a minute and realized that even here, my own conversational willingness, is far from at national norms. Through heavy reliance on text message and email, I still remain rather impersonal and disconnected. In fact, I find I prefer text messaging someone to calling them. Yes, it is more economical to do so, but it is probably more deeply rooted in an avoidance to taking the conversation to a more personal level. I believe it is a reflection of an overall introverted personality.

The more I thought about my use of an electronic proxy to engage in conversation, the more I realized how many cherished relationships I have that have grown entirely without any physically close conversation. A friend I met studying abroad who kept in touch well after the program, or a friend from high school that only became close with personal and sincere emails. I don’t know if that’s something to applaud as a success of our technology or fear as a sign of a coming disunion between meaningful communication and personal interaction. Of course, these are fears that have preoccupied social critics since the dawn of electronic communication.

After two years many of my family and friends have stayed in touch with me through this Blog and e-mail. I would say that some have become aware to a side of my personality that was previously hidden; the same seems true in reverse. Where does our relationship lie now?

12 May 2008

Building Blocks

Community and togetherness are an integral part of society here. It is not uncommon for neighbors and family to stop by requesting to borrow a wheel barrow, stop for lunch unannounced, or a act as a temporary babysitter.

It is then a curious peculiarity of society in The Gambia that the pinnacle for a family compound is to have a high protective wall of stone surrounding the entire property. This shuts a compound off from other community members visually and mentally, as what would otherwise be a unconcealed peek into the comings and goings of the family, becomes as much of a mystery as why the child next to me has been crying for the past 40 minutes.

Remember when American homes had front porches? Or when you desired to know everyone in your neighborhood? Or when people became wealthy enough to buy everything they could ever need for themselves? The result of these factors has led to a move towards a secluded lifestyle, which I think some would argue has gone to an extreme in America.

In the recent months Daboe, little by little, has been buying and making a small collection of concrete blocks in an effort to bring the compound to the higher standard. What previously was a chest high concrete wall would soon be taller than most NBA players.

This is how it goes. Every few weeks there would be a new pile of sand sitting in the middle of the compound. It is then mixed with water and concrete until it has a fine batter like quality. It is then poured into a building block cast, and then set out to dry in the West African sun.

So it has been for about the past 5 months, a few hundred blocks being molded at a time. This past week construction on the actual wall finally began, and what once was an open view of my neighbors is quickly being cut off in favor of increased security and comfort.

I arrived home from our Close of Service Conference this past weekend and saw men hard at work raising the wall roughly 1.5 meters higher than it was before. I couldn’t quite believe my eyes. Time and time again as a volunteer I have asked people if they would make long term plans and then be vigilant to stick to them. I figured that with such a large project as this I would never see it get off the ground, literally. It was therefore a pleasant homecoming and a reminder that good things can happen, with clear goals, a positive attitude, a little effort, and the right people.