Let’s Get Down to Business

First, we set the scene. I’m typing this by candlelight, which is a bit surreal in itself. Though I am trying to focus on this quality blog content I’m about to drop, I can’t stop humming the melody of some Liberian rap song my neighbors just taught me. There is a goat bleating off in the distance, along with the drumming of motorbikes, laughter, and children refusing to take their evening bath. Something just ran across my foot and I am not brave enough to shine a light down there to identify the unknown offender, and someone is standing right outside my window sweeping the ground even though it’s pitch black… it’s Thursday night in LIB. And now we can begin.

When we’re not hauling water, chasing chickens, butchering Liberian recipes, or hiding under shelter from the rain (or the HOT African sun), we are occasionally working.

Our directions during our first three months at site were to settle in, find food, find friends, and start to get a feel for the community. If you’ll remember, Peace Corps’ approach to development revolves around really getting to know your community, learning about their needs, and helping them identify and implement their own projects- which is slow going. Luckily, as teachers, we had something to do from day one, and can hopefully use the relationships we’re building around our school as a springboard for further development down the road.

Unluckily for us as teachers, we started working on day one without really having time to hone our language skills, get a feel for the school system, or really ease into anything. I won’t try to describe Nick’s experience, but for me my first period of teaching was… well, it had me feeling some kind of way. I don’t know if you were aware, but teaching is hard! Like, really hard you guys! But every day I am growing, every day I am gaining confidence and finding my voice. On our first day together, I promised my students that we would all make mistakes in my classroom, and that it was OK because making mistakes is a natural part of learning. They were rather confused at the idea that a teacher could make a mistake at first (it’s not something many teachers here embrace), but boy have I cleared that misconception up for them.

Every school day starts with devotion where students sing songs, including the Liberian National Anthem, and pray.

So what’s a typical class like? If I ever have a typical class, I will be sure to come back and let you know. Every day is different. Which is both exciting and terrifying. Some days they just get it, and I’m running around my three feet of free space at the front of the room yelling, “That it!”, “Yes, that it!” (which is apparently hilarious). Some days I spend my 45 minutes standing silently at the chalkboard with my hand in the air, waiting for my students to zip it.

If my students don’t have a teacher,  I try to fill their free period with a reading or critical thinking activity. On this day I gave them three sheets of paper and asked them to build the tallest tower they could.  
One of their finished paper towers, which is very impressive considering 30 minutes prior they didn’t understand what a tower was.

And while we obviously have challenges- inconsistent attendance and class times, having 90+ students in a room that comfortably holds 50 desks, teaching during the peak of the 10,000 degree afternoon African heat in said overcrowded classroom, significant language barriers, lack of resources, and fighting a system that has let down many of my students- a small shift in focus brings so many positives.

Low attendance?- My students are missing class because they’re working, caring for their families, or sick (medical care here comes with its own challenges). Despite their responsibility filled lives, they still enrolled themselves in school, and come as often as they can.

Overcrowded classes?- I have 90+ students in one section of my 11th grade Chemistry class, but that’s 90+ students fighting for an education. Despite the aforementioned afternoon heat, they sit in their classroom, on the closest thing to a desk they can find, trying to learn. (There’s also a woman who sells frozen juice at school, so that helps too).

Language barrier?- Many of my students still have trouble understanding me, but they stay for my classes anyway. One of my favorite teaching moments happened about halfway through my first month of teaching. I try to foster a very interactive classroom, and often stop to ask for questions or feedback. At the end of one lecture, I did this, and a hand shot up in the back of the classroom. “Mrs. W.”, my student said, “I cannot ask a question, because I cannot understand a word you are saying.” Maybe the sweetness of the moment doesn’t translate to text, or the irony of it, but all I could do was smile. “We’ll try again tomorrow then” was all I could say in response.

Lack of resources?- I have virtually no resources at my school; most days it’s just me, one piece of chalk, and my trusty dustor (eraser). We don’t have a library, or a lab, any kind of printing, current (electricity), bathrooms, or enough usable desks. But the teachers at my school and other PCVs around Liberia have found ways to make learning possible, and I am always finding inspiration from them. Lacking resources does make teaching science, in particular, a bit challenging however.

When I want my students to do independent research, I have to write the sources for them (no textbooks, you know). So I do. My Biology curriculum for the beginning of the year included discussing the biographies of several notable biologists across history. The provided list seemed a little (entirely) male dominated, so we took two additional days to read about and present the accomplishments of some amazing women in science as well. We learned about botanist and suffragist Mary Agnes Chase, Nobel Prize winner Rita Levi-Montalcini (who was unable to practice medicine during WWII because she was Jewish) and ophthalmologist/inventor Patricia Bath’s fight for education as a black woman at a time when many American schools were for “whites only”, to name a few. As an advocate for women in STEM, especially in health and IT, I had no trouble finding source material.

One of my 10th graders presenting on women in science. Love it!

If I need to show my students a picture, I draw it. Sometimes they’re impressed, other times they laugh at my inability to draw a chicken.

I think the chicken is cute.

If I want to do a lab demo, I have to figure out how to modify it to only include items I can find around town. Many mornings I have found myself Googling questions like, “Can I use a candle as a bunsen burner?”, “Common household substitutes for [insert reagent here]”, or “How will ants impurities affect the physical properties of a solution?” to name a few. But, we’re trying-o, and I still shoot to integrate demonstrations into lessons as often as possible. In Chemistry, for example, I used Charles Law to draw water up into a beaker empty jelly jar, created a Cartesian diver using bobby-pins and a balloon, and am hoping to do the famous “ice cream in a zip-lock bag lab” this coming week to show salt’s effect on water’s colligative properties. Super impressive right? I have also exploded a plastic bottle filled with dyed water and oil, doused my front row with a salt water solution that I didn’t quite get the cap secured to, melted a lot of plastic, and popped a balloon on my face. So, you win some, you lose some. And while most of my demonstrations have failed, we learned from my failures (working on imagination skills by having my students pretend something happened is important too, ok).

Lava lamp demonstration, pre-eruption.
This is a Cartesian Diver. The “diver” (my balloon in this case) rises and falls as you change the pressure on the bottle. It’s not only a great demonstration of gas laws, it is also a relaxing toy.

Despite the challenges, things get better everyday. Everyday I get to know my students on new levels. They want to become doctors, artists, ministers, world travelers, and teachers. They want to better the lives of their families, and the citizens of this country. They are funny, and smart, and stubborn, and ornery, and so much more. I know these relationships are going to stay with me for the rest of my life, and I can’t wait to see how far these young men and women can go.

When we’re not lesson planning, grading, prepping classwork, or teaching, we’re still working. I have been using my UXD experience to help my fellow PCVs improve their own community analysis surveys and analyzing their data. I have been getting to know the members of another volunteer’s “Women in Science” club, and guest facilitated during one of their meetings. I have been seeking out local clinicians and youth leaders and trying to lay the foundation for some malaria education I hope to do. I have been attending club meetings at my school, watching our quizzing team compete, and listening to our choir practice. I am trying to figure out how to start a science club, so my students can practice laboratory skills. I am trying to figure out how to start a review club for the WASSCE (West Africa Senior School Certificate Examination), so our 12th grade students can get the test preparation skills they so desperately need. We have been running nightly tutoring sessions on our porch, helping anyone who asks for homework or reading help, in exchange for rap lessons, laughs, and occasionally gigantic grapefruit.

Sweet, sweet, citrus.
Women in Science demonstrating the effects of malaria and pregnancy.
Front porch math practice.
Snapped this sweet shot of one of my 11th graders helping my neighbor with her assignment. Does it get better?

And that’s pretty much it. We are still taking life one day at a time- days spent hauling water and doing wash, finding food, finding friends, and working. We are fine, so stop worrying.



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