Never one to be one upped, it’s time to post about MY school. You may be aware that I teach Physics to the 10th and 11th grade at slightly larger school than Amy (but who’s counting? I am. I’m counting.). Those of you who know me well may also know that Physics is not my, ah, area of expertise. If you have a question about the Green Bay Packers, or the silent film era in Hollywood, then I’m your man. But Physics? Not exactly my forte. However, one of the core expectations of Peace Corps is serving where you are asked to serve, under conditions of hardship if necessary. Physics certainly qualifies as a condition of hardship for me, but I’ve taken it in stride.
Mornings will often find me sitting on the porch with an American high school Physics book in one hand, and a Physics for Dummies in the other, attempting to write a lesson plan for that day. It really has been a matter of making sure I’m just a small step ahead of what I’m teaching my students. Essentially, I’m teaching myself first and then telling the students what I’ve learned.
Later in the day, it is time to go to school. My school is one of the oldest in Grand Gedeh county, and has had Peace Corps volunteer teachers for many years. My busiest days involve teaching two classes back to back, 11th grade followed by 10th. That can be a struggle, as there is no time to decompress or collect my thoughts in between – it’s a bit like coming up for a quick breath of air before diving back down again.
My school is currently under renovation, but I snuck in for pictures anyway 🙂
One of the major challenges at my school is class sizes. I have 80 students in 11th grade, about 65 of whom attend regularly. It can be difficult to keep their attention, so I try to give them plenty of classwork to keep them engaged. Once their 45 minute lesson is complete, I have approximately 59 seconds to get over to the 10th grade classroom. This room is like a small auditorium. And it needs to be, as I have 150 students on my roster. Roughly 90 to 100 are regular attendees, and again that is a large group to keep under control. I am helped by the fact that the front of the room is raised like a small stage, giving me a small sense of power. More effective than my stage, however, is when I come down from my pulpit and circulate between the rows. Teachers in Liberia generally don’t leave the front of the room during class, so it is disconcerting to the students – which I enjoy.
Two different views of my 11th grade classrom
One of the struggles that many education volunteers face is the students ability to understand us when we speak. That was very difficult for the first couple of months. It does seem to have improved though, aided by the fact that my school is used to having Peace Corps volunteers. This means they were pretty quick to pick up my butchered attempts to speak Liberian English. I find myself using phrases like “cut sheet”, “work two-two”, “cease the noise”, “talk it back”, “I can dust it?”, and (most frequently) “you getting me?” during most classes. My students like to respond that last one with “it makes big sense Mr. W!”.
Another struggle, specifically regarding my enormous classes, is managing all of their coursework. My rubric incorporates attendance/participation, in class assignments (homework would be a nightmare to keep track of with so many students), quizzes, and their final exam at the end of each term. I don’t call roll for attendance – it would take for too long with a roster that long. I could pass around an attendance sheet, but it would be too easy for students to write a friend’s name who wasn’t actually in class that day. So, I use a Do Now. I walk into the room, write Do Now in big letters on the board, and I write one or two questions. They get about five minutes to complete it and hand it in to me. If I don’t have their paper at the end of five minutes, I don’t take it and they miss the attendance points for that day. Otherwise they would be bringing them up to me all period long while I’m trying to teach, and it would be mayhem. Every night (or sometimes just every week) I go through all of my Do Nows, and mark the attendance for every student that handed one in. It also enables me to check their understanding of lesson content, and alter my next lesson plan based on their comprehension.
Because printing can be a bit of an ordeal (I have to get everything on a USB, take it to a print shop, pay for the printing, then pay for photocopying about a million pages), I don’t bring printed quizzes to class. I write my quiz questions on the board, and ask the students to copy them down, and then answer them. It’s not ideal, but it’s worked fairly well so far. What we’re trying to avoid is what I went through while trying to be a good husband early on during our time here, getting 100 periodic tables printed for Amy’s chemistry class. I hadn’t yet found a reliable print shop, so I went to the first one I found. I handed them my copy, and asked for 100 more. They began printing with what I deduced was an old ink-cartridge printer. After 5 or 6 pages came out, they stopped printing so that more ink could be injected into the cartridge with a syringe. After about 10 more, a man took one of the copies, jumped on his motorbike, and told me he would be right back with the rest. About 20 minutes later, he returned with the rest of my copies. Evidently he had gone to find a more reliable printer. In the end, most of the copies were off center and cut off the nobel gasses. Not sure how she taught around that. In any case, my reason for printing as infrequently as possible is to avoid that situation. For their period tests at the end of each term (every six or seven weeks), I do go ahead and print them. I use half sheets, front and back (230 students, after all, and every single one of them turns up for the exam). I’ve taken to having four different versions, to combat spying (the Liberian phrase for cheating on tests) – which is especially tough to monitor in such a large room. It is an uphill battle to get them not to do it in my classroom. I call it out when I catch it, but catching all of it is close to impossible.
Now lets talk about what happens outside of school – grading! This can be tedious. Going through stacks of paper one at a time has become pretty common at our house. Amy often grades on the front porch, where she puts the neighboring children to work stacking, sorting, and alphabetizing for her. I like to have a movie playing on my laptop while I do mine, as I find it takes the edge off. Most recently it was Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Trying to get to know it as well as I do the original films, you know? Anyway, as we move through the year, I am finding the task a bit more enjoyable. Watching my students progress and steadily improve brings some reassurance when I’m questioning my teaching ability. The average of my latest quiz was 73%, which is higher than Amy’s… again, not that I’m keeping track or anything.
I’m learning that schools in Liberia have extra curricular activities also, just like American schools. There is a quiz team, for example, which Amy had the pleasure of attending earlier this year. Teams of students from different schools get together and answer questions about a variety of topics, similar to the academic decathlon in the US. What Amy had not anticipated was to be asked to come to the stage and give remarks to the audience, which was roughly 1000 people. She did do it though, and I’m told it was fantastic. We are learning that it is advisable for us to always have a set of remarks prepared any time we are attending any event, be it a party, church service, meeting, or anything of the sort.
There are dances as well, though we’ve not been fortunate enough to attend one of those yet. At the earliest opportunity, however, we will be there. Also, it is common for schools to hold old student versus new students games, which are a huge event. We were able to observe the games at my school, and I was surprised at the spectacle of the whole thing. They wore bright, neon colored uniforms for the game, and it was a serious competition. There was music blasting out of an enormous speaker run by a generator, and all kinds of refreshments being sold on the sidelines, and it looked like the entire student body turned up to watch. It was great to see such enthusiasm. At these games, the girls play kickball and the boys play football (soccer, obviously) – we must work on challenging those gender roles.
Overall, teaching is a new and interesting experience every single day on campus, and my hope is that I am making a difference in these kids lives in some small way. Well, I’m sure there is more I could tell you about my school, but we have period tests coming up next week. So, if you’ll excuse me, I have four different versions of a test to write.
P.S. As Ohio State Alumni, we would be remiss not to mention tonight’s Big 10 Championship Game in Indianapolis. We will be listening in via 97.1 The Fan’s radio streaming app at 1am local time. To my Wisconsin family, I say good luck, and to my Ohio State family, we will be cheering right along with you in spirit.
Go Bucks, Beat Wisconsin!!