Who Tells Your Story

We are BUSY little killer African bees over here, but I promised more frequent updates and am going to make sure it happens. So this week, please enjoy a sampling from our VRF reports. This biannual volunteer report form asks PCVs to report everything they’re doing (in rather fine detail) back to Washington. This includes all of our teaching, clubs, mentoring, committee work, gender advocacy work, malaria education, literacy sessions, culture exchange, and more. And while it makes many volunteers feel some kind of way, it’s required to keep our funding coming. So we do it grudgingly happily.

For part of the VRF, volunteers are asked to write a 3 paragraph essay on an event or encounter they can call a “success story” (As usual, I completely disregarded any restrictions with regard to length). As we just submitted ours, I thought I would share- why should the folks in Washington have all the fun. Enjoy!


Amy’s Story- Finding Success in the Fire

When I completed my first marking period as a teacher in Liberia, I thought the hardest part was behind me. I turned in my final grades and celebrated my survival. Yes, coming to Liberia I thought teaching would be the hard part, and I was prepared to struggle with that. I was not prepared, however, to deal with the aftermath of instruction and testing- grade bidnay (business).

The day the fire list was hung up at my school was a day that marked my service. What is this fire list everyone is talking about?, I thought, What are those numbers next to my student’s names? Why is everyone yelling, and cheering, or running…. I quickly learned that the fire list is a public list identifying the students who failed to reach a grade of 70 in three or more classes. It’s a common practice here, and I do believe the intentions are good. The purpose of the fire list is to motivate students, and many believe that calling failing students out is a necessary means to inspire determination and attitude improvement. As an American, I found this quite shocking. Grades are kept very private in our system, so the idea of a public list highlighting only the failing students blew me away.

While I am not sure if this list brought the positive changes my administration and staff were hoping for, it did bring some changes my way. That fire list sparked several difficult and frustrating conversations with many of my students. Conversations I was not prepared to have on that day. The day grades were returned, and the list was hung, I was bombarded by angry students. They confronted me. They yelled at me. “Why did you fail me Mrs. W? You put me on the fire list!”. One student from my 11th grade class was particularly angry. At first I did not even recognize him as one of my students (a hazard of having 100+ students in a class I suppose.) After looking at the breakdown of his final grade, I discovered that he did not participate in class, or even attend regularly. He had not completed what I thought was a simple assignment, and failed the final.

I was struck in that moment by how different our experiences and understanding of basic school functions probably was. From my background in the American education system I thought, how do you expect to pass a class if you don’t attend, participate, or do any work? He thought, I can only assume from what I know about the challenges of education here, that his grade was never in his control to begin with. This is the system he knows, and I was not behaving according to his rules. So of course he blamed me. Instead of allowing myself to get too frustrated, or throw my hands up and blame the system as well, I tried to find some small way to relate. It reminded me of a few times in college when we would have guest lecturers from other countries and universities teach courses. I tried to avoid these classes! Often they were harder than I wanted them to be, I couldn’t easily understand the professor, and I did not achieve a particularly high grade. And you can bet I blamed the professors (as even American students often do) for those low grades. Maybe, I figured, my students were feeling the same way about me…

So, I took a deep breath and began the conversation with him that I would go on to have with many of my students that week. We talked about what I did, as the teacher, to determine his grade, and what he did, as the student, to get there. We talked about what I did (came to school every day to teach), and what he didn’t do (come to school to learn). We talked about my my job, as the teacher, to hold him accountable for his choices, and his job, as the student, to make good ones. We talked about responsibility, blame, and what we were both going to do second period to make sure the fire list had one fewer student on it.

And I did my part. Second period, I modified my grading system to give students more control. I made it easier to follow, making one point worth one percent, so that my students could track their grades on their own. I gave flexible due dates for assignments, allowed students to make corrections on quizzes, and asked for their input in designing test questions. I reminded them constantly, and pointed out how their choices affected their grades. If they missed class, I made sure to tell them when I saw them in town that they lost one percent. If they failed a quiz, I made sure to encourage them to bring back the corrections, and highlight the improvement they would see. We continued our discussions on self advocacy and empowerment every time I was given an excuse for missing class/forgetting an assignment/failing a quiz/getting kicked out of class.

And he did his. This young man got a 100% in Chemistry second period. He got a 100% in Chemistry third period. That’s an 80 percentage point swing. Handing back his final tests, watching his nervousness and anxiety about his grade transform into pride. Watching him hold the paper over his head and run around the room. Listening to him continue to yell and cheer as he ran into the corridor. That was a moment that will truly mark my service. And he was not the only one yelling at me that day, in joy, whose grade had continued to rise.

So I suppose I can thank the fire list, as much as I hated it initially, for something. It gave me an opportunity to speak with my students about the habit of shifting blame, and about personal responsibility. If they never learn one thing about Chemistry or Biology, but can take that lesson away, I’ll consider the year a success.

As an aside, I really want to commend my school on their handling of the fire list after first marking period. They held a teacher meeting to discuss the handling of the fire list, some of unintended consequences, and how to increase positive change. They asked for my input and collaborated with each other. We brainstormed ideas on how we could mitigate problems, like fire list students giving up and dropping out, and talked about using an honor roll to highlight student achievement instead of failure. I’m very proud of my teachers and administration for even having this discussion, and I am so excited to keep this momentum going.

Mrs. W LR-7

Nick’s Story: Do-do, do-do-doo, Malaria 

I have been worried about what to write about for a “success story” since I found out about it towards the end of PST. I had no idea what I would write about. But, one presented itself after all.

The success story I will share is my malaria day at school. It was very impromptu, as I had not planned on talking about malaria that day. In the end, though, it became my best day of teaching since arriving in Liberia.
I was on my way to school for my 5:15pm Friday class, which commonly has lower attendance than the rest of my classes. I arrived at school, and saw that many students appeared to have left for the day already. My 11th grade class has an enrollment of roughly 75 students, and most of them had gone home. Sixteen of them remained. I briefly debated whether or not to proceed with my physics lesson as planned, knowing I would likely have to cover it again for the 60 missing students. In the end, I decided to have a totally unplanned group discussion about malaria, to see what they knew (or thought they knew) about it.

I started by simply asking what they knew about it. We started with symptoms, many of which they already knew. They knew it could be dangerous for young children and pregnant women. We talked about the anopheles mosquito, the fact that only female mosquitoes carry the disease, and why having a mosquito net over the bed is so important even if you already have malaria (it’s because uninfected mosquitoes can bite you, and contract malaria themselves – thus facilitating the spread of the disease). All of that discussion was great, but what really made the lesson special was when the students started teaching each other.

One student asked if malaria comes from plums (Liberian term for a mango), and another (female!) student explained to him that it’s a common misconception and that malaria is truly only spread by mosquitoes. Then, this same female student (who aspires to be a nurse after she graduates) explained what malaria does to a fetus when a pregnant woman is infected (among other things. She was so knowledgeable, and it was amazing to watch her command the attention of every student in the group. This is because female students are often not called upon as much as the males, not pushed as hard in class, and not encouraged as much in school. When the class period came to an end, I wasn’t ready for it to be over. I wanted more time, to have more discussion. And that was a first for me.

Mr. W. LR-7

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Darlene Johnson says:

    A very uplifting read as always. Great job you two.


  2. Duane says:

    Wow, great job you two, really enjoy your posts.


  3. Marti says:

    I’m so incredibly proud of both of you! Fantastic job!


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