Friday, March 27, 2015

A Teaching Story: Group Presentations

My first semester teaching in Ethiopia, was definitely a period of learning, for my students as well as myself. It was my first time teaching large classes (50+ kids in each class), my first time teaching complicated English grammar, and my first time teaching Ethiopian students. I’m so grateful for my teaching experience in Korea because it really helped me in certain ways, but in other ways, this was a whole new ball game.

As I got used to teaching, my students slowly started to get used to me. They became accustomed to my accent. They learned what I expected from them during certain exercises. Most importantly, they learned to expect anything and go with the flow in my class. I was more likely than any other of their teachers to stand next to them and not leave until they muttered something—anything, in English, even if it meant just repeating after me. I was likely to walk in and give them each a paper with a word on it, tell them to find the people with the same color paper as them, and make a sentence using all the words.

Now that we’re in second semester, I’m really raising the bar. My theory is that if I don’t set my expectations high, how will I know how well they can succeed? They are used to my teaching style now and I know their levels and personalities a bit better. I took a gamble in the third week of the semester and gave them a group presentation project where they had to think of a new business idea in Durame. I laid everything out, giving clear instructions and specific questions to answer during their presentation on a copied, double sided sheet of paper. I chose groups with a wide range of abilities based on their previous semester grades and assigned group leaders. I told the group leaders to help and include everyone in their group in all aspects of the project: planning, writing, poster making, and speaking during the presentation. I told them they were in charge and I was counting on them to get things done, but don’t be dictator—work with your group, not for them.

I outlined everything they had to do as a class, gave the leaders specific instructions, and then I left for two days to go to a Peace Corps “Communities of Practice” meeting in Hawassa (3 hours away). I asked my counterpart, Daniel, to go to their classes to make sure they understood and were doing the work while I was away. He helped them and answered all their questions, explaining in Amarhic or Kambatissa if they needed it.

During the meeting in Hawassa, I talked about my presentation project and worried if it was going to work. My students are only in ninth grade. This is their first year learning all their subjects in English and some of them are so low that they won’t even say hello to me. However, others are really great English learners and are very active and dedicated to learning. I was feeling wary, but hopeful.
When I went to school the next Monday, I was nervous. What if they hadn’t done anything? They were supposed to start presenting on Wednesday, in just two days. What if they all just told me they couldn’t do it, that it was too hard? Was I expecting too much from them, pushing them too hard?
I asked them to get into their groups and show me the work they had done. I was floored. They did an amazing job! All but one group had a complete or nearly complete business plan. They thought of such great ideas for new businesses in Durame, most of which were new to the town. Some of their business names were Hens Production (a chicken farm), I Have A Dream Honey Company (beekeeping, in homage to Martin Luther King, Jr.), New Generation Restaurant, and Ambericho Lodge (named after the mountain which presides over Durame).

Tuesday, they made posters and did a phenomenal job. I took pictures of all of them and tried to get everyone to smile. They really did have fun making them though, I promise!

Wednesday presentations began, and even though there was a bit of a slow start, they really picked up. They all did so great and in case you can’t tell by my raving, I am SO proud of them all!! I even heard a couple of low level students speak English for the first time! I could tell their group leaders had helped them and I was immensely proud of both students. 

After all the presentations were finished, we hung up all the posters around the classroom and did a “gallery walk” so everyone could check out everyone else’s posters up close. They were so happy. I told them how well they did and how proud of them I was and they cheered so loudly that other teachers came to the classroom to make sure they weren't misbehaving.

I asked the school administration if I could hang their posters in the library to display them and they said yes. I’m so glad. Their hard work deserves to be admired and I want them to feel proud of themselves and what they accomplished.

I’m so happy that everything worked out. I challenged them and they rose to that challenge like champions. I can’t wait to see how far they can go by the end of the semester.       

Friday, March 13, 2015

Harar, The Walled City in the East

During the break between semesters, we took a journey to an ancient, walled city in Eastern Ethiopia: Harar. Harar has 6 gates and has everything from wide traffic circles to tiny alleys. One alley is so small that it’s named “Peace Alley” because one cannot possibly pass by an enemy in it without reconciling. It’s simply too tiny for animosity! 

a gate of Harar
Nikhil, fellow Peace Corps Volunteer, in Peace Alley
Harar was built with walls to protect it from the surrounding raiding tribes of the past. A mostly Muslim city, it has numerous mosques and shrines to various religious and historical people. The national language of Ethiopia (Amharic) is widely spoken but there are also a couple local languages, namely Afan Oromo and Harari. We learned a couple greetings in Harari and the people loved it!

We spent the days exploring the old town: poking in shops, twisting and turning along alleyways, drinking coffee, and visiting historical sights. After a long day of adventuring, we would drink some Harar Beer straight from the factory, go feed hyenas meat dangling from a small stick in our mouths, or just go out to eat with our fellow travelers and revel in everything we had seen and all the kind people we had met that day.

One afternoon, we took a trip out to Babile Elephant Sanctuary. We had a scout lead us way out in to the bush on foot to spot some wild elephants. As soon as we were near, we had to be deathly silent. A human has no chance against a frightened, charging elephant!

Another day we were invited into a local’s house for lunch and his wife prepared us a traditional Harari dish. We sat on the raised platforms endemic to Harar and talked for hours. It was a leisurely afternoon and one that truly showed just how hospitable Ethiopians can be. His friend stopped by and guessed we were with Peace Corps. He had heard of it before and was grateful for our being there. It’s always nice to hear a local telling us thank you and that we are doing good work.

lunch in a traditional Harari living room
traditional Harari food
There’s something magical about a walled city: the soft light of the late afternoon spilling onto the cobblestone streets, the children coming out to play as it cools down, the closeness and the pride in the town. It all comes together to create something unique, a certain vibe that is almost indescribable and definitely palpable.  

a gate of Harar