Life Lesson #659

I read this book recently called the Big Book of Bright Ideas. These little girls write down all the important life lessons they learn so they can remember them later. I would be well advised to do something like that, and even though I probably won´t I did learn a lesson last night that is worth sharing. Mostly because it´s pretty funny. Life lesson #659 is:

If you are invited to a high school graduation party in Costa Rica, go; even if getting there takes two taxis, some walking in the rain and questions about whether the road will wash out. You will be wet when you get there, but you´ll probably end up having so much fun you´ll kick off those wet shoes and lead a group of high school teachers in the Macarena.

That was my Friday night.

To be honest, I didn´t really want to go to the party. I expected a whole bunch of speeches, a bunch of high school kids and having to sit at the grown-up table, which frankly is really boring. As it turns out though, it was the most fun I´ve had in a while. I laughed and danced with the students and teachers I see everyday and I could see clearly for the first time since I´ve been here... these people are my friends, I´m one of them now. It was a really cool realization, especially because this week marks one year of me being in Costa Rica. Seeing that in the course of a year I´ve made friends and become part of a community shows me that no matter what´s going on with my work here I´m forming relationships, and that´s what it´s really all about anyway.


Do you believe in magic?

I have to write this down before I forget. Before tomorrow when something happens and I convince myself that this moment never existed. Before the feeling that I’m getting nowhere with my job comes creeping back. Before the students again inform the teacher via Facebook chat that they have collectively decided not to attend class. (I’m not kidding about that. Last Wednesday when my Peace Corps project manager was here I was supposed to have class, but got a message that the previous scenario had just played itself out over the internet.) Regardless, I just have to share this because it was, in a word, magical.

Ok, so magical is a strong word, but it gets at how something can be just right and at the same time totally out of one's control. Imagine one moment in your job that everything just clicks and you know you’re in the right place, at the right time, doing just what you’re supposed to be doing and things “work” in a way you could have never forced no matter how hard you tried. Place that moment in a Costa Rican high school classroom, 9:30am, September 14, 2011.

 My job when working with classes is to “co-teach”, something that has proved very difficult. Generally, the class is either just handed to me, and the teacher leaves the room, or I spend the entire class sitting in a back corner piping in only when asked about pronunciation. Neither of those are effective co-teaching models. Effective co-teaching moments have been few and far between, and I often worry that I’m not making much of an impact with the co-teaching strategy. I’m probably going to keep feeling this for the duration of my time here, because co-teaching is innately challenging practice. Getting two teachers working well together takes a lot of time and commitment on both teachers’ parts, and those are two things that aren’t exactly abundant here. Despite this, I now have at least one moment to go back to and remind me that all is not lost.

 It happened when a group of ninth grade students were working on a lesson about the use of future tense in English. I presented the technical grammar stuff, the students worked on a written practice and then we had planned a charades-type activity for communicative practice. I had come up with the activity and presented it to a group the day before, but had to leave before actually seeing how it turned out. I left the teacher with it and didn’t have terribly high expectations for its success. The reason I felt this way was because what I, and many contemporary educators, call “communicative activities/practices” are what many others call “games”. They are many times regarded as having no place in school and when I use them in classes here I often get a response akin to, “Yea, the students liked it, but I don’t think they really learned anything.” I understand it’s hard to change ideas about how to educate, and it makes it really hard for me when teachers just plain don’t “believe in” what I’m trying to sell. The moral of the story, I hoped charades would go well but doubted it. When we got to that point in the class, I went to the teacher and asked, with some trepidation, bracing myself to think quick and invent a new practice, “Should we do the charades thing? I don’t know if it’s a good idea. Did it work yesterday? Did they get it?” Instead of what I expected, I got, “Yea. Let’s do it. Yesterday it went great, I even added another part to the activity so more students participated and there was more practice.” I didn’t believe my ears. Not only did they do the activity, he improved the activity, made it his own, and now he was the one endorsing it. Since things we’re going so well, I decided to test my luck and suggested he lead the practice because he was so successful with it the day before. He agreed, got up and jumped right in. And that was the moment. Right there. We were real co-teachers. It wasn’t “my” lesson in “his” class; it was “our” activity. We had worked together, improved on each other's ideas and executed our work seamlessly. That, was magic.

While he started explaining and organizing the students, I took a moment to reflect. I sat down and looked around. ‘That just happened,’ I thought, ‘it’s really working.’ My job is to work with teachers to help them improve their English teaching strategies, and that is exactly what happened there. I wonder every time I step foot in the school if what I’m doing there really matters. It depends on the day how I feel about it, but this day, in that moment, I knew that inspiring one teacher to creatively use charades to teach the future tense in English is something to be proud of.


I knew it

I live in t-shirts and shorts here. Like I mentioned before, I can count on one hand the number of times I've recently worn pants in my town. Jeans, long-sleeves and jackets come in handy in San Jose and when I travel, but usually I just glance at them hanging in the closet and chuckle. There is one particular item that always makes me laugh when looking at it, and that is my North Face down vest. I know you're probably asking why I brought it in the first place, and while that's a legitimate question, I had, and have, a very good reason. The reason has absolutely nothing to do with the cold, though the vest came in handy for that during my 3 months in training in a mountain community. The real reason I though, is in case I miss home. It's a security blanket of sorts. Laugh if you will, say I'm too old, but really, it's true.

Growing up in Boise and living a few years in Spokane I spent months cocooned in my down vest. It makes me feel warm (obviously), but more than that it makes me feel safe. Zipping the fleece lined puffer up to my chin and snuggling up makes me think of northwest winters, of skiing, of a fire in the fireplace, and of home. While I was packing to come here I looked at that vest and thought just that. My plan was, 'If I'm there and I really, really miss home I'll put it on, zip it up tight, snuggle my chin in, close my eyes and imagine I'm home.' I did consider the possible heat factor, but the cost-benefit ratio favored the snuggly goose-down outerwear garment, and in it went.

A day hadn't really come that I needed my security blanket vest, although I've had some times that I've felt homesick nothing had yet warranted The Vest. That was, until Tuesday. There's not a lot worse than being sick when you live alone and far from friends and family, and add being in a foreign country and you've got what I'd call a bad deal.

On Tuesday I came down with some kind of stomach virus. It was really terrible. My stomach and head hurt, I had a fever, moving made me nauseous. It was all round no good. As I lay in bed Tuesday night I tried to figure out how to make myself feel better. I tried crackers and club soda, ibuprofen, you know the regular stuff, and I was feeling okay as long as I just didn't move. What I really wanted was to be at home with my parents so they could bring me soup and tea, and I wouldn't have to be alone in Costa Rica attempting not to move. As much as I wished it, this was not an option. Enter here: The Vest. I looked up from my bed at my clothes hanging there and saw what was as close to a solution as I was gonna get. I missed home, I wanted to be snuggled on a couch in Boise, Idaho, I needed something, and there it was. It may have been too warm for down and I may have had a fever, but I got the vest down anyway. I snuggled into it, got comfy in bed, got some crackers and gatorade, and I was set.

They vest worked like a charm. I still wasn't cured of my flu, but I felt a lot better with just that little reminder of home. I was still alone, I still spent all day in bed, but I closed my eyes and I was home. I knew it would come in handy.


Who needs work anyway

Because of the extraordinary amounts of testing we have at the high school I haven't been teaching for over two weeks. It's not for a lack to trying to do my job, but for technical difficulties. I went to school everyday, but I just ended up talking with teachers about plans and activities we're going to start...after exams. So, I've been hanging out at home cooking, reading and drinking excessive amounts of coffee. The results have been some delicious biscuits, a new garbanzo bean curry recipe and a few dog-eared paperbacks. I can't say I mind just takin' it easy, but after a while I began to wonder when we were going to get back to having English class. Turns out the answer is today. You'd think I'd dread going back to work, but I'm actually really glad to be doing something productive after so many days of just hangin'. 

Part of the reason I have so much down time is just the nature of being a Peace Corps volunteer. Things move slow. I have to get people organized, and once I do we have to schedule our work around other things that are going on. In the school that's testing, teacher trainings, staff meetings, holidays, science fairs, assemblies and the like. In the community there are the challenges of holidays, work schedules, meeting space avaliability and more. When it all comes together just right so a project or class can work, it's wonderful; it just usually takes a lot of time to get there.

But, starting to day it seem we are back at it. I went this morning to settle all the details for my next session of adult classes, I'm actually teaching some lessons at the school, and we have the next trimester schedule set. In addition I'm working on a committee for the regional English Day event and I'm working with a teacher in my school on what is my biggest project yet. It is a community service/cultural exchange project where the students will work all year on community service projects and next July will go to Boise to share their experience with an organization there and do homestays with American high school students. That's definitely the project I'm currently most excited about.

Glad to be back to work and I'll keep you updated about whether my students and I will make it stateside next year!