Thursday, January 20, 2011

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go.”

This week has been such an amazing week for me. After a few weeks of doubting my purpose here and wondering if I was truly making a difference as an English teacher, and feeling completely overwhelmed, I am finally starting to feel good about what I am doing again.

At the end of last year, school was focused on the pending holidays, it became really difficult to teach and I stopped making meaningful lesson plans. Even in reading club we focused more on singing than we did on learning to read. I started to feel like a failure and even worse I began to get lazy. Well one of the things I promised myself for the New Year was to get back to effective lesson planning. Having goals for each lesson and having directed activities that utilize the newly acquired skill make a huge difference in my teaching. When I go to school unprepared, the lesson is often boring and the students hate it, and then become behavioral problems. So this year I have been back to guided lesson plans and it is making all the difference in the world.

As I have never taught before, 80 percent of my lessons and activities come from my imagination. I take a topic and brainstorm how to teach it in an interesting manner. I have discovered I have a knack for this that I never knew I had. The other 20 percent of my ideas come from an activity book that I was given by another brilliant Peace Corps volunteer. The point being, there is no real method to my madness. Well this week I went to the Peace Corps office and picked up a few books with tons of methodologies to teach ESL. I have already read through most of them, and have come away with so many ideas. I am so excited to bring these new techniques into the classroom. I feel that I have proven techniques now that will improve my teaching.

One thing that I began this new semester with my little ones is a guided positive reinforcement regiment. Every day at the beginning of class my students put a small note book on my desk with the date written on the page, we call this the sticker book. During class if the student does something well I make a note in the book and place a sticker by it. My students are so excited at the end of every class to see who got the most stickers in their books and also to receive praise. I cannot say enough about the effects of positive reinforcement on my kids. They strive to answer questions first and to participate now. Another benefit to this method is getting parents involved in their child’s education. At my parent meetings I informed the parents that this was our new class policy and that if they want to know how their child is doing in class they need only to look at their books. My children hate the idea of going home and having to show an empty sticker book to their mom, so they are working really hard.

The best part of this week for me was taking a trip to the U.S embassy. My friend’s dog had chewed my passport so I had to go fill out an application for a new one. The people at the embassy were so kind and friendly. When they found out I was a Peace Corps volunteer they told me how special I was, and even invited others over to come meet me. They asked about my work, and thanked me for what I am doing. It felt so good to be appreciated especially when it was so unexpected. After I was done with my passport application I went to the IRC in the Embassy.

At a seminar in November we had met a woman from the IRC ( English language center) who talked to us about all kinds of amazing programs that they do. They have movie nights that we are welcomed to invite our students to, they have tons of English books and movies that we can check out and use and they do monthly activities. Well a few days after the conference I noticed that my book supply was running very short. I became frantic about the future of my reading club, so I began to write letters asking for help. I wrote to ten different organizations in Yerevan asking for book donations and on a whim I also wrote the IRC. Thank God I did because they were the only ones to reply and offered 50 books to me. This week I got to pick those books up. I was so giddy when I saw a box full of old library books for my kids. I am so thankful to everyone at the IRC for such a great donation. My kids absolutely love reading club and are excited that at least for awhile we will be able to have it every week! I do still have a need for more children’s books so if anyone is interested in donating, please let me know. I am planning a city wide reading event in March to celebrate literacy and Dr. Seuss’s birthday.

Also I have decided that I now have enough books that each of my children can borrow them to practice their reading skills at home. So I brought all of the books I have into the school for storage. I was shocked when all the other teachers took so much interest in the books. I asked my counterpart what the interest was about. What she told me broke my heart…

“We don’t have books such as these here. We have a few fairy tales, but nothing with illustrations as these. They are the most beautiful books they have ever seen”

“Well what do kids read when they are little? Like what do they read for fun?” I asked, shocked.

“We don’t read a lot here, there isn’t a lot available. Children usually have one book with a few stories in it, and their school books, that is it” she explained to me.

Can you imagine what it would be like to grow up without books? Maybe this is just the book nerd in me, but I am horrified at the thought of it. Books have always been such an important part of my life. Since I was a little girl I loved to read; my favorite thing in the world was going to the library or book store. As I have said on here before, I truly believe that my love of reading is what developed my learning skills. Children who have problems reading, have problems learning. Children who don’t like to read, have problems learning. Inspiring a love of reading in a child makes all the difference in the world. To this day I love to read, and I love to learn. I know without a doubt, that if my parents had not read to me when I was a little girl and had not given me a library card and allowed me the freedom to read whatever I wanted, I would not be where I am today. I would not have gotten good grades nor been interested in learning. We are so lucky to be Americans and have privileges that we don’t even realize are privileges.

So my plan is to build the best library I can build for my school. I want to get been bag chairs, carpets and bookshelves that flow with colorful, imaginative books to be at my student’s disposal. Having new ideas and plans of ways that I can help people makes me so happy and fulfilled, it immediately helps cure the homesickness that has been brewing in me. I really want to be the best teacher I can be, but I also want my kids to have something when I leave Spitak. So if you are interested in donating books or school supplies please send me an Email I would also like to thank my aunt linda, Allison and Brian Coltin and the IRC for the donations you have already made

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Somewhere between every day mundane and every day extra ordinary

This morning as I boarded my Marshootni to Yerevan I noticed how easy it has become to slip into this Peace Corps robe, to become homogenous with the Armenian culture and to almost fit in it, in fact I’d almost say that life here has become mundane. Sure people in Spitak still stare at me all the time, but at least now when they stare someone explains to them I am the American English teacher. I know people still think its weird when I walk into a hanoot with Sophie tucked into my bag, but now they just excuse it as an American custom. I no longer have to get on to praying to God that I read the sign right and am going to the right place, I know where the van is going by looking at the driver. I have begun to figure things out here and it’s amazing to not feel so lost all of the time. I’d dare say I know the marshootni times better than most of the locals in Spitak.
I now know to always sit in the window seat, as you can carve out your own space there. I know never to sit by a young man if I have a choice, not only because I will be amoted, but because a 2 hour marshootni ride trying to avoid the shuffle of someone’s feet as they attempt to play footsies with you, is not preferable. I know to put my ear phones on when I don’t want to be bothered and to sit by a tatik if I want to talk. Yes I’d say I have Armenian transportation down at this point, or so I’d thought.

One thing I didn’t know, I guess someone forgot to explain to me, is that fist fighting is perfectly acceptable form of communication on a Marshootni… I wish I would of known that today as myself and the other 15 passangers of the Spitak line traveled down the road up North…
What started as a normal Marshootni ride with my least favorite driver, yes I have favorite drivers now, suddenly turned wrong when a taxi cab pulled up alongside us and signaled for us to pull over. Crap, I thought, just what I need a friggen flat tire…
But I noticed something strange as we pulled over onto the side of the road; the taxi was pulling over as well. “Well at least they are going to help us” I thought to myself as I turned up the sound on my earphones, believing we had a long wait ahead of us. I watched as a man got out of the taxi and began walking to the van door. The driver did not budge, just sat patiently waiting. He must have chased us down in the taxi to get on the marshootni I thought, annoyed because there clearly were not any empty seats for a new comer. I watched as the man opened the van door and climbed into the back. He yelled something, as he came my way. I turned my ear phones down and looked up as the man was standing over me his fist flying toward the man sitting behind me. Confusion delays my memory here because I didn’t really understand what was happening, but somewhere around punch number 4 or 5 a scream escaped my lips. What the hell is happening, I think I said. No one moved, no one tried to help the young boy who was being beat. I looked pleadingly toward the driver, I don’t know if he took mercy on me or the boy who was being beat but he began to yell at the man to leave. The man took a few steps back, yelled at the boy again and turned to exit the marshootni, but not before a hand flew over my seat to grab the man. The boy wanted his revenge; he leaped up to go after the assaulter but was pushed back.
The man ran into the waiting taxi, and they drove off. I sat in my seat, mouth wide open, too confused to be scared. Did a taxi really just chase us down to assist a man in beating another man? Did my driver have any idea this was going to happen? Why didn’t anyone say anything? Why did no one stop it? Was I just dreaming about an episode of the sopranos? Really what the hell just happened?
I wish I could answer any of these questions but I can’t. We simply got back on the road and made the two hour drive, no one saying a single word. If anything more people stared at me for screaming than they did at the boy who was beat… Just goes to show, no matter what happens here, I am still the strange American and nothing I do goes un-noticed and nothing will ever be normal to me here.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A burden lessened

When my counterpart Hermonie was interviewed for her position, my program manager Gayane explained to her “You will make or break this Peace Corps volunteer. Whether she stays or goes is in your hands.” As I begin to see other Peace Corps volunteers crash and burn, either leaving the program or essentially giving up on their primary job and searching desperately for anything that they can half heartedly do in their communities, I am starting to wonder how much of Gayane’s statement was true.

My counterpart is my anchor in Spitak. We don’t spend too much time together after work, but whenever I have a problem she is the first person I call. She understands how difficult it is for me to be here, and does her best to explain that to others. She is always on my side, and goes into everything with an open mind. If I want to try something new in the class room, not only does she allow me, but she’s excited for my new ventures. She never seems to be upset that the children flock to me over her; she seems to understand that it’s part of having the only American in town as your partner. She has ran to the pharmacy for me when I was sick, taken me to take passport pictures, gone shopping with me, and helped me find the best lotion Spitak has to offer. It’s all these little things that make life here so much easier on me.

As I have been looking for an apartment in Spitak, she has been so amazing. She has made countless phone calls and is constantly on the phone negotiating deals for me. Because of her calls, my apartment will now have everything I need with the exception of a fridge, this she is still trying to find for me. It’s amazing how all of the teachers at my school have looked after me. She tells them what I am missing and they all put their heads together to see how they can make it work for me. Some have offered to make their children share dressers so that I can have one in my house; others have offered me my pickings in their gardens come summer. From blankets to dishes, I know that I am covered in anything I may need because of their kindness. By February 1st, thanks to my counterpart I will be living in a one room apartment, with a kitchen that has heated water and a shower and a toilet.

Though I am sure in many ways it will be difficult to leave my host family, I cannot help but have a lightness of heart now that I know soon I will have my own apartment. Although, my living alone does make a great number of people very nervous, I can’t wait to cook for myself and eat when I want to eat. I can’t wait to have friends come spend the night and to have dinner parties. To have Sophie Jan sleep inside and not have to worry about her freezing. To be able to sleep whenever I want to sleep and not have to worry about hurting people’s feelings or making them angry at every waking moment.

Last week while I was having coffee with my counterpart, her father in law came to me and grabbed my hands and kissed me on the cheek. “You must not live alone Alyssa-jan. Hermonie, I know a family who has an open room a few houses down, I will look into it” he told us. “No Pop, she lived alone in America and wants to live alone now, she had a family here but wants to be on her own” my counterpart responded. “I will call them, you will see it will be better” he stubbornly insisted as if he didn’t hear her reply. This is Armenia after all and it wouldn’t be true to the culture if no one insisted on me doing something I didn’t want to =) I have to say, I love this place!