Tuesday, November 8, 2011

End of First Quarter: Struggles and Successes

We have reached the end of the first quarter of classes. Next week, I’ll have fall break to relax and celebrate surviving 9 weeks in the Mongolian school system. To commemorate, I thought I’d archive some of my struggles and successes.

Class size: My 9th grade class has 39 students. My fifth grade, 42. These are my largest classes (which I solo teach) and classroom management is extremely tiresome. Logistically, I just do not have enough resources to keep my 3 ½ dozen students occupied at all times with out someone getting off task. Group work, while ideal, is nearly ineffective, because since the groups are so numerous, it makes assessment practically impossible. Therefore, I am left without knowing whether my students comprehended the material or not.

Material: I do not work from books in any of my classes, so I am the sole opinion on what curriculum we should cover. Sounds great in theory: I can teach what I want, when I want. But I want to be preparing my students to meet whatever goal they have for learning English. And since this is my first time teaching English as a foreign language, I do not always know what is the most helpful way to learn what I am realizing to be a very intricate and complicated language.

Resources: Teachers have to supply their own resources—paper, chalk, markers, anything you might need to use in class. Having a very small living budget and class sizes that make creating effective resources the biggest challenge ever, I constantly have to decide whether or not a certain visual or manipulative is really vital to whatever lesson I’m teaching. Plus, I’m running out of single-sided handouts from Pre-Service Training that I’ve been recycling by printing on the other side.

Weather: It’s getting cold.

That got pretty lengthy. Nothing is terrible.

Clubs: I have started two clubs at school, a drama club for students in 7th-9th grades, and a song and poem club for students in 4th-5th grades. These have easily become my favorite classes and the highlight of my week. My class size is small—less than 25 students, and I get to teach whatever I want (I realize this sounds like my previously listed struggle, but in this context it is wonderful). The idea is that these are English clubs, but we are practicing our skills through drama and poetry. I get to revive games and warm-ups from my repertoire that I used to play back in my theatre days, and I get to incorporate fun songs for my little kids complete with hand motions and everything. Also, I get to teach these two classes in our school’s “art room,” which is like a dance room with mirrors and a stage. I use the mirrors to write down dialogue or song lyrics with a marker, and my kids eagerly circle around to see what we’ll be learning next. I just broke up my drama kids into pairs for their first scene, and they have been adorable with it. My song kids know “If you’re happy and you know it” and “The Moose Song.” It is fun to be out of desks for the hour.

Phone Calls from Eej: Weekly, I talk on the phone with my host mom from Orkhon. I get a chance to practice my Mongolian and get caught up on life back in my soum. Recently, she told me that one of our hashaa dogs, Mojgai, had 3 puppies. Other newsworthy information: the cows were fine, the river was freezing over, my siblings will come home soon, and my host dad was sleeping in the other room. Eej always asks if I’m warm and eating food. I tell her I am both. I tell her that I may visit in February for Tsaagan Sar, and that би танд дандаа сандагI miss you always.

Cooking: I didn’t lie to Eej; I am eating. In fact, I really enjoy cooking here with what I can find. I have only one burner and one pan, but I make due. Last month, I bought a rice cooker, and it gets the job done. I need to figure out what I’m going to make to bring to Thanksgiving in UB.

Traveling: Last weekend, I successfully traveled to UB alone. As in, I navigated the insanity that is transportation in Mongolia, and arrived safely where I should have, and then made it back to the bus station, bought a ticket, and made it home. This was my first trip back to the capital since being there one night after Swearing-In in August, and it was my first time exploring the city. Cheesburgers! Bacon! Escalators! I’ll be back in a couple of weeks, more confident in my abilities to take a trip there when I need to.

With a quarter of the school year complete, I’m still at times shocked to remember that I’m living in Mongolia. Life is feeling routine. Both the struggles and the successes I have here are just a part of my normal daily life. Here’s to fall break!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

October Happenings

As October has left, so have the leaves on the few trees lining the streets of Baganuur. Now, ice covers the sidewalks where children slide to school. I have been busy this month. For a week, I went to daily acupuncture sessions at the hospital in hopes of quelling the migraines that plague me. After following the smell of tea, I arrived in the alternative medicine wing where my doctor manipulated ten small needles in various pressure points. Then, small cups were suctioned to my back with a hand pump and moved around to increase circulation in a practice fittingly called cupping. I was also told to not touch cold things. Good to know. No word on the effectiveness yet, but the sessions let me get some relaxation, at least.

A poster my 9th grader drew: Alcohol as a Magnet
October was also the proud parent of Alcohol Awareness Week—a nation-wide outreach project to educate the population on the risks that can accompany the country’s dangerous affair with overconsumption. The theme of this year’s campaign was “peer pressure,” aptly chosen, considering the cultural customs that surround drinking here make it very difficult to turn down alcohol when it’s offered, as doing so can be viewed as offensive. I’m also highly suspicious that there is an old wives’ tale that Mongolian vodka has a one-hour shelf life—that it will go bad if you do not finish the bottle once you open it. Or so people seem to believe. For this year’s activities, my sitemates and I involved our police department, our children’s center, and even our governor’s office. We held a competition between the two main school complexes in my town.
The Man Who
Wanted to be
as Strong as a Wolf
Fetal Alcohol

Each school selected winning posters from 9th grade that fit the theme, a winning AXA (ah ha) team from 10th grade, and two winning ACK (ask) teams from 11th grade to compete against the winners from the other school complex. Enter note on Mongolian competitive nature: Mongolians are competitive. A few weeks ago, my teachers drafted me to play in a volleyball tournament that started at 7 pm on a Tuesday night. Our team took first place and the 100,000,000 Tugrik prize around 12:30 in the morning. However, the tournament victory was not enough, because it was at this point when we started playing side games for funsies. On a school night. After over 5 hours. C’mon. Anyway, we knew the kids would be all for the competition. We held the event at our town’s culture center, and it started only an hour after it was supposed to. Not too bad. AXA is a game show-type activity where students have to answer questions on stage and if they get one wrong, they have to remove one of three sticky stars they have placed on their chests (humiliating for a Mongolian who prides awards and recognition of success, trust me, but they adore AXA). 
All of the ACK teams
An ACK skit

ACK is a performance competition. Students create skits on the theme, and have to make a team name and introduction, and also have to answer questions from a panel. It is quite the production, and it was really neat to watch. Though I couldn’t understand all of the skits, they were quite dramatic and really portrayed how much alcohol has affected the lives of some of these kids. After all was said and done, winners were picked and prizes were awarded. More importantly, certificates were bestowed that will be filed away in students’ book o’ certificates that they undoubtedly have at home and that documents every success they have ever achieved. Certificates are no joke here.

After we wrapped up Alcohol Awareness Week, we threw a Halloween party for our friends here who are other volunteers from Japan and Korea, as well as a few co-workers. Our party was their first interaction with Halloween, so we did our best to make it authentic. We told them to come in costume, and they did a great job. I fashioned a robot get-up from old care packages that was stellar at masking my lack of creativity when it came to dance moves. We made pizza and our Japanese friends brought an assortment of their own delicacies. We had candy and drinks and even a pie. We made good use of the spigot half of one of our water filters to make a punch bowl for “pink drink” (too reminiscent of Pepto-Bismol for comfort) and kept everything else cold in our bathing tumpins using snow we gathered outside (genius). We had a very successful night indeed.

Now as October has wrapped up, I realize that I have been in Mongolia for 5 months. Moreover, I have almost been at my permanent site longer than I was at my training site, a new milestone in itself. Each day, the time I spent in Orkhon learning Mongolian, growing to love my host family, herding cows, making friends, climbing mountains, swimming in the river, and soaking up the sun feel more distant, especially as a permanent cloud of grey swallows the impending winter sky. Still, I have fond memories of the days in the heat, and after each phone call with my host mom, I daydream of returning to visit.