Friday, January 18, 2013

The End

Whelp, I am officially a U.S. citizen again. The good-byes said to everyone were extremely emotional. It's hard when you live your life for 2 months in a different place only to realize that this "life" was temporary and now it's time to leave. I don't think the overwhelming nature of this experience hit me until I stepped off the plane in New York and I am definitely having a hard time adjusting back to the constantly fast-paced American way of life. I miss my family, Phelicia, my teacher, my neighbors and all of the little rascals in my classroom.

This experience has permanently changed my perspective of the world and my thoughts towards what my job is as a teacher. I would like to instill in all of my students how different the world is and that there is no right or wrong way of doing things. Instill in them open-mindedness.

Thanks to everyone who read this blog and learned even a little bit through my experiences. I hope that everyone is blessed with an opportunity in their life that really opens their eyes to what is important and changes them for the better.

God bless.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Missed Week

Last week I had numerous experiences that prevented me from getting to the local internet cafe where I type my blogs. Looking back I have to laugh, however it was the first time since being here that I know I was close to tears. Let me explain.

Two weekends ago, on Friday, December 7th it was the Presidential election here in Ghana. I have to admit that I was little nervous about what might take place, considering it was only the 6th Democratic election EVER held here in Ghana. I was asked by numerous Ghanaians if I was scared by what the future election might hold, my response always was, "Should I be?" :) Due to the uncertainty of the situation, Jessica and I spent all of our weekend at our quiet, safe home. It was nice and relaxing and we both got some much-needed rest and reading time in. After the election, and the announcement of the winner on Sunday night, we heard the streets come alive with drums, singing, and I'm sure dancing was involved as well. The election ended up being quite safe, with only a few protests that took place and one stabbing that involved opposing parties in Accra

After election weekend, I had a "fun-filled" week of examinations at my school. My students were testing Monday-Wednesday and then Thursday and Friday the teachers were to record scores on all the exams, rank the students by their overall performance on all subjects, and write comments on the students' classrooms behaviors and interests. My role in this whole process was to assist students in understanding the exams by giving directions and then afterwards figuring our the percentile ranks of the children. At one point during the week, my cooperating teacher asked me, "How are the final examinations in America?" I had a difficult time responding but figured it was safe to say, "In America, our 4 year olds can't sit still long enough to take exams." :)

During the course of our busy exam week, I had a few unfortunate non-school related situations that occurred, as I mentioned earlier. First, early last week upon inspecting our passports, Jessica and I found that the stamp that the immigration officers gave us upon entering the country authorized us to stay for 60 days. We are scheduled to stay for 62 days. Auntie took us to the immigration office and talked to an officer about the details. The woman at the office reassured us that "60 days" meant simply "two months"  (of course it does) and that leaving on December 21st should be fine considering we came on October 21st. Hopefully everything works out and I'll be allowed to return to the U.S. this Friday.

Another dilemma that I experienced last week was in relation to my hair. That's right, I said my hair. :) I decided that I wanted to get my hair braided one last time during my stay here in Ghana and therefore Auntie referred me to a woman in the neighborhood who owned a small salon. One afternoon, I walked to the salon to ask the woman if she would be able to braid my "white lady" hair. She assured me that she could and quoted a price, how much weave I would need to purchase, and the length of time for completion. She estimated about 3 hours. I returned to this very salon later in the week and began the process. I had my money and had even purchased the weave ahead of time so that it would match my hair color as closely as possible. (*Side note- In Africa, when receiving braids, a "weave" aka fake hair is always added to make your hair thicker and to prevent the braids from falling out. The hair is added gradually while forming the braids.) Anyways, long story short is that the woman was a crook. When I got to the salon for the braiding the salon owner tried to charge me more than she originally quoted. I also stayed at the salon for 6 hours that evening and returned for another 2 hours the following night...and the braids still weren't done! At the end of this second evening my stylist ran out of the weave that I had bought and the salon owner tried to get me to purchase another color from her to complete my hair. I felt very uncomfortable and asked the owner if I could leave. I payed for the uncompleted braids, and was frustrated and heart-broken on my walk home.
When I got home, I explained the situation to Auntie and she insisted that I keep the braids in and she called another stylist to come to the house the following morning. I don't know what I would do without my African mother. My braids are now complete and are likely to give quite a shock to those at home in the U.S! :)

On a different note, I am leaving Ghana tomorrow. I have mixed feeling about it right now but I realize that my time here has come to an end. I truly hope that I can come again but only time will tell. I will not be writing another blog from here, however I will write my final blog upon my return home. I want to spend as much time as possible with my "family" and the new friends that I have made during my remaining time here. This was truly a unique and unimaginable experience and I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to learn so much.

See you soon America.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Preparing for the End

During the past week I was and am being constantly reminded of my quickly approaching journey home. This experience has been different than anything I could have imagined. The tourist "luxuries" that I was expecting were and are moderately there, and I am thankful for that. They greatly helped with my transition from Western to African life. Regardless of the various situations that I've found myself in, both good and bad, I feel that I could never have learned as much about myself and my future profession without coming here.

On a different, less sentimental note, last week I got to cross another item off my "bucket list." (Yes, I have  made an actual list. :) ) I had the opportunity to visit Boti Falls, the very 1st waterfall that I've experienced in "real life." It was gorgeous! The journey there was long with many scary, high, mountainous roads with only random concrete slabs protecting me plunging to the ground. I feel that they were only there for mental security and therefore found myself looking straight ahead at the road most of the time. On our excursion, we also visited Akosombo Dam in Akosombo, about 2-2 1/2 hours from Accra and by the Volta Region (West Ghana). We had a car packed with people including Jessica, Phelicia, Auntie, her grandson Michael, our driver, and myself. The dam is something that the people of Ghana are very proud of due to the fact that 60% of the country's electricity comes forth from its rushing water. Unfortunately, I was informed that the government sold some of this power to neighboring countries to make money, leading to the recent, continual episodes of "lights off" (power outages).

During school this week, we have been preparing for mid-term examinations like I mentioned in my last post. These exams are expected to start next Monday and will last a few days. They include subjects such as religious and moral education, mathematics, language, phonics, and english to name a few. I was told that the students would be asked to answer questions verbally one-on-one with the teacher and do problems independently on paper. After all the students are finished, I will help my teacher correct the exams, give every student a score, and then rank the students based on their performance. This whole process seemed a little intense to me, due to the fact that these children are only 4 and 5 years old, however in Ghana education is tough and competitive. Everyone wants to be the best of the best and therefore they instill in them early how important testing is and have the students take tests to determine their place in the system.

Today at school I offered my teacher, Evelyn, all of the things that were gathered before my journey. She was so excited about all of the materials that it made me feel good to help, even if their use is different than what I originally intended. For example, in Ghana the teachers need to continually make and update their classrooms and teaching aids. The scissors, markers, rulers etc. will most likely not be used by the students but the teachers to assist in these tasks. At one point Evelyn even kissed the books, saying "Thank you, thank you. I have story books now." I felt grateful for being able to assist both the students AND teacher/s in learning .

A special thanks to my family, friends, university supervisor and teachers/students at West Side Elementary for donating supplies for my trip!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Discovering Differences

As of today, I officially have 3 more weeks left here in Ghana. As excited as I am to travel back home, I have mixed feelings about all the good-byes that I have to say to people I will probably never see again. This experience has changed a huge part of me and for that I am forever grateful.

Last weekend, I went to downtown Accra with Jessica and Phelicia to go shopping for Christmas gifts and souvenirs. It was exhausting! At the market, all of the vendors were calling out to us to come look at their stand. I have to admit they are good at what they do.. trying every trick in the book to get us to buy from them instead of anyone else. I even had some women tell me that we were sisters and that she would be hurt if I didn't want to buy any of her nice jewelry. She proceeded to pretend hurt that I didn't think any of her "stuff" was nice. Oh boy.... :)

Now I had a lot of shopping to do so I set out on my mission, bartered my way to reasonable prices and was on my way to the next shop. While shopping, I discovered a new favorite Ghanaian treat... frozen yogurt! (and no, not ice cream) It tastes similar to the yogurt that we have in America, but it is sold in a little bag and completely frozen solid. You bite the bag open and then you can munch on the frozen yogurt and suck up the melted yogurt at the end. It is absolutely delicious and helps you stay cool... the best of both worlds!

Last Sunday, Phelicia invited us to attend a choir concert that was organized by her church, that her brother would be performing in. I was very excited and both Jessica and myself attended. Needless to say, this was quite the experience. The "concert" started with an open worship and praise time where people freely danced around the church, waving their hankerchiefs to the music as the pastor preached. After worship, different "guest" choirs started performing musical numbers. During the event, there was one famous, guest pastor who came to do praise as well. I must admit, she intimidated me A LOT! Her presence was very strong, she was loud and outspoken, and she only spoke the native Twi language so I couldn't understand a work she said. During her preaching, she would go around and lay her hands on people, resulting in them crying, falling over etc. I didn't understand what was happening and was later told by Auntie that a lot of people here in various religions believe in the holy spirit being an entity that could consume the body to allow unexpected things to happen. She told me that the "falling over" that I witnessed was simply people being filled with the holy spirit, causing them to momentarily lose their ability to stand. Now, no matter what beliefs people may have this whole event opened my eyes to how different cultures and religions really are or can be. I've come to appreciate these type of experiences that put me completely outside of my comfort zone. I feel that these experiences are the ones that have taught me the most during my stay here in Ghana.

School wasn't to eventful this week. I finished teaching English late last week and did some Math lessons this week. With the students finishing up their workbooks, the focus of the teachers has been redirected to preparing the students for their end-of-term exams. Yes, preschoolers take these too! Again, their system is very different than the United States. The next seven days I was told we would be reviewing with students the things that were taught the whole first semester (September-December) and then they would take their exams and afterwards go on vacation. Today at school I spent most of the afternoon helping my teacher prepare for tomorrow which is "open day." This is an equivalent to parent/teacher conferences in America, minus the grades for the youngsters. Tomorrow I will go into school at the normal time, however the parents will be coming in and taking a look at their child's workbooks to see how they are progressing through the term, asking the teacher any questions that they have. The parents also take this time to purchase books for next term if they need to do so. Now, unlike America there are no set time slots for the parents to come in so I'm interested to see how the day unfolds. Other than that, I am continuing to learn why things are done the why they are here and trying to take in as much as I can about being an effective teacher, regardless of the location of teaching.

Hope everyone back home is staying warm! :)

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Bewilderment of New Things

Last weekend I had another opportunity to live like a local Ghanaian. On Friday, Auntie took Jessica and I to the seamstress to pick up our Kente dresses. Early on Saturday, Jessica and I went with Auntie and some of her "mates" (life-long friends) to the engagement party of the son of a woman that she went to secondary school with. I must admit that I felt a little anxious and nervous about going because I was unaware of the traditions and not to mention... the soon-to-be bride and groom! When we arrived at the engagement party, I noticed it was very similar to an American wedding and reception with a few minor differences. For example, the groom's family offers the bride's family a dowry as compensation for the bride "leaving" her family to join the groom's. The idea of family was a very strong aspect during all parts of the ceremony as Ghanaians say that it is "the joining of two families into one."
Another opportunity that I had last weekend was to go visit the botanical gardens in Aburi, which is a small city on the top of the mountains outlying Accra. At these gardens, Phelicia, Jessica and myself got a tour of many different local and tropical plants that were protected on the grounds. For example, we got to see and taste cocoa pods, see a tree that spontaneously shoots up its roots to form new trees, and a type of small fern that closes up  its leaves when it is touched. No joke! Needless to say, this discovery kept me occupied and side-track for the remainder of the tour. :) It was amazing to see things that I've never seen before and it made me think about what other plants and animals I am unfamiliar with.

It is my "5th" week of school this week, however it is only my 2nd FULL week. Surprisingly, these last 2 weeks have gone and are currently going by smoothly. I finally feel completely adjusted to the different school environment, however I think it will definitely take me some time to adjust back to the U.S. education system upon my return. I also have taken on a few more things in the classroom. This week I am doing Math with the children, as well as English. We are learning ordering of numbers, and patterns. I did end up bringing in my colored pattern cubes today and it was effective in showing the students patterning and ordering. I also made some flashcards for the students to learn their 2-letter sounds (wa, at, pa, ha) and showed them how to work with a partner to use the cards and "quiz" each other. I was pleasantly surprised that most of the students were at least somewhat responsible with the cards and were looking at and rehearsing the sounds. I think with a little more practice they will have it down! This week I have also introduced to my teacher the idea of reading a book every day at the end of the day. I figured that this is good way to engage the students AND listening to my "proper" English, as they call it, would teach the students how to use English more efficiently. Today I read the story, "Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears" and they absolutely loved it! Thanks so much for the donated book Mindy, and third graders from West Side Elementary in Elkhorn, WI. :)

Well until next time.
By the way, Happy Thanksgiving to everyone!!

Friday, November 16, 2012

The 4th Week of School

It's hard to believe that my fourth week here has come and gone. It is going by so fast! Last weekend I had a pretty relaxing and refreshing time. On Saturday, Jessica, myself, and our friend Phelicia went to the Accra Mall for a few hours. I was shocked at how "Western" it was and wondered who in this country can afford to spend 310 Ghanaian cedis (155 U.S. dollars) on a pair of shoes? It made me feel like I was in America and I don't think I liked it. We also stopped by the seamstress to get fitted for our new Ghanaian clothes.I felt quite pampered considering I have never had anything made specially for me in the United States. In addition to experiencing both the seamstress' shop and the Accra Mall, I had a first time opportunity to ride the most popular form of public transportation here! They are mini buses called "tro-tros." These buses are often referred to as "skeletons on wheels" and look like run-down buses that stop whenever somebody wants to get on or off. The reason for their popularity is because they are extremely cheap, usually only 20 U.S. cents per trip! If you can handle the thrill of the lead-footed driver and being squished next to your neighbor they are definitely worth it!

In school this week I have taken on the responsibility of teaching English, as my teacher thought that I was the most qualified. :) The children are learning about matching, association of similar objects, following directions, and patterns. Next week, in an effort to enhance the students' understanding of patterns I was thinking of making pattern puzzles for the students to work on with a partner, or bringing in some colored stacking cubes that I brought with to practice the skill. I also introduced the sticker chart to my teacher on Monday and she absolutely loved the idea! We've been working on it slowly with me giving the students daily reminders about what kinds of behavior I am looking for so that they can receive a sticker next to their name. I feel that a little refinement of the necessary behavior is needed because I now realize that the teachers make a point to give them unscheduled time to talk, run, and play with their peers in the classroom... to make up for their lack of "toys." I don't want to encourage them to sit in silence if this is their time to get some energy out by playing with their peers.

Also, this was my first 5-day week since coming to Ghana and I feel that I am definitely getting more adjusted to the constant noise level at the school. It was a little overwhelming and exhausting when I first started at here but now I see it as a representation of their schooling system. I was actually told by a fellow teacher today that one of the reasons that they choose to "cane" their children is because they are different than other children. She said that African children are "hard wired to play and socialize, always socialize, and that this is the only way to be strict and control them." I don't necessarily agree with that BUT I had to laugh a little bit inside because she was right about the talking. In this country there is socializing among people is the reason that "African time" exists. Nothing in Africa happens when it is expected or scheduled to because of the instantaneous conversations that occur on the streets, people wanting you to come visit them in their homes, etc. Nobody here follows the structure and schedules that we follow in the United States, which is refreshing BUT leads to the constant chit-chatter in the classroom.

Talk to everyone soon!

Friday, November 9, 2012

Cape Coast and Becoming "Ghanaian"

Due to the continual power outages this blog is a little late but better late than never, right?. :)

Last weekend, Jessica and myself made arrangements to spend two days at a city along the Gulf of Guinea about 2 and a half hours from Accra. We left early Friday morning and met up with a man named Seth who attends the University of Cape Coast. Right when we got into town he ushered us along to various tourist spots including the Kakum Rainforest and Elmina Castle. We also stopped to see some wild crocodiles at a local restaurant and the campus for the University of Cape Coast. During our ventures, I was frequently reminded that I was not in America by the re-occurring presence of tradition villages full of mud/clay houses. We also passed a Monkey Sanctuary which got me really excited!

After touring the typical tourist locations on Friday, Saturday was spent visiting the local market and walking around the city. I have to admit that it became slightly exhausting and overwhelming. The smells, views, languages, everything is new,different, and BUSY. Being an outsider and constantly feeling eyes on you makes it so that you feel like you have to present yourself in a way that is acceptable and appropriate, which also is exhausting. While we were in Cape Coast we had a chance to meet all of Seth's family, and by ALL I mean they live on the same "city block" and take up the whole block with their shops and living quarters. When Seth took us back into his neighborhood to see his home, I had my first intense instance of culture shock. Here children play in dirt streets with deflated balls. The houses are so close together you have to turn sideways to fit through the walkway that is laid out between them. A group of people had set up a makeshift band and the drums were "bumping" as they always are here. I was nervous as to how Seth's family would respond to us, being outsiders. It was a humbling experience. Everyone welcomed us with handshakes, hugs, "you are welcome" statements. These people truly are the friendliest people on Earth, as they claim.   After the second day at Cape Coast, Jessica and I were very ready to come "home." We missed the security of our compound home and having Auntie and Daddy around. Needless to say the hotel we were staying in didn't have any sense of a homely feel. ;)

On a different note, I feel like since our Cape Coast trip I have really been adjusting well to and accepting the life and culture here. Yesterday, Jessica and I went with our Ghanaian friend Phelicia to the Madina market a short ways away from our house. The market, like most places in Ghana was intensely busy. We got Ghanaian fabric to make a Kenti dress, skirts, etc. As I talked about previously, Auntie said that every year her and Daddy have an original Kenti outfit made for each person staying with them. She decided to tell us this early so that we could get ours made and wear them next weekend to an engagement party that she is taking us to!

In school this week things have been going surprisingly smooth. I talked with my teacher and I was teaching Math, but now I am teaching English. The challenges that these teachers are faced with on a daily basis is unbelievable. My teacher told me today that she not only makes the students' "end of term" tests by hand on her own, but also is required to teach students from different textbooks. For example, I was supposed to teach Math all this week, however when I was going through the students' workbooks I realized that the pages are different, with some students having one activity and others not having it at all. The teacher explained that on a tight budget, the school went out to buy the same textbooks when they ran out however, the ones that they had were no longer in print. They now have the old and newer additions mixed throughout the classrooms.

From this experience I know I will definitely come to appreciate everything that I'm educated about regarding best practice teaching and how students are being taught in the United States. I also think that I am learning to greatly appreciate and respect people who live and work in developing countries. It is easy for me to "look down" on locals, thinking that they are "uneducated" however, they are just doing what they have learned works well for the circumstances that they are in. For example, earlier this week I offered to help my teacher sharpen the classroom pencils that the students share. The teacher took out a box cutter and showed me how they use it to shave the end of the pencils. I saw a plastic pencil sharpener on her desk in a little tub and wondered to myself, "Why not use that?" I asked if I could use it instead, feeling not to trustworthy with the box cutter and my unrefined skills. The teacher explained that I could use the plastic sharpener but that it sharpens the pencils so much that the tips often break. Not listening, I tried it and sure enough, the tips broke off. I decided to try her way instead. The box cutter took me a while to get working the right way but I learned that it worked much better than the plastic sharpener AND it saved more of the pencil, making it last longer. I had an "ah-ha" moment, realizing that sometimes the people and communities faced with the most basic struggles have learned how to adapt to their lifestyle. I'm definitely learning a lot here that I never thought I would.

Can't wait to see what I learn next! Until next time.