Sunday, May 31, 2015

Teaching English As A Second, Third, or Fourth Language

A warning, I have been writing for a few hours (teacher training stuff) and I have been listening to Charlton Heston narrating Nietzsche on the Internet. Taking a break to write on my blog might be mistimed, but I am in the mood...........
I have been thinking about my work lately - Teaching English to non-native speakers. I have always had a creeping feeling that when I teach others this language, that I am really teaching for the first time in my life, or that I am merely a pedantic beneficiary of a very beneficial and serendipitous birth. My expertise and perhaps, leverage, lie in the fact that I have something others don't. This is more than a subtle distinction between the other subjects I sometimes teach (philosophy, psychology, math) where I have emerged from my peers and excelled earning the right to then return and teach. I have had a massive head start here in English instruction that I did not enjoy in my other subjects. It is not that I know it better or that I learned it quicker or more thoroughly as with my traditional areas of expertise. In fact, with those disciplines, I overcame decades of intellectual and motivation retardation to catch and eclipse others to be honored to teach them at post graduate levels. If not careful, one might attribute intellectual differences, even superiority in such a journey. I don't however; just hard work and stubbornness. But in teaching English, I feel like a silver spooned heir haughtily flaunting my wealth to those of less privileged circumstance. And if I was less than honest a minute ago about not feeling superior at times, there is no such notion when I stand in front of these speakers of other languages! It emerges that the relative distance in our ability lies not in intelligence, motivation, work ethic, or skill. It is simply that I have had fifty plus years running start; that is all. To take this examination further, I am not particularly adept at second language acquisition myself. Sure, I dabble in a few, but I am nowhere near fluent in them. As a matter of truth, my Arabic, Swahili, and Afar don't even reach childish status. My students are on their third, fourth, or even fifth language! So here I am teaching a subject (second language acquisition rather than English per se) and all most all of my students are my superiors. It strikes me often that most of them are quickly passing my comparative capabilities. I smile as I think about this though, and that brings me full circle back to the beginning of this short tirade. Maybe I am teaching for the first time in my life. Maybe I am sharing wholesomely a gift I did not earn. Maybe the fact that I feel no particular distance in our expertise (once again, second language acquisition vs. a specific language) frees me to blossom as a "more capable peer" something Vygotsky wrote about a hundred years ago and I have extolled incompletely for nearly thirty. Maybe I can take this new phenomenological stance back to philosophy, psychology, and math. Maybe I am teaching for the fist time in my life. If so, about time :)

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Why African Children Don't Climb Trees And Other Commute Musings

As I have mentioned, I go to the Mole refugee camp four times a week, and each day I have a three hour commute (90 minutes each way) over some tough roads. There is so much to see, so much to take in that I will not tire of this routine as long as I am here. I ride, I think, I give small English lessons to Yaya my driver, and I wave a lot. This morning, I was wondering why it was that I never saw children in trees around their houses. I saw them everywhere else, but not in the trees. I thought maybe, as with my Jamaican friends, they didn't want to meet face-to-face with other tree dwellers. I was curious though, as it would have been nigh on impossible to keep me out of a tree as a little boy. Yaya and I chatted about vocabulary as we made our way to the camp. I am learning a lot about agriculture. I ask about curious looking things, then we spend ten minutes trying to find the right words in the right language to clarify things. Today was the first day of the Teaching and Learning Academy at the camp. It is for teachers and administrators who want to learn to create a more consistent learning environment. We had twenty takers, and things went very well. Unlike some of my American graduate students, the refugees love theory and philosophy. They are allowed to discuss in English, French, or Sango (their language in the Central African Republic), then we work things back into a classroom discussion. We talked about their philosophy of teaching today and I learned a lot about them. At one point, while talking about how unnatural classroom settings are, I asked them to tell me the things their mothers had taught them. I got many good responses, including the following, "my mother told me never to climb trees because if you do, you can fall and break your leg and die!"  It was quite coincidental and he asked why I was smiling so much as he said it. I explained and we all had a good laugh. At this point I should mention that I do not know how many African children do or do not climb trees :)  I do not want to start a stereotype.
A few pictures from today's commute:

Everyday we dodge ducks, goats, kids, bicycles, motorcycles, lorries, and assorted other obstacles. It took Yaya a little while to master this bit of English though, "Pigs in Puddles"

An average stretch of road. I cannot get over how  simple and beautiful things are here: The sky, the trees, the people, their small houses and villages. God smiles on this place.

"Mti Twiga" as I like to call this tree - The Giraffe Tree. It towers over the others and marks the 2/3 point in my journey to the camp. I could never see things in clouds, nor could I see figures in the stars. But I see things in trees :)

On the way back, from a distance......

Interrupting chores - I have not yet mastered the intonation of the Lingalan word for smile, "Ngia."  When I hold up the camera and say it they just look at me. When the driver leans out the window and says it (exactly as I did it, or so it seems), they burst out in laughter. I will work on it.

Philosophy - are humans basically good or bad? Do they want to be challenged, or are they lazy? The teachers sort these and larger issues out.

I guessed this one - it is a charcoal production facility. They start a fire, let it get very hot, cover it with wood then mud and clay and let it bake hard. 

Once back in Zongo, we stopped in the shade and got a cold orange drink. This is a luxury I allow myself once a week. Normally, I drink bottled water at room temperature. While waiting for the drink, I negotiated with this young woman for some onions. I do not understand French or the complex relationship between the US dollar and the Congolese Franc. Maybe it is a good thing I am only here two months :)

Just some children playing off of the main road (really the only road). Imagine miles and miles of trees, small clearings, immaculate huts, and children running and laughing everywhere. Yes, God smiles on this place.

Friday, May 29, 2015


It was a good Friday, despite a few more communication issues at the camp. We are still fine tuning our timetable and one group waited for me for four hours today (should've been two because they went to a different location two hours early). I smoothed things over, however, and we now have a set schedule to follow. The students range from six to sixty something, and they are all very eager to learn English. We have a lot of fun

Walking through the camp in between the refugees houses. They keep them very clean and do a wonderful job of gardening

Today's contextualized lesson ended up at Teddy's (the English Club President) porch. We eventually had 25 souls packed in there talking about household and garden words.

I finally caught up with my lost group, a very mixed crowd of singers, businessmen, policemen, students, farmers, lawyers, teachers, and other professionals. They ended up forgiving me and we rocked out for two hours :)

We pack 'em in and out of the arenas as well!

Teddy, my chief basketball nemesis! I think I got the better of him today, but it was close. I don't feel like I am older or heavier, it's just that gravity seems to pay a lot more attention to me these days.....

This is William - William doesn't speak a lot of English, he does however, have the innate ability to know when to laugh at my jokes. William sits up front :)

Finally, fufu. Fufu is an African staple that is made of cassava root (or cornmeal or other grains) that is boiled like mashed potatoes. You pinch off a bit roll it up and dip in vegetables (in this case, cassava leaves) or meat and sauce. It is very filling, and I had requested it for tonight after a great week on the job. In East Africa, this is called Ugali.  I have a light weekend coming up, three hours in the camp tomorrow then Saturday afternoon and all day Sunday are mine. Maybe time to go look for presents for my friends back home.............

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Testing Ramadan, Rain Gear, And Timetables

Today was a preparation day and I had a lot on my mind as I woke up this morning. First, it had occurred to me yesterday that Ramadan would soon be upon us. Second, I had also realized that I am drinking about a half gallon of water each day. On MWFS, I will be at the camp where we move around a great bit and it is very warm. On TTH, I will need to walk to local schools in town. It began to dawn on me that this will be a very challenging holy season! That pleases me though as I have a great deal to for and this purification process will be rigorous.
I decided to walk to the various schools to figure out my timing. I suspected the furthest school would be about 45 minutes out. I headed out in the late morning, rain gear in tow in the case of an unexpected shower. I also was a bit concerned that one of the schools might have misunderstood me and might have thought we began today. Backpack and water loaded, I headed out.
I was pleasantly surprised when I reached the most distant school after a 30 minute brisk walk. I "bon jour"ed myself half to death, but the smiles were worth it. When I arrived a the Nzulu school, I was dismayed that they had prepared for me and I was too late for the students. I apologized to the headmaster who was very understanding. He laughed and told me that he thought Americans were always on time. I laughed as well and told him he didn't know the half of it. He rounded up the participating teachers though and we had a good, impromptu first session. They warmed up slowly, asked great questions. and we got the program started in the right direction. After about 90 minutes, I headed back to the UN compound. The clouds were rolling in though.
The headmaster walked me to the edge of the compound as I began to put on my rain jacket. I had bought it, my hat, and shoes at REI with help from a kind faculty member and her husband. Almost as soon as I left, the wind came followed two minutes later by torrential rain. As I walked, there were fewer and fewer people and vehicles out. It was refreshing and a welcome respite from the heat of the morning. A few times, a UN car came by and ask if I wanted a lift. When I said no, the drivers smiled (having come to know me this past week) and pressed on. A half an hour later I arrived at the UN site soaked from my waist to my ankles. The rain gear had held up well and I was very happy. I know that I can traverse the town freely in any weather, and that I will be able to hold up to the hefty demands of Ramadan when the time comes. I am looking forward to everything the next six weeks brings.

The teachers from local schools who will participate in the Teaching and Learning Academy.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

A Few Pictures From A Long And Productive Day

I had a great day back out at the camp today and I have a big nap ahead of me soon. Tomorrow is my first and last full day to rest and preparation. From there, the rock rolls over the hill as it were. I popped into an elementary class today, taught a group of secondary students. worked with an ever-expanding English Club, and finished the day off with a contextualized lesson at a carpenter's shop :)

School's Out!

Three or Four, Take Your Pick

Betcha Can't Tell It's 110 in Here

Playing the Grocery Game in a Better Ventilated Room

Having Fun With Group Work

Cy Getting Some Love From the English Club 

The "Michael Jordan of Woodworking"


To be very honest, I do not like taking pictures. It is not only because I feel awkward when I take pictures of others, it is just that I hate the disruption in whatever communion I am engaged in. I never feel like I am in the periphery as a good photographer must I suppose. I am involved in what ever is going on around me and stopping to take a picture ends my involvement, or changes it significantly. To be even more honest, I think I am very selfish in this regard. I take pictures for others, not myself. When I am moving about, everything is so vivid and personal, I am not sure I want to share it with others. I hoard the smiles, frowns, laughter, sorrow, frustration, sunsets, quizzical looks, daily persistence, and the slow deliberate dramaturgy constantly unfolding around me. I am not sure it is mine to share.
However, I do need to document this adventure for the scores of family and friends who have given me so much support to be here thriving. To solve this small dilemma, I give the camera each day at the camp to a man who has become known as the photographer. He takes hundreds of pictures for me. Now, a new almost worse problem has arisen from this solution - each night I have to go through seemingly endless pictures of me with my mouth open.......................

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

My Schedule

I think I have my schedule worked out for the next six weeks and I am very pleased with it. It is packed of course and I am fortunate to have been given the freedom from Bryce and to have negotiated with so many good people on this end in good faith. It will look something like this:

8:00am Tea
8:15         Depart for the camp
9:45         Arrive at the camp
10:00-12 Teach a level one class
12-3        Work with the English Club
3:00         Depart camp
4:30pm    Arrive back at Zogo
5:00         Eat dinner
6:00         Lesson preparation

8:00am    Tea
8:15         Walk to local school
9:00         Work with teachers
10-12       Teachers and I go to a classroom with students and apply lessons
12noon    Prepare for second school
1-2           Work with teachers
2-4           Teachers and I go to a classroom with students and apply lessons
4-5           Walk back to the UN facilities for dinner
6-8            Return to the school for English Club
*On Tuesdays I will work with two schools, on Thursdays two other schools

8:00am Tea
8:15         Depart for the camp
9:45         Arrive at the camp
10:00-1    Teaching and Learning Academy
1:00         Depart camp
2:30pm    Arrive back at Zogo
5:00         Eat dinner
6:00         Lesson preparation

Afternoons - Additional English Clubs if requested

Two weekday Mornings
7-8an       English lessons for UNHCR staff (tentative)

I will be busy, and the blog is a welcome distraction and a great way to document my activities. They are already asking me to extend my stay lol - give them a month with me and we will see what they say :)

Monday, May 25, 2015


There is a certain kind of challenge in teaching people who are smarter and better than you are. I am English teacher primarily because I grew up in an English speaking country and I teach other things. I have had language training, and have studied the subject, but I am no expert. I find myself a world away working with refugees hungry to learn, hungry to improve their lives. I hesitate to ask them their goals or dreams yet, perhaps wary of the weight it will add to my task.
Yet, in a strange way, I like the disadvantage I am coming from as I work through this project - today, for an example, they were so far ahead of the pro from America I had to laugh. Last week we had our first informal lesson and got on the subject of farming. After a lot of exploring, I told them that we would be doing contextualized lessons instead of strict grammar work. I told them little else and we said goodbye for the weekend. They were waiting for me though when I got there this morning.
There was another large crowd assembled for the regular cash disbursement and they whisked me through the throngs out the back of the school building. We started to head out towards the farm fields and I asked where we were going. The short answers was "the source."  I didn't know what to make of it so I followed their lead.
Shortly we arrived at the fields and they began to ask me the names of the various crops and to describe the features and processes involved. I was shocked by the sheer number of things they were growing: corn, sorghum, peanuts, cucumbers, carrots, radishes, lettuce, celery, tomatoes, eggplant, green onions, papaya, oranges, bananas, jack fruit, parsley, peppers, cassava, etc.
There were nurseries and raised beds as well as traditional furrows. We kept going and passed a well and pump and stopped for a short lesson. We then came across a brick making area and I enjoyed teaching and learning

Eventually we arrived at the source. It was so, a big sign declared it. It must be a French thing, for it was camp's central water source - a pumping station. We learned about valves and spigots, the difference between pipes and hoses, and general irrigation terminology. A few steps away, we drifted down to the fish ponds
Of course this excited me and we dwelled there for some time. After a bit, they began to feel overwhelmed by the sheer vocabulary and sweltering heat, so we retreated to a small hut for a catch up
They got out their exercise books and recorded vocabulary and expressions and we even began to examine the structure itself and ended up laughing at the small epiphany involved in "Margaret Thatcher." After consolidating the mornings adventure and cooling off a bit, we headed back to the classroom to officially sort things out and create a timetable for the near future
We wrote about what we had done, played with a few tenses, laughed at spelling and other things, and slowly started to get some of them to speak. As before, the contingent grew as the day progressed and circled back on the morning's lessons. I gave them some of our MVCC pencils and even showed them my famous California pencil trick. It goes over well here :)  I presented two of our dignitaries, Edridge and Julia (the president of the camp and the vice-president of the English club respectively) MVCC T-Shirts. 
They were very pleased and Madame President shed a bit of her decorum and danced a bit. When the class ended, the officers stayed behind to plan our future timetable and possible projects. I was pleased to hear that there is a current discussion in the camp about allowing more Muslim families in, something the group is keen to help discuss. The English club will meet MWF from 12-3 after I work with some young level one students in the school each day. Saturdays will be reserved for our Teaching and Learning Academy where teachers will participate in a six week workshop and the State Department language program will provide certificates. We will create curriculum and handbooks, and they are very somber and honored at the prospect of sharing the materials with other camps around the world. I've got the tiger by the tail and can't let go :)
Stephen Brookfield, an authority on adult education, once said all teachers know they are imposters deep down inside. Perhaps because the act of teaching is such an audacious activity. Perhaps because the consequences can be so grave it would be simple arrogance to proceed without doubt. In any case, I don't mind the challenge I am facing, the challenge we are facing. We will embrace it

The pencil trick :)

The Rain Has Come

I just got back from the camp and settled into room as the rains came. It is that season here and I am halfway curious as to what the roads will look like tomorrow. In the meantime, I thought of this song and a friend who understands:

An old post about different perspectives on rain:

Sunday, May 24, 2015

My UN Home Away From Home

I am living in the small village of Zongo, just across the river from Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. Here in the village, I am quartered at the UNHCR facilities.
It is a nice compound with lots of helpful and friendly staff. I contribute to the food fund and have my breakfast and dinner prepared for me. The food is local and great!  I am anxiously awaiting fufu, or ugali in Swahili, an African staple.
My apartment is the door to the left with the screen door open.
Very cozy and somewhat untidy as I haven't yet finished settling in. There is AC and plenty of fresh water (not hot or running, but fresh). I am very comfortable here :)

Saturday, May 23, 2015

More From My First Day In The Camp

The camp is very large and spread out in small enclaves. The place is very clean and the people here work hard to live as well as possible. There is a great deal of committee work and collaboration.
I met with the English Club for some time. We talked about their goals and current activities. We talked about the differences between British and American English and why the former was latter was far superiour :)  We did our first contextual lesson when they told me the secretary of the club was working out in a garden. I asked them what that exactly meant and we started to delve down into details - verbs, vocabulary, tenses, etc. We had a good time and they liked the methodology and were willing to permit me to continue without teaching grammar overtly. We need to get a hold of some dictionaries and I am working on that.
More of the shelters that flow around the landscape. The refugees are from the Central African Republic, just 15 miles to the north.
Most of the people here take very good care of the camp and themselves. It is beautiful place of vibrant fabrics and earnest smiles.
Not sure what this building is yet, but I like it.
Walking back up to the car after a great day. To my left is the president of the English Club, to my right the president of the camp. Everyone was gracious and excited to get started. They asked if I could just live in the camp with them (something I would love) and I had to explain that it would be against UNHCR policy. They were also a bit disappointed that I need to leave each day by three for security reasons in case we have mechanical difficulties on the hour long journey back to the UNHCR center. I will be there Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I plan to add Saturdays as well. I am ready to work!

Friday, May 22, 2015

Nostalgia Defeats Nausea!

I woke up on my third day in the DRC to get ready for an early flight to Libenge, partway to my destination. To my chagrin, I woke up with "running belly" as my Jamaican friends call it. I was not pleased at all by the development. My stomach hurt and I wasn't sure I could safely eat or drink much. I managed to make it to the small municipal airport then bounced around from office to office as I navigated customs, immigration, etc. I had the sudden feeling I wasn't ever going to tell someone who is lost, unsure, or of a different language just to go somewhere. I was confused at each step of the process and a little more help at times would have been comforting. I am also sure those folks thought they were being clear and helpful.

The two flights on this plane were fine despite my stomach. I was looking forward to getting to Libenge then taking a smooth boat ride up the Ubangi River to Zongo where the UN facilities were. When I landed, the UN representatives met me and were very friendly. I was a bit dismayed when the told me that they would be taking me by car instead of by boat. I had an idea what that meant in terms of road conditions and my ailing stomach. My driver, Julius, was very friendly and I shared the trip with two other passengers going on to the Central African Republic. We didn't waste much tine and were off quickly. Off quickly as well was my notion that the roads in southern Tanzania were the worst roads in the world - hah! I am totally impressed by the Toyota Landcruiser. I laughed at the places that vehicle went. The driver, who also speaks Swahili, told me the roads were bad. I laughed and said, not bad just fun. He smiled. We crossed bridges I wouldn't walk over, dodged pigs in puddles, families on motorcycles, woman carrying ridiculous loads on their heads, and young kids who would veer off the road just in front of us crashing comically and smiling. Goats, chickens, ducks, dogs, and children were everywhere. The sixty mile journey took five hours.
 I needn't have worried about my stomach at all (I did forget the cardinal rule of travelling here - bring toilet paper!), for I was immediately immersed in a wonderful deja vu back to my days in Tanzania travelling all over. The road, the sites, the people, the animals, everything was familiar and comforting. Most of all, the hundreds of smiles and waves along the way distracted me from all things internal. We stopped by the refugee camp as we swapped out fuel pumps and I got my first distant glimpse of the reason I am here. I was very overwhelmed and humbled by the prospect of serving these people for two years.
An hour or so later we rolled into Zongo no worse for the wear. My two new friends headed off to the ferry for Bangui and I was introduced to my new lodgings and the supportive staff here at the UNHCR center. I slept soundly.,............
More soon
Julius, my excellent driver at the end of long journey.