Monday, August 31, 2015

Pink Backpacks

No, I don't have a pink backpack, but it has been brought to my attention that I now own a hot pink vacuum cleaner (long story, another day).  Yesterday, I was tested by an ancient promise and a simple gesture made several years ago. The challenge came in the form of a small child's bag purchased a lifetime ago for a little girl who liked the color pink. Another little girl has it now, a girl I could have never imagined or even accepted the day I picked the backpack off the rack at a college bookstore. Funny, how the word unconditionally brings conditions. That promise was made unconditionally, and the conditions came calling in the middle of the night.
I am smiling now though, not at the purposeful ambiguity of this post, but at the realization that I have made good on that promise of love and support made so long ago. I became aware of a new reality last night that neither saddened nor hurt me - a reality I have no place in yet offers me an inside glimpse that makes me smile. Maybe I am a better man now, maybe I have lost some of my selfishness and ego. What once would have been painful, even unbearable is now warm and comforting.
Some journeys lead you to places with no gratitude or growth. You focus only on the pain of the process which diminishes the destination. Transformations, I think, are different. You fight, suffer, struggle then arrive at a beautiful place that makes the past a slight shadow of irrelevance, a fading facade. There is no way I could have contemplated this feeling I have now when I first offered the promise. It didn't lead to the place I hoped and prayed for. It lead me to a different place, one of a solid sense of happiness and positive regard. Two simple concepts for most I suppose; but things that had always been transient in my life.
A small, little backpack has shown me I have grown as a man and a caring person. Funny thing :)

Thursday, August 27, 2015



Levy is by far the greatest musician I know! He is very talented - playing many instruments, writing songs, and adapting others to multiple languages. Most importantly, he is an artist who shares his love and enthusiasm for music with others.

Levy was our "sixth man" always near to help in any way possible. He is very cheerful and his optimism is contagious. Levy is also a very dedicated teacher. He spent countless hours working with the children in the camp helping them learn numerous songs in English and Sango. I was amazed how many other children would watch then go off and practice the songs on their own in small groups. When Levy and the kids performed for the MVCC staff on our Skype call, they stole the show.

I hope we can find some instruments to send to the camp so that Levy can continue his mission. Having music education in the camp is such a luxury, that it would be a shame not to make sure it continues. Levy will do his part - I hope we can do ours!

Monday, August 24, 2015

Saint Fort

Saint Fort
Saint Fort takes care of the Primary School Program in the Mole Camp. He recruits and trains student leaders who then teach other children. He has also developed support programs for blind students, the army personnel in the camp, and other special groups. He truly is a man without energy boundaries!
Saint Fort reminds me of me often. He will perpetually be just on the outside of things looking in. It's not that he doesn't fit in, it's that he doesn't want to probably. He works very hard and has a strong ethical mindset. This can make him a godsend when you need him and a pain in the rear end when you don't. He is single-minded when he works and definitely a man of his word. The program we developed would not have grown at a quarter of the speed it did without him.
The picture above is a favorite of mine - Saint Fort is telling his students he is blind so they have to describe things in more detail. He is a very good, intuitive teacher. Saint Fort understood the notions of praise and encouragement long before I showed up at the camp. He is a champion of social justice and always on the lookout for the underdog. Like Teddy and Juliette, his English is outstanding and he did the lion's share of interpreting for me.
My trip was successful because of a few people like Saint Fort. He really took the reigns of the Primary School Program and made it his own. I marvel at his energy and compassion. He is a good man to have in your corner!

Thursday, August 20, 2015


Scholastique is a very busy woman. She teachers in the primary school, helps out with the primary English program, and has taken charge of the Girls Empowerment Club. She is a very quiet and motivated teacher who will do anything for anyone. When I asked her how she got her name (my favorite by the way) she told me that her father thought she was intelligent and it would be a good name for her. I agree!
Scholastique is very circumspect and cautious before committing herself to projects. But once she does, she does so wholeheartedly. Her English isn't quite at the same level as the other leaders, but she works just as hard and is very involved in all levels. She has come a long way in her life, and I suspect she will go a great deal further. Married with two children at an early age, she got her education and became a teacher and a principal in the Central African Republic. Quite an achievement for a woman in that environment.
I like to tease Scholastique because she is so earnest. Inevitably though, she takes it in stride and smiles knowingly. Scholastique describes herself as gentle and kind, and I think she is right on the mark. I couldn't think of a better role model for the Girls Empowerment Club. I smile each time I think about the activities they are involved in and wait anxiously for the pictures. Scholastique is like a second mother to those girls, and they are in great hands.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015



This is Juliet, the Vice-President of the English Club at the Mole camp. Juliette is also the supervisor of the camp's nursery school, a job she does very well. She is very serious but has a wry sense of humor. I also think she is a bit mischievous, but she would deny it. She has a gleam in her eye that lets you know you aren't in complete control of everything you think. She observes intently and is always thinking. 

Juliet worked very hard as we explored various teaching styles and philosophies. She was very open and experimented easily. Like Teddy and Saint Fort, her English was far, far better than she could imagine. As a matter of fact, I have never met an American whose second language was as good as theirs who wasn't raised overseas. She speaks French, Sango, and English fluently. A very bright woman indeed.

Juliet was at the core of the leadership team and she eagerly accepted many roles in the projects we developed. She helped with the primary school program, created the girls empowerment club with Scholastique, and informally banded the women and mothers together to include them in classes and activities. As the Jamaicans would say, she is like coconut milk (in everything).

Juliet is very passionate and  the circumstances and consequences of the camp overwhelm her at times, and she struggles to navigate the complex politics involved. But she does, and she prevails when it counts. She is a great teacher, mother, wife, friend, and advocate. I was honored to be able to work with her. 

Monday, August 17, 2015


I am doing a series of posts on some of the folks in the DRC who really stepped up and helped me compete the projects we did this summer. They are a wonderful group, and I am glad I now have the time to introduce some of them to you.
Teddy is the president of the Mole/Moraine Valley English Club. He was one of the first persons I met in the camp and eventually became my number one nemesis on the basketball court. He is a great leader who inspires his team. Teddy also is very motivated to continue to learn and grow as a professional while continuing his service to others. The work we accomplished in the camp this summer would not have happened without his leadership.
Teddy wants to be a mortician - I am not sure how someone develops the interest in mortuary science, but I am sure he would be great at it. I am constantly surprised at the range of goals and dreams I encounter in places like this refugee camp - people are people and will continue to improve themselves no matter how far the journey. He is very intelligent and works extremely hard on his English skills. He has that rare combination of vision and attention to detail that will take him far in life.
I was very happy to know that I would be leaving the fate of our summer programs in Teddy's hands and those of his team. Sustainability is large issue in the development field, and often programs fail at that critical juncture. I have every confidence that Teddy will not let that happen, given that he has adopted a very familiar motto for his club:
Consistency, Follow-Through, Will Power
Teddy's only down fall is his over inflated sense of his basketball abilities, more specifically, his trash talking acumen. We are working on it though.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

More Pet Peeves

My pet peeve list changes as I age. I have chronicled a few in the past ( and I have a new crop now. It is not by accident that I associate these things with hipsters, not quite sure if it is the chicken or the egg white omelet. I would like to think my general patience level has slowly risen over the years, but there are still a few things I just cannot seem to accommodate or evolve to. Here are a few more:

I suppose I just object to the word itself - it is sarcasm and a special sort of degradation and mocking that has been anointed grown up status. I don't mind an argument or scrap now and then, but this medium is pedantic and its wielders suck up a little too much self gratification for me to appreciate the action. Action, by the way, that is unidirectional from a safe, cowardly distance. Most confounding, however, is that there are entire movies, magazines, and online sites that are purely dedicated to this obnoxiously cloaked criticism. Sarcasm is effective sometimes simply because it comes out of the blue and, if administered properly, must be constructed to give its recipient pause, not immediately discernible from sincerity. So no, I never cared for National Lampoon, the Airplane movies, the second half of Leslie Nielsen's career, the Onion, Stephen Colbert, and so on. If the aim of intelligence is ugliness, evolution is no bargain.

Cartoons and Comic Books
I should have paid more attention to those kids years ago absorbed in cartoons and comic books. I suppose they were nerds, but we did not have the word then (Sapir-Whorf stuff). I watched cartoons until I approached my teens, and I read a few comic books here and there but never collected them. Perhaps I learned to love the extra few hours of sleep on Saturday mornings, or I outgrew the genre. I never got the comic book thing, given I could read one in the check out line at the store. Most importantly, I didn't share the fantasies so prevalent in the pulp. Instead, I started reading history and poetry, preferring to make my own images and to extend my juvenile attention span past the five minute mark. Not that I thought then or think now that animated activities were shallow or trite, I just lost interest - but I am paying now. I am constantly dismayed at the number of movies based on cartoons, comic books, and graphic novels (the "novels" deigned under protest) that have inundated the market in recent years. I find them superficial and beyond my capacity to suspend my disbelief. CGI and pyrotechnics (two issues from my previous list) envelop these stories so pervasively, that I cannot even follow, disliking the visceral bombardment. Super human abilities are not very special because they are not very unique evidently. I am really not sure what the take aways are from these films? It probably didn't help when I heard some literary type listed The Watchmen as one of the greatest works of fiction ever. There are simply no reference points for me with characters possessing virtual immortality in constant combat. I just don't get it and hope that these giant productions aren't keeping every decent subtle movie from the light of day. Perhaps my evolution is out of whack?

Intellectual Prostitution
This will be short, despite the fact that I could drone on and on about it forever. Every day I listen to liberals and conservatives who have long ago bargained away any sense of equanimity or critical thinking. The world has ironically returned to being flat - flat in the literary sense where issues are black or white, never gray. Somehow some sort of valence is established, and the intellect never turns back. From fascist liberal professors to coarse and ugly conservative pundits, all too sure there is nothing else to learn, nothing else to negotiate, nothing else to cleanse within themselves. The world is spinning backwards rapidly to an age of raw power and brute force. There is less and less serious pretense of balance, rarer and rarer admissions of mistake or wrong doing, and virtually no desire to flirt with humility and the ameliorating grace of an apology. The most affluent and "civilized" nation on earth is the angriest and least inclined to the tenets of its rich and robust religious heritage. Thinly veiled self-interest and proactive offensiveness predominate communication. Compassion, empathy, self-sacrifice, and a broader sense of collegiality and cooperation have been bartered at what cost? No evolutionary quip here, perhaps a nod to statistics - regression to the mean.

Part-Time Patriots
I know the concept of patriotism has been well discussed by intellectuals and knuckleheads forever. I won't add much to the discussion, just a few stark inconsistencies I see amongst the redneck rabble I have known. It amuses me how they distrust the government so, preaching a version of the constitution that is half perversion and half aversion. They don't want to submit any information or suffer any intrusion. They love the police and military, not realizing these are governmental agencies long versed in any level of corruption such divisions indulge in. Despite the plethora of restraints they would heap on other governmental entities, law enforcement and the military are not to be questioned at all. They have notions of a single faith country that only tolerates one language, thus not really being able to comprehensively quote any particular founding father. Beer is sacramental and the flag is a holy relic representing who knows what given their historical ignorance. They have an inordinate array of enemies and imagine threats and conspiracies everywhere. America is great simply because they find themselves here. America is not great, it was and probably won't be again, at least to listen to them. Sports are paramount activities, only giving way to anti-intellectualism in between seasons. Finally, the lofty haven of love is reserved for their guns, not their spouses or children. They are gun lovers and freedom fearers. The temptation to analogize them to Neanderthals is an insult to a species unable to defend itself.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

My Final Report

This is my final report to the State Department regarding my project in the Democratic Republic of the Congo this summer. It is in three parts: 1) A description of the project, 2) Recommendation for the future, and 3) My story. 

This program was developed after Bryce Smedley (Senior English Language Fellow) visited the Mole refugee camp in order to establish an English library. He found a large nucleus of refugees who wanted to increase their language skills and who were willing to help establish multiple programs and initiatives to do so. They lacked the confidence and basic skills to implement existing English curricula on their own. Bryce created a proposal to send an English Language Specialist into the camp for two months to help develop locally relevant English curricula and to model appropriate teaching and learning strategies that could then be perpetuated by the teachers in the camp. This was to be a unique project as such personnel hadn’t been placed on the ground level in camps previously.

Initially, the goal of the two month project was to help create a primary school English program and to bolster the small, existing English Club. Upon arrival, I discovered that there was an enormous interest in developing English programs throughout the camp, amongst a large percentage of the refugees. They viewed English development as way to secure a better living once repatriated back to the C.A.R., or even a vehicle to emigrate in order to build a viable future. A great deal of the refugees expressed a genuine disdain for what they characterized as a concerted effort by the Francophile elements of their country to dissuade their English language pursuits. This was prevalently echoed by the women who stated they were often openly prohibited from pursing their education in English.

Our first initiative was to train a cohort of peer teachers to establish a primary school English program. For the first four weeks, I taught general English courses attended by the primary students and their eventual teachers. This was necessary to shift their pedagogical focus – I have found that one of the most stubborn remnants of the European educational system in Africa and the Middle East is the notion that the teacher is an expert and his/her students are novices, which often entails a direct and harsh approach in the classroom. It is amazing to see these very sweet and gentle folks move into a classroom and change their demeanors so drastically. Therefore, we spent the first month reestablishing the classroom dynamic. I tried to model an engaging and interactive approach, with a great deal of praise, not only for correct answers, but for risk-taking and perseverance. To process this experience, the teachers and other camp leaders attended a six week Teaching and Learning Academy on Saturdays, where we openly discussed their ideas and philosophies on teaching and learning. In the process, I saw a great many shift their priorities to create more friendly and inclusive interactions. We spent two days discussing the role of praise alone, and they embraced the concept wholeheartedly. By the end of the third week, I would present a basic lesson for thirty minutes, then the peer teachers would take up to 15 young students each and move to a new classroom to practice and reinforce the concept. When the younger students left, I would then extend the lesson for the older students in attendance. By the end of the two month period, one of the camp leaders had recruited and trained 20 such peer teachers who would eventually work with more than 250 students. The peer teachers also learned the basics of lesson planning and a concept we called “peeling the onion.”  I found that they enjoyed teaching but were intimidated by the notion of creating lessons. They soon found out that every topic they addressed could be expanded very simply and logically. For example, when they did a unit on activities in the camp (framed in particular verb tense), a typical response might be “we go to church.” The peer teachers then learned to drill down into the concept and ask further questions like “what do you do in church?” This lead to a dozen or more sentences. In essence, they learned the value of depth vs. breadth, a skill that eventually allowed us to introduce a curriculum framework that they could augment and flesh out comfortably. We also focused on contextualized lessons. Our first endeavor was to journey out to their large gardens to do a lesson on vocabulary. Later we would go to the carpenter’s shop, the tailor’s shop, one of their shelters, and the market for similar lessons. Eventually, we trained a few of these peer teachers to work with special populations, i.e., blind students, the local police staff, and older adults.

The success of the primary school project taught us to important lessons: 1) The camp is a closed environment and good and bad things spread rapidly. In this case, the 250 young students would go to lessons with their peer teachers three times a week then return to their shelter pods and teach their friends and siblings. The camp literally erupted into English dialogues overnight. 2) We found that the young girls and women were interested in the program but were initially reluctant to attend. With the help of two of the camp leaders (teachers in the primary school), we created a Girl’s Empowerment Club. The older women came to help facilitate and we had more than 40 young girls participate immediately. Within a few weeks, we found the girls had begun attending the regular English lessons and the older women were attending the extended lessons.

By the fifth week, I was no longer teaching the basic or extended lessons – the five leaders assumed those duties. They began developing their own lesson plans, and after a few weeks, I reintroduced them to the curricula they had originally possessed but had neglected. They were completely comfortable with the curriculum frame as a general guideline, and were very creative in their applications and extensions of the lessons.

In the final two weeks of the project, we focused on creating a secondary school English program. For the past two and a half years, there had been no secondary school programs at all in the camp! Utilizing a conflict resolution curriculum developed in Rwanda (provided by Bryce Smedley), we established an English program for those secondary students and the older students in the camp wishing to improve their English skills. The program began in the last week of the project and had nearly 20 participants the first week.

In addition to the three programs we developed (the primary and secondary English programs and the Girls Empowerment Club), we also saw a dramatic rise in the English Club from seven regular participants to nearly 60. The English Club became the nucleus for all the other English initiatives. The bulk of the success of these programs was due, in large part, to the five leaders from the English Club who took eventual ownership of the various initiatives. This was a crucial stage of the handoff, and was made possible by Bryce’s early visit and his recognition of the potential of the refugees in the camp.

To help build and promote the programs, we hosted two camp activities: 1) On July 4th, we held an American English day with more than 500 participants and guests. The day featured English games, skits, poems, songs, and descriptions of the new English programs. It was a great success. 2) The five leaders held an open house where the camp residents could come and visit the various classrooms in action.

Throughout the planning and implementation process, we had the full support of the camp leadership committees, the State Department, and UNHCR. Eventually, we were working seven days a week to bring the initiatives to fruition with total cooperation from all stakeholders.

In order to build more goodwill in the community that may often feel resentment over the resources provided to the refugees, I worked with UNHCR and the local ministry of education officials to identify six local schools and two sites where I provided teacher training and helped to establish two English Clubs. By walking through the communities, a good deal of the village came to recognize our presence and mission.

Manifest in all the programming, was the goal that the instruction was centered around American English and American cultural issues – a goal that the refugees had adopted before my arrival. The camp community was genuinely touched when they learned of the financial commitment the State Department had invested in them, and were eager to provide in-kind contributions to continue the relationship. First and foremost, the primary cultural value we worked on was that of respect, engagement, praise, and support in the classroom environment. The teachers in the camp and in the village schools all understood this philosophy to be an American imperative and embraced it completely. Having two months to work on it, we were able have the teachers practice these principles in classes with their students. The results were very positive and the teachers were happy with the pedagogical changes. I believe they will continue this progress and share with and influence their colleagues.

Throughout the project, the teachers and students in the refugee camp were in
contact with my home school, Moraine Valley Community College, through email and regular Skype calls. Staff of all levels, including our president, participated in the communication. This helped reify the educational values we had been working on, and once again the camp community felt valued and connected to another American organization.

Finally, most of the residents in the camp and in the village were very grateful for the attention, training, and resources provided by the State Department and UNHCR. They now have curricula and resources to continue their dreams of studying English and pursuing a broader range of future opportunities.
Although we built the English programs to be almost virtually sustainable, there are several recommendations to insure their continuation and expansion. These recommendations are as follows: 1) The State Department and CALI (the Congo-American Language Institute) continue to provide curricular guidance and practical resources as the courses continue, 2) A stipend be created for the five education leaders who are committing more than 20 hours a week to staff the primary and secondary school programs and the Girls Empowerment Club – I provided a nominal stipend for all five for the summer work, and it would be prudent to continue in the fall, 3) I would like to visit the camp again for a period of three weeks, perhaps in December in order to help further develop the secondary school English program. It is merely a shell at this point as our primary objective was to get those students back into a classroom environment after a two year absence. By December, my school would commit to providing textbooks and other resources in an ongoing partnership with the camp. I have discussed this possibility (as only a possibility) with the camp officials and the UNHCR staff who are all very amenable.

No Fun, No Club
Although I lived and worked in a refugee camp previously, I was not prepared for the reception and unconditional support I received during this project. The refugees, camp leadership, UNHCR staff, and the US Embassy staff were all completely engaged and the results were incredible. Early on, we realized we had to change the local notion of teaching and learning, at least in the context of English instruction. The teachers all exhibited a very formal brand of pedagogy that was inconsistent with the American system and values we wanted to instill. It would take us a month to make the shift, but all credit is due to the refugees and support staff.
I spent a great deal of time modeling a more engaging, interactive method of teaching and they embraced it enthusiastically from the beginning. They enjoyed the emphasis on fun and praise and soon adopted the motto “No Fun, No Club.” I was impressed how quickly they adopted the new philosophy. It was amazing to point a group of people in a direction, give them a little guidance, then watch them take off and excel.

I was also very surprised by their ability to collaborate and problem solve. Despite the many challenges and personalities in the camp, they worked together well and put aside their egos and differences while helping to build these programs. This level of cooperation is unprecedented in my professional experience.

A typical day in the camp included doing presentations, working with small groups and peer teachers, arranging contextualized trips in the camp, and a great deal of planning time with the education leaders. They did a great job of adjusting to me and my schedule and I tried to adopt some of their circumspect grace and patience. My primary takeaway is that I want to work hard back here in my home institution to create a more inclusive and cooperative environment, truly utilizing a model of shared governance that I observed in the camp. Finally, I want to internalize a lesson I first learned years ago in my Peace Corps Experience – “If you go to Southeast Asia, you will learn about religion; If you go to South America, you will learn about politics; but if you go to Africa,  you will learn how to laugh!”