Because I have a lot to write.
Today I will be writing about two different days: yesterday and today.
Yesterday, Sunday, I decided that in order to better orient myself in Mombasa, I should just start walking. Previously I have been taking matatus (minivan taxis) around town, but a) I am still not confident enough to hail the right matatu or get off at the right place, and b) I want to have a real sense of space around town, and riding a vehicle takes that away. I windows shopped for some home improvement items and then ate lunch at a nondescript little restaurant where the power was out (same for the whole city) and then I visited the central post office, which is kind of a Deaf-culture hub due to the fact that it’s a hub for all people, but more specifically because there is a sweets shop (basically a folding table where you can buy candy or phone credit) run by a local Deaf man. I conversed with another Deaf man for a while, as well as a few others, before running into the volunteer who works just outside Mombasa. Three of us went to lunch (a second lunch for me) and I shared my various traumatic mosquito experiences from the Boy Scouts and from that morning, when I saw that my palms were coated with dried blood (probably my own) after a night’s worth of killing the nasty little creatures who got into my net.
After lunch I was invited to meet more Deaf people, which turned out to be far more formal than I expected. What I attended was in fact some sort of monthly meeting of all the Deaf sweet shop owners/workers, in which various proposals relating to inventory sharing and the like are put forward and discussed. Sign language in Mombasa in practice is very different from what I learned in my Loitokitok bubble. It is faster, uses innumerable sign variations, and also mixes in American Sign Language. As a result I was left to speculate on the details on the meeting, and it didn’t help that since the power was out it was dark in the restaurant where we met, so I could barely see the opposite side of the long table. (Also after two lunches and with the heat, sitting in a dark room didn’t make me as awake as I would have liked to be.) When asked if I had anything to add, I said that I would wait and think about it, but in reality I was simply not 100% confident that I understood the proposal. This was a bit frustrating, because in many ways I felt very at home, because if the very same meeting had occurred back in my office in LA, it would have been not that different from a typical strategic meeting and I would have felt quite comfortable, if not excited, to volunteer my own ideas. With time I hope that my signing improves enough to get back to that point with this group. The other volunteer (who has known this group for over a year) suggested that maybe one of the Peace Corps Small Enterprise Development volunteers could help out, which I think is good but made me wish my signing was stronger because I have the potential to apply quite a bit of my own business experience to accomplish the same thing, and could hopefully do so in their native language. This is going onto my “possible secondary projects” list.
In the evening I walked to old town with a volunteer visiting from Uganda, and we went to a couple places that I had visited during training. The sodas and the ice cream were warm due to the electricity problem, but the night was cool enough that it was not a problem. Thanks to some careful instructions provided by my Deaf teacher counterpart, as well as some intensive staring at Google Maps on my phone, I was able to make my way back home using a mixture of walking and matatuing.
Today the Deaf schools officially opened for classes after a month off. In my school’s case, many of the children never left because it is a boarding school, but today was the day when teachers return. The day began with an assembly in which I was introduced to the students, mostly just a formality because they all seem to remember me. When pressed to step forward, I was only able to muster, “I am excited to work here.” Not my finest hour, but hardly a definitive first impression to worry about. Afterward in the teachers’ lounge the staff discussed the impending teachers strike, scheduled for the 19th, then the headmaster (a strong, likeable man if I’ve ever met one) introduced me to the teaching staff (at least those who were actually present for the first day of school), which added another dozen people to my list of names that I have already completely forgotten. Not only have I met over forty people here in the past few days, the spelling of the names tend to resemble “Mwali,” “Mkaka” and other letter mixtures that are incredibly difficult for my American brain to retain. Also on my list of things to do, LEARN SWAHILI. Many of the teachers don’t sign and they only use English when speaking directly to me. I will need Swahili in order to really be a part of the group to influence change. I have a long way to go on this front.
It was decided in the meeting that we will discuss tomorrow which class(es) I will teach, and that for today, I can simply go home (I live on the campus) and they will visit if they need me, or I can visit the classrooms and just get a sense of things. Despite the fact that I could hear my bed calling me for an early siesta, I picked a classroom at random (Class 1, AKA First Grade) and sat down to await the teacher. In the meantime the children told me their names (again, water off this duck’s back) and signed more variations with me, which is even more difficult with children because they can’t fingerspell for me when I don’t understand the sign… they’ll simply repeat it.
The teacher eventually came and then instructed the children to copy some letters of the alphabet into their books. She did so without signing, and as the children got to work she sat next and explained to me that today was her first day teaching at this school, and that she did not know how to sign because at her previous school she taught the blind. In any case, apparently the “copy from the board” routine is just so automatic that the children need no instructions. I proceeded to teach the teacher some signs, which she enjoyed immensely and I was happy to do. As the children began to finish the assignment, they brought their workbooks to the teacher, who puts little red checkmarks on the page, which pleases the children tremendously. Many of the kids never turned theirs in, and for that matter many of them never even once paid attention to the teacher or sat in their chairs. This did not seem to phase the teacher, who proceeded to change the subject and attempted to use her newly learned signs. She also wrote what she was trying to sign on the board. The children looked confused, and so the teacher left to find a senior teacher who could confirm that I had not taught her incorrectly. The senior teacher came in and then used what appeared to be Signed English to translate, word for word, the message on the board, including the word “is,” which I can say with confidence is not signed in KSL. This only seemed to confirm to the new teacher that my signing was perhaps incorrect, and she happily learned the new (non-KSL) signs. Shortly afterward, the new teacher got a phone call and told me that she had to leave due to some emergency. The senior teacher stayed and continued the class for a few minutes, and then told me that she had her own class to teach, and then she left.
So, there I sat in the back of the room, Paul Blair, the accidental teacher.
I stood up, walked in front of the board, and held the children’s attention for all of one minute before the classroom turned into a certified madhouse.
I tried to continue the previous teacher’s lesson, “What is this?” a game in which the teacher points at things and the kid sign, but in reality I mostly just followed the children around and used the sign “sit” a lot to coax them back into their chairs. Favorite pastimes of the rowdy children seem to include pencil poking, rock throwing, and general hitting and slapping. Falling out of your chair is also popular. I was saved only by the chai break, at which time I exhaustedly entered the teachers’ lounge and, sweating profusely, I gulped down the boiling hot tea as I strategized for the afternoon. What are first graders supposed to learn? In what order? What should they know already? What can I teach with zero preparation and no syllabus? I asked around and the other teachers confirmed that, entering first grade, they should be able to add and subtract single-digit numbers. OK, I thought, we will review addition and subtraction for the rest of the day.
I returned to class and started by asking the students to write their names. The subsequent confusion (where’s may pencil? he stole it! he’s writing his name on my shirt! etc) meant that I abandoned that idea and moved quickly to math.
Between break and lunch (2 hours) I managed to convince four or so of the dozen students to correctly answer eight addition problems. The rest of the time I chased the rowdy kids around the room and tried to remember who should actually BE in the room, because other kids would come and go freely. The problems were only exacerbated by the fact that, apparently, when the teacher writes math on the board, the teacher’s assistant (one of the the smartest girls in the class) automatically distributes ROCKS to all the children to help them count. These rocks were in practice NOT used for counting, and I quickly because accustomed to the sound of rock hitting human head, and the subsequent cry of pain. Perhaps at this point I was supposed to use the teacher’s stick to enforce the rules of the class, but I didn’t need to because the girl who passed out the rocks was also quite comfortable with taking the stick and hitting the misbehaving children with it, which made the rowdy kids cry but not stop throwing rocks.
I will not go into every detail of the classroom anarchy, but suffice to say the day ended with very little learning having occurred. I was saddened by the fact that a few of the students, possibly owing to their late entries into the school system and therefore older ages, really wanted me to teach, and understood my signing quite well, but I was unable to focus on them. I don’t know what I will be doing tomorrow, as I am no more prepared than today, but after school ended (and a 5 hour nap in which I exercised some inner man crying) I really started to strategize. Below are some of my notes:
- Wide gap in basic first-language communication abilities: some children understand everything I sign, others understand nothing.
- Wide gap in understanding of behavior expectations: this is probably not unique to Deaf schools, but the solution is more elusive due to the first problem.
- Wide gap in placement on the learning continuum: some students get all the answers right, and others can’t even copy the numbers from the board, which brings me to…
- Wide gap in understanding of assignment expectations: Assignments have structures that students learn to expect. A photocopied worksheet should need no explanation. Students should know when to copy, when to solve, and where to write their name (a feat not yet achieved by some of the students). The relative success of the first teacher (more students understood her than they did me) suggests that some of the children are already wired for certain assignments types, and there may be more that I am simply not aware of.
- The students value the checkmark from their teacher quite highly. The school system seems to have successfully imparted this positive reinforcement method.
I will spend tonight thinking about solutions. This is still day one of teaching, so I don’t expect anything unrealistic, but that the same time I am excited by the challenges, even if I don’t ultimately teach Class 1, today has really got my critical mind thinking in a way that I hasn’t since I left my job, so between the thought of possibly helping local businesses and possibly introducing specific classroom solutions that lead to more learning, I am feeling very alive for the first time in Kenya!
And because this post had no pictures, here is your reward for reading it. This was taken during training at the same ice cream shop in old town that I visited again last night. As far as I can tell they only serve one thing: scud, which is a fruit smoothie/ice cream blend. On the far right is me and on the far left is the previous volunteer whose previous home I am now occupying.