Friday, September 29, 2006

Village life/city life

Volunteers in the big city for a night. We had dinner at a restaruant called 'my village' with the regional director.
In Yerevan: At an outdoor concert on Tuesday night.
Hermine would kill for straight hair so the best solution is to iron it...I vaguely remember my mom telling me they used to use a real iron on hair 'back in the day'.

Horavatz from the three pigs we killed last week. They offered me a piece of heart, and then a liver when I refused, but I told them I was full.

At home: Mama cow, Suren, Samvel and our new baby cow. I proudly named him Oliver.

School Days

That's the new food pyramid on the right...
Our classroom
My counterpart and I.
This says: I listen I forget. I see I remember. I do I understand.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Work in school

For the past month, I’ve been blessed to work in a fantastic community, with a supportive school director and a counterpart who has 35 years of teaching experience. There is an active youth action club that recently held a seminar on civic democracy and next month we’re planning a seminar about the harmful effects of smoking. The other day I met with an English teacher from Yerevan who would like for me to start a service learning center in the village and my school director is requesting I write a grant for a community health resource center (there is a project design management workshop in February that my counterpart and I will attend to learn about grant-writing). All of these opportunities are exciting and motivate me to learn Armenian as soon as possible. In general I tend to feel inadequate with my current language ability.

Knowledge of the Armenian language is absolutely necessary in the classroom. Every school, every classroom and every teacher is different in America, and in Armenia it is no different. When I joined the Peace Corps I never imagined I would work in a school and even after a month of standing by my counterpart’s side it still scares me. We are allowed (and encouraged) to spend time simply observing the classes. One day, for instance, I went to the second grade Russian class and learned how to say grandmother, grandfather, mother, father, sister, brother. On a different occasion I went to 9th grade math where I think we were studying COS and SIN. Much to my surprise, however, my counterpart has expected small contributions to our health lessons since day one. Sometimes I’ll provide an example from America or I’ll help the students with an assignment. All of our lessons come from a healthy lifestyles curriculum developed by UNICEF so I generally have an idea of what topics we will cover in each class. Even though we’ve been teaching for three weeks, I still don’t understand the student’s schedules. The school includes students grades 1-10 and there are two classes of each grade (ex: 7a and 7b). Some days we’ll meet with only 2 classes. I am worried that we only see classes once every week or once every two weeks, which I don’t think is enough to cover all the content that I would like to add to the UNICEF curriculum.

My poor counterpart has been assigned to cover HIV/AIDS lessons in the 9th grade for the first time ever this year. Discussions about relationships, puberty and reproductive health are extremely taboo in this country. Not only are these topics not discussed in the schools, but they’re not even brought up in most homes. We call it ‘amot,’ shameful. Last week was our first lesson and my counterpart recruited the biology teacher to discuss the danger of HIV/AIDS and the potential risk for the small country of Armenia if people are not educated of its harms. She seemed very distraught after the lesson and I didn’t know why because it seemed to me (despite the fact that I didn’t understand a single word of the lecture) that the students were engaged in a healthy question and answer discussion. It wasn’t until much later that I learned that a boy stood up and told his classmates: “Five minutes of pleasure is not worth a lifetime of suffering.” When I was told about his comment I was impressed that the lecture was successful. Of course I considered this a positive comment for one of the students to make but my counterpart thought quite differently. She was concerned that this boy could only make this type of comment if he had some kind of outside knowledge or experience. At 15, I would assume that most boys have outside knowledge of this topic, or at the very least I know they all watch American films. As much as I tried to explain to her that this was a positive thing for a student to contribute she still assured me that she’d be watching him very closely for the remainder of the year. There’s an NGO in Yerevan called AIDS Prevention and Education Center (APEC) that does training sessions with students so they can be peer educators in their schools, maybe I’ll suggest they come to our village to assist in this process.
My counterpart loves the students and speaks to them with patience and love but today (September 19) she was sick. I found myself living a nightmare in a classroom of 4th graders. I stood in front of them and I said: “Hello. Today Enkert Grikoriyan is sick. Today is a special day because I will teach alone. You must listen so we can learn.” And then, after my 20 second introduction I realized I didn’t know the lesson plan and I was so scared I didn’t know what to say. Fortunately, they sent me to the class with the school secretary. I calmly walked the UNICEF lesson notes over to her and much to my dismay she just started reading the book out loud. When the students were instructed to participate, and were allowed to get out of their seats they began to misbehave and I was even more horrified when she began pulling their ears, yelling and smacking the back of their heads. I realize that in America teachers used to be allowed to hit with rulers, books or hands, but I’ve never seen this first-hand. I wanted to cry and I’m pretty sure the students did too. Finally, she told them all to take their seats and she began reprimanding them for their behavior. After listening to this for a bit I got up the nerve to interrupt. Very slowly and very ineffectively I said something to the effect of: “Do you know the word respect?” They all answered yes. I said: “Respect is very important in school. If you do not respect your teachers or each other we can not learn.” I wrote on the board: (in English and in Armenian) why is it important that we work together? I used the imperative form of the verb to write and hoped they would answer the question. Of course they didn’t understand what they were supposed to do, they just copied the question on their paper. I was about ready to have a heart attack as I frantically flipped through my dictionary for the verb to answer. I couldn’t find it, but fortunately I found the noun form and I instructed them that I wanted them to tell me why working together is important in school. They all did so and I collected their papers. The room got really quiet when I started to talk again. I gave them a “lecture” on the value of education and work-ethic, which I’m sure amounted to: “if we can’t work together in school, if you won’t listen to your teachers, then you won’t be successful.” Oh well. The class was over and the secretary put her arm around me and said how much she loved me. I was happy to have her on my side. She told me that the class was naughty but I just told her that they had a lot of energy. I said thank you for her help and she said, no problem, they’ll behave for me because they’re afraid of me. I didn’t tell her that I was afraid too.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

The first day of school

On the front porch of our pretty pink house the first day of school. From Left to right: Samvel, Hermine, Sargis, Souren (In the doorway-Heriknaz and Souren). Oh, and your new health teacher...

Culture and Work

August 30, 2006
All Peace Corps volunteers get a Newsweek magazine delivered to our mailboxes in Yerevan every week. I was reading the July 24th issue (I’m a bit behind) the other week and in the Technology section there was a story called: "Games for Good." Students at the University of Denver developed a videogame called Squeezed as a part of a growing trend of socially conscious games. The article says that there is a "Games for Change" conference held at the New York School in NY. In the game, you are a frog who happens to live on a farm. Your aim is to pick as many grapes, oranges and other fruit as quickly as you can. The fruit, however, is going to rot, and you’ve got to compete with worms, donkeys and dragonflies. What’s more, the farmer might decide to spray pesticides, which puts you in such a drunken stupor that picking up fruit is a challenge. You may just be a frog, but you have a family and community to support in another country. The ‘juice’ you collect from the fruits you pick up is paying for food and medical care back home. Without it, your family may starve. The game is intended to raise awareness among well-off young people by putting them in game situations that resemble those of immigrants and poor people in real life. The characters serve as stand-ins for migrant workers from Latin America. The reason I share this is that the description of Squeezed very much illustrates the life of the families I’ve lived with in Armenia. I’m not sure how they do it, but I’m in awe of their strength. It’s not just Latin American immigrants to America; people are ‘Squeezed’ all over the world.
September 7, 2006,
School…and life for that matter would be so much easier if I spoke Russian. Our building is being remodeled and it’s a hectic mess trying to figure out where we as teachers should go-let alone where the students are supposed to be. It took me two weeks of observation before I finally realized that the room the teachers are currently using as a lounge is actually the health classroom where we’ll be able to teach. All day yesterday my counterpart was telling me that lessons will be easier when we have our ‘cabinet’. Normally I can recognize when people are speaking to me in Russian, but for some reason I actually thought that she was telling me that we needed our cabinet. I assumed maybe it was full of some health materials or resources of some kind. After awhile, though, I started to doubt this assumption and figured that she was probably calling a classroom a cabinet. I went home and asked my sister and sure enough, cabinet is the Russian word for classroom. I’m debating whether or not I should start spending my open periods in Russian class with the first grade. I think that after I conquer Armenian I’ll work towards learning Russian—it sure would come in handy in this part of the world.
They seem to like me in school; I get along with all the teachers, construction workers and cleaning staff. The students are fairly well-behaved and they listen to me despite my poor language skills. I’ve spent the past 2 weeks giving introduction after introduction, but everyone wants to know the same thing. The adults want to know about my family at home and where I come from, the kids want to know if I drove in America and what kind of car I had. My speech at the opening day ceremony consisted of a congratulations on the first day of school and welcome back, who I am and the teacher I’ll be working with, where I come from, what I studied in America and my favorite line: "If you work hard in school you will be successful."
When I have open periods I like to visit the English class (at this point in my language studies it’s the only time I can stand up in front of students and be sure they’re retaining the information I give them). The ninth graders were really interested in what American 15-year-olds are like. I told them that in America men and women are equal, so boys have to help with household chores just as much as the girls do. I said that my brother is expected to clean the bathrooms and wash the dishes. They all were astounded and started laughing (a testament to the strongly divided gender roles in this country). One brave boy stood up and said: "but in Armenia if men do housework they’ll get made fun of!" I asked why but he didn’t have a response. It’s just the way things are. I also told them that at 15 people can start learning to drive and that we are very consumed with getting our license so that we can have independence. They were confused by this, because in Armenia being able to operate a motor vehicle gives you no more independence than turning 5 years old. Families live together (there are 3 generations in my house) until marriage, and even then you probably will only move down the street. They couldn’t imagine how ownership of a car would provide any sort of escape from parents—where would they go? In the class I tried to explain that they had more potential than they realize. I explained that they need to start thinking about their futures and what they want to do after graduation next year (compulsory school only lasts until the 10th ‘form’). The same boy that said that men shouldn’t do housework raised his hand and told me it’s hard to achieve anything when you go to school in a small village. I told refuted his statement with the argument that not all schools in America are rich and full of resources. I told him that if there’s something he wants to do, or a problem he wants to solve I’m here to help….we’ll see what happens.
Today we had a very interesting lesson with the 8th graders; it’s one of my favorite activities from home. You are given a list of values such as health, freedom, love, a good family, beloved work, education, friends, a fatherland etc… and you must choose the top five that you value the most and then rank them. I thought that the 13 and 14-year-olds would surely value friendship as one of their top values (I remember being consumed by ‘fitting in’ at that age). I was surprised to learn, however, that their top values tend to be family and physical safety. When I thought about it a little more I realized that these answers are characteristic of the Armenian culture. Everything I’ve observed in living with two families these past 3 months points to the fact that family is of highest importance. After the history these people have lived through I understand why physical safety would be valuable as well. I debated telling them what’s valued in America, (money and work) but decided instead to follow the lesson plan and explain that if you don’t have health you can’t enjoy the other values (your family and friends will suffer if you are unhealthy, you aren’t safe, you’re not really free etc…). Health is the foundation of the other values, and it’s the reason why it’s so important to learn.