Monday, February 14, 2011

Madame Fatou

Two days a week, I get up early and walk about 5K (~3 miles) to a vocational high school on the south side of Diourbel to teach Entrepreneurial Business and English classes.  My students range from 16 to 20 years old are quite bright.  They’re enrolled in the Electricians program and surprisingly (for Senegal), I have 3 young ladies in my classes.  This means, of course, that the rest of the classes are made up of teenage boys (aack!)  Luckily, they’re not as bad as I had anticipated, in fact they’re rather charming   I teach the classes in French, which is challenging for me, but I’ve  resigned myself to the fact that I probably sound like an idiot a lot of the time.  French is also a second language to the students, so not everything they say is correct either, and to add insult to injury we all have to deal with each others “non-French” accents.

On the first day of classes, I gathered the students in a circle for a little ice-breaker exercise.  Getting up out of their seats during class was a new concept to them, so that in itself was an ice-breaker and also helped to label me as a “strange” teacher.  We tossed a bean bag baboon around that my parents had sent, repeating each persons name and something they like that starts with the first letter of their name, e.g., “my name is Fatou and I like Fataya (a fried meat-filled pastry), his name is Abdoulah and he like Alcohol (even Muslim teenagers like to push the limits), her name is Moussane and she likes Maffé (rice and meat with a peanut sauce).  It amazed me that even though school had been in session since early October and many of these students didn’t know each other’s names until we played this game.

Classrooms are sparse, filled only with a blackboard made of painted wood and several rows of rickety old desks.  Textbooks are a luxury that are rarely seen and if they do exist are often misprinted or old and outdated.  This I have only heard, because I haven’t seen any textbooks at our school.  Teachers spend a lot of time writing things on the board and students spend a lot of time taking notes, as this is their only reference to what has been taught.  I spend the first 15 minutes of each class going over what I taught the class before just to make sure it was understood and that the kids took good notes.  Handouts are also rarely used because there are not many printers available and if there were, the cost of ink and paper would be prohibitive.  I generally write my lesson plans out longhand and use the blackboard convey concepts to my class.

Because I was a bit worried about teaching teenage boys, I set some classroom rules on my first day.  I’d been to numerous Senegalese meetings where cell phones rang incessantly (usually with horrible high-pitched Islamic chant ring tones) and people answered them, holding conversations right there in the middle of the meeting without excusing themselves, so this was my first classroom rule:  1) No Cell Phones In Class.  The next rule, was an attempt to address the Senegalese tendency to be late to everything:  2) For Every 15 Minutes Late To Class You Must Pay 100 cfa (which is only about 20 cents) and You Must Dance For The Class.  The latter has been quite effective and the kids have started policing themselves so they can try to embarrass their classmates.  Being late is something that is well ingrained in Senegalese society.  Just this week, my counterpart and I hosted a training needs assessment at our compound for the leaders of 20 women’s group.  The meeting was scheduled for 2 hours and literally one third of the attendees showed up within the last 20 minutes of the meeting.  The first day I was scheduled to teach at Centre Polyvalent I showed up at 7:45 for my 8am class to find the door locked and no one on campus.  I knocked on the Director’s door and actually woke him up (good role model. eh?)  He found the key, and the kids started trickling in around 8:20am.  Now that we have established classroom rules, most of them are much better about coming on time, which feels like an accomplishment, especially since our schedules have been erratic due to Islamic holidays that have cancelled classes and Peace Corps training which has taken me out of town on my scheduled teaching days.  Hopefully, next month, my teaching schedule will become a bit more consistent.

Another thing that has taken some getting used to is finger-snapping.  When students want to get your attention, they’ll raise their arm and snap their fingers. When they all want to speak at once, it's quite the snapping chorus. This, too, is a widespread habit that occurs in all meetings--picture a room full of Arnold Horschack’s snapping their fingers.

The most embarrassing moment I’ve had in class thus far stemmed from a mix up of words.  In my Entrepreneurial Business class, I was teaching the concept of the 5 Ps (product, placement, price, promotion, and personnel) and had asked the class to choose a local business and then tell me what their actual product was.   The guy who had chosen the “boulangerie” (bakery) told me his product was “pain” (bread),  the boy who had chosen the cyber-café told me his product was internet service/availability, and the gal who had chosen a prêt-à-porter (ready-to-wear) store told me her products were the latest fashion trends.  They were getting it!  I was so pleased.  However, I then asked the young man who’d cleverly chosen the “bissouterie” (kissing booth) what his product was, he said “l’argent” (money).  Huh?  I explained that money was something that he received in exchange for his product, “’les bissous” (the kisses), but it was not the product itself.  The class looked at me funny and then erupted in laughter before explaining that I’d misunderstood him.  His business was not a “bissouterie”, but a “bijouterie” (jewelry store), and “l’argent” not only means money, but also is the word used for silver.  Oh the funny Toubab teacher! It was an honest mistake (and pretty funny!)  I’m so glad I decided early on to be at peace with making a fool of myself.

Today is Valentine’s Day, so last week, I gave my Monday morning English class homework.  They each had to make me a Valentine’s Card (in English).  There were 17 kids in class the day I assigned the homework, and today, when it was due there were only 3, and none of them had a Valentine for me :-(  So instead of reading their cards aloud, I passed out sweets and we spent the first 10 minutes of class discussing Valentine’s Day and how it's celebrated in each of our countries.  Apparently, in Senegal, people dress in red and black and throw big parties, but I haven’t seen much evidence of this yet, but the day is still young.

Mom and Dad arrive next Monday and I plan to bring them to class as “Show and Tell”.  Won’t that be fun?  I’ll have to think of someway of incorporating them into the lesson plan.

On a related note, a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kaolack, a city just an hour south of me, has organized a campaign to raise funds to bring 22,000 books and textbooks to schools in Senegal through a partnership with the NGO, Books for Africa.  Many Peace Corps Volunteers are helping to raise these funds (including yours truly) through the Peace Corps Partnership program, which makes it easy for friends and family back home to donate to our projects.  This is the first fundraising effort I’ve been involved with here, but may not be my last.  As these opportunities arise, I’ll post them on my blog and if you feel inspired to help, please do.  If you don’t, then don’t.  It’s a simple as that.  Click here for a link to our “Books For Africa” Peace Corps Partnership Page.