​Life in Liberia: Market Day!

Here in Liberia, grocery shopping is not as easy as jumping in the car and heading to the Kroger around the corner! Unless you’re in a big city with a supermarket, buying food and other things takes a little more work!

I’m fortunate to live in a big enough community that I am able to buy most of my food and necessities throughout the week. My landlord, who lives in the house right in front of mine, has a pretty good-sized shop, mostly of dry goods like rice, beans, onions, spaghetti, tomato paste – enough that I knew from day one that I at least wouldn’t starve here! And in the first few months, I slowly figured out where to buy other foods – there’s a shop near the school that sells bread, a house on my walk home that sells “cold sausage” (frozen hotdogs bought from nearby towns earlier that day) and a house across from mine that often has eggs (though for a few months there was an egg shortage in the country and they were very hard to find!).

So if I plan my day right, I can pick up everything I need to make my dinner on my way home from school. I also keep an eye out as I walk around town for other things like plantains, cassava or African potatoes and whatever fruits are in season – these are most often found in small amounts outside anyone’s house; people will sell the small amount from their own gardens that’s left after feeding their own families.

And then on Tuesday, we have Market Day! Once a week, people come from miles around to buy and sell in our town’s market. So every week, I’ll keep a list of things I want to make sure to pick up on the next Tuesday. Throughout the rest of the week, the market sits almost completely empty, with the exception of a few local market women selling a few various foods. But on Tuesday the place is packed!

You can find the same foods that are there throughout the week, but also a lot more: there’s a whole aisle of “wheelbarrow shopping” – clothes in wheel barrows or piles, most of which was sent over from the states or Europe, that you can sort through to find what you need.  There’s another area with people selling produce – whatever seasonal fruits and vegetables they’ve grown (though you have to get there early for the good stuff – I often miss out because I teach in the morning and don’t get to the market until the afternoon).

You’ll find people selling lappa fabric or pre-made clothes, sandals and slippers (Liberian English for flipflops), packaged cookies and snacks, soap and hair products, small electronics and more. I’ve made friends with a man named Boikai (who’s name I can remember because it sounds to me like “Buckeye”) who comes to my town every week from Kakata to sell bags – backpacks and the colorful plastic “Ghana-must-go” bags.

In addition to the different stalls set up, there are plenty of people walking around selling food! I always look for plantain chips or popcorn, freshly made shortbread or donuts, and find the woman who sells fried plantains and sometimes fried chicken legs! You can also find people selling more traditional meals of soup and rice or Liberian spaghetti.

Even on weeks that I don’t really have a list of things to buy, I always try to go take a walk around the market, see if there are any surprises to be found and say hello to my friends who are selling!

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Update from Liberia: What I Did This Summer

The school year here in Liberia is similar to that of the US, it begins in September and goes through June, closing for July and August. There’s only two seasons in Liberia, rainy season and dry season, so they don’t call it summer break, but that’s what it felt like to me! So I wanted to write an update on what I did this summer….

Shortly after Mom & Kathryn’s visit, we had our semester exams and wrapped up the 2017-2018 school year the first week of July. After grading all of my students’ tests and calculating final grades, I turned in my grade sheets just in time to leave for a visit home!

I went home to the US for 3 weeks in July and it was great to be home and see so many friends and family! The big event was Kathryn and Nelson’s wedding in Indianapolis, which was beautiful and I was so thankful to be a part of it. I also spent a weekend in Columbus, celebrating my friend Christine at her bachelorette party. And I spent time at home in Cincinnati, visiting friends, hanging out with my family and eating all the foods that I’ve missed while being in Liberia!

I came back to Liberia at the beginning of August and had a few weeks before school started. After a couple of days of relaxing and settling back into life here, I was ready to find something to do! Though school was closed, the administration and some of the teachers were still at the school working every day, distributing report cards and preparing for the next school year’s registration. Each day there were also several students hanging around the school, so I decided to start a “summer reading” program for those couple of weeks.

Peace Corps gave each of us volunteers a Liberia Reads to Learn (LRL) kit, a reading program to help students build their vocabulary and comprehension skills and give them an opportunity to practice reading. The program allows students to read at their own ability level and at their own pace, and it gives them a chance to read about many different topics, including science, social studies and literature. The kit includes 6 different reading levels, each with 50 passages about different topics. After students read their own passage, they then answer 10 questions about what they’ve read, around both vocabulary and comprehension. Once they’ve read and passed enough LRLs from one level, they move to the next level, where the passages get more challenging.

I began bringing the LRLs to school in the mornings and inviting junior and senior high students to come read. I had done LRLs with my classes several times last year, so I also started telling my students when I saw them around town that they could come to school in the mornings to read. While a few of my previous students came, I was surprised to find that I had more new and younger students coming regularly! There were a couple groups of junior high boys, who would come and spend hours reading LRLs, often disappointed when I told them it was time to wrap up for the day! Overall I had 25 students participate in those two weeks, only 10 of them previous students of mine. Most days I only had about 5 or 6 students, less than I’d hoped for, but I was happy to see the students’ excitement about reading and see several new students progress to the 2nd level and even one to the 3rd in such a short time!

After doing LRLs for a couple of weeks, I shifted gears in the last week to start doing WASSCE math classes for the upcoming 12th graders. This coming year, I will be teaching the 12th grade (last year I only taught 10th and 11th) and all 12th graders take the WASSCE exam before graduating. It is a standardized test that is taken in many different countries across West Africa – and from previous versions I’ve seen, the math section looks tough! The list of topics that could come on the WASSCE is extensive and I know that it’ll be impossible to cover everything during class time before the students take the test in April. So I began extra sessions covering topics that I won’t have time for during the school year. Each day was a different topic, where I gave notes and example problems, let them practice and then ended with a real problem from a previous WASSCE from them to try. The students who came were eager to learn and to start preparing for the test, which was good to see and I hope to continue doing extra sessions throughout the school year.

Now I’m spending a week at mid-service training (MST) in Kakata, with the rest of LR-7, the cohort of education volunteers that I came with last year. And next week I start my 2nd school year teaching in Liberia!

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First Day in Liberia: Walk About Kim’s Community

After 27 hours of traveling we finally made it to Liberia! After finding Kim at the airport (!) we spent our first night at the luxurious Farmington Hotel right across the street. After a much needed night’s sleep, we met a taxi driver in the morning to take us on the bumpy hour long ride to Kim’s site in Montserrado County.

Once we reached Kim’s house we saw the wonderful welcome sign Kim’s neighbor made for us on her door. After dropping off our bags, we headed out on a “walk about” to explore Kim’s town. The people in her community are the friendliest people I’ve ever met! Since there isn’t air conditioning, everyone congregates on the porches as they are the coolest areas in the house. This makes it easy for everyone to say hello, throughout our entire trip we never passed a house in Kim’s community without greeting everyone along the way.

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We started off walking the dirt road to the market area, which was mostly empty since it wasn’t market day. As rainy season was just beginning, the path got fairly muddy at times and we had to wait out the rain a time or two. We stopped at a house by the market to buy some African corn on the cob. Different from the sweet corn in the US, it was slightly harder and tasted like popcorn!

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While walking the streets we were amazed by the number of houses that were actually shops. Any house you pass may be selling something! Kim filled us in on a way some shop keepers let you know what they are selling: they hang an empty package label of what they are selling on the side of the porch. For example the house we bought sausages (really just hot dogs) from had an empty packaged tacked outside.

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After a fifteen minute walk from her house, greeting everyone along the way, we arrived at Kim’s school. The buildings were empty but we got to see the rooms she teaches in and where we would be helping with activities the next few school days.

Once we were done exploring the school, we walked across the street to a house selling bags of cold water. In Liberia, it’s not safe for Westerners to drink the water (it’ll make us sick). Liberians are able to drink the water because their bodies have adapted to it. Bottled water is super expensive so instead they sell cold water in 0.5 liter plastic bags! You bite off the corner then suck on it and squeeze water out into your mouth.

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To end our walk about, we stopped at a few more shops to pick up some food for dinner. Kim doesn’t have electricity so that means no refrigeration, so each day dinner is decided by what foods people are selling when we walk through town. We were lucky our first night that we could get eggs and bread. Eggs are somewhat scarce and bread is made then sold until they run out but not necessarily baked each day. For dinner Kim made us scrambled eggs with onions that we ate on our bread. The rest of the evening we spent relaxing in the cool air on Kim’s back porch and getting ready for our first day at school!

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Mom & Kathryn Visit Liberia!

It’s been quite a busy summer and one of the many highlights was my mom and sister’s visit to Liberia!

It was awesome having them here! It was obviously great to see them after many months apart but even better was being able to share my life here in Liberia with them. Try as I might through phone calls, whatsapp messages, photos and blog posts, it’s impossible to explain it all! Things can be lost in translation because some things are so different that they’re hard to imagine without seeing it. Or after a year here, there are things I’ve gotten used to and don’t even think to share. So I loved that they were able to come and see Liberia for themselves!

We had a fantastic 10 days together. We spent a week at my site, where Mom and Kathryn met my friends, neighbors and students and lived the Liberian life with me. They survived no electricity, bucket baths, washing clothes on the washboard and meals of soup and rice with plenty of peppeh! They came to school with me in the mornings and did some fun hands-on engineering activities with my students. And they experienced the porch life in the afternoon, sitting with friends and reading to my porch kids (neighborhood kids who visit me often). We also took a day trip to Kakata where Mom and Kathryn got to meet my host family!

And then we spent a couple of days in the capital city, Monrovia, seeing the Peace Corps office and some other sites there. And we wrapped up the trip with a night at the Libassa resort, relaxing by the beach, swimming in the pool and floating in the lazy river!

Kathryn’s working on more posts about their trip from her perspective and will share more details but here are some of my favorite pictures from their visit!

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San Antonio’s Fiesta Week: Taste of New Orleans, El Mercado and the Texas Cavaliers River Parade

During my short time in San Antonio visiting family, I was excited to participate in a few Fiesta Week activities!  The tradition began in 1891 as a one day event as a salute to those in the battles of the Alamo and San Jacinto. The celebration has evolved into 10 day festival held each spring in San Antonio featuring three different parades throughout the week.

The first event we attended was the Taste of New Orleans event at Brackenridge Park at the Sunken Gardens Theater. The park was filled with Cajun style food stalls ranging from savory crawfish to sweet beignets. We spent the afternoon eating, drinking and dancing to the music. Admission was $15 plus you will need to purchase food/drink tickets once you get inside but all of the money raised at the event goes towards scholarships offered by the San Antonio Zulu Association.

After getting our New Orleans fix, we headed next door to walk around the Sunken Gardens. This Japanese tea garden was completed in 1919 and was created to beautify an abandoned quarry at this location. Walking the stunning winding paths and seeing the vibrant koi fish was a great ending to our day!

Our next Fiesta week activity was a visit to the Mercado in downtown San Antonio. The Mercado is open all year long full of stores selling primarily Mexican wares but during Fiesta Week there is an entire festival lining the streets. We shopped and explored before eating a delicious lunch at La Margarita. The Mercado was a great place to get our festive flower crowns and clothes for the River Parade that evening!

Finally it was time for the main event of our visit, the Texas Cavaliers River Parade! Rows of chairs line the San Antonio Riverwalk going right up to the edge of the water. Sitting in the front row I was worried I was going to fall in! The parade began around dusk and the trail of 55 decorated barges glowed brighter as the evening went on. One of the best parts of the River Parade is that all the money raised from the event goes to various children’s charities in the community.

Our seats were along the newer addition to the canal so, since there was no exit for the floats at the other end, we got to see each float twice! Every float had their own theme about their “mission”, a play on words referring to the Missions located in San Antonio (The Alamo is the most well known). Each float also had their own source of music and I was pleasantly surprised that about half the floats had live music! The floats were gorgeous but the best part of the evening had to be the looks on my young cousin’s face at every new float she saw!

While there are two other parades and many other activities during the rest of Fiesta week, sadly our trip had to come to an end. But here are some tips if you are trying to participate in these Fiesta activities:

  1. Utilize the event Park & Rides. For every Fiesta activity we rode the Park & Ride buses for a small fee so we didn’t have to try to find parking spaces downtown.
  2. Buy your tickets in advance for the parades. For the Texas Cavaliers River Parade, no one was allowed down by the Riverwalk unless they had a ticket.
  3. For the River Parade you are allowed to bring food and drinks (alcoholic or not) as long as they aren’t in glass containers.

Hopefully these tips are helpful, we can’t wait to go back and experience more of Fiesta Week!

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Biking on A Mission: Visiting Four Missions in San Antonio Texas

While visiting family in San Antonio, Texas, we decided to rent bikes and ride the trails to visit four different Missions along the San Antonio River. When missionaries came over to the Americas they attempted to convert the indigenous people to Catholicism. The Missions are the communities and churches built surrounding the missionaries efforts and there are five still standing today in San Antonio. The most notable would be the Alamo, famous for the Battle of the Alamo in the early fight for Texas’s independence from Mexico. We visited the Alamo the day before (read about it here) so we started our bike ride from Mission Concepcion. All the missions we visited on our bike ride are active churches today.

We parked our cars at Mission Concepcion then went to look around. A volunteer named David was super helpful explaining some of the historical aspects of the mission. Mission Concepcion is the most well preserved mission of those in San Antonio. While many other missions have been rebuilt how they were before, Mission Concepcion is the least altered with most of what you see today being original. Visitors can explore the courtyard, church and attached buildings learning the histories of what stood there.

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When we were done exploring it was time to figure out how to rent bikes. At each of the missions is a rack of bicycles available for rent from a company called SWell Cycle. The cost for the day is $12 and you have to dock the bikes once every hour along the way. We were able to dock the bikes at each mission so we didn’t have to push them around with us inside. The first leg of our ride was the longest at 3.3 miles from Mission Concepcion to Mission San Jose.

Mission San Jose is probably the best mission to visit if you are only visiting one as it has an (air conditioned) interactive center with a 20 informative minute video on about the origin of the missions and the affect they had on the area. The church is surrounded by a wall of jacales, or small houses, where the Indians the missionaries were able to convert lived. We spent a least hour at San Jose watching the movie and walking around. Behind the church you’ll find the first mill ever built in Texas in about 1794.

After another hot 3 mile long ride we arrived at Mission San Juan. This mission was much smaller than the previous two and we were not able to see the inside of the church. We learned from David at Mission Concepcion that the churches at these missions used to be colorfully painted, a large contrast to the all white facade here at Mission San Juan.

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After a quick break we made our way to the the last 1.9 miles to Mission Espada, the final stop on our trip. This mission was not as large as the others on our ride but the church, built in 1756, was quaint and there was a small store connected. Missionaries worked to make life in the missions resemble that of Spanish villages and Spanish culture.

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If you are planning to make this bike ride through the missions there are a few things you should keep in mind.

  1. It’s hot! – We visited in April and it still got to 90 degrees Fahrenheit, so I’d hate to feel it in the dead of summer. If you’re there in the summer consider going early in the morning
  2. Bring water, drink often!- there are places to fill water bottles at each of the missions but by the end of the trip I was very dehydrated.
  3. Wear suncreen! – Don’t be like me and realize you didn’t put it on before the first leg and end up very burnt.
  4. No admission fees!- The only cost we had for the trip was the bike rentals, the missions are free to enter.
  5. Bring your own helmet! – Helmets aren’t provided so if you’re doing the biking make sure to bring your own.

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Even though I ended up as a lobster after our bike ride, I’m very glad we did it. It was a great way to get active and see some history. Plus, the trail follows the San Antonio river walk so the scenery was beautiful.

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5 Things to Know about Visiting the Grand Canyon in the Winter

The Grand Canyon is a breathtaking natural wonder any time of year, but visiting in the winter months can be very different from the peak summer season. When we visited last winter here are the five things we wish we would have known before visiting the Grand Canyon in December:

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  1. The North Rim is closed

The Grand Canyon’s North Rim has view and trails to trek similar to the South Rim however it is more difficult to visit as it is far from the freeway and doesn’t have close airport options. Generally the North Rim is less crowded but it is not open to visitors in the winter months. If you are planning to visit, the North Rim is open from May 15th to October 15th each year.

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  1. Its gets cold!

The Grand Canyon is at an elevation of 7,000 ft above sea level so although it is a desert it is still pretty cold in the winter time during the day. For us it got up to around 50 degrees Fahrenheit during the height of the day but if you are hoping to see the sunrise bundle up! When we watched the sunrise it was around 10-15 degrees Fahrenheit. We also saw some ice on the trails so be careful when hiking and be sure to wear plenty of light layers!

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  1. Daylight hours are short

While it makes it easier to view the sunrise (~7:30am) and the sunset (~5:15pm), there are a lot less hours in the day to enjoy the canyon. The main way this affected us was when we hiked part of the Bright Angel Trail down into the Grand Canyon. We were wary about leaving plenty of time to make it back up the canyon so we wouldn’t be on the trail in the dark.

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  1. Not all the buses are running

We never ended up using the shuttles since it was more convenient to have a car in the winter. Only two of the shuttle bus routes are running and this did not include the one that could bring us to the park from our hotel or the route along Hermit Road stopping at many beautiful overlooks including Hermit’s Rest. If you are there in the winter it will be helpful to have a car to drive to the different areas you want rather than relying on the shuttle bus services.

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  1. During holiday weeks it is extremely crowded but other times it is not crowded at all

If you are traveling to the Grand Canyon in the winter be sure to avoid Thanksgiving week and the week between Christmas and New Years if at all possible. During the holiday weeks the Grand Canyon National park is jam packed. However, when we were there in mid December there were many times we had places to ourselves.

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Visiting during the winter months definitely has it’s advantages, the main one being very few fellow tourists, but we weren’t quite sure what to expect. Hopefully these tips will help you plan you winter vacation!

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​Welcoming New Volunteers to Liberia!

I kicked off June with a week of welcoming a new group of volunteers to Liberia: Peace Corps brought LR-8, the newest cohort of education volunteers! I got the opportunity to to help out with the first week of their pre-service training (PST) in Kakata.

The staff and resource volunteers (current Peace Corps Volunteers helping out with PST) came the night before to set up Doe Palace and were excited and ready the next day to welcome them at the airport. Until we got the news that morning that they hadn’t actually left Washington DC yet! Their flight was cancelled and they were rescheduled to come in two days later. So we had plenty of time to finish prepping and extra time to beautify Doe Palace–made a ton of signs and finished the awesome wall of masks from each of the 16 tribes in Liberia!

 

And then two days later they finally arrived! After days of travelling, the group of 45 new trainees arrived at the airport and we were there to meet them that evening cheering and waving our glittery signs.

 

Then we headed to Doe Palace for a marathon couple of days of training. After the traditional kola nut welcoming ceremony, we began their crash course in living in Liberia! We taught them about all of the small small things that are now normal to me after being here for a year: how to take a bucket bath, how to bucket flush the toilet, how to wash clothes on a wash board, how Liberia’s dual currency works. We also had sessions about different foods you can find here and how to treat your water before you drink it. We talked about integration into Liberian culture and as resource volunteers, we shared our own experiences.

 

It was a very busy couple of days but it was fun to meet and get to know the LR8s! After those busy few days, the trainees were off to visit some current volunteers at their sites to get a taste of what life as a volunteer will be like. While I didn’t host any of the LR8s, I had a different site visit of my own: my mom and sister Kathryn came to visit! I left from PST straight to the airport to meet them, more coming soon about their trip to visit me in Liberia…

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Spending Half a Day in Sedona, AZ

On our week long Arizona road trip, we spent our last day in Sedona. That morning we drove three hours from Page, Arizona, leaving us with only half the day left to explore. While this is in no way enough time to experience all that Sedona has to offer, here is what we were able to fit into our short time:

Our first activity in Sedona was hiking the Cathedral Rock Trail. Overall the trail is only 1.4 miles round trip, but in that short time the elevation rises 608 ft. It was definitely more challenging than expected with parts of it being more similar to rock climbing than hiking.  Overall the climb was moderately difficult as a novice hiker who is also afraid of heights but the views from the top made it all worth it!

Next we made a quick stop at the Chapel of the Holy Cross. High on the red rock hill, the simple design of the small Chapel of the Holy Cross looks out over the town of Sedona. The chapel is run by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix and was built in 1956. The interior of the chapel is unadorned and filled with ruby red candles for devotion. The unique chapel was voted by the citizens of Arizona as one of the Seven Man-Made Wonders of Arizona in 2007.

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To round out our day we decided to unwind in the nearby town of Cottonwood at a winery located on the Verde Valley Wine Trail. While there were a few different ones to chose from on Main Street, we decided to do a tasting at Arizona Stronghold Vineyards. The menu was broken down into 4 flight options: white wine, two red wine flights and a mixture of colors. At $9 each we chose the mixture of red and white plus an all red flight. Jay served us our flights and gave us lots of information about each wine and where the grapes inside came from. All of the wine we tried was delicious and we got to keep our tasting glasses!

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Overall, we wish we had planned more time in our trip to explore Sedona and the surrounding areas but we were very happy with everything we did get to see in the area. Hopefully some time soon we’ll make it back to Sedona to see more of what the city has to offer!

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The Season for Plums… and Workshops!

In the last couple of months, in between teaching, celebrating my birthday and enjoying plum (mango) season, I’ve also had the chance to attend a few different trainings that I wanted to share!

 

 

Workshop #1: Literacy and Phonics Training

At the end of March, I had the chance to attend a workshop put on by Peace Corps Liberia’s literacy committee! Literacy is a challenge here – in 2015, only 48% of people age 15 or older could read and write in Liberia, lagging far behind the 86% of the world’s population and even its own continent, 64% in sub-Saharan Africa.  Along with some fellow PC volunteers and Liberian teachers, we spent 5 days learning about literacy and how to teach Phonics. We were trained to use a phonics toolkit developed by volunteers here specifically for Liberia, to teach children to read by recognizing sounds and letters, rather than memorizing words (which is unfortunately how many children learn to read here!).

 

 

At the end of the training, we also had a chance to practice teaching phonics lessons at a local school! I co-taught with a Liberian counterpart, Hawa. In addition to the phonics lessons, we also talked about how to incorporate literacy and critical thinking into math and science lessons – I’ve already tried some of these strategies in my lessons at back at my school!

Workshop #2: Student-Friendly Schools

In early May, I went to a workshop put on by Peace Corps about how we can make schools more “student-friendly”.  At a school, there are many more stakeholders than just the Peace Corps volunteers, so each of us got to bring along others from our schools: I brought my vice principal, my PTA chairman, and a male and female student. We spent two days discussing topics like gender stereotypes, gender equity, corporal punishment vs positive discipline and how to create a positive learning environment.

 

 

At the end of the workshop, each school had to come up with an action plan for how we would bring back what we learned from the workshop and implement it in our schools. I could tell that all the counterparts I’d brought from my school had really gotten something out of the workshop but was unsure if our action plan would really be carried out once we returned. I was happily surprised that just a week later, without even having to remind him or urge him myself, my vice principal had already started! The topic he’d felt strongly about was the idea of positive discipline instead of corporal punishment, so he had briefed the principal about what he’d learned. He then made copies of a booklet of positive discipline strategies that we’d received from the workshop and began distributing them and having one-on-one conversations with the other teachers!

Workshop #3: Science Lab Workshop

And the last workshop, a Science Lab Workshop, was just last week! Many schools here do not have science labs – including mine! – making it challenging to do experiments and creating a big challenge for students taking the WASSCE graduation exam, which has a practical component for the sciences. I do not have a strong background in science but lucky for us, there’s a Peace Corps volunteer here in Liberia, Kristen, who I was able to invite! Kristen has found ways to improvise chemistry, biology and physics experiments using materials that can be found locally and spent two afternoons teaching us about them.

 

 

During the two days, Kristen showed 7 teachers, 11 students and myself how we can improvise using materials found here in my town – plastic water bottles that can be cut to make beakers, coal pot instead of a Bunsen burner, and straws or syringes in place of droppers.  She showed us how to create an acid-base indicator from red flowers, as we had no litmus paper. We learned about heat capacity using balloons (one with water inside and one with only air) and candles. Groups made their own electromagnets and tested local foods for starch (using iodine from the local medicine store or pharmacy). Other experiments included testing for CO2 in limewater, creating and testing for oxygen and a demonstration of using atmospheric pressure to crush an empty pop can!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The workshop was definitely a hit! My principal and other teachers asked Kristen when she would be coming back to share more experiments with them.  While we don’t have plans for another workshop, Kristen did leave a few copies of the workbook she developed with dozens of experiments for the teachers at my school to use. Though this school year is almost over (and the graduation test has already passed), I hope that next year the science teachers will be able to do more hands-on experiments in class!

 

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