Reflections on Teaching: Starting Year 2

With one year of teaching under my belt, I’ve started my second school year here in Liberia! We’ve finished the first of 6 marking periods and about this time last year I wrote my first post about my experience so far teaching in Liberia. So it feels like a good time to write an update, reflecting on what I’ve learned in my first year and sharing what’s new this year.

I started this school year feeling so much more prepared than last year. One thing I struggled with at the beginning last year was where to start! I was meeting all new students, many coming from different schools (as my school is the only government high school in the area) with a wide range of ability levels. But this year, I was able to follow my students: last year I taught 10th and 11th grade and this year I’m teaching the same students in 11th and 12th. So rather than spend too much time figuring out where to start, I at least know what they learned in math last year and could pick right up where we left off!

I’m also feeling more confident in my lesson planning, as I have a better idea of how much we can cover in one lesson and can better predict what questions my students might have (but not always!). Plus, with the exception of a few who are new to the school, my students are used to me–the way I talk, my teaching style and the procedures I follow during class. I’m already seeing it when I compare this year’s 11th graders (who I taught last year) to last year’s 11th grade class. With teaching the same material as the year before, I was able to get a little bit ahead and fit in an extra topic in the first marking period that last year I didn’t get to until the next. I don’t think it’s because one class is stronger than the other but because we, the students and myself, can better understand each other after a year.

With a new school year also came some new challenges for me. One is that I’ve got bigger class sizes this year. Last year, my biggest class was the 11th grade with 60 students. This year they’ve grown to about 65 in the 12th grade this year, not too big of a difference. The big change is in this year’s 11th grade. Last year, the 100 10th graders were split into two sections of about 50 each. This year, they’ve become about 85 but they’re all in one section because the school doesn’t have enough classrooms to split them into two (the school actually already converted the library–the only available space–into another classroom to split one of the junior high classes that was even bigger). So my classes of 50 and 60 students are now 65 and 85, and let me tell you, those 25 extra students make a big difference! So I’m working on figuring out what still works with larger classes and where to make adjustments in how I manage the classroom.

Teaching 11th grade for the second time makes my planning for school a little easier–with just some small adjustments, I can use the same lesson plans and follow the same sequence of topics as last year and don’t have to start from scratch. But teaching 12th grade is a different story! The 12th graders will take the WASSCE graduation exam in April. The WASSCE is an exam taken across West Africa and the students must pass it to graduate. The list of math topics that can show up on the exam is extensive and I know that we won’t be able to cover everything during class.

My principal and vice principal have given me free rein with the 12th grade to decide what to teach from the list, rather than having to follow a specific curriculum. It’s a pretty daunting task, but I’ve decided to focus on areas that seem to come on the test each year (I’ve got a couple previous exams I’m using as a resource) and make sure to cover the fundamentals. I started the year with a basic algebra review, making sure they’re able to solve for a variable, as so many areas of math rely on this skill. I’m also trying to do extra review sessions outside of school to review topics they may not have seen since junior high (like fractions).

The new school year has brought new challenges but with my experience teaching last year, I feel prepared to tackle them. And I’m excited to work with the same students again and to continue to watch them grow!

Visiting Kim’s Classroom: Marshmallow Structures

For our second day helping Kim teach at her school, our lesson was all about structures. For anyone who missed the estimation activity last class, Mom and I reintroduced our selves. We explained how we are both engineers and a little bit about all the different types of engineering. Since we are engineers, we wanted to bring an engineering activity to do with them. Kim started the lesson with a few vocab words like structure, cube, tetrahedron (pyramid shape) and strength. The goal of the activity was to see which type of structure, the cube or tetrahedron, could hold the most weight.

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To start the activity we split the class into small groups and gave them their building materials we brought from the US: toothpicks and marshmallows! Each group was tasked with making one cube and one tetrahedron. We made some examples for them to use as a reference and walked around the room helping out the different groups. After a little help each group was able to make their own structures.

To test which shape is the strongest we combined four groups together and had them put all their tetrahedrons together on a desk. Next we used their “copybooks”, or notebooks, to see how many the small structures could hold. The students gingerly placed a copy book on the structures one at a time until the structures fell, then repeated the process for the cubes. The cubes fell with just one copy book placed on it while, the tetrahedron could hold more weight, falling on the second copy book. In later classes, we switched to seeing how many notecards the structures could carry instead of the copy books. This way instead of falling right away under the thick copy books the whole process was more suspenseful and fun having the students place notecards one by one.

 

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At the end of the lesson we revealed to the students that marshmallows are actually candy! They don’t have anything similar to them in Liberia so every student stared at us in disbelief. They wouldn’t eat their building materials until they saw Kim eat one to prove they were edible! Even then they were skeptical, but once they tried them they kept begging for more!

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After doing the activity for three different classes we invited any students who wanted to do more to stay after school for another activity. During class earlier, they learned that structures using triangles can hold more weight than one built with squares. With the the knowledge they’d learned in class, we challenged the students to build the tallest tower they could, with the same materials. We split them into teams then gave them twenty minutes to work before measuring to find out which group could build the tallest structure. The students seemed to really enjoy it and were proud to show off their final towers (even if a few of the groups had to hold theirs up). From all the classes the tallest free standing tower measured at 22 cm and the winners from each grade got a prize!

 

We adjusted a few things from class to class, learning along the way, but overall the activities were a hit! We were only slightly exhausted at the end of 5 sessions, but the students seemed to enjoy them and hopefully learned something too! Plus we got to share an American treat with them: My absolute favorite part was the reactions on the students faces when they saw us eating the marshmallows! Our activities with Kim’s students are something I’ll never forget.

Visiting Kim in Liberia: A Morning in Kakata

Since Kim lives relatively close to the larger city of Kakata, we decided to take a morning to visit and see the Peace Corps training center and to meet her Liberian host family who she lived with during her initial training in Liberia. Instead of trying to hail a cab on the side of the main rode with three open seats in it, we called our cab driver from the other day to bring us there. While its much more expensive to do it this way it definitely made things easier plus we got a taste of the true Liberian way to travel on the way back from Kakata. We had breakfast on Kim’s front porch enjoying the cool morning air waiting for our cab driver to arrive.

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Once in Kakata, we headed straight to the Peace Corps training center. During our visit the newest Peace Corps volunteers had just arrived but were off one site visits (like Kim did) so we had the facility basically to ourselves. Instead of one building it is more of a compound with multiple buildings and plenty of green space in between. We walked around and explored the training center and dorms and then practiced using the pump to draw water.

Next we took a winding dirt path, through peoples yards, up and down a small hillside to reach the home of Kim’s Liberian family. We met her Ma, her sister, Blessing, and her little brothers Prince and Seth. We sat on her Ma’s porch and spent some time catching up with her family. They were very excited to meet us and Mom got a chance to thank them for all the help they gave Kim adjusting to life in Liberia.

Kim’s Ma walked us out to the main road to say goodbye, then we headed to a tea shop for lunch. Liberian tea shops are similar looking to a bar outside, where you sit at a counter to eat and drink. The difference is that, the main thing they serve is assorted teas and coffees and then “bread with egg” to eat. We ordered three bread with egg and a coffee to share. The food came one at a time, since she was only using one pan to make eggs mixed with onions more similar to an omelette than scrambled eggs (with more oil than we tend to use at home!). The eggs were served on a long bread hot dog style to eat. We sat in the covered open air shop enjoying the food and the coffee and watching the passersby.

After we filled our bellies, we headed to the local market area to walk around. Since Kakata is a much larger city compared to Kim’s community, they have a market every day rather than just one day a week like Kim’s site. The market was huge! We walked up and down streets lined with small open air shops selling anything you can think of. In addition to those shops, there was also a large covered area filled with tables where various food commodities were sold. Most of the food is sold by the pile, so tables are lined with piles of various foods. We saw everything from piles of beans to piles of raw chicken feet!

After we finished exploring the different sections we headed back to where we saw the bright colorful lappa fabrics so we could pick some patterns out to have made into dresses! The way it works is you buy the fabric in the market then take it to a tailor shop to be made into anything you want. We planned to get measured by the tailor at Kim’s site and show him pictures of the dress styles we like to have them made into fitted dresses! Since those wouldn’t be finished until after our visit, Mom and I each bought a premade dress at the market to wear during our trip!

After we finished exploring the different sections we headed back to where we saw the bright colorful lappa fabrics so we could pick some patterns out to have made into dresses! The way it works is you buy the fabric in the market then take it to a tailor shop to be made into anything you want. We planned to get measured by the tailor at Kim’s site and show him pictures of the dress styles we like to have them made into fitted dresses! Since those wouldn’t be finished until after our visit, Mom and I each bought a premade dress at the market to wear during our trip!

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Visiting Kakata was an amazing experience. We loved getting the chance to see the Peace Corps training area and meeting Kim’s Liberian family we’ve heard so much about! Once we made it back to Kim’s home it was time to start prepping for our second day of activities in Kim’s classes — post about that coming soon!

​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!

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!

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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