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!

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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​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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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!