Spreading Awareness about Malaria

Malaria is one of the biggest health challenges here in Liberia. It’s the leading cause of death in Liberia and young children and pregnant women are at an even higher risk than the rest of the population. (Some statistics are in this post that I shared last year.) But malaria is preventable! So we’re working to spread the word about the importance of sleeping under mosquito nets and getting testing and treatment when you’re sick.

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Back in March, volunteers from Peace Corps Liberia’s malaria committee put on a workshop about how to spread awareness about the disease. We were encouraged to invite both an education and a health counterpart from our communities, so I attended along with the junior high science teacher from my school, Chris, and my good friend from my neighborhood, Patience, who is studying at university to be a nurse.

We spent the first two days of the training learning about malaria: We talked about how you can get malaria – from a parasite transmitted to humans when bitten by a female mosquito carrying the parasite. We learned about how to prevent malaria (sleep under a mosquito net!) and what to do if you think you have it (get tested at the local clinic). We learned about the increased risks for pregnant women (or in Liberian English “big belly women”). Then we discussed techniques to raise awareness in our own communities and were given tools to teach about malaria.

On the last day, we got the chance to practice teaching at a nearby school! We had a few hours to prepare the evening before and then taught four different lessons to a 7th grade class. Using interactive posters, we taught about the biological transmission of malaria, the importance of testing and treating, “Big Belly Ma” malaria and the economic impact of getting malaria. It was great working with Chris and Patience! They jumped right in and were more than willing to put in the practice time to make sure we were prepared.

Their enthusiasm didn’t stop when the workshop finished either! Since going back to our community, Patience has been having conversations with people all around the neighborhood, emphasizing the importance of sleeping under a bed net. Plus Chris and I have already held a few sessions with the junior high health club at our school. We’re hoping to also do some lessons with another school in our community as well before the end of the school year.

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Malaria Session with my school’s health club

In partnering with Patience and Chris, I’ve seen the importance of finding passionate counterparts. On top of their enthusiasm, as local members of the community, they have a bigger network of people to reach out to and know how to communicate information in a way that is most effective in Liberia. Plus people are often less likely to listen when the message comes from me as an outsider, so they bring credibility to our work. I feel so lucky to be able to work with them!

A Little Motivation from my Students

Teaching is hard work! I recently posted about starting my 2nd year of teaching here in Liberia and some of my challenges. From classroom management issues to figuring out what’s most important to teach, there are days that are really frustrating. But I recently had a conversation with some of my 12th grade students that reminded me why I’m teaching and really motivated me to keep at it despite the challenges, so I thought I’d share.

In preparing my 12th grade students to take the WASSCE, the graduation exam here in Liberia, I’ve been teaching many topics that are fundamental in math because I want to make sure they have a good understanding of those before starting a new topic that builds on these fundamentals. For instance, this year, I started with basic algrebra of solving for a variable and then moved to the coordinate plane (both topics that come in the curriculum in earlier years of school).

At first I was concerned that students may be offended that I’m teaching them topics that they’ve already learned. But I’ve found that those who’ve seen the topics before welcome the review and many students have not seen them before (or don’t remember learning them). After teaching my first lesson on the coordinate plane, I asked a few 12th grade students if the new math notes seemed familiar to them. Instead of just finding out if they’d learned them before, I got some answers that surprised me:

One student said, “Miss S, I like the way you teach us math. Even though we saw that same math in junior high, I really didn’t have idea on it. After today’s class, I have a better idea on it now. The way you teach us step-by-step helps me to understand it. Even the math you taught us last year, if I see it on the WASSCE, I still have idea on it and could do it today.” (The phrase “have idea on it” is a Liberian English way to say that you understand something).

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Another student added “Like the math you taught us last period, they’re doing that in 9th grade at the other school. Some students showed it to me yesterday and I’m glad you taught us it because it would be embarrassing if I’m in 12th grade and can’t do the 9th grade math. I could solve all of their math problems, but couldn’t have done it before. You taught it so that I could really understand it.”

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That conversation with those two students really reminded me why I’m here. Even with all the obstacles in teaching in Liberia, the students are the reason for teaching! While the big looming challenge is preparing my students for the WASSCE, even just the little things like finally understanding how to graph a point in the coordinate plane or being able to help your younger brother with his junior high math are important too. And it’s in these little things that I’m finding the most motivation!

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!

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!

 

World Malaria Day & Birthday Celebrations in Liberia

Last Wednesday was my birthday! Here’s how I celebrated here in Liberia…

As my actual birthday was a Wednesday, it was a regular school day so I had school in the morning. But not only was it my birthday, April 25th is also World Malaria Day. Here’s a few facts about malaria: Globally there were over 200 million cases of malaria in 2015 and 438 thousand deaths. 70% of malaria deaths are in children–every two minutes a child dies of malaria. Here in Liberia, malaria is the leading cause of death so it’s especially relevant and what better day to talk about it than World Malaria Day. So instead of having regular math lessons in class, I spent my time with my 10th and 11th graders talking about malaria and playing a game to learn about how to prevent malaria.

The game was called “Race to Prevent Malaria” and I split the class into two teams who were racing up their ladder I’d drawn on the chalkboard. The teams took turns drawing cards that had an action on it that determined if they got to move forward. Teams climbed up the ladder if they drew a positive prevention action like “you and your family slept under a mosquito net last night” and “you referred a big belly woman to the clinic” (“Big belly” or pregnant women are at a greater risk for malaria. If a pregnant woman were to get malaria, it could lead to placental malaria which can block nutrients getting to the baby and cause severe complications during childbirth. Pregnant women can receive a free mosquito net and prophylaxis, a preventative treatment, by visiting their local clinic).

However, they had to move back down if their action was negative like “you thought you had malaria but didn’t go to the clinic to get tested” or “you have a hole in your mosquito net that you still have not fixed.” I also included a few cards addressing common beliefs that actually have nothing to do with malaria either way. For instance, avoiding plums (Liberian English for mangoes) because you saw mosquitoes on them doesn’t matter–yes, you get malaria from mosquitoes but only by them biting you and transmitting the parasite into your blood stream, not from eating plums! For these cards, teams didn’t move either way.

The game seemed to be a hit–the students got very competitive and enjoyed it, and hopefully also learned something too!

Continuing my birthday, after school, my friend Patience made me Liberian spaghetti for lunch and one of my students came over to play scrabble on the porch. He recently got a scrabble game complete with a scrabble dictionary but didn’t know how to play. So I taught him and we’ve been playing during recess and after school every now and then too!

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The only picture I managed to take on our walk… we stopped to buy cold water from one of my students and he had it in this Ohio State cooler! I tried to explain to him that Ohio State is my team just like his football team is Chelsea!

To finish my birthday, later in the afternoon, I went for a walk (or as they say here a “walk about”) to a neighboring community with my friend Patience. My school is the only high school in the area so even though it’s a pretty long walk, many of my students live in this community. I’d seen it from the car driving past or just stopping briefly but it was nice to spend more time there and see where some of my students live–and get a reminder of how far they walk to school!

Over the weekend, I got to celebrate with some Peace Corps friends in Monrovia! It was another volunteer’s birthday a couple days after mine so a group of us met in town for the weekend. We got to have some of the foods we can’t get at site, like pizza and ice cream! And on Saturday we took a day trip to Libassa, a resort not far from the city, and spent the day relaxing in their many pools and floating around their lazy river!

And I can’t forget everyone else that I didn’t get to celebrate with in person… Thank you to my family for my birthday package which was waiting for me at the office when I arrived in town! And to all my friends both here in Liberia and back at home for the birthday wishes!

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Update from Liberia: Happy Holidays!

It’s been a month and a half since my last post from Liberia so it’s time for an update! Here’s what’s been going on this holiday season…

In Liberia, they have Thanksgiving but they celebrate it the first week of November instead of the last week. Here though, the holiday has nothing to do with pilgrims or Native Americans, it is a day to be thankful for your family and friends and everything you have in your life. They don’t have the same tradition of a big thanksgiving dinner here, in fact besides having the day off of school, it felt like any other day.

On America’s Thanksgiving day, my school cancelled classes to have their traditional Old vs New Students day. It was a complete coincidence that it fell on Thanksgiving, but a nice distraction from thinking about the celebration I was missing at home! Though my school has grades 1 to 12, it is the only government high school in the area so many students begin in the 10th grade after finishing middle school at a different school—enough that the students who’ve just come to the school this year can make up the New students team that plays against a team of returning students.

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The day began with a drama (somewhere between a long skit and short play) put on by the 10th graders and then the competitions began. First was quizzing, where the two teams competed to answer trivia questions on different topics from math to geography to current events! Then we went outside for the sports games: boys’ volleyball, girls’ kickball and the grand finale was boys’ football (soccer). I joined in for a little bit of volleyball, recruited by the new students team since I’m a new teacher. It was a fun day, getting to spend time with my students outside of the classroom setting!

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Girls playing kickball

Even though I didn’t celebrate on Thanksgiving Day, I still got my Thanksgiving dinner the weekend after! A group of us Peace Corps volunteers living nearby all got together for thanksgiving dinner in Kakata (the city where we had pre-service training) on the Friday night after. We had some traditional thanksgiving staples: fried chicken (no turkey here), mashed potatoes, corn, garlic bread, pumpkin pie and apple pie turnovers; as well as some local additions: watermelon, papaya (or paw paw as they say here!) and pineapple. It was delicious! And fun to get together with other volunteers…it was an exciting weekend for us in my group because the first 3 months we weren’t allowed to leave our sites for more than just a day trip, so we had just been at site long enough that could stay overnight in Kakata!

 

 

The next morning, we took a day trip to Harbel where the new Farmington Hotel had just recently opened across from the airport. It’s a very nice hotel and the draw for us is the restaurant and the swimming pool. As long as we bought lunch while we were there, they let us swim for free. So we spent the day relaxing at the pool and eating foods that we can’t get at site—I went for the pizza! At the end of the afternoon I went back to my site, it was a fun Thanksgiving weekend!

Pool at the Farmington Hotel
Farmington river

Then we had the last couple of weeks of the second marking period at school. After testing week, I went back to Kakata for LR-7 reconnect training. Everyone in the group that arrived in Liberia this past June was back together at Doe Palace for a week of additional training. We talked about how things are going at our sites, our successes and challenges, both in and out of the classroom. We also had sessions about different projects we can get involved in like malaria, gender, literacy and grant writing. Besides being in sessions, reconnect was a great time to catch up with everyone! I hadn’t seen most of the group since we’d left for our sites in August. I also was able to visit my host family that I’d stayed with during PST!

After Reconnect training, I headed back to site for one last week of school before Christmas break started. It was a quiet week at school, many students (and even several teachers) chose to start their breaks early so by the end of the week my classes were pretty small.

Some of my 11th grade students

For Christmas, I had planned to celebrate Christmas day in my community before heading to the airport to fly to Brussels on the 26th for a week. But just a couple weeks before, it was announced that Liberia’s presidential election runoff vote would be on the 26th. Not wanting to be traveling around during the election, I ended up flying out on Christmas Eve instead. My mom and sister met me there a couple days later for a fun week! More to come about our trip but the highlights include day trips to Bruges and Ghent, exploring Brussels and Belgian waffle and chocolate making workshops!

Now I’m back in Liberia and back to school, getting back into the swing of things here!