While we were in Liberia for almost two weeks we were busy almost every day, from doing engineering activities with Kim’s students to shopping in the enormous Waterside Market in Monrovia. For our last full day in Liberia we decided to relax by visiting the Libassa Ecolodge, about an hour away from Monrovia and not far from the airport. We called a taxi driver we had used previously during the trip to take us to the resort directly, instead of doing the less expensive, but much more time consuming traditional way through various taxi stations.
When we checked in our room wasn’t ready yet so we dropped off our bags and headed to the poolside. Before jumping in the water we relaxed under the warm sun and sipped on our complimentary fresh coconuts. The resort has a multiple swimming pools, a lazy river, a lagoon to swim in plus lounge chairs along the beach. We dipped in the various pools and floated in the not-so-lazy river (the pump was broken at the time so the water was still). After the pools, we headed towards the beach to walk in the sand and dip our toes in the water–a first for me on this side of the Atlantic!
On the same property as the Ecolodge resort is the Libassa Wildlife Sanctuary. The recently opened sanctuary is home to wild animals rescued across the country from people that illegally kept as pets. Our wonderful guide, Angie, led us around to the different enclosures and explained the progress of various animals towards being reintroduced to the wild.
We saw many animals including different types of monkeys, mongooses, a small deer and the cutest little pangolin. Pangolins are actually the most sought after animal for poaching in the world because their scales are believed to have healing properties. We were surprised to learn that the small deer, technically called Maxwell’s Duiker, had been rescued from the beach front restaurant in Monrovia we ate at the night before! The poor deer were so overweight from a diet of pizza and beer that even though they had been at the sanctuary for four months, they still looked obese! The sanctuary was an eye-opening experience seeing the types of animals native to Liberia, as well as discovering the extent that some people go to keep them as pets.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
As an education volunteer, my main assignment in the Peace Corps is teaching at the local high school. I’m teaching math to the 10th and 11th graders. It’s hard to believe but I’m already more than 2 months into the school year!
It’s my first year teaching and my first observation: teaching is hard work! And teaching at my school here in Liberia presents its own challenges. Like most places in my community, the school doesn’t have electricity, so there’s no smart board, no overhead projector, no computers or photocopiers, none of the things that you’d expect to find in an American school. Everyday we teach with chalk on a blackboard!
Even with the limited teaching resources, one of the more pressing needs at my school is something you wouldn’t encounter in schools in the US: there are not enough chairs for all the students. Every school day begins with devotion, where the students line up in the courtyard by class, to say the pledge of allegiance, sing the national anthem and hear any announcements from the principal. As soon as the students are released from devotion, it is like a stampede of students running to their classrooms to claim a chair before they’re all taken. Some students bring their own chairs from home, but even so, every class has at least a few students sharing chairs or a couple of students standing in the back. The school is working on the chair situation, already they’ve been able to bring some more chairs and are working with the community to fundraise to buy more.
Another challenge at the school is getting textbooks in the hands of the students. We have a library with textbooks for most all of the different subjects and grade levels but when I first arrived a couple months ago they were all in boxes! The principal (who is also new to the school) had them all unpacked and put on shelves before the school year began. Now they are at least more physically accessible but there’s not an effective process for students to check them out. So besides a handful of students that come in to read or study during recess, the books are sitting unused. That poses a challenge for me as a teacher because it means the students only have the notes and practice problems that I provide to them on the blackboard; I can’t reference a reading from the book or assign homework from it. But when it comes to the library, the school is making progress “small small” as they say here in Liberia, a little bit at a time.
Something that’s been hard for me has been the size of my classes. I have about 60 11th graders in only one section, in a classroom that fits 30 comfortably. And in 10th grade, I have nearly 100 students – luckily the school was able to split them into 2 sections, but still around 50 students per section. To me these feel like very large classes, but I’m actually middle of the range – some of my fellow volunteers have classes of 80 or even 100 in one section! But I’m learning how to manage so many students at once and figuring out what I can and can’t do with classes of this size.
An additional challenge that comes with big classes is a wide variety of ability levels among my students. In my 10th and 11th grade classes, I have some very bright students who are right on track with their grade level, while others struggle with some of the basics, unable to do multiplication without a calculator or add negative numbers. This can make it tough to keep up with the curriculum and plan my lessons. I’ve found that the best way to accommodate majority of students is to incorporate quick reviews into my lessons as I’m teaching the curriculum – for instance, a short review on exponents before learning pythagorean theorem.
One of the most frustrating things I’ve run into here is the “spying” or cheating! While there’s a “no spying” policy, it’s not really enforced so students have gotten used to being able to cheat – everything from turning around to look at each other’s papers, copying homework, talking or passing notes during tests, anything you can think of! They tell me that in Liberia, it’s good to “share ideas” during a test (though the principal will definitely tell you otherwise!). So I’ve been working to make it harder to spy – creating multiple versions of tests and quizzes and walking around during the test and marking their tests if I see any fishy activity. They like to joke about it – “Miss S can minus!” – but I’m hoping when they see how it impacts their grade they’ll stop doing it so much.
And one last challenge teaching at my school here is that there are often things that come up that impact the school day – whether it’s arriving at school to find out there’s no classes because the students are spending the day cleaning up the campus or there’s an impromptu teacher meeting during recess that runs over so I lose half of my teaching time during the next period. I’m learning to expect the unexpected and to be flexible with my plans!
Even though there are many challenges, I’m figuring out how to deal with them and learning a lot. I’m enjoying working with the students who are eager to learn and love to see students catch on to a concept that they struggled with at first. At two months in, I’m getting into the swing of things and continuing to learn and adapt as the school year goes on!