Monday, March 27, 2017

Teaching French politics in Guatemala

A move to France just over the horizon, I'd clicked on a link about French presidential elections- I should know what's going on there, after all.  After wading through an article with references to people I'd never heard of who belonged to parties I wasn't familiar with, I felt pretty much as clueless as before.

And that's when it hit me- this would be a perfect article to use with staff.  I'd been wanting to do a professional development session modeling how we, as teachers, can make difficult text easier for students to comprehend by pre-teaching key concepts and aiding them in strategy use.

A few weeks later, we all clustered around our conference table as I passed out the article, letting them struggle through it on their own, just as I had, to start.  I asked them to rate their own comprehension, which was low, just as I'd intended.

And that's when things got fun.  I pulled out my photos of the 5 key candidates and arranged them on the board in a spectrum from left to right. I gave a mini intro to French elections, and then outlined the shared reading process we would do, filling out a concept map as they discussed with a partner.  There was a buzz of conversation all through the room, people laughing about Hamon (calling him jamón which is the Spanish word for ham) and slowly picking out the connections between candidates and how they benefited and disadvantaged one another.

Apologies to anyone who actually knows French politics
for any over-simplifications or outright errors
I walked between partners, helping them pick out key phrases in the article to answer questions, and loved seeing as light bulbs went off, and people summarized connections in their own words.  We wrapped up rating comprehension levels again, and, just as I'd hoped, this time almost everyone gave themselves a substantially higher score.  They'd seen the hard work that can go into both comprehension, and creating the right supports to aid comprehension.

It wasn't really my intention to teach French politics, just to use it as a platform for teaching how to support comprehension, but it struck me as funny, a room full of Guatemalans, heads bowed over their article, taking the hard work of comprehending French presidential elections seriously.  And then, to my delight a few days later, one of my coworkers mentioned "we were talking about a corrupt politician here in Guatemala who paid his family for work they didn't do and I thought, 'just like Fillon in France."  Hopefully they understood the subtext, but at the very least, my comprehension activity worked.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Endings and Beginnings

My central work project all last year revolved around updating Child Aid's teacher training curriculum.  I observed in our workshops and Guatemalan classrooms to see what we were doing well and what needs teachers still had.  I lead staff professional development sessions to teach new concepts and teaching methods that I wanted to try implementing in workshops.  And I spent a really lot of hours staring at my computer screen trying to figure out how to make all the moving pieces fit together in a logical way.

In October, I finally had it "done", or so I thought, and spent the next 7 weeks modeling and discussing changes with our leadership team.  Their feedback of course lead to another round of revisions and I was finally ready to share the nearly final product with our entire staff in December.  Having them work in small groups to discuss content and map changes between the old and new curriculum was beyond rewarding.  Then, I left for Christmas vacation, trusting my curriculum to the hands of a graphic designer and hoping it would be ready when I got back.

January rolled around, workshops were just around the corner and suddenly we had a crisis- the graphic designer we'd been working with left without telling us, and there were still 30 pages that needed to be finalized.  One of my amazing coworkers took over from there, stopping by the office in person and making sure we got it done on time.  And finally, just in time to get them out to workshops, we got the finished product from the copy shop.  To say I'm delighted would be an understatement. 
Reading for Life, Child Aid's four-year teacher training curriculum,
being used by over 600 teachers in nearly 70 schools. I feel pretty proud of my work :)

So, one project ended, and now we start a new phase- rolling out the curriculum for use by our teacher trainers and the teachers we work with. I'm so excited! 

Monday, December 26, 2016

On the second day of Christmas

We drove through the grey streets of Sibiu, looking for our guesthouse.  Rain glistened in the glare from the street lamps on the wet roads. We piled from the car, stretching our cramped legs from hours of riding, and headed indoors to our rooms.  After settling in, we met in the common area- Diana and Petter, Cristian and I- with a quandary.  Where do we go to eat, here on the outskirts of town?  We did what any person of our generation would do, pulled out our smart phones and started looking for options. 
Sibiu as seen the next day in the daylight

We were all in agreement that we didn't feel like walking the whole way to the city center in the cold damp night, so we settled on a place just a few blocks away with good reviews.  We walked down the mainly residential street, anything that wasn't a house already shuttered for the night.  When we reached the block where the restaurant we were looking for was, there wasn't a light in sight.  I spotted the door, walked up to it, and even with my rudimentary Romanian skills knew it wasn't good news.  They were closed for the Christmas holidays.

Cell phones back out again, we huddled under a street light, looking for other options.  What would our parents have done a generation ago, we pondered, and then realized the obvious- they would have asked a real live human being at the guesthouse before venturing out in the cold.  And probably would have found out the restaurant was closed before getting there.  Oh well.

There really only seemed to be one place likely to be open nearby, and though none of us were really pleased by the option, we didn't feel like walking the whole way downtown, so we set off down the deserted city streets. The sidewalk came to an abrupt end and we climbed some steps to a grassy section with a path worn into it by all the other people who have come to the same place and decided to keep forging on.  Cars whizzed by beneath me, and as I stepped gingerly, trying not to slip on the icy patches, I imagined slipping off the edge, run over by the oncoming traffic below.  The path we were on veered uphill and we suddenly realized why the sidewalk ended.  We'd reached a railroad that crosses over the road here.  We looked at each other, the road below us (an obvious pedestrian path going under the railroad bridge on the other side of the street), and the tracks.  We decided to risk it.  We scrambled over the tracks, no last minute encounter with an oncoming train to make us regret our decision, and back down the hill to street level. 

There, in the distance, we saw our destination, golden arches beckoning to us to come in out of the cold.  And that, my friends, is how we ended up eating dinner at McDonalds on the second day of Christmas in Romania.  Apparently we weren't the only ones stuck with no choice of open restaurants on a holiday, because the place was packed.  It was, as expected, a mediocre meal (also, they don't put ice in your soda at McDonald's in Romania, and as the only American there, I was the only one who found that really weird. Also, the chicken nuggets tasted different), but hey, we didn't have to walk forever, it was open, and we weren't hungry anymore, and after all, that's the most important thing about food.

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Pana Town Fair



Later that evening we headed up to check out the fair. "You want to risk the ferris wheel?" I asked, knowing what we were in for after my visit to the Sololá fair the year before. But, he'd apparently forgotten my story and we jumped on, slowly spinning as they loaded and unloaded people. We were stuck at the top for awhile, no takers coming to fill the empty seats. We hung there, swaying in the breeze, admiring the town from above, a view I'd never seen before. We tried to spot where my house would be, and looked down on the band playing live music on the stage in front of the church.

As we got back down to the bottom Cristian was ready to get off, thinking we'd done a complete rotation and the ride was over. "Oh no, it's just getting started!" I informed him as the ride finally lurched to life. We spun up into the clouds, circling vertiginously, the lightweight car swinging as it turned. Every time we reached the edge of the wheel, about to drop back down again, the seat tipped and we'd be looking down, nothing but what looked like a straight drop down before us. After a few rounds of that, it ponderously started spinning backwards, picking up speed as it went until we were being hurtled into the unknown behind us. Feeling grateful we'd decided NOT to eat before hand as it came to a stop we stumbled off, happy to be back on solid ground, but smiling from the adrenaline rush.
I'd missed it the year before, off in Finland visiting Cristian, but this year, same dates, he was visiting me. A week beforehand traffic started getting funny as vendors set up their stalls all along the roads near the church. The night before the official town holiday (the day of the patron saint of the town, in this case St. Francis), there were fireworks all evening long, and they didn't stop as we got ready for bed. At 3 o'clock in the morning I woke to hear the church bell tolling. Non-stop. For 45 minutes. I could hear a brass band playing, music floating down from the plaza. Fireworks continued to go off, and when we woke up in the morning they were still going on. Suddenly it made sense to me why Guatemalan's get the day of their town fair off. After being up setting off fireworks, playing music, and tolling church bells literally all night they'd need a day off!

The fair crept further into town, street by street, until there were vendors set up along the street I walk to work on. Some days, the child in me just can't resist, and walking back from work one day, I just couldn't resist the cotton candy. I stopped to see if they sold smaller sizes, but the vendor just shook his head no. Take it or leave it. I decided that at 60 cents it was worth it, even if Cristian and I together didn't need that much sugar, and home I went to share the biggest cotton candy ever with Cristian (it was too much even for both of us).

Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Proposal

Cristian had just gotten in the night before and after a long, tiring journey, a late night, and jetlag, watching a movie together seemed like the perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon. So we cuddled up on the couch and he started About Time, a movie he said he thought sounded good and he had on his computer.  Fifteen minutes in or so, he turned to me and said, "Wait, this takes place in England?" Bemused, I asked him if he hadn't noticed their accents. It was a charming, sweet love story with a time travel twist and I was soon caught up in the story.  Boy meets girl, they fall in love, and a song I know started playing. 

Not just any song. I looked up at him, "Hey! It's our song!" I smiled, then kissed him, happy in the moment.  I had a tiny little suspicion that maybe he wasn't as clueless about this movie as his "This takes place in England?" remark made him seem.  "Did you know our song was in this movie?" I asked. "What do you think?" he responded.  The obvious answer was, "Yes"

"Now I have a question for you." he said.  And in the second before he continued, my stomach did a million acrobatic flips and my heart started racing.  "This is it. He's really going to ask me to marry him." I thought. "Will you marry me?" he asked, and out of nowhere, he had the ring box open in his hand. And once again, the obvious answer was "YES!". I clung to him, tears hovering at the edges of my eyes, feeling like my heart would burst with so much love and joy. He slipped the ring on my finger as the movie played on in the background, the two of us completely oblivious to it anymore.  He finally asked if I was going to look at the ring, which I'd really overlooked in the significance of the moment.  It was gorgeous.  I watched it sparkle and tried to wrap my mind around the fact that we were actually getting married. 




Eventually we came down from the clouds, got to call and tell my parents, and even eventually finished the movie.  Turned out he'd actually watched it 7 times, figuring out the timing so he'd know when to slip the ring out, unseen by me and be ready to propose.  And it worked. The tenderness of being proposed to with our song playing in the background, the element of surprise, the privacy to be delighted together afterwards-I couldn't have imagined a more perfect moment. 

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Sunrise over Tikal

We trudge down the path in the dark, the humidity already startlingly heavy so early in the morning.  Our flashlights bob, lighting the path in front of us.  Suddenly, our guide stops short, a giant tarantula caught in the pool of light from his flashlight.  We gather around to look, me hanging back at the edges of the crowd, glad for my closed toed shoes. It skitters down the path, back the way we came and I breathe a sigh of relief that I won't have to worry about it following us, running over my feet, or crawling up my leg.

Finally we make it to the base of the pyramid.  We're one of the first groups there, and our guide reminds us to be silent at the top.  At the very top Deborah urges me to climb the last steep stairs as high as we can go to watch the sunrise.  They're terrifyingly steep, and I'm afraid I'll tumble all the way off and down to the jungle floor, but I inch up them til I sit with my back against the wall.  More groups join us, but we're all mostly silent, shifting, rustling, and occasional whispers all we can hear.

Until the howler monkeys start up.  It's otherworldly.  It sounds like jungle cats, lions of leopards or something equally terrifying, are fighting in the trees below us.  Their deep throaty roars and growls are fascinating and unsettling at the same time.



Slowly, the sky turns from black to grey. There's a tiny tinge of pink above us, but not the spectacular oranges and purples I was hoping for.  It doesn't matter, because slowly, out of the morning mists, we begin to make out shapes. More temple pyramids appear in the distance, their tops rising above the canopy of the trees, mist clinging to the edges.  Everything is still.  The howlers have stopped crying. It's the sort of moment that makes 3 am wake up times, and pitch dark walks through tarantula infested jungle totally worth it.


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Sunday, July 10, 2016

What doesn't kill you makes a good story

It's 4:15 am and after an hour on the trail it's still pitch black.  I pick my way along the narrow path, coffee trees on either side of me.  The beam from my flashlight tenuously lights the next few steps, and I trudge on, one foot in front of another me while one line from Christina Perri's "A Thousand Years" runs in my head on repeat: "one step closer. one step closer. One step closer."

Suddenly, my foot slips in the loose earth. I start sliding off the trail, down the hill, the other foot following.  Before I can catch myself I've dropped off the trail, my body gaining speed as I fall down the steep slope. I try to brake with my feet, hoping I don't slide half way down this mountain, or worse, that there's a dangerous drop off before I can stop.  It's all over in a couple of seconds. I've managed to stop, lying in the dirt with my head just below the edge of the trail.  My cry as I went over the edge alerted everyone to my fall and they come over to check on me. "Can you help me?", I ask our guide, and he gives me a hand as I try to hoist myself up. It's harder than I expected, like trying to jump out of a swimming pool, except, my body doesn't have the weightlessness of water, and what would be the pool edge keeps collapsing under my hands.

I finally scramble back up, stop to catch my breath, and we keep going.  If we want to make it to the top in time for the sunrise, there's not much time for breaks. We walk a couple hundred more yards, the path becoming less distinguishable and more prone to crumbling beneath our feet as we go.  Finally, our guide stops us and tells us we have to go back and try the other path.  Disheartened at needing to retrace our steps, I carefully make my way past what momentarily felt like a near-death experience.

This section isn't so bad, and we stop to catch our breath and get a drink with a clear view of our destination ahead of us.  It still looks impossibly far away, but our guid assures us that it's only about 40 minutes.  We start back up hill, and not too much later 2 men pass us walking downhill.  "How close are we?", I ask.  "About 5 minutes" they respond.  "Thanks for lying!" I say cheerfully, knowing how often people have exaggerated while on hikes before just to keep up morale.  We think we still have 20-30 minutes left.  But then, wonder of wonders, we reach a steep wooden staircase, and a last uphill climb. Our guide stands smiling at the top. "You made it!"

We step out on the peak, collapse on the bench for a minute, then move out to the viewing platform.  Below us, the towns around the lake lie shining in the darkness.  Off to the east the sky is just slightly tinged with pink.  We drink in the beauty as the sky turns deeper pink and shades of orange.  The town below wakes up- someone starts setting off firecrackers right around 5 and the church bells start ringing at 5:30. "It's the early morning mass" our guide explains.




The sun well above the horizon, the cold at the top finally forces us back down.  We return to town a longer, gentler way, winding our way through fields of corn, and later coffee, towered over by mango trees.  The lake is gloriously beautiful every time we catch a glimpse of it, deep green volcanoes framed by the brilliant blue of the sky.  I don't think I'll ever tire of the beauty of this place I call home.



We finally arrive back at our hostel, ready to devour the free breakfast that came with the room. We bask in the comfort of sitting still and I wince at muscles I forgot I had reminding me of their existence as we get up to go.  A quick boat ride across the lake, and I'm back home again, right around 11.