Sunday, October 28, 2007

Call Me Dr. Jane...

Part of being in the Peace Corps is about having crazy-new experiences. I knew that coming into this. Well, this one is so crazy-new, it gets a whole blog about it. And, to be perfectly honest, I kinda wish I hadn’t had this particular experience.

The other day, I was in my room, minding my own business, when my host sister knocked on my door. “Jane, do you know injections?” Not your typical question I grant you, but, I have become used to my host family thinking that I am somehow equipped with a kinds of medical knowledge and supplies. Plus, we have talked a bit about the fact that I am diabetic, so I thought it might be a question about that. “Yes,” I replied, “I have to do them everyday for my insulin. Why?”

She proceeded to tell me that my host mom needed a shot of her medicine because she wasn’t feeling well. Could I do it? I hesitated and tried to get out of it, “I can only jab a needle into a fleshy part of the body, like your arm or leg. I can’t do anything difficult.”

Side note – before you get too impressed with my Azeri skills, my host sister speaks English. I wouldn’t have made it passed “Jane, do you know” if it was in Azeri. Back to the story.

After a lengthy discussion, it was established that it wasn’t really a complicated procedure. I had my reservations, for sure. But, there was also the voice in my head asking who was I to not help a sick old lady just because the idea kinda sketches me out. I took a deep breath, thinking I really didn’t want to do it, and said ok.

So, they prepared the syringe and medicine. I washed my hands – if I’m gonna do, I had better be all hygienic and sterile about it. My host mom laid down on the couch, squeezed her eyes shut, pulled down her pants, and I jabbed the needle in. That’s right I gave my host mom a shot in the butt. In the butt. Sorry, I just had to say it twice.

Now, when I signed up for Peace Corps, I knew I was going to see and do things I would never have expected. I knew I would be acquiring all kinds of new skills for my resume. But one thing is for sure – I absolutely never thought derrier injections would be a part of that list. Do you think that go under special skills or work experience?

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Descision time...

So, after my first two weeks of school, I had to make a decision about the classes I would be working with. Talk about terrifying! I mean, how do you choose between nine people who are all hoping and expecting that you will choose them? Add to that pressure the expectations of all of the students – everybody begged me to be in their class. And, of course, there is the fact that this choice affects the next two years of my life and could totally make or break my Peace Corps experience.... Yikes!

Over the course of those first weeks, I observed about a million English classes, and they covered the whole range of possibilities – the good, the bad, and the ugly. As I watched, I tried to take notes about the students, the teachers, and the grade level to try to make the best descision possible. I studied all of the teachers’ respective schedules. I looked through textbooks. I tried to talk to each teacher about their teaching style. And still, when it came down to deciding, it was virtually impossible.

My big question became – how do I decide? Do I choose the teachers I really like, or do I base my decision on the classes like the best, or, do I just choose the class times I like the most? And, do I have to work with the guy everyone else thinks I should work with because that is what’s expected – even if I don’t think we would work well together?

After spending a bit of time freaking out, I finally started making descisions. I don’t want to work with the 10th and 11th forms. In fact, I really like the younger forms – the kids seem sweeter and they are all closer together in ability. That makes the teacher part a bit easier – only a few of them teach 5th, 6th, and 7th forms. And, by a happy accident, it rules out the person I was concerned about having to work with – he only teaches the upper levels. So, then it is fitting the timetable puzzle together. And, like magic, the schedules of the 2 teachers I thought would be the best choice fit together perfectly. And, just as icing on the cake, with this schedule, the earliest lesson I have starts at 11:20am. Descion made!

I will be teaching 2 sections each of the 5th and 7th forms and 1 section of the 6th form. The teachers – Ruhanjis and Afag – are really excited to have me in their lessons. I think all of the others understood my descision. I hope I didn’t hurt any feelings. The students in my classes are, of course, thrilled. And, most importanty, I feel like I made the right choice. I am working with teachers who are eager to have me and work with me. It is the material I am most comfortable teaching. I get to teach students who are still interested and excited about learning English. And, I get to sleep in. Yup, I’m happy with my descision.


The first two weeks of school were my time to observe the classes, teachers, and students. Hopefully, that would be enough time to decide what classes and teachers I wanted to work with for the next two years. What a crazy interesting experience that turned out to be!

School here is six days a week, but, in my school, English classes are only Tuesday through Friday. Not a bad schedule at all. I can handle a four day work week. There are nine English teachers in my school. My goal was to observe as many of their lessons as possible. Every day, I went to five or six lessons – ranging from the fifth form (about 11 years old) to the eleventh form (about 16 years old).

As the kids get older, the split in skill level gets bigger and bigger. Teachers teach to the good students, dismissing the weaker ones. More than once I had a teacher tell me that this particular student or class was weak as a way of excusing the lesson. Hmmmm. Ok. I begin to understand some of the reasons it is important for me to be here.

Lessons begin with the teacher greeting the students, “Good morning/afternoon, students.” The kids, all standing at their desks, yell back, “Good morning/afternoon, teacher.” That was more than a little overwhelming the first time I experienced it. Then the lesson begins. The text books are gospel. Everything comes straight from the book. But, the thing is, the books are really hard to f ollow, and, in many cases, have information that is just incorrect. The kids learn vocabulary by writing the word in English – in cursive, by the way – then writing the transcription in the phonetic alphabet, then the transation in Azeri. Rote memorization is the primary method of learning. The textbooks all have these lengthy texts that the kids have to memorize and retell. When they are asked questions, they quote directly from the reading. I don’t think they actually understand what they are reading about and saying, but they sure can repeat it well.

I have mentioned that I am something of a superstar here – being the first American guest at the school is a very big deal. Being in the classroom has done nothing to change that status. In every lesson I watched, Miss Jane was the star attraction. The kids have been far more interested in me than in the lessons. The best example of this comes from an 8th form class I was watching. The kids did what every other class had been doing – talking about me in Azeri and trying to ask me questions. Pretty early on, I decided the way to handle this was to tell them they could ask me anything – as long as it was in English. They asked a few questions before their English skills ran out, and the teacher began the actual lesson. I was sitting quietly on the side of the room. I glanced around and noticed one of the boys surruptisciously taking pictures of me with his phone. That’s right, I have paparazzi. He saw me notice and tried to hide the camera. Ever the generous celebrity, I smiled and told him it was ok. He continued to snap photo throughout the rest of the class. Later, in the same class two kids gave me pens as a gift. A black one and a sparkly blue one. Nice. Fame really is both wonderful and terrible.

So, now, I must decide which of these classes I want to work with. Peace Corps requires me to teach about fifteen hours a week. For my own sanity, it is best if I work with only 2 or 3 teachers. It will be hard to tell the teachers I don’t choose that I can’t work with them. But, a decision must be made. Wish me luck!

One of the big things I got to see during my observation period was how much opportunity I have to make a difference here. Working with the teachers to make the lessons and classroom experience better. Working with the students to help even the “weak” ones feel like they can learn something and do well in school. Is that obnoxiously optimistic? I hope not.