Friday, August 15, 2008

Miss Jane's Greatest Night Ever...

Every night, I go through pretty much the same routine. I eat dinner, wash the dishes (usually – sometimes I'm lazy and leave them until the next day), then settle into a chair and read a book, or write a letter, or – only recently – do some ridiculous craft project. Eventually, I go to bed. The chair I sit in is right next to the window and door that leads out to my balcony that overlooks the courtyard. Every night I can hear the sounds of life around me drifting up from the courtyard – kids playing, women talking, cows mooing, you know, the typical neighborhood sounds. Its nice. I like my evening ritual.

Tonight was no different. I finished dinner (haven't done the dishes yet – they're still in the sink), and settled into read. Like always, the sounds of the courtyard were drifting up. I don't normally pay much attention to the specifics of the sounds, I just enjoy it in the background. But tonight, I tuned in when I heard what was distinctively the tune to “Wonderball”. Informative interlude - Wonderball is a game that Bethany brought to Camp Jane. We taught it the first week. Everyone stands in a circle and passes a ball around and sings the Wonderball song. The song goes – The Wonderball goes round and round, to pass it quickly you are bound. If you're the one to hold it last, then for you the game has passed, and you are OUT! The person holding the ball on the word “out” is out. The game continues until there is only one person left. It took a moment for me to realize what I was hearing, but when I did, maaaaan, was it cool! I put down my book and went out onto the balcony to see if what I was hearing was real. And it was! There they were, playing Wonderball in my courtyard. Even better – only one of the kids playing had come to camp. All of the others were just neighborhood kids. AWESOME!

It didn't take long for the kids to look up and notice me watching. As soon as they did, they all came over and clustered around my balcony and called up to me – “Hello Miss Jane, how are you?” - very Romeo and Juliet – if Juliet was a teacher and Romeo was 10 adoring schoolchildren. Shafiga has the best English and was nominated to ask me to come out to the yard and play. At first I said that I couldn't. They said ok, and went back to playing. I watched for a few more minutes, then settled into the chair on my balcony to pretend to read out there. Peek over the balcony wall and watch some more was actually what I was going to do. I was just glowing with happiness and pride. About 3 minutes later there was a knock at my door. ALL of the kids had come up to my door to say hello and ask me to come out and play. Ohhhh, my heart just melted. Of course I said yes. I mean, how could you possibly say no to that???

So, I went outside and we played Wonderball and another camp game. While this was going on, ALL of the surrounding Azeri grownups were watching – leaning out their windows, standing on their balconies, a bunch of the women came down and stood around and watched and talked to me some. Honestly, I think the audience enjoyed it as much as the kids did. But, I don't think anyone enjoyed it nearly as much as I did!

As darkness fell, I told the kids I had to go home (dark is when the mosquitoes come out and I didn't have any bug spray on – I was having fun, but not enough to get eaten alive!). They said ok, and then asked me if I would come out to play again tomorrow night. My verbal answer was “Inshallah” (if God wills – basically meaning maybe, hopefully, if I can, if God wants it to happen. It's a totally acceptable answer for just about anything). My mental answer was – “Heck yeah! I am totally there! Tonight was AWESOME!!!!!”

I don't know if I can put into words how happy tonight made me. When I came inside, I was bouncing off the walls giddy. As a volunteer, you constantly look for the signs that you are being successful and are often beating your head against the wall because you can't see them. Every once in a while, you get a glimmer. And tonight, that came through for me in a big way – far more than just a glimmer. Tonight I had my I-AM-making-an-impact-here epiphany. It makes all of my hardest days and moments, all of my work and effort, all of my stress and sweat and tears TOTALLY worth it. It is, quite possibly, the coolest thing ever.

Monday, August 4, 2008


So, I have photos to go with all of the Camp blogs, but I won't be able to post them until I get to Baku at the end of the month. Check back around August 26 and you'll get to see how truly awesome Camp Jane was!

Week 4 - My Great Disappointment...

So, I go into Week 3 of Camp Jane feeling like the queen of the world. I am truly a successful Peace Corps Volunteer. I have this project that is being incredible. I have tons of enthused, happy kids showing up for my camp. Every week, I get more kids. I have volunteers coming from all over Azerbaijan to help me. My camp is awesome, I'm awesome, the world is good.

Then Tuesday came. As I walk into school to get set up to begin the day, my director stops me. Now, my director is great. Seriously. He is kind, supportive, interested. The second week of camp, he arranged for all of the kids and PCVs to go to a play at the drama theater for free. He is a truly one of the best directors a PCV could ask for. That being said, I'm kinda mad at him now. Because, when he stopped me on Tuesday morning, it was to tell me that Camp would be over this week. What?!?! I asked him all kinds of questions – Why? But it is supposed to go for another week. We talked about this in May, you said it was good, what changed? What?!?!

Well, they are installing an new heating in my school. The entire school is getting torn apart. Ok, ok, great. A heating system is lovely. Maybe I won't have to teach in my coat and hat and gloves next winter. It is completely reasonable not to have kids running all over a construction site. But couldn't this have been thought of and planned for back in May?

I think there is another reason too. Now, this is just my perception, but I do think it influenced the decision to end camp, rather than try to relocate it or work around it. Azerbaijan is preparing for a national election in October. Schools will be voting sites. The preparations are all starting now. As these preparations are going on, bigwigs stop by every so often to check things out. And it looks really bad to have a bunch of kids running around and playing at the school when they stop by. Seriously.

Anyway, all my protestations came to nothing. Camp would be over on Friday. And there was nothing I could do about it. How did I handle it, you ask? Well, I pretty much threw a several-day-long temper tantrum. When I got up to my classroom, I threw some stuff, then I cried. I pulled myself together to go start the day with the kids, but all day I had to take some timeouts to go hide the fact that I was crying. My friends got me through the day and picked up my slack when I couldn't handle it.

After Camp was over for the day, I went home and cried some more. I had a friend call me and talk me through it. Then I went to Tom's house and my friends helped me get drunk. Not necessarily the healthiest choice, but I NEEDED it. I wallowed. It was just not fair. I had worked SO hard. I spent months planning and preparing for a 4 week camp, not a 3 week camp. And the last week was going to be drama – the theme I was the most excited about getting to do. Why does that have to be taken away? NOT FAIR!!!!!

And then, slowly, with the help of my friends, I started to process. They jumped in and decided that we should do some of the drama stuff during our week so that I could do at least some of it. They told me that is wasn't fair, but look at my successes, not my failures. They helped me find ways to get out of my moping and see the good and be positive.

I found the little things that could be the silver lining – no more house guests (i love my fellow PCVs, but 3 weeks straight of people can get a bit old), I can sleep as late as I want, because I won't be having guests I can sleep naked again (it is REALLY hot here), I don't have to play Miss Mary Mack or jump rope, the list goes on and on.

I know how lucky I am – I had a really successful project and this, while it was big, was really the only roadblock I had met along the way. This is the first time I “failed” - and a lot of PCVs have an uphill battle everyday. I am truly lucky that this was as successful as it was.

And then I started thinking about the three weeks I did get to have of my camp. And the impact I had on these kids. Every week, I had more kids come to camp. The first week, some of them were shy, scared to speak English or try new things, and accustomed to being told what they are doing wrong rather than what they are doing right. And by the third week, they were enthused, outgoing, daring, and happy. I look through the pictures that I have of camp – and they just make me smile. The monsters had fun. And these three weeks will probably stay with them forever. I achieved my goal. And that is good.

Don't get me wrong, I still think it sucks that my final week was taken away (although I have LOVED getting to relax a week early). But, I can see it with some perspective now. I did something incredible this summer. I changed the lives of these kids in a really good way. Isn't that what is really important? So, yeah, I'm sad that it didn't go exactly as I had planned BUT I am so proud of what I did accomplish. And, hopefully, next year, I'll get to try again. Inshallah.

And then came week three... Sports and Games... and it was awesome!

When I had the idea for my multi-themed camp, I knew that this was the week I was going to need the most help and expertise from others. I mean, really, what does a drama-nerd-turned-shoe-salesman know about getting kids to do a bunch of sports activities? But with the supplies and ideas from home and my fellow PCVs, I think we pulled it off quite effectively.

I can't talk about the week without mentioning the PCVs who came down to help. Carly, Carlo, Joe, Kelly, Tom (although he lives here), Will, and Ram (for a day) were all just wonderful. They dealt with the heat and the kids with more than patience. They were energetic, enthusiastic, and all around amazing. And when I was told that camp was going to have to end a week early (more about that in another blog), they totally stepped up to the plate in supporting me. They helped me see the positive side and decided that since I wasn't going to get to do “drama week” we should do some of the activities I had been planning during sports week. I am so honored that these volunteers gave up a week of their time to come help me give such an amazing experience to my kids.

Now, to be honest, one of the things I didn't really consider with this whole camp idea was azer summer. Oh, logically, I remembered how hot last summer had been, but in May it didn't really register what playing sports in 110 degree heat with humidity twice as bad would really mean. Silly, silly me. I have to say though – the kids (and PCVs) were champs! There was definitely complaining that it was too hot to do the outdoor activities, but in the end, almost all of them stopped whining and participated enthusiastically.

We broke the day into two parts – the first half (when it was a little cooler) was spent outside doing outdoor games like Ultimate Frisbee, kickball, soccer, tag, and relay races. Frisbee was a big hit and Tag went really well. I think the big winner of activities for the week was the day we did the relay races. We started with a three legged race, then did a water balloon toss, then a race to put together a puzzle. Most of the kids chose to run the three legged race twice, and the water balloons could have gone all day if we hadn't run out of balloons.

One of my favorite moments of the week was during kickball. First of all, it was REALLY challenging to explain the game to the kids and get them to play it properly. We finally gave up and Tom pitched the ball to the kids, they kicked it and ran the bases. A good beginning. If we had done kickball all week, I think that by the end we would have had a fairly successful game. Maybe. Anyway – the moment. One of my hijab girls, Sevinj, told us during the first week that she wasn't allowed to run. We told her that was, of course, fine and she spent most of that week walking around hanging out with a PCV, watching the games. She has been one of the quietest kids, but also one of the most interested in camp. Fast forward to kickball day, and Sevinj wasn't going to let anything get in her way. She was one of the first in line, kicked the ball as hard as she could and RAN! I think she made it to second base before she had to stop. It was incredible. I hope she wasn't taking any big risks with what her family would think if they found out. Rather, I think she used the “not allowed to” line because she was shy about participating – and by week 3 she had gotten over that. It is ridiculous how proud I was watching her run. But I was.

The second half we moved inside for indoor games. Among other things, we taught them paper football, we did some memory games, and a great game that Will suggested called Silent Ball. Gotta say – Silent Ball was my favorite. The group gets in a circle and tosses around a ball. If you make any sort of noise, you are out. I thought it would last all of 2 seconds before the kids lost it. Not so – it was one of our longest lasting games. Who knew those kids could be quiet for that long?!?! It was HEAVEN!

On Thursday and Friday, we added a few of the theater games I had been planning for the next week. We played Wink Murder and the Magic Cloth and did some Mirroring games and a game where they had to act like people in pictures they were given. I'm not sure which was a bigger success – Wink Murder or the Magic Cloth. In Wink Murder, everyone gets in a circle. One person is chosen to be the detective. The detective leaves the room, and a murderer is chosen. Once the detective comes back in the room, the killer bumps people off by winking (hence the name of the game!). The victims must die as dramatically as possible. People were shy at first, but after a few rounds, the death scenes got pretty impressive!

In the Magic Cloth, a large piece of fabric is passed around the circle. Each person must make the “magic cloth” into something new. After the examples we gave of a superhero cape, a skirt, and a diaper, the kids started. And it was AWESOME! We had dresses, hats, scarves, a bracelet, handcuffs, and – my all time favorite – a hula hoop. It was absolutely incredible to see the creativity these kids have.

All in all, Sports and Games Week (like the 2 weeks proceeding it) was a big success. It was hot and hard work and had A LOT of challenges – both personal and professional, but it was worth it. My overriding goal for Camp – for the kids to have fun – was definitely met. It sounds cheesy and stupid, I know, but seeing these kids smile and laugh and play is a pretty amazing reward. A really amazing reward.

Popsicle sticks, feathers, and scissors, oh my...

I have to begin talking about this week with the AMAZING PCVs who helped out. Bonnie, Donnie, Kathleen, Maria, Mariko, and Sarah have all earned their spot in heaven for everything they did this week. Adding glue and scissors to the week made it hard enough. Throw in trying to teach kids who have never been exposed to arts and crafts to the mix and you have a really intense work week. And the PCVs were all absolutely wonderful. Enthused, strong, patient, kind, and creative. I cannot thank them enough for everything they did last week.

American kids are trained from preschool age to do this stuff. I'm sure a lot of the parents out there still have popsicle stick picture frames and handmade pencil holders and all kinds of things made with feathers and beads and construction paper and felt tucked away somewhere from when we so proudly created it. We learned how to use scissors and the art of sharing from an early age. We learned to think outside of the box – and how to put our own stamp on everything we made.

The same can't be said for Azeri children. Art for them is, quite often, copying the example set before them. Creativity is a luxury they are often not afforded. Sharing is a word that is foreign to them – even in their own language. All of those things made this week one of the most important to me – and one of the hardest.

We started the week with drawing and pom pom animals and friendship bracelets. I think the pom pom animals were the biggest hit that day. The bracelets were, perhaps, a little too complicated. A few of the kids really got into it though. I am now the proud owner of a necklace made by Sevinj – one of the quietest kids, but also one of the happiest. The drawing was great for the little kids, but the bigger kids definitely had the look of “man, this is lame.” It was a good start to the week – we learned fairly quickly what some of our challenges would be. At the end of the day, I had to remind myself that this is completely new to them. They have never done this kind of stuff at school – and probably anywhere else – before. Of course it is more difficult for them. And so, of course, we need more patience with the kids and the project.

The second day was crayon etchings and masks. I think the masks were my favorite craft. We showed them some examples, provided basic mask forms – precut out of card stock – and markers, paper, feathers, beads, etc. and let the kids go to town. And they did. Sharing glue and scissors was a new lesson – and one we constantly had to reteach and reinforce. But even with all of the whining over sharing supplies, they made some really cool masks – and were even willing to wear them for a picture. I'm hoping to have them bring them back for drama week. We'll see if that works!

My favorite moment was when we made the popsicle stick picture frames. We still had the arguing over glue and scissors (although the lesson on please and thank you did have at least a small effect), but for the first time, the majority of the kids started thinking of their own ideas without our prompting. Normally, we would show them our examples and they would try to make their craft like the example. We would keep telling them “you can do whatever you want” and “do you own thing.” This time, though, they just did it. One girl made a stand for her frame, another made hers in the shape of a house. And they all used all kinds of combinations of feathers and beads and markers and made some pretty unique – and super cool looking frames. That was the moment that I really felt that arts & crafts week was successful. The the kids were starting to think creatively was just amazing to me. I can't tell you how proud it made me.

One of my favorite little girls, Lala, had a big crush on Donny. She as often as not tried to give her completed crafts to “Mister Donny” as a gift and is putting a picture that we took of the two of them in her picture frame. It was SOOOOOO entertaining for me – and the rest of the PCVs - to watch. And, honestly, I think Donny kinda loved being the object of her idolatry.

On Thursday we made pencil holders out of old plastic bottles – continuing some of our recycling education from the week before. All of my Peace Corps Newsweeks came in very handy as we had the kids create collages with magazines and stickers all over the bottles. I am hopeful that they took them home and are now using them – it would kinda defeat the purpose if our “recycled” art went immediately to the trash pile. We also made hemp bracelets that day. Somehow the knot tying was a much bigger success this day. Maybe because they had already had some training with the friendship bracelets. One of the best bracelet makers was Ravan, a boy in the seventh form who is typically a little too cool for this stuff. He got REALLY into it!

Friday was sock puppets and paper flowers. We ended up with dragons and bees and lots of snakes and elephants and all kinds of random people among our puppets. I ended up with a fairly large collection of paper flowers from the boys who loved making them, but didn't really want to keep them.

Arts and crafts week was definitely hard work, but all in all, it was awesome! I have kind of come up with a mantra for myself as I am getting frustrated – if the monsters (my affectionate nickname for the kids) are having fun, it is TOTALLY worth it. And they are. They really are. What more can I ask for?

Camp Jane Week One...

Note to readers – I have to give the credit for calling it “Camp Jane” to my friend Heidi. She also, I'm pretty sure, came up with the witty name for this blog. She's really smart.
It all started with boredom. Daydreaming in a particularly long class, I had an idea for my summer. After a lot of planning, work, help from here and abroad, and countless moments of others (and myself!) questioning my sanity, my idea, my daydream actually turned into a reality.

Camp Jane started with “English Language Week” on July 7. The PCVs signed up to help for that week arrived Sunday evening for a big planning session. And then, D-Day arrived. I was, of course, nervous, excited, and everything in between. On the walk over to school, I flip-flopped between praying that at least a few of the kids showed up and hoping that none of them did so that I didn't have to do it! But, happily, they showed. A bunch of them. About 60. Awesome.

The week was designed to get the kids a little comfortable with English, enjoy learning, start to try new things, and just have fun. And, I think we succeeded. We broke the kids into 3 groups, with 2 PCVs for each group. Each day was broken into parts – an hour long “lesson”, recess for 45 minutes, another hour long “lesson”, then a large group activity that involved all of the kids.

The lesson times were great – we did things like play Simon Says and Hangman and teach them songs and rhymes like the ABC song and Miss Mary Mack. We drew pictures and read stories. We attempted some creative writing. We made learning fun.

Recess was a huge hit. Four Square was a big winner from day one. As the kids learned thing in classes, they continued them outside. Once they got the hang of Miss Mary Mack and Wonderball, they wouldn't stop. Poor Kelsey – the PCV from Ali Bayramli/Shirvan – got roped into doing hand clap games for 3 days straight at every recess. I think the best recess activity ended up being the jump rope. The kids LOVED it. It took awhile for some of them to get the rhythm. One little girl, Lala, couldn't even get one jump successfully. Then, she had a 10 minute jumping lesson with Bethany (the PCV from Tovuz), and by the last day was the second best jumper with 52 jumps. She was only beaten by Cavid, a little boy who was great from the start. I think he got to 74.

The large group activities were probably my favorite part of each day. Each one was different. The first day we had each kid make visors with their names on them. We used those as name tags for the rest of the week. The second day we did a school yard trash pick up. We all taught an environmental(ish) lesson that day, then had them put it to practice. Honestly, I kinda think the biggest reason the kids got so into it wasn't to make our school and Azerbaijan beautiful, but because they were promised a prize if their group collected the most trash. The third day was Capture the Flag. Once the got the hang of the somewhat complicated rules, they were way into it. They hid their flags so well that PCVs ended up playing traitor and leaking information about flag locations to the other teams so that the game would end on time. The fourth day, we taught them the Electric Slide. Some of the kids really loved it, some wanted nothing to do with it. But most of them tried. And I got some REALLY great pictures from it. The fifth day we did a Scavenger Hunt. Competition really motivates these kids. The group that hadn't won the Trash pickup or Capture the Flag made certain that they won this one!

The best thing about this week is that the kids had fun. All of my other goals for camp are, of course, important. But, that's the one that fills me with joy. I would come home everyday exhausted, of course, but also completely enthused and – frankly - proud of what we had done that day and how much the kids had enjoyed it.

I can't begin to thank the other PCVs enough. Bethany, Brent, Kat, Kelsey, Vy, and Whitney were amazing. In many ways, they had the hardest week – the first one, the kinda boring theme, the unknown, dealing with my stress – and they were rockstars. Their enthusiasm, excitement, and ideas were what got me to not only survive the first week, but to really enjoy it. And the kids loved them – they were very sad to see them go. Hopefully the following groups of volunteers will hold up in the kids eyes to the example these PCVs set.

So, Week One down. Three more to go. And, honestly, I can't wait to start the next week. That feels REALLY good to be able to say.

Stay tuned!