Friday, July 31, 2009

Stories from Camp... Mahammad...

One of my favorite kids from camp is a little fifth form boy named Mahammad. Mahammad was a late addition to camp - ha hadn't turned in an application during the school year, but during the first week of camp, his grandmother came to me and asked if he could come. She explained to me that everyday when he saw us all going off to camp, he just cried and cried because he couldn't go. Bleeding heart that I am, I of course said yes, he could absolutely join camp.

Mahammad is one of those kids who is kind of a pain in the butt a lot times, but you still just love the little punk. For those of you Herndon readers from my childhood, he is a lot like Tom McCammon as a kid. Imagine Tom as you read this story, and you've got a pretty good image of Mahammad. For the rest of you, just imagine THAT kid from elementary school. You know the one I'm talking about. Over the course of camp, I had developed a pretty good rapport with Mahammad and had gotten pretty good at managing his punkiness.

On one of the last days of camp Jaclyn, his group leader for the week, came to me and pulled me out of my class. She told me that Mahammad had asked to go home because he had a headache, but half an hour later, she saw him wandering around the school. Concerned, we went outside to look for him. When he saw us approaching, he started to walk away. I called out to him and told him I just wanted to talk to him. I asked him to come over to me. He paced a little and asked me, just me, to come to him instead. I looked at Jaclyn and walked over.

I told him I was worried and asked if he was ok. (Please note - this entire conversation was in Azeri.) He sadi yes he was fine, but he had to leave for the day. I asked what was wrong. He paced a little more, thought hard, and then asked me to promise mot to tell anyone. Deeply concerned now I said ok.

He told me he loved a girl in his group. (Another note - the polite way to say you love someone in azeri is "men bir qiz isteyirem." Which directly translates as "I want a girl." It's one of the weirdest things about this language that still cracks me up.) I asked what girl. More pacing. Some deep sighs. He placed his hand on his head and made me swear I wouldn't tell. I had to give this vow about 4 times before he finally told me her name. I won't reveal it - I did give my word - but she is a sweet little girl and VERY cute. His heart chose well.

As the conversation continued, he explained to me that he loved this girl and it was just too hard for him to stay in the class that day. At this point, my glee was getting a bit difficult to conceal in this - for him - very serious conversation. Swallowing a giggle, I told him that I understood. It was ok.

We talked a little more, then I extracted a promise from him to return to camp the next day, yet again swearing that his secret was safe with me, and sent him and his aching heart on their way home.

Stories from Camp... Buying Dirt...

One of the best ideas I think we had for camp was having the kids all plant flowers during Environmental Week. After all, the environment is about more than picking up trash and reusing stuff. Whitney's (one of my favorite PCVs who lives about an hour north of me) mom provided the seeds for us. Thanks Mrs.Bey! We decided part of the project would include making planters out of old soda bottles. The only other thing we had to do was get the dirt. Easy, right?

About a week before started camp Jaclyn and I headed to the bazar to procure the dirt. Her host sister, Hadija, came with us in case we needed help explaining what we wanted. We walked into the bazar and up to the row where all of the plants and flowers are sold. We got to the first xanim and asked about dirt. Here's how the conversation went...

"Dirt? Why do you want to buy dirt?"
"We have a project with students where we will plant flowers."
"I have flowers. Beautiful flowers. You can buy my flowers."
"No, thank you. We need dirt."
"Dirt? Why do you want to buy dirt?"


At this point the news that the Americans wanted to buy dirt, why would they want to buy dirt?, rippled down the bazar. Heads turned. Not whispered conversations about the strange Americans trying to buy dirt ensued. Hadija, pretty much mortified to be seen with us, disappeared to buy fruit.

We explained several more time why we needed dirt - not plants - until the xanim finally understood that we were adamant about the dirt.

"How much do you need?"
"A lot. Enough for about 150 small pots."
"150? No. I don't have dirt. Do you want some of my beautiful flowers?"

Accepting defeat, Jaclyn and I moved on. Since our attempt to buy dirt was the news of the bazar, we knew better than to try any of the other stalls. Frustrated, we moved on to our other errands and brainstormed about other ways to get the dirt.

As we headed to the school supply store, we passed a guy on the road who was also selling flowers and plants. After a pause and a short conversation about whether or not to try again (all the while, Hadija looked ready to bolt the minute it got embarrassing again), we bit the bullet and went up to him.

"Hello. How are you? We need dirt. Will you sell us dirt?"
"Dirt? Why do you want dirt? I have beautiful flowers. I can sell you flowers."
"No we need dirt. A lot of dirt for a project with students."
"You need dirt. I can get you dirt. How much dirt?"
"Enough for 150 small pots."
"Wow. That's a lot of dirt. How much will you pay?"
"Ummmmm. How much is it?"

Pause while he makes up an answer for our ridiculous request.

"18 manat."
"18 manat?"

Pause while we pretend to decide we have any idea whether or not this is a good price and factoring in that this is the only person willing to sell it to us.

"Sure. 18 manat is good. When can we get the dirt?"
"I have to go to the forest to get it. When do you want it?"
"Sure. Saturday. It will be here."
"Excellent. Thank you! See you Saturday."

Walking, feeling both elated that we got our dirt and skeptical that the dirt would actually be there on Saturday (which it was), we took a deep breath and checked one more thing off of our list.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Yay Kamp the Sequel, Week Three...

After the success of the first two weeks of camp, I was super excited for the beginning of week three - Arts & Crafts Week. I knew it was going to be a good week for my students, and I was really looking forward to helping them be creative, but quite honestly, I was also just plain excited to play with popsicle stick and glue and make friendship bracelets and tie-dye t-shirts.

Like the other two weeks, camp wouldn't have been possible without help from PCVs. Kathleen Keating, Bonnie Wilson, Jesse Fincannon, Kelsey Hull, Alexis Cohen, Kim Joyce, Charlie Djordjevic, Rachel Carter, Laura Durden, Jen Catrambone, and Amanda Brune made Arts and Crafts week a huge success. Jaclyn and I truly couldn't have done it without them.

Our first day was popsicle stick day. We started with God's Eyes in the morning. After doing a small lesson comparing God's Eyes to the Azeri Evil Eye and the similarities is the idea that they are protection, we busted out the yarn popsicle sticks and went to town. And the kids loved it! We ended up with some pretty elaborate God's Eyes with all kinds of feathers and beads and things adorning them. In the afternoon, we made popsicle stick picture frames. This one had been a big hit last year, so we thought it was worth repeating. There were all kinds of different frames made - a few funny looking, but most were just cool! My favorite was done by Agshin, one of the boys in my group this week. Check out the picture, you'll see why!

Day two was tie-dye day. I have to admit, I was a little nervous about how this would go! We warned the kids to wear clothes that they could get messy, we handled everything with care, and as much as possible it was the PCVs' hands that got dyed bright colors. And it was awesome!!! Each group had their own colors, so that all of the kids had the same thing, but they were also "team" specific. The students loved it! We ended up with some really cool looking shirts and a lot of questions from the community around watching us, seeing the brightly colored hands, and finally the pretty colored t-shirts. We had everybody wear their t-shirts for the last day of camp, and it looked awesome!

Day three was drawing and friendship bracelets. A request I had gotten from last year was to have a day of drawing. Seemed like a good idea, especially if we could use it as a way to help the students think outside of the box. Drawing here is pretty much copying exactly what the teacher tells you. That was something we wanted to challenge, so we came up with drawing activities where they HAD to draw their own thing. In Each classroom, we set up a still life for the kids to draw. The trick was that they were each drawing it from a different angle, so they all ended up with a different picture of the same thing. I don't know how successful our message was, but I do think they understood that all of their drawings looked good, even if the weren't exactly the same. After drawing, we did friendship bracelets. One of the neatest things for me about that was that several of the kids who came to camp last year remember how to do it and helped teach the other students. Pretty rad. Oh, and check the pictures to see what two friends from America came to help for the day :-)

On the last day of arts and crafts week, we made homemade playdough. It took a little convincing to get the students to dig in to the mushy blue stuff that they saw made from flour and oil and water, but once they did, they really liked it. They made hedgehogs, snowmen, flowers, spiders, a mini tea set, and my favorite, a reinactment of Sports Week's water balloon fight!

At the end of the day, we had a ceremony to celebrate the end of Yay Kamp. We invited my school director and the students' parents to come participate. Following Azeri custom, we thanked my director for letting us have camp. We also presented him with his very own tie-dye t-shirt. It was a big hit! He gave a speech reminding the students how great this opportunity was for them and telling them to remember it and carry the things they learned throughout the rest of their lives. His speech was about the time I started crying. That was the moment that I really appreciated that this was my goodbye to so many of these kids. Luckily, Jaclyn was sitting next to me and helped me get over my tears without too many people noticing! I misted up a few more times, but it wasn't obvious.

They sang the clean-up song (which I'll be happy if I never hear again!),After Qadir muellim's speech, each of the groups presented something they had learned during camp. performed Boom-Chicka-Boom, team cheers, and talked about their favorite parts of camp. We presented each student with a certificate and group picture. Since it was my last moment with so many of these kids, I took a moment to say good bye and to tell them how much they mean to me. Then we ended the ceremony with cheers and clapping and sent the kids on their way. There were hugs and signatures a few more tears and tons of pictures all around before it was finally done.

Yay Kamp was absolutely amazing. I still can't quite believe how lucky I am to have had such an incredible project as part of my Peace Corps experience. Working with the students and the students leaders and having fun with them and watching them grow was just wonderful. I truly believe that I have had an impact on their lives. I know absolutely that they have had an impact on mine. These three weeks and these students will stay with me forever. To quote Aysel and Arash, third place winners from Azerbaijan on Eurovision, they will be "always in my heart and always on my mind."

Friday, July 17, 2009

Yay Kamp the Sequel, Week Two...

After a couple of days of relaxing and recovery from Week One, it was quickly time to get our game faces on and start Week Two - Sports and Games. We planned a combination of indoor and outdoor games for the kids to play this week. The one absolute rule - no football(soccer)! That's one of the only sports they play here, and it is something the boys always dominate.

My school director arranged for us to go to the sport school for our outdoor days. That was incredible. Instead of being crammed on a tiny grassy area filled with nettles in my school yard, we had a big field to play on and do activities on. It was great! The one down side was that there was very little shade. We all ended up with some pretty intense tan lines from the day!

Our first day was Wiffle Ball and Kick Ball. We explained the rules in the classroom, then headed over to the field to start playing. I had expectations of it being a big bust. I thought the girls would just sit and complain and let the boys dominate everything. Not so. Everyone got really into it. And there was some serious team spirit! All of the kids played hard and had a great day!

The second day was inside for games. In my mind, this was a really important day. There is so little here for kids - especially girls - to do, a lot of their free time is spent just sitting at home watching TV. Knowing that these kids will spend a big chunk of their lives sitting at home, I wanted to teach them games and activities they could do there. So we taught them Yahtzee and cards games like Uno and Go Fish and Spoons. The kids loved it! A couple of my student took home Yahtzee score cards to play at home. Success!

Day three was Tag and more indoor games. We played English Word Tag (like TV tag, but with English words instead of TV shows) and Snake Tag and Freeze Tag and more. We played Simon Says and Red Light Green Light. Inside, we played classics like Heads Up Seven Up and new games like Wink Murder and a really cool counting/hand slapping game. One group even did an egg parachute drop. The team to build a parachute that keeps their egg from breaking when dropped out of the window wins. That was a big hit - for the kids participating AND the kids watching!

One of my favorite things of the week was teaching the students Boom-Chicka-Boom. a lot of the teachers at school came out front to watch us do the chant with the kids and make general fools of ourselves. I still have the song stuck in my head, though!

The last day of the week was Relay Day - a lot like elementary school field days. We were at the sport school again, so we got to really spread out and go to town! We started with the Three-Legged Race and moved on to the Wheelbarrow Race. I love how enthused the students were! I expected them to freak out at the idea of putting their hands on the ground for the wheelbarrow race, and a few did, but most dived in with a vengence! On girl even complained about the fact that she couldn't be the "wheelbarrow" because she was wearing a skirt. After the Wheelbarrow Race, we did the Bean bag hop - you have to hop on one foot down the line, around your teacher and back to the starting point while balancing a bean bag on you head. It was grand! We took a little bit of time to rest, then had the kids run a blindfolded obstacle course - guided by one of their teammates telling them where to go. We rounded out the relays with a water balloon toss. Which then turned into a giant water balloon fight. I think for a lot of the kids - and PCVs - that was the highlight of Sports and Games week!

All in all, Week two was awesome! Of course it couldn't have been done without the help of PCVs Ryan Schaffer, Katie Preston, Emma Jackson, Mathias Jackson, Amy Eilts, Alison Reggio, Johanna Klees, Jake Larson, Loki Tobin, and Joe Valles. Their enthusiasm and energy and intensely hard work was incredible and made this week absolutely amazing!

Hard to believe, but there is only one week of Yay Kamp left. I'm really looking forward to Arts and Crafts Week, but I'm already a little sad that camp is coming to an end so soon. It has been just wonderful for the kids, student leaders, and me!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Yay Kamp the Sequel, Week One...

After months of planning and preparation, the big event was finally here! On July 6, 2009, Yay Kamp the Sequel began. With the help of 15 student leaders and PCVs Kat Zigmont, Whitney Bey, Sara Nevius, Rachel Wurdeman, Amy Todd, Linde Gies, Josh Neese-Todd, the project Jaclyn and I have spent so much time preparing for was off to a great start.

I can't say enough about how great our student leaders are. The student leaders are secondary school or university students who have excellent English. They have all kinds of backgrounds - a few who just returned from a year-long exchange program in America, a few who are preparing to go to America, and a few who are just really talented and really eager to be involved. They help us with translation and classroom management and keeping the kids enthused. Their enthusiasm and excitement is incredible - and completely contagious!

At 10 a.m. about 108 students arrived for the first week of camp - Environmental Awareness Week. They were all quickly sorted into groups, and then it was off to the classrooms to begin the day. One of the first things each group did was choose a team name. We ended up with the Tigers, the Flying Eagles, the Big Strong Dragon, Black King Lion, and Fiery Red Dragon.

The plan for Environmental Week was for the kids to have fun, of course, but also to get them thinking about taking care of the environment. Azerbaijan isn't exactly the best when it comes to environmental awareness, so this was a pretty important message to get across to the kids. We did all kinds of activities and games to get the students thinking about the environment.

The first day we had a nature scavenger hunt. We gave the kids a list of things that belong in nature and things that don't belong in nature that they had to find. The team that found them first won. Pretty exciting that the group I was working with for the week - Fiery Red Dragon - won!

The second day was our planting day. We made plant holder out of one-liter soda bottles. We decorated them with stickers and pictures from magazines and glitter glue and all kinds of other fun crafty stuff. We let them dry during recess, and then planted flower seeds. Side note - trying to buy dirt in the bazar gets a lot of laughs from the azeris you ask and the others who are watching you! But the student loved it! Everyday they watered their plants and looked to see if they were sprouting yet. By Thursday, a few of them had little sprouts!

Day 3 was the trash pick up. Not any Azerbaijana's favorite activity by a long shot, but by making it a competition we get all of the students to work really hard at it. We had plastic gloves, provided by the Peace Corps Azerbaijan Environmental Committee so that is wasn't as gross as it could be. A leader from each group kept count of the number of bags their students collected. Some kids got really in to it. We had 45 minutes to pick up as much as we could. In that time, we picked up 436 bags of trash. Pretty impressive, huh? The winners of that activity were the Flying Eagles. They were ecstatic!

Our last day of the week was the day we made Trash Monsters. This was by far my favorite activity. Each group had a bag of trash that they had accumulated in the classroom through out the week. They had to use the stuff in that bag to make a creature - or Trash Monster. At first the kids were kinda of grossed out. But, then, they started to get into it. And their creativity went wild! Plastic gloves became hair, bottles became arms and legs, old nail polish bottles became a nose. The monsters were AWESOME! Each group named their monster, and after recess, the PCVs and Student Leaders voted on the best name and the best monster. The Black King Lion monster won as best monster. The best name came from Big Strong Dragon. It was "Our Miss Michael Jackson Snake". How could you not vote for a name like that?

All in all week one was great! The students had fun, and I think learned something. They're all really excited about coming back next week. Sharing this with Jaclyn has meant that I've been less stressed this week that I was last year and I've had a lot of fun. I can't thank the PCVs who helped enough. They were amazing and without them, Yay Kamp just wouldn't be possible.

Tune in next week to read about week two - Sports and Games!