Tuesday, March 25, 2014

It's as easy as riding a bike….. or is it?

I have a bit of an embarrassing story to tell, but one that I'm eager to share…even on the Internet.

 I didn't learn how to ride a bike without training wheels until I was about 12 years old.  At the proper age, maybe about 7, my Dad attempted to teach me how to ride a bike.  I remember exactly which part of the sidewalk I was on, our conversations, and my feeling of excitement to "finally be a big girl," while also feeling so nervous about this new learning adventure.  After all, I might get really hurt!

I got on the bike without the training wheels for the first time, and my Dad was giving me pointers for how I should ride.  I listened with care, but in the end, I only wanted one thing.  He wasn't to let go until I said I was ready.  I made him promise.  Not just once or twice, but three or four times.  When I got on that bike and headed down the sidewalk with his hand on the seat, I was confident in our little agreement.  Not but a moment later I was with my wheel stuck in that rut where the grass and sidewalk meet, and after a struggle to get out which got me nowhere, I was down and out, in the street with cut up legs and bleeding knees.

I didn't get on a bike again for about 4 years.  My parents would buy me the shiniest, nicest, pinkest bikes a girl could ever want.  But nope, I wouldn't do it.  I just became absolutely apathetic about ever learning how to ride a bike.

I have thought about this story a lot while here visiting Ghanaian schools.  I am very impressed by what I see.  I believe that the Ghanaian and American educational systems can truly learn from each other, take the best from each of their systems, and produce a country full of world class students.

In all of the schools I have visited here in Ghana, their have been a few common themes.  Each school has a motto.  It is short, concise, and woven into the daily activities and routines of the students.  They help drive each school's individual purpose, the students' learning, and their conduct on school campus.  It helps to create a unified school culture and set of expectations among all on the campus.  What I loved most was that it seems to bring everyone together.

This is important because there is quite a bit of diversity in the schools here.  I have learned that when students are ready to go to secondary school, they are assigned a school anywhere in the country by an automated system of the government.  Almost every school in Ghana is a boarding school, so these high schools don't serve their direct communities, they serve all of Ghana.  At about 14 years old, students will leave their parents' home and spend the school year living and studying at school.  In any one school, one will find students from across all regions of Ghana.  This means each student is bringing to the school: their own language according to region, celebrations and traditions of one's region, a possible traditional religion passed on through many many generations rather than a more prominent one, etc.  The motto helps create a shared culture, while opportunities are still provided to honor the diversity of the student body.

I also have noticed that the students, no matter if they are in the most elite school of Ghana or the most rural school, simply value their opportunity to learn.  They are still teens… they love to chat with a friend or sometimes doodle in a notebook, but, they hunger for opportunities to gain new knowledge, demonstrate pride in their work, and dream about what they want to be in the future, while knowing what it takes to actually get there.  This is in spite of their very little, to no, access to technology, books that are very outdated, and sometimes infrastructure that, in the United States, would resemble a school that is only weeks into construction.  This is what has impressed me most about Ghanaian schools.

I have passed by classes in which the teacher wasn't present because he or she was attending a meeting with the administrator or other such duty.  There are no substitutes…the students teach each other.  And in each and every class, this was truly occurring.  I learned that last year, for a week, teachers went on strike, and therefore, did not work.  Students still came to school.  Seniors taught the juniors, and sophomores taught the freshmen.  Yes, that's right.  Students, on their own, still came to school to learn.

In the United States, we are having a booming surge in the use of technology in the classrooms.  iPads and laptops in the hands of every student!  A cell phone in every pocket.  Teachers are being trained on incorporating these amazing 21st century tools into the classroom, and our evaluations are growing ever more rigorous.  These are all great reforms that are needed.  However, I see these students in Ghana, and think about how different a classroom might be if we took our American 21st century teaching skills to their Ghanaian educational values.  Wow!  What a classroom that would be!

Education, like learning how to bike ride, is a two way street.  Teachers must grow. We must learn new things and provide the best opportunities possible for our students.  We must inspire them in new ways and encourage them in their endeavors.  But students also must step up to the plate.  They must decide to pedal, strive to learn something new while letting teachers guide them, and risk the fall.  They must take charge of their own lives, respect themselves, and invest in their learning… not because the teacher "said so," not because "you must respect the teacher," but because he or she should see the value in him or herself, to achieve his potential, to honor oneself, to learn what are one's talents and gifts to offer the world.  A good teacher will guide that, nurture that, and hopefully inspire the student to see new paths, but it is the student who must decide he is going to get on that bike.  It is always a delicate balance of encouragement and desire.

When I was 12, I decided to get on that bike again.  I was finally ready to be grownup and join the biker crowd :)  I learned quickly and easily, and felt very proud to have accomplished something for myself.  My wish for students all over the world is to learn to love the journey of growth, of discovery, of bike riding adventures.  Teachers want to extend their hand, share their knowledge, and encourage you.  We're ready, when you are.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Yes, I've been to Ghana

Since 2001, I can say I've been to Spain, Peru, Chile, Ghana, and others.  But what does it really mean to have traveled somewhere?  When I go to a new place, I don't want to just take pictures and visit tourist sites.  Traveling like that only allows me to understand the sites of a country, and from a perspective of my country of origin.  When I travel overseas, I want to really get to know people and understand their lifestyles, their joys, and their struggles.  I want to know how they see their own country, culture, and tourist sites.

This weekend I participated in a number of tourist activities... parks, canoe trips, a crocodile pond, etc.  I could write about them all here and post pictures, and I probably will briefly at some in the future, but I don't think it's the tourist stuff that helps me say, "Yes. I've been to Ghana."

Instead, it's the moments of human exchange, like the one above in the picture.  And this weekend I had so many of them!  Although conversations with kids here often start off with a request for money, whether you give them some or not, they want to talk to you just the same.  They want to get to know you, where you come from, what you do, and why you're in Ghana.  These kids in the picture were really excited that I was a Spanish teacher, and they wanted me to teach them some Spanish.  They are such good students!  (Not that I'm surprised after visiting the schools here.) Those moments of human connection that transcend race, country of origin, age, gender, etc., is what I will most treasure about this trip.  And so, after a weekend full of visits to parks, new cities, and interesting canoe rides, I choose today to write about this moment, because it is these ones that will leave the biggest impression on my heart, and create meaning for me when I say, "Yes. I've been to Ghana."

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Faux Pas at the Parliament

 In the afternoon today, we visited with the representatives of Parliament that are on the Education Committee (the committee that makes educational policy), at the Parliament House in Accra.  It was very nice to meet with them and discuss the educational systems of Ghana and the United States.  I was most surprised to hear that almost every member of that political committee was a former teacher.  

They were very gracious to host us and spend time with us.  I did, however, make a small faux pas,  but, as a language teacher, it is one that fascinates me.  I asked the representatives what they were most proud of, in the educational system of Ghana.  They didn't understand my question at all, and I was confused as to why they didn't understand.  After asking it two more times, speaking more slowly and slightly rephrasing (but always using the word "proud,") we finally came to an understanding that I wanted to know what their achievements were.  

After the meeting, in talking with the supervisor of the Teachers for Global Classrooms program that is traveling us, she mentioned that "proud" carries a negative connotation in Ghana, as "proud" here, can mean to feel arrogant about something.  So, they may have thought I was asking them about their arrogance!!

It is always helpful to remember that across the globe, not all words translate to similar meanings.  Unfortunately, one never usually discovers this until an embarrassing situation arises.  I always like to tell my Spanish students the story of my first study abroad in Spain, when I wanted to express to someone that I was embarrassed, and I used the word "embarazada."  Many words in Spanish and English are cognates (words that sound and/or look very similar), but "embarazada" is a FALSE cognate. Instead, I had told this person that I was "pregnant."  :)

Oh well, c'est la vie :)

A little about school in Ghana

The last few days we've learned a lot about school in Ghana, but I don't want to overwhelm the blog today with absolutely everything I've learned.  I do, however, want to share just a few observations upon our visit today to the public junior high school, Abokobi Presbyterian.

Meeting with Teachers


Classroom buildings

Teacher collaboration space
The church-- all the school buildings are just behind it

The images one sees above may confirm the stereotyped image in our heads about what a school is like in Ghana.  While in fact there are many schools like this, there are also many schools with sound infrastructure and modern buildings.  I definitely don't want to create a single story about schools here in Ghana, based on these few pictures and videos.

We first were greeted by the Headmistress of the school and the head of the church.  Most public schools here in Ghana are historically founded by missions, and therefore carry the religious affiliation, however, their school is quite different than what we may think (by the American perspective), of what a religious institution would be like in Ghana.  Although a school may be Methodist, there are Muslim students that attend the school, as well as students that come from a blend of religious traditions or their indigenous religious beliefs.  Therefore, there is freedom and space to pray in whatever way suits one's particular belief system.  There is no religious instruction in the sense of "you must believe X," but rather, a more informative religious instruction on the foundations and principles of all the religions that make up Ghana.

My very first observation of the school campus was that the church was the only building that had solid infrastructure, and a sense of beauty.  The individual buildings and classrooms were very much not this way.  Many had wires and pieces of wood just hanging from the ceilings, waiting to fall.  However, again, I don't want to create the image that this means the school is unfit and the students are getting a bad education.  The kids seemed well fed, well groomed, and happy.

  I observed a French class.  The students stood as the teacher entered the room, and instruction was very teacher centered, with students just chorally repeating phrases and language.  There was time at the end for them to get to know me a little bit.  I introduced myself in Spanish, and they really enjoyed that.  We compared French and Spanish, and I taught them how to greet each other in Spanish.  It was evident, immediately, the difference in teaching styles in the US and Ghana, and the students were at first, uncomfortable.  It was odd to them that I taught so close to them, walking around them and even reaching out to shake their hand when practicing greetings.  But it was fun!  They seemed very reluctant to ask me questions, but eventually some students did.  They wanted to know the name of my town and high school, what currency we have in the United States, and if I was able to buy products from Ghana in my hometown.  It was exciting for me to tell them that yes, there is a store in the town where I teach called The Bridge, where I can buy hand made items from around the world.  And I happen to be wearing a bracelet I bought from the store which came from Ghana.   The Bridge is a fair trade store in Holland.

I really wanted to spend more time at the school, but it was just a short visit and tomorrow I'm heading off to the school where I will be placed for an entire week.  I just really love reaching out to people, especially young people, everywhere.  I'm not sure what it is, but being able to make bridges and unite cultures is very important to me.  I think it is the most important thing we can do to make a more peaceful world; to get to know, appreciate, and respect one another as humans, and work to create a human family, without feeling we all have to be and think, the same.

Videos of the French class:
Starting class (I missed the part where kids stand while their teacher enters the room)
Bit of French Instruction     

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Contemplating Culture

It is my favorite part of traveling.... learning the culture, practices, and perspectives of a new country and people.  It always fascinates me.... how sometimes certain practices that we have, in the United States, are so strange to others around the globe, and vice-versa.  But, traveling always creates a bridge.  Through conversation with others, learning about their beliefs and perspectives, we can walk away from each other with an appreciation of the other's practices and perspectives, without losing our own.  It's a beautiful party of humanity.  Sometimes, I even think...wow!  So cool.... I wish we did that.

Today we learned a lot about Ghanaian culture.  I've posted pictures below, and before you read about each one below the picture, I want you to just write your thoughts.  What do you think the picture is about?  What stereotypes or judgements are you already making?  It's ok that you are doing that...it's natural, and we all do.  The most important is that we realize they are stereotypes and judgements, and not necessarily true.



Have you figured it out?  That's right, these are Ghanaian coffins.  The funeral process, I have learned, is so very different from ours.  And, all of us teachers here have been told we must attend one if we see one taking place while we're here!  Yes, they are for the whole town to attend.  The only requirement is to be sure you know the dress code (what colors will the funeral be).

When someone dies in Ghana, they will often be in the mortuary for 9 months or so.  Immediately after the death, there is a mourning period and such, but the nine months before burial is to have enough time to plan (well really, pay for) a grand party!  As I mentioned, the party is for anyone to attend.  The most interesting attendees, I think, are the hired "professional criers."  Yes, you heard that right.  The family of the deceased hire professional criers to cry at their funeral.  Yes, these are people hired, to cry.  And really cry.  Cry nonstop.  Why do you think that they would do this?  Talk about it with your desk partner, and then comment on the blog with your ideas.  Finally, discuss as a class and share your ideas.  We'll talk about it when I get home.  :)  I'm excited to see you all!

Obviously, the first is a food...fish (this was my lunch today), with onions and red pepper on top.  But what are the judgements you are making about this dish based simply on our own cultural practices in the US?  :)  What do you think the second picture is, with the little buckets next to the table?

In other countries, it's much more common to be served seafood with all its part (as you can see this fish has its whole head, tail, etc).  It is the same in Spain.  I once ordered shrimp, and it was served to me completely whole, with antennae, eyeballs, and all.  Our judgement may be... "ew, gross!"  But we have to remember that it is our perspective based on our own culture, and not a "truth" that must be shared around the world.  And for the record, it was the absolute best tasting tilapia I've ever had in my entire life.  

Have you figured out what the buckets might be for?   They are for washing hands before you eat.  Each table at the restaurant had a set next to their table, and their was a set at the front of the restaurant as well.  In Ghana, it is best to eat with your hands.  From an American perspective, we might think something like "only people with no manners eat with their hands."  But in Ghana, it is said that you can't truly appreciate the food, and its taste, without eating with your hands.  So when in Rome....

At night, we were entertained with the Saakumu Dance Troupe.  They are a group they performs dances that reflect the traditions of all the ethnic groups of Ghana.  They have traveled and performed in many places in the United States.  I JUST LOVED IT!  Part of the beauty of the United States is that we are a country of immigrants.  Unless we are Native American, our ancestors all came from somewhere, and brought those traditions with them.  Therefore, we don't necessarily have a national dance that has been passed on through centuries.  We have traditions of our ancestors.  In Holland, that's dutch dance, or the cumbia!  I'm sure there are others.  I couldn't believe how long they danced for.  I love dancing, and I couldn't have danced more than one of these :)  We did get to learn some of the dance moves, and I bought some CD's, so you know what that means!!!!!   It's been so long since we've done our "dance a month" due to all the snow days and feeling behind with all the interrupted scheduling.  But Monday, when I return, I will be wearing my African dress and we will be dancing it up!  :)   Hope you're ready.  Check out the pictures, and videos below.

Video 1    Video 2    Video 3   Video 4

Rolling With the Punches

While here in Ghana, I'm unable to use my original blog (www.nolimitslearning.weebly.com) because weebly is not an accessible website here in Ghana.  If you'd like to read my posts written before I arrived in Ghana, please visit that website.

As is standard when first arriving in a country you haven't visited before, there were lots of mishaps and mistakes I made.  First, after our group got our bags and went through customs, we had a van to take us to the hotel, arranged by the Department of Education.  The luggage for the whole group was strapped down to the top of the van.  A number of men carried our baggage for us up to the top...a difficult duty, I would think, in 90 degree heat.  All the men began asking us for money, but not just politely as a tip, they began to ask for American $20's for everyone, and one man in particular kept hitting my hand lightly, as it was resting on my bag (containing my wallet).  My mistake was that I had indirectly let him know that I had money in that bag.  It is better to have your tip ready ahead of time and already in your hand or pocket, separate from the rest of your money.  It's difficult to not want to always give money to everyone, but I literally could very quickly give away all my money if I give the equivalent of 5 or 10 dollars to every person that asks.  

After getting to the hotel, the first thing I wanted to do was plug in my laptop and write an email/facebook message to my husband and parents to let them know I was here safely.  Of course, our electrical outlets in the US, and the voltage are different from Ghana, so I brought an electrical converter and a transformer with me.  The transformer lowers the voltage.  I plugged in the transformer with my laptop, and an hour later, blew up the transformer.  Thankfully, I didn't ruin the outlet in Ghana :)

The showers also operated differently, and I couldn't figure out how to change the water from running out of the bath, and instead having it leave the shower head.  In playing with knobs, I broke one off.  The plumber came to fix it :)

Also, in fussing with the lights, I accidentally pulled off the light switch and the cover, but I was able to fix that myself.  Lastly, in the middle of the night, my air conditioning broke.  That was rough... it's extremely hot here.  

When all is said and done, when traveling one has to roll with the punches.  We can't expect our own customs, practices, and ways of conducting business and services to be the same all around the world.  When I visit another country, I remove my American expectations and roll with the punches.  That attitude has never let me down, and has always allowed me to develop nice relationships with all of the new people I meet.