Reflections on Peace Corps Service (Part 2, preface to main reflections)

The answers to these questions will provide a preface and context for the blog post to follow:

What was wonderful?

What was hard?

What did you learn?

Would you do it again?

Would you recommend that others join Peace Corps?

It was wonderful.  It’s also one of those things like bearing a child that can’t be described adequately.  The wonderful is sometimes simple, straightforward, and requires no explanation like the time sloshing around in a creek with an elephant on her side, throwing buckets of water on her and scrubbing with a big brush.  The wonderful includes the sound of Linawat’s voice opening the class with the ritual “Please stand up!” in a voice so full of hope and commitment to learning that the tone itself said, “This is it!  Bring your whole self!  Highlight of the day!  It’s English class!”  The wonderful included mattering to some folks, and feeling their importance to me.

It was hard.  I aspired to more than I could accomplish.  I didn’t choose to be but I abruptly came to be face to face with my weaknesses.  Repeatedly.  Relentlessly.   Faults that I could deny and “ignore” in a familiar culture became too constant companions.  Look at yourself.  You like to think you’re strong.  You are.  And you’re weak.  Look.  The best part of Peace Corps was my failures because the only way to cope with those things is improved self-acceptance.  With better self-acceptance comes better acceptance of others.  It built my compassion. I also pushed through some things that were hard, like creating a smiling image in town and then having to go out and smile when I didn’t feel like smiling, and this sort of thing contributed to my development.  But the most important thing was facing weaknesses.

I learned to love myself and others more.  That was my purpose for joining Peace Corps and it happened.  I also learned some things about international development and about change in education which I’ll address in the next blog post. I learned to speak adequate, limited Thai; to dance at a monk ordination with traditional hand shapes; to smile though four hours or more of lecture beyond my comprehension; to teach English to non-English speakers; to travel alone with confidence (but also with good sense); to laugh at sad things as well as at happy things (a useful feature of Thai culture!); to eat it and not think about what’s in it; to enjoy my home’s monster lizards; and to take better pictures.

I would do it again in the sense that I would make the same decision to go that I made originally.  I would do it again in the sense of returning to a new Peace Corps post, if I didn’t have a “better offer” in the company of a gracious, highly intelligent, caring, and interesting gentleman here in California.  If I could be two places at once, I’d do it again.  However, I’d prepare differently, I’d have my eyes wider open, I’d understand the job to be done first, I’d … I’m not sure.   I have no regrets that I chose to join Peace Corps.

I would recommend that certain types of people join Peace Corps, with the caution that it’s very easy to get involved with an inadequate idea of what the experience will be.  Suitable personalities for Peace Corps, as best I can tell, include idealists who are not too concerned about reality, adventurers who will roll with whatever occurs around them, and folks who are committed to seeing, doing, and being as many things as possible.  I have never taken a job with as little real idea of what the job will entail.  I have made Barbie doll arms in a factory from midnight to 8 am and when I took the job I had a pretty fair idea what it would be like.  I was a bookmobile librarian, and I was ready for the tasks and satisfactions.  I was a professor, and knew going in to a great extent what it was about.  I worked in a medical research lab as a technician and I started that job knowing the basics of the experience.  Not so for Peace Corps.  Dear souls everywhere please take note: Peace Corps has three overarching goals involving providing professional support and fostering international understanding.  Most of my PC friends and I joined with a focus on helping people in developing nations with our knowledge and skills.  Would you join if all you really got to do was foster international understanding by being the poster child for the US and by returning home and helping your neighbors understand more about your host country?  I’m not saying the knowledge and skills to support people in a developing nation doesn’t happen at all, but I am saying that if you NEED that to be satisfied with your experience you should think again about going.  There is ample evidence that the organization does not assign us to the country where we would be most useful in terms of knowledge and skills, the operation within the country does not make a priority of “goal 1” in its site placements and its “steering” and support of our activities, and the size of the program across countries will give you an interesting perspective on what the real purposes of Peace Corps are.  (You can look that up at Peace Corps Wiki and draw your own conclusions.)

So.  I am extremely pleased that I joined Peace Corps.  And I have some concerns about change in education and international development that I will share in the next blog post.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Reflections on Peace Corps Service (Part 1, my transition home and continuing ties to Thailand)

Dear friends, thank you for reading my blog, and a special thank you to Mildred for giving just the right nudge for me to get this update done.  I have wanted to write a closing post (which turned out to be three posts), and it took a bit of time to ripen my thoughts make it happen.  This post deals with what’s occurred in the last few months, my transition back into life in the US, the second blog post provides a quick overview of what Peace Corps meant to me, and the third is a deeper commentary on changes in education and on international development.  So hang on for some trivia here, or proceed directly to the next blog post.

The Gazette portion:

In April I had a bad mammogram, follow up sonogram, and follow up x-rays.  The folks who deal with these things have a system: rate the anomaly on a BIRADS scale to help folks figure out what to do next. The scale runs from 0 (not enough information to give a score), 1 (negative), yada yada to 5 which means highly suggestive of malignancy.  Mine was a 4B.  So, of course, I went through all the emotional business you might imagine at this point, and had an excisional biopsy so we won’t have to interpret this anomaly on later mammograms.  It was benign.  Thanks be.  By that time, however, I’d rechecked my priorities, and it was time for me to return to the US.

So as of mid-May, I have been a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer.  I spent 17 months in Peace Corps, and it was wonderful, head-spinning, challenging, fabulous, and one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.  (Reflections in the following blog post.)

My return involved a quick visit with my delightful grandchildren, Ian and Molly, and their delightful parents Liz and Zach, in Florida, visits with sparkling Margaret and Zander in San Diego, celebrating their master’s degrees, and helping them get moved to Berkeley.  Then I set about the business of putting in place a new set of routines and activities.  My apartment in Costa Mesa is small and suits me beautifully, I can now proceed directly to a simpler way of life than my pre-Thailand life.

The “big picture” plan is part time work, preferably something that will accommodate occasional service travel, and volunteer work at my local public school.  The volunteer work is two mornings a week, with the sixth graders, primarily doing Hands-On Algebra with small groups, and mixing in bits of other math things here and there.  The school has a big focus on college aspirations for all students, and my role in supporting that is seeing to some details, like helping the stragglers care about learning the math facts and helping the sprinters feel their cognitive powers.  Hmm.  This could be the core of a blog for the next couple of years.

My first drafts of a work life took some time in revision.  For one thing, in Bangkok I had met Nik Miche who coordinates a variety of educational programs including a contract with SUNY Buffalo to deliver a Master’s Degree program in Education in Bangkok.  The market is primarily teachers at the International schools in Bangkok who are interested in earning a master’s degree from an American university while they happen to be in Bangkok.  He invited me to teach a course in that program, which was, of course, irresistible.  So looking forward to spending three weeks of September in Thailand gave me time over the summer to move cautiously in the direction of employment.  No point in looking too hard when you’d have to say, “Oh, and I’ll be away for three weeks in September.”  That teaching experience was over-the-top wonderful, and I’d do that again in a heartbeat.  (A BIG thanks to Ron Oliver for getting me up to speed on the course—I’d never taught that one before.)  I’m tempted to do internet research on what universities are doing this sort of a program anywhere on the planet and send them resumes. Meanwhile, I did sign on with Kaplan Test Prep this summer and took the online training sessions to teach their SAT course. So far that has not resulted in my being scheduled to actually TEACH for them.  We’ll see what comes of that.

Keeping an oar in with schools and students is important to me, so beyond the volunteer work, I originally figured to do some substitute teaching.  Knowing that the population of Orange County is declining and elementary teachers have been laid off, and knowing that some districts are filling their need for elementary substitutes from their own laid off teachers, I set about to get the secondary biology credential.  That should allow a person to work some days, and still take time off for service travel.  Good plan, if I do say so.  I completed the 5 hour professional exam to demonstrate my proficiency with the subject matter before I left for Peace Corps, so the task remaining was to send my sheaf of papers to Sacramento for the credential.  They’ve had the materials since July 9, per their web page where educators can monitor progress of their applications.  So that’s what? 92 days.  And counting.  Yesterday something happened there.  They posed a comment that a Conversion was granted.  The application is still pending evaluation, but now I have a Conversion.  I don’t know what it is, but I guess it’s a good thing.  Needless to say I won’t be substitute teaching in secondary biology any time soon, as the school districts “batch process” new substitute teachers with edifying instruction on topics like wearing latex gloves when cleaning up a classroom after a student nose bleed or vomit, to avoid exposure to Hepatitis C (much more likely than HIV).  The substitute orientations are completed for the foreseeable future.  And I don’t have the requisite credential anyway.  Substitute teaching in biology may still be a good plan for some other year.

The other avenue I pursued is part time nanny work.  Yeah.  Take a deep breath and think with me on this.  If status is a big issue with a person, this option won’t make sense, but I’m largely through trying to impress folks. I moved out of a house and shed a lot of belongings, but I still seem to have an impressive collection of children’s books.  I have Montessori materials; on the off chance my grandchildren will visit at an appropriate age to enjoy them.  A piece of my heart is in Florida with my grandchildren and yet I’m not willing to live there, for various reasons.  Children keep us young.  How about: I go to work “loving on someone’s kids”, and get paid for it?  So that’s happening, and while it wouldn’t be appropriate to talk about that, we’re off to a strong start.

At this point I’m a Californian again.  For many years I labored on a set of priorities that were right for me then, but now there are fresh cut flowers in my house.  It seems to me I’m an enhanced version of my previous self, thanks to the Peace Corps experience (see next blog post), the teaching for SUNY in Bangkok experience, and the choices I’m making to have a life that’s enjoyable, balanced, and constructive.    I wish you all  well and happy, too!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Walking to Bangkok’s Lumpini Park (mostly photos)

The streets of Bangkok are quite full of vehicles, thank you, so take the pedestrian and bicycle overpasses to cross the street. Here is my favorite example in Bangkok.

It’s big, so it must carry a lot of traffic if you’re here at the right times.

The signs can be a bit confusing.

My first interpretation was black bicycles are prohibited but white ones are welcome here.  Actually, it means do take your bicycle up and down on this left side, but don’t RIDE the bicycle down these stairs!

Oh, and no motorcycles on the stairs, in case you were wondering.

The walk this morning happened to be along a road that has quite a string of embassies, and I took these photos outside the embassy of the Netherlands:

    

Back to signs, there are intriguing signs and charming signs in Lumpini Park itself. For example, it’s so busy here with people in the early hours of the day and in the cool of the evening that we’ve had to place restrictions on the hours of use for skateboards and bicycles in the park.


Next post: sculpture in Lumpini Park…

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Reading, seeing the authors, seeing myself

I recently read Letters for My Brothers: Transitional Wisdom in Retrospect edited by Megan Rohrer and Zander Keig. It’s a finalist for a 2012 Lambda Literary Award, in Transexual Nonfiction.

In saying something about the book I give myself two assignments. The first is to say something about the book and the authors whose voices I’ve heard as I read. Here’s my attempt. These letters are from the authors’ contemporary selves, written to their younger selves, before their transitions from living with a male identity in a female body to living in a male body. They’re also, of course, written for people today who may be facing similar challenges, questions, concerns, and decisions. Because the authors are all past or very far along the road of change, they are writing with vivid clarity, bluntness, compassion for themselves and for family and friends, charm, and realism. The several voices give a variety of issues and perspectives, and the rhythmic recurrence of some experiences point out some that are of particular importance. I appreciate the way that works out.

The second part of this assignment is to comment on my own connections to the themes in the letters. These thoughts should not be taken as a profile of the themes in the book, it’s just my idiosyncratic appreciation of the book as a catalyst for reflection. I’m commenting because I wandered off, based on things the authors described, for fresh consideration of some parts of my own life. The first theme that grabbed me was the matter of what to do with the former self, for me generalized to any former version of the self. For a transsexual person there are risks in having the past known, even physical safety risks in some cases. In any case the options of losing one’s past self even to self, making the past self only invisible to others, or dealing with the reactions of others to hearing about the past self are dramatic and awful. Trying to integrate a past self and a present self isn’t a straightforward matter. I relate to this, enough said about me at this point.

Another theme that made me set down the book and ponder is the border crossing between female subcultures and male subcultures. The authors are uniquely positioned to comment on the assumptions, for example about men, that they had lived with within circles of women. Some of these assumptions were invisible to them, and then turned out to be false. As a cautionary note, this is very complex, as there are attitudes (which I think are always based on assumptions) that are somewhat more typical in one frame of mind than another. As an exercise, try to think about the possible differences in world view between a person who identifies as gender queer and a person who identifies as FTM (female to male) and a person who identifies as male. And it’s all the same person as identity shifts. Then you can read Zander Keig’s letter for further insights. (At this point I will proudly note that I am his mother-in-law.)

My connection to the theme of border crossing comes from being a Peace Corps volunteer, and the letters served as a catalyst to consider assumptions, invisible assumptions, attitudes as manifestations of assumptions, differences in perspectives among people from different backgrounds, and shifts in assumptions. In this case the authors have writen about the particular, but I read about the universal.

Stop the gender wars. This comes up repeatedly and is the last theme I’ll comment on here. If you’ve lived under pressure to learn the norms and behaviors of one gender and then achieve the outward appearance and undergo what for some was a “thrown in the pool” learning experience for another set of norms and behaviors, the idiocy of the internecine gender wars is starkly obvious. But don’t take my word for it, read the book.

So a book on FTM transitions is a great read for Peace Corps volunteers, and for people who want to be better at social perspective taking in any setting. Of course.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Wait. What?

I’m now to spend 3 hours a day learning Chinese, taught in Thai. It’s summer break, and suddenly, all our rural Thai middle and high school students will be taking Chinese next year, in addition to their Thai, English, Math, Science, Social Studies, P.E., Arts, and Occupation studies. So the teachers, including me, are in Chinese lessons every day for three hours. Actually, I only come to this school two days a week, so I only do this two days a week. But I think maybe I’ll come on Friday, too. I want to understand what’s happening here. In our first lesson, we learned to count to 10, say hello, teacher, China, Thailand, and America. And we learned to write the characters for these things.

We’ll start in May, when school opens for a new year, says the government, and my guess is that we need 4 Chinese teachers to serve all the students at this school. I’ve been told we may not be able to hire 4 Chinese teachers. If that happens, the teachers at the school right now may have to teach these classes, and that’s why we’re learning Chinese. So we can start teaching it in two months. I asked whether there are textbooks, and there aren’t now, but perhaps there will be in May when the school year starts up again.

And while we’re at it, there’s still confusion about whether or not the laptop program is going to happen or not. That’s supposed to provide a notebook computer for every 1st grade and 7th grade student in the country. It’s summer break and we’re planning for instruction for next year. We think that students will be studying English 3 days a week for the first semester and then for the second semester it will be 5 hours a week, but part of that will be in two hour class sessions. If we knew that we would have notebook computers our lesson plans would be different. We’re not planning for them. If they show up, fine.

Hold the presses, I just learned that the 5th and 6th graders will also be learning Chinese.

How do I understand this? This is an example of the way government services work in a developing nation. Um. This “system” we have right now doesn’t work. How soon can we get that development thing to happen?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Ebb and Flow: Finish Instruction, Reflect, Start Long Term Planning

Didn’t write for a while as things were pretty slow, then because I was in a flurry of activity.  Inconsistent?  Yeah.  The test I thought was the midterm was the final and the high school was suddenly over except for national exams.  Teachers are coming to school for another month doing one thing and another including a stunning amount of record keeping and some creative writing of the pseudo non-fiction sort.  There’s a strong tradition of dressing things up to look good so some of the reporting on what occurred this year consists of “stretchers.”  Okay.  The folks who read the documents apparently understand the process too, so the documents probably communicate effectively.  The elementary school runs longer by a couple of weeks so we’re still busy with students there (for a few more days).

 

The natural rhythm of the school year is showing now, plan and dream, then juggle like crazy during the actual instructional parts of the year, then mop up.  Things were good this year, and snowballed better and better in the last two months. Now I get to plan and believe that we will be even more effective next year.  Our plan is better for next year than it was for the second semester and that, of course, was better than the initial plan.

 

In the last week I’ve produced 17 copies each of 12 titles for early reading in English for one school and 12 copies of each for the other.  Those are posted on a web site, I just made the sets of the books.  I’ve designed a version of the game “Guess Who” (you know, ask yes and no questions to figure out which person…) with all photos of Thai people that I found via Google Images…

Guess Who Game to print and laminate

and the mechanism isn’t that flip the flaps form but rather a laminated paper so you mark off folks with your white board marker and then erase at the end of the game.  Three questions are given at the bottom of the card with blanks e.g.  Is the person wearing ______?    a hat     glasses. We’ll have to begin with my counterpart teacher selecting a secret person and everyone keeping a card while I ask the counterpart questions and we all mark off the folks who are eliminated. As we go along I hope students will begin to suggest questions we can ask.  They’ll get to the point of just playing the game but it will take some modeling and practice.  I also re-discovered the game Ruckus and realized that the structure of the game could be used with a deck of 48 cards presenting 12 vocabulary terms: two cards for each term as the word and two cards as the picture cue.  So I quickly made up a deck and taught the fifth grade students to play.  Then also made up a bingo game (5 by 5) for the lower case alphabet that we can play as just say a letter and mark your card but also as say a word and mark your card for the letter that word starts with.  In kicking off planning for next year, I sat with a teacher to sort through various learning goals and identify priorities and set targets in the form of what % of our students we think we can get to mastery by this month or that month in the next school year.  Now I’m working from our priority list while she does institutional paperwork and I’m listing at least four ways to teach each of those learning objectives and producing some of the materials we’ll need to do the job.  In a week.  It’s been a very optimistic and productive week.

 

Meanwhile I picked up some more books, via the volunteer’s drop off and pick up collection and via Kindle for PC.  The reading is a wonderful part of PC for me.  Before PC I read some but was frequently “too busy.”  I hope I don’t go back to that pattern because it’s really just a matter of choices and the reading is very nourishing for the mind and soul.  In other trivial progress I now have actual molasses so the oatmeal bread is delightful.  In a coupld of weeks we’ll be having a conference to celebrate our first year of service and to refocus and recharge.  So many good things going on.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Developments in the Classroom

We’re at about midterm exam time of our second semester and a teaching technique has recently become possible in my most able classes. I don’t know if I’ll be able to explain this, but I’m going to try.

One fairly common technique in American classrooms that wasn’t even an option in the first months here is called pair share. Some folks call it think, pair, share. It’s used to increase student engagement and critical thinking and it gets better mileage out of questions than when a teacher asks a class a great question and then one student answers it. Students are asked to first consider the question solo, and then discuss it quietly with a neighbor, and then the teacher collects answers from students.

It requires some cooperation from the students. These students didn’t cooperate and it wasn’t exactly their fault. They didn’t cooperate because what I was asking for was so far outside of their experience that it wasn’t sensible to them. They may have thought they hadn’t heard me right. They probably thought I didn’t really mean for them to speak to the learner next to them. They were ready to wait for someone to tell the answer like they always do. They don’t see themselves as a resource for learning: the idea that they could figure something out for themselves was too strange. Also, for the technique to work we need about 80% of the students listening to the instructions. If a few were “zoned out” the neighbors can fill them in on what’s going on. But you have to have most students with you for this to work. In a rural Thai classroom you basically never get 80% attention all at once.

Side trip on the big picture of engagement and behavior problems in rural Thai classrooms: if a child comes to school day after day and the instruction is pitched to more able students and every day the child doesn’t learn (overstated for clarity) then the child isn’t going to be attending to the lesson. The child already tried that and it didn’t work. The ingrained habit of inattention is strengthened by years of verification that what is expected is to sit and wait for the star students to call out something and then to join in and make it louder. Even the star students have been coping for years with content that doesn’t make sense to them. The textbooks are not written at their level and the teachers do not feel empowered to set them aside and teach accessible content. The money has been spent on these books; we’re going to use them. The system is top down. Whether you are the teacher or the student you are told what to do and, by golly, you do it. Then when the exams come around and the students perform poorly it doesn’t matter anyway. They just fail. Failing is a tradition, too, so it isn’t particularly remarkable when half the class or even 90% of the class fails. We just move on, to more content that doesn’t make sense to the children.

Here are a couple more examples, so you can skip this paragraph if you already get the picture. In English class we copy things from the board a lot, but no one ever asks us to read them back. This would show the teachers that the students are having an art experience of developing eye hand coordination to form those shapes faster and more accurately over the years. The vast bulk of the students aren’t writing WORDS because they’re not having an experience of the words, they’re having an experience of individual letters. Similarly they sing songs in English but cannot segment a phrase of the song into individual words and cannot tell the meaning of the words or the phrases because they have only been taught to sing the sounds of English (or pseudo-English). Similarly the students recite a greeting, “Good morning teacher, how are you today?” and the teacher answers “I am fine, how are you?” every class for years on end but when an English speaker sees children on the school grounds and says “good morning, how are you?” the students look around desperately for help from friends who are also speechless or run away screaming. There is no one there to call out the right answer so they can echo it.

So initially the pair share strategy wasn’t an option because their classroom traditions short-circuited or undermined it. Students don’t trust themselves to answer questions. Student expectations and norms are not supportive of the method.

What has changed? We’ve been doing work that makes sense most of the time for months now. That’s most of the time because we still make mistakes judging their ability, but when it isn’t working we stop and do something else and later sit and plan for a different approach. Students have learned things. I’m not saying there weren’t some students learning under the traditional instruction, but every student is learning now. They’re not all learning everything we teach, but they’re learning. It feels good to succeed. It feels good when you don’t know something for the teacher to accept that and come back to it cheerfully later, encouraging and supporting you. This is to say that the curriculum has changed and is now more accessible to students.

What else has changed? Interactions with the students are, I believe, more positive and more respectful. Assuming that my own first person impression could be unreliable, I’ll add that the Thai area office supervisors who visited and watched us teach commented enthusiastically that they were impressed with how positive the tone is in our instruction. They commented on the students’ learning as well. Our hope is that experiencing support and success will enable students to take a risk occasionally. This is to say that the classroom atmosphere has changed and is now more supportive of learning.

What else has changed? What the students are actually doing in class has changed. Lesson segments are shorter in keeping with the attention span of the children. Every day in class every child engages with the content either individually or as part of a small group activity and this participation is recurring across the hour. Here are several examples of the participation tasks from one class session this last week. First, listen a word, repeat the word, consider the initial sound, and name the letter that makes that sound. This task was accompanied by pictures so the meanings of the words were accessible but for this segment it didn’t matter whether the learner was familiar with the word as the focus was on the relationship between the sounds and the symbols we use in writing them. For the early words the students chose from three letters so that they would practice hearing c, h, and ch sounds. Later they heard words with all the letter sounds to review all the letters. Second, look at picture cues, say the word, and identify it as noun or verb. The focus of this segment was on vocabulary development and grammar. This is part of the build up to learning when to use “I” and when to use “me” or “my.” “My” will always be associated with a noun, and so forth. Third, working with the verbs and using think-pair-share, form sentences (which we wrote on the chalkboard). Fourth, working from those declarative sentences, tell what the question was that would bring that answer. This segment reviews our work for the last two months on the question words: who, what, when, where, and why. Finally, individuall, transform the answer sentences we had collected by changing one word in each sentence. These would be different answers to the questions we wrote. Students also recorded the questions and their new answers in their notebooks. Each student answered one of the questions orally as an “exit question” to leave the classroom at the end of the period. The point of that is that student engagement has changed, and now students receive, transform, analyze, and rephrase information, and make original contributions that are not an echo of what they have heard.

Okay so that was a particularly good class session, with my strongest students, and they still hesitate some on that pair share thing. We’re going to have to have more support, more successes, more accessible curriculum, and more encouragement. But I am immensely encouraged that our students had a chance to notice that they can think.

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments