Teaching Oral Literature and Poetry

Today I am deeply grateful to Peace Corps and to Indangaburezi College of Education for making it possible for me to be here, working with dozens of caring, enthusiastic teachers.

Friday evening, Saturday 8 am to 9 pm, and Sunday morning my 40 students and I met for the first time, and become deeply involved in experiencing, understanding, and sharing Oral Literature, and Poetry.  We had our rough spots.  We smiled and tried again, and soon we were functioning as usual, blending two distinct approaches to classroom life. I structured every-student-response activities. I asked students to move in small groups between chart papers with questions posted on the walls. I directed questions to individuals by choosing from cards with the students’ names. As we investigated each learner’s name I insisted that students not call out answers but instead show a number of syllables with their fingers.  I would not proceed until all the learners were responding.  When I asked questions I sometimes counted the hands of those prepared to answer, and encouraged and waited for others to be ready with a response. The students expected a lecture.  We did fine, in fits and starts, with some, to me, unexpected outcomes.  Who knew that proverbs are entirely opaque when they cross a boundary between cultures?  I set them aside to plan a different approach.  It was fine.

Day 2: Guess what? Proverbs are handy fodder for teaching the distinction between the topic of a text and its theme.  “Two heads are better than one.” This proverb was the first one that made sense to the students from the outset.  What’s the subject? It’s heads. What’s the central universal truth or value? We had several wordings, many students had ways of capturing the theme.  Great!  Here’s a proverb that presented an enormous challenge: the pen is mightier than the sword.  Skepticism, outright disbelief.  “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.” Doesn’t make sense.  Okay we’re working on this.  “You can’t tell a book by its cover.” Yes! This one led to high engagement and student satisfaction that they comprehend the meaning of “theme”.

We also worked with the grading rubrics for oral work and for written work, practiced three approaches to literature analysis (this topic comes from the Ministry of Education and is a challenge for my students): reader-response, psycho-analytic, and Marxist.  We’ll have two more approaches next weekend. We distinguished legends from folktales from myths with storytelling on my side and from students Rwandan examples for me to look up: King Ruganzu, and Nguada.  There will be more on these characters later, friends.

One highlight of our weekend was watching attendance rise from 5 at the start of the first class to 19 at its close and eventually to 38 of the 40 by Sunday.  Students’ first oral assignment was due Saturday; they took home the picture books to prepare.  Students arrived in a slow progression Saturday but I began with those present. One by one the first individuals read a few pages to the group and I corrected some vowel sounds.  We made a chart of the name sound of the letter (letter a says its name in ape, letter e says its name in me, letter i says its name in I, letter o says its name in go, letter u says its name in use) and the special sounds of the letters, the a in apple, the e in met, the i in sit, the o in top, the u in cup.  We practiced, we conversed about the stories. When more students arrived we made groups of four with each student reading the first three pages of their book and asking 3 questions of their group.  We had content to cover and alternated between read-aloud stories and background on types and functions of oral literature.

Overnight, Saturday night I planned a lesson segment on the good questions that had been asked and the great questions.  The good ones were asking for the title or author, the great ones asked for the tone or mood at the beginning or end of the piece, the motivation of a character, a retelling of a segment of the story, and a personal response to the text. I thanked the students by name as I read out the great questions I had heard the day before. From this list the students figured out the characteristics of the great questions and committed to writing great questions for the next two oral performances.   There was another segment on vowel sounds since so few students had been present for the original segment on phonics. This also made the feedback notes comprehensible to the students who hadn’t been present at the outset.

We closed the weekend with my assignment demonstration performance for the second unit.  I used Teddy Roosevelt’s “man in the arena” speech (shortened) to show again the into-through-beyond approach to literature. I clarified the context and essential vocabulary, set questions for students to be able to answer after hearing the text, and followed up the presentation by asking students to list things the speaker can do to help the listeners understand.  This list is our self-coaching list as students prepare this week for their speeches or songs next weekend.

Each student received a (shortened) speech and a song as possible content for their second oral performances.  The students can give their friends the material they will not be using, and with luck we will hear each piece a maximum of twice.  Those two presentations will be presented back to back, to give the listeners a chance to understand more the second time.

Can I say that the students’ enthusiasm for the materials were the frosting on the delicious weekend? I passed out the speeches saying who wants Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Paul Kagame (President of Rwanda), Martin Luther King, John F Kennedy, Marian Wright Edelman, Steve Jobs, Princess Diana, Paul Keating, Gandhi, William Wilberforce, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Charlie Chaplin, Barack Obama, King George 1939, Thabo Mbeki, Julia Gillard, Wangari Maathai, Michelle Obama, Elie Wiesel …

Apologies for not adding pictures this time.  It is not particularly friendly to take pictures of folks in earliest friendship.  It puts an “other” lens on the relationship, and that’s not a part of why I’m here.   Later, there will be pictures from our classroom, when it’s appropriate.

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Four Weeks Away from the Blog, Why?

The first weeks at a Peace Corps post are stressful.  Wonderful, too, of course, but stressful.

By not posting here during that special time of impaired judgement, I’ve spared you the vicarious experience of my stresses.  At this point I can be pleasant about them.  I figure this was a good call.  So what happened in the darkness of those four weeks?


looking out my front door, and beyond the wall is our road and across it my host and friend’s banana trees

I have settled into my beautiful home, and slowly acquired things that I had needed immediately. There’s a limit to how much I can carry here from Kigali by bus and to how many times I can get to Kigali around the edges of my work.  But now, on my locally acquired new mattress I have sheets and a blanket.  An enormous improvement, I assure you.  I have fry pans and a saucepan, and I aspire to a larger saucepan.  Having it would just set me up to confront the puzzle of whether it’s really a good idea to make a larger pot of soup under conditions where there is no refrigeration.  The stove thing isn’t solved.  I have a burner mounted on a propane tank, and it allows me to cook, if I stand by it and manually regulate the gas flow so that it doesn’t provide flames several inches high.  The prospect of simmering up a pot of beans (from the dry beans that are staple here) has me envisioning literally hours of valve-duty. I prefer to move into problem solving mode.  There has to be a better way.  The likely solution is to acquire an actual burner device with a valve of its own, that attaches by hose to the propane tank. Then the valve on the propane tank can BE full-on and there’s no problem.  This device is surely available somewhere, but in my outlander haze it is not yet clear to me where to get it.  Kigali definitely has it, Ruhango may have it.  Here’s hoping.


the propane tank and vegetable soup in the making, at a rare moment that the fire stayed moderate long enough to take a picture

Ah, you’re thinking, why not ask?  Right.  Priorities.  With my limited language skills and limited contacts, I have more pressing issues. More about that another time.


In the early days and weeks there seems to be a natural tendency to give extra attention to cautions and possible dangers.  I’ve been learning to deal with water filtration and purification and realizing there’s not much water in the urn when the water supply went out. The water can be out for a few days. I’m getting better at making decisions of when to resort to the back-up supply of water in the plastic garbage can and when to wait it out for water from the pipe. I am realizing that the first hours of water, when it comes back on, are so silty that it’s madness to wash clothes: the rinse water makes them dirtier than when I started.  And all these things have simple solutions that aren’t simple until I blundered into the problems and fought my way to the other side.  Prevention.  Always have a clean dish on hand to dip water from the back-up garbage can.  Always restart the filtration and beaching of water when the drinking water urn is down to half its capacity.  Don’t use the stainless steel water bottle brought from the US because bleach-purified water corrodes stainless steel and gives the water a hideous metallic taste.  Be aware that when laundry is started it may be a while until water is available to rinse it.  Same song, next verse deals with electricity outages which occur several times a day, as the battery on my laptop crackled and had to be abandoned so when the power goes out the work I’m doing on the course I’m to teach, is lost.  A new battery is on the way from the US, thanks Liz.

These cautionary and safety concerns take up an inordinate amount of space in my brain in the first weeks.  It’s hard-wired.  And it’s transient.

Moving to loftier concerns, I’m enjoying my course preparation massively.  The course will be Oral Literature and Poetry for the practicing teachers who come to the college on the weekend to upgrade their practices and their credentials.  Before it could start, I was to prepare the lesson plans and exercises for the entire course, in writing, and submit them for approval.  That’s done.  If all goes well we will begin instruction Friday evening at 5:30. That’s two days off.  I say “if all goes well” because last week we were scheduled to begin on Friday evening and I had a call Friday afternoon postponing it to this week. I don’t know why. The enrollment was to have been under 20 students, which would have been fine with the texts I had brought from the US.  However, the college has combined two sections so that the course will have 40 students.  It’s oral literature, so the first assignment is to read a picture book aloud to us in class, but that’s challenging with 40 people trying to see the pages.  I had to acquire a lot more books. The Rwandan National Library allows us to check out books, but only 5 at a time.  A PCR peer (thanks Clare) has checked out 5 for me. I found the one bookstore in Kigali and bought almost literally every picture book they had, and I have almost enough books.  Then I had to photograph every page of every book and make slide sets from them, so that the visuals can be projected during the reading so that everyone can follow along.  The longer books will be shared by two readers and suddenly I have enough books.  Happy dance.

Imagine the fun of assembling texts for speeches for the second assignment. Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Emma Watson at the UN, Michelle Obama, Gandhi, MLK, JFK, Marian Wright Edleman, King George’s 1939 radio address, Julia Gillard’s 2016 Misogyny Speech, Wangari Maathai, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Steve Jobs.  Oh sorry.  I got carried away.  There are a lot more.  And then I brutally cut the speeches down to under 1000 words.  Students have the option of reciting a song instead, and there is a long list of suitable songs as well, ranging from traditional folk songs to Broadway show tunes to Gilbert and Sullivan.  This part of my work is just flat out fun.  The selection of materials continued with identification of poetry for the final recitation. (Want a side trip? How about visiting a slam poet I admire? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0A2ib_yFdU8 ) For each of these assignments students will also submit an analysis of the text, practicing the Ministry of Education’s prescribed approaches to literature: reader-response, psycho-analytic, Marxist, structuralist, and formalist.

Putting together the lesson plans and exercises was time consuming but satisfying.  There are expert jigsaws, number heads, onion dialogs, gallery walk, concept attainments, concept integration, and many more strategies and models. I can’t wait to share oral literature and poetry with my candidates.  What will they enjoy? What will they identify with? What will challenge them.

So that’s the story of the first four weeks from the perspective on the inside the walls of my home.  The next post will take you outside to the energizing interactions with my neighbors and town-mates, and to observations of rural Rwandan life that make me so amazed and delighted to be here day by day.


          Rwanda has rice fields in the few flat places


but mostly Rwanda is hills and families cultivating small plots



the regional bus station at Kigali’s outskirts


bus station in Ruhango


in a residential part of Kigali, enlarge the picture to see what his cargo is

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…With Counterparts and the US Ambassador to Rwanda

Our last training day was a gem, with our site hosts arriving to participate in several sessions and with the US Ambassador to Rwanda addressing us.

Meet Dr. Balinda Ruteruka, the Director of the college where I will be teaching, and Jen Hedrick, our Country Director.


And a group photo with US Ambassador to Rwanda, Erica Barkes-Ruggles.


Ambassador Erica Barks-Ruggles spoke briefly, with great clarity, on priorities for Rwanda and their alignment with PC Rwanda’s program priorities.  She commended the progress Rwanda has made and is making.  For example, in the push to eliminate HIV, present projections predict that within 18 months Rwnda will become one of 3 nations in the world to achieve the 90-90-90 goal.  That goal is that 90% of high risk individuals will have been tested and know their status, and of those who are HIV positive 90% will be on treatment, and of those 90% will have achieved a status of viral suppression.  She also highlighted Rwanda’s success in reducing the proportion of the population living in extreme poverty.


She explained that teachers in Rwanda are facing a unique challenge.  They typically have grown up in communities using Kinyarwanda and perhaps Kiswahili, and until 2008 were teaching in French.  At that time Rwanda changed to instruction in English, so a great many teachers are now teaching in their _fourth_ language.  In recent years the proportion of age-eligible students actually enrolled has been advanced to near universal service. Now the importance of improving the quality of education is high. Barks-Ruggles framed the issue in this way: there is a five year window of opportunity to achieve quality instruction or a generation of Rwandans will not be economically competitive.


As impressed as I was with her prepared comments, her answers to questions showed additional strengths.  She was on point, detailed, and concrete. Asked what surprised her most here, she said that it’s not possible to be alone here, the population density produces the effect that wherever you are, driving or walking, you will be in sight of others at all times.  She said that while out taking morning exercise she probably greets about 400 people a day.  Asked what evidence there is of positive effects from Peace Corps volunteers’ efforts here she cited the libraries established and enhanced and increases in students and citizens’ computer literacy.  She also sensitively assisted in helping a volunteer reframe a concern in a way that respected both the volunteer’s priorities and challenges of change processes.


Dr. Balinda Ruteruka provided me important information about the work at ICE in Ruhango and I am very grateful to have joined that institution this morning.

(That was Thursday, April 28.  In the next week I should be moving from Kigali to my site.)


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Introduction to Development Work at PC Kigali

(I had posts out of order, so I’m fixing it.  You may have seen this already)

Before I talk about our 8 days of training, let’s have a passing mention of jetlag, delightful and unique volunteer colleagues (we’re a group of 6), and some logistical awkwardness. That done, on to the training content.


Peace Corps has been back in Rwanda since 2008, through their standard sequence of invitation from the country, visits, and negotiation.  The programs in the standard Peace Corps option (or the classic? Two year version) are Education and Health.  The Peace Corps Response (PCR) is a smaller program populated by returned volunteers and other individuals with specific qualification for particular assignments who serve shorter terms, in our case of 12 months. In Rwanda, PCR provides volunteers to NGOs with development projects not covered by the specific goals of the other programs.  These posts also encourage bridging between their NGOs and the volunteers in the 2 year positions.


Rwanda had ambitious Millennium Development Goals and achieved a dramatic amount.  That push has come to its term, and now Sustainable Development Goals are the new frontier.  Perhaps I am mistaken, as my understanding of the history of aid work and development work over the decades is weak, but the new push seems to be a push for measurable outcomes that are monitored to determine effectiveness.  This seems to typically lead to more effective programs and better efficiency in development work, within limits. More about the bitter and the sweet of this as time goes on.


Outcomes of the Millennium Development projects were assessed along the way between the gal setting in 2000 and the finish line of 2016, so at 2012 the proportion of the population that was living in poverty had already been reduced by 50%, infant mortality had already fallen to half the original rate, and so on.  Rwanda instituted universal anti-retroviral treatment and HIV transmission dropped.  In their battle against malaria Rwanda provided 100% of the population with insecticide treated bed nets (okay they were defective and didn’t last the guaranteed 5 years but Rwanda is suing the manufacturer so there may be money to try again on that).  One indicator that was particularly unresponsive was the rate of child stunting.  This became the focus of the agreement between Peace Corps and the Rwandan Ministry of Health.  The health volunteers now work in community health centers on a First Thousand Days initiative that provides services to women and children starting before pregnancy.  The participants are monitored and supplemental nutrition, exams, and immunizations are all included.  The volunteers have also initiated a community-based WASH program, through a grant, to help Rwandans improve home food safety, handwashing, sanitation, and laundry methods.


Meanwhile in the education program Peace Corps folks like to quote the Minister of Education who was asked how many education volunteers would he like to have in the country.  He said, “250,000.” So the volunteers are welcomed here and appreciated.  There are about 110 two-year volunteers and will soon be 15 Peace Corps Response volunteers.


I’ll close by saying that we had the day today, Sunday, to be out and about, using the bus lines, visiting the big market.  The pictures are today’s.


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A Visit to the Rwandan National Library



There are adult sections in English, French, and Kinyarwanda


looking down the stairwell from the second floor all the way to the basement, children’s area

For fun, this post is formatted as a photo search task, followed by an explanation of the context of my visit to the Rwandan National Library.  Here are some photos of the library building, there is no photo of the outside as it was dark and that photo wasn’t worth the pixels.  And now for the puzzles.

In the adult fiction area many of the books are shelved alphabetically by author.  Find a title by an author who recently celebrated her 100th birthday.


In this next shot I/ve gone to the basement to see what’s available for children. This section is not as well organized. I’ve highlighted a favorite picture book, although the other books represent a range of fiction and nonfiction. Enlarge the picture (by clicking on it) and find a title from National Geographic.


Now find a reference book for a typist, and a classic phonics instruction book.


Something by Earnest Thompson Seton and something by Voltaire.


Pick your favorite title from this group.


And, see, we have space for many more books.  How to get more books?


One of the new PCR volunteers in my group learned of an evening event at the Rwandan National Library and invited others to come along.  Several of us took the bus down in the evening and some attended the event: a discussion of the role of France in the genocide with a couple of specialist scholars.  I went to the library, but checked out the “Kids Zone,” then took pictures, and finally sat down to read Clements’ No Talking.  You may know this author from The Report Card or Frindle.  The title I found was new to me, and Gandhi is important to the plot development.  I recommend it.



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Rwanda Wants to be Famous for Other Things


What country will be the first in the world to have a country-wide commercial drone service? In July Rwanda will launch, with a company from California, a service that will bring blood and medicines to remote locations using a fleet of 15 catapult-launched, 12 foot wingspan drones.  They carry a payload of 3.5 pounds and deliver without landing using paper parachutes. The turnaround time is very short, as replacing the battery with a freshly charged one, swapping out a chip with the delivery destination program, and loading the new cargo allow multiple trips in a day.

More information and a video http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/05/technology/drones-marshaled-to-drop-lifesaving-supplies-over-rwandan-terrain.html?_r=0



Another important attribute of Rwanda is that it is home to mountain gorillas.  Tourists vote with their feet, and Rwanda is the top destination for mountain gorilla viewing.  The infrastructure is well developed and conservation of the gorillas means that a visitor can spend an hour viewing a group of gorillas.  Each group has a month off each year, and is also out of view when babies are born.  The World Wildlife Fund lists ways to help the mountain gorillas, and visiting them is their first recommendation. Visits provide funds for conservation and support the local economy.

World Wildlife Foundation’s Mountain Gorilla page: http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/endangered_species/great_apes/gorillas/mountain_gorilla/



I admire Rwanda’s Vision 2020. The government has honestly assessed the challenges it faces and has made a plan that names goals, lists measurable outcomes, and explains priorities. The country is geographically about the size of Maryland but its population, 12.7 million people, is more than twice the population of Maryland. The population density in my district, Ruhango, demonstrates a problem that occurs all over.  Subsistence farming is predominant (73% of Rwandans over 16 years of age farm) and the average family holding is under .5 hectare (which is about the size of a football field, just the playing parts).  As population increases more and more, families are averaging less and less land.  Forty-seven percent of rural children in Rwanda are stunted from malnutrition. On the bright side, the economic recovery since the genocide has been outstanding, GDP has risen an average of 8% per year over the last decade.  Four fifths of the agricultural land in Ruhango is protected from erosion. There are specific projects underway to meet desired outcomes.  Outcomes are reported nationally, but also district by district. My reaction to this planning is delight.  We should also have short, medium, and long term goals.  We should have a list of measurable outcomes including reduction of the proportion of the population living in poverty, what our status is in infant mortality, our score on the international corruption monitor’s scale, and so on.

Rwanda’s Vision 2020 (produced in 2000)


or the updated document (produced in 2012)




Tomorrow I fly off to be part of Rwanda’s development efforts.  I look forward to learning and writing about Peace Corps’ programs, the college where I will be working, and my new community.


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Looking Forward to Peace Corps Response, Rwanda

My departure will be on Sunday, and I am relatively ready.  Here’s what it means to me to be ready.

I researched my district in Rwanda, where 73% of the people are subsistence farmers and they sell an average of 13% of their crops.  That means there isn’t a lot of cash economy.  Seven percent of the people in the district get their water from a pipe.  Two percent get it from a pipe in the home or the yard of their home and 5% get it from a pipe in the center of a village or town.  Forty percent of the people in the district can get water from a safe source on a walk of 15 minutes or less (one way) so 60% have to walk farther than that or use water from an unprotected source.  Most of the protected sources are springs that have been capped with a pipe arrangement so the water stays clean.

I read two books on the country and its recent history, meaning the 1994 genocide.  I recommend both of them, A Thousand Hills by Stephen Kinzer and We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families by Philip Gourevitch.  The genocide was clearly orchestrated but the UN and western countries tried to convince themselves it was “just” centuries-old tribal strife to justify staying out of it.  In the time of the killings, people were rounded up to do the killing and those who didn’t participate were given the choice of killing the next person or being killed as a sympathizer.  Besides the hundreds of thousands of deaths in a period of about 90 days inflicted largely with machetes by neighbors on neighbors, there was an enormous exodus to nearby countries.  The refugee situation was murky with the losers in the military conflict fleeing as well, so that genocidaires in the camps continued to arm themselves and make forays across the border into Rwanda.

My take away lesson from this is that I don’t understand what it must be like to live through the aftermath.  It isn’t possible to put all the killers in prison; it was a very large fraction of the population.  It isn’t possible to try everyone although efforts are being made and have been made to try the leaders of the genocide.  The government is intentionally a coalition of the two demographic groups (although they aren’t really distinct genetically) and pushes anti-genocide thinking and peace-making in schools and communities.  It pushes anti-corruption.  And its leaders have studied repressive systems like Singapore and Thailand as role models, taking the stance that until the situation is more stable it has to be controlled.  Nearby regions, across the borders (Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda) continue to have some genocidal activity ongoing.  It’s not done to ask about this recent history.  If a person chooses to talk about it after getting to know you, that’s fine.  It is still too raw and personal for many survivors.

As to my role, for the next year I’ll be teaching at a teacher training college.  My candidates will be preparing to teach English and to teach other subjects in English. Rwanda has recently changed to English from French as the language of instruction in schools.  I’ve been given a list of eight modules (courses to us) which I’ll teach, four each semester.  It would be indelicate to state how many of these are courses that I’ve never taught before, but I have had a big push studying.  I’ve watched a Great Course on Linguistics, fished around the internet for syllabi of courses similar to mine and bought some of the texts I’ve identified.  I get them online from used book sources.  Some arrived and were just what I was hoping for, but some were unfortunate.  At this point I have a 50 pound suitcase of children’s books so that we can have some short and sweet, light and lively readings for relaxation and to celebrate our skills. Then there’s another 50 pound suitcase of professional books and teaching materials. That covers my allowance, but there’s also a 50 pound suitcase of clothes, bedding, and a couple of kitchen tools.  I will pay for one suitcase of excess baggage as it’s still cheaper than mailing myself the books.

I’m grateful to relatives who will live in my house while I’m gone (thanks Adam and Corrinne), a friend who is managing a few things like my post office box and alerting me of action items (thanks Mary Dell), a retired friend who gave me a fabulous collection of ESL teaching resources (thanks Sarah), and the usual band of encouragers and soul mates (you know who you are).

Here are some predictions:

Peace Corps Thailand gave me the gift of greater compassion for myself and its conjoined twin, greater compassion for others.  I suspect that Peace Corps Response Rwanda will have some gift of personal growth for me and I don’t know what it will be.  My hope is to be open to it, whatever it is.

This experience will be fabulous and challenging.  I’m looking forward to walking a lot, to studying my students in order to serve them well, and to building friendships with community members and other PCVs.   I expect to be blindsided now and then, and am fully prepared to toss out the preparations I’ve made for my courses if it turns out I’ve misunderstood what they are to be like.  The preparations were to give me some confidence at the outset.  That’s done.

Into the mystery!


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