Sunday, August 15, 2010

In Which I Actually Talk About My Peace Corps Work, and Hopes About Aforementioned Work

Well, it's certainly been a while since I've updated this blog. I'm sorry about that.

I think a lot of the problem is that I don't feel pride in my blog entries; actually they make me feel faintly embarrassed, and so why would I continue to produce them? As a writer I ought to have a more entertaining blog. I guess that creative nonfiction has never really been my genre, but still, I approach blogging way too much like I'm just writing in my journal, interspersed with the occasional essay, and that's not good. I just have trouble approaching the blog as an art form, or at least as a creative outlet, no matter how much I'd like to.

I'm sure there's a How-To on this very topic somewhere online. Probably it is in a blog, with an entry titled Top 10 Rules for Writing an Interesting Blog. Bonus points if it's a boring blog.

This would be the place for a transition from my talking about how I struggle with writing satisfactory blog posts to actually writing something about my life. However, I can't think of how to do it, so I'm going to do it by not doing it. Thus I suppose this entire paragraph is one long apophasis, a transition by saying I'm not transitioning.

Except it didn't work, because it really wasn't a good transition into talking about my life.

Oh well.

I have actually, finally started a Secondary Project. For those of you who don't know, Peace Corps Volunteers are supposed to have a Primary Project and a Secondary Project. For education volunteers like me, the primary project is obvious: we teach. At the school that has requested us. Pretty straightforward.

It's quite convenient, the way we Ed Volunteers have actual jobs. For other volunteers, finding a primary project can be much more difficult. The Health and Environment Volunteers in Tanzania are sort of plopped somewhere and told to find a good way to help people. They have a whole lot more flexibility and get to set their own schedule, it's true, but they also have to be extremely self-motivated to actually find a primary project, let alone a secondary one.

I'm pretty sure if I were given a house in a tiny village and told to go out and help people without much more direction than that, it wouldn't be pretty. I'd probably sit in my house all day fretting about the fact that I'm supposed to find some kind of work but I'm not. And I'd get so stressed about the fact that I'm supposed to be doing something but am not that I'd get crippling anxiety and never leave my house. I'd be like,“I'm so stressed that I'm not doing anything that I can't go out and do anything because I'm too stressed!”

Yeah, I'm really glad I'm an education volunteer, and have a full-time teaching schedule. I have mad respect for all those Health and Environment people who actually do stuff.

But besides teaching I'm also supposed to have a secondary project. I don't really have a stress issue about this, because it's okay for that to be a bit nebulous and for it to take a while to create. Plus, there are plenty of secondary projects to do right at school, so it still feels like part of my teaching job.

The one I just started last week, in fact, is a Health Club at my school. I think I've mentioned before that five girls from my school went to a Girls' Conference organized by the Health and Environment volunteers in my district? Well, my counterpart and I rounded them up, and asked them what they wanted to do with the things they learned. They gave pretty stock answers-- basically just said they wanted to do the things they were taught about at the conference. But that's okay-- the students here aren't used to being asked to think for themselves very much. This is something I really hope that being leaders of the Health Club will help to foster.

Anyway, they agreed to form a club, and then went from classroom to classroom explaining that they're creating a Health Club and telling other students when it would be meeting. Then we had them come up with and write down rules for the club and goals of the club.

I really, really want to make this as student-directed as possible. That is not a very Tanzanian concept, but the other teachers who are working with me on this are being very open-minded. There are several teachers at my school who really are great, who really take a leap of faith that this foreigner's weird ideas are worth trying out, at least.

When the students went around from class to class, they told the students who were interested in joining to tell the Class Monitor or Monitress, and for the Class Monitor/ress to give the lists to my counterpart or myself. I was kind of confused by this, so I asked my counterpart what the point of those lists was.

“Well,” he said, “we go through the names and decide who will be in the Health Club.”

“Um,” I said. “Why would we do that?”

“We will choose the students we think will be good members,” he answered.

I must admit, I was pretty baffled by this line of thought.

“Why don't we let everyone come?” I asked.

“Many people will sign up. We only want fifteen or twenty students. If there are many, they won't be organized.”

Well, okay, but: “Do you really think that all the students who sign up will actually come to the club every week?”

“No, many of them will say they will come, but they do not.”

“Exactly,” I said. “So how about we let everyone come, and take roll call, like in class. Then, after a month or two, the students who have come to most of the meetings are the club members.”

Apparently this was a novel idea. To be fair, there aren't really any clubs at school, and I bet there weren't any clubs in the schools my fellow teachers attended when they were students, either. So there's no real reason that they'd have thought about the mechanics of a student club at all.

Still, I think the original idea-- that the teachers would select the club members-- really highlights how, in Tanzanian schools, teachers are in charge of everything. Students don't really have much chance to show initiative and try to put their own ideas into action. Yes, there are Prefects, and a Head Boy and a Head Girl, but from what I've seen their roles seem mostly predefined and mostly to do with keeping order and doing what the teachers say.

Last week, the teachers were interviewing the students to decide who would be the school leaders next year. I was a little surprised, and asked, “So the students don't vote on their leaders?”

I was told, “Yes, the teachers choose who will run and then the students will vote.”

I'm not sure if this is true, or if the other teacher was humoring me. Either way I think the process is a bit telling.

I would like to note that both of the teachers helping with the health club (my counterparts) agreed to my idea immediately. I think it hadn't occurred to them, not that they thought it was a bad idea. It's an attitude I hope to help change, at least a little; we teachers really need to give students the opportunity to prove themselves. The club members are the students who actually attend meetings and are involved in the events and activities; it only seems basic to us because that's how it's always worked (or, at least, usually). If students have no control over anything, then how can they ever shine?

It comes with a risk. As I said, I want this club to be as student-run as possible. I know it'll take time, because the girls* are not comfortable in leadership roles, but eventually I want my role as supervisor to be about on par with an American teacher who is supervising a club. I'll be there to help them write grants or get permission for them to put on events and work with the leaders to make things happen, but I want the momentum to come from them. I want them to have the ideas, and for them to form the plan, and for me to be there as a resource to help them make those ideas and plans become reality.

The risk, of course, is that while I have a lot of hope that the girls will rise to the challenge, all I can do is hope. When we let students take the lead, we can only hope that they'll have good ideas, that they'll work hard, find themselves as leaders, push themselves to succeed. But there's also the chance they'll flounder, at a loss for what to do and how to go about it, and just sort of fizzle out.

As I said, I know it will have to be a transition, and that at first I'll probably have to take charge and tell them what to do more than I'd like. Am I a little scared that they'll stay in their boxes of doing what they're told and when I try to step back and let the students take the lead, everything will fall flat? Yeah. But just a little. These students really need someone to believe in them, and I do believe that, given the chance, they can be great, and do great things.

Looking back on my post, I find myself surprised at where I've focused. I helped students found a Health Club; the point of the club is to teach other students, as well as the community in general, about issues like HIV/AIDS, other STDs, family planning, goal planning, nutrition, and so on. And all of these are really important issues, and teaching students and community members about these things could make a huge difference in their lives. Yet my thoughts, and my words, are tending more towards empowering the students, towards how to get them to a place where they know how to put their thoughts and ideas into action.

You know what, I think that's just as well. I could teach students about all those issues, and it would help them. Then in a little over a year I'll leave, and the students who learned about health issues will have better lives, but the new students who come through school won't be any better off. The students I taught would probably have healthier families. It would help the community a little. There would be some families whose living situation might be improved.

But if the students in the health club teach other students all about those topics, and then also teach the younger club members how to do the same thing, then it can last long after I'm gone. The older club members will not only teach the new club members about HIV/AIDS and nutrition and family planning, they'll teach them methods of spreading that information. And hopefully, if the club ends up really student-run, they'll teach them how to take charge of an organization. So all the students I would have helped by teaching them about health still have those benefits, but now the students who come after get that advantage, too.

Plus, then there would be students, who then graduate and become adults, who have experience running an organization. Who have learned how to be a leader and take charge and organize events and who know that they can change the world around them. And with a whole heaping of luck, they'll have passed on that lesson, too. Not to the entire school, but to a few students, enough for there to be a next group of Health Club leaders, and a next, and a next.

I know, I sound way too hopeful. I'm sounding totally utopian right now, aren't I? But it's as I said. These kids need someone to believe in them; if nobody believes they can succeed... well, it's still possible, but it's awfully hard. If I don't believe in them, if I doubt their abilities, then I'll be pulling them down, I'll just make it that much more likely they'll fail. I'd rather put a whole lot of faith in them, and then if they don't go as far as I'd hoped, all that happens is that I'm disappointed; the only one who gets hurt is me.

But they've got it inside them. I know they do.

*Since the founders are the five students who attended the Girls' Conference, all of the leaders are girls. I'm really hoping the Health Club will be fairly balanced, gender-wise, but the students who said they were interested are around 75% girls at this point. Right before next term (which starts in January) I hope to have an election, so that the leaders are student-chosen, and hopefully both genders will be represented. But right now, the President, Vice-President, Secretary, and two Leadership Council members are all girls.


Kat said...

I share your concerns about writing a boring blog; that's why I stopped writing (well, that and this whole job-hunt issue).

Your secondary project sounds pretty awesome. Good luck.

Anisky said...

But your blog was so interesting!