Its a pretty common bit of advice heard in Peace Corps circles…don’t expect to feel really comfortable and successful until you have about six months left. Why Amy and I thought we would be the exception to the rule, I’m not sure, but here we are with just less than seven months to go in our service and we finally feel like we have gotten into a great groove.
Following my mom’s visit, school really got underway after Ramadan and the prolonged independence day celebrations. With school finally on a more-consistent schedule, we’ve really dug in and have been able to get a lot more involved in our schools than anything we were able to do last year. This is part 1, about what I’ve been up to this year. Amy’s will come in part 2.
For me, I’ve been really focused on three goals this year: building stronger relationships with students, trying to build critical thinking skills among my students in an academic setting where critical thinking really isn’t incubated or encouraged, and being more active in teacher training.
I’ve made huge strides on building relationships with students on a few fronts. I accidentally became the assistant coach of our school’s basketball team after going to a few of their games and having a few conversations with the coach. Now I practice with them twice a week and have gotten to know a number of the boys really well. As I mentioned in a recent post, I am developing writing relationships with students who have revealed problems and really personal details about their lives though their English journals. I’ve also seen a huge success in my English Conversation Club whose 40 members meet with me weekly in small groups.
To encourage critical thinking, I’ve introduced a number of elements into the classroom that have been really embraced by my students and counterpart teachers. Recently, we taught how to write an opinion piece. For the final lesson of the section, I divided the students into three topics, and then divided those students into pro and con groups for each topic. Whether they agreed or not, they had to develop an argument and then support that argument in front of the class in a debate-styled activity. We concluded the lesson with talking about the importance of understanding the other side of an issue, belief, or religion, even if you don’t agree with it. I couldn’t have been prouder of how well my students took to the lesson, and how strongly they argued for things that they did not agree with at all (i.e. getting married while still young, not wearing motorcycle helmets, and smoking).
Students have also shown huge leaps in critical thinking through the English Journals project. After starting with basic topics like their families, villages and hobbies, I’ve started giving more critical topics, and usually with follow up questions along the lines of: “what’s the biggest problem that your village faces? How would you solve it?”, “How do you think Indonesia should deal with its massive corruption/healthcare problems?”, and “If you were the principle of our school, what would you change, why?”
Wrongly assuming that the students would shy away from some of these topics, I’ve been really amazed at their responses. With a required minimum of one paragraph, I anticipated a lot of short answers. Instead, I’ve had students write 1, 2, or even 3 pages about the problems and their proposed solutions. If my best students are a glimpse of Indonesia’s future leaders, this country is in good position to move forward over the next few decades.
Lastly, I’ve been able to really devote time to teacher training this year. Our school is always given a number of student teachers from the local teachers’ college for their practicum. However, many teachers use this as an opportunity to not teach for three months and leave it in the hands of the unprepared student teachers. This year, I attended all of my classes with our student teachers and wrote daily evaluations, helped them create materials and gave guidance throughout their three month stint. They were really receptive and I think/hope that I was able to broaden their practicum with some new teaching ideas and creative approaches in the classroom.
I’ve also worked a lot harder with my regional teachers’ organization. Last year, if I didn’t have a ride to the meetings, I would not attend because they are often held in other schools that aren’t easy to get to. This year, I made more of a commitment to attend and it’s paid off. Since becoming a more “regular” member of the organization, I’ve been able to give a number of presentations on teaching and resources that I hope will contribute to improved English teaching in our regency.
While Amy and I both believe that the most important role of Peace Corps is that of representing the United States and improving the view of our country through people-to-people relationships, its nice to feel like I’m accomplishing something in my daily job, too. Unfortunately, as that advice goes, we’re hitting our groove just as we’re rounding the final curve before hitting the home stretch. Ideally, Peace Corps would be a three year commitment, where you would hit your stride at the halfway mark, rather than three quarters in. A third year extension is an option. Unfortunately, that version of Peace Corps would probably be a lot smaller and we would likely be sitting at home applauding anyone who would sign up for that level of sacrifice.