Sunday, February 15, 2009

A Peace Corps Blogger about SVG

Work, work, and more work

One of my good friends mentioned that she thought I was allergic to writing about work, and maybe I am, because to be honest that’s the reason why I haven’t wanted to sit down and type up a post. There’s been a lot of work the last month, which has been rewarding at times, but also very tiring.

If you didn’t know already, Steve and I officially switched work sites. This decision was born more out of necessity than desire, considering the ridiculousness of Steve’s being assigned the task of leading a remedial reading program. The night before school was going to go back in session and Marion House was planning on starting its program, we finally realized that the only answer to our situation would be to swap jobs. Afterwards we both wished that this thought had occurred to us earlier so that we would have had some transition and preparation time, but so it goes.

Four weeks into my new duties, I can’t say that I’m not struggling a bit. The remedial reading program at Georgetown Secondary is quite a beast — 8 classes, containing almost 200 students. They are all at different levels, but most are reading at an approximate age of 8 or below. (That’s 8 years old, not grade 8). Even with my previous experience as a reading teacher, I do not feel prepared to handle many of the challenges that I face throughout the day. First of all, I’ve never taught remedial reading — all of the kids that I’ve taught have been basically at grade level, or above. It is, in many ways, a totally different subject. I’ve spent a lot of time in the past few months just trying to educate myself in different phonics approaches, how to build fluency and automaticity, games and activities that I can play with a group of 13 year olds who are reading at a 6 year old level…Lesson planning is time-consuming, and I’ve tried to use differentiated instruction (where different groups in a classroom do different activities, based on their level), but have found it tough to manage.

The reason why I’m leading this program is because the regular teacher left for maternity leave in the beginning of the school year, leaving the class with no teacher. Hence Steve (and thus me) being asked to take over the program until the teacher returns after Easter Break. So, good news is that I will be not be doing this by myself indefinitely, and after meeting with the remedial instructor I feel confident in her abilities and look forward to working in more of a partnership when she returns.

In general, working at the school is just very draining. The classes are large, and the kids that I see are mostly apathetic, due to the fact that they have been failing in school up to this point. The classroom environment is noisy, and some kids actually refuse to come into the classroom (I’m talking, run away from me), therefore they end up in the halls wreaking havoc all period. The word chaotic definitely pops into mind. Most of the kids I see are the ones who have “slipped through the cracks” but with two hundred of them, it seems more like a canyon than a crack! Still, I have found that when I am able to work one-on-one with even the worst-behaved child, they show signs of caring, which is a lot to ask from a kid who still doesn’t understand the main tool of communication that is used in all of their classes, reading.

Steve and I recently completed a three-day In-Service Training for the Peace Corps, and while we were there our training officer said something which I think reflected quite accurately the frustrations of our service here in the Eastern Caribbean. She said that in many ways we are serving in one of the very hardest Peace Corps posts. The reason for this being that most other posts seem so different than the United States (including a different language), that Peace Corps volunteers quickly realize that the problem-solving strategies they used at home will be probably not be successful in this new context, and also, because of the language barrier, they set their expectations pretty low as to what they think they can achieve the first year. Here, because at times it doesn’t feel that different than America and everyone speaks English, volunteers try to go about work with the same attitude and efficiency they would back home, and don’t cut ourselves any extra slack. When a project is not totally successful, or a kid still doesn’t get it, we blame it on ourselves rather than considering cultural differences. This is probably one of the biggest reasons why Eastern Caribbean has apparently, at least for a time, had the highest drop-out rate of any PC country. The fact that we’ve only lost one volunteer out of our group is “unprecedented” (A volunteer resigned in St. Kitts — St. Vincent is still intact).

The problem is, St. Vincent is a different country and a different culture. Just because many Vincentians watch American TV doesn’t mean that we can blow in here and think that Vincentians will run meetings, or classrooms, or NGOs like an American would. Steve and I are realizing more and more that we do have an “American” way of doing things. We like projects organized, planned well in advance, with meetings that do not last more than an hour and a half. We place a high value on creativity, efficiency, and self-motivation. We hate “wasted” time. We need our personal space. We crave variety. So many other things which we’ve always just taken as the “normal” or “right” way of thinking, but are now beginning to see are just one way of thinking. This is a growing process, and I believe that sometimes we are blinded to our own progress because of the similarities, and comforts, of life here in SVG. We often times wonder what we are getting out of it. But I also know that lessons learned are generally only exposed in hindsight, so we’ll keep doing what we’re doing, and hope that we make ourselves, and our community, a little better from it.

I suspect that by the time they are finished being Peace Corps Volunteers they will understand things about "home" (i.e., the US) that they never thought about before coming to SVG. Being an American living in SVG, not a tourist but living here, is a worthwhile learning experience.