Khertvisi Castle, Khertvisi, Georgia

Monday, August 30, 2010

One more round of summer camp

It's been a little while since our last blog post, and this is mostly due to the fact that we have been pretty darn busy recently. Being busy again is a very welcome change from where our activity level was when we first got to site (remember Sam's recent post about the number of books we've read since we've been here?), but we are sorry to have let slip our blog-writing duties.

In the past two weeks, we entirely finished up our summer camp duties. We went back to the summer camp we had been working with for two extra days (on top of the 12 we had already worked) to "rehearse" a few English-language songs we had worked on with the kids so they could perform them for the final day of camp's big blowout concert/talent show.

Campers waiting for the talent show to begin

During our previous 12 days of camp we had sung Old MacDonald (they loved choosing animals that don't make recognizable sounds, like foxes and deer) and If You're Happy and You Know It.

Sam, leading a rousing rendition of Old MacDonald

We also played some games with The Beatles' Hello, Goodbye. Another big hit was that we taught them the chorus of the K'naan song Wavin' Flag (we sang the World Cup theme version, which they all knew from watching the World Cup, not the original version, which is much better). Last, but certainly not least, we frequently played/sang Johnny Works with One Hammer. (Sadly, and by tremendous oversight, we did not get a video of this. You say/sing "Johnny works with one hammer, one hammer, one hammer, Johnny works with one hammer, now he works with two" up to 5 hammers. While singing, you pump your fist as if you are working with a hammer. You add your other fist for 2, stomp one foot and then the other for 3 and 4 and then add some head banging for 5. After a few go-throughs, the kids are whiplashed and exhausted, so this is an all-around great activity. I'm sure we'll get a video of it at some point in our 2 years here.)

Sadly, I only have a picture of Johnny Works with One Hammer

We spent two days going over these songs again and they kids chose to perform Old MacDonald and Wavin' Flag at the concert. It was a great success.

After our big summer camp was over, I headed to a different minority community in Georgia, the Azerbaijani village of Kharajalar, where fellow volunteer Kelsey will be spending her next two years. She was running her summer camp and I went to help out for two days. Kelsey was with us in Kortaneti during training; they put all of the volunteers who would be serving in minority areas together because our learning of three languages necessitated a weird language schedule and it made sense for us all to stick together. Kelsey's ingenious idea for keeping her campers occupied was to make them race back and forth in pairs, holding a balloon between their heads (no hands!) and answer English questions when they got to the end. It was fantastic.

Making English learning as amusing as possible for the teacher

Kelsey's village is only about a stone's throw from Tbilisi, so we headed into the capital on the weekend. We also visited some other volunteers in another big city not far from Tbilisi, Rustavi. You might remember some of our pictures of Rustavi from our trip there in June (Soviet blocs of apartments, as far as the eye can see!). The most exciting part of the weekend (or at least the part that came closest to making us all cry for laughing so hard) was when we inadvertently ordered 20 hot dogs. Who knew that asking for 5 hot dogs (one each) would instead yield 20?

I think we're probably all still belching

After returning from Kelsey's camp and the capital 4 hot dogs heavier (and believe me, I felt those 4 hot dogs), Sam and I launched into our final summer camp of the year. We had had requests from many of the older students we'd come across for a chance for them to practice English with us (the town's camp was only for students aged 9-14). We held a 3-day mini-camp last week, Monday through Wednesday, at the town's administration building to comply with these requests. On day one, we talked with the students (about 20 in all, mostly girls). We played a lot of speaking games to encourage them to get over any anxiety or shyness about speaking in front of one another and it went really well. We were really impressed at how well the kids could express themselves in English.

On the second day, we listened to a lot of English-language music (everything from U2 to Outkast, Bob Marley to Bob Dylan, Louis Armstrong to System of a Down). We had the students fill out some worksheets we had created: fill in the blanks with song lyrics, circle the correct song lyrics, match the idiom with the meaning. They did really well with this, too, and really got into it. (On a side note, the Armenian-American band System of a Down is extremely popular here in our Armenian community. We were initially really excited to find a universally loved band, thinking "Great! We can use their songs to teach English!" Then we realized that this is one of their most popular songs here. So much for teaching English...)

The third and final day was movie-watching day, and as we did in Kortaneti, we showed Finding Nemo. Since these kids were older and had a better grasp of English, we asked them to write down words they heard but didn't know, as well as the names of as many characters as they could. When we paused the movie at 15-minute (or so) intervals to discuss what had gone on thus far, we were able to talk about some of the jokes-for-adults and cultural references that were entirely above the level of the younger kids we showed it to previously. They really enjoyed it and, impressively, all sat captivated by it, diligently taking notes and asking questions at each break.

When this camp ended, we had a lot of requests for renewed sessions or get-togethers in the future. We do hope to form a conversation club or after-school English group once we get into the swing of things with the school year, and it was really encouraging to hear so many students requesting it.

So now we are totally done summer camp and gearing up for the start of the school year. The first day of school is September 15, but most teachers are starting to trickle back now, to work on preparing their curricula and figure out what their schedules will be. I went in to my school today and met lots teachers (I'm getting really good at recognizing faces, but am still abysmally bad at remembering names). Sam will go in to his school tomorrow. Then, before we know it, we'll be in the daily grind and teaching classes.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Blessing of the Grapes

We had a few trips in mind for this weekend, but then we learned that Sunday was the grand reopening of the local church, under renovation for the past two years. It was a big deal, and much of the town turned out, so we were glad we stayed. Sunday was also a holy day for the blessing of grapes in the Armenian Orthodox church (connected with the feast of the Assumption of Mary). During the service, grapes are blessed and then handed out to the congregation. A lamb was also sacrificed (although it didn't seem to have been actually killed at the church) and served with lavash.

After the ceremony, the local folklore group performed Armenian dances. We then went with our friend Marianna to an aunt's house for coffee, where we had our futures told in the grounds left in the bottom of the cup. All good things there, and while the dog that our fortune-teller saw was believed to indicate a loyal friend, we're kind of hoping it's an actual dog when we get back (or a mighty Caucasian shepherd dog that becomes our true companion here). An ostrich was also seen in my future, but I forget what that's supposed to mean. Again, kind of hoping for an actual ostrich.

Handing out the grapes

Blessed grapes

Folklore performance

Melissa cut my hair today. She welcomes comments.

Thursday, August 12, 2010


Well, we’ve wrapped up the summer camp, and I think it’s fair to call it a success. Of course no one’s gone from zero to fluent in the space of a few weeks, but the kids really enjoyed our games and activities, learned a few songs in English, have pretty much nailed numbers, colors, and animals, and can at least get through a basic “hello, how are you” kind of conversation. All told we had contact with 250 kids during the course of the camp, got to know the wonderful people involved in organizing and running the camp, and we’ve seen some of our games and activities adopted by the counselors and the kids themselves. Now we’re taking a bit of a break and working to plan a few days of English activities for the older (high school) English students before school starts.

Wednesday we were invited to lunch in Akhaltsikhe with the U.S. Ambassador to Georgia, John Bass, and the U.S. Ambassador to Armenia, Marie Yovanovitch. Both are incredibly smart, energetic, and dedicated, extremely knowledgeable about the countries in which they serve, and very engaged with the projects that the U.S. government is funding and encouraging. Melissa and I have really felt proud, walking around Akhalkalaki and talking with people here, of the work that the U.S. has been doing in this community – building roads, funding scholarships and exchange programs, among other things. These are things that matter to people and make a difference. Both ambassadors were also really interested in the work that we volunteers have been and will be doing, and we had a really good exchange.

While we’ve been a good bit busier this summer than initially feared (beyond the camp, we’ve spent a lot of time visiting people and getting to know the community) we’ve still had plenty of time for reading. Thanks to my dad’s timely gift of a Kindle to each of us, we’ve been able to carry hundred-tome libraries here in the space of a pocket book. Since most everything written prior to 1923 and a number of things written since have entered the public domain, we’ve been able to raid Project Gutenberg and Amazon for free books, which is to say books made for the Peace Corps budget. We purchased a few newer books for the Kindles before we left, and the Peace Corps office has a very nice lending library, so we haven’t been dwelling entirely in the 19th century here.

Anyhow, here’s the list of what we’ve been reading or rereading so far…feel free to make suggestions, especially of those old public domain books:


The Lord of the Rings (trilogy), J.R.R. Tolkien
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, Mark Haddon
Middlemarch, George Eliot
The Awakening and Selected Stories, Kate Chopin
Dracula, Bram Stoker
To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
Emma, Jane Austen
Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
Currently Reading The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson


Aesop’s Fables
Foundation, Isaac Asimov
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge
The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
A Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin
A Clash of Kings, George R.R. Martin
A Storm of Swords, George R.R. Martin
Walden, Henry David Thoreau
The Sorrows of Young Werther, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
The Book of Wonder, Lord Dunsany
Othello, William Shakespeare
Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, Edwin Abbott
Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan
Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Vol. III, Robert Caro
Currently Reading: David Copperfield, Charles Dickens

I’ve also been reading one of the Thousand and One Nights a day, so as not to forget my Arabic (and because they are fantastically great stories – I’m just at the part where Haroun al-Rashid swaps his royal robes for a lice- and flea-ridden fisherman’s shirt so he can go listen to a trespassing pair of musicians without scaring them away – that’s what good music does to you!), and have lately started puzzling through some Dostoevsky in Russian, so as to learn important vocabulary words like “dreamer,” “trance,” and “dusk.”

Hard to believe we’ll go back to school for planning in under two weeks. Until then, we’ll be keeping ourselves busy with our high school camp, Armenian lessons, the grand re-opening of our local church, hopefully a day trip or two, a Peace Corps event in Tbilisi, and Melissa’s voyage to Kharajalara to help Kelsey with her summer camp.

We’re both really excited to start work, and we’ve found a lot that we’d like to do here outside of the schools as well. I’m sure at times it will feel like a slog trying to keep our energy up in the midst of the language barrier and cultural differences, the occasional bout of homesickness, and the workaday routine, but there’s a lot of good work to do, a lot of really great people to do it with, and if we need a break, well, The Lord of the Rings is sitting right there on the Kindle.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Life at Permanent Site and Summer Camp Part Deux

As the summer winds on here in Akhalkalaki and we get some weeks at permanent site under our belts (been here for 3 and a half weeks so far), we've slowly started to piece together a daily routine that is more involved and more social. When we first got here, it was quite a shock to our systems--we had come straight from our 10-week pre-service training (or PST in Peace Corps parlance), where every waking second was planned for us, filled with homework, classes, training, practicum, etc. Once we got to site, we no longer had a set routine, we no longer were surrounded by other volunteers and we had to start from square one with our host families, getting to know them and working through all the issues we had long resolved in our PST host families (like what foods we like to eat and how much is a normal amount for us to eat and why we don't especially like food that is prepared with half a bottle of sunflower oil).

Since it is summer, we won't get started back to school and teaching and a daily routine until mid-September. Until that time, we are supposed to be working to integrate into the community (by getting to know people here) and we should start to look at what the community lacks, and what sorts of secondary projects we could undertake during our service (our primary project, of course, being to teach English in the schools and transfer skills and new methodologies to our English teacher counterparts). We should also find language tutors to continue improving our language skills.

For the first week here, we were extremely proud of ourselves if we had one planned activity outside of the house, be it a meeting with one of the English teachers at our school, with someone from one of the local NGOs (non-governmental organizations) or with someone else from the community. We spent a lot of time just talking with our host family, going for long walks (and morning runs) around town, studying, reading and talking on the phone with other volunteers about how we would possibly find things to fill the time until September. Remember, we were used to being busy from 9am to 6pm, surrounded by other English-speaking volunteers and having homework to keep us busy all the time. In short, it was a fairly difficult transition to make, to come to permanent site in the summer. Even the volunteers in the business and social entrepreneurship program (working with NGOs) have had a rough go of it, many of them finding that, although they go to work each day, that does not necessarily imply that they have things to do (since summer time means that many organization employees are off for trainings or vacation, leaving the office fairly deserted).

More recently, though, things have been starting to pick up for us, the main reason being that we have started holding our summer camp for kids in town. We previously wrote about the 4-day summer camp we hosted in Kortaneti, where we played games with the kids focused on improving their English skills. Each Education volunteer here is supposed to hold a summer camp that is at least 7 days long, for at least 2 hours per day. Sam and I each have to host a camp, and we started asking questions about how we could do this from our first day at site.

As it turns out, our town for the past two years has put on a free camp for all the kids here, ages 9-14. They fund the camp from the town budget, and provide the kids with lunch each day. They take 120-125 kids for 15 days straight to a nice forested area just outside of the city and let them play games and just generally be outside and able to run around. Each morning at 11am, the kids gather outside of the town hall and a bus takes them to the camp, picking them back up again at 4pm. The camp has two shifts, with 125 different kids able to attend for 15 days (so it runs for 30 total days). When we started asking questions about camp, our counterparts and school directors talked with local government officials about just having us join up with the preexisting camp. Sam and I had a nice chat with some folks from the local government and it was decided that we could plan English activities and games for the kids for 12 days, for 2-3 hours each day.

We were anxious about the camp at first; it's a lot of kids and we didn't know what to expect in terms of English levels or interest in playing educational games. Moreover, we were nervous about what the local government employees would think of us. But having a pre-set location and time and setting and guaranteed group of kids was far too good an option to pass on, so we agreed to run our camp in conjunction with the town camp. We sat for a while discussing what kinds of games and lessons we would try to teach and wrote out fairly detailed lesson plans and got all our materials together and crossed our fingers.

Happily, the experience we gained during our training summer camp was extremely helpful in getting us prepared for this summer camp. We've played lots of games, focused on teaching (or refreshing) English. The varying levels of English knowledge among the kids has been a bit of a challenge (we have kids who have not studied any English, as well as kids who have studied for anywhere between 1 and 5 years of English). We try to run activities and play games that require different levels of knowledge, though, which seems to work pretty well. On each day we have a rotating group of between 15 and 30 students, playing games, singing songs and working to speak in English as much as possible.

So far we have had 6 days of camp. Yesterday we got a day off, as Sunday was the last of the first 15 days and the new group of students would need to be put together for the second set of campers. We'll get a chance today to see how this second group pans out--although the first round of camp taught us a lot of lessons about properly planning for camp (seems to be a good idea to start each day with some big, loud, running type of game to draw kids in for the quieter, more focused speaking exercises, which should then be broken up by another running, crazy activity, and so on).

We'll finish this round of summer camp on Sunday, August 8 and have almost finished the summer camp requirements at that point (having done 12 total days of camp, each of us responsible for and "in charge" of 6 of those days). As we began planning with the town officials for camp, though, two of them mentioned having teenage kids who were too old for the camp but would still love to have the chance to meet with us and practice their English and couldn't we do something for these high school students too? Not wanting to bite the hand that feeds us, we decided to just do 12 days of camp with these younger kids and agreed to do a shorter (2-4 days) "camp" with some of the older students afterward. That's our plan for now, as long as we make it through the next six days of camp!