Khertvisi Castle, Khertvisi, Georgia

Monday, September 27, 2010

More thoughts on the school year

By this point, Sam and I have managed to see most of the English classes taught at our schools (not as easy a task as we first imagined; my school has 33 separate classes of English, each which meet 3 times a week, but many of these are held during the same class period). We have a short week at school this week because of some Peace Corps meetings we'll be attending on Thursday and Friday, but Sam is starting to team teach tomorrow and I'll start next week.

As our PC assignment, we're supposed to teach in the schools for at least 15 hours each week, although we are allowed to teach up to 20 or more hours per week. We are supposed to teach with a counterpart, a permanent English teacher in the school and cooperate in the classroom and in planning the lessons. Many volunteers have one counterpart that they work with exclusively. Neither Sam nor I can realistically work with only one teacher, however, since most of the English teachers (and most teachers here, it seems) don't teach 15 hours per week. Teachers' hours vary drastically, some teaching 5 or 6 hours per week, others teaching upwards of 20 (working 18 hours per week seems to be considered a full load). In a school meeting held near at the start of the year, my school director announced that my school has nearly 800 students and just over 100 teachers. We certainly do not have anything near an 8:1 student-teacher ratio (most classes have about 25 students).

With these shorter teaching hours, and thus lower pay, many teachers hold private lessons with students to supplement their incomes. It seems like students take private lessons in many subjects, but that languages tend to be the most popular private courses. The Georgian Ministry of Education attempted to push through a reform this summer that was aimed at cutting down on the number and necessity of private lessons by requiring that teachers work at least 18 hours per week in the schools or be fired. The reform fell through after a huge outcry about it; if it had been enacted the huge underemployment problem faced by the majority of teachers would have become a large unemployment problem in many towns, so for now teachers can teach the lower number of hours and still have time to teach private lessons on the side.

Students' schedules here differ pretty drastically from what I remember from my public school days, too. There seem to be more topics taught to each grade and all students in a given grade will have the same schedule (an 11th-grade class at my school, for example, might have biology, math, physics, chemistry, literature, Georgian, English, Armenian, geography, history and gym and maybe a few other topics that I'm forgetting; they would go to 7-8 classes per day and have a varying number of hours of each class per week). Classes are run in a different way, too. Students are assigned to a "class," a group of 24 or so other students, from the start of school (or sometimes from the 5th grade) and they will stay with this group of kids throughout their primary and secondary education. Teachers sometimes also stay with their "classes" and travel with the kids through the grades (so an English teacher that teaches English to a given 7th-grade class one year will teach that same group of students when they're in the 8th grade and 9th grade and so on, until they graduate).

There are a number of things that schools here in Akhalkalaki don't have that American schools do. First is electives and individual scheduling. All students in each grade take exactly the same classes. There aren't different levels within a topic (so no splits for, say, students who could do advanced calculus and those who would do better in remedial algebra). In our English classes this has been one of the biggest challenges. In the upper grades, there are a handful of students who can speak in correct sentences and paragraphs, but many students (if not the bulk) have a difficult time answering questions like "What is your name?" or "How old are you?". Also, any kind of elective-type class we might have had isn't offered at the school. If you want to study music or art or dance or a foreign language outside of the required 4 at my school (that is, Russian, English, Armenian and Georgian), you have to go to a separate school or find private lessons. Second big difference is a lack a lunch break or cafeteria. Our schools have small so-called cafeterias, where students can buy a roll or a sandwich or sometimes some candy or juice, but there isn't an option (nor is there time) for them to buy a lunch. Next, the schedule for students varies day-to-day (at least at my school) and students could begin at 9:00am and go until 1:30pm on Monday, then start at 9:40am the next day or end at 2:15pm or basically just have a different number of classes (and thus hours in school) depending on the day. Another big difference has to do with textbooks. Some of the books at my school are distributed to the students from the school, but for many of the classes, students must purchase their own books. This has meant that, in many English classes at least, the majority of students continue to not have the textbook into the second full week of school.

There are a number of additional differences between the daily life in school here and in America, and I'm sure we'll continue writing about these differences as we see them. All in all, though, we're excited to be back to school and to get started into team teaching.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Back To School

School started here last Wednesday, with a ceremony called “First Bell,” where parents and teachers join students in the yard to ring in the new school year. Besides the ceremonial ringing of a bell, there was a parade of new first grade students, welcome speeches from the director and selected students, song and dance performances, and an awful lot of balloons, which sometimes popped at moments terrifying to the new first graders.

Melissa's school:

Sam's School:

Then back to work. For the first two weeks or so, we’re supposed to sit in and observe as many classes and teachers as we can, before choosing the ones with whom we want to work. Melissa’s school has eight English teachers; mine only has four, and the way the schedule works out it looks like I’ll be working with at least three of them, so I don’t have quite the spread of options. My school starts teaching English in the fifth grade, though, as part of the Saakashvili government’s push for English education, they’re supposed to soon start from first grade.

Both of our schools were fairly recently renovated, and so we have some of the nicer facilities in the country (at least outside of the biggest cities). Most of our potential teaching counterparts have been very eager to work with us and involve us in their lessons. As is the case everywhere, some students are really excited and eager to learn, and some are…less so. Classroom management is a bit different here, and I think I’ll be glad to leave the disciplining mostly to my counterpart; the ear-pulling and head-smacking is not exactly my style.

There are advantages and challenges to teaching here. For me, the advantages have been a really excellent director and counterparts, the eager students (especially, in my case, in the younger grades), an extremely friendly and supportive teaching staff, facilities that are overall very nice, and the mystique that comes with being an American. I’m sure this will wear off in a few months, but for now it gets me some attention and respect from the kids that I probably wouldn’t get right off the bat in an American classroom. It’s also nice being in the Armenian school, since I get to hone my own language skills (I catch some of the kids smiling as I scribble down the translations they’re giving).

There are challenges as well. The Georgian government wants us to use new English textbooks, but these books are in Georgian, which neither the teachers nor many of the students know. So we’re using some books from Armenia (pretty good ones, in fact) with the Georgian/English book as a supplement -- a bit confusing for the kids. There’s a lot of emphasis on reading and translating complex texts, and not much chance for the students to practice basic communicative skills. We’re hoping to give them some more opportunities to do so. There is also a tendency to teach to the handful of ‘good’ students and leave the struggling or disinterested ones out. It’s nice that we’ll be working in pairs, so that hopefully we can bring more students into active participation.

There’ll be more to say as we start actively teaching, but for now, we’re happy to be back to work, meeting the students, and making our plans for the year.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Back to school and the world-famous "Sopo"

As you all know, our main job here in Georgia is to teach English to school children in Akhalkalaki. School will begin on Wednesday and we will spend the first two weeks attending various English classes taught by the many English teachers at our two schools. There are 5 schools in Akhalkalaki. The language of instruction at three of the schools is Armenian, Georgian at one and one--the biggest school in town--uses Russian. Sam is teaching at one of the Armenian schools; there are 3 (or maybe 4) English teachers at his school, and about 400 students, grades 1-12. I will be at the Russian school, with about 800 students and 8 English teachers. The goal of the PC Education program is not only for volunteers to teach the kids English, but also to help develop the skills of the English teachers in our communities. In this way, the idea goes, the volunteer's work is more sustainable; even after the PCV returns home after 2 years of service, the community continues to benefit from his being there, since the teacher he worked with speaks better English and knows more about communicative teaching methods that help the students to learn more. That's the hope, anyway.

While we're in the classroom, then, Sam and I will always work with a "counterpart," one of the local teachers. We are supposed to team teach, lesson plan together, collaborate on grading the students and generally work together on all aspects of teaching and the school year. Many PCVs also work with their counterparts on "secondary projects," those projects that are not directly related to the "primary project" (teaching English in the school). Some volunteers have worked with their counterparts to have students participate in after-school English conversation clubs, to work on writing grants to fix up or improve the school's bathroom facilities, to start some sort of athletic club, or on some other project. Counterparts are important to the PCVs not only as guides in the school, but also in the community, introducing us to others, helping us navigate language or cultural barriers, and giving us a nice chance to speak our native language with someone else for a while.

Because counterparts are so critical to the success of us education PCVs, we get the chance to choose which counterpart we want to work with (in some schools in smaller villages or towns, some volunteers only have one counterpart with whom to work; usually this works out ok, though, since that usually means that that counterpart is the one who filled out the application for a volunteer and truly wants them to be there). In order to know who to work with, Sam and I will be observing classes for the first two weeks. We'll get a chance to see what methodologies and strategies and activities the teachers use, the level of the students, which grades are best- (and worst-) behaved. We'll (hopefully) get a feel for which teachers want to work with us and with which teachers we would work best. We will be able to decide which age group we'd like primarily like to work with.

Georgian school students, according to recent reforms by the Georgian Ministry of Education, are supposed to start learning English this year in from the third grade. By 2012, they should all begin studying English from first grade. Previously, during Soviet times and until the very recent past, most school students studied German as their foreign language (their third language, usually, since kids tended to have their native language as their language of instruction and studied Russian each year as well). English is quickly supplanting Russian in Georgia, though, and fewer students are studying Russian as seriously. The decline of Russian in Georgia is especially pronounced in Georgian communities. In minority communities (of Armenians, like in Akhalkalaki, or of Azeris, like in Kelsey's village), Russian still has a stronger foothold. Our town has very strong Russian skills, most likely due almost entirely to the presence of a Russian military base that functioned here until January 2008. With so many native Russian speakers in town, it just made a lot of sense for all of the signs to be written in multiple languages (Russian and Armenian, sometimes with Georgian as well) and it kept up the population at the Russian schools (there used to be two Russian schools in town when the base was open). We've seen from our summer camps that kids still speak Russian, some better than others, but all better than any of the kids in our training village of Kortaneti.

Once school officially starts later this week, we'll share some more stories about how things go.

But before signing off on this post, I have one more fun story to share. I had another brush with "fame" here in Georgia this past week. The woman who authors the English textbook most commonly used in Georgian schools called Peace Corps and asked for 4 volunteers to help record dialogues in English for the CDs that will accompany the newest edition of her books. I was one of the lucky chosen and spent last Monday in Tbilisi in a little blue recording studio, reading the part of "Sopo" for the latest edition of "2000 Plus" for 5th grade students. It was a crazy trip. Some of my memorable lines included telling "Irakli" that he couldn't sign up for wrestling at school because he is too skinny; reciting a recipe for deviled eggs; correcting "Luka's" abysmal geography; and, with all the volunteers, chanting a multiplication table. I'm sure that now, with this new edition, all the kids in Georgia will become better speakers of English. I'll be scouring the bookstores now, trying to grab a copy to show off my new-found fame.

"Tatia," "Luka" and "Irakli" getting into character

The sound technician starting things off

The world-famous (or at least Georgia-famous) Tatiana Bukia, directing the dialogues