2nd Annual SAVA English Teacher Training

It’s that time of year again. The avocados are ripening on the trees, the daily rains are drying up, and the English teachers of the SAVA region are meeting once again for an annual training workshop.

Based on the success of last year’s training in Sambava, the Education Volunteers of the SAVA region were happy to organize and present a similar pedagogy training workshop. Our goal was to share new teaching methods with English teachers and encourage a professional exchange of ideas. We recruited new teachers that did not attend the training last year, but also invited some alumni teachers to further enhance their skills. All together, there were 50 local English teachers in attendance during the 4-day training workshop held in Andapa.

Two teachers getting to know each other during a group activity

Two teachers getting to know each other during a group activity

Prior to this year’s event, I worked very closely with two of my Malagasy counterparts in Andapa and I also collaborated with the other PCVs in the region. Johnny and Deriot, my Malagasy colleagues, were absolutely essential in making this training happen. Johnny has a knack for translating English to Malagasy, so he helped me a lot when we needed to translate radio advertisements and recruitment posters. Deriot is the kind of guy that knows everyone and has connections and solutions all over town. Need 30 mattresses for teachers to sleep on during the training? Deriot can get them. Need to collect cooking materials like pots, plates, spoons, and forks? Deriot’s got your back. Within each of the four Districts in SAVA, the Peace Corps Volunteers living there played an essential role in recruiting teachers, organizing local travel to Andapa, and preparing to facilitate training sessions. This project was truly a team effort.

Me with Johnny (left) and Deriot (right)

Me with Johnny (left) and Deriot (right)

On the first day of the training, the teachers arrived in Andapa throughout the morning and got settled in. The training was held at a local elementary school and we utilized the classrooms for meeting space, a dining room for meals, and sleeping areas. We had a group lunch together and then kicked off the program with a welcome message from the Chef CISCO (superintendent of the school district). After a couple of icebreaker activities to get to know the teachers, our first real session was “The Role of the Teacher and Motivating Students.” This session was facilitated by a Volunteer and his Malagasy counterpart, which is something we encouraged this year in order to give more responsibility to the Malagasy teachers and slowly show them that they are able to organize similar trainings on their own. Some of the teachers told me that they appreciated this first session because it set the tone for why they were attending. Before you can perfect your teaching skills, you have to take a step back and consider what a teacher should be doing and how a teacher can support student growth.

PCV (right at the chalkboard) and English teacher Arnaud (standing left) give a presentation on motivating students

PCV (right at the chalkboard) and English teacher Arnaud (standing left) give a presentation on motivating students

The second day stated off with a session about learning styles and lesson planning techniques, facilitated by Deriot. This session helped teachers prepare for their lessons and introduced the idea that students learn in different ways (auditory, visual, kinesthetic, etc) and the activities that a teacher uses in a lesson should appeal to these different learning styles. The rest of the sessions that day were new topics that were not covered in last year’s schedule. One session was about giving feedback to students and correcting their errors. The next session, facilitated by another Malagasy teacher, was about gender equitability in the classroom. This is a priority issue for Peace Corps Madagascar across all the different types of work that we do, so it felt right to include some information during our teacher training. I think a handful of the teachers didn’t even realize how they previously treated boys and girls differently in their class, but hopefully now they have a fresh perspective and can make some actionable changes. We wrapped up the day with a session about organizing English clubs and other extracurricular activities. Many of the teachers also take time out of their busy schedule to help with local English clubs, so we shared some new ideas and activities that they could use in that setting. We emphasized the idea that learning a language is something you need to practice and use frequently, so having a vibrant extracurricular program where students can explore English and have fun is very beneficial.

PCV Jade talks about English clubs and extracurricular activities

PCV Jade talks about English clubs and extracurricular activities

The sessions on the third day were facilitated by different PCVs. We started the morning off with two sessions that together covered the basics of how to teach reading, writing, listening, and speaking activities. Some teachers don’t feel confident in their own English abilities, whether it’s speaking or writing or whatever, so maybe they don’t give much attention to one or more of these essential language skills in their classroom. We wanted to show them how they could bring these skills back into their classroom. In the afternoon, we offered a session about incorporating malaria education into the English curriculum. Malaria is something that impacts our local community a great deal every year. Students get sick and miss school, teachers get sick, family members get sick and sometimes die from malaria complications. So we wanted to give our English teachers the power to talk about malaria in their classrooms and give students at least one more point of exposure to prevention and treatment information. The final session of the day was about teaching with limited resources, something that every Malagasy teacher is used to. In most cases, teachers in this country get nothing more than a blackboard and chalk to teach with. In this session, we listened to the experience of the teachers more than teaching them from our comparatively minimal experience. It was a great exchange of ideas and I think everyone learned new ways to incorporate inexpensive or free resources. Sometimes we have to be creative and design our own teaching resources.

PCVs Crystal and Trevor lead an exercise to model good listening activities

PCVs Crystal and Trevor lead an exercise to model good listening activities

The fourth and final day of training was about bringing all the new information together and making a plan to move forward. The first morning session was led by a Malagasy teacher and he talked about creating a professional network of teachers to continue sharing experiences and exchanging teaching methods. This is essential if we hope to spread the lessons learned during the training and continue improving the quality of instruction in our region. At one point, teachers from each District met together and discussed the specifics of when they would meet again to share ideas. To wrap up the training, we asked the teachers to recite and sign a pledge that described how they would share the knowledge they gained during the training and reaffirming that they have the ability to enact change without the supervision of a foreigner. Then we gave a certificate of completion to each teacher, posed for many photos with the teachers, and shared one last meal together before teachers started to make their way back to their homes. It was a really great ending to a phenomenal training program. Overall, based on feedback from the teachers and the PCVs involved, it was a successful event and everyone can’t wait to do it again next year!

Teachers work together to create a lesson plan that incorporates malaria education

Teachers work together to create a lesson plan that incorporates malaria education

Throughout this process, and having participated in the first training program last year, I learned so much. I learned about myself and my work ethic, my ability to share a vision with people, and my ability to stay calm and focused in the face of ambiguity and other challenges. I got quite the education in the whole grant process including writing, budgeting, evaluating goals, and reporting results. Maybe most importantly, I learned about finding joy and purpose in my work here. All the stress and frustration and confusion of the past 6 months melted away when I saw how proud and excited these teachers were to hold up their certificate of completion. I knew it was worth it when I heard the teachers reciting their pledge and saw the look on their faces like they deeply believed what they were saying.

Participants recite the "Teacher's Pledge"

Participants recite the “Teacher’s Pledge”

I owe a lot of thanks to many, many people. More than I could properly put down in words here. But I’ll try. A tremendous amount of thanks goes to the generous Americans who donated to our grant and basically funded the entire program. I also worked closely with local school officials and teachers to help spread the word about the training and secure some of the logistics during the event. This project would have also been nothing without the interest, dedication, and participation of the 50 Malagasy teachers that took it upon themselves to improve their careers. As I mentioned before, a huge amount of thanks goes to Johnny and Deriot and the other Malagasy teachers that worked with us. And I really owe a lot to the amazing Peace Corps family that supported us throughout this endeavor. The PCVs in the SAVA region were instrumental in so many ways and it was such a pleasure to work with them. They willingly took on responsibilities to help share the workload. Other PCVs shared ideas for sessions and gave unwavering support throughout the whole process. And finally, thanks to the Peace Corps staff that helped us work through the grant process and helped us realize the full potential of this project. To all, I offer my sincere gratitude and appreciation.

Having a good time with the team of English students that cooked every meal for the training and made sure we were well fed!

Having a good time with the team of English students that cooked every meal for the training and made sure we were well fed!

Me with most of the participants from Andapa. Look at all those big Malagasy smiles!

Me with most of the participants from Andapa. Look at all those big Malagasy smiles!

Most of the SAVA PCVs pose for one of many photos with a proud participant

Most of the SAVA PCVs pose for one of many photos with a proud participant

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Men as partners

A primary focus of many development projects is empowering women and girls, which is a very important issue to address. One example is the Peace Corps’ initiative, called Let Girls Learn, that focuses on increasing access to education for young girls around the world. Another popular program that Peace Corps Volunteers in various countries organize, called GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) Camp, is designed to develop the leadership skills of girls and give them the opportunity to explore a variety of relevant health, environmental, and educational topics.

In addition to educating and encouraging women, it is also important to share these ideas with men in the spirit of cooperation. Men and women should work together to accomplish any community development goal. To address this need in Madagascar, a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer recently organized a training for young men in the SAVA region. The MAP (Men As Partners) Camp was designed to “explore community development through a feminist lens,” according to the lead Volunteer of the project. The training was held in Antalaha and brought together 60 men, their ages ranging from 16 to 35, for a 4-day workshop. I was lucky enough to participate in this project and bring some men from my own community. During the course of the training, the men engaged in thoughtful discussions on a variety of topics including gender roles, sexuality, men’s health, community development, HIV and AIDS, and healthy relationships. Each session was led by a different local leader who brought his own perspective and style to the discussions.

All the participants on Day 1 of the MAP Camp

All the participants on Day 1 of the MAP Camp

The men who participated in the MAP Camp come from a variety of backgrounds. Some are students, others are tour guides, and a few work for other NGOs in Madagascar. Some of the men live in the larger regional cities while others come from smaller villages. Some have wives and children. Despite what they do or where they come from, these men came together and quickly bonded over a shared desire to improve their communities and help the women in their lives.

The men sign a banner with a pledge that reads “Every woman is a daughter or mother or wife to a man. To respect all women is to respect the women that you know. Today we pledge to end violence against women”

The men sign a banner with a pledge that reads “Every woman is a daughter or mother or wife to a man. To respect all women is to respect the women that you know. Today we pledge to end violence against women”

The first day of the camp began with a welcome from the Mayor of Antalaha and an introduction to the purpose of the program by the organizers of the MAP Camp. One of the first activities was a chance for the men to express their opinions on a variety of topics. To do this, we created four lines that corresponded to the opinions “strongly agree”, “agree”, “disagree”, and “strongly disagree”. Next, the facilitator read statements out loud (for example, “men are smarter than women” and “homosexuality is natural and acceptable”) and directed participants to stand in the line that was closest to their personal opinion. Each line of men had an opportunity to explain themselves, listen to others, and then they could change their position before moving on to the next statement. I was impressed by how the men respected each other when they had a difference of opinions and they were willing to listen to what others had to say. It was a powerful way to begin the program and set the stage for some meaningful discussions.

The men standing in four lines according to their opinion on a given statement

The men standing in four lines according to their opinion on a given statement

The second day of the camp had a more informational approach. One session explored the influence that different forms of media have on the messages about gender and sexuality in Madagascar. I even learned a lot about what men in the local communities hear and see from radio, television, film, religious groups, and schools that effect their understanding on gender. Next, the men had a candid and transparent discussion about the spectrum of sexual orientation and gender identity. Most of them had very relevant and mature questions that showed a true desire to understand the complex ideas. I was, again, pleasantly surprised to see this kind of participation coming from men that live in such a heteronormative and traditional society.

A discussion facilitated by the local Imam

A discussion facilitated by the local Imam

On the third day, the participants addressed the issue of men’s health and sexual health. Activities began with a game to test the knowledge of participants on the subject of HIV and AIDS. The men knew many of the basic facts, but they also learned a few new things to help them make healthy life choices. Next, the group headed to the beach and played a few games. The first game divided the men into two groups and they stood shoulder to shoulder in a line facing each other with arms and hands behind their backs. Then, a soccer ball was put in the hands of one of the men and the team had to shuffle the ball up and down the line without the other team being able to see the ball. Each team took turns doing this while the other team watched closely and attempted to guess where the ball was after one minute of being passed behind the backs of their rivals. The symbolism behind this game was that the soccer ball in the hands of a man represented a person with HIV or AIDS and the other team couldn’t always accurately guess the person with the “ball” just by looking at them. It was a fun, yet important, lesson in equality and awareness of those around you. The next game had men dribbling the soccer ball through a series of obstacles that represented choices and consequences in life. The first set of choices, such as “having unprotected sex” or “having sex with multiple partners”, was spaced out enough that it was fairly easy to dribble the ball through the line. If a man kicked the ball into any of the obstacles, it represented him making that particular bad choice. Next, the obstacles got closer together and each one represented either contracting HIV or an STI. The final line, with the obstacles placed even closer together, represented either developing AIDS, having an early death, or not being able to work. As the men dribbled the ball through the lines, they realized that it’s easy to make one poor decision but it can lead to a much more difficult consequence later on. Everyone enjoyed a few hours on the beach, especially those men who had never seen the ocean before!

Playing a game at the beach about knowing a person's HIV/AIDS status

Playing a game at the beach about knowing a person’s HIV/AIDS status

Dribbling the soccer ball through the "obstacle course of life"

Dribbling the soccer ball through the “obstacle course of life”

The program finished on the fourth day with a discussion of things that the men could do after the training to continue spreading these ideas and helping their communities. They divided into 4 groups, based on the District where they live, and worked together to develop a work plan. Each group made a presentation and shared what next steps would be taken after the training. This is a crucial step in making the information relevant and useful to the men. It was great to see them feel empowered and realize that they have the ability to help others in their communities. Not only did they make some new friends during the course of the program, but they learned so much.

A few participants presenting their work plan to the group

A few participants presenting their work plan to the group

This was an extremely well-organized event and I feel grateful to have participated and shared this opportunity with some great men in my community. The main theme of the project was to encourage men and women to work together, and I think we got a great start on that. I look forward to working with these men and helping coordinate other resources so they can make a difference in our local community.

Group photo in front of the Antalaha Mayor's Office at the end of MAP Camp

Group photo in front of the Antalaha Mayor’s Office at the end of MAP Camp

Support education improvements in Madagascar

Ask any American and they can probably tell you about a teacher that had a lasting impact on them. A teacher who challenged students, inspired them, and encouraged intellectual growth during such a formative time in a young person’s life.

In Madagascar, it is more difficult to find such a relationship between teachers and students. Part of the difference is certainly cultural and that won’t change very easily. All too often in this country, teachers are viewed as the infallible keepers of knowledge and they pass on this knowledge through dictation and rote memorization. But part of the difference is also due to a lack of quality training for teachers. Unlike in America, formal education or training for a teacher is not always required in Madagascar. This reality is often the root of many issues in the Malagasy educational system. Students aren’t engaged. Some teachers, who never wanted to be teachers in the first place, get stuck in the classroom because it can be a reliable job.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer, one of my job assignments is to help improve the quality of English instruction in my community. During the last year, I have collaborated with local teachers, shared experiences, listened to them more than I have talked, and offered suggestions based on my limited training. But there is more that can be done.

With the help of 5 other Peace Corps Volunteers in the SAVA Region of Madagascar (the region where we live), we are organizing a 4-day regional teacher training workshop to address the issue of instructional quality. If a person lives relatively close to one of the few major urban centers in Madagascar, they might have greater access to government teacher training programs, but such training is rarely ever a requirement to be a working teacher and thus it is not always encouraged. But with the added incentive of working with “foreign” teachers, especially Americans, we hope to attract 60 teachers from all around the region to attend out workshop. It’s important to us that we reach not only teachers in the urban centers, but also those in the more remote countryside villages with even fewer resources. To read about the success of the inaugural teacher training that we put on last year, you can read my blog post about it here.

To fund our ambitious program, I have applied for a grant through the Peace Corps. This particular type of grant is part of the Peace Corps Partnership Program, which means that the grant is funded by private donations rather than a government budget. With this type of grant, the community must contribute at least 25% of the total cost of the program, either through donated materials or in-kind donations like time and meeting space. The rest is up to us to fundraise! The grant also has to be completely funded before a single penny (or Ariary, in this case) gets to the community. When that happens, the funds will come to me and I will purchase all the needed materials. When we finish the program, I have to provide receipts for all costs and that prevents me from running away with all the money you have so graciously donated to help my community. The grant is structured in such a way that I cannot segment any of the costs during the fundraising phase, so all donations go into the general budget.

If you’d like to make a donation or read more about the project, please visit our fundraising page here.

I, and the team of Volunteers working on this project with me, would greatly appreciate any support you can give us. Whether that is making a donation of any amount or helping to spread news of our project by sharing the fundraising page with others. Every little bit of effort adds up and it can help bring some much needed resources to a great community of educators.

Inaugural SAVA English Teacher Training

As an Education Volunteer in Madagascar, my primary assignment is teaching English to secondary school students. Another aspect of my assignment is to help improve the quality of English language instruction overall by working with and training other Malagasy English teachers. During the two years that I will serve in my community, I can personally impact only a small number of people, and then I will leave. But by helping Malagasy teachers improve their own teaching methods, the hope is that they will continue to inspire and teach exponentially more students for many years.

In the spirit of cooperation and professional development, the 4 other Education Volunteers in the SAVA region and myself recently organized a 3-day English teacher training workshop. We recruited 64 English teachers from across the entire region, brought them together in the regional capital city, Sambava, and then worked with them on a variety of education topics. This event was especially significant because we believe it was the first time that only English teachers from the whole region had come together to meet in a professional setting. Usually, English teachers are not singled out as a group and they rarely get to interact with other English teachers from other towns. Needless to say, we were very excited for this opportunity to bring the teachers together.

Teachers listening to a lecture by our Malagasy counterpart, Guyot

Teachers listening to a lecture by our Malagasy counterpart, Guyot

Before the SAVA Teacher Training had begun, I worked for many months with the other Education PCVs to develop, coordinate, and prepare. The long process started last year when another PCV from our area wrote a grant proposal to get funding for the training. When the grant was approved, we could really start working to recruit teachers by making announcements on local radio stations, posting informational flyers, and visiting schools to encourage English teachers to apply. At first, it was challenging to get enough teachers to apply so that we could meet the minimum number of teachers needed according to the grant proposal. After a few weeks of relentless encouragement and advertising, we actually received more applications than anticipated. For example, I got 28 applications from teachers in Andapa and I had a budget that could only accommodate 18 teachers.

Some of the teachers arrive to the training

Some of the teachers arrive to the training

Then, just a few weeks before the event, we coordinated the logistics needed to bring all these teachers together in one place and host them for three days. The workshop took place at the Teacher’s College in Sambava. We facilitated our sessions in the main auditorium and the participants could eat and sleep in a few of the other classrooms. It was our responsibility to coordinate transportation for the teachers to get to Sambava and then return to their respective districts after the training was finished. We also provided all meals during the training, which meant buying food and delegating cooking duties to a team of insanely helpful local university students who are studying English. This entire training event was a massive group effort that was beautifully executed with the help of all the PCVs in the region and one of our Malagasy counterparts, Guyot.

All the Education PCVs of the SAVA region with Guyot

All the Education PCVs of the SAVA region with Guyot

By the time the training was scheduled to begin, we were ready to make the most of our time together and share the experience with our Malagasy colleagues. During the 3-day event, each training session was facilitated by a different Volunteer. The topics were selected based on their relevance to teaching English as a foreign language and also to address a few issues that are affecting the Malagasy education system. We covered topics such as motivating students, classroom management strategies, activities for teaching the four main language skills (reading, writing, speaking, and listening), and lesson planning.

Leading a discussion about lesson planning strategies

Leading a discussion about lesson planning strategies

Our goal was to open a discussion about these topics and talk about new methods that could be used to better support a student-centered approach to learning. All too often in this country, teachers of all subjects will simply write information on the blackboard, make the students copy it down, and then leave. Especially in terms of teaching a foreign language, this method is practically useless because the students get little to no opportunity for using the language skills. We also wanted to emphasize the ideas that a motivated student will retain more information, language teachers should serve as guides during the learning process, and sharing knowledge with other professionals is essential to improving the quality of teaching in this country. During all the sessions, the teachers seemed to be very engaged, curious, and willing to share their experiences. In my opinion, this was the best way to highlight positive behaviors and learn ways to improve existing approaches.

Teachers working together on a small group activity

Teachers working together on a small group activity

One of my favorite parts about the training was the opportunity to meet other English teachers from my own area and also from other parts of the region. During the recruitment phase, I was able to introduce myself to almost all the other English teachers in Andapa and some teachers from surrounding villages. When we all arrived in Sambava, it was a networking goldmine of teachers. I feel more connected to the community of teachers in SAVA than I ever have before. Building on those connections, I’m excited about future opportunities to collaborate with and support other English teachers.

Playing a game of "telephone" to practice listening and speaking

Playing a game of “telephone” to practice listening and speaking

When it was all over, I think the general consensus among the PCVs involved was that the program was a huge success. We all worked our tails off before and during the training, so we were relieved to finish up and celebrate our job well done. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of our group effort by combining American and Malagasy ambition to organize this training. Moving forward, we hope to offer another training workshop again next year and invite other English teachers to help spread the knowledge.

All the participants proudly showing their certificates of completion

All the participants proudly showing their certificates of completion

Avoiding the comparison trap

Most of these people, I haven’t seen or even talked to in about two months. After the excited reunions and hugs, it doesn’t take much time before we begin the lines of inquiry about each other’s lives.

“So, how are things at your site?”

“Do you have ______ in your town?”

“How long did it take you to travel here?”

“I’ve been doing this or that in my town, what have you been doing?”

I expected some of these conversations to happen when the 29 members of my Stage got together this week for our IST (In-Service Training). I was looking forward to it. We had all been alone in our respective sites for two months already and this was the first time since PST that we were all going to be together again. It’s a great time to check up on people and share ideas about our integration and teaching strategies. We all had stories to tell, some more passionately than others.

But for me, one of the challenging parts about this flood of stories from around the island is resisting the urge to compare experiences. This country is so diverse and large that the experiences of one Volunteer might not ever resonate with another Volunteer. Yet, in our attempt to come together as a group, we share bits and pieces of our lives and try to find ways that our experiences are similar. Most of the time, they are not as similar as they seem. It feels as if part of IST is supposed to be about sharing our “common Volunteer experience,” but we are hesitant to accept the truth that “common” is a very delicate idea to use. While there are definitely some aspects of Volunteer life that can be understood by almost all Volunteers, much of what each individual person does and sees during their service is so specific to just that one person.

One piece of famous unsolicited advice from our Country Director is to never compare ourselves to other PCVs because “each PCV comes to [Peace Corps] with a different background and personality and will be placed in a different site, [so] what they do should not guide or direct your experience or feelings of accomplishment.” While this idea is much easier said than done, it has been something that I have tried to focus on in the past two months and especially during IST. In my eyes, there is a balance between wanting to know what my fellow Volunteers are doing and planning in their own communities and using that information as a scale to measure my own success and worth.

It is important to remind myself that this is my Peace Corps experience and I take sole responsibility for my own satisfaction. I must use my own skills and background to work within the context of my own community and evaluate my experience based on my own ideas of accomplishment. Comparing my language skills or the extent to which I feel integrated into my community or the amount of hours I am in the classroom to the same metrics as other PCVs does absolutely nothing for me except give me a distorted view of my own reality. I am not trying to emotionally or socially distance myself from other Volunteers so much so that I end up living in my own little bubble, but I am trying to limit the direct comparisons of experiences that I make between myself and other people.

If nothing else, attending this IST was a great way to bounce ideas off of other Volunteers and hopefully I can return to Andapa with a fresh perspective and renewed commitment to my host community. Plus, the food at the Training Center was pretty delicious.

What I learned in PST (and other cultural notes)

“Good teachers know that discomfort and pain are often signs that truth is struggling to be born among us” -Parker J. Palmer

 

Eleven weeks ago, I stepped off an airplane in a place that I knew very little about. I was quickly greeted by some other Americans that I immediately trusted with my life, stuffed into a car, and hauled off for a few hours through twisting and unfamiliar country roads. I was disoriented, to say the least. But these were only the very first moments in what would prove to be an incredibly challenging, awkward, rewarding, and memorable experience. Also known as PST.

Today, I write as a newly minted Peace Corps Volunteer. By assuming this new title, I claim to have no new special powers, knowledge, or insight compared to my former Trainee self 24 hours ago. But what I can share are my observations and lessons learned after living in Madagascar for 3 months. Throughout the whirlwind and often mind-numbing life of a Trainee, I’ve managed to keep my eyes and ears open just enough to take in the delights of life in Madagascar. In my own words…

Spoons are very underutilized in America. At the Malagasy dining table, the spoon tends to be the main utensil. It’s effectiveness is remarkable. Especially with a rice-based meal, using a spoon to pile food together for each bite is your best option. A fork can help collect different pieces of the meal from your plate, but the spoon is the real superstar.

Convenience is relative. What’s easy for you in America can sometimes be impossible or extremely difficult in Madagascar. Things that many of us take for granted in America, such as clean drinking water coming from multiple faucets in homes, are far from the reality for the majority of Malagasy people. I’m learning to appreciate and be mindful of these differences.

Peace Corps Trainees love snacks. From the first full day of training, we had 3 square meals each day and both a morning and afternoon snack. It was a nice perk at first, until we got accustomed to it and became unknowingly distraught when snacks were not provided. The joke started by our group getting a laugh anytime snack was explicitly stated in the daily schedule, as if we were children being looked after because we couldn’t fend for ourselves, and then we became dependent on snack. It quickly turned into a major question of the day, we now each have our favorite types of snacks, and we would even get snacks packed for us to take if we were out on the road traveling during the normal snack time. It’s probably something I’ll go to therapy for many years from now.

Making plans in person is worth the effort. For the first few weeks of training, none of the trainees had cell phones that worked in Madagascar. So we had to make plans with each other in person, which probably sounds like a really simple thing to do. And it is, but I came to really appreciate the ability to look someone in the eye, set a time and place to meet again, and follow through on it. We had to trust each other just a little bit more, even after knowing each other for only a few weeks.

No matter how many teeth you’re missing, you should still smile. Be thankful and proud for what you have, and spread joy through your smile every single day.

Chickens. Everywhere in rural towns. Everywhere.

Every single butterfly is a work of art. The colors, the patterns, the grace. I have yet to see a boring butterfly in this country.

Washing your clothes by hand can destroy your knuckles. I still haven’t perfected the skill yet, maybe I never will, but inevitably I walk away from washing my clothes with one or two more wounds on my knuckles from rubbing the wet clothes together. I’ll either master the technique or form sizable calluses on my hands.

If you let one student go to the bathroom during class, pretty soon half the class will ask to go as well. In the first couple of days of our teaching practicum, some of us learned this lesson the hard way. Malagasy students are very formal about approaching the teacher to ask permission to go to the bathroom, but without proper regulation, it can quickly get out of hand and all of a sudden a class of 60 students dwindles down to 25.

I’m a white man, so I must be French. In the eyes of most Malagasy people I’ve encountered, Caucasian people are almost immediately seen as French. Until I open my mouth and dribble out a few rudimentary Malagasy words, I am almost always greeted with a “bonjour monsieur!” Madagascar has a long history of French colonization, many French people (and people from other nations) live here today, but this stereotype seems to be deeply rooted.

Malagasy people point with their lips. If a Malagasy person wants to draw your attention toward something in a fairly discreet way, most likely they will use their lips to point in the direction they want you to look. It’s similar to what many Americans do when they nod their head in a particular direction. Try it out next time you’re sharing a meal with someone and you ask them to pass the salt, just point with your lips.

Despite the amount of rice in Madagascar, putting it in a salt shaker to prevent clumping is unheard of. I suggested this to my host mother one day and she looked at me like I had 7 heads. In most cases, the salt shakers are so clogged up because the moisture binds the salt together. But sacrificing a few dry pieces of rice is not an option.

Malagasy students are incredibly meticulous about copying things from the blackboard. Usually they have at least three different colored pens to write with, rulers to draw straight lines and make grids, and their handwriting is almost uniform. It’s amazing to see, but unfortunately it usually takes them much longer to write down simple information because they want it to look perfect. Due to lack of resources in many areas, typically there are no textbooks for students so the notebooks that they write information in become their textbook.

Clean is relative. Clothes, dishes, homes, bodies. They are usually free of obvious dirt and debris, but I’ve noticed that few things in this country are as clean as they are in America. I’ve quickly come to modify my standards of acceptable cleanliness and manage to maintain my health at the same time. Your clean is probably not my clean anymore.

Everything I come in contact with tends to have a light dusting of chalk. Teaching with a blackboard means tons of chalk dust everywhere. It starts on my hands, gets blown around the classroom and sticks to everything else, and it eventually ends up on my clothes and consequently everything else I touch until I get the chance to wash off.

Sometimes making a fool of yourself is the best way to get your point across. Whether I had to teach a new concept in class or pantomime an action to overcome a language barrier, sometimes I have to swallow my pride and get laughed at because I’m being perceived as ridiculous. I believe that it can show some compassion and humility.

I hope that through sharing these experiences, I have been able to shed a little bit more light on the truth that is my life.

All of a sudden, I’m a teacher

It seemed to happen overnight. One day I wasn’t, the next day I was. I didn’t look or smell any different, but somehow I was allowed to assume this new role. I walked into a dimly lit classroom with a blackboard that looked like it had years of chalk dust accumulated on it and I was told to teach. I had a curriculum, I had a lesson plan, I had the attention of my students. I just needed to put all the pieces together.

During this current portion of PST, the focus is on developing our technical skills as teachers. To do this, we have a practicum section built into training where we teach English to local Malagasy students. For the students, it’s basically a free summer school program in English for all levels from 6ème (what’s this, you may ask?) to adults. For me and the other Trainees, it’s a way to practice all the skills that go with teaching including lesson planning, classroom management, and administering exams. A few people in my Stage have had prior teaching experience in the US, but a majority of us, myself included, have no formal classroom experience to speak of. After each lesson that we teach, which can be between 1-2 hours, we get feedback from staff and peers to help us process what went well and what needs improvement. I use practicum as the time to experiment with different teaching approaches and methods, test them out on real students in a relatively low-stakes setting, and learn new techniques by observing my peers. In Mantasoa, the students are generally better at English here compared to other areas because the Peace Corps has been offering similar practicum programs for many years when each new group of Education Trainees comes through.

My very first experience in the classroom was with the 6ème class. In Madagascar, the schools use the French model of education. This means that the class levels follow the French system, and 6ème (“ème” is the French abbreviation for ordinal numbers, equivalent to “th” in English) is roughly equivalent to 6th grade in the United States. This is typically the grade when English is first introduced into the curriculum. As the students continue through school, the grade levels have smaller ordinal numbers. For example, after 6ème, students move on to 5ème and then on to 4ème. Lycée (the equivalent of high school in America) begins at 2nde and continues for 3 years to Terminale (senior year). Other than Malagasy and foreign language classes, the language of instruction in the classroom is French. Math, science, history, etc. are all taught in French and most of the administrative paperwork is in French as well. This helps to explain why most people in this country speak both Malagasy and French.

But back to my experience in 6ème for a moment. This particular class has come to be loathed by many Trainees because of the size, about 50-60 students, and the resulting challenge of keeping control of the class while teaching. In 6ème, the student profile is basically anyone who would normally be in this grade and anyone younger who shows up. So it’s very common that a true 6ème student brings his or her 6-year-old siblings to class. This also means that you have a multi-level proficiency class and a huge age disparity, which makes it very challenging to be an effective teacher. Despite all of this, I feel as though I had a much smoother start to teaching than I anticipated. After that first classroom experience, I’ve had the opportunity to teach almost every other level of students as well, all with what I believe to be poise and effectiveness. I feel relatively comfortable in the classroom. During practicum, I’ve received helpful feedback about my performance and I’m confident that with more practice I can be a great teacher. Through this experience, I’ve also learned first-hand how much planning and preparation goes into teaching before the teacher even walks into the classroom. Lesson planning and materials development are important and time consuming endeavors that payoff in the classroom. Working with the older students has the advantage of higher proficiency and more interesting topics, but working with younger students also has it’s perks because it’s easier for a teacher to set a good solid foundation in English and correct errors before they become bad language habits.

Outside of practicum, the PST experience marches on. My days are filled with training sessions, Malagasy language classes, and mental exhaustion. Just like when I was living with my host family, the only truly free time is on Saturday afternoons and Sundays. Otherwise, I am told where to be and at what time to eat and so on. The schedule and amount of information overload is starting to wear me down. Some days it feels like I’ve been going full speed all day but I can’t pinpoint exactly what I’ve accomplished during my waking hours. A few other Volunteers that have been in country for at least a year have told me and my fellow Trainees that PST is the hardest part about Peace Corps service. It’s not the rigorous schedule or high level information. It’s simply the fact that we come here to be Volunteers, not Trainees. Although most of the things that we learn during PST are essential to preparing us for service, we are also chomping at the bits to start doing the type of work that we all came here to do. With that reasoning, I can’t decide if by the end of the month I’m more excited to move to my new site or to be done with PST.

As I mentioned before, the next major step in my Peace Corps service will come at the end of this month when my Stage is sworn-in and we officially become Volunteers. The ceremony will take place on the morning of August 29th in the capital city of Antananarivo. This ceremony is not only a big deal for each individual, but the country of Madagascar takes it very seriously well. I’ve been told that the local television and newspaper media outlets will be covering the event, several government and Peace Corps officials will be in attendance, and the Prime Minister has also been invited. Within a day or two of being sworn-in, each new Volunteer will begin the journey to their respective permanent sites where they will each be living and working for the next 2 years. I have been assigned to go to a town in the north east part of the country called Andapa. It is located in the SAVA region, which is widely known for its rich biodiversity, vanilla bean production, and lush national parks. I’ve been in contact with the Volunteer that I will be replacing in Andapa and she has already shared many stories and photos of the town with me. I feel as though I am already part of that community. Although I am about 100km inland from the coast, Andapa is nestled in the foothills of a large valley and the weather is usually hot for most of the year. During the rainy season, the storms coming in from the Indian Ocean can prove to be quite a headache for daily life. As in many developing countries around the world, most areas of Madagascar lack good paved roads and infrastructure. This is also true of the SAVA region and the rain typically makes the few good roads in the area either flooded out or completely impassable. As the saying goes: when it rains, it pours. Personally, I think I can tolerate heat and a few months of constant rain in Andapa better than the virtually year-round cold and wet of the highlands where I am now. My job assignment will likely be at both the local CEG, or middle school, and the lycée, or high school. I’ll have to wait until I arrive in Andapa and meet with my Malagasy counterpart to iron out those details, but this was also the assignment of the previous Volunteer. My house is located on the CEG campus and it is a converted office space. With that being said, it will be small. The previous Volunteer insists that it’s enough room to live comfortably. But I’m 6’2″. We’ll see how my definition of “comfortable” changes. I will also have electricity, an indoor shower and a flush toilet, so I really can’t complain about anything else. All the information I have about Andapa and my teaching assignment comes from other people, albeit reliable people, but we will all have to wait another month for me to get there and see it in person. Only then can I give a more detailed and accurate portrayal of the situation.

Needless to say, I’m very excited and slightly nervous about transitioning into life as a more autonomous Volunteer in a new town. Never the less, I’ll have 24 months to write about the trials and tribulations of my so-called Malagasy life.

Welcome to the other side of the world

pebI’m pretty sure it’s official now: I’ve never been this far away from home.

In many ways, the distance is massive. Geographic, cultural, and emotional. But in some other ways, being in Madagascar and participating in Peace Corps training is not so drastically different from life in America. Sure, the infrastructure and public services are greatly different in Madagascar, the urban development is different here, the pace of life is much slower as well. But I’ve already seen first hand that many Malagasy people have similar hopes and goals for themselves and their families compared to those in the US. But I’ll leave those heavy topics for another time. I’ve only been in country for 3 weeks, I know it’s not much to base some of these opinions on yet.

Allow me to catch you up a bit on what I’ve been doing so far and what my days typically consist of.

After arriving in country, our Stage (pronounced as the French word; meaning the group of 32 Education trainees in our group) was put up for a few nights at the Peace Corps Training Center in the highland village of Mantasoa. The PCTC is basically a mini “Camp America” with a dining hall, sleeping quarters, basketball and volleyball courts, well-fed dogs, and meeting rooms that make me sometimes question if I’m in a developing country or just spending a summer at sleep away camp. During the first days in country, we had a few introductory language lessons but mostly orientation type sessions to familiarize us with Peace Corps Madagascar and the upcoming training process. And before we could really get used to the place, about 4 days into this whole experience we were all launched into the cultural abyss and sent to meet our new local Malagasy host families where we were told we’d be spending the next 6 weeks living. Imagine 32 jet-lagged Americans in a completely foreign environment with language skills equivalent to “hello”, “goodbye”, and “what is your name?” moving into separate local homes and essentially winging it. Yeah, nothing could go wrong here.

Here’s a bit about my host family. And I’ll say right away, I’ve been having a truly positive experience despite all the cultural, language, and familial road blocks. So I have a mom and dad, which I call Neny and Dada. My Neny is basically a housewife and my Dada is a professor at the local technical school. I have 4 host siblings. 3 girls and one boy, age range from 30-7. My eldest sister, Noro, has a 2-year
-old daughter named Sufa who also lives with us. Noro is a hairdresser. The next sibling down is Tsangy, who just celebrated his 24th birthday last week. Last but not least are the youngest sisters, ages 8 and 7, one of which is named Lundi. I still haven’t figured out the other sister’s name and I think it’s pretty late in the game for me to ask now. We don’t talk much anyway. We also have a cousin, about 20ish, who is “visiting” from out of town. He’s been here about 2 weeks now, no sign of him going anywhere anytime soon, but I get along with him great so I really don’t mind at all. Dad, Noro, and the cousin all speak a tiny bit of English which is enough to help the conversation flow sometimes. So now that I’m in the mix, we have a very busy house of 8-9 people. Big adjustment for me as an only child from a relatively small family, but it’s been working out nicely so far. You may also be wondering, “how do all those people fit in one house?!” Well, we actually have a very comfortable 4 bedroom house with a living room and indoor toilet/shower spaces. A quick word about the indoor toilet situation: it’s a porcelain toilet like we’re probably all used to but without the flushing capabilities. At one point in this home’s history, it probably flushed. But now, you flush the toilet by pouring in pitchers of water to even out the water level in the bowl. THAT took some brain power for me to figure out on day one. Compared to other Trainees, I have it extremely easy when it comes to toilet and shower setups. Most other host families have an outdoor pit latrine (called a kabone) and an outdoor bathing space (called a ladosy). In the kabone, you’re squatting over a hole. Enough said. And in the ladosy, you’re probably taking a bucket bath with cold water in an already 50 degree environment. Weather aside, that setup seems to be standard across the entire country. Back to the house, the bedrooms are basically spilt up into parents, boys, girls, and me. Part of the agreement these host families have with Peace Corps during the hosting process is that they will provide the Trainee with their own private room. I have a twin bed, mosquito bed net, small table and chair, and a stool to put my water filter on. And I really couldn’t need much more. The house is surrounded by local vegetation, a small vegetable garden, and lots of fruit trees. There’s a particular fruit that was new to me and apparently only grows in the highlands of Madagascar, called pibasy, and it is absolutely phenomenal. We have about 6 pibasy trees on our property. Neny makes a delicious pibasy jam that we get to have at breakfast. The kitchen is a little smaller than my bedroom and because it’s usually the warmest place in the house, it’s also where the chickens sleep at night. There’s a pantry sized “closet” in the kitchen that has a couple shelves and plywood sheets to close it up, and this is the chicken coop. Yup, this is totally normal in my head now. There is one spot in the kitchen for a charcoal cooking fire with chimney and a couple other smaller charcoal portable cookers. It’s pretty much one or two pots at a time, but Neny has this down to an art.

Speaking of cooking, let me tell you a bit about the food here so far. Rice. By American standards, incredibly obscene amounts of rice are consumed by the Malagasy people. This is not an exaggeration, but I have had rice as the main staple in every single meal since arriving in country, except for about 4-5 meals. Breakfast: rice and maybe some fried omelette. Lunch: rice with a meat protein and some shredded vegetables tossed in oil and salt. Dinner: more rice with another meat protein or maybe fried potatoes and more veggies. Dessert is usually a banana or an orange. The times I haven’t had rice in a meal it’s been either spaghetti as a substitution or a couple times we had pretty much friend doughnuts for breakfast. Not complaining about those doughnuts, though. Aside from rice, almost everything else is cooked in copious amounts of oil. Fried, sauté, sear, whatever else, it’s usually cooked at a high temperature (it’s hard to be in control of a charcoal fire) with lots of oil. The few meals that we have at the PCTC seem to be a bit more Americanized for us, but I’m also not watching the food being prepared like I do when my Neny is teaching me how to cook. My sister Noro also likes to cook and she’s been excited to cook a couple “American” dishes since I’ve been here. We had spaghetti and meatballs one night and she’s made her take on pizza a few times and that’s actually pretty good. I was so happy when we had spaghetti and meatballs, not sure if it was because we didn’t have rice for once or if the spaghetti and meatballs were really that tasty. In return, I’ve promised to cook a few of my favorite American foods for them. I’ll let you know how that goes after it happens. But I really haven’t eaten much outside of the home or PCTC, mainly because the Peace Corps doctors have been educating us on safe food preparation and doing a good job at making it seem like everything in this country wants to either kill me or at least give me severe diarrhea.

Now that we are in the full swing of training, my days are very structured and predictable. Breakfast is usually at about 7am every single day. I have language class from 8am-noon. This is one native Malagasy language instructor and about 3 students per group. Then it’s back home for lunch with the family. In the afternoon, our whole Stage meets up at 2pm for group training sessions that last until about 5pm. These sessions are either technical sessions about teacher training, cross cultural sessions, or global training sessions from Peace Corps headquarters that every Trainee in the world goes through. After that, I head back home and dinner is served around 6:30ish. I’m usually so exhausted after dinner that I’m in bed by about 8:30pm. Wake up at 6am the next morning to do it all over again. This is my schedule Monday through Friday. On Saturdays, we have only language class from 8am-noon, then we’re free for the rest of the afternoon. Sundays are completely free as well. Weekend activities include walking around town and saying hello to everyone (very common in this culture to greet everyone you see, even if you don’t know them), watching soccer games, doing laundry, going to church on Sunday mornings (I’ve only been once with my host family so far), and hanging out with the other Trainees in my group. Being in training is sort of like being in high school again. We are told what to do, where to be, at what time, and there’s a few tests here and there. But it’s keeping us busy and I’m really enjoying spending time with everyone in our Stage. It’s also a really cool feeling when the language classes pay off and I have even the slightest resemblance of a successful conversation with a Malagasy person. Some things I’m looking forward to in the next few weeks: celebrating Fourth of July, technical training trip to different Volunteer sites, finding out what village I will be assigned to, and starting our practicum teaching experiences. Each day we build on prior knowledge, so it’s hard to fall behind in any aspect because the training is intense.

But overall I am very happy and satisfied with my first few weeks spent in Madagascar. This country is absolutely beautiful, the locals have been extremely friendly so far, I haven’t been ill yet, and I have been kept very busy with training. I also realize that I’m still in the honeymoon phase of my cultural adjustment and Peace Corps has basically been taking care of our every need so far. But despite that, I’ve had a very good transition into Malagasy life. We’re not even halfway done with the 11-week training program, but I’m confident that I’ll be a competent and capable Volunteer after this process. I definitely miss my friends and family back home very much and replaying the wonderful memories I have of us in my head is helpful. I haven’t had any super intense food cravings yet either, although I’ve been occasionally treating myself to some peanut M&Ms that I brought with me and that’s been very nice. Other than that, I’m chugging along quite nicely I think. I’ll work on perfecting my communication outlets now that I have cellular and internet connections (spotty service, at best), but for now email and Facebook are probably the most reliable for me. I’ll update the “How to Contact Me” page soon with my local phone number, in case you want to text or call me. But for now, I’ll leave you with this post and a big hug from me!