“April is the cruelest month…” begins T.S. Eliot’s brilliant modernist poem entitled The Waste Land before he laments the confusion brought on by all the possibilities of springtime.
If you, like me, grew up in the U.S. South, I’m sure you would quite agree that April is actually a brilliant month. The sun shines longer, the temperature is warmer, spring break is near, early crops are fruiting, and flowers are blossoming! The only confusion is about how many supplies to take as you head out for a day of fun.
February, on the other hand, is absolutely and particularly cruel to those of us who look forward to those qualities that a month like April has to offer. In Atlanta, Georgia, the February sun is still low and offers not enough daylight hours; the weather is grey and drizzly much of the time; the joy and excitement of the holidays have worn off; and cabin fever becomes more difficult to numb with simple distractions. Also, it is cold. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a real condition, my friends. And because of it, I have dreaded February for the past ten years.
I was first introduced to SAD (what an unfortunate acronym, no?!) in 2008 as a third-year teacher. This was after my first couple of years of teaching were spent in an interior, windowless room of the high school where I worked, and I was cut off from natural changes in light, weather, and temperature. In the winter months, too, I would arrive to work at 6:00 a.m. in the dark and would leave around 4:30/5:00 p.m. as the sun was setting. That first year, I gained 20 pounds, had no energy, and became depressed.
I am usually an extremely motivated and active individual. Yet, each year, the same pattern would emerge: the winter months would arrive, the days would get shorter, and I would sink into depression. It took me a few years, but my doctor and I finally identified the pattern and discussed ways to manage the symptoms that limited my mental energy and physical activity. However, each year since, I have dreaded February.
That was …until 2018!
2018 has brought the most productive, most fulfilling, and most adventurous February of my life. Even better, I got to experience much of it with my husband, and some of our fantasies about our life together became reality:
- I continued my partnership with the State Department and our outreach to the American Corners in Liberia with a guest appearance at the Kakata Rural Teacher Training Institute.
- My STEM after-school program began and Andrew and I facilitated the session together as the middle and high school age students built towers out of spaghetti noodles.
- Andrew and I took a weekend trip to Kpatawee Falls in Bong County so he could show me another one of his roads projects (the most challenging one ever!)
- On the way to the Falls, Andrew took me to one of his favorite villages and we spent some time talking with the adults and playing with the children.
- I successfully lead my first USAID training workshop, which was the culmination of months of planning and preparation.
And it all started with Zorzor.
As my time with the Zorzor Rural Teacher Training Institute (ZRTTI) was coming to a close, I had two more presentations to give: “What Makes an Effective Teacher” and “How an Effective Teacher Plans.”
Thanks to my friend Stephen Swymer and to the amazing professional development I had received over the years as a teacher in Gwinnett County Public Schools, I knew exactly what to tell these teachers-in-training about what makes an effective teacher. Nevertheless, as I mentioned in my previous post, I felt like it was time to model effective teaching strategies rather than simply talk about them. After all, teaching is what I do best!
So, I gave a brief, 30-minute lecture on the importance of developing habits of success that support both the teacher and the student, the importance of connecting to students and making them feel valued and safe, and using consistent and fair classroom management strategies. Then, it was showtime: I told the workshop participants that they were now pulling double-duty as ZRTTI teachers-in-training and as students in Ms. Greene’s language arts class.
In working through the steps of the lesson plan I had hand-written the night before on the back of my file folder, I taught both content and pedagogy (or methods of teaching). The content I taught was the proper sentence structure and punctuation of a compound sentence — a lesson I decided upon based on my knowledge of grammar struggles among the Liberians who work in the Embassy. The pedagogy I focused on included the use of praise, formative assessment for learning or reteaching, and classroom management that caused the least amount of disruption.
I gave them notes, lectured a little, showed examples, led them in guided practice, and gave feedback as they practiced independently. All the while, I modeled positivity, encouragement, support, and control. As I did these things, I verbalized both the action and the motivation behind it.
As I formatively assessed their performance: “Notice as I circulate around the room, I’m praising success and reteaching information as needed.”
As the “students” gained confidence and called me over to check their work: “You can see how easy but effective praise is in the classroom — as soon as you hear the teacher praise one student’s work, you want that praise for yourself, too!”
With each comment like this, the teachers nodded, smiled, and appreciated seeing effective teaching practices in action. They loved it, and I felt them become more comfortable with me as I relaxed into my familiar habits and allowed my sense of humor and enthusiasm to show more naturally.
At the end of the day, the training center held a closing ceremony to thank us all for our work at ZRTTI. The Dean, Director, American Corners Coordinator, and Class President all had very kind comments for Paul, Belvis, and myself. Then, the Coordinator presented me with a “small gift”: a pair of sandals that were crafted by the local woman who study at the American Corner Zorzor.
I teared up as I accepted the gift and told my new friends at ZRTTI that I am not good at goodbyes, but that I would rather say, “I hope to see you again.” And it was then that the Dean stated that he would like to have me back for additional training sessions in the future. This made me smile. It was the first event of my new career, and I had nailed it! 🙂
And it’s a good thing that I did because I found out at the last minute that I was scheduled to give a similar training at the Kakata Rural Teacher Training Institute (KRTTI) the next week! Luckily, I was able to adapt the material I used in Zorzor to fit a tighter schedule but a similar workshop in Kakata.
The teachers-in-training here were just as well-prepared by the institute and just as receptive to my lessons as they were in Zorzor. Because I had less time with them, though — three groups of only one hour each over a two-day period — I didn’t feel as much of a personal connection to these groups as I did those at ZRTTI. However, at the end of our two days together, the students were eager to take some photos with me and expressed their gratitude to both the Embassy and me.
The following week, my STEM After School program began at the Embassy. For this, I meet with a cohort of about 25 students every Thursday for a four-week period, and I lead them through a STEM-related lesson and activity.
For our first session together, I decided on the Marshmallow Challenge: an activity in which the students must work in small groups to design and construct the tallest tower possible out of 20 spaghetti sticks, 1 yard of masking tape, and 1 yard of string that would also support the weight of a large marshmallow at the top.
Since this was an engineering and physics activity, Andrew agreed to be our in-house expert to coach the students on why certain towers were more successful than others. It was a lot of fun for all of us! Even Paul, the Public Affairs Officers with whom I so closely work, said that he rarely stays for these type of events, but it was so much fun that he forgot to leave! And for Andrew and me, this was the realization of a fantasy we’d had for a long time: an event in which our respective careers and specializations came together to help others — “tossing the ball” back and forth between the two of us as we facilitated the success of other people. It made us both so happy!
Speaking of tossing balls, this is exactly what we did that following weekend! When Andrew and I were long-distance, he would tell me about his road project near Kpatawee Falls and about his favorite rural village he passed each time he would visit the construction site. He would describe the simple mud huts with little white handprints where the children had dipped their hands in paint and pressed them against the outer walls. He would talk about the women busily making palm oil or washing clothes, while the men went about other work. His descriptions of tattered clothing, naked toddlers munching on sugarcane, and oil palm farms, and a complete absence of modernity or technology made it sound like something straight out of National Geographic. Now that I am in Liberia, I wanted to see all of these things in person! So, we decided to take a weekend trip back out to Gbarnga, Bong County and then to Kpatawee Falls.
On the drive out of Monrovia, we saw a boy selling kickballs and decided to get some to give to the kids in the village we would visit. Since we were stopped in traffic, I was able to call the boy over to our SUV. “How much for one?” I asked.
“One-sixty,” he replied.
“How much for all of them?” we asked.
“I count!” he said, and then counted ten balls. “Sixteen hundred,” he said, which is the equivalent to about $16US.
We bought the whole lot.
On our drive passed oil palm farms (a type of palm tree grown specifically for the production of palm oil) and down the bumpy, orange clay roads lined with shrubs and vines, we passed a few different villages — each with its own character about it. The houses were all built of mud, the roofs were either tin or thatched, and there were often markings on the exterior walls of handprints, dots, or lines. Sometimes there were quotes scrawled in white or black paint, and sometimes there were drawings of people or animals.
When we arrived at our intended village, the residents were hesitant to speak to us at first. As Andrew spoke with some of the adults about the water pump they were using, I noticed the children crowding around us. I smiled at them and motioned for them to stay where they were. Then I walked back over to the car and tore open the plastic netting from around a couple of the balls in the backseat. When I turned back to the children and raised the ball up so they could see it, their eyes lit up and many of them smiled. “Let’s play!” I said to them and tossed the ball their way. Oh, the excitement!
I tossed the second ball at another section of the children, and the group split off into two: one group was all boys who were all about the same age, the other a mixture of boys and girls of various ages. They seemed surprised to see that I knew how to play a little football, and we kicked the ball back and forth in a flurry of dust and feet and laughter. Andrew even got in on the action, too!
Later, on the way to Kpatawee Falls, we were helped by Randall, a man who stopped to speak with us as we were standing on the side of the road near a culvert that Andrew’s colleague designed so Andrew could explain to me the difference between a culvert and a bridge (Yes, I do love it when he talks engineer to me!). I asked Randall if he lived in the area, and he told us that he lives in the village passed where Andrew’s project site is located. I told him that we were on our way to Kpatawee Falls, and he said, “Oh, very good. I am a tour guide there.”
What luck! He explained to us, however, that the gate to the rest of Andrew’s road project had not been unlocked as we had requested before driving out, and he offered to drive back with us to double check it. On the way, he pointed to a field of sugarcane and said that his brother owns the field. Then, when I told him that I had never had sugarcane before, he told us to stop the car so he could get some for me. We stopped, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to explore a little. I followed Randall out into the field (luckily, I wore my outdoor sandals for this trip!) and watched as an elderly female worker used a machete to chop a few pieces of cane for me.
The gate was locked as Randall had suspected, but we were able to park and enjoy the picnic area at the foot of the falls while the road on a motorbike taxi to get the key. The place was serene and beautiful, and I thought how happy I was to see these parts of Liberia that are as lovely as the personalities of so many of the people I have met here.
I found a walking stick; and I walked, lept, skidded, skipped, and balanced my way around the rocks, roots, and sand piles of the riverbed. I felt free, and it reminded me of being a kid and spending countless hours on “expeditions” with my brother in the woods and at the water’s edge near our childhood home in Florida. (It’s funny how at home I often feel in Liberia. I hope that will be true wherever foreign-service-life takes us.)
Andrew wanted to find a water pool to relax in, so after lunch, he went exploring himself and found what he was looking for. I joined him after a catnap under the bamboo branches of the picnic area.
It was a wonderful mini-vacation away from Monrovia for a couple of days, and it was perfect timing because we had a three-day weekend for President’s Day holiday.
That Monday offered us a day of R&R.
Next day, I led the first round of the training workshop I developed for USAID/Liberia. It had taken about four months of planning and preparation, and I think because I’d had so much time to think about it, I was extremely nervous and unexcited about it. Most of all, because I would be training Andrew’s office, specifically, I was worried about not doing well enough. I didn’t want to let him or any of his colleagues down, but I had never done anything like that before, so I didn’t know what to expect.
What a relief it was that the participants seemed immediately invested in the content of the course, responded positively to my presentation style, and seemed to enjoy and benefit from the activities I planned. For something that had caused me to feel anxious for so long, the first iteration of the workshop ended up being an overall success!
So, as February 2018 comes to a close, I am smiling at the memories I’ve made, the experiences I’ve been fortunate to have, and the connections with the people who have been a part of it all. It felt incredible to be busy again (even in those moments of panic or stress), and I realized that busyness is what had been missing from my life for the past six months! I am happy to be tired at the end of the day again. I am sleeping better than I have since I arrived in Liberia. I feel energized by the people around me and excited about the challenges ahead.
…And I am feeling more motivated than ever to see how much farther I can go. 🙂