Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Keeper of the Tome

The school library here in town holds many treasures. One of the most interesting items is a giant book of German, French and Italian maps from the early 18th century. Whenever I visit, the librarian is always very happy pull it off the shelves for me. The thing is so huge that whenever she carries it in her arms her petite frame is almost entirely eclipsed. It's like watching a giant walking book. The thing is also quite hefty, as you might imagine. There must be over 250 maps in the collection. Most are of Europe, but there are also a few world maps, which include the Americas (and the early colonies). It's pretty cool to see how people saw the world back then. It's also pretty cool to see how they made maps back then; the attention to detail is pretty impressive (even if they weren't perfectly accurate) and the decorative ink patterns along the borders are equally stunning.

Here you can see Lugoj (Lugosch), located on the Timis River. To the West of Lugoj is 'Koschtil,' today called Costei; it's the first village outside of Lugoj on the way to Timisoara. To the East is 'Kritschava,' today the village of Criciova.

Thanks to Chris for the photos

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Frustrations of Late

I recently bought a cardigan. It makes me feel a bit like Mister Rogers. Charming, I know. When I'm finished with school for the day, I come home, change my shoes, throw on my navy-blue cardigan and I'm ready for a jaunty conversation with a postal worker, or perhaps a tour of a crayon factory.

But, this Tuesday, even while I was wearing my cardigan, was not much of a Mister Rogers sort of day.

As I usually do on Tuesdays, I went to the after-school center for kids from the Mondial neighborhood. It was snowed all day and was still snowing as I made my way, which made the 30-minute trek a little more onerous than usual. I mean, it wouldn't be so bothersome if the sidewalks were shoveled (where there are sidewalks) and if the blowing snow didn't attack my face from all angles. The cold air and stinging snow were in stark contrast to the week before, when it had been so warm and sunny that I rode my bike out to Mondial. I even managed a quick trip into the neighboring village of Herendesti, which is just beyond the center (taking the bike to Mondial saves so much time that I had some time to kill).

Last week I told the kids that I was going to give them a graded quiz the following Tuesday. I had decided to do so because something had to change; I had to try something different. We'd been working on the Alphabet for a couple months, and many of them still couldn't get past 'D.' We didn't seem to be getting anywhere. I needed to hold them accountable, and I thought waving grades over their head would do the trick.

So, I decided to start fresh, with a lesson titled, "How are You?" Basically, the idea was for them to practice asking and responding to the question 'how are you?' I gave them a few possible responses, including words like good, tired, hungry, upset. I tried to make it extremely clear to them by translating each term directly from Romanian. I even made sure they'd know how to prnounce the words by using a sort of Romlish pronounciation key. For example I wrote 'gud' in parentheses next to 'good' because their first instinct is to pronounce letters as they would in Romanian. As I said, they still haven't mastered the English alphabet. So, according to this model, tired would be 'taierd,' hungry would be 'hăngri' and upset would be 'ăpset.' It's funny, through teaching English to non-native speakers I've discovered just how crazy the English rules of pronounciation are. Or should I say it's the absence of rules that's crazy...

I told the kids to study the five words we had gone over so they'd be ready for the quiz. I thought I had prepared them well. I thought the quiz was going to be easy for them. But no. I gave them their test, and the majorty of them did horribly. Out of 12 kids, 8 got a grade of 5/10 or lower. What is more, many of the kids seemed happy to walk away with a grade of 3, 4 or 5. I admonished them, explaining that they'd actually not done well at all. I strongly urged them to be more diligent about studying. All I'd get in response would be timid sideways glances and half-hearted avowals.

While talking to Lore, one of the 4th graders, I discovered something that may explain why most of the kids haven't been studying. I pointed to some notes she had in her notebook and asked her, "why don't you study this at home?" She explained that the notebooks they use belong to the center and they can't take them home. Oh. I hadn't expected this to be the case.

Afterwards I approached Sister Cristina, the main nun in charge of running of the center. I explained to her my concerns about the kids being able to study at home. I'd done my best to make it easy for them to do so, but if they didn't have access to their notes outside of the center, what good would it be? If the kids wouldn't be able to take their notebooks home, I suggested that perhaps we could make little study sheets for them to take home. Sora gave me an unenthusiastic response, "even if we give them a sheet of paper to take home, what makes you think they'll use it to study? It's too easy to 'forget.'" Maybe her response was fairly realistic, but I couldn't help thinking, "well, we should at least try it."

When I first started going to the center, I wasn't really sure what I was getting myself into. However, I think I'm starting to realize what I'm up against. I asked Sora how the kids came to the center. She told me that she basically goes door to door, canvasing the neighborhood. By explaining why it'd be beneficial for parents to send their kids to the center, she hopes to spark some interest. I've seen the neighborhood, the living conditions are quite paltry. Sora told me she looks for the most 'desperate' cases. What happens at the center is one thing, but I can only imagine what home life is like for most of these kids. I don't suppose there's much continuity between the two spheres. In fact Sora told me that often parents will send their kids, but offer no further support or encouragement.

I suspect the reasons these kids lack academic motivation are complicated. First of all, they've probably been tossed aside by the system for as long as they've been alive. I know that many of them attend marginalized schools and their teachers aren't the most motivated. From what I understand, their English lessons essentially consist of the teacher writing words on the board that they copy into their notebooks. Not much more than that. If rote memorization is all they've ever known, I can see how my methods might seem strange. Originally I thought the kids would immediately latch onto my style of teaching, but that hasn't happened. I just wonder if what I'm trying to do confounds them, being unlike anything they're used to.

I've decided to try the same quiz again next week, just to see if there's any improvement. I believe, however, that a total reevaluation of my methods is in order. Obviously what I'm doing right now isn't quite working. Unfortunately, I'm not sure what I can do to engage them. This is probably the biggest challenge I've faced so far as a PCV.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Washing with snow?

I'd like to share something that I learned today, an idiomatic expression.

So, we've recently gotten more snow than I have ever seen in Lugoj, that is to say about 6 to 8 inches. It's been snowing the last few days pretty much non-stop, which, compared to last year, has been a virtual blizzard. And with all this snow, the kids have been understandably giddy. So have been some of the teachers (the ones who don't have to drive, I suppose). Walking to school has suddenly become quite perilous, not only because the ground is slippery and the snow is constantly flying in your face (regardless of which direction you're heading), but also because snowballs are darting in every direction, and it doesn't much matter who you are; if you get caught in their crossfire, you stand a very good chance of being hit.

Heading to school this morning, I noticed some children in a snowball fight. Luckily they were too busy targeting each other to notice me. One of the kids got in a good shot, whacking the back of another's head. The victim spun around in a fury, yelling "arghhh! te spăl eu!" This would litterally translate as "I'm going to wash you." "Huh?" I thought as I stared at them for a moment. Later, I figured out he essentially meant, "I'm gonna get you back!" However, at that moment, I was mildly confused to hear such an expression in that context. In any case, I didn't think too hard about it and continued on my way.

I had essentially forgotten the whole episode until I was suddenly reminded of it at school later in the day. It was Sima--the rascally mathematics teacher who always wears expensive suits--that reminded me. During one of the class breaks he had run outside to pick up some snow, and snuck back into the building with a few snowballs. Practically without warning, he pelted some of students who were close to him in the hallway. I quickly jumped for cover behind a movable billboard on which the results of a recent mathematics contest had been posted. The ambush ended when Sima ran out of snowballs. Deeming it safe, I came out of hiding. When Sima saw me, he said, "Oh Mike! Had you been here just a little earlier, I would have washed you." I could have guessed it, and I told him there was good reason I didn't want him to see me. What immediately struck me was that he had used the same turn of phrase as the children I'd seen on the sidewalk--his reference to 'washing' jumped right out at me. "What a funny way to refer to throwing a snowball," I thought. But, as far as I can gather from these two snow-throwing experiences, this is the standard way to describe the act of hurling a snowball at someone.