I Still Go To School

on teaching, learning, travelling


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You Shall Not Pass! (on first try)

We just finished the second of three terms at school, and I handed out the report cards showing the grades. Everyone passed. But the reason is, simply put, because there is no possibility to fail.

Our school works with the homeschooling system. The student can study at his/her preferred speed. Some of my students finished two grades within one year, or two within three years. It sounded amazing to me, as it seemingly only depended on your level of motivation, when you finish your grade.

But there are some hurdles which are quite tough to pass:

Dilemma 1: Haste

Frequently, my students tell me: “Mr teacher, I cannot do this, I am too stupid.”

And I ask them, “What do you have to do, and what is the problem?”

“I don’t know what I have to do.”

“Did you read the instructions for the task?”

“No, I just want to do it. I want to do the tests and finish my grade!”

The problem is simple: the pressure is on finishing tests and grades, not on learning a language properly and doing your work well. They end up leaving out tasks which they don’t understand or feel like doing. They get angry with the teacher when he/she tells them that they cannot skip tasks: “Teacher, you are blocking me from advancing, I want to finish my book!” or “Ah, teacher, you don’t like me!”, as if working well and studying was a punishment.

Dilemma 2: Buddy system

The setting would be perfect for a buddy system, where students help each other out: older students, or those who are more advanced already, could help out those who are struggeling. I’d love to utilize that system. Problem: “buddy” too often means they hand over their books and copy-paste the results, including errors. Learning progress: zero.

Another problem: conflict. Maybe that’s just my class, but there are verbal and manual (to the face) fights nearly every day. Buddy system means communication, and communication means noise, that is unavoidable. I’d be fine with that, but sadly whenever I gave it a try – the noise happened, but the work didn’t. Furthermore, instead of helping the other person, the older buddies make fun of the younger students, resulting in a fight.

Dilemma 3: Multiple-choice tests

It’s no news that our educational system is seldomly testing knowledge, abilities or intelligence, but rather only the ability to regurgitate temporally stored information.

We study, not to learn, but to pass exams.

This contradiction reaches a new level when using multiple-choice tests. Now you don’t even have to just learn how to remember things, you can basically stop understanding them at all. In fact, you can pass tests without even having read the questions.

For grade 6-8, which I teach, there are 20 questions on the test. There are three possible answers for each question.

The lowest you could score is 35%, a clear fail. Now the real problem is that students can redo the test without the first try being counted, and being allowed to inspect the former (identic) test sheet. The theoretical score is 70%. Voilà, you passed!

Cheating slips used to be hard work to create, and enhanced the learning process of the author. With multiple choice, a slip that will get you 100% may look like this:
“11323213311123123323”.

Easy to forge, easy to hide, and no enhancement whatsoever.

Resumé:

The homeschooling system does not give freedom. It just switches positions of teacher and student.

In the classical school system, the teacher is literally and also figuratively in the front of class. He is deciding the speed of learning. If you can’t keep up, you’re left behind and fail. But not matter how fast you think you’re going, you can never really catch up with the Achillean tortoise.

Homeschooling puts the teacher behind the student – again both literally and figuratively. The student decides the speed of learning; The teacher stands behind him, looking over his shoulder and helping him solving problems. But it does not end there. The teacher also has to be like a bulldozer, pushing the student to advance.

So even though it seems that homeschooling is meant to be students doing work in their books on their own, and the teacher just passively in the background in a supportive role, it really is MUCH tougher for the teacher than being in front. He has to rely on the student’s motivation and will to study, and their maturity. Now… how much maturity and eagerness to study can you expect of an average 11-year-old? How about a 6-year-old?

 

On the bright side:

It’s mango season 🙂 There are around 4-5 different types of mangoes at the local market, with different origin, taste and colour.

I got this beauty (they say it’s a Nigerian Mango) for FCFA 150 (€ 0,23) from across the street of my home.

When a mangoes to Africa he'll go bananas for some fresh fruit. (I apologize)

When a mangoes to Africa, he’ll go bananas for some fresh fruit. (I do apologize)

Otherwise, I’m fine, and recovered well from the Malaria. The kids suspected I had Ebola and recommended I took milk with honey, because that’s what their doctors always tell them.

As I will be enjoying a week of holiday until May 4th, I have some travelling planned. This weekend I will be going to a UPF conference in Gagnoa,  northwest of Abidjan. It’s a smaller place, and I usually enjoy the peace and quiet of such places. I’ll keep you updated!

 

 

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Do agric, it pays!

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Staying in bed for five days straight, glucose infusion with quinin tied with shoe laces to a hat stand, and this boy pretending to be a doctor… I was glad when it was over.

Sorry for the great delay of the post. Reason was I got sick and had to undergo the Quinin treatment for Malaria. I had a doctor visiting me at home, so it was alright. The most annoying thing about it is having hallucinations from both the sickness and the medication; furthermore, the combination of feeling sick, anemia, insomnia and fever really drains you. But since people have Malaria many times around here, everyone was calm and everyone had extra advice on what to do 🙂

 

 

Africa is often associated with desert, famine and draught. While for some regions that is true, the west-African region from coast until the Sahel provides an immense potential with its arable land and stable climate. Many African countries try to skip the step of succeeding in agriculture in the race for becoming an emerging country. 400 million Africans live in extreme poverty, of which 70% live in rural areas dependent on agriculture. Yet, how much do governments invest into the sector? Only 8 of 54 countries of the African Union have kept their promise of the Maputo declaration of JUly 2003, to invest at least 10% of the annual budget into agriculture.

Remarkably, the multiplier effect of agricultural growth in sub-Saharan Africa is estimated to be 11 times greater in reducing poverty than in other non-agricultural sectors, such as utilities and mining.

– Dr Sipo Moyo, Africa Director of ONE (http://www.one.org/)

Just about an hour’s trip from Abidjan’s market and bus station Adjame is INPRAT (Institut PRive d’Agriculture Tropicale), a school for secondary and tertiary level education on agriculture. Since arriving in Cote d’Ivoire I’ve always wanted to see tropical vegetation and how agriculture works here, so I visited my friend Mafoya at INPRAT.

The change from city to countryside is immensely refreshing for all senses: no bad smells and exhaustion fumes, less rubbish on the streets, less people yelling and running about. All is replaced by a peaceful tranquility, balm for the mind of a stressed teacher 😉 The school grounds are in the forest, but students live in a village across the street.

I asked for a full tour, though I’ve forgotten to take pictures of the actually school buildings. But anyways, they are just buildings like in the city. At the school there are around 500 students from age 16 till 27, who all chose their preferred field of expertise in the sector: fish-farming, cow-herding, breeding rabbits; cultivation of plants such as maize, yam, cassava, rice or plantain; the extraction of rubber from Hevea plants – and all the theory that goes with it.

When we arrived on Saturday, we met the headmaster of the school, who made little effort to greet, but much more effort to advertise the agricultural sector: “Agriculture is good money! Welcome to our school.”

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African rice fields!

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almost ready to harvest!

Here we are at a rice field. Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire used to be self-sustaining in their rice industries until the 90s, when government deemed the crop’s quality not good enough and changed to import, mainly from Vietnam. In a slow struggle, rice is making its way back, and you can find “Riz local” at the market.

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well planned plantain plantations

Plantain is a type of banana that’s used for cooking. It’s tough and less sweet than the common banana that we find at the supermarket in Europe. Plantain is either cooked or fried, and usually served with fish. Aloko is one of the favourite national dishes.

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As you can see the school actually plants the trees in rows… which is not the case when you go to the fields and plantations of the farmers of the village. Only the big food producers use land that systematically.

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A football field… the cows are not supposed to be there, but they seem to enjoy their outing. The cattle is a rather small species, their shoulders barely reaching our hips. The main purpose is meat.

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The machine for the rice-shredding. Yeah, it’s rather ancient. In the back you can see the stalls for rabbits and quail. Unfortunately all but one quail got eaten recently… by forest ants. Damn nature, you scary!

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The beautiful lake which is providing the water for the fish-farming.

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New piglets, just couple of months old. They reach maturity so fast!

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Hevea Brasilensis, the rubber-tree is a new trend in west-Africa. After about 20 years of growth, the tree’s circumference  is measured 1 metre above ground. If the circumference is beyond 50cm, the harvest of rubber can begin: with a very sharp machete, the farmer cuts the bark of the tree in an inclined way, so the sap flows down into a bowl. Having produced rubber in a chemistry laboratory, seeing rubber being extracted from trees seemed like magic to me.

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A peaceful little hut in the forest 🙂 It turns out this is an illegal distillery run by the village. They distill palm wine here. Looks neither safe nor clean – and definitely illegal; therefore hidden in the bush.

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Refreshing ourselves after the tour with some cold, bottled water. The water from the tub is also drinkable, but tastes of soil. The fruit in the foreground is used to produce the orange-reddish palm oil, the most common oil for cooking in west-Africa.

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These two students, friends of Mafoya, repeatedly asked me to search for Austrian wives for them, and vehemently proclaimed their being serious about it. So, any takers? 😉

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The president of the student’s union was working hard cutting some bamboo for building. He did not fail to tell me about how agriculture is the best, and how it makes a lot of money.

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A cocoa tree in the middle of the village. When the fruit becomes orange like the one in the center of the picture, you can harvest the crop. The inside is eatable, but the main product is the seed, which is dried and exported to Europe for processing. Cote d’Ivoire is the world’s #1 cocoa exporter.

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Finally, a nice meal before going back to Abidjan: Soy beans, tomatoes, white pepper, onions and garlic, with palm oil and rice. All ingredients from the village market, all natural and pesticide free. It tasted amazing as well.

Agriculture surely is a sector to be watched closely in the following decades, concerning the constant fear of overpopulation and undernourishment. It is essential, though, that African leaders don’t sell out their farmers and arable land, else they will end up producing cheaply, and importing the products of their own produce all over again.


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6 Things that will happen to you when you visit Africa

I am aware that some of these are stereotypes, but also they have been reported to me by a few other people who had been to Africa as well.

1. You will be proposed to

Be ready for proposals! (pic from http://c.tadst.com/gfx/600×400/marriage-proposal.jpg?)

No matter if you’re a girl or boy, some people will want to marry you, and they will be very open about it. I was just buying a simple pencil when the cashier put down a paper and told me straight to give her my number so she can find a lady for me. I declined, but still got the pencil for free. Second instance, I went out to eat at a restaurant (table with umbrella and gas-fire) with some colleagues. My friend translates that the cook has an eye on me. When I ask him to give her my regards and tell her I don’t have much money, she replies that it wouldn’t matter, because I had white skin.
Best way to escape is to say you’re too young to marry and run away. 😉

2. Your transport will be wrecked or scratched or break down

public transport is a timebomb. here people are waiting for a new Baka (bus)

public transport is a timebomb. here people are waiting for a new Baka (bus)

Taking public transport is a roller coaster ride. Meaning it’s scary, but you will get used to it. Only difference is that roller coasters are safe.

Not a day has passed where I haven’t been nervous when taking transport and I have not been disappointed in that fear so far. Many rides you take have this eerie contrast of chill reagge music interrupted only by shouts and curses directed at other drivers by the chauffeur, paired up with his dismal driving skills and genuine disrespect for traffic rules (traffic wardens are easily bribed). On top of that, the roads are often in need of repair, the bumpholes are numerous and deep enough to break the rusty axle of your bus or at least burst your tire.

Once there is a problem, the driver will tell everyone to wait, the problem will be solved in 10 minutes. This is your hint to hand him the fare and make for a different transport. I stayed once, when our school bus broke down. The driver called his friend. That one failed at analyzing the problem; therefor, he called his other friend. 90 minutes later there were 4 mechanics, and no solution. He admitted that it might be ok if I took a taxi home then.

3. You will celebrate Christmas with drums and dances

We had our school’s Christmas party on Friday! That meant lots of food, ice-cream, dance and presents for the kids. We also played secret santa, only that the santas were not secret. Yeah it was a bit strange. And it’s funny when the kids had picked a person they didn’t like and struggle so much with buying something for that person. But finally, after some threats by other teachers, they comply.

It’s a Christmas Dance! Here you can see the elementary school kids and some of my kids dancing and drumming.

The Kindergarten group dressed up as Joseph and Mary (sitting), angels, three wise men and the shepherds.

Two students (from India) singing their hearts out!

Black Santa with the happy kids after gift giving. Sadly that’s where my camera ran out of battery.

Black Santa and happy kids singing Christmas charols

Black Santa and happy kids singing Christmas carols

It was strange to see Christmas celebrated in a tropical country, but with central European traditions (and the CocaCola Santa Claus). The big malls have their Christmas lights out, and plastic Christmas trees are sold there. Why on earth would Santa wear a wooly costume if he delivered presents in Africa? And what does that have to do with the meaning of Christmas anyways… well that’s an entirely different story. I don’t think Africa has to develop it’s own style of celebrating Christmas, but merely copying Europe will not blend. It was cool to see a bit of a mix with the drums.

I am happy I could make it to the celebration and say bye to the kids and wish them happy holidays. I almost didn’t  make it to the party, because…

4. You will catch Malaria

yummy! The middle box is the ripoff, on the left is what I actually wanted. On the right is the acute treatment

yummy! The middle box is the ripoff, on the left is what I actually wanted. On the right is the acute treatment

The entire duration of my stay in Cote d’Ivoire (14 weeks) I never took medication of any kind, including Malaria prevention, and was not sick a single day. As it had to be, I started feeling a bit funny on Thursday. Already in the morning I had a terrible headache. It got worse at school, and round noon I had to cancel and get back home. I was sweating more than usual, so I laid down. I really wanted to go to the Christmas party the day after, so I thought I’d better focus on getting well again.

Thing is, if you are feverish and have a headache, alarm bells are ringing. As I am not so familiar with the disease, I believed what people told me to do. So I went to the pharmacy on Thursday and said I wanted some maloxine. They decided to give me Mephaquin instead, which is the sevenfold price. I’ve been ripped off by a pharmary-nurse. Anyways, fool me once, shame on me. Mephaquin, 4 pills, 5000 CFA. Maloxine, 3 pills, 600 CFA. Coartem 24 pills, 5000 CFA. And then the smear-test: a blood sample is put onto an indicator paper, showing if your blood carries Malaria parasites (plasmodium falciparum). My test was p. falciparum negative. I ask the guy if it’s completely accurate. He says yes, 100%. So I went to the Christmas party, yay! On the party, people I talk to tell me it’s possible that the test was invalid. Checking online later, I see 3 tests are recommended. Why, pharmacy, why do I trust you? I get sweaty and drowsy, go to bed after taking dinner with three Mephaquin pills (“mefloquine is associated with adverse neuropsychiatric outcomes.“).

I could barely sleep that night, mainly because of the effects of the drugs. Serves me right for not reading everything about tropical diseases before going there. Not all side-effects kicked in, but sleeplessness, fever and headache did. The medication package says “It might be difficult to discern between the symptoms of Malaria and the side-effects of Mephaquin”.

I woke up in the morning at 4, feeling quite fine. But as I got up, I started sweating like crazy, my nose starts running and I felt really weak. I laid down, immediately the symptoms vanished again. On/Off – On/Off. (I actually tried it out three times).

Ouatta and I at the airport! Must be the cleanest place in the whole country, it was surreal!

Ouatta and I at the airport! Must be the cleanest place in the whole country, it was surreal!

I had to head out in the end to catch my flight, so I packed, took a shower, said bye to my amazing host family (shame I don’t have a picture with them! will take one upon return) and took a taxi to the airport for 2000 CFA. We pick up Ouatta on the road. As we arrive, the driver wants 5000 CFA, we give him 3000 and leave.

While I was travelling, I felt weak, but I didn’t sweat; neither did I feel feverish, nor did I have a headache anymore. So I am not sure if I actually had developed Malaria or not. It will remain a mystery…

5. You will experience a culture shock when returning back to your country

Looks like a picture from Mars, but it's actually the desert as seen from the airplane

Looks like a picture from Mars, but it’s actually the desert as seen from the airplane

My journey went smoothly.

most peaceful place on earth: above the clouds

most peaceful place “on” earth: above the clouds

I enjoy flying a lot, it more than literally lifts me up and gives me the time and perspective to reflect. What’s remarkable is that only a few hours flight separate Abidjan from Paris. It’s remarkable in the way that you are 12000 feet above ground in a metal bird, watching a movie, while the most hostile of environments, the Sahara desert, passes underneath you. And while I was looking into the distance, I even detected streets! In the middle of nowhere, there were some villages.

People are amazing!

The desert is huge. It takes ages to cross, even by airplane. I was looking down and saw nothing but sand and rock. The Sahara Desert – the biggest sandbox on earth – actually is inhabited.

Such were my thoughts while the stewardess handed me ice-cream on the airplane, kilometers above ground, listening to Mahler.

Arriving in Vienna, I realise all the differences to Abidjan. When I arrived in Africa at the beginning of September, I was ready for it, there was no shock or anything overwhelming, because I was simply mentally prepared for it. But I was not ready for Vienna. Everything seemed so quiet, gray, dark, and cold – in comparison to Cote d’Ivoire. I felt like a stranger in a foreign country. Fortunately I was picked up by my dad and my sister 🙂 I arrived at my home village, Gaflenz, at round 2 AM.

I took the next two days to reflect. Africa was real. I had stayed there for 14 weeks straight, living, working, enjoying, learning, and getting to know the culture and its people. What seemed surrreal to me was being back in Austria. At least there is only little snow here. So while it’s snowing in Africa (Egypt) and the middle east, here it’s sunny and relatively warm. How strange is that?

Not only the contrast of climate, nature and people hit me, but also how a few hour’s journey away, 40% of the population are in absolute poverty. These places may seem distant when we watch them on TV, but we are basically neighbours.

6. You will go skiing with your dad

At the Forsteralm, skiing with my dad.

At the Forsteralm, skiing with my dad.

To enhance the quality of your culture shock, it’s advisable to engage in national cultural activities, such as Skiing. 🙂

Right after skiing I had our national (soft-)drink, Almdudler, and Wiener Schnitzel with potato-salad. Metamorphosis complete? Not quite…

During my time in Africa, I tried to immerse myself in the prevalent culture. If in Rome, do as the Romans; if in Africa, do as the Africans. But as we know there is a big difference between “do as” and “be as”. I saw that I can never “be African”, whatever that may mean. I can adapt traits, habits, morals, but I cannot say I have been able to fully adapt. What I can do is learn to love the country and it’s people, and for that, I do not have to “be African”, yay!

a good place to reflect is nature

Hiking in the woods of Gaflenz!

I wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a happy New Year! When I arrived at Paris, the travellers were welcomed by a choir singing Christmas carols. People from everywhere in the world, coming and leaving, stopped to listen and enjoy. I hope this song can give you a bit of a Christmas feeling.