Thursday, October 29, 2009

I'm Still Legal!


My visa is renewed for another 30 days! Every tourist coming in gets an automatic 30 day visa, with an option to renew it up to two more times. Luckily there is an immigration office in San Pedro, which wasn’t always the case. I have absolutely no desire to go into Belize City. The immigration officers here are grumpier than the DMV people in the states. Unfortunately, I’ll have to revisit them on November 28th to renew again for my last 6 days.

To celebrate, I bought a new piece of furniture for my little apartment, a hammock. Thanks to the foresight of the builders, there are already hammock hooks in place. Now I feel like a true Belizean with a hammock in my living room instead of a couch. 

Thanks to Mr. Freddie, the handyman who keeps Holy Cross together, I now have a working stove! I was a little hesitant to light it for the first time, hoping that there were no leaks that the last owner neglected to mention. So far, so good. The front-left burner works great and I haven’t burned the place down yet. Speaking of which, a new 2-story apartment building has been under construction next door ever since I moved in. Last weekend, my neighbors told me that there was an apartment just like mine there, but it burned down last Christmas. In the process, my apartment got scorched. I can’t see any signs of it now, but maybe that explains why half of my ceiling has a fresh coat of paint on it. Why not paint the whole thing? My place isn’t exactly big. 

Life at the school is pretty good right now. Miss Laura is back and healthy. The Standard V kids are still in military school, but I have seen lots of improvement. Mr. Vernon has officially created a satellite office in the back corner to keep an eye on the kids. A couple of the students have personally apologized to me for the class’ behavior. They are all good kids deep down but unfortunately have many roadblocks in life. A couple weeks ago I was walking on the veranda of the school when my sunglasses fell off my head and the lenses fell off. One of them slipped through the boards into the contaminated lagoon, luckily landing on a piece of floating Styrofoam. One of the most problematic kids in Std V was nearby and rushed down the steps to climb under the building to retrieve them. Despite all the acting out, they really are good kids. 

I am back to tutoring reading and math. On Tuesday, I gave both my reading students a test to see what their actual reading age is. One has the reading capabilities of a 5 year old and the other of a 6 year old. I can’t imagine how frustrating school must be not able to read anything on the board, tests or in books. I plan to work with these 2 students every day until I leave because I don’t want them to slip through the cracks. This may be their only chance. Unfortunately, Holy Cross doesn’t have the resources or personnel to provide tutoring like this without the help of outside volunteers.  

Each one of these students has a heart breaking story. The more I hear and learn about them, the more I want to give them all hugs. Many of the most troublesome students who act out are dealing with abandonment issues, specifically mother abandonment. They have so much anger and confusion bottled up inside that they take it out in unproductive and destructive ways. Yesterday, I had to report a case of child abuse to the principal because a student came to me saying they had bruises on their back from their step-dad beating them. It breaks my heart. The worst part is that charging the abuser isn’t necessarily the best solution for the child. In this case, the student doesn’t have anyone else to take care of them if the father is arrested. Life in a childrens home is no bargain either. There is just as much violence there from wardens or other kids. This student lives within eyesight of my apartment. All of this is happening so close to me, but my hands are tied. 

I proposed a challenge to my Std V students this week. They are struggling with their multiplication tables. If they can learn them, then we will have an ice cream party. I will give them a test in 3 weeks and if all of them get above 85%, then we’ll bring ice cream in for them. To help them study, I am giving them a short quiz everyday to practice. At the start of each math class, they have 4 minutes to fill out a 30 question quiz. Everyday I grade and return them later in the day for them to study from at night. As of now, they have some work to do as only half of the class is getting above an 85. I hated timed tests when my 4th grade teacher, Ms. Pudis, made us do them. Now I’m grateful and hopefully someday these kids will be too. 

The Halloween fair is this Friday! I’ll take lots of pictures and post them this weekend!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

A Wonderful Weekend Admist Chaos

That last entry was pretty depressing. On a lighter note, last weekend was wonderful even amidst the chaos at school.

I went snorkeling last Saturday. One of the major tourist draws on Ambergris Caye is that the second largest barrier reef in the world is located ½ mile off the coast. Standing on the beach, you can see the waves breaking on the reef. Without the reef, Ambergris Caye would have eroded away a long time ago but the reef protects it from waves and rough waters. At its highest point, San Pedro is less than 10 feet above sea level.

Going snorkeling is a big deal for me. As you may already know, fish and I don’t have the best relationship. In fact, I have somewhat of a phobia towards them. It’s rather ironic because I absolutely love water sports (rowing, windsurfing, whitewater rafting, kayaking…). My policy so far in life is that if the fish leave me alone then I will leave them alone.

I went snorkeling the last two times I came to Ambergris Caye. I figured that I couldn’t come to such a destination without taking advantage of its uniqueness. The only difference is last time I had my dad nearby to latch onto when I started hyperventilating.

I went with one of the local dive shops in town. It was a really slow day so it was quite an informal trip. Just as we were launching, my guide said that we’re going to “Hol Chan Marine Reserve” and “Shark and Ray Alley”. Oh boy. I don’t like Shark and Ray Alley. I went there on my first snorkeling trip in Belize and it didn’t end well. There isn’t a lot of coral there but the fish are attracted to the sound of the motor because they know the guides bring chum. On my last trip, I couldn’t stand how close the fish were to me. The Horse-eye Jacks swarm around you by the hundreds and the 3ft rays and nurse sharks are a little too friendly. My guide last time knew that I didn’t like fish but still got a kick out of throwing chum at me in the water. When I couldn’t take it anymore, I went back to the boat. As I climbed up the ladder, one of the guides lifted a ray out of the water and put it on my back. A “Ray Hug.” No thank you.

So here we go again, back to Shark and Ray Alley. Seeing all the Horse-eye Jacks, I was really hesitant to get in the water but I didn’t want to look like a wimp so I jumped in. Not bad. The Jacks didn’t seem so big or close to me this time. I just kept telling myself that, “They are more scared of me than I am of them.” Then to my amazement, the guide swam down a couple feet and wrapped his arms around a nurse shark and brought it up to the surface in his arms. Touch the shark? You’ve got to be kidding me. After my heart skipped a beat, I touched its back and stomach. Did you hear that, Mom and Dad? I touched a shark! The guide did the same thing with a sting ray and I touched its back too. The trip to Hol Chan was very nice. There are beautiful 30ft deep coral walls there. I never minded Hol Chan because the water is deeper and the fish stay below me where I can keep an eye on them.

Since it was a slow day, one of the guides taught me how to make cerviche, from start to finish beginning with the sea floor. Out by the reef, the water is only about 3 ft deep so looking for conch shells isn’t too hard. The only hard part is finding ones that are alive. After gathering about 8, the next step is to get them out of the shell. A couple hits with the back of a hammer put a hole near one end. The tricky part is to stick a knife in the newly created hole to separate the animal from the shell. A little finessing with a knife from the big opening of the shell and the animal comes right out. I never knew conch have eyes. Separating the meat from the rest of the animal is pretty quick and then it’s ready to make cerviche. Conch pieces plus some lime, onion and peppers make a delicious and refreshing snack.

Sunday was Harvest Sunday! The holiday is sort of like our Thanksgiving holiday but is a religious celebration. Rather than sitting down to gorge oneself on turkey, cranberry sauce and pie, people come together with non-perishable food to donate. The school brought a priest in from the mainland and held a celebration at the high school’s outdoor auditorium. Each class processed in with donations, a bag of rice here and a packet of Tang there. Little by little the donation added up to hundreds of pounds. Each class also prepared a song or poem to recite. Pictured are select students from the Standard V class reciting the poem, Giving Thanks. They nailed it. I was very proud of them. The school also hosted a very creative raffle afterwards. One parent donated a nicely decorated, large sheet cake. The contest was like a blind auction. Participants would put their bids in an envelope for the cake, without knowing what other amounts people bid. The person with the highest bid won the cake. (If you didn’t win, you don’t get your money back, that’s your donation). The highest bid went to Mr. Freddie with a winning bid of $33 USD. The school raised over $200 USD in the process.

So even with all the chaos of substitute teaching for a dysfunctional class, I am still having a very enjoyable time down here!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Life Turns Upside Down

A lot has happened in the last week, but let's start from the beginning. Last week I was settling into a schedule. I showed up to work at about 8 and spent the mornings working with students for remedial reading and math sessions. I was just starting my second round of sessions with the different student groups when the Standard V teacher, Miss Laura, got really sick with the flu. Then, I became Miss Julie the substitute teacher.

Friday was a 2 beer day. In other words, it was a day from hell. Friday, Miss Laura, the teacher, was absent so I had to sub for her along with Mr. Noel. Thank God for Mr. Noel. I probably would have blown up if he wasn’t there to add some bit of sanity.

This class was out of control. There are several problems that make this class a big mess. First of all, there are 33 of them. I don’t think I ever had a primary school class over 25. The class is so crowded that these kids are practically touching elbows and breathing down each other’s necks.

Second, many of them have no discipline or accountability. The school is trying its best but many of these kids have a horrible home life. They are immigrants whose families came to the area with the prospect of employment in the tourist industry. What this really means is that the parents are uneducated and many are illiterate. The families are big and live in slums. Many are single parents trying to raise 5 or more children. I was talking with Miss Grace, the principal, the other day about the family structure in these households. She was explaining that a common pattern is that a woman will have a kid(s) with some man who will eventually leave. Being an uneducated person, this woman will then go find a new man to support her, and subsequently ends up having kids with this new man. Now you have a step-dad that may or may not accept the child from the previous relationship. This opens the door to an abusive relationship. This isn’t meant to demonize men. There have been plenty of cases of the mother abandoning her kids. These kids have nothing to look forward to because they go home every night to poverty and in many cases abuse. They have no role models who can demonstrate the importance of getting a good education.

Many parents aren’t engaged in their child’s education. Why should they? Education hasn’t helped them at all because most don’t have beyond a primary school education, if that. My parents always knew what I was studying in school; they kept an eye on my grades and held me accountable. These kids don’t study at home and don’t see a reason to study at school. The kids run the streets at night. The boys are starting to get involved in gangs and the girls are on the prowl for older men who will pay them money for their ‘company.’ Unfortunately, some desperate families encourage their daughters to partake in such activities to put food on the table.

Finally, these students are at two levels of education. Some students have had consistent schooling, while others have had breaks where they couldn’t attend school. Most can read but others are illiterate. Most have Spanish as a first language but they can’t read Spanish, only speak it.

Now on to my day…

Teachers here teach the entire day, 8:30-2:45 with no breaks. There are no “cafeteria supervisors.” Teachers must eat lunch and be responsible at the same time. Even with Noel’s help, I did not have a chance to go to the bathroom all day.

I was on my own until about 9:30 when Noel was able to come. He was a God-send. The students, who have no respect for authority, only marginally respect me. They’ll obey just long enough for me to turn my back. Noel has known these students for several years and they know that he doesn’t tolerate mischief. It doesn’t hurt that he’s 6’4’’ with a loud, deep voice.

Language Arts class was an hour long social gathering. I have yet to grade the assignment but I am expecting poor quality, even though I went over every answer in class (talking over the students of course).

Math came next and there was a subtraction post-test. They were fairly well-behaved. At the end of the test, the students were supposed to take out the math workbooks and work on some word problems. The problem was that there are not enough books for each student to have their own. With sharing books comes talking and then the whole class is a social hour again.

Then a police officer came in to talk with the students. Recently, students have started playing this game called “BB Bridges,” or something like that. The rules are that if you say a word with the letter B in it, then someone else playing gets to hit you. Kids that are playing signal that they are playing by crossing their index and middle finger. On Thursday, someone got seriously hurt when he got hit in the head for saying a word with the letter B. The police officer came in to say that this game will not be tolerated. He also talked about how it is illegal to display gang signs in San Pedro and how you can be arrested for doing so. The most common way is people hang a colored bandana outside their pants. People commonly carry a bandana (or “rag”) around to wipe off sweat. The act of hanging it out of your pant pocket has a different meaning. He also talked about some obvious things like the illegality of graffiti and carrying knives (it’s illegal to carry a knife after 6pm because it’s obviously doesn’t have a work-related utility at night). After the police officer left, some boys in the back exclaimed, “Boring.” Then another problematic child starting trying to make the hand signal for the Bloods gang (he failed miserably at it, by the way). Noel brought the police officer back to speak with these boys.

Lunch is at 12 but Noel and I decided that we would go to lunch when all the students were ready. We sat in the front of the classroom until the kids settle down and showed respect. Kids asked when we were going to lunch and we told them that we would when everyone showed us that they were ready. They just sort of shrugged it off and went back to social hour. 10 minutes later they realized that something wasn’t right. Finally, Noel told them all that they had to sit in silence before we’d go to lunch. 5 minutes turned into 8 or 9 due to some uncalled for outbursts. We ate lunch and returned to class because the students used up their “recess” before lunch instead of afterwards.

On to DEAR (drop everything and read). Or should I say, babysit kids that act like 6 year olds. I spent the whole time telling people to leave their neighbor alone and to open their books. It was chaos. One boy harassed another girl asking her to show him her “big breasts.” I had to assign this kid lines to write. “It is inappropriate to ask girls to see parts of their body.” 150 times. Like most kids, he tried to cut corners which made the task harder.

Off to social studies. The teacher didn’t have much planned for social studies other than to copy some notes down. The diligent ones finished in 5 minutes. The rest took 30 minutes.

Spanish. Finally the last class. Today’s activity had 3 parts. I got the class quiet using the class standard of counting to 5. As soon as I opened my mouth to tell them that I would only explain the instructions 1 time, all of their mouths opened and they went right back to talking. I explained the directions once and even wrote them on the board. Of course, every other student complained that they didn’t know what to do. I chewed many of them out because I had already explained it and it was staring them in their face written on the board and in their book. It doesn’t help that many of these Spanish speakers can’t read Spanish. So I have a pile of half finished activities because the students could have cared less.

To top this off, I was in the office expressing my frustration with Miss Francis when she gets a phone call and runs out of the office. 5 minutes later she comes back. Two fathers had gotten in a fist fight over an argument that their 6 year old sons were having. How are these kids ever going to learn when their fathers start throwing punches at each other?

So here I am venting. In all this I’ve learned that I like teaching at the university level and to small groups. There, I’m actually teaching and not baby-sitting. I will never be a primary school teacher, even if it is in the relatively well-behaved Wilmette Public School District. Miss Laura is a saint. She has expressed her frustrations many times to me and every bit of it is justified. Even for a decent pay-check, I don’t think I could go into that classroom everyday for 6 hours of hell. I feel bad for these kids. I hope everyone of them can make a positive change and turn their life around. It’s not too late. I wonder how many of their parents, while searching for work, have wished they had learned how to read, write and do math. If so, they should tell their kids so. It would make a world of difference. The Standard V class will probably be completely different in 2 years, as the first batch of Holy Cross students that started in Infant I make their way to the upper division. These students will have had a consistent and quality education. I’m excited for that day to come.

The weekend was wonderful but unrelated; I’ll come back to that later.

Monday comes and Mr. Vernon, the school director, joined the Standard V class. I would like to start out by saying that Mr. Vernon is one of the most relaxed, even keel and loving people I’ve ever met. What I didn’t know until now was that he was in the U.S. Navy for 4 years. Military school started on Monday for the Standard V students. It will continue until the students show improvement by improving their classroom behavior.

The class rules:

1. Silence. All the time unless given permission to speak.

2. Upon entering the class, students stand tall next to their seats before being told to sit.

3. 10 push-ups for every minute a student is late to class.

4. Push-ups for speaking out of turn, talking back to teachers or showing negative attitudes.

5. Students march everywhere in single file lines.

6. Students eat when told to eat and eat in silence.

7. Physical education is no longer playing soccer but doing jumping jacks, sit-ups, push-ups and wall sits.

This may sound harsh but it’s only temporary, hopefully. I also think it’s necessary. This particular group of children has been problematic for over a year and at this point requires more dramatic consequences to make a point. The end goal is for these children to get an education in order to keep them off the streets. In all reality, there are only 6 or 7 students that are truly problematic. The problem is that the rest of the students tolerate it and join in. If this teaches them anything, I hope it shows them how when people tolerate others’ poor behavior it hurts everyone, whether that’s their class or their community at large. For example, communities that show intolerance to crime by enacting a neighborhood watch program usual experience lower rates of crime. I would love to (and am starting to see) these students stand up to the disruptive ones to condemn their activity, not applaud it. That is more effective than any amount of push-ups.

Today was day 3 of military academy. Mr. Vernon is out of town and Miss Laura is sick with the flu, so Mr. Noel, Mr. Shane and I have been the drill sergeants/teachers. I have definitely seen an improvement but they definitely have a long way to go. Students are concentrating more in class and are actually handing in completed assignments. However, they are still struggling with the basics, like standing in a line without talking. Today, after horsing around in line for 20-some minutes, they finally got their act together as the sweat starting to roll down their face in the hot sun. Hopefully it won’t take them as long tomorrow. In the end, I hope they will learn that life is easier when you don’t cut corners and do things correctly the first time.

As necessary as it is, I hate being a drill sergeant. It’s totally out of character for me. Those of you who know me well know that I like to smile and rarely raise my voice. I was spoiled teaching at the University of Colorado. There, when I opened my mouth, everyone closed theirs because they knew what I was about to say would be beneficial to hear. Those were the days….

Thursday, October 8, 2009

My Humble Abode


I'm almost settled into my apartment in San Pedro. It has everything I need, no more, no less. My apartment is a 2-room wooden buildling on stilts. (Everything here is on stilts because the town is only inches above sea level.) It has 4 walls, a floor and a roof. The walls don't always meet the floor and geckos like to sneak in through the gaps. There's a double bed, countertop, cabinets, kitchen sink, toiliet, concrete shower, bathroom sink and shelves. I just got a stove lent to me, but I still need to purchase a tank of butane to use it. The windows all have screens and shutters to keep the mosquitos out (a real plus) and I have a fan to keep me cool. Compared to my experience camping on BLM land in Colorado for months on end, this is living in luxury. It's not the nicest place in town, but is certainly not the worst. It's clean, furnished and perfect for 2 months.

The neighborhood I live in is very friendly. Miss Francis did a wonderful job finding a location that I would feel safe in. The vice principal of the school lives right in front of me. I can see her front door from mine. I've met a couple of other neighbors as well. One is a tailor who lives with his wife and the other is a construction worker. Times are hard down here, just like in the States, and steady employment has been hard to find for both of these people. A couple of these apartments look like large families live in them. I don't how they all sleep at night but I'd have to guess that they pull mattresses out from the double bed at night to use every square inch of available floor space.

Families here are big and not nuclear. It's actually really depressing to hear about. Yesterday, I was in Miss Joy's Standard VI class during language arts. Their task for the day was to write a letter to Miss Francis about why they need a scholarship to attend High School the following year (a cost of $500 per year for tuition, books and supplies). I helped edit several letters and each one looked the same. There were 4-8 kids and the father was either dead or "doesn't care about us." Many families in the area have immigrated from Guatemala or Honduras. I can't imagine the hardships that a single mother of 8 faces in this town. Many people relocate to Ambergris (the tourist hotspot of Belize) in hope of finding better employment opportunites but are usually met with the extremely high cost of living.

I am finally finding my niche here at the school. I will be doing a lot of remedial work with the upper division students (Standard V and VI). Everyday, I will be working on remedial reading skills with students from Miss Joy's Standard VI and Miss Laura's Standard V. There will be two groups of students based on level. Two students need to start over at the beginning to learn to read. They understand spoken English perfectly but don't know how to read or write it. They know how to physically write (form letters and words) but they don't know what they are copying down from the black board. Those students I will be starting at kindergarten with to teach them all the different sounds and then how to put those together into words. The other group of students can sound words out and read, but they don't comprehend what they are reading.

Everyday, I will also be working on math with 4 or 5 of Miss Laura's Standard V classes.  Right now, we are working on reviewing addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. They have all seen the material before, but their level of mastery and retention is low. We are trying to make sure they have a solid foundation.

The computer teacher, Mr. Shane, is out on paternity leave. His daughter was born in Orange Walk (on the mainland) a few days ago. While he is gone, I will be teaching the computer classes. This might be tricky as there is no curriculum for me to work from.

Last but not least, I have been assisting Mr. Vernon to write a grant proposal to one of the Belizean programs. He is trying to get funding for a mangrove restoration project at the school. The mangrove farm will surround the school by 20 feet in each direction (the school is built on stilts above a lagoon). This will help keep sand from eroding from beneath the school buildings, increase biodiversity in the lagoon, and help keep the bigreef healty by providing a spawning ground for many fish. The school children will also be able to participate in planting seedlings and study their importance.

There is a long weekend this week, in honor of Christopher Columbus Day. I'll be at the school a bit working on some projects but mostly reading books at the Wilsons (they are out of town leading a Cursillo, or walk to Emmaus).


Saturday, October 3, 2009

Settling into San Pedro, sort of

Greetings from San Pedro! (where golf carts out-number automobiles.)

My trip here went smoothly, although a little nerve-racking. My previous trip down here has forever scared me and I think I will always hate customs agents. Last time, they confiscated 200lbs of donated school items and wouldn't release them for over a month without lots of pressure from the Anglican Diocese and Ministry of Education. This time, I was carrying over 40 lbs of books that my Grandmother graciously donated to the school library. I could tell the customs agent was skeptical of me and kept asking me if I had brought any items down for the people I was visiting. I kept saying no and she let me pass. I hate lying (or stretching/omitting the truth). Needless to say, I don't think espionage is anywhere in my future.

My short flight from the mainland to Ambergris was short and sweet. The gate agent actually put me on an earlier flight so I arrived an hour early in San Pedro. It's definitely the off-season because my flight had 5 passengers on a 12 person, single-prop Cessna. The school's taxi driver met me at the airport at took me north to the school to meet Francis and Vernon.

I have a small efficiency apartment in town, but I have been staying at Francis and Vernon's house this weekend. They flew to the mainland and needed a house sitter to take care of their dogs. They have a very nice piece of beach front property. I am totally spoiled right now and it will be a culture shock when I move into my "cozy" place.

I spent my first day shadowing the Standard VI class. Most of these students didn't start school at Holy Cross, so they have a lot of remedial work (long division in particular) to do before moving onto high school. I also happened to be there for their anatomy lesson of the male reproductive system. Compared to what I remembered growing up, these students seemed much more engaged in the lesson. I don't think students in my 5th-grade class asked questions. I think we thought that if we kept silent, the awkward lesson would end sooner. It was actually refreshing to hear kids ask questions rather than rely on their peers.

I've spent all day Saturday monitoring the computer lab. The University of Belize is here working with the teachers to get a teaching certificate. Now that the school has a computer lab, the university professor can come to them rather than making all of the teachers travel to the mainland (unrealistic). Most teachers here have a high school education and no teaching credentials. To improve the teachers' skills in the classroom, the University provides summer and weekend classes on the island so that all can earn a teaching certificate.

With the introduction of a computer lab, the teachers now have access to a plethora of teaching aids online. Many of them come to the lab here after classes to find worksheets and course material for their lesson plans. What an improvement from the first years of the school's operation!

Mr. Freddie just came in to notify me that he has to turn the fresh water pump off for the Wilson's house and surrounding area for a while because the water level is getting low. In the words of Dorothy, "Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore." 

Pictures coming soon!