Monday, June 27, 2011


Yesterday was a day of culinary delights. There was an early morning plov (AKA rice-fest) for my colleague, which was a ceremony marking 40 days since the passing of a neighbor. It featured an array of goodies spread across the floor in typical Central Asian style. You sit around the food on thin pillows,eating with your fingers, with the prayers of the mullah for the deceased wafting in from the adjacent room.

From that very Un-American experience we transitioned to the kitchen of our house and a late breakfast of homemade pancakes and Vermont maple syrup. The pancakes were all made with fruits from the garden so we had apples and raspberries and in a nod to the international food importers, bananas from Ecuador. A huge stack of cakes found their way to the garden table along with homemade Vermont syrup. The combination of warm fruit and warm syrup was an instant hit. However explaining in Russian and Farsi how syrup is made taxed even the most linguistically nimble of the group.

Dinner was yet another adventure and we were treated to Shashlik the national dish. It is Kabob marinated and then grilled on an open fire, and we sampled two beef cuts and chicken. Our boss added in his signature salad, and in the end it was a day of truly delectable gluttony.

Friday, June 24, 2011

a matter of translation

Ideas like language in order to be understood, need translation. Our work, so far, has been an exercise in exactly that. What is a good idea in one context is not so in another. In the age of internet and instant communication, ideas are whizzing around the globe at an astonishing rate. Some ideas seem to stick and gain traction and others fall by the wayside. One such idea is outcomes based education.

In this part of the world, outcomes based education is in direct opposition to what has been the norm since Soviet times. The point of an education and the degree to which one had attained it, is measured by the accumulation of information as indicated by success on tests and in recitations. Clearly, education in Central Asia worked in Soviet Times by all indicators. Children were literate in two languages, teachers were well paid and had a yearly professional development trip to Moscow, there were textbooks in the farthest village schools and education was seen as a right rather than a privilege.

With the break up of the former Soviet Union,compounded by a global economy that rises and falls in a blink of an eye, the template that usually spelled success is no longer in place. Even if it was, in all probability, it would not be nimble enough to keep up with the rapid fire changes of the world. That has certainly been the case in our own country.

The new template, as yet untried, is outcomes based education that includes measurable evidences and indicators that are consistently understood across institutions. This push is a direct result of the Bologna agreement for European Universities. The hope is to make former CIS universities equally in-line and compatible.

In large measure, our task is to figure out a mechanism that supports outcomes based teacher education and makes it a transparent idea and easily understood by others. Teacher educators here have focused on inputs; recent efforts at reform have been exercises in reorganizing the ratio of class hours spent on different subjects. The challenge is get them paying relatively more attention to what their students are actually learning during those hours and how it's transferring into actions in student teaching.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The River

We spent most of yesterday in the cellar of the office as it is quiet and under a hundred degrees. Central Asia in June is hot. As we worked with our colleagues we began to develop a metaphor for educational change as that of crossing a river.

In general schools are like the river bank, comfortable, familar and for the most part reasonably safe, at least in terms of expectations and performance. The rub comes when the teachers and the very infrastructre is in need of change and teachers, administrators are required to cross the river to a new river bank on the other side. The key then becomes, what is required by those of us in the development community and educational support team to make the crossing a pleasurable wade instead of a swim for your life. We have ideas and do our work, but we are not the ones who cross the river. How do we make the river seem narrower, and the currents less threatening?

Thus as we work through our tasks out here, we keep returning to our metaphor as a barometer from which to judge how successful or not ideas will be at the implementation stage.

Monday, June 20, 2011

June in the Garden

Here we are again and I must say it is lovely to be back in the village. Our "home coming" was warm complete with a bowl of fresh cherries, hot tea, and "my office" set up under the tree in the garden. My colleague is an instant super star because he chats away in Farsi. Our bags are somewhere in Turkey which means we will be "professionally dressed" in our travel gear until they arrive which is in several days- only two flights a week. Colleague looks more like he's ready to go to the gym than to work. We have come with books for the school library, assorted clothes for kids and various professional books for our colleagues. Not to mention maple syrup and pancake mix which will be Sunday breakfast for as many of our village buddies as we can feed. The first question from our beloved host when he found out that our bags were missing was an audible groan.. oh no my syrup!

Our first big gig will be Friday and between now and then we need to work through an agenda, send out a survey, gather the data and figure out how to put it in spiffy graphs in two languages. Our hope is that this seminar will set the stage for our work forward.

On other fronts, the work from my FB in the fall has grown into seminars and materials development. Individuals who had never had a chance to share their ideas are now talking on a regular basis. The IPD team from the Pamirs is working more closely with the team in Dushanbe. So all in all the tiny seeds of October are flourishing.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Homeward Bound

I woke up to the call to prayer as is the custom. Scooted down to the kitchen to make tea and went out to the garden to watch the light come up on the great screen of Central Asian Sky. The stars were still out and the constellations filled the heavens. In a matter of hours I will be headed west as this is my last day here and I will leave when it is barely Monday. There is much to do, like write reports, print pictures, visit the neighbors, take a walk and as always drink tea. How can a month vanish in an instant? I have many people to thank among them my dean for making the space for me to come here, my colleague for teaching my class and to Fulbright for giving me the opportunity of a life time.

To adequately reflect on this experience will take months. In the short run however, I am ever more convinced that if we are to have any semblance of grace on this planet, it will come through education. Not just any education that dishes out a standard fare of curriculum and copy books but one that encourages curiosity and critical thought to flourish. We need fewer ideologues, fewer pundits, fewer absolutists on either side of critical issues. Rather we need an education that opens rather than molds young minds and one that makes possibility for clarity of thought and measured action a probability instead of an outlier.

The unsung heroes in this endeavor are many. The great classroom teachers around the world who work with little or no resources. The aid workers some of whom have lost their lives in their attempts to build schools and infrastructure that make education possible in arenas for which power is dependent on ignorance and domination. There are the closet visionaries disguised in suits commonly worn by bureaucrats who are educational alchemists of commitment mediation and inspiration. They are positioned in unlikely places and represent a range of influence such as our Chief of Party, the young ex climber turned USAID education officer, and the rector of the Pedagogical University.

Individuals can and do make a difference. Such as, the program director of the IPD in Khorog who simply goes about his business with a quiet sense of humor never wavering for an instant from his mission - to provide exemplary support to teachers in his region. Under his leadership a minuscule band of individuals have systematically consolidated resources, applied text-book level analysis of their programs and stayed the course. They know exactly what they are doing and where they want to go in the future. As a team they are like the land cruisers they travel in – obstacles in the road are not barriers but opportunities for creative problem solving. Leadership is a consistent sustainable and collaborative vision.

On Tuesday I will meet my class after almost 32 hours of travel. I hope that I will still have the dust of this place on my shoes as a reminder of possibility and my own privilege. I also hope that I will be able to convey to them how much the world needs them. There is so much to be done and due to the accident of birth they have all the tools needed to be a force for good. Inshallah they will succeed.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

A bump in the road

So far this week has largely been devoted to working with colleagues at the University. The purpose of these exchanges is to bring those who train new teachers up to speed with those who are doing in-service training. In this country the in-service training is spectacular. There is a small cadre of master trainers who are talented, well informed and exceptional educators. For the most part they come from the ranks of classroom teachers who have worked their way up. The end result is that the in-service training is modern, child centered, interactive and just plain good.

The same cannot be said for the pre-service training. The issues are, not surprisingly, complex. Teacher education sits within the university structure which in many ways mirrors the old Soviet system. Thus the hierarchy is still in place – older professors dominate the conversations and discussions and younger ones sit silent. The curriculum is under the purview of the heads of the departments who were young men in Soviet times and long for the return of the order. Thus the culture of the University for Pre-service Teachers is simultaneously a mirror of, at this point an almost mythical past, with the mandate to train teachers for the future. It is not a particularly successful model.

From an international perspective, teacher shortages and teacher retention are big issues. It is generally agreed, that education is the key to political stability and economic prosperity. Yet it is difficult to find good teachers and even more difficult to get them to stay in the profession. The numbers world-wide from developed to developing countries are not optimistic. According to a recent study, in Tajikistan 50% of all young teachers leave the profession after five years. The reasons are substantial and daunting. They are unprepared for the day to day work of students; their skills do not match the classroom realities; they are over worked and under paid; and the resources are limited. These retentions issues are made even more painful when set in context of the Soviet Times when teachers were well paid and respected.

The first session was today and it was a lulu. As to be expected the jostling for group supremacy and philosophical posturing was immediate. When the trainer asked the group, what was the most important point in planning a successful lesson for school children the first response was money. Typically, individuals were anxious to promote their personal agendas and the louder they promoted them the better. Communication style is a cultural artifact and this was a textbook study. In about five minutes it was apparent that lesson planning was not on the hearts and minds of the audience. The lesson learned of course is that we as a team started in the wrong place.

The system is top down. Participation in seminars or professional learning communities is by mandate not by interest or choice. Thus once again, faculty found themselves at the mercy of someone elses “good idea.” In some ways the chaotic nature of the seminar was cathartic for the participants and a great learning opportunity for us. They had grievances to vent and this was a tiny opening to do that. I relayed the story of the boy with the blue ruler as an illustration of the teacher not having any idea what the objective of the lesson was. Even the most recalcitrant of participants grudgingly agreed.

For the hundredth time I was struck by the disconnect not just here but in education training programs generally, by what really capable and talented teachers are able to do in the field and what transpires in the halls of universities and educational ministries. Perhaps one of the requirements for administrators and policy makers is to spend six months in the class of a master kindergarten teacher just to be reminded again what we are all about and what it takes to really get the job done.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Rock Star

One way to achieve the sensation of being a rock star is to be an American Teacher with a great camera in a small Central Asian village. I have been trying to walk in the early morning when it is cool, however the last few days have been intense and in the city. As I am a frequent walker in the village, there is a whole band of smalls who are thrilled to see me. They pop out of doorways and from behind bushes. As I had not walked for a few days I devoted this morning to a long amble, wending my way up and down the paths and with my camera.

Village life is enormously appealing to the outsider. I imagine it can get a bit stifling to the young and ambitious who chafe under the watchful eyes of their elders and are drawn to the cities. But for me, this little village has become something of a study in community and my guides have been the kids.

The orientation of villages in Central Asia seems to rely on space and water. Thus they are not laid out on a grid as they are in some parts of the world and the center of the village seems to be a widening in the road rather than a square or as in Central America a park and a church. The villages, well, amble along the ridges, gullies and hillsides. The main street is dirt , houses open out to the streets but only as doorways in walls. All of the homes are compounds with the very few exceptions of small houses built on the hillsides.

The kids are really the best part however. Once I explained that I was a malima americanski ( American teacher) and that I could show them instantly a photo of themselves I was a rock star. Now, when I come around the corner , there is immediately a team of children shouting Malima Malima at the top of their lungs. Some who are “old timers” as my guide shove the younger ones forward. They jostle and push each other to line up for pictures, taking great delight in the arranging of themselves and then jumping up and down waiting for the end result. I tip the camera so they can see themselves and usually the response is squeals of delight, clapping hands and pantomime to do it again.

The adults however, are not as thrilled with my presence as their kids. In fact the same elder or Imam who walks down the village street as the same time as me, greeting small children with great affection, usually just glares. Even when I put my hand over my heart and greet him.. Salam Alikum gets barely a grunt. One father stopped me on the street as his little boy wanted his photo taken. Niet was the response. Then we had a limited conversation that mustered my entire arsenal of Russian and Tajik. I explained I was an American teacher but I was not at the village school, rather I worked in the city. I had friends here in the village and I was living with them. The dad seemed relieved and then smoothed his son’s hair for the photo. Another village elder stopped him and I heard as I walked off Malima Americanski. Identify the stranger in our midst.

These moments tug just for a second at the unexpected longing we all have for community. In a globalized world and particularly in the west, we have lost for good or bad much of the essence of village. Mind you, I am not romanticizing this idea as the golden age of civilization. I imagine life in this village could be and is pretty grim for those who don’t fit or those for whom the elders are not happy, but there is a sense of connectedness and ordinariness that resonates. Villagers simply go about their day without the benefit of a blackberry or calendar of events or for that matter scheduled meetings. People get married like they did this morning and the family of the bride makes plov for the whole village. Ours was delivered at 8:30 at the door on a beautiful blue and white china plate. The plates don't get returned to the owners rather they simply circulate and eventually find their way back to the kitchen of origin. It is a community event seen as part of the fabric of the place and a renewal of the community. Old ladies and little kids stake out the family cow or donkey and the other members of the family work the garden or do the wash. Life is pretty close to the ground in these places.

Opportunity comes in small windows rather than the vast panoply that we have in the developed west. It comes actually in the form of education. In my travels this morning, I went to the school. It is by far the best and it is probably one if not the only public building. Recent renovations mean that there is a nice new tin roof, the courtyard is full of flowers, the paint is fresh and the building practically glows in white and blue. There are new rain gutters and not just the old soviet era rusty kind but really good ones manufactured in all probability by one of the many craftsmen here. It is an appealing place and clearly the children of this village all attend, even the ones who I saw walking this morning from a considerable distance. The quality of the education is in all likelihood as good as anywhere else. Perhaps not up to the humming bird standards but at least the basics are in place. That seems to translate into an interesting and creative entrepreneurial set of outcomes.

For example there is a cabinet maker who figured out that the old style wooden windows were not so efficient and with the model of a new casement window is busy manufacturing and installing them. My colleague brought a wooden folding chair from England that was designed in the 60’s and is perfect for the garden. They are now being replicated and in all probability will find their way to the bazaar. There is the table rental guy who figured out that all of these community events require seating for about 100 people so he bought some folding tables and chairs and now for every wedding and celebration he rolls in with his truck and does a set up. There is a seamstress who makes the sparkling dresses that I have come to fully appreciate and now own two. Around the corner from my house is a master mechanic. I am sure he can keep even the most ancient car on the road. It is a family business and now the elder simply directs his sons. The village sustains itself.

My walk ends the same way it begins with my “tour guides” jumping up and down and shouting datsvedunya Malima in deafening tones that have an endearing enthusiastic quality. I wave furiously and they wave back with equal energy as there is a bend in the road where clearly they are not allowed to go beyond. I can’t help but think if I could come back here in ten years where would my young friends be. In all probability they will be right here in this village going about their lives. Opportunity here is defined as maintaining a way of life within the context of family and community. Valuable assets for sure and what makes that possible in large measure is the shiny white school at the top of the hill.