Thursday, September 30, 2010


Much of the last few days have been spent in meetings and listening to presentations. Our colleagues from another branch of the project are here for the end of the fiscal year discussions. It is a chance for everyone to catch up with everyone else and it is always interesting. Of all the presentations and things we discussed probably the most arresting and the one where we spent the least time was a presentation on Novostroyka.

Novostroyka refers to the “shanty” villages that are springing up outside of Bishkek near the Dordoi bazaar. As an entity they represent the face of the migration from the villages to the city to look for work. The buildings themselves are everything from mud to truck bodies to scraps of left over building supplies, to half finished or abandoned construction projects. In general there is no running water, no electricity and of course no heat in winter. The population is a mix of workers trying to find jobs and women and children. It is the children that are the worry.

There are as yet an undetermined number of school age children in these compounds who do not attend school for a variety of reasons. One of the big ones is that they have no documentation and are thus essentially invisible. They lack birth certificates which is the key to school entrance and often their parents are of limited literacy and abilities. The other big problem is of course resources. In order to go to school, children need uniforms (remember the suits and the bows) and they need copy books and pens and they need shoes. Without these things, children are obviously staying home which they have been doing in large numbers. As the parents work most of the time there are whole bands of children from tiny to teenager who are basically raising themselves. As they are not in school they are not gaining literacy skills and thus slowly but surely there is a growing large group of young people who will in the end be disenfranchised and isolated from the mainstream. However amidst this shocking tableau of poverty and mayhem are two brand new mosques. When asked, the children especially the boys, attend religious education there. If ever there was a garden of instability, unrest and religious zeal it is here.

The Kgz team however recognized this situation and did something about it. The first step was to take a census and in order to do that they sent out a virtual army of young people, dressed in yellow t-shirts and carrying black bags. They systematically to the best of their ability went from house hold to house hold in the rabbit warren of the Novostroyka trying to identify and register school age children. This was an enormous undertaking. From there they built a data base and began the unnerving logistical task of getting these kids in school. As a result they pulled together school packets with notebooks and supplies, uniforms and shoes and children who would not have attended school are now enrolled. The funding came from USAID and the powers that be in the personage of a young American x climber deserve major kudos for his flexibility and vision.

This project is not finished of course. Winter is coming and that brings up a whole host of other issues. I have been here in December and can attest to the clear skies but low temperatures. A winter wonderland is only that if you have heat. The team faces another set of problems such as how to get enough warm clothes to the same children to keep them going to school. They are working on raising government and public awareness to this issue. Clearly education is the dyke that allows for long term political and social stability and this team has their thumb in it.

It is projects and people like these that make the development world with all its flaws, false starts and confusion a possible and powerful force for good in the region and in the world. For every news story that breaks about charitable donations finding their way to the black market and corruption in high places there are the unwritten stories of people like these -young men and women going door to door to find kids to send them to school so they will have a chance. Margret Mead was right: never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

Monday, September 27, 2010

A day at the office

After the "roof of the world" a day in the office is a bit of a let down. This is where the work gets hard. It is one thing to be a witness to greatness and it is a whole 'nother thing to try and reproduce it.

The great learning of the past several days is that a systems wide approach ( SWAP) where all stakeholders have a voice and there is a sustained and sustainable commitment is one path to educational reform. (I secretly think it also requires several impassable mountain ranges to keep the rest of the bureaucratic world at bay so the team can get down to business.) However, there is a shortage of isolation in the capitol city and the force of the former Soviet System which made bureaucracy a religion is ever present.

In khorog, it was very clear that listening was an integral part of the process and as a result the end product was a comfortable compromise. Here, in the midst of the fray there isn't as much attention paid to building a consensus and that is true across the board. Educational reform efforts have been going on here since the fall in the mid 90's and much of those reforms are the same and yet from a systems approach they haven't stuck. Rather successful implementation seems to rely on the charisma and dedication of certain sets of trainers or small programs rather than a unified approach. One of the biggest disconnect rests in how teachers are trained.

Our team spent a morning mapping out the strategy for the next few days which consist of meetings and preparation for trainings and consultations. As we talked, i kept thinking that we needed to take a breath and step back from this and think about what it is that we are trying to accomplish long term and how will that be received or not. Even in my own country which has resources beyond measure the educational reform movement has predictably lurched from idea to policy to test to restructuring to various forms of certification like a drunken sailor. The end result has not been particularly successful so why duplicate it elsewhere?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

After the fact

In an effort to catch up, this post will be a reflection on the last couple of day - a visit to the Aga Khan Lycee and the trip back to Dushanbe by car.

The Lycee is a model school in Khorog support through AKf (Aga Khan foundation). It is open to anyone to apply and if a promising student's family can not afford to support him or her there is scholarship money available. The curriculum operates in three languages or mediums. The medium is selected in grade one thus students in the English medium are taught entirely in English, the other two choices are Tajik and Russian. All students are expected to take another language outside of their medium and often you find students who are tri-linqual.

The school is exemplary in every way from the director who is also overseeing the school in Osh to the teachers, students and support staff. There is a real desire to model not only exemplary teaching but the offer models of sustainability and creative resource use. For example on the school tour we stopped at a small viewing auditorium that was built entirely out of the wood of old desks. Teachers are expected to continue their educations and many of them have masters degrees. The director spends his summer at Sussex university working on his Ph.D.

Student success from the school is high as one might expect. 50% of students have received scholarship support to study abroad, many are attending universities in the US and Europe for advanced degrees. It would be easy to write this kind of success off to resources and family background. However there are many students from "poor families" and although there are resources available it is not over the top. I would venture to say that some of the common place single budget lines in our schools and universities would fund this lycee for several years. Once again, the key seems to be a shared vision across the board, clear strategic plan, careful research that informs choices, sustained support and a philosophy that is financially moderate as well as wise.

The school itself was a really lovely place to spend time. They began with an old soviet style building and with some creative and interesting renovations transformed it into simply a nice school. The windows were in good shape, there was plenty of light and the heating system was up to date. As always, I was struck by the straight forwardness of this process. Renovate the things that count and leave the rest well enough alone so resources can go to student achievements and faculty and staff development. The lycee was just another example of the kind of educational success story that we had witnessed elsewhere at the roof of the world.

The drive back to Dushanbe by car was in a word epic. The one hour flight out translates into an almost 16 hour bone crushing drive back. Two of us elected to do this just to see what it was like . The take home message is perhaps "but for the grace of a river ". 12 of the 16 hours of this drive is along, again, the Afghan boarder. The road is of course a disaster except the few places where the Chinese decided to send in a crew of prisoners to fix it or the other few places where there are road crews from Iran. However it is still a road. The other side of the river which is Afghanistan is a foot path for the same number of kilometers. There are places where foot bridges span the gorges that on the Tajik side have bridges. It was virtually impossible to pick out schools even though we were in some places only yards apart. On the Tajik side schools are everywhere and obvious. When we could see people going about their daily chores the women were in traditional covered dress including those doing the laundry in the river. The men were dressed in the equivalent traditional gear. The Tajik side, again completely different. The reason is the river. It is sufficiently deep, cold and dangerous that the two countries have been held apart. The influence of the Soviets lingers on the Tajik side with infrastructure and education. Isolation and circumstance has held the Afghan side precisely where it was 100 or more years ago.

We arrived back at this marvelous garden oasis about midnight. Our friends appeared with hot tea and warm bread. My appreciation for this small paradise deepened, yet the Pamirs lingered in all of us. Vivid images and unanswered questions will take many more weeks and months to sort out.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

slide show

I have posted a very few slides with a great deal of support from my IT colleague in the States.. ( thank you) I think if you click on the slide show it will open in a new window and I have put a few comments on the bottom so you can have a better idea of what you are looking at. enjoy these photos and know that they can only give you a small taste of this beautiful place.

Friday, September 24, 2010


Quite simply Zong is at the end of the road and maybe at the edge of the roof of the world. We left Khorog at six in the morning in a Toyota land cruiser with a sat phone ariel bolted to the bumper and probably one of the toughest and most able drivers in the region. Our route is basically out of the city and along the river that divides Tajikistan from Afghanistan. In the beginning the road snakes out of the valley and climbs up about 200 meters. It is essentially one lane from Khorog to China. The pavement ends in the first 5 meters and from then on it is an astonishing mix of dirt, gravel, washout, potholes and on occasion no road at all. Our destination was one of the very last schools in the south eastern part of the country, a stone’s throw from the Wakan Valley.( Read Mortensens's book Stones into Schools) Our destination was the tiny village of Zong and another school visit.

The journey was designed to make very real the educational challenges that face this part of the region. The scenery is spectacular. The road is an endurance test and after about the first 5 mintues I was more than appreciative of the toughness of the Land cruiser and the skill of the driver. Villages came and went each one with its own signature and still similar-. little hamlets tucked or teetering depending on the circumstances on postage stamps of greenery amidst a sea of rock. It is almost impossible to capture the sense of grandeur, beauty and hostility all rolled into one. I continually marveled that anyone can live here and yet can understand how if you lived here you could live nowhere else.

Little kids waved, women in the traditional sparkling dresses with covered faces to protect them from the sun harvested potatoes. Young kids were hauling huge bales of hay on their backs to feed animals coming down from the higher elevations for the winter. Children were walking to school seemingly out in the middle of nowhere. Donkey’s loaded down with everything from sacks of grain to machinery trotted along down the middle of the road oblivious to the land Cruiser behind them.

We stopped at a mineral spring to get some water that bubbled out of the rocks, it was my iron supplement for the next two months. When the valley flattens out into more of an alluvial plain the road deteriorates even more. We forded a few rivers, ground over the remains of a landslide or two, got behind countless herds of sheep, goats, and cows and simply kept going as the Karakatom got steeper and more covered with snow and the light became more transparent and the air dryer. It was an odd sensation driving along with Afghanistan out the passenger side of the window. The border is lightly patrolled by Tajik soldiers here and there but generally it is wide open. After about six plus hours of driving we arrived in Zong.

The school was a typical soviet style block construction, wooden floors, concrete steps. This week is Rudiki week and we arrived just in time for the assembly. The children were reciting poetry to the applause of their mates. The real significance of this school is that it is not only excellent but it is supported by the IPD which means that at least once a month the mentoring team comes out here and does workshops or helps teachers with new techniques. This commitment to professional development and innovation is humbling. It can not be done with internet and on-line courses because there isn’t any and the brown outs have already started. Winter means less electricity as the small hydro plant is water level dependent.

We had a long meeting with the key teachers most of whom had taught through Soviet times. We asked them about IPD and the new teaching methods. As a group they were incredibly positive with quotes like we were skeptical at first but now we really like it because we see how much the children learn. They talked about interactive learning methods, formative assessment and grumbled about the lack of modern training young teachers were getting at the ped u. What a marvelous thing to have some of the oldest and most conservative teachers in one of the remotest schools be ahead of the curve. They discussed how they solved community problems such as providing hot food for the students. But the thread that ran through the conversations was how IPD had helped them and supported them in real time with real people who got to know them as friends, mentors and colleagues. They came and drank tea.

We headed back to the city knowing full well that much of this drive would be in the dark. Never the less we took a side trip of about 6 k straight up to sit in a natural hot spring that gushed out of the side of the mountain. The government had built a nice small facility that had two separate areas one for women and men. It was heaven . The remainder of the journey home was much like the trip out with the exception that as the light leaves the wind comes and with the wind comes the dust. Even after dark there were still kids walking home and families coming in from the fields. Life is not easy.

We got back to the city late and an exhausted team. Supper was light and we all have found a quiet spot to write and ponder the day. I am sitting on a small enclosed balcony with a cup of tea listening to the sound of the river. The moon is bright and I can not help but be self-reflected. Education is working here at the top of the world in a way it is not working in most of the rest of the country. There has been a commitment to build schools every where there isn't one. They are tidy white buildings of sometimes only 5 rooms. The point is that all kids go to at least primary school which is up to about 8th grade. They walk not more than about 5 kilometers some get hot lunches that are prepared by parents some simply go home. Their teachers, for the most part, are using interactive methods, they are rock solid on goals and objectives and kids can read and do math calculations in their heads. But perhaps the real take home message is that the educational enterprise is an intimate community endeavor supported by a an apparently tireless team in IPD whose vision is shared by all including our driver. Clearly IPD has sown the seeds of excellence in education in the stoniest of soils and it has flourished.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Greatness at the roof of the world

I am going to begin this with a disclaimer as to format. I am writing this off line as i don't have enough juice or modem power to do it on line. Thus what you are about to read may be a bit bolixed up as I am uploading plain text. I can't stay on line long enough to actually compose. So what follows is an experiment.

Khorog sits at around 2000 meters maybe more , in a narrow valley that is squished between two mountain ranges one of them being the Pamirs. A river runs down the valley and on one side of the river is Tajikistan and on the other side is Afghanistan. Flying is an opportunity to see some of the most beautiful and wild places left on the planet. There is usually only one flight a day and then only when the weather is perfectly clear as visibility is essential. The plane is a little prop that holds around twenty people and I imagine most of the navigation is done by sight.

We were incredibly lucky as today was perfect to fly to “the roof of the world”. There was not a cloud in the sky and almost no wind so we just puddled along. The landscape changes rapidly from dry but reasonably fertile fields to windswept scree. Then as we swoop into the next valley the huge glacier lakes appear. The color is somewhere between jade and turquoise depending on the light and there is not a tree or blade of grass to be seen. I think they must be almost inaccessible as the mountains around them look like a fortress and there didn’t seem to be so much as a goat path. The lakes then give way to the Pamirs, covered with snow. At one point in the journey I couldn’t decide which side of the plane was the best. The Tajik side which had a stunning view of razor sharp desolate peaks or the Afghan side where I had to look up and out the window to see the last bit of glacier above the plane thus the camera shot is up, not sideways, or down.

The agenda for the day was to visit with the IPD ( Institute of professional development) which is state funded with additionall support by the Aga Khan foundation. The IPD is an interesting organization as it serves schools in one of the most remote regions of Central Asia. Most of the high mountain schools and all of the schools along the Afghan Tajik border are under their wing. The distances are vast, the conditions harsh, resources are limited and yet the IPD has astounding success.

They developed a cascade model that clusters schools in groups and approach professional development AKA educational reform from all possible angles. It is essentially a community model that smacks a bit of PDS (Professional Development Schools) and Professional Learning Communities. IPD has strong partnerships with the ministry of education, deputy directors, the local teacher training institutions. Their approach is essentially, supporting and involving teachers, parents, and students in a wholeistic school reform. IPD has a realistic handle on what is and is not going to work given where they are. The corner stone of their program which is funded through AKF is the monitoring and evaluation piece. They have systematically collected data and run precise pilot and research projects on practically every aspect of their program.

One small example, IPD created a zero year class for children whose language is not Tajik but rather a very unusual dialect. The rational behind the zero year is to give non-tajik children a chance to adjust to going to a Tajik school. Rather than just setting the class up, IPD ran a pilot, conferred with parents of the children, collected data, made some significant adjustments and then introduced a few classes at a time.

After a presentation by the IPD staff we were treated to two school visits both of which included a chance to talk to parents. They are very involved and commented on how much they liked being able to be part of the school as this was not the case in Soviet Times. The second school visit included a presentation by the student council. As part of their school reform program students in schools create a student council that mirrors the government. The unique aspect of this idea is that the students actually have some real clout. Students are encouraged to create new programs and solve community problems. Parents are equally empowered and involved. It is important to keep in mind that Tajikistan emerged from the Soviet Era to a bloody and debilitating civil war that left the country in shambles. Thus the achievements of the IPD are even more remarkable.

They have introduced teacher resource centers, book publishing projects, health awareness and a mentoring program that practically defies description. (This is only a partial list) Their offices are in a semi-renovated school that could use a really good heating system. On one bulletin board is a series of photos of the young people who have come through their office as part of the program staff and a where are they now blurb. It reads like a whose who of bright young people from some of the smallest and most remote villages in a country that defines small and remote. They are now part of bigger AID programs, running NGO’s, attending major universities all over the world. As the director said “ they always run away just when we get them trained” and he laughed. I keep struggling with the "key to success' factor. What is making these programs so successful? Of course the sub-text is why can't we do the same?

Tomorrow we are going to visit a school that is one of the last along the Tajik Afghan border. It is about as far away from anywhere as you can get and will be very close to where Motensen wrote his new book Stones into Schools. My students are reading it and i am really looking forward to sending them the "real deal' photos. For now though there are at least 20 more cups of tea to drink and notes to write.

Monday, September 20, 2010

book ends

Today began with an earthquake and ended with a coming of age celebration that had all the rich tapestry of a ceremony befitting the Middle Ages with the warmth and generosity that is such a part of this region.

Somewhere in the middle I managed to go with two other colleagues to watch a methods class at the ped U. We were ushered in by the dean, an elderly and delightful man who when asked about his ideas for the future simply shook his head. He was open to new ideas but had clearly come to terms with where he was in life and the prospects of change in a region that is on the one hand anchored in an ancient history and on the other is being catapulted into the future.

The methods class was interesting from a variety of perspectives. The teacher, for some glitch in logistics, ended up with two classes in one. She also was a bit unprepared for the prospects of visitors and took the fall back approach of doing review. The method under review was "arts and crafts" across the disciplines. She asked a series of questions such as how can you use arts and crafts in chemistry, mathematics, ecology etc. The students all stood for recitation some speaking so quickly that they clearly were worried they would forget something. The students had great ideas and were largely attentive except for the usual pose of flirts in the back row who were busy exchanging emails and texts.

As this progressed I kept thinking what is this class about anyway. It can't be arts and crafts for real and then it dawned on me. This class was about how to make materials to teach your subject matter because in fact, besides a often outdated text book that is all the teacher will have. The most interesting aspect of this process was the level of subject integration. Students were whizzing along the curriculum and giving good comments and good ideas on all sorts of ways to create manipulative materials that young people could use. They even went on to detail how to use bottles and jars. At one point the instructor said.. 'don't throw anything away even a stone can help you teach some mathematics".

Naturally, at the end of the class there was time to ask questions of an American teacher and they were about as I expected. Once again when I asked why they wanted to teach most of them responded with "I had a great teacher in school and i want to be like him or her" Then the conversation shifted quickly to life in America. What did my students wear to class? What was the relationship between me and my students? Did my students go to school on Saturday and did they live at home? Were they as smart as my students? I answered as best as I could with the usual levels of good humor and will spilling out from the students. Just before I left there was a pause and I had a moment while gathering my things to look out over their bright and energetic faces and I thought if ever there is salvation for us all it is in these young people who for some unknown reason have decided to become teachers. I could not help but be optimistic about this country's future.

Friday, September 17, 2010

brass tacks

Today was my first day actually in the academy to try and understand a bit more clearly what exactly it is they want me to help them with. There is always the obligatory meeting with the vice rector which in its own way is a charming cultural ritual. It goes roughly like this. The international ( me) is ushered into an airy office where the administrator sits behind a big dark desk decorated with country flags. There is a TV on with the sound turned off. In my case, my pathetic Russian is not up to the task of what is a formal and always interesting exchange of gratitude and history. Thus inevitably there is a translator and mine is one of my favorite colleagues a young incredibly smart guy from the Pamirs who switches languages like the Rosetta Stone. He has the added advantage of being the person responsible for getting this, what ever this is, done.

The vice rector ushers us all to the table where we in turn produce notebooks, he orders tea and we begin the dance of introductions. It is one of the very few times in life when I find it okay to contextualize myself and my accomplishments, announce my various degrees, University associations and my genuine enthusiasm for the region. It is also a chance to bring formal greetings from my university to his. He in turn outlines his life and accomplishments and gives a short and impressive history of his university. This information exchange is then followed up by gratitude statements that cover the bases of organizations, donors and in some cases celestial beings. Once this is out of the way and it takes at least 30 minutes we get down to brass tacks.

Here is where my heart starts to sink as the scope of work I was sent which was barely doable in the first place is ballooning into a project that even with sleep and working in my own language and culture and institution would take years. Basically he would like if I have time to design a faculty development in-service program that would meet the needs of his education faculty as well as his teacher training faculty and of course there is a need in business as well. Also could we design a faculty exchange program where our gang could have a visit and he could send a delegation and also, while I am at it, there is a real need for a redesign of curriculum and teaching methodology and new textbooks. He has another meeting soon and of course we will meet again after the weekend.

I leave the office dazed trudging after my buoyant and endlessly good humored colleague to our next meeting which is with upper level teacher candidates. I feel remarkably like Eyore when he lost his tail and rather wish Christopher Robin would appear and make it right ie; come up with a brilliant plan that meets everyone's needs. Our next stop is to visit with some teacher candidates and their supervisor. These were upper level candidates who were in their 4th and 5th year. They are biology teachers.

We had a really interesting conversation. I asked extensive questions about how they went about their course of study. There is very little actual field time. In fact their student teaching is two weeks long and then they can go out and get a job. Their supervisor comes once and beyond that the expectation is that they should know what they are doing. ( this is the old Soviet model) The practicum sessions are short and highly structured.Each student has a notebook which outlines exactly what they are to do and how to do it. When asked how they decided what to teach on a given day, they referred to the textbook or to the standards. Interestingly, when asked how these young teachers would deal with students who were not all learning similarly they had good answers that indicated they are thinking about levels and instructional variation. Of course I had to ask the question why teach? Their answers were as you might expect. I am drawn the children, I had a teacher in school who was great and i want to be like her. As always the desire to make a difference and teacher as hero rises to the top. They in turn asked me a million questions about America and my family and of course my students.

The trek back to the office was a chance to think. It seems that every educational system in the universe is busy rewriting their standards - albeit an admirable way to spend ones time, I guess. However as standards get rewritten the work of the teacher gets lost in the shuffle of papers. Tajik teachers in the last three years have had innumerable booklets on how to teach the standards but the standards keep changing which means that the booklets are outdated before they come out. There are conflicting theories and approaches in a part of the world that just likes one answer and a clear path. Older teachers came out of the tough Soviet system and not surprisingly teach exactly the way they were taught. Younger teachers want to do things differently but are not exactly sure how.The international development community through a variety of projects is injecting some more flexible approaches but it is hard to go to scale and in some regions the cultural context is such that it is an uphill battle. There also, just like in the US, is no real agreement on what works and what doesn't.

So there we are back to the age old question which is How do we get "hummingbirds" in every classroom and for every kid. It isn't solely a matter of training, or standards or guidelines or books but in large measure it is a matter of heart and passion. In fact great teachers are something of a mystery. I have always said that to solve all this mess don't write another manual, simply xerox the great teachers who are hidden away in villages, cities and hamlets around the world, make thousands of copies and sprinkle liberally. Would it be so easy.

the boy with the blue ruler

It started raining this morning and the air smelled like compost – slightly acrid with a promise of outrageous fertility. I felt like I was in the children’s book, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs as weather is not just rain or snow in this part of the world, it seems to frame everything from airplane flights to conversations. Regardless, there was a surprising lack of umbrellas as people walked to work or kids to school seemingly oblivious that anything much had changed except the level of run- off in the endless system of storm drains. I had another school visit planned and was prepared for a similar travel experience as yesterday. In fact, with the exception of my driver going backwards down a one way for about 5 minutes at 50 miles an hour weaving in and out of the on- coming traffic, it was a rather uneventful .
This school had been recently renovated and reportedly had an exceptional staff. My observations once again were to be in primary as it is easier to compare along at least one set of grade levels rather than hopping around from level to level. The children were dressed like the ones from yesterday – little girls in blue uniforms with bows in their hair and little boys in suits. Older children were more in evidence and quick to give the traditional greeting of putting your hand over your heart to say good morning. In any case an obvious American with a brief case and a camera was cause for curiosity.
Bouyed up from the day before, I was ready to observe and participate as needed. My first stop was a math class. The room was small and literally dark as though there were light fixtures there no light bulbs, and the one window faced an outside wall and due to the gloomy day there was hardly any light. The children sat silently at their desks in rows waiting for someone to come and teach them. Their teacher had left unexpectedly for the day and they were simply waiting to see what would happen next. It was a unnerving sight , these small ones quite as mice, all lined up at their blue wooden desks that were bolted to the floor waiting patiently. In fact they sat there for about 20 minutes while teachers zipped in and out of the room. When one appeared they all stood up said greeted her in unison and when she left they all sat down to return to waiting.
Totally taken aback I went to another room, this one had a teacher. She was a far cry from the hummingbird but at least she was a teacher and she was there. The lesson was well underway and her small charges were copying from the board to the copy book. It was here that I met the boy with the blue ruler.
The teacher had drawn a picture on the board that was theoretically meant to practice geometric shapes. Thus the entire picture was made up of triangles, squares and various other shapes. There was a sun in the corner with exactly 4 triangles as rays, a house with a triangle for a roof and a square for the walls and various other shapes to complete the picture. The only non geometrical shape, and a touch of whimsy, was the smoke squiggles out the chimney. The object of the lesson was to replicate this picture exactly as it was on the board. Regardless of my own lack of Tajik, it was obvious that this was not about the geometric shapes as it was about reproducing the drawing.
There was not a sound in the room. One little boy couldn’t figure out how to reorient his paper so he reoriented himself until he was unceremoniously plunked down in his chair. Meanwhile the boy with the blue ruler set about with the precision of a budding draftsman to reproduce this drawing with perfect accuracy. His main stumbling block was that his pencils were broken and he had no sharpener but that could be overcome if he pressed harder and made the lines several times. He studied the blackboard, squinting slightly as if taking a bead on a target. He searched his little stash of possessions and took out his triangle and his ruler. He figured out how to make the sun and make the four triangles perfectly the same. He oriented the sun within an inch of where it was to be in the corner of his paper. Then he set about to do the house, measuring each piece carefully to ensure that the square was indeed a square and the chimney was indeed a rectangle. He worked in total silence as did the others but his was a special and more intense effort. He was the only one who thought to use a ruler and a triangle. He was the only one, who for some totally unexplained reason could measure accurately at the age of six. He was the only one to try to make sure the sun was exactly where it was to be and that the windows of the house were squares of identical size. I sat next to him as he worked. I nodded from time to time in admiration but he didn’t so much as smile. Rather he bent over his task as if the world depended on his getting it right. For all I know maybe it does.
I spent the rest of the day going to other classes, most of them quiet, dark and on occasion over crowded. My driver came on time and today I begged off lunch. On the way back to the city, I flipped through my photos and the boy with the blue ruler materialized. For just a flash I dreamed up a nice ending to this story that he would grow up to build bridges and magnificent buildings. He would be a famous draftsman or architect. I also wondered what if things were different for him at school.
What is our responsibility as teachers to bring some light to the task of learning? If you asked his teacher she would say she was doing the best she can and in all probability she is. The obvious response is .. is that good enough?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

teaching with cucumbers and pine cones

This day did not have an auspicious beginning. I was late and due to the recent jail break of 36 insurgents the police were searching every car which meant that I was getting later by the minute. The road out of the city is terrific for about 3 miles and then, to add to the police surveillance, it turns into a sea of potholes. In any case my agenda for the day was to spend it in a oblast school that had been part of a school improvement project.

The school is typical of the region. A long white concrete two story building with blue trim and a court yard where the kids can hang out and wait for the day to begin. All Tajik children wear uniforms. Boys are in little dark suits and ties and some wear matching vests. The girls are in white blouses and dark blue skirts and the little ones have amazing puffy white bows in their hair. They actually sparkle in the sun and look as if a falling star and got caught in a little girls hair. Some of the bows are bigger than the child .

My first stop was first grade. Tajik children do not come to school until they are six years old and sometimes seven. There is no such thing as pre-school or kindergarten. Thus all the children in this room had been in school for exactly ten days. They sat in small groups at tables with brown tablecloths. Each one had a copy book, a pen and that was about it. The teacher was Tajik and teaching in Tajik. She was dressed in the traditional long sparkling dress common to the region with a matching equally as sparkling head scarf. She was probably in her twenties and as she began the class reminded me a bit of a hummingbird. The windows were casement with the traditional lacy curtains that are everywhere. She had them wide open with a terrific view of a field of cows and a farmer scything hay. The cow, farmer, and hay were not more than 20 feet from the window. No distraction there as the little ones were glued to the "humming bird" at the front of the room.

In about five minutes I knew that I was in the presence of a master teacher. Without benefit of spiffy materials or extension materials or really any materials she had her charges totally in hand as she began the lesson with cucumbers. She was teaching patterns and numbers. She held up the cucumbers and asked the kids same or different. Then she grouped and regrouped the cucumbers and asked more questions as the kids answered her, sometimes at the top of their lungs, sometimes one by one, sometimes in pairs and sometimes without making any noise at all. From cucumbers we moved quickly on to onions which were followed up by corn and finally the ultimate in mathematical manipulative s - pine cones. It was stunning.

The pacing of the lessons was perfect. We went from whole group, to small group to individualized instruction without a hitch. Periodically, when things were looking a bit ragged, the beautiful humming bird would stop, everyone would stand up and then have a little song that required moving around and wiggling their fingers. After the oral work we went swiftly to seat work which had been painstakingly prepared by hand the night before. As there are no copy machines and also no classroom scissors she had cut out shapes herself to prepare a sorting and pasting activity that was differentiated by group from easiest ( ie; those kids who had problems with the pasting jar) to difficult those children who, for no apparent reason, could already add and subtract.

As the pasting group was running amok, I abandoned any pretense of observation and began working with the children. Clearly this paste business was a very new thing in their lives and even more interesting was was the top of the paste jar which required very weak hands to get organized and open it. Thus we had a bit of a practice and then did some left to right work just on the desk with out benefit of the marvels of paste. It took us a little longer than the other groups with some false starts like pasting the cut out on the wrong thing and upside down but once everyone got the hang of it this the group did a stellar job.

From cutting and pasting and discussing math stories which each group presented , the children opened their copy books and yes.. copied. Each book had a sequencing and pattern model for the child to practice and follow. Each groups was different according to levels and it was all done again by the teacher. Some were practicing writing numbers up to three and some were simply practicing writing plus and minus signs. I got to switch from the pasters to those kids having trouble holding the pen and writing the numbers. Thankfully I had a large number of unread reports that could instantly be pressed into service as scratch paper. There wasn't any scrap paper and in fact there was hardly any paper at all except for the copy books for which every page had a designated use. In any case i found an infinitely better use for reports as the paper was big enough to make tracing activities the little ones could use to practice. The humming bird and I worked away as if it was the most natural thing in the world to have an American teacher just drop in. As the children called out Mirmamy ( it is actually written in Cyrillic this is a phonetic pronunciation) we happily circulated the room helping kids as they worked.

I graduated from the first grade to the fourth and the Tajik language class. I was greeted by a wonderful young woman who was dressed from head to toe in irradescent turquoise covered with bright pink flowers. Her hair was covered with a light white headscarf . She greeted me in English as follows. Hi, how are you, you are very beautiful, i am the Russian teacher and I am learning English how do you think i am doing? ( all said in ritually one breath. It was GREAT.

After another hour of intense Tajik instruction the teacher and the 4th grade applauded when I managed to not bollix up more than 3 out of the 12 words I learned. As this class progressed, I couldn't help think what a lot of work it is to learn a language and why do we as educators expect children to do things we can not. At the end of the two hour class I was exhausted.

I had planned to go back to the city but was happily kidnapped to join the primary staff for lunch. We walked across the courtyard, down a few small roads, a couple of turns and went to the humming bird's house where this huge meal was laid out on the carpets. We sat cross legged , drank tea and do what teachers do .. talk about the kids. The English teachers asked me a million questions and I tried hard to answer. The food was delicious.

As i drove away from the building the children in the second shift were just coming. There was a new sea of fallen stars and little suits. The teachers had to go back to class for the second shift and perhaps, if the school was really over crowded, there would be a third. I promised to call which I will but I couldn't help thinking what a big bucket of blackboard paint and a sheet of plywood could do to improve the conditions. Schools like these and teachers like these shake the very foundations of what we believe to be necessary in the world of education. I was indeed humbled by their expertise, their engaging good will, their generosity to accept this lady from America and feed her and teach her some new lessons.

Monday, September 13, 2010

call to prayer

I awoke this morning at 5 to the sound of the call to prayer in the village as well as the birds clomping around on the metal roof of the house. I was struck as always by the complexity and the simplicity of this journey we are all on. I made a cup of tea and went out to the garden that rivals eden to drink it and watch the light come up on the huge screen of the central asian sky. There is not a cloud anywhere and the wind shuffles through the grape arbor that covers a corner of the yard. We actually eat all our food from this small space. Salads and fruits materialize as if by magic. I could also hear my neighbors waking up, getting kids ready for school, sweeping the streets and the bustle that begins the day here.

Yesterday i was chatting with a lovely woman who was more than somewhat curious about what this American woman was doing here. She asked me what I did and I said I was a teacher. She flashed a smile and said. Ahhh a teacher tht is good for the children. My sister is a teacher. She said it with such respect and obvious affection i was taken aback. A small lesson in humility that indeed we are not just teachers we are Ahhhhh teachers which is something so special perhaps we should change our titles and say we are magicians?