Infrastructure – it does matter

August 17 10:30 pm

In my last post, I wrote about how, in a way, infrastructure doesn’t matter, because it doesn’t tell the truth of a situation—that when we see a photo of a rundown physical space, we make an automatic assumption that that’s the Truth, even though it actually isn’t. Today I have been given the opportunity to reflect on how infrastructure, while not the most important thing, is really important. As the Aumazo video says, we need to have Better School Infrastructure for Girls. Period. (see the link). And better infrastructure for everyone.

We did the training today at the Collège Bilingue Saint Paul, where our three tutors Patric, Durand, and Thierry are all full-time teachers. During yesterday’s session here at the mission we’d had to deal with several interruptions, and so they had offered a classroom at the Collège instead as a space that would be more propitious for the training — to which we readily agreed. Patric, Durand, and Thierry had carefully thought through what would be the best place for us to meet and had chosen a classroom in a part of the school that wasn’t being used, so that we could have privacy and work uninterrupted. I was touched by their warm welcome and by how very much had shifted since our first day when they all arrived late—this time, they were the ones who were there well before the starting time and brought us into their carefully prepared space. The chairs we needed were there, in a semi-circle. My white board was there. They had even thought about what wall we could use if we wanted to project from the computer using the portable projector that Jacqueline has.

The teaching and learning went very well again today—we delved deeper into the All Kinds of Minds framework and, by the end of our time together, were using it to look at students rather than just ourselves. We did more InterPlay—for InterPlay folks, I’ll tell you that we did babbling, a modified warm-up, and a walk-stop-run. It was a wonderful time of continued community building, play, work, learning, and connection.

My heart just broke, though, as we first went into the building. It is extremely dilapidated, with old, very imposing signs on the walls in the stairway giving students various stern moral recommendations such as to accept discipline and punishment in order to become wise. There is no window that isn’t missing panes—not just in this one classroom, but all around the school. The room itself is dark. There is electricity, but when it’s on, the room is still far from bright. But really the hardest thing from a pedagogical point of view is the sound in the room: people’s voices reverberate in the big, concrete space and yet are at the same time muffled, such that it’s very hard to understand what someone is saying. A room full of voices would be deafening, and I can’t imagine how a kid in the back of the room would be able to understand the teacher without concentrating with great intensity. And the irritation factor for the teacher if a student speaks out of turn or raises his voice…?!

As I was teaching, I noticed that I was going to need to use the bathroom. I put it off as long as I could because I wasn’t sure if there would even be bathrooms or, if so, what they would be like. Finally, I had to ask, and I was taken to the bathrooms—latrines, actually—and terribly smelly. It became clear to me how much better it actually is to go outside, which had previously seemed to me a hardship, and somewhat embarrassing… especially for me as a woman, since I have to squat down. But the air is fresh, and what you are squatting on and peeing into is wholesome.

Friends, I don’t think you can really understand the bathroom question that Jacqueline has talked so much about in this project until you start to live it. People here are completely accustomed to not having bathrooms in many places they go, so much so that when we were here at the mission yesterday (where there are only bathrooms in the rooms people are staying in) and I asked what our guest teachers would do in case of need, I was told that people would do what they needed to do without blinking an eye, so that I didn’t need to worry. When I am here at the mission, I have access to my own bathroom in my room, which is a little far from the meeting space, but I know it is here and that I can use it. But when I am elsewhere, it’s a different story. I will spare you all the details, but yesterday, when we were out, I had to figure out the answer to this puzzle three different times. (My children and others who know me well won’t be surprised that this is a particular issue for me… I’m always looking for a bathroom!) Once I went outside; once I started to look for a place outside and was told I could have access to a bathroom… which was just a hole in the ground but was at least private; and once I was at a fancy spot and there was an actual brilliantly white toilet that flushed, a sink, and a hand dryer. That was total luxury.

Here at the mission, although I have a bathroom, we haven’t had running water for the whole time I’ve been here. This is unusual, apparently, but not so shocking that it’s yet been repaired. I don’t have to go fetch the water myself, though— it’s brought to me in buckets— so really, it’s still a pretty easy situation. I pour water into the toilet tank, and I can flush. I pour water from the bucket onto my body and hair, and I take a shower.

My big understanding today was that, although we as humans can do relatively well dealing with these inconveniences, it’s a burden to have to do so. And it’s an unnecessary burden. The people I’m meeting here are all so clean and smart and loving and intellectually engaged. But in order to get through a day—any day—these are the things they are dealing with, constantly. Just taking a bath can be difficult, as I mentioned above. And even when there is running water at the mission, there is only cold water. The streets of Bafang are mostly dirt roads, unpaved. When it rains, the mud is deep. Yesterday I slipped and fell in the mud here at the mission. I was fine, but it was a mess to clean up. This is the reality everywhere you go.

The material is not what’s most important. But it’s important in that it can and must support what is truly important, which is the life that’s being lived.

Shouldn’t it be a little easier? Shouldn’t students be able to be in classrooms that are clean, welcoming, and have good sound? Shouldn’t everyone be able to go to the bathroom in a clean and private environment?

Teaching as a cross-cultural, and life-changing, vocation

August 16 10:10 pm

Today’s entry is an in-depth recounting of the three-hour training I led this morning. But before I get into that, I want to share an understanding that I have been given by my time here so far. When I arrived, I was quickly struck by how different—and, frankly, run-down—so much of the physical structures and infrastructure are here. So many people live in what we in the US would consider shacks, and even the nicer structures are often much more bedraggled looking than we would expect. The room that we did our training in today had a leaky roof and walls and windows that we would just not accept as acceptable for a place to do a training. Yet—and this is what I felt right from my first day—the human-made structures are the least important of what is here. And, in fact, I understand now in a deeper way that the human-made physical structures are never what is really important, no matter where you are. That room we used this morning was just an empty shell when we arrived, but after just a few minutes of our working there together, it became warm and inviting. The main intersection of the village of Bankondji is just a few small structures around dirt road, but it’s the downtown heart-center of the village. Just as a house can only become a home when people live in it—no matter how beautiful the structure—so any space is transformed by the true presence of a group of people gathering. This is why pictures of many places in Africa so often look pitiful to our eyes—you can’t see what’s really there. You can only see the shell. And people here seem to understand this in a fundamental way. There is incredible, breath-taking natural beauty everywhere. There is wonderful food. There are people gathering together to work and play and laugh. That’s what’s really going on. That’s the truth—invisible to the camera, but immediately evident in experience.

Today was our first “serious” day of training with the teachers, and I was a bit nervous. I was planning to share the All Kinds of Minds framework with our wonderful group—Patric, Durand, Thierry, and Lydie, and I was having concern that I hadn’t brought enough hands-on activities to help them understand the framework. During my own training at Barrie, we did several hands-on, partner activities in which we needed to teach each other certain tasks and then had the chance to reflect on what was easy for us and what was difficult… which helped us to then understand more deeply the strengths and weaknesses we have, and helped us deconstruct tasks that we ourselves give to students. However, I don’t have access here to a printer or a copier, and I didn’t have a lot of time, so I couldn’t make this happen. Especially since I would have had to translate any of the materials I used into French. I was nervous, too, because I have never actually given this training before but rather, I’ve only received it—and it’s been several years. Finally I just had to trust (as we teachers all must do when once again we realize that our lesson really should have this or that in it, but we are out of time). I had to trust that what I really needed was already in me, and that I would be able to access the right words at the right time. I also had to trust that I was the right person to give this training to this people, in this place, at this time.

And, indeed, the training was an absolute success— filled with the joys of connection, learning, shared purpose, equality, growth, and inspiration. My plan was, as it turns out, well thought out and highly appropriate—and I did have the words and the instincts I needed in each moment. We were able to build on the sense of community we had created together yesterday, and I was struck by the trust that was already there in the room when everyone sat down.

After a brief hello/how are you/what’s new (exactly the same protocol as I always use in my classes — comment ça va? quoi de neuf?… and it was great to see that it works in a perfectly natural way with a group of Francophones!), we started with a question for journaling. I gave them ten minutes and asked them to write about a moment of learning in which they had experienced opening/inspiration. I instructed them to go into as much detail as possible… and I told them that if they’d written everything they could think of about that experience before time was called, that they should go ahead and write about something else so that they’d be writing the whole time.

(The students we in the tutoring program will begin each tutoring session with this same practice of journaling for ten minutes; I’ve designed the training to mirror in many ways what the students will be doing, so that the teachers themselves have had every experience that we are asking them to facilitate with the students. )

Here’s how the question looked in French:

Raconte un moment d’apprentissage où tu as eu une expérience d’épanouissement.

Tâche de le raconter dans le plus de détail possible.

  • Quand est-ce que c’était?
  • Qui était là?
    • Etais-tu seul(e) ou avec d’autres personnes?
  • Où étais-tu?
    • dehors? à l’intérieur?
  • Quelle était l’ambiance?
    • souviens-tu des odeurs, de la température, etc.?

I did the exercise as well, since I thought I couldn’t well be teaching them that it’s important to put yourself in the place of the student or expecting them to believe that we really are a community of equals if I myself am not willing to engage in the exercises I am asking them to do. Once we’d finished journaling, we divided up into groups of two to tell our stories to each other—not read them out loud, but tell them. Everyone had a story, and there was a spirit of warmth and delight in the group. I then asked each partner to tell the group the story of his/her partner. The partner corrected where needed, providing us all with the chance to go deeper into the stories.

Then I asked everyone to reflect for about 30 seconds or so, in silence (they could write if they wanted), about these two questions:

Why was this moment important?

and

Why do you think you still remember it?

We then “popcorned” short answers to the questions and I wrote them down on the white board. Answers were things like: a sense of meaning, belonging, understanding, love for something, sense of vision for the future, etc. As to why people remembered— we found that the sense of community and connection and sense of being seen/understood were common to all the experiences.

Finally, I asked everyone to take a moment to think about a moment where they’d had the opposite experience—where they’d been in a learning situation where they had not felt successful. These stories we did not share out loud, but we “popcorned” the emotions that went with them. Frustration, disappointment, discouragement, incomprehension, despair, and isolation were what we said.

From there, after giving them a very brief introduction to All Kinds of Minds, I asked them to look at the five basic beliefs of All Kinds of Minds, which I had translated for them and placed in their packets.

And from there, we moved on the Framework for Learning (which you can find at www.allkindsofminds.org/learning-framework) and to the Learning Soup (an explanation of the eight neurodevelopmental constructs in a highly user-friendly template— each construct is one of the ingredients of the soup). (For those who don’t know, or who don’t quite remember, the eight constructs are: attention, memory, temporal sequential ordering, spatial ordering, neuromotor functions, social cognition, and higher order cognition.) I gave them time to read and digest the first and to read with a partner for the second. Then we came back together to discuss what we had been struck by (ce qui nous a frappé), and any questions anyone had.

Friends, I was absolutely bowled over by the response. This group GOT it immediately—and way faster than I remember people “getting” it at Barrie, where this kind of thinking about education is much less radical. One of the participants said immediately that what she’d been particularly struck by was how the Learning Soup is for everyone. No one is left out. Someone else talked about how he could see in reading over the constructs what his own strengths and weaknesses are, and that it helped him understand why he’d actually never liked school, because most school tasks are centered on the very constructs where he is the least strong. Yet, now that he is an adult and is working on things that are in his areas of strength, he finds that he can actually accomplish tasks in his areas of weakness, because he is so interested in the work. I went right up to him and gave him a kiss (la bise) — as this was exactly the next step I had hoped to bring them to.

I won’t give you the blow-by-blow rundown of the rest of our time together today — as I imagine you’ve read enough and I definitely need to go to bed — but after that, we were all on the same page. Things I heard people say—these aren’t direct quotes, as they are translated and certainly adapted by my memory, but they retain the essential:

  • After hearing [someone’s] story [of a negative learning moment], I now understand why my students sometimes have such trouble.
  • Seeing these constructs helps me understand myself.
  • Reading about these constructs makes me realize that I need to take this all in for myself so that I can give this to the students.
  • I wonder how I can actually apply this in a class with 80 students.
  • I’m so grateful to have my work as a teacher valorized and understood, and I’m so glad to have a new approach that can help me actually do the work I am so passionate about.

Our last activity of the day, before we concluded with a round of appreciations, was to write in the journal how we think the negative experience we’d thought of before could have been different had we ourselves and/or our teachers brought this knowledge to the situation and had been able to utilize these constructs to understand what was going on. That’s what we will start with tomorrow.

More from Bafang

August 15 9:40 pm

We’ve been taking pictures and video of everything that we’ve been doing here, so there will be a lot of visuals to share, but for now most of the visuals are on devices I don’t have access to (or for those who prefer not to end sentences with prepositions: to which I don’t have access). And I am very busy, so for now, my words will have to do. In addition, I know that the pictures will still be available later, but the clarity of the experiences will not.

I wrote about what we did this afternoon during the first day of our teacher training, but let me back up now and talk about what else has happened and what else we have done since I’ve been here.

After landing in Douala yesterday at 5 am. I was able to get through the passport, customs, and baggage pick-up areas without difficulty, and Jacqueline and Olivier were waiting for me right outside the door, one of them taking a video and the other taking still photos. (If you haven’t yet begun following Aumazo on Facebook, you should do so—you’ll see updates about what we’re doing and Jacqueline is posting photos… Yesterday, for example, Jacqueline posted one of the photos we took outside the airport.) We drove to the hotel (where they’d spent the night in preparation for my arrival) so that I could get a shower and change—brushing my teeth was particularly welcome. Then we got back into the car and started driving to Bafang. The drive was bumpy and intense. I was very glad to be in a big car—they’ve recently purchased a 2001 Jeep Cherokee—and the roads here make it worth having a true SUV.

Even though I was exhausted, I actually felt pretty good. It’s not nearly as tiring to travel by myself than with a group of students, for example, and everything had gone smoothly. And, amazingly, I was actually able to sleep a good bit during the ride.

There was a point on our drive here at which I realized that I was choosing to sleep not only because I was tired, but because I just couldn’t take in all of the intensity—the dirt, the cars, the intermittently very rough road (if a road is under construction, people just go around the sign and drive on it anyway), the motorbikes weaving in and out and around the cars, the people crowding around the car whenever we came to a little “market” area (these happen at intervals along the road that appeared random to me… all of a sudden you’re just in a little area in/along the road where people are selling nuts or fruits or packaged bread or grilled meat, etc.). We stopped at quite a few of these, although not all of them, and Jacqueline bought provisions for our stay here. She likes to contribute food to the mission to help feed us and the seminarians who are staying here.

We finally arrived in Bafang, and although my room wasn’t ready yet, we were able to settle in a bit and get some internet access, and talk with each other and with the priests and seminarians here a bit. It was good to be somewhere. By the evening, the experience of driving here was already fading and I was feeling much more at home. Jacqueline asked me what I was noticing in my reactions as we drove—this was after I’d had a chance to wake up after sleeping quite a long time—and she asked if it was overwhelming…and I said yes. It’s just so different. She said that the first time she came back to Cameroon, she felt completely overwhelmed —and trapped by so many people encroaching on her space as when we arrived in the different market spots (which, again, feel quite random… you’re just driving along and suddenly a bunch of people come up to your car holding things up to buy), but that now she’s able to go back and forth between Cameroon and the US and not feel that overwhelm.

We had lunch around the table with le père Sylvestre, the Rector here—or possibly his title is Dean, since it’s actually a cathedral here. He is just great—just a few years older than me, very dynamic, very funny. We had pangolin as our meat. Jacqueline had shown me a video earlier in the day of a pangolin running around. I think it was the actual pangolin that we ate. The food here is absolutely delicious—incredible, spicy sauces, beautiful fresh fruits, and very fresh meat. The flavors are fantastic.

After lunch I had access to my room, and I unpacked. The electricity had gone out earlier, so we’d already lost the internet down at the main part of the mission (where we eat, and where I was able to send you a few messages), and now I didn’t have electricity in the room, but it’s not like I really needed it for anything. We also don’t currently have running water (!). I’ve got a bucket full of water to use when I need to flush the toilet. And, of course, I’m not supposed to brush my teeth in running water anyway, so I have bottled water for that. Jacqueline has given me purification tablets to put into the bucket of water so that I can use it to wash with and not run any risks.

After unpacking, I took a nap. I was really exhausted and feel immediately to sleep. I woke up at some point and thought I was getting up, but I then went back to sleep again. I finally woke up at around 5:30 or 6 and got dressed, brushed my hair, had a prayer time and did some journaling, and generally tried to put myself back together. Jacqueline showed up after having been at the 5:30 mass and having hung around the lower area to write some emails, and we decided to go have some food. After a long conversation around the table, we went to bed.

This morning, I slept late, but once I was up, life was immediately interesting and engaging. I had breakfast with the seminarians, who had been up since 4 or 5 am and had just finished the big mass for the Assumption of Mary. Then Jacqueline and Olivier joined me to do some planning for the day, and soon after it was time for lunch—I had just eaten breakfast, but the lunch was so delicious that I couldn’t resist joining in. It was another opportunity to talk with and listen to le pere Sylvestre, and I was blessed with stories of the beginning of Aumazo. It turns out that he is the one who was Jacqueline’s partner here in Cameroon at the beginning, when she first founded the organization in 2005. The stories they told were of hardship and frustration and resistance by everyone around them as they tried to get this project moving. The stories are also of deep commitment, love, and clarity of call. The presence of God has been palpable throughout this project; I know that I have felt a deep sense of call myself as I have been involved. I will ask them if I can write down some of the stories and share them here. I’m not going to give any details here now because I am not sure I will get the details right, and they deserve to be told as they actually happened. What I can say is that both he and Jacqueline are incredibly brave and loving people, and that I am deeply honored and privileged to be joining them on this path. I’m also grateful that those particular hardships are behind us, and that we are now moving into the work of teaching children—which is what Jacqueline has had in her heart and mind ever since the first day she created this project in her kitchen in Silver Spring, Maryland.

After lunch, Jacqueline, Olivier, and I headed to the village—the famous Bankondji—so that we could meet with the women of the village and talk to them in person about the tutoring program that’s starting next Monday. They were all gathered together in a room in the village having their meeting. We waited outside, as is the protocol, until we were invited in. We walked in to great warmth and hospitality—there are photos and videos of all of this, which I look forward to sharing—and I was given many hugs and taught to greet everyone in the local language (…I can’t remember the name of the language—I will need to ask Jacqueline in the morning). Jacqueline then talked to them about the program. Finally, I said a few words (in French, since I don’t speak the local language!), thanking them for their kindness and hospitality, and expressing my excitement to finally be in Cameroon, and especially in Bankondji which, for me, is the star on the map of Cameroon, the most important spot, since Aumazo is how I have become connected with Cameroon. We exchanged our mutual thanks and enthusiasm, and then Olivier, Jacqueline, and I got back in the car so that we could get back to the mission in time for our 3 pm meeting with the teachers.

Tomorrow we start the more formal training with the teachers. I’m using the All Kinds of Minds framework I learned from Rachelle Adams and Shannon Needham when we were at Barrie—I’ve translated some of the core materials so that we can use them together in French. (If you are interested in learning about All Kinds of Minds, visit allkindsofminds.org, and especially helpful might be the Learning Framework page – allkindsofminds.org/learning-framework – as that’s a document I chose to translate and share here.) It will be fascinating to see which of the constructs and principles make the most sense here versus how they land in the US. I chose to use this framework with the teachers as a way “in” to creating a more egalitarian learning environment. First we will explore the constructs for ourselves—what are our own strengths? what are our own weaknesses? what are our own affinities? How do we, as adults, leverage our strengths in order to manage our weaknesses? What difference does it make when we are able to do work that we are truly interested in? I am hopeful that the ambiance we created to day via InterPlay will help us as we explore these ideas together, and I plan to continue to use InterPlay forms throughout our training as a way to deepen our comfort with each other. (If you don’t know anything about InterPlay, visit www.interplay.org to learn something about it…. and, if you are lucky, there will be an InterPlay group meeting near you!)

In Bafang, Cameroon

I arrived at the Douala airport yesterday morning, August 14, at 5 am. It’s now almost 7 pm the next day, August 15, and I write this from the mission in Bafang where we are staying. Today was supposed to be the official first day of our teacher training program, but since it was actually a holiday here, we changed the plan from a morning training (since everyone was actually at church this morning for the Assumption of Mary) to an afternoon get-together. Since I’d planned for today’s first meeting to be a time to get to know each other, it worked out quite beautifully to spend time together in the afternoon. It is a small group–just three teachers, one French teacher, one English (as a foreign language) teacher, and one math teacher, plus the coordinator, who is a teacher herself, and Jacqueline, Olivier (her son and the main presence of Aumazo here in Cameroon), and myself. I wasn’t sure if I’d be using my original plan, which included a good bit of InterPlay as a way to create the Circle of Community I had intended for day 1, or whether we’d just spend the time casually talking, but I found that the InterPlay forms just made sense as a way to get beyond the formality of meeting each other while sitting stiffly in a circle. So, after our original introductions and sharing, I had everyone stand up, stretch, and we jumped into InterPlay–first, we shared our names again, with a gesture, and then we did three rounds of Babbling, and finally I had people use the “I could tell you about” form, where each person had a partner and said back and forth to each other things that they could tell about. For example: Person 1: I could tell you about… my trip here to Bafang. Person 2: I could tell you about… the trees in my village. Person 1: I could tell you about my daughter who is leaving for college. Person 2: I could tell you about the students I teach. (etc.)  It was beautiful to watch the group connect and get more comfortable, and by the end of our time together they were saying things like – “This felt like being a kid in elementary school again” – “I wasn’t thinking about what I was saying, and it was really interesting to hear what I was going to say” – “I love to have fun, and this was an opportunity to have fun.” I connected what we had done to what we would be doing with the students next week, and they were very open and enthusiastic.

 

On my way to Cameroon

I’m going to experiment with blogging during my time in Cameroon this month working with Aumazo, Inc. Although blogging has not appealed to me in the past, Jacqueline Audigé’s work through the Aumazo project is so powerful and important that I would be remiss not to do my best to share in some way what I am seeing and learning and doing while I am working with her for these two and a half weeks in August, 2016.

Right now I am at the Casablanca airport awaiting my final connecting flight, which will take me to Douala.

For those who don’t already know me, or who don’t know the history of my relationship with this project, here is a quick overview.

I first heard Jacqueline speak in the spring of 2013 at an assembly at Barrie School (where I taught French from 2009-2016). Jacqueline was (and still is) a Barrie parent, and she spoke passionately about the work she had done to begin building a school for girls in her native village of Bankondji, Cameroon–work that had taken her in unexpected directions, including creating a construction business as a for-profit arm of the business. Her patience, flexibility, intelligence, humor, and heart-centered dedication took my breath away, and I immediately knew I wanted my AP French class to work with her and get involved in her project. We were only able to speak briefly that day, but we connected at greater length at the school’s spring carnival a month or so later, and we decided that she would come to speak with my class in the fall. The rest is history–that first class got very involved, creating an official partnership between Aumazo and Barrie, running the first Gala fundraiser at Barrie for Aumazo, and doing a really beautiful service/project-based learning project over the course of the year. (You can read about the work we did that first year in this piece written for Carney Sandoe’s publication The Puzzle – Service Spotlight: Barrie’s Aumazo Partnership.)

Because I ran my AP French class as a two-year cycle, we had some of the same students in class during year two of the project, and we were able to dive more deeply into the project. We hosted a fundraising and awareness-raising movie night in the winter and the second annual Gala Fundraiser in the spring, for which then-senior Aidan Creamer created two wonderful videos (one in English and one in French), which have been featured on the Aumazo website and on the Global Giving page for Aumazo. You can see his videos here. That video, together with our on-campus gala fundraiser, helped to raise the money for the road that was completed this past year, granting year-round access to the school site.

Year three of the partnership saw an elective class about Aumazo as well as involvement by the AP French class. You can read about the impact our work together had on several of the students here on the Aumazo Impact page. I was particularly fortunate to have one very talented and dedicated student who worked on the project for all three of the years–Eva Rocke; you can see her testimonial on the Impact page. Another student who showed long-term dedication was Edmun Pope, whose photo and short testimonial can also be seen on the Impact page. He was involved for the two years he was in my class, and he is hoping to stay involved in Aumazo as a senior this coming year. Finally, Ebrahim El-Taguri and Michael Abate surprised and delighted me by choosing to focus their senior “Global Advocacy Project” on Aumazo, running a highly successful book drive. I have some of those books in my suitcase right now! Again, read about what they have to say on the Impact page.