Friday, November 30, 2012

Educational Standards, Bread, Beans and Breakfast

Without getting into too much pedagogical mumbo jumbo, I offer a small window into Dominican education. For simplicity's sake, let's compare education here vs. in the States vs. Finland with bread. Yes, bread.
The bread here is awful. It has no redeeming qualities on its own and is only eaten as a conduit for other foods. The best bakeries I've found on the island have standard-USA-grocery store bread (with the exception of bakeries in Terrenas where many, many French people live and incidentally, an awesome little school is there as well).
The good 'ol US of A offers up a wonderful variety of good, bad and exquisite breads which reflect the nation's immensity and diversity. I have tasted all of the above, and even in smaller towns tasty baked goods can be had quite easily.
I don't know anything about Finnish bread, but any bread I ever tried in the dozen-or-so European countries I've traveled to was delicious. Yes, every single country. #howtogain5poundsaweek So delicious, in fact, that when I returned to the States after living in Europe for just four months, I couldn't eat Stateside bread for an entire year. Just the memory of European bread disallowed my taste buds to accept anything less.
Now that I've made some seriously broad bread assumptions and shallow conclusions, let me simplify the educational standards for these places for kids, ages 5-6, in a similar fashion:
Dominican kindergarten standards
     Math: Know numbers 1-9. That's it. It's difficult to simplify the simplistic.
     Reading/Writing: Know the vowels. As Josh recently reflected, "What does knowing just the vowels give you? Caveman language. Oooo, aaaa-aaaa, oooooo. You know that very rich languages like Arabic don't use vowels? There is inference and context involved, of course--which makes it all the better. Consonants are really where its at if you're going to only cover a handful of letters. But why would you set the bar so low anyway?"
No wonder they run out of things to do an hour into the day and resort to Tom & Jerry marathons.
American kindergarten standards
     Math: Know numbers 1-100. This also includes some sequencing and other basic math skills like counting by fives and tens, simple addition and shape recognition.
     Reading/Writing: Know the entire alphabet, have emergent/basic reading and writing skills.
Finnish kindergarten standards
    Well, they don't go to school until they're seven, which is pretty awesome if you live in a place that is aware of childhood developmental needs. Once little Finnish boys & girls start school, the standards delve significantly deeper than basic understandings and knowledge. There is a clear focus on depth and higher order thinking skills. And my favorite: on the individual child and his or her needs. These people know what they're doing. And I bet they eat well while they're doing it.

Perhaps now you understand a bit where I'm coming from as an American educator in a Dominican system. When Zora, a kindergartner this year, brought home her homework for the first time, I was slightly confused. She had to trace three diagonal lines.
When we registered her, they did a pre-assessment where she successfully counted from 1-10, identified five shapes, eight colors and wrote her name. My child is not smart. She isn't dumb either. She is totally average.
And yet, had the teacher assessed her skills at the beginning of the school year, I shouldn't have seen homework practice involving tracing three short lines. So, I gave the teacher the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps she hadn't had a chance to see what her students were capable of and differentiate appropriately. I told Zora to write her name on her assignment so the teacher could see that she was already producing letters--several leaps beyond the baby-steps of tracing lines. Surely, her next homework assignment would better reflect the level she should be working at.
What was the teacher's response? She pointed at Zora's carefully written name and said, "No me gusta. I don't like this." Zora came home in tears that day and refused to write anything (least of all her name) for at least three weeks. I was livid.
Not only is Zora entirely average, so am I. Coming from average makes it all that more frustrating looking at the current situation. I know there are vast oceans of capacity beyond my pedagogical know-how and yet, I feel like a big fish in a little pond here.

Long story short, we're continuing to homeschool--and still send her to school. We had a math lesson the other day over beans and breakfast. Despite her teacher's best efforts, she is counting to 100 by tens.
We often use wet erase markers on the oh-so-classy plastic tablecloth for lessons. 
Our little bean counted 100 beans.

Monday, November 19, 2012

A Toast! To the Subtlety of Words and Love

I've been contemplating my interactions with others lately--mostly as relates to language. A couple weeks ago I had a conversation about the Bible with a parent at Max's school. He abruptly ended the conversation pointing his finger at me and saying very forcibly, "No! Because you don't know. You don't know." I realized in the moment that his refusal to continue the conversation, which was quite pleasant up until the last 6 minutes, had to do with simple word choice. I had referred to Biblical accounts as cuentos or "stories". This greatly upset him. I discovered, a bit late, that I was supposed to use the word historias, which also means "stories" in English. He left, red in the face, completely appalled.

These sort of interactions have happened in my native language as well. It's usually a combination of the two parties coming from entirely different places and with different intentions. Surely, you can relate on some level to this kind of misunderstanding, painful and common as they are. I hope, for the sake of unity, that you were able to detach from outcomes and discover a point of mutual understanding in these instances. As we all strive for this kind of sensitivity and love, I wanted to share my favorite poem with each of you.

The Language of There
by Roger White

"I mean to learn,
in the language of where I am going,
barely enough to ask for food and love."
--James Merrill

Yes. There, light will be our language,
a tongue without words for
perhaps, or arid, or futile,
though shadow be retained
that we may contrast the radiance.
Almost will no longer be a measure.

We will learn a hundred synonyms for certitude,
and love will have a thousand conjugations.
Ours will be the italicized vocabulary
of delectable astonishments.
The possessive case will play no part
in the grammar of joy and burgeoning,
infants will speak at birth, and only the ancients
will remember the obscenity of exile

There, laughter will be spelt in capitals,
sadness grow obsolete,
and negation be declared archaic.
Hell will be pronounced remoteness,
and vast tomes will be devoted
to the derivations of yes.
Where all is elation and surprise
exclamation points will fall into disuse.

There, food and affection will be ours for a smile,
and immortality for a fluent, knowing wink.
In time, our desire to speak will abandon us.
All that need be said the light will say. Yes.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

How I Wasted My Sunday or Here's Your Medal!

I get it. Or at least I think I do.
These little tests of my patience keep popping up. As you may know, life's patience rubric looks something like this:

You Can’t Even Pronounce Patience
You have reached enlightenment.
Daily Life
Attempting to boil water sends you over the edge.
You set water to boil and happily chop vegetables while you wait.
As the water begins to boil, you realize you’ve been contemplating the universe, watching each bubble slowly rise to the surface.
You don’t believe in meetings. They are a waste of time, every time.
You keep your cool through not one, not two, but three reschedulings of a morning meeting. Said meeting lasts two hours too long and you’re still chipper afterwards.
The meeting may never be over and that’s okay with you.
Honey, I love you, but I stopped listening 23 minutes ago.
Honey, can I take a short bathroom break from your intriguing story?
Honey, tell me more. Then can I hear about your daily phone conversation with your mother one more time?
You have a caffeine patch. Who has time for coffee?
You can wait without complaint for your coffee to arrive.
Your order never arrives. You decide you weren’t thirsty anyway and the universe is just helping you out.
*Disclaimer to any WOU affiliates: I totally learned way more in my master’s program than just stellar rubric writing. Your name is still mostly good.

My score, you ask? Well, I can pronounce patience. But I stumble. So, I'm working towards the middle column since I definitely connect with at least two of the first column's descriptions. Don't judge.
My patience stamina, if you will, has been gradually progressing over the last year or so (Okay, my nephew, baby Oliver has taken bigger steps than me). And what count for tests of patience in my book may summon looks of pity.

Test of Patience, Exhibit A
When will this thing sprout already!? I'm fairly certain I started this avocado tree at least a month ago. Should it not be bearing fruit by now? I'd like some guacamole. Alas, its changes, much like my own, have been painfully subtle. With this in mind, I'm fairly certain that God has placed me on an intensive growth program which started Sunday. At 8:30 am.
That is the time I arrived with my male offspring to his Taekwondo fighting tournament. Of the 42 students who were told to be there at 8 am, Max was the 6th to arrive. I found a seat among the empty rows of chairs and opened up the book I'm currently reading (shameless shout out: Seven Years Between by Pamela McDavid), whilst others trickled in.
The Taekwondo teacher had said we "needed" these electronic feet protectors which counted successful kicks during a fight. One mother who's child didn't have any protective gear yet asked, "What is the most important to buy now?" The Taekwondo teacher did not tell her the arm or leg protectors. He did not say the helmet. He didn't mention the mouth guard. What was the most important? The thing they needed more than anything else? The electronic foot protectors. They cost US$70. Josh & I scoffed and chose not to buy into the hype. Sure enough, about 1/2 of the kids showed up with the required equipment and those of us who were unable/unwilling to pay went without (or borrowed a friend's pair). Isn't counting kicks what the judges are for?
The hours slowly passed. I made small talk with the Taekwondo mom crowd. They're like soccer moms with a splash of violent outbursts where they growl, "Give it to him!" then scream uncontrollably (I tried it. It wasn't really me.). Sometime about three hours in, while my son still sat patiently and I fidgeted in my chair, I realized that this tournament was entirely unorganized. The kind people in charge were pulling kids at random to fight. This meant that the more assertive kids (older ones) were the ones fighting all morning. As my thoughts slowly congealed into coherence, my bladder began to shout...
Not only did the toilet not flush (and hadn't for the whole morning from the looks of things), but there was no toilet paper, soap or water available in the bathroom. I lost it (but not out loud, thank goodness). How can someone expect players to be here with top-of-the-line equipment and then not even have basic essentials available to the participants?! I left in a hurry, bought water to wash my hands at the colmado and returned just as fast, since my son really could be fighting any moment. Hurry up and wait. I began to see potential illness everywhere knowing how many people had gone to the bathroom. It was hot since people were packed into the building and, well, we live near the equator. Hunger pangs sprouted in my belly (which means my 7 year old was likely "starving"). Four hours in and we were still sitting. Still waiting. Several children in the crowd were crying. I wanted to join them.
When Max was finally called to fight, it was 1:30 pm. I'd managed to sneak him a protein bar, but otherwise he hadn't eaten. He "fought" for 2 minutes without attempting a single kick and the kind of apathy that moans, "I waited five hours for this?" We were told that each participant would fight twice. The next time he was called, however, it was to receive a medal. A medal? For what?! Standing in the corner while another kid kicked him? This test was definitely designed for me. It had all the right elements: needless waiting around, children fighting, no soap, water or toilet paper, children crying, no food, expectations of grandeur and then the kicker: celebration of mediocrity. Except it was even less than mediocrity. It was straight up pathetic. Weak sauce, as you hipsters say. #ForCaitlin&Steph
The truly unfortunate thing about all of this is that I'm still ticked off about it, which means I did not pass my patience exam. Which we all know also means: another one is around the corner. Now if that avocado would just sprout already!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

We're Staying. It's On a Mural.

Remember those people who live below us and bring us lunch every day? Check out what they had painted on their back patio wall the other day. #MushyHeart

 The kids, needless to say, think it's awesome.

Our neighbor, Don Ramon, hired this guy to paint a love mural.
We're on the second level, above them. Our back patio looks out onto theirs.
Zora can't believe her name is on someone's wall.

Guess we can't move out anytime soon. That looks pretty legit.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A Dangerous Walk Home

I just picked Zora up from school.
On my way there, I usually walk past the public high school. And I saw it. The reason people with means steer clear of that place. A group of youth up in arms, throwing trash and collecting tires to burn.
Zora's teacher handed me her backpack and said, "The people are talking. There will probably be a strike tomorrow. Listen for the news to see if we have school." I nodded, thinking, yeah, there'll be a strike. I just passed it on the way here!
I took an alternate route home, but apparently didn't make a wide enough circle around the trouble. Within a block of Zora's school, my eyes were burning. I told Zora to cover her face with her shirt and take shallow breaths. I joined with another group of nervous, quick walkers as we tried to find a safe street. People darted their eyes toward me, shaking their heads and pointing, "Don't go down there."
My throat began to burn. It felt like blisters were forming in my mouth, creeping down my throat to my lungs. I walked faster, as if drowning and rushing with all my might to the surface. I couldn't breathe. What were they burning? What were they doing to themselves in the name of protest?
As I was running away, fearing my child's health, the other part of me wanted to run towards them. What are you doing? You are a child harming yourself in hopes that it will somehow make your absent parents start to care. You are hurting the only people who care about you--yourself and those immediately around you. The people you're trying to send a message to are in another part of the city, another part of the country. They don't care. This is not the way that change happens. Not the kind of change you want. And yet, you continue your useless protest, making yourself dumber as you kill more brain cells and irreparably damage your lungs. And those of your neighbors. Your teachers. Your friends.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Drive-Thru Starbucks in My Neighborhood. No Joke.

What!? I live in a village, for most intents and purposes. And yet, there it was in all it's glory. On my way to drop off Zora from school one day, I saw it: a Drive-thru Starbucks. Super close to my house and, might I add, supremely conveniently located. Check this guy out.

Just outside Zora's school. Can you spot the coffee joint---errr, coffee guy?

He accepts both foot traffic and drive-thru customers.
But is still working up to being able to accept debit cards.

He even sells scones--err, hot dog buns--to go with your hot coffee!
He was happy to pose for the photograph and is eagerly awaiting your visit.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Oh Yeah??? Well… Well… -- by Josh

I always find it frustrating to yell at someone in a language other than English.  Not because I’m yelling at someone, mind you, but because my lack of fluency hinders the scope of that anger from getting through. Angry words really need to roll off the tongue for maximum efficacy, and it's also helpful to have full command of insults so that just the right amount of sting is given without accidentally dropping a word that is too strong.
I found myself in just that type of situation today.  Zora and I were out taking care of some errands (which she said is her favorite thing to do, once she learned what the word "errand" means), which included a trip to the grocery store.
We did an overly-thorough job of shopping and headed out to the sidewalk to await a taxi. I'd already been asked for money once or twice before getting to the store, and upon leaving I was asked again.
"No, not today," I replied, despite the man's pushy persistence, and I moved our selves and our cart to a different part of the sidewalk.
I was, admittedly, already a bit grumpy when the old lady tried to get my attention.  She motioned for me to come to her but, as I was holding Zora’s hand and watching a cart full of groceries, I stayed put and asked her what she needed.  She kept motioning for me to come to her, and I kept telling her to just tell me what she needed.
This was all taking place in front of a huge line cued up, waiting to get into the bank inside the store.  The people in the line started to get impatient with me. “She can’t walk! Go to her!” they said, as though she were my own grandmother and I’d let her fall, and lay there on the sidewalk helplessly as I coldly ignored her.
I looked at them like the idiots they were, showing that I was kinda busy at the moment and that she could just use the same voice she’d used to get my attention in the first place to explain what she wanted.
Finally, a well-dressed man in the line went over to ask her, at which point she showed us the empty pill sleeve, meaning that she needed some pesos to get her medication.
This is nothing new and I have no problem helping out little old ladies, so I dug in my pocket for coins, pulled out a couple and handed them to Zora to give them to the lady.
As soon as Zora dropped the coins into her hand, the same man went over and very loudly asked her how much I’d given her.  “SIX PESOS?!? What are you going to do with six pesos???” he exclaimed.  He grabbed the money out of her hand and shoved it back into mine.
“What a jerk,” I thought, shocked by such a nosy, rude person.  I left it at that and continued our wait for the taxi. 
We waited and waited, and finally Zora asked me to let her give the lady some money again.  Now, I constantly get asked for change. CONSTANTLY.  It is no coincidence that Granny singled me out, despite the very long line stretching in front of her, full of Dominicans waiting to put money into the bank, most dressed much nicer than me.  And I would never claim to be anything but stingy, despite the fact that I always give to people who are obviously unable to work.  That being the case, I’m not going to toss around large amounts of money on a regular basis, for better or worse. I certainly could have given more and it wouldn't have hurt. However, it's also a reality that I am usually being watched and observed, and if people see me randomly giving out bills to people it warps their image of the kind of money I have and carry around.  
Anyhow, I found the rest of the coins in my pocket (including the tip I was going to give to the kid from the store who was supposedly getting me a taxi) and dropped them in Zora’s hand.  Zora repeated the drill, and when Old Lady Change Stealer did what I figured he would, I loudly intervened: “What’s it to you?" I asked him, continuing with: "It’s none of your damn business what my daughter just dropped in her hand, so butt out of it.”  I was pissed.
“I’m just checking to see that you gave her what you’re really able to give to her,” he replied.
“How dare you judge me,” I countered.  “I didn’t see you give her a cent.  What’d you give her? Huh? Tell me.  That’s right, all you’re handing out is your worthless opinion, so keep it to yourself.  Try some actions, not just your useless words.” (Fairness Note: Zora insists she saw him give her money, but it could have been one of her imaginary friends.)
It was also interesting to note that the lady did not allow him to take the money away from her the second time.  Is it possible that she agreed with me?
Anyway, the entire time I was trying to stifle the temptation to go general, to ask why on God’s green earth this sweet old lady has to BEG for her medication in the first place, why her society doesn’t provide that to her when there’s plenty of money around, like in the pockets of this guy who probably owns a business and pays his workers a wage that only the financially miraculous can scrape by on. Huh? Tell me that!
I chose not to go that route though, given persistent guilt about the last time I took similar actions in a Bulgarian sandwich shop (another blast from the past blog post?).  I calmed myself down, since he had shut his pie hole by then, and within a couple of minutes the taxi had shown up.  The checkout kid magically appeared to get the groceries in the trunk (unnecessarily) and was disappointed, I’m sure, to get no coins from me (strike 3 against the greedy gringo!).
It was over the next hour, of course, that some clearer thoughts entered my head.  Maybe that’s why I love the writing process so much.  I love the editing, the clarification, finding just the way I want to say something prior to saying it.
I thought about this strange expectation that I alone was responsible for giving this old woman a large sum for her medication, despite the fact that the next time I go out I’ll have several of the same requests.  I thought about the judgmentalism from the crowd and the detachment from their own responsibility towards this woman.
I also cannot help but wonder if that guy is a politician.  The way he did things reminds me of all the public works projects, no matter how small, that are plastered with the name of the politician who sponsored it.  It cracks me up, because it’s as though they’d used their own money to complete the project, whereas they simply managed to do their job.  It did not escape me that he didn’t express any interest at all in giving her money (if he indeed did so) until he’d had the chance to embarrass the American and make himself look high and mighty.

Finally, I decided that a good tack would have been to point something out.  To offer to educate this man, who was acting rather maleducado, with a cultural and academic lesson.  In many countries, people pay their taxes and those bits make up a large bunch, and when that money is used correctly it allows every senior citizen full health coverage.   Now, at least 40 people walked past this woman, and every one of them knew exactly what she needed without her having to ask.  If each person had given her 6 pesos, that would be 240 pesos. In that situation, she’d have plenty for her medication.  I can only hope that the disgust I stirred up in those folks inspired a few to help her out sufficiently.
Anyway, the point is that it’s not supposed to be on just a few people, but rather on everyone to chip in a little to create a system to take care of the weak or unable in society. 
Another option, of course, would be to conscientiously elect leaders who ensure that tax money (and there's no shortage of taxes here!) is used for the well-being of all.  I'm just saying.
Until we come together to do just that, both Old Lady Change Stealer and myself are in the same camp: wrong, and simply unhelpful.  There was a silver lining to all of this. After I'd vented to Rebecca about the confrontation, Zora came out of her room with a handful of change. "Next time we go out, I want to give this to a poor person," she told us.  Now, if we can just help her, Max and all the other kids in children's classes to think a little more systematically about this, we might avoid being in Grandma's shoes when that time comes.

**(I understand that there are pharmaceutical dispensaries for the poor here, but apparently only a few medications are available at a time, though in large quantities)