Friday, October 25, 2013

Давайте Play: Balancing Work and Play in the Classroom

This is not a "how to" post because I haven't exactly figured out how to balance work and play in the classroom. I've been at my school for two years and because I am the first American and Peace Corps Volunteer there, I still get giggly "hellos" and even "avtograph" requests. I know, I know, I'm awesome, right? Nope. If I was awesome, students would listen to me all the time during my lessons, but they don't. One reason might be because they have figured out that I have no real authority at school. I'm not allowed to escort student on trips or kick kids out of class, I usually have no idea what's going on at my school  when it comes to events, concerts, and good old surprise holidays, and the marks I give aren't always taken seriously. For example, when I give a student a 10 (out of 12) and their actual teacher says, "how about an 8 instead" the students excitement turns into disappointment and then into them not caring as much about trying hard in my class. I'll never fully understand the grading system here and I'll never fully like it...

Another reason they get a little crazy is because they kind of expect me to do something fun all the time. When I first started teaching here in Melitopol, I wanted to make a good impression so I created fun dynamic lessons. This is hard work and sometimes I get a little lazy and I just want to slip into classic "to the books" teaching mode. Don't get me wrong, I love to have fun with my students, but we can't just play games all the time, no matter how much fun I have tricking them into learning. Sometimes the English classroom should be quiet. Sometimes students should write their ideas down in their notebooks, while they peacefully ponder and make grammatical errors for me to check.

The other day, as I walked into the classroom, on of my tenth form students said, "Давайте play!" Let's play!  Only three students showed up that day due to illness, so I gave in and we played my favorite game, Celebrity (for rules on how to play, see this list of games). In that case, it was OK to play a game, but later on that day, my eighth form class did not deserve the same treatment. They were terrible. They were loud and scatterbrained and I couldn't hear the answers from the serious students in the front. Sometimes, I do the silent thing and wait until it's quiet. The students eventually get bored and confused about what to do and then they get it. This time, I did that and wrote the number 9 on the board and asked them to guess what it meant. It was the number of lessons we had left before I leave Ukraine. I said, in a calm voice because I don't like yelling, "Is this how you want to be? We have 9 classes left and you want to be noisy? You want to do nothing? 9 lessons. What do you want to do?"  Some of the students were surprised, some of them were teary (including myself), and one student decided to answer my question. She stood up with excitement and shouted, "PLAY GAMES!" Some students agreed and cheered and ruined my attempt at being sarcastic, but I could tell some students saw my frustration and respected it.

I told them we could only play games if they had good behavior and I'm trying to stick to this plan, but sometimes, I give in and put some extra effort into making class more fun. I don't know if this is good or bad or if the teacher who has to teach the kids after me suffers from leftover game energy...but I'm working on finding the balance and for now, I'll do my best to stay strong.

I've compiled a list of my favorite games on my other blog, Here's the link to my Repertoire of Games.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

One Day: Leadership Seminar at School 16

Last Saturday, my counterpart and I organized a seminar to give Melitipol students and teachers some lessons on civic education. We received a SPA (Small Project Assistance) grant from USAID which helped us get the things we needed to make our civic education project a success. That included office supplies (paper, markers, tape, notebooks, folders...etc), a projector and a screen, a laptop, and a video camera. While these things are great for projects, they are just thatthings and things don't get us as far as the exchanging of ideas does. At these seminars, I saw students and teachers rise above the material world and use common sense and creativity to create potential and doable volunteer projects for Melitopol's community.

We split up the kids and the grownups. Students learned about leadership and participated in an active discussion about volunteerism with a living library (thanks to my dear fellow volunteers!). The adults stuck with Cynden and Logan for Project Design and Management and Fundraising training. After lunch, we did group work and had students create a potential volunteer project, with the guidance of their teachers. During this activity, I noticed that the students were more active than their adult counterparts. I also noticed that they had in their lexicon words like attainable, sustainable, and realistic.

When everyone was finished creating their project poster, we moved to the hall so the students could represent their posters and talk about their project. Everyone walked around, listened, and voted on their favorite. The winning project was called "Discover Yourself." It was a hobby club taught by volunteer students. Maybe this is not the most original idea, but they wrote down their goals and objectives, outlined steps for implementing their project, discussed potential fundraising ideas and a plan for future growth. This is very promising.

Ukraine is a great country, but it can be confusing at times. It can make you feel like you're being pulled in multiple directions: East vs. West, Ukrainian vs. Russian, "I miss the soviet union; The roads were taken care of..." vs. "The young people don't know how bad it was; They don't know that we had to eat dirt." I saw some of this at the seminars, the tension between the new generation and the older one. But it had a kind of balance. The fact that they participated showed that they care. Almost everyone tried and contributed something interesting to all of our discussions and activities and this made me happy.

At the end, I thanked the teachers for showing their students how to be good leaders. Some students came up to me afterwards to say that they really enjoyed the seminar. These are the students who will lead Ukraine into its bright day.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Attack of the Idea People

Occasionally, I get ideas.

However, a lot of the time, they get tossed in a made-up file drawer or scribbled on a piece of paper way too small to get the point across. I can't count how many times I have started a sentence with a "wouldn't it be awesome if I..." and finished it with something that can't survive once exposed to the Earth's atmosphere. Just last week, I shouted a similar question into an empty room. Logan answered back from the kitchen, his voice muffled by the distance between us: "we're idea people," he said. At first, I took this to be a good thing, a compliment, proof that my brain works or is at least allowing me to voice real thoughts in my mind in real time. Now, I'm not so sure...Wouldn't it be awesome if I could just get paid to travel and write about whatever I wanted? We're getting the band back together! Is it too late to become an astronaut? 

I feel like a cartoon character with spinning stars around my head. I've been hit by the reality of the future, the end of my Peace Corps service, and the beginning of "the next step." It has caused an explosion of possibilities, ideas, and dreams and choosing one seems unfair.

In college, I had a professor tell me that I was like a goose, flying around in the clouds. That's me, pictured on the left. As goosey as I am, I think I've at least been flying towards the same goal, maybe just not so straight and steady. I did almost finish 27 months as a Peace Corps Volunteer and I wanted to join since I was a kid. It's funny how you get to the places you get to (and hey, maybe I wouldn't have gotten here if my spirit animal had been a more direct non-flying one).

Getting ready for the next chapter is not easy and it seems to get harder and harder (stranger and stranger?) the closer I get to December. I go back and forth between knowing and not knowing, feeling confident and forgetting what confidence means, being cocky and shooting myself in the foot like an idiot. It's all OK, though. я знаю. Всё будет хорошо, как всегда! I really do believe this.

The original title for this post was "The Curse of the Idea People," but I changed it. It's not a curse to have ideas, even if they're silly, even if they involve trying to go to Mars (this is real, by the way). It's a curse not to do anything with them, even if you realize that they're actually not what you really want. If you are like me and you're flapping around in the sky while others are soaring on steady wings and making decisions like BAM and getting things done like POW, it's time to launch an attack--on your motivation and on your flying skills. I wish you luck and the power of focus. I say, you can fly as high as you want, as long as you get to where you want to be. Like the quote in the Peace Corps lounge says: "It's not the journey, but the destination."

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Technology, Romance, and The Lack Thereof

When I thought about Peace Corps during my pre-service days, I thought about living in a thatched dome, having a goat as a best friend, taking bucket showers (or none at all), and letters from distant family and friends being the only contact from home. Here in Ukraine, there are some volunteers living in villages with no Internet access. They might have a goat, cow, or pig for a best friend (until it becomes dinner, at least). They even have to take bucket showers and use an outhouse in the middle of the night. In the dead of winter.

Constantinovka, Ukraine
That is not the case for me and Logan. We live in a city of about 150,000 people and we have access to modern conveniences and technologies. We have a toilet and WiFi in our apartment. In the city center, we even have a Wallmartesque store that really creeps me out. I am happy with my site, but also a little envious of the village experience, which seems pleasantly detached from modern technology. There, people only dream of the newest iPhone. Or, maybe they don't even care about it at all. This is probably not true. It seems like everyone and their mothers have smart phones in Ukraine. But, I have this image of village life and in it, technology is shunned upon because villagers don't have time to play with touchscreens. They're too busy living in a glorious bubble in which flower beds line the streets, neighbors show up at each others' doorsteps with a bottle of wine and a story, and pies on windowsills are cooling with the setting sun. I wish I had a piece of straw and a little harmonica fill for that last sentence.

I feel like technology has taken some of the romanticism out of life. So much of our time is spent on another plane of existence. I'm not saying that this plane is a bad place to be, but it's definitely an intangible place competing with a tangible one. We have digital souls now and I wonder if it means we have another soul, or if it's part of our original one, ripped off. I was facebook creeping the other day and I looked at the page of a friend that I don't know very well. After clicking through his photos, I felt like I had grown up with him by seeing how he posed in his awkward you-had-to-be-there-kind-of-thing photos and even in the evolution of his haircut into the modern age. Is this called digital soul searching?

Relationships are different now. The internet has great potential to make them more dynamic and creative, even, if used properly. I know people who have found their true loves online. There is definitely hope, but I don't think everyone is that lucky. Sometimes, I write e-mails or text people instead of calling them. I look up every single thing I don't know how to do online instead of asking a person (and maybe if I did ask someone, they'd tell me to "google it" because the world is at my fingertips). For someone like me (a half shy homebody), dancing around on the interwebs can be dangerous. It's so easy to slip into a world of no physical contact and this scares me.

Maybe communicating through the internet makes us braver. I am about to make this post visible to the entire world. Would I be able to articulate these ideas in person? I don't know if this happens to you, but when I wear sunglasses, I feel pretty awesome. When people can't see my eyes, it gives me some kind of confidence, like I have the advantage of looking into their eyes, into their souls, and they don't. Yes, this is all in my head, but it still feels real. Take away the internet and put people face to face (no sunglasses allowed) and I bet some of us would whither because we are out of practice standing next to people, having a conversation in real time, accidentally brushing up against someone in an elevator. Is this sphere endangered? If it is, maybe we should all become creepers and go around touching people or getting really close to their actual faces. Quick. Hurry, before it's too late!

Cheers to Skype!
I don't want to be too pessimistic. I think technology is cool. I like gadgets. I think it's cute when the elderly say things like "what's a google?" I like the fact that I can send messages to my brothers the second I remember something funny that they did as kids. Communication through technology is, after all, what allows me to publish this blog and how I keep in touch with family and friends back in the states. I wonder how the first Peace Corps Volunteers fared so far away from home, without skype or a guarantee that letters would arrive at the addresses written on their envelopes. As much as I love and miss my family and friends, that sounds pretty romantic to me. I almost want to unplug myself from this online universe to see what life would be like and to really feel how much it has changed (future blog post, maybe).

Technology is changing and so are we. We will continue to change with technology as it changes and grows. I'm still figuring out how much I want to let myself change. Until I decide this, I'll keep writing, surfing, facebook spying, googling, and waiting for the robot takeover to be the straw that breaks the camel's back.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

What's Not to Miss?

The night before Logan and I were about to leave the first apartment we had together, I came down with a fever. The next day I would start a new job, spread a terrible cold around the office, and officially move back upstate with my parents. We had already moved our bed to the house over the weekend so I slept in Logan's arms on the floor, shivering me timbers. The place was empty except for the things we wanted to leave behind--a broken couch frame, hunter green walls, the roach nest. (Just kidding; the roach nest had been disbanded way before the move was even conceived.)

Before we moved our stuff out, I found myself taking pictures of random things in the apartment. So many terrible pictures with no artistic angles in mind made more terrible by the fact that I used a film camera and rolls of film would actually have to be taken somewhere to get developed. I did it in a desperate attempt to capture the little details that I knew I'd forget, for example, the last standing location of our floor lamp, the view from our fifth floor window, the different variations and stretches of space between me and the door. One day, I thought, I'd use those pictures as prompts to remember life at apartment 5G, how new it was, how fun it was, and how hard it was to leave. Sometimes, they may be sad and delirious, but all memories--good and bad-- are part of something bigger. Bigger, even, than a 600 square foot L-shaped studio.

I've already written about how everything I do is potentially the last time I do it. A friend of mine wonderfully put it like this:

"I'd like to not be sitting on the toilet in tears the last time I take a crap in my apartment but I can tell you for sure that that is exactly what is going to happen." 

He gets it. This is the point we're at right now, as Peace Corps Volunteers wrapping up our service. Even thinking about saying goodbye to the little things--whether it's the shampoo we buy, the scratchy toilet paper, or the Ukrainian deodorant we use that doesn't seem to work but it's our only option--is emotional. Maybe never wanting to forget how earthy the toilet paper makes me materialistic or delirious. I don't know. As I get ready to leave Melitopol, Ukraine, I feel the need to capture as much as I can, this time through blogging. I feel like this is the more responsible choice. Otherwise, I'd probably come back to America looking a little crazy as airport security asks me to open my suitcase only to find it's completely filled with toilet paper.

Mmm, roughage!
A little while back, my students asked me what I will miss the most about Melitopol. I thought about it, grew silent, and told them they weren't allowed to ask me that because I was going to cry. Today it snowed on October 3rd. It's freezing and there is no heat, the Teachers Day celebration at my school was canceled, the electrical socket in my living room is popping out of the wall, I dropped and shattered a plate in the kitchen, and I'm on fire. I know it may seem like I'm being sarcastic, but I'm really just trying to savor everything. At this point, toilet paper in hand as I blow my red nose and write this post, I'm genuinely thinking: what's not to miss?