Thursday, March 10, 2011

Let's Farm!

My island of Fefan is often referred to as the “Farming Island”, the “Green Island”, or the “Mother Island” because it generates more crops and agricultural produce than any other region in Micronesia. Its rich volcanic soil is the most fertile in this part of the world; something about its contents make it perfectly adapted to growing bountiful amounts of vegetation. In addition to the fertile soil, Fefan’s weather alternates between bright sunny days and rainy wet afternoons. As most people know, the three elements of sun, water and nutrients are the essential ingredients that plants need to flourish. Fefan has all of these in abundance and therefore everything grows like crazy.
The locals have taken advantage of these Fefanese fruitful flora factors and have been productive farmers for countless generations. Breadfruit, coconut, banana, and a few types of taro were the staple crops for centuries but the introduction of imported vegetables has allowed for a boom in agriculture. Fefanese grow giant cucumbers, green beans, cabbage, eggplant, peppers, watermelon and squash; just to name a few.
The farms are not organized in the same fashion as standard farms that you might envision. In fact, sometimes it is difficult to identify a farm when you see one. Often the farm just looks like jungle. The plants aren’t usually set down in neat rows with a scarecrow to guard them. However, if you look closer you will find that the “jungle” is actually a conglomeration of pineapple, banana, tapioca, squash, and beans.
Most families have a small farm somewhere on their land that provides them with greens to add to their meals. Some individuals, especially on Fefan, have larger scale operations where they actually produce their crops for commercial use. These plots of land are recognizable as farms; even so they still look like glorified gardens. There are no open fields of wheat or wide expanses with endless groves of trees. Although plenty of Chuukese have mullets and chew tobacco, it is far different from redneck American farming. There are no tractors, no barns, no silos, and no cowboy hats. Fefanese farming is especially adapted to the environment of these islands. Fefan is basically a little mountain jutting out of the ocean, so there is an extreme lack of flat land. As a result, the farms are built into the hillsides. They are built into the jungle.
As part of my integration into this culture, I felt that it would be a good thing if I learned a thing or two about agriculture. Although my grandpa was a farmer, my knowledge of farming is mediocre at best. I am a suburban city boy and haven’t spent much of my life tilling the fields. So, I decided to start a home garden with my host brother-in-law. We tore up a small piece of land in our front yard and planted cucumber, eggplant, green beans, watermelon and spicy peppers. I water these plants twice a day (if it doesn’t rain) and watch over them to check for weeds and trash. The cucumbers have dwindled away, but the rest are doing quite well. I actually really enjoy taking care of these crops and I am excited to have some healthy snacks in a few weeks when I harvest my veggies.
Farming is the centerpiece of cultural life here in Fefan and since I am a staunch advocate of maintaining traditional heritage I felt that it was important to instill the values of agriculture in my students as well. I want them to grow up with the knowledge of how to farm and why they should farm. As their world advances into the modern age, they spend less time participating in cultural practices like farming and fishing. However, these acts are still essential to the survival of people here in Chuuk and I feel that it is extremely important that they know as much as possible about it.
One day while I was tending my garden, I was pondering the importance of farming and as the thoughts stirred around in my mind they came together into a cohesive plan of action. I came up with a project that would engage the children in agriculture while involving the community as well. I had the idea of making my kids farm. Learn about farming and actually farm. Dig the soil, plant the seeds, water & weed, harvest and ultimately sell.
This wasn’t something that I could simply do on my own. First of all, I don’t know anything about farming. Secondly, the purpose of Peace Corps is not to undertake individual tasks. My intention is to involve as many people as possible in the education of the students and improvement of the community. Luckily, my language tutor and Chuukese mentor Amanisio is an agricultural specialist. He worked for the Department of Agriculture and as an agricultural consultant for the Department of Education. He excitedly supported my idea and urged me to pursue it further.
I took a trip to Weno and set up a meeting with the Director of Agriculture to see if this project would be feasible. We talked for a while and he told of me an old project framework called Teachers, Children, Parents (TCP). The point of this type of project was to integrate the community in the practical education of their kids. This was perfect! I could accomplish two goals with this project. First, I would teach the students about an integral part of their culture. Secondly, I would involve the community.
Parent and community participation is infamously poor in Chuuk and educators are constantly striving for ways to get the community more involved the schools. This project had the potential to do that. Parents would hopefully actually care about  an activity like this, because farming knowledge is something tangible and useful that they can easily see the value in. Also, parents are the experts at farming. They are farmers, I’m not. So it works great that they will be the ones actually helping the kids with farming.
After talking to the Director of Agriculture (DoA), I set up a meeting to talk about the idea with the Chief of Elementary at the Department of Education (DoE). He also supported the idea and asked me to write up a proposal. I didn’t exactly know how to make a proposal/contract for this project, but part of my Peace Corps experience is to figure this kind of shit out. I whipped up an outline that delegated responsibilities and expectations for each of the stakeholders in the project. I came up with a mission statement, described what we hoped the students would learn, and gave specific details about what the teachers, parents, DoA and DoE would contribute. I messed around with it a bit and asked for some help from my host father and tutor. After a few days, I had a pretty darn good agreement drafted.
Now that I had the agreement set up, I had to start dealing with the bureaucracy to get it approved. Meetings with the teachers, meetings with the PTA, multiple meetings with the Departments of Agriculture and Education. Due to vacations, miscommunications and other confusions it took almost three weeks for my agreement to get signed by DoE with all the appropriate approvals. Finally, after a month of coordinating all the interested parties I got everything set up.
I established a Student Agriculture Club (SAC) for my 7th and 8th graders and had them elect officers. We have no student government, so I felt that this was a good opportunity for them to learn some leadership skills. We had class elections and voted for a President, Secretary, and Treasurer in each grade. The project is only going to be with my 7th and 8th graders this first time around. They are my students and its my project, so I felt that they should get to try it first. If it works well this year, then we are going to expand it next year and undertake the project on a much larger scale with lots of students. This is just a pilot project, however if it is successful the DoE has already expressed interest in encouraging the other elementary schools in Chuuk to adopt my idea and establish similar farming programs.
When I first thought up this idea, I did not think of it as a very big deal. I just thought it would be fun to start a farm with my kids. However, it quickly turned into a full-scale project with dozens of people involved. We are going to use a government owned agriculture sub-station that is conveniently located near our school. Representatives from the Departments of Education & Agriculture as well as my Peace Crops boss will be coming out to Fefan for a groundbreaking ceremony this week. We are gonna kick off the project with a bang and hopefully get the whole community excited to be involved. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A little about my teaching/learning philosophy

Surprisingly, I have adapted to this teaching business pretty well and already feel like I am making a difference in the academic progress of these young kids. I kind of think I have a knack for this sort of thing and am picking it up quickly. I relate well with young kids, I have a widespread knowledge of random things, and I am passionate about getting my students excited about learning. The combination of these elements gives me some of the tools necessary to be a good teacher.
In fact, my counterparts have remarked about how surprised they are that in reality I am such an amateur teacher. If it weren’t for my age, they would have thought that I have been in the classroom for at least 10 years.  I seem to naturally manage a classroom well and have a thousand ideas of what to do every day in class. I can probably attribute some of these skills to the teacher blood that I have inherited from my mother. Thanks mom.
I have now developed a relatively cohesive ideology about my approach to teaching and the style of learning that I want to promote. My scheme is based on my past education in American schools, my understanding of the current school system here in Chuuk, my psychology background and my personal attitude about life. I was fortunate enough to be raised in a fantastic area with some of the best public schools in the nation. During my schoolin years in Irvine, some things got me excited about learning and other things bored the shit out of me. I looked deeper into the reasons why I liked some stuff and didn’t like other stuff. I also realized that the stuff I actually cared about was the stuff that I truly learned and retained. I don’t remember anything about how to do a geometry proof but I can recall every detail about the revolutionary war.
This difference in learning retention is a function of two primary factors. First, the material was more interesting to me. I had no use for mathematical theory, but the history of our country’s beginning seemed important to me. It was relevant. Secondly, my history teachers tended to be more exciting, enthusiastic, fun, and animated than my math teachers. I took these two components of successful learning and tried to apply them to my teaching style. I was convinced that in order to be successful, my class material would be relevant and exciting. I figured that my kids might pay attention to what I was talking about if I was teaching about something that actually mattered in their lives.
To make my class relevant, I focus my lessons on real life things that are present in their everyday lives. I did a theme on the forest because Fefan is basically a giant forest. I am starting a theme on farming, because almost every single person on Fefan is a farmer in a certain sense. When I do grammar or reading, I don’t use examples of “Bill drove his car to the movie theatre”. There are no cars on Fefan, there are no movie theatres, and there is nobody named Bill. Instead I might use something like, “Nuki swam in the ocean and caught five fish”. I believe that it is extremely important to make everything applicable and understandable.
My second tenet of teaching is to make learning fun. My favorite teachers throughout my life have been the most fun teachers. Ms. Mitchel, my high school English teacher, was a zany and excitable woman that made every activity a blast. In college, my Roman history professor, Phillips, ran up and down the aisles re-enacting historic death scenes. That got me pumped about history and enthusiastic to delve deeper into the subject. My psychology professor, Lieberman, was prone to making fun of students and using obscure and wild examples to illustrate his points. As a result, I actually crawled out of my bed and went to class everyday so I could maybe catch another one of his crazy anecdotes or hear a funny story. Each of these teachers had a deep impact upon my academic interests and the development of my personality. Ms. Mitchel made me actually think books were cool. Phillips cemented my interest in the ancient world. Lieberman enlightened me to the field that I want to pursue as a career, and I basically decided I wanted to do what he does.
The point of relating these examples of my past teachers is to explain that in my opinion, it is exceptionally important to make learning fun. These were three of my most entertaining teachers, and they were also coincidentally three of the teachers who I learned the most from. Learning doesn’t have to adhere to the classical framework of drilled repetition and monotonous practice. Learning should be dynamic, interactive and energetic.
As a teacher, I am a firm proponent of fun in the classroom. However, fun doesn’t mean mayhem and silliness. I still maintain strict rules and can be quite a stickler when it comes to behavior and respect. Nonetheless, everyday I make sure that we do at least one moderately fun thing in class. I have found that I can basically make a game out of anything. With a simple tweak of the presentation, a grammar lesson can turn from a routine activity into a competitive game. Spelling can be a fierce battle of wits, writing complete sentences can be a rapid race, and vocabulary definitions can be a scavenger hunt. The kids have so much fun that they almost forget that they are learning.
While I worked in a cognitive psychology research laboratory at UCLA, I studied the organization of the brain as we encode (learn) and retrieve (remember) information that we learn. I experimented with various theories about the intricacies of our mind as it pertains to learning. Whenever we learn something, we create a cognitive framework of that information in our brains. It is analogous to a vast network or spider web of microscopic interrelated ideas. Every time that we tap into that network, the connections between neurons are strengthened and then the next time the information can be more easily accessed. When we deal with a tidbit of information in a new and different way, we add more connections to our network and in essence add more webbing to the framework. New ways of learning leads to more connections/webbing. If a spider web has lots of webbing and is very big, it has a better chance of catching a fly. If our cognitive framework (spider web) is very big, we have a better chance of recalling or retrieving a piece of information.
The main point that I took away from all that research was that we learn best when we interact with information in a variety of ways. Not just reading, not just writing, not just speaking, not just listening. In order to fully imprint something into our mind and strengthen those cognitive connections, we need to deal with a piece of information in as many ways as possible. That means looking at a word, writing the word, saying the word, acting out the word, explaining the word, and sticking the word up your nose.
I believe that if games are utilized correctly, they serve as one of the best ways to deal with a piece of information in a variety of ways. They students get up out of their seats and do something with the word. They aren’t just looking at it on a piece of paper. They are enthusiastically interacting with it.
Fun and relevance are particularly important in a Chuukese classroom because there is a general malaise about the importance of education in the community. Parents aren’t overly thrilled with the concept of education and as a result many of the kids lack motivation. Attendance is rather poor and many kids just decide not to come to school. My goal is to make kids want to go to school. I want kids to wake up in the morning and look forward to the next cool thing they are going to do in my class that day. My hope is that if I can get them excited about my class, then I can get them excited about education as a whole.
So far, this approach has been working wonderfully. I also have changed my schedule and now only teach 7th and 8th grades for language arts. 5th and 6th basically spoke no English and were totally lost with everything that I tried to do. Now with 7th and 8th grade, I get extended time and can cover the entire field of English with a more cohesive and focused approach. I have already seen marked improvements in many of my students and I can detect a glare of curiosity in their eyes when I start a new lesson. Many of them have become excited about learning and their attendance has become more consistent. It’s good to see that I am actually making a small difference in the lives of these kids.
This last Saturday, I was thrilled to see an example of how they have exhibited their newfound motivation for education. An entrance examination was being administered for one of the private schools in Chuuk. There are two well-to do private high schools on Weno, and attending either one of them puts you on a fast track to success. The majority of the Chuukese that go on to college come from these two schools.
Although the test is difficult and the majority of students don’t have a very good chance of passing, I strongly encouraged all of them to take the test. The math teacher and I have been doing after school test preparation classes for the last couple months to get them ready for this test. I also recently found out that 7th graders could take the test and see if they pulled out a miracle and skipped a grade on their way to private high school. I thought it was a great idea for my 7th graders to take a crack at it, so I offered them extra credit and a bag of candy to go take the test.
Last year, only three 8th graders and no 7th graders took the test. My hopes were relatively low, but I expected at least a few to show up for the test. I walked to the testing site early on Saturday morning so that I could make sure who was taking the test in order to give them the appropriate extra credit, pay for the ones who couldn’t afford the fee,  and award them the bag of candy. I also brought a boatload of pencils and sharpeners just in case.
I was shocked to find that every single one of my 7th graders came to the test and only one 8th grader didn’t make it! The test proctors were unprepared for so many kids and some had to sit on the floor to take the test. I was super proud. I gave out all my pencils and happily relaxed as they finished up the 3 hour examination. At the end, I gave each student a bag of candy and sent them on their merry way.
It is ultimate satisfaction for a teacher to see that his kids truly care about education. And this was proof that my kids do care! (Although, it is possible that they really just wanted a bag of candy.) In addition, I am also fairly confident that a few of my 8th grade girls have a change of passing the test. I wont find out until summer, but I am excited to see the results.
On a sadder note, one of my best students in 7th grade is moving to another school. He is switching to another island and going to attend one of the most infamously bad schools in all of Chuuk. I really hoped to work personally with this kid and put him on a track to academic success, but now that opportunity has sailed. As a double whammy, another one of our 7th grade boys has now decided to stop coming to school. He doesn’t want to be the only boy in 7th grade, so he is dropping out. My numbers have been dwindling and now I only have 7 kids in 7th grade and 9 in 8th grade. Well at least they will get a lot of individual attention, haha.