Monday, March 15, 2010


Yesterday I loved being in Mongolia more than I have in a really long time. I felt super productive and useful- like people needed and wanted my help. Like I was a valuable member of Hovd with things to teach and share. Unfortunately it's not often that I feel that way, as many of my students don't feel the need to come to class all the time (due to things like Tsagan Saar and the English Olympics) and the fact that there's not really any heating at my work helps to beat in exhaustion and the effects of various frustrations. But yesterday was huge.

It started early, I had to get up, look presentable, fill gigantic Mongolian thermoses with boiling water, collect the 50 or so cookies I'd cranked out the night before and get to the library sometime around 8. We had the first English Teacher's Workshop starting at 9. Well, kind of at 9. Apparently some of the English teachers had gotten invitations that had said come at 10 to a different location. God only knows why. But after a flurry of cleaning, organizing, signing in and outfitting teachers with appropriate stickers for their discussion groups, the workshop began around 9:30 or so. It started out reasonably well. I have this problem with always feeling like I'm being condescending when speaking slowly to a large group of adults. But beside the initial second guessing, everything flowed smoothly. The workshop was about classroom management. The point was to address a pressing issue with all of the Secondary School English teachers in Hovd. There are so many competitions among teachers (there was even a resource competition recently where basically everyone printed out all their 'resources'-none of which anyone really uses- and put them on a table. The winner wasted the most paper.) but not really any collaborating or conversing. So we, Jake and I along with our counterparts and one of the Directors of the Education Department, set out the change this. We had been discussing this teacher collaboration idea since December and that alone was enough to make me lose all faith in the Democratic process. But finally we settled on a monthly workshop for about a half day and that Classroom Management would be the topic. Jake and I led several sessions with role playing, discussing and solution sharing. An sage old teacher even came in to share her secrets of controlling the youthful masses. (She was the kind of woman a girl wants to be one day- unabashedly sporting her belly under a cashmere sweater and track pants 3 sizes too small, she wore Jackie O shades the entire time and pared them with snakeskin cowboy boots. She was dignified the entire time; the teachers clung to her every word.)
The aforementioned boiling water and cookies were for the tea break half way through the morning. I was in charge of that and after frantically setting everything up, I proudly watched my cookies disappeared like free beer in a frat house. And I swear this is true, women flocked to me asking if I could teach them how to make the heavenly 'cakes' (really just Quaker's Vanishing Oatmeal Raisin Cookies from the bottom of the oat can). So it looks like Cooking Club will get a little bigger next time. Horray!
But the positive feed back didn't end there. After the workshop a teacher I'd never met before came up to me and gushed about how helpful she found everything we had done that day. She excitedly suggested ideas for next month's workshop and while she declined to teach any of the future workshops (as did all the attendees), she expressed great enthusiasm. 'Oh God. This is it,' I thought.' I've reached Volunteer Nirvana. After months of training, struggling, freezing, improvising, floundering, iterating and reiterating, begging and just being confused, I matter here.' The workshop and this woman's words made me feel valuable, needed even. This is a special thing; I've grown used to being ignored by my busy counterpart or condescended by those who see me as inconsequential due to my white skin and poor language skills. I am overly alien to many. Since the earthquake in Haiti, I've been fighting the feeling that more help is needed elsewhere. If I could be digging infants out of collapsed parking decks, why am I sitting around a library? But this woman checked me. She, as a representation of the entire day, reminded me that I am helpful here. There are already people cradling Haitain orphans, perhaps not enough, but there are people there. But there's no one in this little corner of the world to help teachers be better influences and more positive mentors to impressionable young students, students who will one day hold the fate of Mongolia in their hands. Though I wanted to stay and chat with the woman, the room was a mess and plastic tea cups littered the floor. Time for cleaning up.
After a frantic lunch I had a session with my younger class. Unfortunately many of my students are in the English Olympics, a cutthroat competition between the best 9th and 11th grade students from each school to see who can master the bad English tests they are administered. (Bad as in sometimes the questions have no correct answers or sometimes they have many of them. The test also features outdated or nonexistent colloquial phrases the students are expected to know.) In order to prepare, the participating students are excused from all classes for months and study around the clock. If they win, it's a great honor. If they lose, their parents, friends, teachers and school administrators give them shit forever. So my classes have been rather small recently as many students have skipped to study with their school English teachers, not an option for the students. Four children came and after mulling it over for a while, I decided to teach them how to write a good essay. There's an essay portion of the Olympics and while they're never taught how to write an essay, they are expected to anyway. So I set about to teach them. We talked about 3 paragraph essays, essay structure, what will set you apart in terms of content and other valuable ideas. I tried to introduce the concept of an outline and got many a blank stare. But I persevered and by the end of class, the more hopeful students were on their way to mastering the art of the essay. While teaching this class I realized that I really liked teaching writing. Not enough to consider a change in profession, mind you. But it was fun, exhilarating even to see the students light up with the concept and scribble away with their own ideas. One student wrote a 3 paragraph essay on death, another girl wrote about religion. And even though I'll certinly need more writing drills in the future, this class, useful for the students and illuminating for me, was a really great way to top off a very fulfilling day. A day spent loving my rather bizarre job in a far flung corner of the world.


Mummer said...

I love it! You are a wonderful teacher! And it DOES matter. Keep the faith.

Linda said...

YAY Lara--another great post. Thanks for doing what you do.

p.s. I never learned to write an essay! Now i will know to do it in 3 parts. Do I have to write an outline first?

Bob Wagner said...

La, beautiful essay! You have a syntax and erudition that put us squarely in Hovd, at you side. We walk a mile in your Weeboks cheering you all the way. Love, Dad

hannah said...

Lala! this is so amazing!!!! I miss you so much and have always thought you had an impact on the world!
I love you!!!

juliajohansen said...

Hey there! I stumbled in from the web. I was a PCV in Ukraine from 2007-2009, now living in Seoul. I was a teacher trainer there. I made a good power point presentation about essay writing that I'd be happy to send to you if you're interested. It not only includes an outline, but examples as well.

I think the toughest thing for the ESL teachers in Peace Corps is a lack of tangible proof of help. Building a house or a well--it's something you can see and can clearly get results. Sitting in a school with people who may not want you there--can definitely feel like an exercise in frustration.

Never fear--you are definitely doing a good thing. Sincerely!