Monday, February 8, 2010

These Kids Are Gonna Crush Me

I heart my students. For the most part, they are amazing people—thoughtful and funny, intelligent and sooo hard-working. This first term (February through March), I am only teaching 6 hours of biology lab per week for Senior 5 MCB (11th grade, Math-Chem-Bio Track). My headmaster wants me to spend much of my time mentoring clubs, such as Media Club and Science Club, and helping students and teachers with their English. Classes must be taught entirely in English. Somehow the teachers manage, even though their English skills are severely lacking. I’ve also been assisting the biology lecture teacher with lesson planning and scouring the web for scholarship opportunities for my kids.

My school is a Catholic Boarding school with 700 boys and girl aged ~13-25 years old, although I do have one student that is 28 years old. There isn’t really an age cut-off; when families can afford school fees, students go to school. Usually the older students had to take time off due to financial difficulties. If my understanding is correct, school fees run about $250 per year for secondary school. The strict regimentation resembles that of a prison, students are packed into their dormitories like sardines in bunk beds, and all they ever eat is rice and beans, rice and beans, rice and beans. And yet, you’ve never seen people so thankful for the opportunity to be here and learn…

We have a computer lab. The computers use floppy disks and, of course, we have no internet to speak of. Sometimes we don’t even have electricity. Armed with only my laptop, I am determined to teach these kids (as well as the teachers!), how to navigate the internet. Most of the older students use email once every few months, but no one has any idea how to use a search engine or conduct internet research of any kind. In fact, the other day one of the English teachers asked me to find the web page with literature. It’s always THE web page for this or that, because they really have no idea what’s out there. My students are incredibly knowledgeable about the subjects they study, as well as about world news and politics (more so than I am, I’m afraid), so it’s my goal to bridge the technology gap for them as much as I can. Stay tuned for student facebook pages later in the year!

My entire lab curriculum this year requires microscopes that we just don’t have. The microscopes donated to the school by Millersville University are on their way, but shipping will take a month or two. Until then, I have 6-8 students to a microscope. And the scopes themselves are fairly useless. Ah well, we’ll make due somehow. Happily, I lucked out in locating a projector for my laptop—a gift to the school from a Japanese non-profit that supports science education in developing countries! I found out about this jewel today and promptly procured it from the headmaster’s office where it is kept under lock and key. Sadly, I also found out today that I would be entrenched in a year-long custody battle for the projector with the computer class instructors.

Regardless, having access to Power Point totally made today’s lab. The instructor for the biology “theory” class adapts his lessons from a black and white textbook from the 1970s. Using the “chalk and talk” method, he writes all of the notes on the chalkboard, which the kids studiously copy verbatim. Using Power Point, I can incorporate microscopy pictures into my slide shows to show the students what they would see through their microscopes if they actually worked! Score!

I recently received an anonymous donation of $250 through the WorldTeach website (thanks so much, whoever you are)! That money will help fund our Media Club, which is comprised of ~70 students. The students’ goal is to publish (in English) a one-page weekly newsletter to be posted in the school. Subject matter includes local, national, and world events. Students will also publish a larger monthly newsletter to be distributed to 10 of the largest secondary schools in Musanze. Their goal is for their newsletter to become famous within the Musanze District. My goal is to help them. I’ve already committed to donating any additional funding necessary to make the newsletter happen. What’s a girl to do? Media Club is invaluable in helping the students hone their English, writing, and debating skills—skills that will determine whether these kids sink or swim in this harsh world of Rwanda.

Every day several people in town ask me for amafaranga (money). This is where my inability to speak Kinyarwanda comes in handy. Obviously, I’m unable to fund every Rwandan’s dinner and dreams, but since I’m a white foreigner, I’m seen as “rich.” And comparatively, I am rich. The ability to obtain an education via student loans, or buy a townhouse in Lancaster’s lovely west end via a 30-year mortgage, is unheard of here. Despite the fact that I’m an unpaid volunteer living on borrowed money, I’m rich in opportunity and a guarantee of future income. From what I’ve seen, the law of Rwanda is “sink or swim, and no second chances.”

That brings us to today. One of my students waited for me after class today. He informed me that he was unable to see my Power Point presentation. Although he was definitely one of the worst English speakers in my class, I managed to cobble together that he required expensive eye surgery—eye replacement surgery, in fact—if he was ever to see anything other than the paper right in front of his face. I’m not entirely clear on the details, but I’m thinking that maybe he needs a cornea transplant. All he could tell me was that his doctor told him his eye was destroyed and he needed a new one. He thought maybe I could help. It’s heartbreaking to tell some kid that you’re unable to help when there’s nothing in the world that you want more than to help. I looked into his eyes and told him that there was nothing I could do. It was then and there that I came to my realization: These kids are gonna crush me.

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