Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Camp GLOW!

A few weeks ago I participated in Camp G2LOW (Girls & Guys Leading Our World), a camp that was started by Peace Corps volunteers in Romania. It was brought to Burkina Faso last year, with two camps, and this year it spread to four!  Camp GLOW was originally started with just girl campers, (girls'/women's impowerment being one of its main themes) but here in Burkina we decided to add male campers as well. The thought behind that being that women can't really move up in the world if men don't also agree in gender equality.

Team building activities!

There were about 10 volunteers and 15 Burkinabe working as counselors and facilitators. Considering that summer camps as we know them don't really exist here in Burkina, it was interesting to see how the Burkinabe fit into their role. Some continued to treat the campers with more of a student/teacher relationship (which is very formal in Burkina), while others really opened up to the idea of having fun with the kids!

Volunteers all brought 4-8 kids from their villages, all from 6e or 5e (about 6th and 7th grades, though ages easily ranged from 11 to 16+).  The age range obviously made discussion very interesting, especially about sexual health and family planning.  In general, the students were chosen because they are the best and brightest in their class. But in some of the smaller villages, I would argue, older students who may have failed a year or two are more respected/looked up to in their communities and by bringing them to the camp we will hopefully be teaching some of the role models the life skills we want younger students to practice.  All in all, we had interesting discussions in most sessions.
Two of the girls, Marie-Pascale and Ines, from my 5e class in Yaho.

The kids were divided into teams, then each team was assigned a volunteer and a Burkinabe counselor.  My team named ourselves the Cobras and my co-counselor was Theodora, everyone's favorite :)  She is an elementary school teacher who went back to school after having kids.  While this is fairly common today in the US, I had never before met a Burkinabe who did that.  She was a great role model for the kids and really got into the camp atmosphere. She even wrote a song about Camp GLOW! Overall, she was just awesome.
The Cobras! (Theodora's on the left)

 Topics for the week ranged from decision making and friendship to family planning and malaria prevention. The kids really got into any lesson that had a skit to start it off.  Some of the lessons then had the students write and act out a skit on the topic given. I have to admit, I was always amazed at the creativity of the students and the spot on interpretation of adults in their lives (like the disinterest of a high up official while talking to a 'villageois" or low status level farmer).  I taught the lesson the reproductive systems (male and female) to the female students, and it was really interesting to see what kinds of questions the students had and what kind of ideas they had about what happens during all of that part of adulthood.  I also taught the lessons on friendship and self-confidence/self-esteem.

Two students (the one seated was in my group , the Cobras) presenting a skit about malaria, its prevention and treatment.
So about the third day of camp my director from Yaho came to visit.  He wanted to see how the kids were enjoying the camp and encouraged them the really think about what they were learning and how they can use all that information back in village. One really cute thing: he asked the students if there were any problems at the camp, and Jude, one of the older kids, said that Jean-Paul, a younger student, made mistakes while speaking French.  The director listened very seriously and just asked Jude if he was helping Jean-Paul and correcting his mistakes. It was adorable. (All students speak French as a 2nd or 3rd language, meaning that even a student in 6th/7th grade can make a lot of mistakes). At the end of the visit the director gave me a few dollars to buy a small present for the students. I bought the students each a bottle of coke/fanta, a very special treat for them.
My director and the students from Yaho.
At the end of the week we had a talent show and my group, the Cobras, presented a skit about a family that a child who participated in Camp GLOW. The child was able to help every member of the family with various issues because of all the informationt they learned at Camp GLOW.  It was pretty cute :) 

The last day we also broke the kids up into groups by village and asked them which aspect of the camp they thought would be the most useful in their village.  My replacement, David, happened to be in the city this weekend for his regional capital visit and was able to work the group from Yaho to work on a project they can hopefully do this next year.  As sad as it was to let him lead the group, it was also really cool to see the students I've worked with for the last year work with him and think of ideas for the community.  The oldest girl student was really stressing the importance of family planning, but as a group they thought that hand washing/hygiene was a topic they all felt comfortable talking about within the village.

As tiring and stressful as planning a weekful of activities with 120 students was, I had a really great time working the kids.  As I said, I had a great Burkinabe partner for my small group, I really really hope she's involved again next year.  I'm also really looking forward to hearing what sort of activities my kids choose to do in within the community next year.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Education Win, again!

So I realize it's been a really long time since I updated this thing, so I'm going to try to do a couple updates today and tomorrow while I've got internet.  (Full disclosure: not having internet access isn't a viable excuse for my lack updates lately, I've had internet more often these last few months than the entirety of my first year of service...)

Anyway, as you'll remember from last year, my school had super awesome BEPC results. (The BEPC is the national exam that my oldest students have to take before passing into the second half of high school).  This year I was in the capital for the week during the exams, but I called my director (principal) after I thought the first round of results was out.  We only had 29 students in that class this year, which is a SUPER small class, and in my head I could think of at least 10 of those students that I would be amazed if they did not pass the test.  So when I asked my director and thought I heard that 23 out of the 29 failed after the first round, I was understandably pretty upset.  That meant that only 6 students passed onto the second round, which is just a chance to retake the math and French portions of the test, because they are weighted the heaviest in the exam. Pretty dismal after our great job last year.
A couple days later, I was back in village and my director stopped by to say hello. We chatted for a little bit before I thought to ask how the second round went: hopefully at least one student passed!  He stated that four more made it, bringing the total up to 27 passing.  I was very confused, and after a moments clarification, I realized I misheard him! (Talking on the phone in a foreign language is still not one of my strong points.)  Those student 23 passed the first round, or 79% passing (better than our results from last year).  With the 4 additional students from the second round, we had 93% passing!! 93%!

Remember, this is in a country were the national average is somewhere between 40 and 50%, our results last year were awesome. This year I would not be surprised if they are the highest of any school in our region, public or private!

I have to admit, I was super nervous going into the test because I taught math this year.  Math is weighted heavier than physics/chemistry (the subject I taught last year), and we almost didn't get through the entire program.  But, as we can all see, everything turned out for the best.

All in all, I have to say that this is one of my proudest moments of my service. :)

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


So a way long time ago (I think last summer maybe?) my friend, who is a girls' soccer coach, asked me if I wanted some uniforms. Her team was getting new ones, but wanted to do something with the old ones.  I didn't have any sort of soccer team or club at the time, but knew there are plenty of teams without uniforms all of Burkina. I thought about just donating them to my school, but I wanted to try and get them to a girls' team...

I talked to my friend, Beth, who I knew had a girls' soccer club and asked if she wanted the uniforms, and of course she did!  The uniforms arrived near the end of December and we decided to try and get them handed out sometime before spring break. Well, as is life in West Africa, things didn't work out exactly as we had planned. The weekends I was free to come to her village, she wasn't there, and vice versa.  But during spring break we decided we HAVE to get this done, and only two weeks later, we finally did!

Beth planned a match against the next nearest village and I came down for the day. I read the letter that the team in the US wrote for the girls here, then we handed out the jerseys.  The US team was nice enough to send both the home and away jerseys, so both teams were able to wear jerseys.  The game was pretty exciting, with Beth's girls getting much more competitive than she realized they were capable of, but alas it ended up 0-0.

The village we were playing in was about 15km from Beth's village, meaning that the girls had to bike for over an hour before playing.  Then bike home again, this time at noon after running around for over an hour!  Luckily, we stopped for lunch and the girls were able to cool down while writing thank you letters to the team back home.  All in all, it was great to finally see my friend's village, and also share this experience with the girls.  Girls' sports aren't at all encouraged here, and really just seen as a source of comedy entertainment for the men.  So any activity that can empower girls or give them any sense of accomplishment or pride in what they're capable of, is definitely worth supporting :)

Waiting for the game to start!

Action shot!

Go team!
Check out more pictures here!

Saturday, April 7, 2012


So here in the BF we just finished up with our spring break week. The last two weeks of the trimester are always stressful because that is when we have to calculate grades. While this is certainly something stressful in the US, it is considerably more time consuming here in Burkina. Remember my previous post? 85 kids in a classroom? Now calculate the grades for each of them, for each of your classes, by hand.

Because the process is so time consuming, tests are 100% of the grade. Homework isn't factored in at all (and my students whined when tests were 50% of the grade in the US!). I think I'm the only teacher at my school who has ever graded homework individually, normally profs just corrected it as a class and maybe give plus or minus 1 point on their test if they did it.

The second trimester is also when most schools have compositions, or cumulative tests for the trimester.  Compos, as they're affectionately known, are 50% of the trimester's grade, the other tests make of the second half.  So when the end of the trimester came around, I first had to average the two tests I gave before the compo, then average that number with the score they earned on the compo. Last year, I would do everything in Excel, then copy into the bulletins (report cards). This year, I've realized that Excel actually takes more time than just using a calculator and entering it directly into the bulletins.

An example of a bulletin.  The COEFF (coefficient) is how many hours a week that class is taught.  Moyenne des Devoirs is the average of the tests, Note de composition is the grade they earned on their compo, MOY is the average of the tests and the compo, and Notes Ponderees is the grade*the coefficient.  All the Notes Ponderees are added, then divided by the sum of the coefficients for their overall average (kind of like a gpa).  In the French system all tests are out of 20, grades are given out of 20, and 10 is passing.

So I repeated that process exactly 161 times. The French, English, and Biology teachers teach in every class in the school, so they had to do this about 350 times. Less than fun. After all the teachers are done filling in their subjects, the Professeurs Principals (PP) have to add the Notes Ponderees and calculate the trimester average for one class.  I'm PP for 5e (the lovely class pictured in my previous post), and in addition to calculating the trimester average for each student, I have to calculate the class average and determine the rank of each student.  Not hard, but time consuming.

A completed bulletin from the first trimester. The class average was passing, but barely.  This trimester, the average wasn't passing... :(
So this trimester, my classes grades were a little disappointing. The class average was 9.6 out of 20.  Not so hot. Of the 85 students, only about 35 passed. Of the 32 girls, only 7 passed. 7! I actually had a long discussion with the other profs about why girls seem to do so much worse. No one had any good answers, but it was nice to hear them acknowledge the discrepancy between boys and girls. I think a big reason for the drop in grades (for all students) were the compos. The compos are all done over a two days, meaning that half of their entire trimester comes down to those two days. If they're even just a little off, or a little nervous, they can easily ruin their whole trimester. Not an ideal system.

Also, each page has a carbon copy, so you have to remember to move the cardboard divider after every student. I realize that this was the case for many documents not that long ago in the US, but long enough that this is the first I've had to do it...

You'll also notice that next to their signature, each professor gives the student an appreciation, which is just a quick one or two word remark on the students work. There are standard responses we give for each grade the student achieved. For low grades, 0 up to 10, the comments are Null, Very Weak, Weak, Insufficient, then Average.  If the student earned 10 or higher we have Average, Good Enough, Good, Very Good, and Excellent. Not really all that encouraging in my opinion...

I feel that this blog became a little more technical than I intended, but hopefully it gives a little insight into the amount of time that goes into tasks we have long since simplified using technology back home!

My classroom!

 Ever wonder what 85 students in a classroom looks like? Well, here it is. This is my 5e class (about 7th grade level), there are 85 students aged 14-18 crammed onto 28 benches (3 per bench!) for 5 hours straight every day. Here, students stay in the same room all day while teachers move from class to class. I teach math for 5 hours every week and I have to admit, they're kind of my favorite class. I think I just like that they're younger and that there is less pressure with the younger grades, but they're pretty cute, too :)  You'll also notice that students wear uniforms, at my school boys where all khaki and girls wear a blue plaid/checkered shirt with a navy skirt or pants. 
Copying notes from the board.
As for resources available for me and my 85 students, there isn't much.  My school is lucky enough to have textbooks for every student, but many of the books are full of holes from termite damage. There isn't a teacher's manual, so for each subject I teach, I asked for a student's notebook from the previous year. That way, I can compare the notebook to the textbook and hopefully get an understanding of what topics need more explanation or which topics I can skip if we get into a time crunch.

All of the textbooks are from the early 1990s, and while the curriculum for each class has changed some, the textbooks don't reflect that. In math and physics/chemistry the books are ok, but I know that the biology books aren't used at all. There are some locally printed biology books that are pretty good (because they actually reflect the curriculum), but because they aren't the official textbook students (and teachers) have to buy them with their own money.

While this isn't an ideal situation for any school, we make it work. The other P/C teacher and I work together to plan experiments and buy (or make!) needed materials ourselves. The one resource I have in abundance is time, so I also schedule extra sessions with my classes to prep for tests (or for 3e, the test year, to simply get through all the material).

Side note: Notice how the classroom has a drop down ceiling? It's really nice for cutting down noise when it's raining, and it helps keep the room cooler (barely), but the space between the ceiling and the roof is a nice place for rats/bats to hang out.  I can often hear them scrambling around up there and it kinda smells, haha.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Education Win.

So I have Super Great News! I found out a week or so ago that my school had the best national test results of all public schools in our region!!!  Yaho (my village) is in the Boucle de Mohoun, a large region northwest of the capital, and I think there are about 150 schools in the region.  The test consists of Math, French, English, History/Geography, Physics/Chemistry and Biology and is given to students the last year of ‘college’ which is kind of like middle school, but more like the first half of high school.  The students have to pass if they want to continue on to high school.  Last year I taught Physics and Chemistry for the grade that took the test, and over 70% of my students passed.  By American standards 70% is less than great, but here the national average is less than 50%.  Last year was an especially rough year, as many schools were striking for over two months (my school missed two weeks when the government shut down all schools, then another week when my students striked).  But in spite of the strikes last year, we rocked that test!

I have to admit; at this point in time I’m pretty used to the standards of teaching and learning here, but they are drastically different than the majority of the US.  For example: students here have detailed lessons of chemical reactions that they’ve never seen involving chemicals they’ve never heard of; and they have to be able to not only describe what happens during the reaction, but also describe how to test each substance to prove that it is what we say it is.  Very in depth things, that are only explained theoretically with little to no hands on or visual application.  Students have 3 years of biology (starting with cells and invertebrates, ending with human anatomy) without ever once using a microscope or actually seeing a cell!  They study geography without once seeing a globe, study the piston-type motor in a car while many of them have never actually ridden in a car, and learn how to calibrate a voltmeter without ever actually seeing one – or occasionally without ever seeing an electrical circuit in use.  Many times they learn French (and English) without access to books, only by what the teachers have written on the board.  And all of this with at least 70 kids in the classroom, though more likely closer to 100.

But despite all of these monumental challenges, there are students who are succeeding, and it makes my heart happy.  These students work their butts off and fully comprehend the value of their education – something I can guarantee that many American students have forgotten.  So while I may get frustrated as my students struggle with a concept I’m explaining for the fifth time, I just need to remind myself how far the really have come – with little to no support to get them here. 

The group of schools recognized for the results last year only included 6 schools and 4 of them were private. Private schools cost about 10 times as much as public in Burkina and many times have a foreign sponsor on top of money made from tuition.  The fact that my school in a rural village is able to compete with these schools is pretty dang impressive :)

Also, we got this really sweet certificate.

Sunday, January 29, 2012


So here is my belated holiday post!  Next year I’ll be in America for Christmas and New Year’s!
This year I went to Mali for the holiday break.  A few days before Xmas, my friend Val came to visit my village.  Her town is just 20k south of the capitol, and she commented how much colder village was and how many more stars are visible at night :)  We went for a bike ride around the area, had lunch with my favorite professor’s family and had drinks with the president of the local PTA.

Xmas eve morning we made the trip from my village to Bobo and you could definitely tell it was a holiday!  The trip took about 2 hours longer than normal…  That evening we went to a new bar/grill right down the street, watched an xmas movie and went to bed.   There were about 20 volunteers there and xmas day we made dinner and watched movies all day (I definitely watched movies more than helping with dinner)

The next morning Val and I left at about 6:30 for Mali! We went to Mopti, a city where the Niger and Bani Rivers meet.  The bus ride there was about 14 hours, but we had a remarkably uneventful trip up there.  Our first morning there we had a tour of the city – saw their markets, a local mosque, the ship builders and just some of the side streets. I know that I can’t really compare Mopti – a tourist city – to my rural village, but I was surprised by the amount of development surprised me.  Mopti is between Bamako, the capitol of Mali, and Timbuktu and the city has been a part of the trade route for centuries.  We saw some of the big chunks of salt that is mined near Timbuktu as well as lots of smoked fish, all ready to be shipped one way or the other on the rivers.

Salt mined near Timbuktu
That evening we went on a sunset canoe ride around the area.  There were a couple islands right across from the city so we got off and walked around a couple of them.  We saw fish being smoked (they cover a pile of fish with grass, then light the grass on fire) and the evening nets being dragged. 

The evening catch.
The next day we sat around the pool reading with a walk along the river.  The rest of our group got in that evening – two other volunteers (from MN!) and their four friends visiting from home, one of whom works about two miles from my house. Craziness.  Our guide for the hiking portion of the trip also got in that evening, so we figured out the last couple details and headed into Dogon Country.

Dogon is an area of south eastern Mali – just north of Burkina Faso – where the Dogon people lived in villages built into the cliffs of the Bandiagara Escarpment.  Our tour started on top of the cliffs and ended a couple days later at the bottom.  Our guide, Oumar, is Dogon and was both super knowledgeable and super awesome.  He spoke English and you could tell from different phrases he used that he had definitely spent time around Americans.

In each village we passed through Oumar would explain different parts of the village and its significance in the culture.  Each village had several “town halls” where men would go to resolve disputes.  The parties in conflict would go in with several village elders and no one could come out until they reached a resolution.  And not a strict democratic, 51% say yes 49% say no type conclusion, but a resolution where everyone was in agreement.  They would talk around and around the issue, each side trying to convince the other of their validity.  You’ll also notice how that the ceiling is very low on these buildings.  The reason is so no one can stand up in anger and make any move to hurt another person.  A kind of cool concept.

The 'town hall.'  It sounds like the US could've used a couple of these this past year...
As I said, the Dogon lived in cliff villages: today the villages have all been rebuilt either above or below the cliff.  We were able to see an ancient village, though.  Oumar informed us that the Dogon weren’t the ones to build the villages; they moved in after a people called the Tele left them.  The villages consisted of mostly houses and grain silos.

One of the ancient villages on the cliff.
In the last village we visited we were able to see a mask ceremony.  While these are typically just preformed for tourists today, traditionally they were done at funerals to guide the spirits.  Each different type of mask represented a different person or belief in the traditionally animist culture.

Giant Mask! He was also doing these awesome spins and dips and i thought he was going to fall or take someone out, haha.
After our 4 days hiking we made our way back to Mopti, then back on into Burkina.  Our bus ride back was equally uneventful as the one out, which really is a quite surprising in West Africa.  We got back to Bobo where I was able to hang out with some volunteers from Ghana.  We ran into them in Dogon, then again in Bobo.  Also, they were from MN!

Overall, we had a really great week and it was pretty great way to ring in the New Year.  Happy 2012, friends!