Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Twenty First Century Style Teaching

Today was a momentous occasion for one set of Tajik students at the university in Khujand. My students at the university will have a test next Monday and we're supposed to get through a TON of curriculum before then. Well, I'm in Dushanbe for the week for the English Access Microscholarhip Teacher Training Conference that I planned and organized so I HAD to leave Khujand and be in Dushanbe. That obviously means I'm not in Khujand to get through the curriculum with the students. Before I left Khujand last week I gave them homework to do every day. They had homework for Saturday, Sunday (day off), Monday, and Tuesday. I told them I'd call them on Wednesday (when the conference was finished) and we'd have class via phone. They were all excited about it when I told them the idea and were intrigued about how such a method could work.

The university system is run by lot of dogmatic, old, Soviet-day reminiscing people who think people learn by rote memorization, drills, and putting words into someone else's mouth. And they micro-manage. When I talked to the head of the Grammar and Translation department at the uni he told me that I would teach by drills and memorization and he demanded that I change my accent to be a British one. After that conversation I refused to work with him. I'm an expert in my field and that's why I'm in Tajikistan; I'm not here to work like a Tajik. I'm here to bring new ways of doing things (gently) to the Tajiks because they can't all go to the West to experience it for themselves.

Before I left Khujand I informed the director of the department I work for that I would be out for the week but would still have class but, since I couldn't be in the classroom I would do it over the phone. That comment got a big fat eye roll from her. I wanted to shout at her "How dare you roll your eyes at my methods you archaic old hag?" but I refrained saying that and thought "It's better to SHOW her how effective this method can be." I'm not saying that the Tajik teachers should use this method because it would be abused but since I'm not a Tajik teacher and my schedule has me doing work in more than one places and more than one city, I think I should be allowed to use it.

Today I called one of my students about 2 hours before official class time and asked her to make sure everyone was rounded up and at the university. She said they were already on their way to the university and were looking forward to having class via phone later on. When I called ALL of the students who are usually there were there ON TIME!! There were 11 of them who showed up even though there was no teacher physically present, but I asked them all to be there, to be on time, and to have their work prepared and they did! I spent 1 1/2 hours on the phone with them reading a particulary difficult story from their curriculum and answering questions about it. I know they were all there because I heard all their voices and would call them by name to read the text or answer questions or define vocabulary. The text they read was really really difficult and even I had to read it 3 times to really understand what was going on. It was only about one and half pages of words, but the language was lofty and unnecessarily descriptive and most of it just confused the students. Because I called them on the phone, we were able to read the text together and discuss it and they understood it.

I ended up spending 1 1/2 hours on the phone with them and I could here that they were all in the classroom the whole time, participating, and listening. It was really an exciting day and they were so happy to still have class even though I wasn't physically there with them. It was a great breakthrough for the Tajiks and tomorrow will be another successful day of discussion.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Dorky ELF

Yesterday I flew to Dushanbe from Khujand. While the people were pushing and shoving and shouting and ricocheting off each other to get the registration table I noticed a foreign man with stark white hair standing some people away and his translator was with him who was Tajik. I asked the Tajik man if ALL of these people were going to Dushanbe. His answer was "Hopefully." I had seen the man only from the back and he was dressed really nicely but when he turned and looked at me I actually lost my thoughts for a few second. He was absolutely beautiful!!! I mean beautiful with a square face and a well defined jaw with a dimple in the middle of his chin. He of course had dark hair and dark eyes and five o'clock shadow. I actually cocked my head to the side and just admired his face and then woke myself up and was like "OH pay attention to what he's saying!" I was feeling all good, too, in my big, black, furry "Natasha" coat which makes me look sooo Russian. We chatted for some time and he reminisced about the days when men would let women and children on the plane first. I thought "Oh what a nice man." As it turned out the men don't let women and children on first anymore and people just MOB the check in counter. We were all tightly packed in with no order whatsoever and people had suitcases and bags with them. People who weren't flying were handing off bags of bread for random people to take with them on the flight. Khujand (allegedly) had the best bread in Tajikistan and people have grocery bags full of bread that isn't packaged but that they literally baked in their oven and were handing it to people to take to Dushanbe. I don't understand their system but their bread is pretty good! I digress.

So the nice beautiful Tajik man let me in front of him in line. I didn't see him on the flight and didn't see him again untl we were collecting our bags. We chatted and just talked about what we were doing in Tajikistan. I asked him his name and he gave me his card. He works for the UN DP in Dushanbe which is the United Nations Development Project and his English was better than perfect. I had to leave him because a woman on the plane insisted that she and her husband taking me to Bethany's (the Dushanbe ELF) house so I wouldn't have to get a taxi. Sadly, I had to leave. When I got to Bethany's house I had a ton of bags on me and I put them down and Bethany said "Oh, what's this on your back?" It turns out that one of the "Checked Through Security" stickers had come off one of my bags and attached itself to my back. There was NO WAY anyone wouldn't have noticed it. I thought "Smooth Sharon. Real smooth."

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

First Test at the University

Right now my 5th year university students are taking a test. It's interesting because very time I give a test for the first time students are constantly talking and sharing information about the text. They think I don't understand what they're saying but I understand a lot more Russian than I can say. I gave the students all the vocabulary to study the night before and explained the format of the test so they knew EXACTLY what to for the test. When I gave them the test I told them to write their name first. Their questions were "Should we write our surname?" and I said yes because it will go to the director. Then they asked if they should write their group number. Yes, okay, write your group number too. Then the questions were "Miss Sharon do you want a one word answer?" I tell them to read the directions that say "Write the meaning of the word." Student says, "Yes, but how many words?" I patiently say "As many words as it takes to get the meaning across." Then a student asks "Miss Sharon do you want a synonym of word?" I explain again "The directions say to write the meaning of the word. The meaning is the definition."

Before I gave them the test I had them separate their desks. This is the first test they've taken with me so they're not familiar with my style and they don't know that I've been called "Strong like man" for my disciplinary style. These girls haven't seen that side of me yet and this is the first test they've taken with me and will be the first grade they get from me. It really doesn't matter what grade "I" give them. My tests are only for me to test their knowledge but they take a BIG test at the end of the semester that they must pass. If they don't pass then they can pay their way to a "pass" grade. I heard of a Tajik girl who hasn't graduated from the university, but paid for her degree so she could go to the U.S. to study in a few weeks. That's actually normal here. That is how I get 5th year students (this is a 5 year university) who don't understand when I ask them they're name or how they're weekend was. These students have their good friends translate my questions to them, then they answer in Russian, and they're good friend tells me what the girl said. I suppose this is good practice in translation for the good friends.

I've shocked the shit out of these girls with everything being in English!! To them this isn't how it's supposed to be, but they'll learn and be just fine in the end! :-)

****The ideas and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and are not in any way connected to the views of the United States Department of State nor the English Language Fellow Program. *****

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Always a Patriot, Never an Ex-Patriot

I've never liked that word "ex-pat." It means a person who has left her country to reside in another country either temporarily or permanently. I don't like it because of the "ex" factor and it sounds too much like a person who doesn't love her country anymore. It's used widely in foreign countries. When a bunch of British and American and other westerners get together it's usually said that the "ex-pats" are getting together. When that is said then we know that there will be no locals at the gathering. Other times we say "Hey, I saw another foreigner here today." Foreigner isn't the greatest word either, but that's really what we are here. I don't like being called an ex-pat...that's the bottom line. What can I do about it? Nothing really except blog about it!

I was sitting in a restaurant today with a good friend of mine, Pam. She's from the Isle of Mann (one of the British Isles). She isn't an ELF but is working for Volunteer Services Organization. She's and I meet a lot for tea or dinner and a chat. Tonight we went a to restaurant that's part of a large hotel. There were about 30 people in the restaurant and 28 of them were men. I have NEVER seen a group of women out having dinner together just because they're friends and want to have dinner together. That doesn't happen here. I've also NEVER see a man with his wife and family together. You would NEVER EVER see KIDS in a restaurant either. A restaurant is for wealthy adults, not matter how cheap the restaurant is. I haven't even see a man taking his wife out for a nice dinner together. If a man goes to dinner it's with his posse of other men. And men don't eat alone. In fact, men here don't do anything alone. If you see one man you see his entire entourage of men. This leads me to my point. Pam and I met for dinner tonight and we always have such great conversations. We were just chatting away and ordering our food (I've got this Russian almost figured out!) and we were there for nearly 2 hours. Near the end we looked up and noticed we were the ONLY 2 women in the restaurant. Oh wait! I take that back! There WAS another woman there but she was wearing a mini skirt (major fo paux here) so it seems she was this man's mistress...and again there were SEVERAL men with her so she was DEFINITELY mistress, or something else.

Pam and I realized our situation and were so thankful to be western women who could sit comfortably in a restaurant in such a male dominated society. We ordered for ourselves, had good conversation and enjoyed each other's company, and paid for ourselves. I've always loved being an American and the privileges that come with being an American but the feeling of freedom and confidence I had at that restaurant was overwhelming.

I may be gone from the soil of the United States but that doesn't mean that I don't love it. I'd rather be called a foreigner (or international) than an ex-patriot.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

When You Do Nothing Nothing Happens

In the previous post I noticed I was trying to explain how the Tajiks could actually make some money here. Tajikistan is such a small place but everywhere you go there's a different feel. When I was in Gharm the people were VERY traditional and the women ALL wore the Tajik national dress and head scarves and the older men wore long robes and had long white beards and wore little square hats. In Dushanbe (the capital) a lot of women wore the korta (national dress) but a lot of them didn't cover their hair. No women wore jeans and very few wore pants. In the U.S. women wear tight clothes and men wear baggy clothes but in Dushanbe the women wear baggy clothes and the men's pants and shirt are painted on. No complaints here! :-) In Khujand (where I am now) women wear tight jeans with knee high boots and only the old women wear the national dress and I've only seen a handful of women wearing a heard scarf. The fashion is different in these places and the attitude is different among the 3 places, but one thing that's the same is that there are groups of idle men just standing around doing nothing. In the U.S. if I walked past a group of boys who were about 20 years old just standing around I would wonder what they were up to. Here it's normal. The unemployment rate is ridiculously high and the guys just don't have jobs. Men just wander around...but it's NEVER just one or two of them, it's always AT LEAST 7. They don't know what to do with themselves. There isn't any industry here and there isn't anything that is really Tajik that they can export. Most of the goods are imported from Russia, China, or Canada. A lot of men leave Tajikistan (about 1 million this year) to work in Russia and send money back to Tajikistan to their families. That's dangerous because the economic crisis is affecting the whole world and their not so welcome in Russia. When the money their dries up then Tajikistan is in trouble.

This leads me to my point. I was so happy when I got my haircut yesterday and I saw that the women had things sorted out and they knew their trade. The lady who cut my hair had a rough technique but the end product was exactly what I wanted and that's all that matters. In this salon there were modern hair dryers, chairs that cranked up and down, gowns to go over people's clothes, a hairstyle magazine (one), and samples of colors for people to look at for hair coloring. I was impressed. Tajikistan is NOT modern so that's why I'm making a fuss over how nice this salon was. There were 5 hairstylists and about 15 customers in there at one time. If the Tajiks would put more women to work then Tajikistan could do alright. The men obviously aren't able to provide enough support for the families. Many men are taxi drivers but there's a gas shortage because Uzbekistan (where the benzyne comes from) is angry at Tajikistan for not giving them water for their electricity (hydro electricity) so even being a taxi driver isn't going to provide for stable work at this point. But it seems that women are always happy to get a hair cut or even just a style, and get their eyebrows plucked, too. The eyebrows are a HUGE deal here. Apparently before a woman is married she will grow a uni-brow. They're quite impressive I'll tell ya. It's a sign of beauty to have a uni-brow. Women will have hena painted in between their brows if they can't grow one naturally. I couldn't even IMAGINE trying to grow a uni-brow. I've never plucked my eyebrows in my life and they just look like normal brows. Then, in most part of Tajikistan it's customary for a woman to pluck her brows after she's married. Instead of looking for a wedding ring, a man will look at a woman's eyebrows to see if she's available. As you can see, there would be a huge business in eyebrows and there could be a big business in overall beauty. The women at the salon took the time to learn a trade and apply it and I give them mad props for helping to support a country that needs women to help hold this place together.

Tajik Hair Cut

Well done Tajikistan!!!! I KNEW you could pull it off! It's only a haircut but the hair is some people's prize and they don't want it screwed up because people have to look at it!
I have been sizing up the Tajiks haircuts for about 6 weeks now and I decided to take the plunge since their haircuts looked really cute. The girls in Khujand are much more cutting edge and have cuter styles in EVERYTHING than in Dushanbe and other parts of Tajikistan. There's a lot of Russian influence here and you can see it in fashion and hair styles. I did it! I took my Russian phrasebook and went to the hairdressers and explained (in Russian) that I wanted it layered and NOT TOO SHORT!! The lady understood and did her thing. There was certainly no ecomonic crisis in that hairdressing place. Women were getting their eyebrows plucked (with dental floss! ouch!!) and getting hair cuts and their hair styled. It was a happening place and it was for women only. Women working there and women clients. Tajikistan NEEDS its women to be working and there should be MORE places like that to cater to female clients. They could even do make-up and nails if they wanted to. It seems that even in the U.S. during tough times the salons are still busy with people wanting to do something to make themselves feel good, whether it's a manicure, pedicure, or a haircut. I only paid 20 Somoni for a cut and style which is $4.57. I was so ready to pay 100 Somoni when I walked in because the place looked like a REAL salon, but when she said 20 Somoni I wanted to beg her to let me pay her more, but the Tajiks absolutely will not accept more money (except taxi drivers). With the Tajiks I've met, if they tell you a price, that's the price they want whether you're a Tajik or not. I like that about them. It's a good thing the people are so nice otherwise I would have been out of here. I like the Tajiks...they're good people.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

I'm Very Busy and Important!!!

I'm very busy and important!! I like that phrase. It completely sums up my life in Tajikistan. I've been here for three and a half months now the longer I'm here the busier I am. Every day presents new challenges and surprises. When I do have down time though I like to watch lighthearted movies where I don't have to think too much so psychological thrillers are out of the question. It takes too much brainpower to live and work here and I don't want to think/work when I'm relaxing either. This leads me to the point. For so many years I thought I was too busy for a relationship. I WAS busy but it was because I was trying to get a particular point where I could feel comfortable in my career and happy with what I was doing. I'm so happy with my work right now and I thought once I reached this point that a relationship would be easy. But now that I'm happy with my work I've found that a relationship right now would be a total disaster for me. I'm very busy and important here!! I've never known busy-ness like this before. I'm literally a celeb except people don't want autographs, they want my TIME and attention and every time I make an appearance somewhere there's a photo shoot afterwards where EVERYONE has to be in the picture. It's pretty cool and I like it. I actually like it so much that I realized that I could never have time to be in a relationship in Tajikistan. I gave my number to ONE Tajik guy in the past 3 1/2 months and he texted me every day asking "Where are you? What are you doing?" Okay that was ANNOYING!!! Text me and invite me somewhere...not to find out where I am. Tajik men can't understand that I'm very busy and important!!! I don't even have time to do my laundry or clean my apartment! The difference is that women in Tajikistan AREN'T busy making a difference in Tajikistan and AREN'T important So unless a nice western man comes along and overlooks the GORGEOUS Tajik women, it looks like I'll be single for a little while longer.