Friday, September 24, 2010

Reflections on Peace Corps and Survivor

DISCLAIMER: the views expressed are my own and not that of Peace Corps

This week I suddenly realized why I like Survivor... OK, so it's only been a guilty pleasure for the past 2 years - I only got into it in Season 19 after catching 2 episodes in season 18. I was very anti-reality show prior to that, and mostly I still am. And Season 19 of course was the first Samoa ("Russell Hantz") season, so for me it was as entertaining as a train wreck. Still, I came away from each episode thinking that it was a kind of cool idea to be somewhere without technology or any sort of luxury, meeting new people, getting excited over possibly getting a hamburger at the end of a reward challenge. Well, maybe that inspired me to apply to Peace Corps, and it was somewhat prescient since I haven't even seen a hamburger since May!

Anyway, so I could not resist the temptation to stream the first two episodes of Survivor Nicaragua. That was very interesting to watch, since we saw a few players melt down somewhat dramatically on camera. And I can now say that short of criticizing anyone, I totally get it. The challenge with that type of situation is the social game, not the physical hardships.

Case in point: On Tuesday, I had a breakthrough and got my two classes into line by promising them reward if they behaved. On Wednesday, my first class did not respond to the same thing in any way. So I denied them going to the computer lab. And they just continued, actually pointing fingers at each other while continuing to misbehave themselves. So I eliminated them from reward next week too. Next week I will have to escalate to the discipline master, and butts will (probably) be spanked.

The second class started off calm and respectful and remained that way. Happily, they got through all the material in 45 minutes it took me 2 hours to get through with class #1. So I agreed to take them to the lab. Yet because there were 60+ of them and only 20 computers, I split the class and asked the "chef de classe" to copy some text on the blackboard for others to write down while the first class went to the lab.

What followed was a horror show. The first group was really into getting to use computers (some for the first time ever!) and they were sooo excited. So I told them to practice using the mouse and/or keyboard with two simple exercises. I returned to check on the classroom, and found half the remaining students were gone already! The few that remained were all girls, diligently copying the text the class master was copying on the board.

Once they had finished, I took them to the lab. But the first group WOULD NOT LEAVE! They just refused to go. Some of them looked me right in the eye and told me they were part of the second group - a total lie! No one moved and I was forced to cut off power and chase everyone out. Then I identified the second group and brought them back in, having to physically lock the door to keep the others out. Yet the first group lingered outside the door, most of them boys, claiming they were in the second group. Well, that's a simple problem to solve. Next time, girls go first!! That will be MUCH easier.

Yikes. That got me thinking ahead to next week. The Seconde class was not much different, and I had to cut power to get them out of the lab also. They also refused to do the homework I had left on the board, so Monday I will send a message by giving them a test over that material. IE, "too bad for you". If you had done the homework you would have passed the test. As it is, unless you have a computer at home (and only 1/3 do) you will probably fail. Very sad, but I'm running out of options without having to bring in big guns like "failing" and "discipline master".

Anyway... it's all relevant to the Survivor episodes I watched because it's all part the social game. The manipulation, the lies, trying to get out of work, trying to force their own advantage at the expense of everyone else... it's incredibly draining to witness. Especially since I know a lot that they don't. Example, if they actually paid attention and taken advantage of this rare opportunity of having a former Microsoft software developer teaching them computer science, they would have opportunities in the future that they wouldn't otherwise.

So I really related... and appreciated the Holly/Jimmy Johnson peptalk. I realize that it's important to treat these setbacks like any other challenge, not lose heart, stay confident/sane/consistent throughout this and to learn from my mistakes. I am representing the entire U.S., and I feel (probably not inaccurately) all white people as well. So there's no room to react inappropriately, and at the end of the day no real reason to either.

I have to say that all the other challenges: the lack of consistent electricity and water and internet, the lack of furniture or most luxuries, the inability to order a pizza if I'm out of food... none of that counts for anything at this point. The social game is the killer here. Yet I already see that it's soooo much more rewarding a problem to solve. Teachers are the people who can have the greatest impact on your life, outside your immediate family, so just that knowledge alone is a major inspiration! Even if it's just one kid that comes away with something s/he wouldn't know otherwise.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Third week of teaching in Bandjoun

DISCLAIMER: the views expressed are my own and not that of Peace Corps

It's been an interesting week to say the least. Last week was a bit rough, what with three consecutive days of 4-6 hour meetings (with no bathroom breaks or anything) and some large and unruly classes. This week things have calmed down substantially.

Last Tuesday, I learned to my surprise that I was supposed to be the head of the department (Animatrice Pedagogique). I learned this on my way home as the proviseur was waving at me, wondering why I wasn't attending the A.P. meeting. Hmm. I had been told by nearly everyone that another lady was the department head, and she's the one who had given me whatever information I had at that point. Well, anyway, that was at 1:30pm. The meeting let out at 6pm! I understood about 25% of it, between heavy rain, people speaking quickly/softly and just generally being unfamiliar with how anything works around here. I guess I was supposed to report on my department's progress, which of course I was unaware of at that time. I hadn't even met my colleagues yet, much less had statistics to report!

The following day the school let out early for an 11am general assembly meeting. That one let out at 5:30pm. Fortunately, it did include food and beer at the end. And I did get to meet my colleagues finally. I was also asked to post an officially-stamped notice of our departmental meeting which was supposed to take place on Thursday.

So... at 11am Thursday we had the departmental meeting. But not before I was called at home because the server wouldn't boot. So as I was debugging the server (turns out the memory sticks weren't positioned correctly), one of my counterparts waited outside the door for the meeting to start. ...which it didn't until 12 anyway. That consisted of finishing paperwork from last year and discussing random issues about the IT department. Basically, students aren't into Computer Science (big surprise, since the equivalent of 6-7th grade books read like college material) and I'm supposed to lead a computer club on Wednesday afternoons. And there's some paperwork I'm supposed to do, like check up on everyone else's classes and give suggestions to the others.

So after teaching my own classes, and maintaining all the hardware and software in the computer lab, I'm also supposed to do that... oh, and also fill in for anyone in the department who is absent. And 2/3 have classes at the university so they will definitely be absent at times. Yay.

No one said this would be easy, right? "Toughest job you'll ever love" or something?

Anyway... I had even more problems of my own. After the meeting ended (at 3pm!) and I went to photocopy the scheme of work, the secretary told me the printer wasn't working. Can I fix it? Well, no. Sorry. It needed a new printhead which is $125 refurbished and $500 new. That's kind of expensive. You could probably buy a new (used) printer in Cameroon for that.

Then on Monday, I had my two Seconde classes, each of which got a bit testy. The first class interrupted me to ask me to teach in English, and once I said anything in my native tongue, others yelled at me to speak French. After the first hour (of two), they completely checked out, so I told them to take a 5 minute break. After no response, I wrote it on the board. The response: Madame, do we copy that into our notebooks? (Copy "5 minute break" into their notebooks??) Madame, can I go outside? (You're on break - yes, obviously!) Geeeeez.

Anyway, so then I thought we can do exercises in the computer lab for the rest of the time. Because there are only 20 computers and there were 67 students, I said let's try going to the lab in shifts. 20 students write their names on the board, and the rest do an exercise in the classroom. I took the first 20. They didn't understand my instructions, which were to simply open a Word document in Notepad and check out the extra crap Word adds to the document. Then I returned to the classroom after 10 minutes and found no one in the clasroom understood their instructions (which was simply to identify and describe the functions of keys I had circled on a picture of a keyboard). Not quite sure if it's a language thing or a motivation thing!

The second class was checked out before I even got there. So I simply lectured for an hour on terminology like Data and Processing and Data Processing. Because that class only had 31 students, I took them to the lab together. After I gave them instructions, everyone immediately opened Solitaire and Pinball. So then I told them that the first person to complete the assignment will get a reward. They all immediately started doing the work. At least creating the Word document. Unfortunately, none of them understood the part about opening Notepad. So I ended up going around to every single student, walking them through every step myself. (Sigh) Then they all wrote their names on the board, expecting a reward!

OK, so that's food for thought. I suspect my expectations are way too high at this point. I was thinking they have all had Computer Science for 4 years by now so they must know something. Yet I notice that because it's not really required on the national exams, and it's only 2 hours a week, they don't really absorb anything and they don't care unless I give them some material reason to care. So that's good information.

Anyway, today I had a breakthrough. The first 5me class was unruly last week, and I sent 4 students to the discipline master. It had no effect, so I ended the class early. I motivated the second 5me class by telling them that they wouldn't go the computer lab if they behaved that way. And it worked. So today, for the first class I drew a "Derange-o-meter" on the board, and told them that I will color it in as they misbehave. If they reach 40%, they don't go to the computer lab this week, and at 80% they don't go next week either. Mwah ha ha. Well, they initially didn't settle down, so the meter went to 10%. They immediately settled down. I gave them a quiz, one student immediately started cheating, so the meter went to 20%. No more cheating (visibly anyway).

The class ended up at 30%, so we went to the lab. Overall, it was a successful experiment. I graded their quizzes and as expected (since no one listened the week before) only about 15% of the class passed (and 2 obviously cheated - identical answers!!), but they did actually pay attention this time.

The second class did not go quite as well. They got to 50%, so they didn't go to the lab. But upon that realization, they were quiet as doormice through the end of the class!

I really hope I don't have to do this for the 6mes tomorrow. They are not supposed to go to the lab technically, and yet they cannot really get into IT or really learn much without actually touching computers! It's pretty obvious to me, anyway. I do want to give them that opportunity, and yet they have to do the work and actually study the material at the same time. So this adventure will continue to be interesting.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Batie birding 13-Sept

DISCLAIMER: the views expressed are my own and not that of Peace Corps.

There won't be much content to this post. Suffice it to say that I had an enjoyable 4 day weekend! I only have class Monday through Wednesday mornings (with the intention that I will work in the computer lab in the afternoon or Thursday/Friday). I left Wednesday right after class intending to return Thursday, yet there was a power outage Thursday, and then school (and everything else) was closed for the end of Ramadan on Friday. The announcement only came on Friday morning. So it was a very relaxing impromptu long-weekend!

On Sunday, I was back in Batie to do more birding with Cristina. Since the previous trip was a spectacular success, we decided to try it again, taking different routes. We saw more Guinea Turacos right away, along with a few squirrels. I have no idea what kind of squirrel, but it was cool to see a wild mammal for a change!

Actually, looking in my Audubon guide to African wildlife, it looks like they could have been Gambian Sun Squirrels. They were gray, spotty and had short ears.

Pictured is the ubiquitous Dark-capped Bulbul. That was probably the least interesting bird of the day, but it was the only one the instamatic camera I'm using decided to focus on... Two exciting lifebirds of the day were the Yellow-spotted Barbet (one bird sitting in shade and calling softly) and the Green-backed Woodpecker. Those were only the second barbet and the second woodpecker species of this journey!

Only one raptor though (a Common Kestrel being harrassed by a much larger Pied Crow!), and no migrants (yet). Very slim pickin's this time.

As for other things, I must say the scenery was gorgeous. On the left is the tree in which I first noticed the male Green-backed Woodpecker. There was another turaco bit further down the trail.

The trail was also extremely steep and muddy. I'm not sure how we got up and down it!

Wildflowers here are amazing. First and foremost because they attract birds (notably sunbirds).

And some are just plain beautiful in their own right. These look like lilies you could find in a nursery or as a potted plant. Other "house" plants I've seen growing wild here include Poinsettias, Dieffenbachia, many types of orchids, mangos, guavas, avocado, and pineapple. I'm not really up on plants, so I'm sure there are many fascinating species I have missed through ignorance!!

I just liked this picture because I think it reflects very well what the rural parts of this area are like. It's heavily cultivated (hardly an inch remains here), there are non-native eucalyptus trees planted at left for wood and erosion control, a "moto" (the default transportation, it seems) waits to be used along a red-dirt trail. And that red dirt/dust gets everywhere, and is very hard to wash out by hand.
Still, there is a certain beauty and tranquility in this scene. It was very quiet on this trail: bird song was the only thing we could hear for much of this trek. The hills just roll on and on, and get more and more beautiful.

This is Cristina photographing some local kids. At first, they were sort of curiously following us and shouting "la blanche!" ("white woman!") as nearly everyone does here for some reason. But then we started talking to them, and they shyly let us take their picture. Very cute moment!

And finally, I just love Red-cheeked Cordon-Bleus that are found all over the West, but they and my camera have not cooperated. These two photos should represent Bigfoot-like evidence of their existence here. You can clearly see there is a bird with a lot of sky-blue on it, and the little splotch on the cheek is supposed to be red! They really are beautiful (I assure you!!)

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Week 4 in Bandjoun

Classes started this week! I teach Monday through Wednesday mornings, and each day I teach two sections of the same grade for two hours each.

While its only been 3 days, here are a few first impressions:
  1. Attendance. On Monday, I had been warned that most students would not show up. Yep, I started the first class on Monday with 7 students, and the second started with 4 and ended with 2! Even many teachers didn't come, leaving large numbers of students hanging around outside. Fortunately, the majority of each class (40-50+) was there on Tuesday and Wednesday.
  2. Behavior. The students in each of two 5me (7th grade) classes diligently copied down a computer lab assignment step-by-step (often laughing at the obviousness of the wording). Then once in the lab, not one of them actually did it. They were raising their hands only to ask me how to find the games (!) So I went around and opened Word for each of them, and then they just stared at the screen. I'm pretty sure the problem is that they don't know how to type. Those who did type were typing gibberish, so... I'll need to incorporate that into the program. Good to know!
  3. Language. The students understand me if I speak French slowly and use very simple sentences. The 5mes did not understand "favorite activities" (activite preferees) but they did understand "What do you like to do?" (Qu'est-ce que tu aimes faire?) Some other useful French so far: Circulez! (Move along: for loiterers who want to watch the Blanche teach through the window); Taissez-vous! (Be quiet)

This will be a fascinating year... I do wonder how much information they can retain only from 2 hours of instruction per week. My hope is that the subject will be interesting enough that they want to learn it. The only way that really can be true is if they get computer lab time, and they actually do the work while there. Should be interesting!

On a different note, the power just came back on after a 1-1/2 day delestage. Yet yesterday, without power or running water, I still managed to do bucket laundry. I had taken my postmate's advice and hoarded water for just such an occasion. Better still, I actually got my sheets sparkling white! No small feat between the cold water, lack of washing board (used a collander instead) and the bright rust-colored mud and dust on everything. So this is... week 15 in Cameroon, and I have just now figured out how to do laundry properly. It is not easy. I really miss washing machines and hot running water.

Surprisingly, I am not missing having a refrigerator. It is very appealing to my environmentalist tendencies to just buy what I need and cook only a portion or two. All the food is locally-grown, its obvious if its fresh or not, and its all organic. I haven't gotten sick at all, much less from eating unrefrigerated food. Then again, I'm cooking it thoroughly before eating. The only exceptions are peeled fruit and bread that I wouldn't refrigerate anyway.

Bird notes: more of the birds I was seeing in Bafia are starting to find their way up here: I came home Wednesday to find a Ovambo Sparrowhawk in a tree next to my house! The Common/Rock Kestrels that are usually there have moved on. I have also been hearing Barn Owls outside the house every night this week, and I saw the first Mosque Swallow of Bandjoun yesterday. And since its September, I should be expecting migrants soon, though I haven't seen one yet.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Sierra Nevada Red Fox Story

DISCLAIMER: the views expressed are my own and not of Peace Corps

Today, I'm going to take a break from blogging about birds and Peace Corps to talk about a story I read yesterday. You see, I'm currently without a TV and am dependent on online sources for news. So I started using Twitter to keep up on news stories, and in general it works great. I can quickly scan headlines and find just the stories I want to read.

So yesterday morning, I jumped when I saw the following tweet via BreakingNews/LA Times (Note: all Bold formatting was added by me)

Sierra Nevada red fox, thought to be extinct, is sighted near Yosemite National Park - latimes

OK, so that sounds like an entire species (I hadn't heard of) has been rediscovered. That would be really cool and exciting! So I click the link and read the LA Times blog.

The first paragraph says in part:
"The genetic signature [...] and a fuzzy photograph [...] have confirmed the existence of a supposedly extinct red fox..." (LATimesBlogs)

Wonderful news. I'm very happy. Then I read on to paragraph 4:

"The Sierra Nevada red fox (vulpes vulpes necator) lives at high elevations" (LATimesBlogs)

Hmm... confused. Why is that in the present tense? Also, Vulpes vulpes is the Red Fox, a common animal with a nearly worldwide range. This means the Sierra Nevada red fox (Vulpes vulpes necator) is a subspecies.

Paragraph 5 then adds:

"However, the only known population of the Sierra Nevada red fox is a group of roughly 20 animals clinging to survival in the Lassen Peak region, about 150 miles to the north." (LATimesBlogs)

I'm very confused now. That means this species was thought locally (rather than globally) extinct from that area. That's a very important clarification, and the tweet/headline was misleading.

Now I'm curious about the rest of the story. I do subsequent searches to discover some more facts. One of the first things I find (on Mercury News) is this quote:

"The animal's fortunes until now were considered so poor that it has actually never been listed under the federal Endangered Species Act." (MercuryNews)

You know, until now, I didn't realize that's how the ESA worked: that an animal in such imminent danger of extinction would be considered beyond help(?!) Yet evidently getting a species listed is an arduous process that it can be cost-prohibitive to do so. That's sad if true, since it would give us misleading information. The Sierra Nevada Red Fox is currently listed as Threatened on both the California and Nevada state mammal list, while some other mammals with presumably larger populations (several bats and the Mountain Beaver) are listed as endangered.

"'Having a second population really gives us reason to say [...] it's not a throwaway species,' he said. 'So let's actually put some resources into understanding it and trying to save it.'" (MercuryNews)

I also didn't realize there was a "throwaway species" policy. I do wonder why would this one be considered as such. There are other endangered subspecies listed in California, such as California populations of Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Willow Flycatcher and Clapper Rail. We have managed to save animals with smaller populations than that under the federal ESA: Black-footed Ferrets and California Condors come to mind. I recall there were only 8 ferrets and 5 condors at their populations' low points. Both species were bred in captivity, have been reintroduced into the wild and have recovered to several hundred individuals.

A couple more notes:
1) I didn't find an online source (other than those recent articles) that listed the Sierra Nevada Red Fox as anything other than "rare" or "threatened". At least one states that it was never common.
2) At least one user posted a comment that they have seen red foxes elsewhere in the southeastern Sierras. So there are perhaps other populations of this subspecies besides the two cited by the recent story.

So my skeptic chimes are ringing here. There is no doubt that it is fantastic news when scientists notice a new population of a rare animal. I don't disagree that the fox should be protected if it is as critically endangered as they claim. Yet it sounds equally likely that this is a subspecies that is (and always was) rare, is not well-studied or understood, and that we'll find more populations once more people start looking for them. I actually do hope it's the latter.

That said, maybe I'm still just cranky about the alleged "rediscovery" of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker :-).

OK, back to the lycee!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Week 3 in Bandjoun

DISCLAIMER: the views expressed are my own and not of Peace Corps.

So as not to completely discriminate against other wildlife here in Cameroon, I decided to post a couple of pictures of animals that are not birds! Both are from Bafia since I haven't managed to get one of the incredible butterflies here in Bandjoun to hold still! At left is one of the grasshoppers that used to hang around the house we used for training. The amazing pattern and green/yellow color on these guys really blew our minds when we first noticed them.

The second exhibit is what thanks to the BBC website I now know is a Common Agama Lizard. I was calling this a rainbow lizard since it's not in my ACommon Agamafrican wildlife book. It's not a very good picture since they were very skittish... but that was another example of the incredible biodiversity here. There are also all kinds of organisms that aren't quite so nice (schistosomiasis, filariasis, malaria, etc. etc.) yet it's all part of the tropical ecosystem!

This week, I managed to get 65% of the computers in the lab working, plus internet and the printer operational. Then a hard disk crashed on one of those that had been working. Oh well. It's amazing that they work at all: they are PIIs and PIIIs mostly with Windows 2000 stickers on their cases. The power was blinking about every 5 minutes at one point, causing all of them to reboot. I'm happy we have as many working as do at this point!

Two of us volunteers also found a nice hike here in Bandjoun - actually near a tiny village called Kamgo. It's a short walk up avery steep hill, but it quickly levels off and has some amazing scenery. The camera battery was dead, unfortunately, but to describe it: the road follows a ridge, and you can see first Bandjoun nestled in a valley, then you see green hills rolling one after another without a house or field in sight. Plus, I managed to add one more year bird: a Black-shouldered Kite! This little raptor was kiting for us along the road, and even sat long enough to let me take a picture with Lindsey's camera.

There was some standard fair (though gorgeous birds) up there: Northern Double-collared Sunbirds, Fire-crowned Bishops, Baglafecht Weavers. En route, we even found magnificent Black-and-White Casqued Hornbills and another Guinea (Green) Turaco! It seems that you just need to get a few hundred yards away from any population of people, and the great birds just fall out of the sky. Literally!

Back to reality... tomorrow is the first day of school at the high school. I will be teaching two blocks of 2-hour classes for the Seconde level (equivalent of 10th grade). I don't have a text book or a scheme of work (yet), so the plan is to do introductions, outline the classroom rules and do some high-level review what they (should) already know. According to the syllabus, they should know stuff like basic network architecture, how to do binary math, and how to format text in Word. This year they will learn how to use Windows commands, basic preventative maintenance tasks, hardware and software architecture, and what computer science consists of. It's definitely my hope that that program will be as much fun for them as for me, but... well...