Thursday, January 21, 2010

Long Awaited and Long Overdue

It’s been a long time since I updated this blog so I think I’ll present you with a sort of list of things that are going on now and things that have happened in my life recently (slash in the last 3 months).

October. November. December. And now it’s January?! The end of 2009 was such a whirlwind which has in turn made the beginning of 2010 seem like it’s dragging on. October was full of guesting, weddings, birthdays, parties, exciting news, and new volunteers in Azerbaijan! November consisted of lots of travelling (to work, yes, but also to visit friends!) and reading, an international teaching conference in Baku, a trip to my host sister’s university, and Thanksgiving! December was when both good news and new site mates arrived, and also when I went HOME!

The new trainees (now volunteers) arrived in-country on October 1st. They have about 60 people in their group, most of whom are female (this is typical of Peace Corps worldwide). Shortly after their arrival, they made trips out to the regions to visit us current volunteers. [[Note: Their group’s name is AZ7, and our group’s name is AZ6. This has to do with the fact that we are the sixth group to be in Azerbaijan, and they, well they are the seventh…clearly.]] In Lankaran, the city near me, we had five girls come to visit! It was so much fun. We got to show them around Lankaran, take them to a conversation club, show them how to go to the bazaar, and even how to cook Peace-Corps-style. My site mates, Rachel & Hiba, and I answered a ton of questions. It was a nice time to get to know some people from the new group in a relaxing atmosphere. Plus, they bring a lot of refreshing energy with them. Shortly after that visit, I was off to Baku to be a mentor for the TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) volunteers during their practicum. I attended one week of the two-week practicum, and was assigned to one individual group of five trainees. I watched each one of them teach a lesson everyday and offered advice and words of wisdom (yes, after being here for a year, I am considered wise). It was a long week, but one in which I learned a lot about myself and about 5 more of the trainees. I got to stay with my old host family for the entire week, which was awesome. The girl who stayed with them from AZ7, Amanda, is great. We got along really well and I enjoyed being a part of her psyche during that time of training; it gave me a chance to see how far I’ve come in just a year’s time.

In between the site visits from the AZ7s and being a practicum mentor, I somehow found time to go to three weddings, all of which were pretty different. I also celebrated Halloween…twice. I celebrated it once in Baku with my Peace Corps friends and once at site with my site mates, counterparts and about 30 of my students! We told the students to wear a costume and to bring a pumpkin, and that the rest would be set up by us. So, we got to work. I got some amazing donations from home from my oh-so-wonderful aunt Paulette and my lovely mother, including decorations, candy, and random Halloween supplies. My site mates and I cooked a spider web cake and put together goodie bags. Then, on the day of the party, we all set up the room (which is plain white, with desks and a chalkboard) to look as much like Halloween as possible. The students started showing up early, of course, and were so excited. I was so impressed by the creativity of their costumes especially because they were all soooo nervous about their costumes J. They didn’t have the option of going to a costume store, but to me their costumes were 100 times better. One student even had someone sew him a Dracula costume! The party began with making Jack-O-Lanterns and then proceeded on to snack time. After that we had a “funniest ghost face” and “scariest jack-o-lantern face” drawing contest. We then took many, many pictures and wrapped up the party by choosing from the huge pile of Halloween greeting cards my mom had sent. It was such a success. The students were talking about it for weeks afterward.

October was also the month of good news. I found out that one of my students passed on to the third round of FLEX testing. FLEX is a scholarship program that allows 9th-11th grade students in countries who were part of the former Soviet Union to study abroad in the US for a year. It is a huge deal that he, a student from the village school in Liman, has passed on to this level. So, he did the test and completed the application, and now we have to wait until about March or April to find out if he’s been accepted or not. The applications for the third round are sent to the US to be read. We’re so excited and nervous! The good news is, even if he doesn’t make it, he still has two more years of eligibility. Cross your fingers! The other good news is that I found out I would be going home for Christmas and New Years. My mom called almost in tears one day saying how bad she wanted me home for the holidays, and from that point, it’s all history. Haha. Somehow it worked out that I could come home and spend about two weeks with my friends and family…but more on that later.

In day-to-day news, I continue to be involved with the South Branch of AzETA (Azerbaijani English Teachers Association), which is based in Lankaran. We have a meeting every other Sunday, a book club once a month, a movie club once a month, and conferences twice a year. The most recent movie we watched was The Sound of Music! My favorite! It was a hit, of course. In November, Hiba and I, along with about 10 members from the South Branch attended the International AzETA Conference, held in Baku. There were people from all over, including the US, Great Britain, Iran, Turkey and of course Azerbaijan. It was such a great conference. Azerbaijani teachers got to learn about everything from “how to use music and art in the classroom” to “how to teach lessons on character”, and it was great for me, too. I did not go to university to be a teacher, so any help or extra training I can get is much appreciated. AzETA continues to be one of my favorite things to be a part of in Azerbaijan. I am constantly encouraged by the talent and drive of the teachers involved in this organization.

Also, I have begun to tutor my counterparts on a twice-weekly basis. Our main goal is to improve our speaking skills, and thus increase the amount of English spoken in the classroom. So far, it’s been pretty productive. We’re still trying to figure out the best way to do our tutoring sessions, but if nothing else, it’s an enjoyable time spent with two lovely ladies. FYI, what are counterparts? Peace Corps requires us to not only teach classes, but to also work alongside at least one counterpart. The thought is that if we teach the teachers how to teach using new, interactive teaching methods, our development work will be more sustainable. It is both extremely challenging and extremely rewarding working with counterparts.

School is a daily challenge. Teaching is such a roller coaster. It is very difficult for me to not take teaching personally. I struggle dealing with the emotional burden that teaching brings. True, my students have it better than students in many other places in the world, but they still face huge obstacles just by being a part of the education system here. Let it suffice to say that there are some things that aren’t perfect about it. Of course, in what country is the education system flawless? Our world does not value education like it should. Not even close. Anyway, as Peace Corps volunteers, we try to bring in new, interactive teaching methods, yes, but quite possibly our greatest goal is to simply be a good example. I want students to value being on time, respect each other and their teachers, and enjoy school. If I teach some English along the way, excellent. The new methods we try to implement are just that, new. And new things/changes are hard for children, and even harder for teachers who have taught using the same method for years. So, I say all that to say, I do enjoy teaching, I enjoy seeing the light bulb turn on in my students’ heads when they understand something for the first time, I enjoy seeing them excited about taking a test, and I definitely enjoy it when they give me a standing ovation after I’ve returned from a vacation! J Children are special people, difficult, funny, annoying and lovely all at once. And I could use those same words to describe teaching.

November was when we had the AzETA conference, and also when we had Thanksgiving! The current US Ambassador hosted a dinner for Peace Corps Volunteers at his house in Baku. There were probably about 100 people there and we each brought a dish (I brought mashed potatoes, duh). We had turkey, all kinds of veggies, casseroles, mac-n-cheese, fruit salad, regular salad, bread, and lots of delicious desserts! After we were all thoroughly stuffed, we had a talent show. I, unfortunately, had not prepared anything (I know, I know), but I enjoyed watching my fellow AZ6-ers singing, dancing, and acting. It was such a fun evening and a great way to spend Thanksgiving- not to mention the food was incredible!

Also in November, I made the trip to my host sister’s university in Baku. It is the university of languages, and her major is American Studies and English, with a sort of minor in Spanish. For those of you who know me, you’re probably thinking how ironic that she is my host sister. I agree. Anyway, Johanna and I went, and answered questions about the US. They asked us about everything from idioms (I’m probably the world’s worst person to ask about idioms, I’ve found) to our current and past presidents. I was so impressed by their curiosity and English skills, and it was really encouraging and a pleasure to be around educated, motivated students.
In other day-to-day news, I read an amazing, very touching and difficult-to-read book, Half the Sky. It’s a book about the obstacles women have faced over the years and continue to face today. The book is written by a couple who have been journalists for years and eventually decided to write a book about what they saw in the field and what they feel to be one of the world’s most neglected populations, women. They write about everything from sex slaves to women not having access to education. This is a subject about which I am extremely passionate. I would encourage every person to read this book, and then do something about it. As citizens of the world and especially as Americans, we have great power to make changes. If only we would act towards that change on a regular basis. Anyway, read the book. And then, let me know what your thoughts, opinions or ideas are about it.

And finally…December. December was such an exciting month! We had our final VAC (Volunteer Action Committee) meeting of 2009. The new volunteers had their swearing-in ceremony, which I was lucky enough to attend. The ceremony was a really nice time, with inspirational speeches and lots of energy from newly-sworn-in PCVs. I felt extremely patriotic during the playing of the national anthem and while listening to one of the new volunteers talking about what it means to be an American. What an exciting time for these new volunteers and also for Azerbaijan who has the privilege of accepting this awesome new group of PCVs. Lankaran is excited to welcome two new volunteers as our new site mates. Their names are Aaron, who is from Wisconsin and is a Community Economic Development volunteer, and Eli, who is from Alaska and is a Youth Development volunteer. Lerik, the mountain town close by received a TEFL volunteer, Jessica, and a CED volunteer, Mason. The southern region of Azerbaijan overall received 7 volunteers! We worked hard to get more people in the South because it is such a large and underrepresented region…success! I traveled back to site with all of our new volunteers and enjoyed getting to know them a bit. It was amusing to think back to my own experience moving to site with all my bags and awkward water filter and huge sleeping bag and more!

Before I left for home on December 21st, I found out that the grant I had written for an English Resource Room at my school had been officially approved. YESSSS! It is called a SPA (Small Project Assistance) grant and is a grant sponsored by USAID especially for Peace Corps volunteers. We’ve been approved for a little over $3000 and will use the money to buy computers, technological equipment, furniture, and other supplies. I’m working on the project with my counterparts and students, and am extremely excited to see the finished project. We’re hoping to paint a map of the world on the wall, put up posters and visual aids that we’ve both made and bought, and collect a good amount of books. While I was home, I found that my always amazing aunts had collected books from their friends, co-workers, and neighbors. Unfortunately, we’re still trying to figure out a way to get them over here. Shipping is very expensive and the grant will not pay for shipping from a different country. Sooo, let me take this opportunity to say, if you’d like to make any donation, $1 or $100, I’d be forever grateful. You can contact me for more information (

Well, that's all the energy I have. Next time, I'll write all about being home. Until then... happy days to all of you!