Chapter 30: You’re Lookin’ Swell Mali: Saying Goodbye to Our Bamako Adventure

daktari

Clarence (right) with the goo-goo-googly eyes.

As a kid I was obsessed with Africa, mostly fueled by what I saw on TV. There was the TV series Daktari starring Clarence the Cross-Eyed Lion, who made me feel both terrified and super sad at the same time (“Watch out! He’ll tear your head off with those powerful jaws…ohhhh, poor thing…what lioness will hook up with that walleyed creature?”).

There was the based-on-a-true-story movie Born Free, where we all boo-hooed when captive animal Elsa the lion is finally set free (in slow motion, of course) into theborn free Kenyan wilds as that sappy, Oscar-winning Born Free song plays: Born free, and life is worth living, But only worth living, ’cause you’re born freeeeeeee. This is not to be confused with Kid Rock’s Born Free song in which he defiantly sings, “You can knock me down and watch me bleed, But you can’t keep no chains on me, I was born free! While technically those lyrics could apply to a freed African lion, poor grammar ruins the mood.

I can’t forget the classic film The African Queen where Katharine Hepburn manages to look glamorous in the Tanzanian jungles amidst the tsetse flies, high humidity, and a lack of toiletries. Glamour and jungle adventure all in one? Sign me up!

african queen

Ms. Hepburn…why don’t you sweat?

And then there was my favorite Abbott and Costello movie “Africa Screams,” where a male gorilla has a major crush on Bud Abbott and eventually saves him from being boiled up for dinner by some hungry cannibals. I used to think the whole cannibalism thing in this movie was horribly stereotypical until I read that in the 1890s the town of Ngandu in the Congo paved its streets with the leftovers from supper, in this case 2,000 polished human skulls. Oh well, they always say two (thousand) heads are better than one.

africa screams

Despite the fact that I grew up in the Midwest, literally next to a cornfield, I fantasized that I lived in the wilds of Africa. The forest in the nearby park became the jungles of the Congo, and I would hack my way along the deep jungle trails with my trusty machete (well, it was part of a high rise handlebar that broke off of my Schwinn Stringray bike, you know, the one with the banana seat?). Now, I’m pretty sure that the jungles of the Congo didn’t have a Dairy Queen across the street like my jungle did, but a boy’s gotta have his Mister Misty and Dilly Bar after all of that jungle trekking.

jungle cruise

A hungry, hungry hippo in lifelike plastic.

I even wrote a story in junior high about two boys who find an old map in their algebra book and stow away to Africa in search of treasure. Clearly I was doing some daydreaming during math class. I also daydreamed about the time I rode the Jungle Cruise at DisneyWorld, my nirvana. A ten-minute dose of pygmies, pythons, and gorillas, all while gliding along a refreshingly clean “river” with our experienced African guide (actually, an 18-year old high school dude named Jason from Fort Wayne, Indiana wearing a pith helmet). What more could an Africa-obsessed kid crave?

Cairo

Hope there is some Pepto-Bismol in that bag….

So imagine my delight when I first actually stepped foot on the African continent, on a big detour during a college-era backpacking trip through Europe. Four of us had just arrived in Athens, saw a poster advertising cheap flights to Cairo, and within two hours were at the airport—despite the fact we didn’t have a visa for Egypt. After a weird chat with authorities at the Cairo airport in which we signed some papers that were all written in Arabic that might/might not have promised them my firstborn or my corneas, we were allowed in.

We enjoyed a weeklong adventure exploring the pyramids, riding camels in the desert, and learning that inexpensive, hole-in-the-wall restaurant food, while economically sensible, can cause explosive diarrhea two days later. But I was in Africa. AFRICA! It was as exotic and every bit as exciting as the Jungle Cruise, even though the Nile river water seemed a bit cloudier than the Disney “river.” But despite our watery stools, it was one of the best experiences of my life.

Marrakesh

Just like the movie Casablanca, except actually filmed in Casablanca.

Some years later I got to experience Africa yet again. This time Jamey and I traveled to Morocco for a few weeks on a tour around the country, wandering the souks of Marrakesh, having tea with a Berber family in the Atlas Mountains, and seeing the hotel where the Marx Brothers filmed A Night in Casablanca. It was also here that we learned that Humphrey Bogart’s classic film Casablanca was not filmed in Casablanca, but rather in the exotic locales of Burbank and Van Nuys, California. Here’s lookin’ at you, California kid.

But it wasn’t until three and a half years ago that the idea of living in Africa presented itself to us. By that point we had abandoned hopes of continuing our teaching career in America, which had become about as pleasant as swallowing a mouthful of sulfuric acid-coated glass shards. Instead we were looking for international teaching jobs that would take us far, far away from the test-obsessed mess in the U.S. While there were international teaching jobs available in many countries, two openings fitting our exact skills popped up at a school in Bamako, Mali.

Mali! We pictured ourselves in pith helmets and khaki jackets, just like Jason the Jungle Cruise guide. We saw ourselves living in this exotic place of golden sands that was once home to a grand kingdom twice the size of France–so wealthy it made European royalty look like trailer park trash. We emailed the school and interviewed by Skype a few times, and after a couple of months received the news that we were hired. Surprisingly, safari fashions were not part of the conversation, but we were thrilled just the same to know we would soon be living and working in the exotic lands of West Africa.

Now granted there were a few bumps in the road in our journey. And by bumps I mean those speed bumps at the rental car places that are covered with sharp iron spikes. Because just a month after signing our contract Mali experienced a coup d’état, then a counter coup. The school closed, and we were offered the chance to cancel our contracts. But then it reopened and we went to Mali anyway because really, we figured, how much worse could it get?

Well, maybe a little worse. Within a couple of months Islamist rebels took over the northern half of the country, followed by a massive intervention by the French Army (who, by the way, wear really, really short camouflaged shorts). In the two years that followed there was a terrorist attack at a nightclub in Bamako, as well as an outbreak of Ebola. But other than that, things were dandy.

Aside from the troubles and a fluctuating student population that waxed and waned

french_unit

Who wears short shorts, we wear short shorts, if you dare wear short shorts, Nair for short shorts… Source: http://ricorant.blogspot.com

depending on which countries evacuated their people, and the security advisories from the American Embassy cautioning us to avoid lots of places, we loved just about every minute of our time in Bamako. I realize that probably makes a few folks shake their heads, along the same lines as “Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?” But believe me when I say that Mali is so much more than rare viral outbreaks and military skirmishes in the desert by short shorts-wearing men. These will not be my takeaways from three years in Mali (okay, maybe I’ll remember those crazy short shorts).

So what will I take away from our three years living and working in Mali? What will I fondly remember? Here’s what:

The Colors

Nothing is dull-colored in Mali. Everything from the clothes to the carrots dances with vivid color. Even the dirt is fabulous, a sort of earthy orange hue that would look great on the walls of a Parisian apartment or on a gown going down the catwalk. Actually most of our light-colored clothes and linens turned this shade of orange, so we really will remember this tone for years to come.

dirt

 

The People

We had to arrive at school early because it took at least ten or 15 minutes to get through the greetings and joking with the school guards at the gate. Sure, there were teachers who blew right past these guys with a clipped “bonjour,” but they missed out on one of my favorite parts of the day. This is when we learned to speak rudimentary Bambara, including the basic greeting that can take about five minutes (How are you? How did you sleep? How is your family? How is the village chief? And so on).

guards

This is the time where we began to comprehend the Malian sense of humor, in which they make fun of you but you don’t really feel insulted because they are so damn nice and have the most genuine smiles ever (“Your belly looks big. Did you eat everything in the house?” or “You look tired. Too much whiskey last night?”). We bonded with these guys, and plenty of the other local staff who we took the time to get to know, and saying goodbye to them was heart-wrenching.

We once visited a remote village with a colleague and his Malian friend who originally came from this village. Even though the villagers didn’t know us and we weren’t exactly dressed well (sorry Katharine Hepburn) we were treated like VIPs, always offered the good seat in the shade along with a welcome speech about how they felt so privileged to have us there. We even met the chief who welcomed us and told us we could return any time. Throngs of kids followed us as we walked back to our car. All I could think of was, “So this is what it’s like to be a member of One Direction!”

chief

 

The Expats

It takes a certain kind of person to knowingly choose to live in a landlocked, developing, sub-Saharan country where kids still poop in the road and shirts are sold from tree limbs on the roadside, where embassy advisories pop up on our phones warning us to steer clear of public places. These are people with a sense of adventure, a bit of grit, an intense interest in culture, a humanitarian spirit, lots of passport stamps, and definitely a touch of insanity. And I loved meeting every one of them.

We met a UN filmmaker who shot a documentary about artists in Afghanistan. A former colleague organizes music festivals in remote areas of Mali in order to promote peace among different tribes. Another friend worked with transgendered prostitutes in various countries around the world. We met male and female Marines who, still in their 20s, have already worked in several countries most people couldn’t point out on a map. We even socialized with the US Ambassador and the British Deputy Chief of Mission.

 

The Weather

road

Our road turns into the Jungle Cruise.

There really should be a TV show about the weather in Mali (hey, there are shows called “Treetop Cat Rescues” and “Wives With Knives,” so a meteorological-based Mali program isn’t too farfetched). The wet season involves torrential downpours that dump so much rain in an hour or two that if there actually were storm drains they couldn’t handle it. So the roads turn into rivers–I actually saw fish swimming down on our “street” one afternoon. The hot season is so blistering hot and dry that it sucks the moisture from your eyes and makes blinking a chore. On the bright side (pun intended), it’s nearly always sunny so you are always cheerful as you slowly melt into the pavement. Surprisingly I must have adapted to the climate because a few weeks I actually found myself saying, “No, it’s not that hot. it’s only 100.” I guess to me, 100 degrees is the new 80 degrees.

 

The Arts

We took an African dance class our first year in Bamako, practicing on a patio outside our school, overlooking the Niger River, with live drummers who pounded away like there was no tomorrow. In our own minds we moved like the newest members of the Alvin Ailey maskAmerican Dance Theater; in reality we looked like two guys with some sort of nerve damage. But it didn’t matter because we were having fun and feeling a part of the culture—a culture that is steeped in the arts. We saw just about every top Malian musician in concert (Habib Koite played at one of our school’s graduation ceremonies), watched puppet shows, learned how to decorate mud cloth, and purchased enough masks and pottery and statues to open our own museum.

 

House Calls

Does the cat need shots? Car need a tune up? Feel like buying some Malian crafts? If so, keep your lazy butt on the couch because in Bamako everyone makes house calls, from the vet, to the mechanic, to the crafts guy. I did go to a dental office to get a root canal because I didn’t want blood and saliva to get on the couch.

 

The Simplicity

Bamako has a couple of million people, but is still referred to as a “big village.” I would add a “big DUSTY village.” There is about one high-rise building, and not many stoplights or cowsidewalks or paved roads. On the other hand there are plenty of farm animals gallivanting around the city, and you can buy most of what you need at the roadside. It’s a busy, crowded sort of place, but uncomplicated and not stressful.

Sure there are a gazillion vehicles/animals/people in the road, but you seldom move faster than 25 MPH. So it never feels like a crazy death-defying ride down I-95 like I was used to, with obnoxious drivers two inches from my bumper, honking at me to go faster when I was already ten miles over the speed limit. If you’re trying to pull onto a busy road in Bamako, people actually stop their cars and flash their lights to let you in.

Nothing seemed to rattle my Malian friends. If I was fried at the end of the day from trying to accomplish too much and not getting everything done, they would say: “Dɔɔnin-dɔɔnin, kɔnɔnin bɛ a ɲaa da.” (Little by little, a bird builds its nest). When the war in the north was raging and we were preparing “to go” bags in case of evacuation, they just said things like, “That’s life” and “It will all work out.” When our plane was delayed for hours and I paced the airport trying to find out what was going on, the Malian passengers stretched out across three seats and slept. I rarely heard a Malian complain, except for my janitor at school who felt the school cat didn’t deserve the canned food and imported Whisker Lickin treats I gave her because “she doesn’t really do any work.”

 

The Adventure

Listen, I won’t lie: Jamey and I like fancy places too. Provence in the south of France is divine…we enjoyed buying lilies at the outdoor flower market and eating at swanky sidewalk cafes and buying lavender soap and very expensive suede shoes (that did not work well in the aforementioned hot season in Mali). Venice was enchanting as we strolled over the Bridge of Sighs with a gelato and drank wine in Piazza San Marco and watched the gondolas drift by on the Grand Canal. Barcelona, Lisbon, Berlin, Budapest, Vienna, Paris…we’ve visited many proper cities and had enjoyable times.

Paris august 2012 - 066

Being fancy at a fancy Parisian sidewalk cafe with our fancy sunglasses.

But unless you are Jason Bourne being chased through Europe by CIA operatives and Interpol, these fancy places don’t involve a whole lot of adventure. You eat good food, you see pretty churches, you visit an art museum with Picassos and Monets. Pleasant, but for me not so memorable.

That’s why Mali struck such a cord with me. A simple Saturday drive through Bamako to the grocery store was more memorable than any stroll down the Champs-Élysées or the Ramblas. Right in the center of town a herd of longhorn cattle might cross the road in front of your car (which makes a unique excuse as to why you are late to something).

We always played played “What’s on the Moto?” in which we tried to find the most bizarre

thing being carried on a moto, the small motorcycles that inundate every road in Bamako. Some of the contenders:

  • A guy driving his moto with three tires over his body (I think Wile E. Coyote did that once)
  • two guys carrying three live sheep (a very interesting ménage à cinq)
  • a guy carrying a 20-foot-long metal pipe (jousting never goes out of fashion)
  • a guy clutching a large pane of sheet glass (what could possibly go wrong?)
  • a guy balancing a 55-gallon steel drum on the seat behind him

You might also have an encounter with a Malian police officer in his royal blue shirt and police-nationale-agents-service-securitejaunty black beret. If you’re new to town and stupid like we were, you actually pull over when they blow their whistle at you. Then you go through a long, drawn out ordeal in which they take your auto registration card, you tell them you don’t speak French, they speak louder and more forcefully, they mention that you can pay a “fine” on the spot to avoid a trip to the station, you try to figure out why they pulled you over in the first place, you call the American Embassy and hand the phone to the officer, he yells some more, he walks away with your registration card and phone, you get out and chase after him, and he either tells you to leave or you give him a couple of dollars.

What’s more convenient is to pretend you don’t see or hear the policeman at all, and just blow right on past him. It feels very Bonnie and Clyde, without the machine guns, thankfully. Speaking of guns, my first taxi ride in Bamako had four of us smashed in the back along with a Malian soldier in the front seat, his gun over his shoulder and pointing pretty much at my head. Every time we hit a bump in the road (in other words, every 3 seconds), I cocked my head in another direction to avoid an accidental discharge. All that adventure for a $1 taxi fare.

Adventure is at every turn in Bamako….a village on an island in the middle of the Niger River, right in the middle of town, that makes you feel you went back in time. A boat ride puppeton the Niger in a pirogue loaded with cold beer, seeing people living in corrugated metal shacks next to mansions along the shore. Shopping at the Grande Marche outdoor market, a never-ending maze of stalls full of locals buying and selling everything from colorful fabric to toothpaste to soccer balls to warthog heads. Musical concerts in which waterfallan audience member always jumps on stage to dance with the musicians and the rest of us are on our feet dancing right along. Hippos. Crocodiles. Having a sheep ritually slaughtered for Tabaski right outside my classroom window. Massive peace rallies. Outdoor parties in the sweltering heat where your clothes are soaked with sweat but you dance anyway. Malian puppet shows where massive, bigger-than-life creatures dance to the beat of African drums. A horse and rider galloping down the main road, dodging the cars and trucks. Boarding your plane from a stairway from the tarmac like they did in the 1950s. Standing under a tall waterfall in the bush just outside of the city.

I like pretty, but I like adventure more.

 

Au revoir, Mali. K’an bεn. Thank you for fulfilling my childhood fantasy and better yet, for making me a better person. Until we meet again…

bush

Advertisements

Chapter 29: I’d Rather Get a Root Canal in Mali Than Teach in the U.S.

Last year, during a severe sugar craving bout,  I found an old piece of hard candy in my desk at school. Despite the fact that this red sticky thing was probably manufactured back when Mali became a country in 1960, I still popped it into my mouth. Then it got stuck on my lower molars, and upon disengaging it I also yanked off a crown.

This is not a good situation to be in when you live in a developing country where some

My tooth, sans roots.

My tooth, sans roots.

dental work occurs roadside. But lo and behold, I discovered a Lebanese dentist (raised in Senegal) who operated a modern, dental practice in an actual building near our school, and he had a number of our students as patients. So off I went to have him reattach the old crown which I was sure would take ten minutes. Except the old crown was cracked and he needed to make a new one. And then he discovered that a root canal had not been done on that old tooth (thank you crappy Florida dentist).

So long story short, he did the root canal (even finding a 4th root which he said was rare), had a fancy new crown made in France, and made my mouth whole again…all at half the cost of a dentist in the U.S. My dentist in the U.S. checked his work and gave his seal of approval. However, this all took six lovely visits, some of which seemed like movie scenes: the time he and his wife/assistant had a huge argument in French during my actual root canal; our debate over whether I have a gag reflex or whether he just put too much of the molding material in my mouth because it touched my uvula, etc.).

The boys of Crimson Thorn. Rock on!  photo: Snipview

The boys of Crimson Thorn. Rock on, God!
photo: Snipview

I spent a lot of time in that dental chair, staring out the window and thinking about how I would rather be just about any other place than a dental chair. Truth be told, for me just about any other place would be preferable–a Siberian hard labor camp, a Crimson Thorn concert (Christian death metal band), a gas station bathroom, a party attended by everyone working at Fox News. I mean really, can there be worse places on this earth?

Why yes, yes there can.

My last school year in an American classroom started with a bang, and by bang I mean like being hit over the head repeatedly with a 2 x 4 until I was knocked senseless.

Usually those first few days before students arrive are when administrators pull out all the

Because every elementary classroom needs more noise!

Because every elementary classroom needs more noise!  photo: Oriental Trading Company

stops to get teachers pumped up for the year ahead–spreads of artery clogging breakfast foods, singing some upbeat pop song in which the lyrics are changed to something school-related (I’m sure the Black Eyed Peas can sue whenever a faculty croons, “I’ve got a feeling, that our school’s gonna be a good school, that our staff’s gonna enforce good rules, that data’s gonna be a good tool…”), and cheap but useful gifts from the Oriental Trading Company catalog such as lanyards, water bottles, and rum. Okay, alcohol wasn’t really one of the gifts but if Oriental Trading added rum-filled key chains, I’d be all over it.

Usually there are also fun activities to inspire the faculty, help them bond, and help set the stage for creative instruction, such as determining your teaching team’s multiple intelligences or participating in a talent show (where it was immediately evident which teachers did not possess any multiple intelligences related to performing).

Data binder or something to lift at the gym to gain upper arm strength...you decide.   photo: mikekenny.blogspot.com

Data binder or something to lift at the gym to gain upper arm strength…you decide. photo: mikekenny.blogspot.com

But for this particular school year, my very last as a U.S. classroom teacher, I knew things were different the moment I entered the meeting room—or as I like to call it, the chamber of horrors. At each place setting rested a cinder-block-sized, serious looking binder stuffed to the gills with inserts and tabs. On the front was a label printed with “DATA BINDER” in all caps. A screen in the front of the room glowed with the light of an LCD projector, showing a bar graph with words and numbers too tiny to read. There was no music, no animated conversation about how thin/tan/rested everyone looked. There may have been food but I really don’t recall because the gloomy mood sucked the appetite and life right out of me.

Todays torture choices: Electroshock treatment or hours of data PowerPoint slides.

Todays torture choices: Electroshock treatment or hours of data PowerPoint slides. photo: envisiontheamericandream.com

For the next three, grueling hours we were tortured with slide after slide of bar graphs, pie charts, line charts, histograms, and scatter plots from the school district headquarters, all showing us how crappy we were as teachers based on how low our students had scored on a single high-stakes test. Water boarding would have been easier to handle than this. Seriously, if the principal had said, “You can either watch this data PowerPoint or be shocked with raw wires attached to your private parts” I would have started attaching the copper wires myself.

The sad thing was, we all knew this test-focused mania sweeping the U.S. was hogwash, a movement led by non-educators with le$$-than-hone$t intention$. Since 2002, the law of the land told us that if we tested kids a lot (a whole, whole lot) and made teachers solely responsible for improving test scores, every kid would be “proficient” by 2014.

Yeah, not so much.

Maybe that’s why 500 education researchers recently signed a letter to Congress & President Obama saying, “We strongly urge departing from test-focused reforms that not only have been discredited for high-stakes decisions, but also have shown to widen, not close, gaps and inequities.” Now there’s a ringing endorsement.

At the end of this first day I loaded my Data Binder cinder block into a wheelbarrow and

Hope he doesn't have to use the bathroom anytime soon.

Hope he doesn’t have to use the bathroom anytime soon. photo: jokes.naij.com

glumly shuffled to my classroom. Along the way I thought about jobs I could do that would be more pleasant, less painful. Like cleaning out clogged sewer pipes without protective gear, tarring roads in the Gobi desert in summertime, being a bicycle brick carrier, exploring the growing field of ice road trucking, or having stun guns tested on you.

It’s a wonder that I made it through that year without developing a crack addiction or multiple personality disorder. It was tough trying to understand the new normal, that our schools weren’t places for inspiring kids to learn but places that made them develop irritable bowel syndrome over constant test stress. I should have been tipped off when we were given a series of procedures to follow in case a student vomited on the end-of-year standardized test. It was no coincidence that this would be my last year in a U.S. classroom.

Q: How do you eat a mattress? A: One bite at a time

Q: How do you eat a mattress? A: One bite at a time   Photo: TLC (My Strange Addiction)

So rather than go slowly insane and start eating my mattress, or hair, bricks, plastic bags, or paint pens (habits featured on “My Strange Addiction” on TLC), a few years ago Jamey and I moved to sub-Saharan Africa to teach at an international school. To ask me if teaching in an international school in Bamako, Mali is preferable to teaching in the U.S. is like asking if anesthesia is preferable to biting on a stick when you’re having you’re foot amputated.

Here’s how it went at our international school this past August during our first days before students arrived:

We began by discussing how we can strengthen our school community. Then we talked about our goals for the school year, like developing a meaningful service-learning program so our students learn as they help their local community. On subsequent days we learned about new developments in classroom technology, got a refresher on the Understanding by Design framework we use for the curriculum we develop, and had plenty of time to set up our classrooms and to collaborate with colleagues.

For the third year in a row I started the school year inspired, motivated, and full of ideas. And that was without the aid of the Oriental Trading rum. Okay, there was our Friday happy hour on the patio at the Mande Hotel, watching the sun set over the Niger River. But we weren’t drowning our sorrows as we so often did back in the States, but celebrating the start of a great school year.

Capping off the week with happy hour at the Mande Hotel, overlooking the Niger, and not talking about standardized testing.

Capping off the week with happy hour at the Mande Hotel, overlooking the Niger, and not talking about high-stakes standardized testing.

As the year has progressed, I can almost say that I’ve forgotten those scary days back in a U.S. classroom. But these memories are gone in the same way that I almost forget how I stuck my foot in a wasp nest when I was ten. For example, I’d love to forget that I heard an administrator, with regard to the annual state test, tell a colleague, “You need to get your student test scores up because right now, the assistant superintendent knows your name. And that’s NOT a good thing.” Ahhh, intimidation as motivation…the stuff memories are made of.

During my last two years in the U.S. I left the classroom to work as a resource teacher

Green glow courtesy of the overhead fluorescent lights, another charming feature in my cubicle away from home.

Green glow courtesy of the overhead fluorescent lights, another charming feature in my cubicle away from home.

with our school district, one of the largest in the country with 13,000 teachers and nearly 180,000 students. I had just been honored as the district’s Teacher of the Year, so a job at district headquarters was my attempt at a promotion to fancier digs with a higher level of respect. The first clue that I had made a judgment error was when I moved into my workspace, a windowless cubicle smaller than the closet in my former classroom. On Day Three, I discovered that my lunch bag had been removed from the lunchroom fridge and placed on top of it, plastered with a yellow sticky note saying, “This food takes up too much space.” Fancy, indeed.

But the worst part of that district job ordeal was the new teacher evaluation system implemented during my final year in cubicle quarantine. This evaluation system was two-part: half relied on your students’ state tests scores. As any ed researcher will tell you, using student high-stakes test scores to evaluate teachers is unreliable and misguided, but that’s another conversation.

High tech data analysis tool photo: www.ourwatercounts.com

High tech data analysis tool
photo: http://www.ourwatercounts.com

But what made my situation even stranger is that I didn’t have any students. I was a mere resource teacher with little exposure to actual students and just a bit of exposure to teachers—most of whom didn’t listen to me anyway because they were suffering from PTTS (Post Traumatic Test Syndrome). So nobody was sure exactly which student test data my evaluation would be based upon. Maybe the average scores of students in the entire district someone said. Maybe the student scores from the schools I visited someone else said. Or maybe they would ask the Oracle at Delphi or use a Magic 8 Ball (“Reply hazy, try again”). I would certainly trust a Mattel novelty more in this situation.

The other half of the new teacher evaluation relied on an observation system performed by an administrator. This system is a complicated mélange of domains and data marks and frameworks and elements and instructional categories and design questions. Here is part of an email I found on the district’s website, a simple little message sent to administrators about this evaluation system:

Please be advised that the Joint Evaluation Negotiations Committee has released an updated Observation Schedule for Category 1B and Category 2 for the second half of the year. Twenty data marks are still required to complete the Instructional Practices Portion of the evaluation for Category 1B & 2 Teachers and the data marks are derived from the elements rated as a result of an observation and any elements rated in Domains 2, 3, and 4. Administrators can view the number of data marks scored by running the following report in iObservation: Evaluative Element Scoring by Learner.

Sidebar: The fact that this system required creating a Joint Evaluation Negotiations Committee (JENC, pronounced “junk”) should give one pause.

So administrators observe teachers a bunch of times and rank their performances with a

Better pay, more respect than teaching. photo: www.ourwatercounts.com

Better pay, more respect than teaching…order up!
photo: http://www.ourwatercounts.com

five-category scale that ranges from “this person should be working in the kitchen at the Cheesecake Factory instead of a classroom” to “this person is so good they should immediately leave the classroom to work in a closet-sized, windowless cubicle at the school district office.” Actually the categories were Beginning, Developing, Applying, Innovating, but I like my scale better. To receive the top category, Innovating, one had to “Adapt and create new strategies for unique student needs and situations.”

Again, this system was set up to evaluate teachers in the classroom so my situation as a resource teacher didn’t quite fit. Perhaps I could be judged on the way I was able to write curriculum in my cubicle within an open workspace, surrounded by secretaries chatting about green bean recipes while 20 other resource teachers talked on the phone or to each other and someone else was sharpening 250 pencils for an upcoming state test and the fax machine continuously beeped after each page it spit out from a 100-page fax.

Or maybe I could be evaluated on the clever way I camouflaged my mini-fridge (a banned appliance in cubicle world) as a box of supplies, complete with a false front that opened to reveal an array of cold beverages and my (apparently) very large lunch bag, now safe from the lunch police.

I wasn’t too concerned about the way this observation would happen, though, since just months before the district has knighted me as Teacher of the Year for my “innovative approaches in the classroom.” It was as simple as changing the suffix on “innovative” to the present participle “innovating.” I mean, once an innovator, always an innovator, right? Even though I wasn’t in the classroom I continued writing and teaching others how to use innovative, arts-integrated curriculum. I still presented innovative sessions at national conferences. Besides, wouldn’t it look pretty stupid ranking your Teacher of the Year as a moron who still hasn’t quite the hang of teaching after 8 years in inner city schools and 6 years as a national education trainer?

Madame Curie,: Innovator or slacker? photo: bookcoverimgs.com

Madame Curie,: Innovator or slacker?
photo: bookcoverimgs.com

So imagine my surprise/shock/nausea when I discovered that administrators were told that, for this first year, they should NOT award any teacher with the highest designation of “innovating.” That would leave them without room for improvement, they reasoned, without any motivation to do better. I mean, just look at how lazy Steven Jobs became after his success. Or Ben Franklin. Or Marie Curie. All slackers, every one of them. Thank goodness my own administrator fought back and in the end I was ranked as Innovating, even though my mood at the time would better be described as Loathing or Abhorring. I didn’t see those designations on the form though.

So you can understand how nostalgic memories like these don’t fade so much. The good news is that in my Life 2.0, phenomenal educational experiences are crowding out the crappy ones in my head. Here are a few recent classroom events worthy of being stored in my long-term memory:

When Lessons are More than Just Lessons

The think tank...coming up with the plot for our new graphic novel on malnutrition.

The think tank…coming up with the plot for our new graphic novel on malnutrition.

For the third year in a row my class of Grade 4 and 5 students is partnering with a local NGO, Mali Health Organizing Project, to create a health-related graphic novel for distribution to local school children. It always starts with a science unit in class that provides the kids with basic knowledge. From there they spend the day visiting the neighborhood where the school children live, a slum adjacent to Bamako. They visit a school, a clinic, and walk the dirt streets in order to understand the context of the health problems we are trying to address. Then a group of local school children visit us at our school, and collaborate with my students on the plot, illustrations, and comic software work.

The end products are professional looking graphic novels in both French and English—one on malaria prevention (The Adventures of Anti-Malaria Man) and another on rotavirus prevention Agents of HEALTH: When Rotavirus Attacks), and another one on malnutrition currently in process—that are given to hundreds of local children and just may save lives. You can see the last graphic novel here:  https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B1oBcyWe5BkyS1FCcE0teWtyNkk/view?usp=sharing

My students say the same things every year: I never realized how lucky we are and how nilbad it is for other kids. I never thought a kid could help save lives. This project makes me feel good. Can we watch Frozen?

And to think we spend about 25 total hours on this life-changing project—about the same amount of time on average that US students spend taking standardized tests and practice tests. I actually read that some U.S, schools allocate a quarter of the year’s instruction to test prep, and that some schools have daily two and a half hour prep sessions and test practice on vacation days. I vow right here and now that the last words that will EVER be in the same sentence for me will be “vacation” and “test prep.”

 Andy Warhol in My Classroom

I’m a diehard proponent of arts integrated instruction, an approach that should be welcomed in test-obsessed U.S. schools because it helps kids become critical thinkers, develops creativity and problem solving, allows kids to retain information longer, and leads to world peace (sorry, got carried away on that last one, but you never know).

Half Pint's schoolhouse.

Half Pint engages in drill-and-kill school fun.

Unfortunately if it doesn’t look like a test prep workbook or a drill-and-kill exercise that Laura Ingalls Wilder did on the prairie in 1877, it’s probably not going to be welcomed in a U.S. classroom these days. Which is why when I arrived at the American International School of Bamako, I felt like a refugee who just escaped from North Korea and landed in the middle of Candyland or Disneyworld. Sure we implement standardized tests at AISB, this one on a computer. But students spend just 2.5 hours in September doing so, and another 2.5 hours again in April. The results are immediate, so teachers can use the data as one of many measures to inform their instruction. That frees up the rest of the year for…….wait for it……actual learning! I know, it’s a radical, revolutionary approach, but I hope it catches on.

So I always hit the ground running in August, and this year Andy Warhol was with me. This

Marilyn sets the tone at the door. Oh, the wonders of butcher paper and stick glue.

Marilyn sets the tone at the door. Oh, the wonders of butcher paper and stick glue.

was going to be a Warhol-inspired kick-off that would have all the fun and excitement of pop art. I started with a Warhol quote and the door. Next the kids made Warhol-inspired portraits in which they used color to define their personalities. Then we created our classroom rules for the year, but this time expressed in Warhol-style posters. We read about his life, and how his experiences as a commercial artist and aficionado of movie star life helped him develop a unique style as an artist, then analyzed many of his works to look for references to his life experiences.

be respectful nilNow, despite the fact that of my 19 students just one speaks English as the first language at home, and that a quarter of my class had a year or less of English instruction, they all thrived during these Warhol activities—analyzing, critiquing, comprehending, evaluating–all those things standardized tests are SUPPOSED to measure. In addition, these activities fostered creativity, critical thinking, motivation, curiosity, enthusiasm, empathy, self-awareness, self-discipline, resourcefulness, sense of beauty, sense of wonder, honesty, and integrity—all those things standardized tests CANNOT measure.

Social Studies is Actually A Thing

Unlike my experience in U.S. schools where I heard more than one administrator say,

Live at "The Pharaoh's Court"

Live at The Pharaoh’s Court….the Master Sculptor did, I swear!

“Forget about social studies; it’s not on the state test,” I teach it daily at AISB (this last statement would raise eyebrows across the pond).We study river civilizations by exploring ancient Egypt. Students take on roles as actual ancient Egyptians (a vizier, a dancer, a tomb painter) and are challenged to solve an actual tomb robbery, something that requires them to develop their own alibis and to question suspects in “The Pharaoh’s Court” (which I must say was much more exciting than the past-due rent cases on the People’s Court).

Tableau from Odysseus, in which he is lashed to the mast to avoid the deathly sirens.

Tableau from Odysseus, in which he is lashed to the mast to avoid the deathly sirens.

To study the spread of ideas we explore ancient Greece, anchored by a daily dose of Homer’s The Odyssey. As students complete challenges (one of which involved creating a tableau scene from The Odyssey) they moved their team ship on a big wall map, following the path Odysseus took in his many adventures. Safe to say that all teams did arrive in Ithaca at the end, and were treated to a viewing of the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts. I’m still scared by those skeleton soldiers that grow from Hydra’s teeth that are planted in the soil.

Science Too

IMG_6625Unless you teach Grade 5 in Florida., the grade where students take a science state test, science is an afterthought at most elementary schools, usually shoved into the few remaining weeks that follow the completion of state testing. At AISB I teach it daily. Students make their own handmade books to create an earthquake survival manual for our unit on earth building and breaking. For our unit on microorganisms they engage in the service learning project described above. For our sound unit they’ll create their own outdoor sound sculpture. Students analyze songs that relate to our science themes….John Denver’s Calypso during our unit on ocean ecology, The B-52s Planet IMG_6254Claire and Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite The Planets during our unit on outer space.They act out the three types of tectonic plate movements.We watch clips of the cheesy Earthquake movie to see if it accurately portrays an earthquake.

So it’s discouraging to hear that a national 2007 study by the Center on Education Policy reported that since 2001, 44% of U.S. school districts reduced the time spent on science, social studies and the arts by an average of 145 minutes per week in order to focus on reading and math. No B-52s for you American kids! Get out that damn workbook!

 All the School’s a Stage

IMG_7065My kids engage in acting every day, well, beyond the fake No-I-really-didn’t-at-all-mean-to call-her-a-heifer-and-I-am-truly-so-sorry kind of acting. In reading, the students show their knowledge of vocabulary words or important plot points in a novel by performing quick tableaus (frozen pose). They engage in story dramatization to explore major characters and events, or to predict how characters will fare after the story ended. In science they use their bodies to demonstrate the way white blood cells attack bacteria.

IMG_7249

My clever thespians doing a tableau for the word “reflection.”

To be engaged, or not engaged, that is the question. Being engaged in so much performance work leads to confident kids who don’t know what stage fright is. I suppose that’s better than what education researcher Gregory J. Cizek discovered in studies that show how U.S. testing. produces “gripping anxiety in even the brightest students, and makes young children vomit or cry, or both.” I’ll choose performing a tableau over vomiting any day.

 Art Attack

IMG_7216

Maimouna’s Basquita-inspired art

The Grade 4 – 5 students demonstrate their learning visually too. After exploring symbolism in a novel, song, and poem, students create their own symbolic artwork. But they are challenged to do this in the style of one of the symbol-heavy artists we studied, such as Keith Haring, Marc Chagall, Jean-Michel Basquiat, or the Malian artists who create carved Dogon doors. That means they have to get inside the artist’s head and embrace his approach.

IMG_6783 IMG_6767 IMG_6758Students also created cubist portraits of characters from the novel we read, Shiloh by Phyliis Reynolds Naylor.

IMG_6241In writing we explore figurative language through visual art, creating self portraits to learn about alliteration or comic strip panels to show onomatopoeia. My classroom is plastered (in a neat, organized manner, mind you) with posters of famous artworks, movies, musicians, and Broadway shows because I think these are a bit more inspiring than the pacing schedules and anchor charts about verb conjugation that I was required to post back in the USSA.

Not only does this arts-integrated approach help kids learn valuable content, it fosters creativity. Remember that stuff? Maybe not if you’re in America. A 2010 College of William & Mary study found Americans’ scores on the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking have been dropping since 1990. Says researcher Kyung-Hee Kim, “If we neglect creative students in school because of the structure and the testing movement… then they become underachievers.” That’s enough to make Haring, Changall, and Basquiat turn in their graves.

Professional Development

In my old life, professional development meant another visit from a district “specialist” with

Teaching my colleagues about story dramatization.

Teaching my colleagues about story dramatization, which is apparently more fun than data analysis.

a dull PowerPoint full of words in Comic Sans font, touting the latest focus/fad (“You and Data Analysis: A Match Made in Heaven”). Lots of chart paper, and if they were really fancy, lots of sticky note posting on the chart paper. At the PD session I recently led at AISB, my colleagues (all of whom weren’t even required to attend) engaged in the story dramatization of an American Indian folktale to see the connections between drama and literature.

A break in the conference in Addis Ababa gave us time to inhale platters of Ethiopian food.

A break in the conference in Addis Ababa gave us time to inhale platters of Ethiopian food.

Our last session on standardized testing at AISB could have been dull, except for the fact that beer and wine were served (hey, it’s 5:00 somewhere). Back in the States I’d get excited about PD sessions held outside of school, like sessions in the cafeteria of a nearby high school. Yeah it smelled like old food and the tables were sticky, but at least it wasn’t the same old media center we always met in. Contrast this with my last out-of-school PD session here…in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Not only did I get to present a session on service learning, and get to meet educators from across Africa, and become addicted to Ethiopian coffee and food, but we even had a baboon-on-the-loose alert during the conference. And the cafeteria was outside, so no old food smell.

Granted, one has to consider the cost of sending teachers to conferences. But U.S. states seem to have lots of money when it comes to testing. From 2009 through 2012 Texas spent $88 million per year just to test students.

 Celebrate Good Times, C’mon!

There wasn’t much to celebrate back in my old teaching life, except maybe the end of the

At the school Halloween extravaganza, I worked the drinks table dressed as Sharknado.

At the school Halloween extravaganza, I worked the drinks table dressed as Sharknado.

week or the school year. But here, I celebrate on a regular basis…including Halloween. Yep, Pat Robertson and the 700 Club have not convinced international schools that Halloween is Satan’s birthday (yet) and we actually have a traditional Halloween party where kids and adults dress in whatever they want, not some stupid literary character, and enjoy trick-or-treating, a haunted house, and tons of sugar-laced food and drink.

Epilogue

Jamey and I will be leaving AISB and Mali after three adventurous and enjoyable years, and I look forward to filling my head with even more excellent memories at our new post in Shanghai. I’m happy to report that, again, I won’t need rum-filled key fobs or episodes of paint-marker-eating to get through the school year. Because I do hate the way that mauve paint stains my teeth.

Note: Thanks to the website ProCon.org for the fabulous standardized testing facts.

Chapter 25: A Tale of Two Cities (and Two Types of Poo)

Screen Shot 2013-11-24 at 1.33.30 PMWe just spent our fall break in the south of France.  Now this is a statement that, up until a year ago, I would’ve uttered only if I was (a) alcohol impaired and hallucinating after a night of tasty gin and tonics, or (b) miraculously transformed into Thurston Howell III or Kim Kardashian. As luck would have it, I now didn’t need to be under the influence of alcohol nor turned into a fake TV millionaire or a, well, a fake TV millionaire.

Nope, now that we are teaching in an international school in the middle of nowhere–or Mali, as they call it—our new normal involves getaways befitting of a Beckham or a Bieber—and we don’t even cavort with Spice Girls or monkeys. That’s because for us, living and teaching abroad provides all kinds of advantages that make life more enjoyable, such as tax-free income, cost-free housing, and duty-free liquor at every airport we pass through to get here.

When there’s a break from teaching here at school, we have the means to do more than what we use to do in our old PM (Pre-Mali) life, which was to eat at a chain restaurant and watch NetFlix. And when I say a break from teaching, there are breaks aplenty here because along with the typical American holidays we also celebrate Malian, Muslim, and African holidays. There’s a day off for the Prophet’s birth birthand another for his baptism, and another to honor him by killing a sheep, a couple of days off for Malian Independence day, some more for Africa Day, and the list goes on. Sometimes after one day off, government officials randomly come on the local evening news and call for an additional day off, just for the heck of it. They always keep you guessing in Mali.

Our longer stretches of free time include a fall break (which, paired with Halloween festivities, turns October totally into woman-cleaning-groutRocktober for me), winter break (Xmas, Hanukkah, et al), spring break, and summer break. We barely return from one holiday and we are already planning for the next trip in a month or so. Back in the U.S., school breaks mostly meant more time for doing some god-awful, long overdue household chore, and I’m sure you can guess if we prefer sunning ourselves in Provence or reapplying caulk and cleaning mildewy grout in the bathroom.

snow_white_st

I think she’s shouting a curse word….

And because we actually save money here (a concept that wasn’t possible in America when working as a teacher in Palm Beach County, Florida), we are able to travel, and I mean really travel. Not driving-2-hours-to-a-theme-park kind of travel, but going-to-a-foreign-country kind of travel where the castles are 500 years old and not made of fiberglass and filled with unnaturally thin Disney princesses. (Sidebar: I once clandestinely went underground at DisneyWorld with a friend who worked there, and met a foul-mouthed gal who portrayed Snow White and a gay, African-American little person who portrayed Mickey Mouse. Now that is some Disney magic.).

thumbs.sapo.pt

Ady, Ady, Ady! (she’s the one with the colorful hair)

So far we have jetted off to Ghana, Senegal, Portugal, Hungary, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Illinois, Florida. and the Provence region in the south of France—and that’s just in the 15 months we’ve lived in Mali. For winter break this year we are off to the Cape Verde islands, which I hadn’t even heard of until I watched the 2012 Summer Olympics on TV and saw Adysângela Moniz (I just call her “Ady”) of Cape Verde compete in women’s judo.

Screen Shot 2013-11-24 at 2.40.30 PM

Bamako to Aix-en-Provence in a day…the wonders of the modern world.

One of the best things about all of this travel is the absolute total contrast of Mali with the other countries we experience. One evening we were walking along an orange dirt road in Bamako, passing donkeys and women with massive bundles of sticks on their head, and hearing the call to prayer in the distance. And before lunch the next day we were parading down the fancy street of Cours Mirabeau in Aix-en-Provence, France, relaxing in the shadow of towering plane trees while eating lavender ice cream, trying to decide which French cologne to purchase. It wasn’t too long go when my ten-year-old self was amazed just taking the ten-minute ferry ride across the Mississippi River from my grandma’s tiny town of Meyer, Illinois to the town of Canton, Missouri.

ChateauMiraval1

I think I see Brad in the upstairs window….

Now if I could create a magical dream world from scratch, I would carpet it with purple flowers, include fields of wine grapes, surround the fields with hills holding quaint medieval villages, perfume the air with the scent of lavender, give Brad Pitt a home there, and make stores give away a free pair of shoes everyday to every citizen. Well, except for the shoe thing (damn it), Provence is exactly everything I had dreamed of. I’m just glad that the lavender fields were not in bloom while we were there because that last bit of gorgeousness would have made my head explode all over those purple blooms.

Everything about Provence was perfect. Through Airbnb we found an apartment in the IMG_0897heart of Aix perfectly befitting of a perfect town. It had timber beams across the ceilings and a terrace overlooking the tiled roofs of the town. Okay, it was 73 stairs up from the street and once inside, it required another 13 stairs to get from the bedroom to the living room. I admit that could be perfectly horrible for some people. But the view from the terrace was divine, especially once my heart returned to beating normally and allowed my eyes to more clearly focus. And besides, a couple of glasses of local wine made me forget all about the stair climb.

IMG_1030

My new shoes, better than papal history.

The shopping in Provence was pretty magical too, especially when you live in a country where we buy shirts on the side of the road from vendors who hang them from tree branches (after a purchase you have to vigorously shake each shirt to remove the two pounds of orange dust before laundering twice—and then they’re still a little dusty).  When we walked into the H&M store in Aix-en-Provence, I literally stopped to savor the clean retail-air smell, that unforgettable scent of new clothes and whatever cologne they are pushing. If they made a cologne with that retail smell I’d wear it. During a day tour to Avignon we were given free time to see the Palace of the Popes and instead we spent the whole time in one shoe store. I mean, seriously, you can’t wear history on your feet.

Even the Aix grocery stores looked lavishly stocked and sparkly and huge, but again my 19. cu o furnica mai sexyreference point is our Lebanese-ish Bamako supermarket whose name  translates to “The Ant” with a logo of a human-bodied woman with an ant head, and she/it is pushing a shopping cart. I think we spent as much time in the French grocery stores as we did in the French art museums. Yeah, yeah, a former 15th century church full of Van Gogh paintings is amazing, but can you buy salt and vinegar potato chips there?

We did the whole Provence circuit, booking several one-day trips into the surrounding idyllic countryside, the same stomping grounds where Brangelina and family frolic around their 35-bedroom estate with adjoining 1,200-acre vineyard, which they purchased last year for a cool $60 million.

Brad Pitt may have touched this bottle.

Brad Pitt may have touched this bottle.

They must find this place extra magical too because their rose wine was just crowned best in the world by Wine Spectator magazine. When it was released in March, all 6000 bottles sold out in five hours, a fact our guide for the day proudly reiterated. So next year, put in your orders early.

It just so happened that two other couples booked the same day trips as we did. We always enjoy getting to know new folks who share our love of travel and adventure. We do find, though, that people don’t share our exact version of what travel and adventure means. When we first told these two couples (husband and wife dentists and a retired couple from New Jersey) where we lived and worked they thought we said “Bali,” and they said “oooh” and “ahhh” and “Lucky you, right on the beach!” Upon learning that we actually said “Mali,” they paused for a moment to think. Then they added, “Did you actually choose to go there?” and “How long do you have to stay there?” and “Where exactly is that?” When the retired couple, who was staying in Marseilles, said they found that city to be “unrefined,” we decided not tell them that in Bamako we’ve seen local toddlers pooping on the dirt road leading to our school.

Excrement stories aside, we are still thrilled to call Mali home right now despite the fabulousness of Provence. Sure it was great to experience Internet speeds that allowed us to watch a two-minute YouTube video without letting it buffer for 45 minutes first. And walking down a sidewalk versus a dirt road with an adjacent open drainage/sewer channel does feel very civilized–though in Provence there did seem to be an awful lot of French dog poo on the sidewalks (Sidebar: On this trip we discovered that the French don’t call French Poodles “French” or “poodle,” but “caniche”). But as much as we adore Provence, we adore Mali just as much—but in slightly different ways.

Sure Provence has a rich history, with Celt, Greek, and ancient Romans colonizing the IMG_0743area at different times, and magnificent castles and churches dotting the countryside. But in the 14th century, when half of the folks in Provence were dying from the black plague and the towns were surrounding themselves with defensive walls and towers after losing the Hundred Years’ War, the Malian Empire had reached its largest size, a whopping

Wanna fight?

Wanna fight?

440,000 square miles with over 400 cities and towns (only the Mongol Empire was larger). It was flush with gold, the source of half of the Old World’s gold supplies, and a major supplier of salt and copper. It had an army of 100,000 that I’m sure could have given an ass-whuppin’ to those fancy-pants French soldiers.

And sure, Provence is beautiful and who the heck wouldn’t want to live there in a 35-room mansion overlooking 1200 acres of grape vines with your 1200 adopted children. But I have to say, sometimes when I look out my classroom window and see the Niger River sparkling in the foreground and the massive baobab trees on the shore and the orange hills rising on the horizon against a deep blue sky, it takes my breath away. Last week the smoke from a tire fire near campus also took my breath away, literally, but that’s another story.

IMG_0561I loved the people of Provence with their stylish clothes and chic haircuts that never look too overdone and their we-just enjoy-life attitudes. But I also love the people of Bamako with their multicolored robes and dresses and perfectly arranged head wraps and their live-and-let-live attitudes and how they can breathe oxygen heavy with dust and exhaust and not collapse. Even in the middle of Bamako traffic frenzy, in the midst of swerving cars, motos, donkeys, horses, cattle, push carts, etc. the Malians themselves maintain an air of calmness. Smile at them, they smile back. Wave, they return the wave. Try to speak to them in Bambara, they laugh (in a kind and appreciative way, mind you).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn Provence we ate delicious local food, but also ate at some slammin’ Vietnamese and Italian meals. In Mali we eat mostly local dishes, but also enjoy overeating at the Indian and Lebanese restaurants. I appreciate the quiet orderliness of life in Provence (let’s have a four hour dinner at that street side café) and the exciting, but controlled chaos of life in Bamako (let’s try to avoid hitting that herd of longhorn cattle in the middle of the road on our way to the French café for a four hour dinner, but only if the police guy doesn’t pull us over for a bribe first).

So I guess it all boils down to the fact that for me, there is beauty in both order and chaos, in calmness and frenzy, in sophistication and simplicity, and in dodging French dog poo or Malian donkey poo.

IMG_0671

Provence, je t’aime….

Bamako, n'b'i fè.

Bamako, n’b’i fè.

Chapter 24: Sheep in the Penthouse/Mutton on the Plate

IMG_0536

On the way home from school last week I saw a ram—a really huge one with those giant twisty horns like you see on Satan in foreign horror films. That’s a fairly normal sight here in Bamako (sheep, not Satan) where these goat-looking sheep probably outnumber people.

But what made this sighting unique is that Mr. Sheep wasn’t in one of the normal locations,

photo: mali anta on flickr

photo: mali anta on flickr

e.g. lounging roadside a few inches from speeding traffic, crossing a busy road in a herd during rush hour, draped over the lap of a guy riding a moto down the street, or strapped to the top of a sitroma—the local vans used as a public bus.

CHEVRE

photo: bamada.net

Nope, this ovine guy was peeping out of a SECOND story window, in someone’s home. He had a rather relaxed look on his face, like he had just finished taking a long soak in the tub while sipping a glass of merlot. He certainly behaved as if he had always lived on the second floor, and spent his afternoons with bearded chin on the sash, watching the world go by.

Well, first of all I didn’t know that sheep did stairs. We could barely get our dogs to go up a few stairs and they didn’t even have hooves. Made me really wonder. Had he slipped into the house and tappity-tapped unnoticed right upstairs? Or did this homeowner suddenly think one day, “Why should living in the city keep me from having sheep? They can simply live in the guest bedroom upstairs!”

Whatever the case, it was only amusing for a moment, as I knew this ram’s penthouse

photo: mali anta on flickr

photo: mali anta on flickr

arrangement was short-term. Sadly, in just a few days he would be the featured entrée for a dinner on the Muslim holiday of Tabaski.

Also known as Eid al-Adha, this holiday celebrates Ibrahim/Abraham’s willingness to follow God’s orders to slit the throat of his young son (this warm and fuzzy tale is also recounted in the Bible and makes me understand why I always had nightmares after religion class). This bedroom sheep would join an estimated 100 million other animals (cows, camels, goats, and sheep) worldwide also meeting their maker as Tabaski dinner

photo: Linda Padolini

Banks offer Tabaski loans so you can buy a sheep too. photo: Linda Padolini

on October 15th. Because, according to many religions, nothing honors your supreme ruler more than slicing the jugular vein of a farm animal in his honor. I mean seriously, wouldn’t a deity be just as happy with, say, a big plate of carrots? We have lots of those here, and most folks don’t get emotionally attached to root vegetables.

At least this lucky sheep on the second floor lived the life of luxury beforehand. I’d like to think that at night he slept on a king-sized bed with a Tempur-Pedic mattress, snuggled in 1200 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets, listening to Adele and reading Star Magazine on his iPad (though I haven’t quite figured out how hooves would work with a swipe screen). I mean, you might as well go out on top, right?

willyI’ve always had a soft spot for animals, and I mean that in a “Free Willy” sort of way where I would totally free a captive orca from SeaWorld using a pick-up truck. I’ve protested with PeTA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) outside of the circus, the greyhound racetrack, and a cosmetics industry meeting (my sign at this last one said, “L’Oreal: Blinding Bunnies for Beauty!). I really, really dislike any activity that harms animals, like hunting, bullfighting, or when the Roadrunner drops an anvil on Wile E. Coyote from the cliff above.

protest 2

I protested annually at our local greyhound torture track in West Palm Beach, FL (race track).

It’s the reason I was a vegetarian before coming to Mali. It started when I discovered that veal production mirrors the plot of a horror movie: yank a baby from its mom right after birth, confine it in a crate the size of a big beach towel so it can’t exercise and stays “tender,” feed it iron-poor gruel to keep it anemic so the flesh is pale, and kill it after 23 weeks so some fat human can gulp down its meat. Didn’t something like that happen in Saw IV?

Me with Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States. I was 2010 Humane Society teacher of the Year.

Me with Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States. I was 2010 Humane Society teacher of the Year.

Don’t get me wrong–I savor the taste of a crisp slice of bacon. And a hamburger on the grill dripping with pepper jack cheese is nirvana for me. But in the U.S. it was always easy for me to satisfy these cravings and not think about a slaughterhouse worker cracking the skull of Bessie the Cow or gutting Babe the pig. Why? Two words: mock meat.

It’s everywhere in America—fake burgers, hotdogs, crab cakes, chicken—all made from things without a face, like soy, wheat gluten, and pea protein (http://www.fakemeats.com/default.asp). In the U.S. I could still eat like a caveman without spearing the wooly mammoth and hacking off its meaty loins. For years I traced my open hand to draw cute turkeys, only to gobble down Tom Turkey at Thanksgiving dinner a few days later. Thank goodness Tofurkey allowed me to have a guilt-free holiday honoring the English prudes who were total bitches to the American Indians.

But now I’m in Mali, a developing country where the ethics of food have less to do with animal cruelty and more to do with how to feed the five million people that are starving...about a third of the population. Every day nearly 40 Malian children die from malnutrition–and I’m going to worry about whether or not my eggs come from free-range chickens? I’m pretty sure a hungry kid doesn’t debate the merits of Tofurkey vs. Tom Turkey.

I really wish the whole humane-treatment-of-animals issue here involved only food-related

matters. Unfortunately I don’t think life for any animal in Mali is so great. Take dogs, for example. There are a few dogs here, but I guarantee that they aren’t being pushed around in baby strollers or getting therapeutic canine massages or sleeping in $75/night doggy spas where their vacationing owners can watch them on a live web cam. Here dogs run loose in fields scrounging for scraps in ditches, or get picked up by one leg by the neighborhood kids.

Our next door neighbor here—let’s call him Michael Vick—has a German shepherd guard dog. One Sunday morning I heard it barking continuously so like any concerned neighbor I went to the roof deck to spy, er, I mean investigate by secretly peering down into his yard. There I saw whatever is the opposite of the Dog Whisperer—maybe the Dog Screamer–some guy lunging repeatedly at the animal with a stick that he also used to bang a metal pan just inches from the dog’s ears, all while the owner held the dog in place with a piece of rope around the neck. Ah, the special bond between man and dog.

I also grimace when I see a skinny horse pulling a wooden cart overloaded with rocks right

photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/superbebito/854382475/lightbox/

Chickens know what Bamako looks like upside-down. Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos /superbebito/854382475/lightbox/

down a traffic-filled road. Or when a kid is beating the side of a sad-looking donkey to make it go faster. Or when a guy on a bike is laden with tiny, rusty, wire cages stuffed with live chickens, and he unloads them by tossing them to the ground. Or when longhorn cattle walk along the busiest road in town, crossing in front of speeding cars and motos that seem to miss them by mere centimeters.

Now I’m no Pollyanna. I know that animal cruelty happens in the good ol’ U.S. of A. too, and probably on a much larger scale (factory farm tour anyone?). It just doesn’t seem as horrific because I know there are animal rights organizations doing their best to stop awful things from happening. Nearly every week I receive an action alert from PeTA or the Humane Society asking me to email someone, and I do. Last week I emailed the University of Wisconsin/Madison, asking them to stop experimenting on cats (http://www.peta.org/features/uw-madison-cruelty.aspx). The email included this lovely description:

“According to records obtained by PETA, one cat was subjected to invasive surgeries on

photo: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

photo: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

her ears, skull, and brain. In the first operation, a stainless steel post was screwed to her skull so that her head could be immobilized during experiments. In the next surgery they cut into her head and skull and then applied a toxic substance to her inner ears in order to deafen her.”

Seriously though, what had to happen to that researcher as a child to make him okay with drilling into the skulls of live cats? Was he thinking, “I’m sure Fluffy won’t even notice this” as his Black & Decker cordless drill began to grind skull bone? Who knows, maybe he goes home and sits on his couch made of kitten fur and baby bald eagle feathers. I just hope his lamp made out of panda cub bones falls on him some day.

While farm animals aren’t exactly coddled here, at least Malians aren’t drilling kitten skulls or filming crush videos (in which women crush tiny animals with their stiletto heels—no lie—that’s really a thing). I can understand why a country with a 28% literacy rate wouldn’t grasp the notion of humane animal husbandry. What I can’t grasp is why a country like the U.S., with a 99% literacy rate, needs an animal rights organization to remind a university that it’s not cool to pour poison into the opened skulls of live cats.

school sheep

Mr. School Sheep #1 (the closest I came to naming he-who-would-be-dinner)

At school we had two “pet” sheep this year, munching grass in the distance while kids played on the swings. One had the biggest bluest eyes, and the other the loudest bleating I’ve ever heard. I didn’t let on to the kids that these were Tabaski sheep. Little did they know, one would be sacrificed right on the playground by a special Muslim man who is sanctioned to do this sort of thing (“Keep your classroom curtains closed between 8:30 and 9:00 AM!” our director reminded me). I was pleased to discover that this butcher guy had a hard time getting past the school guards as he brought an array of shiny, sharp knives in all shapes and sizes.

Our school sheep visit the cafeteria.

Our school sheep visit the cafeteria.

Supposedly the process is a quick thing done in a dignified manner and that’s what I’ll keep telling myself. Anyhow, this sheep would be served at the school’s Tabaski feast, and the second sheep would be raffled to a staff member (custodian, driver, gardener). This is a big deal as the sheep this year were frighteningly expensive, and continued to get more expensive as the big day drew closer. Since every family is expected to buy one, and the average worker’s monthly salary is $125, it becomes a hardship when you shell out $150 or $200 for a single sheep. So winning a sheep is a good thing. Even my cell phone service, Orange, sent a text saying that if I added minutes I would be in a lottery for a free sheep.

The following Monday I glanced out my window, and it was a little sad to see the Niger River without the school sheep prancing along in the foreground. I thought it was best not to mention anything to my students so as not to upset them. That morning I had them do a writing exercise about point of view. They took on the role of various people/objects/animals and wrote a paragraph on the same topic, a rainy day at school. I purposely did not include the sheep, as I didn’t want to call attention to their absence. I mean, what they don’t know can’t hurt them, right?

I did include the school tortoise though. Here’s what the student who was assigned the tortoise’s point of view read aloud:

Rainy days are the best at school. I have the whole field to myself because those loud kids

School tortoise; slow but enduring

School tortoise; slow but enduring

are inside. The only thing I have to worry about is sheep poop all over the ground. I have to crawl through it! I’m so glad it’s almost Tabaski and somebody will be eating those sheep and I won’t have to deal with that poop anymore.

And the class exploded with laughter and revelry while I pretended our school sheep had really escaped and were frolicking in a field of lavender in the south of France.

Chapter 22: Zombies, High-Stakes Testing, and Cab Calloway

The other night I was awakened at 3 AM when the electricity cut out for the eighth time, the AC unit sputtered to a halt, and the guard cranked up the generator, which sounds like 100 of those machines at Home Depot that automatically shake your paint can. paintAs I was lying in bed with that soothing, lullaby-like background noise, I started to reflect on this school year which, surprisingly, is drawing to a close.

Seems just like yesterday when I stepped foot for the first time in my classroom at the American International School of Bamako. Before our August 2012 arrival the school had been shuttered for four months, closing in April as a result of some, um, minor issues in the country. Okay, maybe they weren’t so minor (and mom and mom-in-law, you can just skip over this next part and head straight to the next paragraph). Maybe there was a coup that effectively ended Mali’s record as the West African country with the longest and most stable democracy. And maybe this led to the total destabilization of Mali’s north and allowed crazy Islamists to take over a few towns up there that required thousands of French troops to flush them out and a huge contingent of UN troops to keep them out. But I digress.

Anyway, when I walked into my new classroom it had the look of a suddenly evacuated classroom that had been empty for awhile, sort of like when the humans in The Walking Dead went into that abandoned school looking for shelter from the zombies, although I can assure you that I have not spotted a single zombie on the school grounds here yet. Written The-Walking-Dead-Walkpapers-D-the-walking-dead-30444936-1440-900on the board in dry erase marker that wouldn’t erase was “April 5, 2012” and “It’s the zombie apocalypse!” Wait a minute, I think that last sentence was from The Walking Dead, but you get the idea.

Every surface was covered with a layer of Tang-colored dust. There was a chocolate bar in the teacher’s desk (and yes I tried it and it tasted old but I ate it anyway). And the student desks and cubbies were still stuffed full of half empty notebooks with 3D covers (I snagged a 3D Transformers notebook that I proudly used all year long), dried out markers, desiccated foodstuff, love/hate notes, socks, half-full water bottles, and the like. I really did feel like one of The Walking Dead humans scavenging for goodies as I picked through everything in this room (and the room next door), creating stockpiles that I used all year long.

Once my classroom environment seemed more conducive to learning and less like a potential battleground for the undead, I was ready to plan my lessons. And then it hit me like a crowbar across a zombie’s crumbling skull…here at AISB I was free from the shackles of high-stakes testing! I’m sure I levitated off my chair a few centimeters.

I looked on my desk, and there was no gigantic binder swollen with pages of information about the formats of questions on the state test or which benchmarks to focus on and which to ignore. No stack of graphs showing me how pathetic my school was compared to the test scores of other schools. No school “data wall” made of color-coded index cards, two per student, showing their most recent state test score and taped to the wall in a massive 10’ x 30’ display that showed us which students to really pay attention to and which can function independently (e.g. which ones you can ignore). data wallNo faculty meetings in which we were told to put the arts, social studies, field trips, and guest speakers “on the backburner,” (e.g. until the state test was over in April). And no know-it-all school district people skulking around the school, popping into our classroom to make sure we were focused on state test prep and not something useless like learning about the three branches of government or learning to speak a foreign language.

Back in Florida a few years ago I wrote a Grade 4 language arts unit based on a short story about the Harlem Renaissance. I really couldn’t imagine teaching about the Harlem Renaissance without exposing my mostly African American students to the wonderful music, dance, literature, and visual art from this exciting time in U.S. history. harlem renSo I was about to begin teaching a lesson from that unit when in walks a gaggle of District “experts,” sour-faced minions who lined up across the back of my classroom with the body language of an executioner—no slight welcoming head bob or quick smile to put me at ease. They clutched notebooks and iPads (because you can look even more official when you carry an Apple product) and had that “so-get-teaching-so-we-can-criticize-you-and-move-on-to do-it-some-more” kind of look.

Frankly, I wasn’t ruffled in the least. Judging by their fashion and hair choices alone, I knew I didn’t have a whole lot to worry about. Although the lesson I was about to teach wasn’t as drill-and-kill/worksheety as they probably hoped for, I was a dutiful soldier because I had done everything on the district checklist:

  • objectives written on the board in kid-friendly language (check!)
  • monthly skill schedule posted next to the door, although it was kind of a fake one I did for show (check!)
  • “anchor chart” of the skill I was teaching stuck to the wall (check!)
  • detailed lesson plans—complete with every tested benchmark color-coded—on my desk for all to see (check!)
  • all creative inclinations, emotions, and personal opinions drained from my body (alright, so I didn’t do everything on the checklist)

Bring it on, I thought to myself.

I began by playing a blues song from the Harlem Renaissance–Graveyard Dream Blues bessie_smithby Bessie Smith–and asked the kids to pay close attention to the lyrics, any patterns they noticed, and the music itself. Afterwards I charted their observations: it was about a sad subject, certain lines were repeated, and the music was slow and gloomy.

Next I played a jazz song from the same era–Harlem Hospitality by Cab Calloway)–and again asked the kids to listen carefully. cabcallowayWhile the song played the students bounced and swayed to the music—I mean it was Cab Calloway music after all! However, those goofs in the back stood as still as statues. Really. So then I charted the kids’ observations: this song was about joyful things, the lines in the song were short and jumpy, and the music was fast and fun. We spent a few moments comparing and contrasting the two songs in a Venn diagram since compare/contrast was my targeted reading skill.

Next I showed PowerPoint slides of two Langston Hughes poems that we read aloud. After they got a good feel for each poem I explained that one of these was considered a “blues poem” and one was a “jazz poem,” and it was up to them to decide which was which. This required them to refer to the notes about the blues and jazz songs, so in teams they tried to match the characteristics of the poems with the songs.

The discussion was animated and sort of fun to watch—they were singing lines from each song, arguing about what certain stanzas meant (“Seriously Kayla, do you think a sad person shimmies and shakes? That’s jazz, okay?”) , and pointing out patterns in the songs and poems. Eventually they did correctly identify each poem, and we spent some time reflecting on why a poet would write in two such very different styles. Their comments showed real critical thinking, and even better they asked me to play the songs again (and again). They were also now instant fans of Bessie Smith and Cab Calloway.

I was thrilled and so proud of my students. But the Sour Squad in the back stood motionless, like wax figures in Madame Tussaud’s museum–just not as lifelike, though. jane lynch 040810They solemnly filed out of my room and into the class next door to spend some more quality time glowering. Even though a cloud of gloom surrounded them, I was somewhat hopeful that even they could clearly see that my students (a) were actively engaged in reading, (b) had thoughtfully applied the skills of comparing and contrasting, (c) tackled poetry that Grade 4 students seldom tackle.

But it was not to be. In the voluntary feedback session that I decided to attend (along with our principal and just one other colleague who showed up), the leader of this pessimistic pack–a PhD, mind you–first addressed my colleague and rambled on in some gobblety-goo edu-speak laced with plenty of buzz words (that year they included “efficacy” and “laser-like focus”) and plenty of acronyms (at a two day workshop I attended that year I recorded 67 acronyms the speaker used). Then she sighed deeply and said to me in an emotionless tone—without making eye contact of course–something like, “I really don’t even understand what you were doing.”

yosemite_sam_stressedAt that moment I’m pretty sure I looked like an outraged cartoon character with steam shooting out of both ears and my enlarged eyeballs boomeranging out of my head. My principal, noticing my reddening face, blurted out something like, “Well, Dr. Dourbutt, you have to understand that Jeff uses many different techniques like arts integration and….” But Dourbutt cut her off and started with the rambling edu-speak again. So then I cut her off.

“Have you ever taught at a school like this, with mostly African American students living below the poverty level, smack dab in the middle of the worst crime-filled neighborhood in town?” I asked in a fake, calm voice.

Before she could answer I added, “Do you know that every year my student’s high-stakes reading test scores exceed those of the school district and the State of Florida? And I don’t use test prep workbooks or test prep worksheets and I don’t drill-and-kill them to death. And they love to read.” I was on on fire and felt like I had those eyes the demons have in that show Supernatural.demon

Then I went on a bit of a rant, schooling her on the research-based approach of arts integration and how my students need to understand the amazing cultural contributions of African Americans and reminding her as often as I could that I was a National Board Certified Teacher in literacy and, oh yeah, that I was a published author and at least my shoes were well cared for and polished instead of all scuffy like hers. Well, I didn’t say that shoe part but I sure as hell wanted to.shoe

Then I did one of those little moves from the movies that you always want to use for real. I curtly said, “Well, I’m done here,” slammed my notebook shut, and got up and walked out. Except I walked out in the wrong direction and had to embarrassingly circle back and pass that same room again, where I heard my principal trying to smooth things over the best she could.

toy 2011 113Well guess what? There is actually a happy ending to this story. That very same year I was chosen Palm Beach County Teacher of the Year based on the “innovative instructional approaches” I used. I was honored out of a pool of 13,000 teachers for using techniques that ol’ Dr. Scuffy Shoes didn’t even understand! And of course I used every speaking opportunity required by this award to retell this ironic Dr. Scuffy Shoes story, even though it made for some awkward laughter once when the crowd was mostly school district office folks.

Fast forward two years later, and here I am in Mali where I’ve successfully escaped from Planet Testobsessed. I’ve landed in an international school totally unaffected by corporate “reformers” like Bill “I didn’t finish college but I know what’s best for teachers” Gates and Michelle “My kids go to private school” Rhee. But get this…we still give a normed-referenced test (the MAP). It’s a couple of short computer tests we give at the beginning and ending of the year, and we receive instant results. We use that immediate data, along with many other measures like classroom observations, class work, teacher-created tests, parent conferences, etc., to plan and tweak our instruction to meet each kid’s needs. Radical, huh?

However, unlike in the U.S. the results from that one test do not determine my salary or bonus or whether or not I’m fired or whether or not I get an ulcer. And my school is not assigned a grade based on the results, and punished with a spanking or a dunce cap if we get a C.

And best of all, we don’t have any stupid test pep rallies, a bizarre phenomenon sweeping the nation. Here’s one from a school in Indiana with the teachers performing “Test Me Maybe,” a parody of, well do I really have to explain that one?

Nope, here in Bamako we don’t spend a minute of energy composing high stakes test-related songs. Here’s part of a test rap song I found online, this one written for Florida’s high-stakes test, the FCAT:

Alright, now I know y’all hate the FCAT
But ya got pass that
So you don’t mess around and get held back
Let’s do somethin’ about that

Say I’m gonna pass the FCAT
You need to pass the FCAT
We need to pass the FCAT
Whatcha all know, gonna blast that

Y’all really wanna know about the FCAT
Whatcha need to know to try and pass that
Why listen up close I’m ‘splaining that
How to do good on the FCAT

I know ya’ll know where the lie-berry’s at
And most ya’ll seems to got a backpack
So you gots the books so you can study that
Got to put in work to pass that.

Gosh I hope those Florida kids do well on the grammar portions of the FCAT.

I’m also pleased that at AISB we have no high-stakes testing flash mobs. I know you’re thinking I made that one up. Nope. Here’s one from a school in Missouri.

We also don’t have to bribe our students to do well on the test with rewards, such as a limo ride to the Golden Corral buffet, a post-test dance party, or making the principal kiss a pig. In this video a teacher explains how his students can “win some awesome prizes for rocking the FCAT,” including iPads and flat screen TVs.

Geez, all of this testapalooza stuff sounds funny at first–until you realize how really sad it is. At least all of those activities are supported by loads of research proving their effectiveness, and students are sure to look back fondly on these activities as some of their favorite school memories. Okay, not really.

The upside of being cured of test-mania disorder is that I have plenty of time to….wait for it….TEACH! Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not like a free-for-all here at school. We abide by international academic benchmarks and a set of school beliefs that brazenly encourage resourcefulness, creativity and self-expression. That’s a bit of a departure from my previous world where we were encouraged to be dependent, robotic, dullards. As radical as it sounds, here we are actually entrusted to use our own talents and expertise to create lessons that meet these guidelines. I’m thinking Dr. Scuffy’s head would explode if she ever visited our school.

So, in the interest of preventing cranial explosions, I’d like to dedicate my big finale to Sgt. Scuffy and her band of bothers. Here is what happens when an educator goes through high-stakes testing detox and lands in a magical (albeit dusty) world where creativity and critical thinking are valued more than high-stakes test scores. Welcome to my classroom…..

Anti-Malaria Man to the Rescue
If there’s one thing my partner Jamey taught me, it’s that science should be cool (he once bleached his hair in class to teach his students about re-dox reactions). So I had my kids write and illustrate (in French and English) a graphic novel about malaria, a disease that infects up to 2 million people a year in Mali.P3012110 It’s a story about the superhero Anti-Malaria Man (with leotards and boots and the whole outfit thing) that teaches about malaria transmission, treatment, and prevention. Our PTO funded the printing and next week we distribute copies to local school children in a poor community near our school. My kids learned multiple science benchmarks, created a smashing plot, became fantastic illustrators, and will never look at a mosquito in the same way again. Check out the finished product: Adventures of AMM (English)

Cool School Rules
IMG_1488Rather than bore students on the first day of school with a laundry list of rules they must IMG_1487follow (no teasing the school tortoises, no touching Niger River water

without gloves, etc.) I allowed them to take the lead. I taught them about artist Keith Haring, and how his simple drawings communicated complex messages. I challenged teams of students to create a Haring-style poster–using mostly illustration–that encouraged positive behavior. Our director had these duplicated and put up around school.

IMG_1489

My Face is Green
The best way to get to know my students is to first see how they view themselves. So I introduced them to artist Andy Warhol, and how he used unconventional artistic methods to portray celebrities. Students created their own Warhol-style portraits, expressing their personality through color they applied to a black and white photo of themselves. Then they wrote an artist’s statement to explain their crazy artistic decisions. I’m hoping to one day sell these for millions, just like Mr. Warhol did.

warhol

It’s Vocabulary Instruction, Not Waterboarding
In my student days, vocabulary instruction began with a new list of random words from the teacher on Monday, finding definitions in the dictionary Tuesday, writing sentences using each word Wednesday and Thursday, and a spelling test on Friday. If we missed a word we had to write it 10 times. I’m sure my teachers found these techniques right out of the “How to Make Language Arts Torture” handbook.

In my class, our vocabulary words are taken directly from the novel we are reading—a couple of words each day from the chapters we are about to read. I select words that are key to the story and that will be useful to them in their own life. Students create a 3-column chart (word, definition, sketch). I read them the passage in the book that contains each word, and student teams use context clues to determine the definition. Then they make a quick sketch that will remind them of the definition. Finally, each day I check their understanding of the words by having them create a tableau (frozen pose) showing the definition of the word I say. tableauThey might each individually do a tableau at the same time, or they might work in a team to create a tableau. Every day they beg me to let them do “just one more” tableau. I can’t recall begging my teacher to please let me look up “just one more word in the dictionary.”

Cubist Character Portraits
After reading the novel Shiloh and focusing on identifying character traits, I gave the students a quick overview of Cubism, the early 20th-century art style from where objects are analyzed, broken up and reassembled in an abstracted form, and where the artist depicts the subject from multiple viewpoints to represent the subject in a greater context (thank you Wikipedia). cubismThen I asked them to choose one character from Shiloh and create a cubist portrait. It was certainly a challenge to represent the character traits in a more abstract way, and required a through understanding of the physical, emotional, and intellectual aspects of a character. They also explained their portrait in a written artist’s statement, which made their seemingly bizarre artistic decisions seem a tad less bizarre. Sometimes.

Abstractly Speaking
After a unit on the Japanese-American internment camps in the U.S. during WWII, students chose from three poems written by prisoners from the camps. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter analyzing the type of emotion the poet expressed, I gave the students a quick Abstract 101 lesson, showing them how the artists used only shape, line, and color to express emotions. Then students then created an abstract piece of art that visually expressed the emotions in the poem they chose. After this experience, I’m pretty sure these kids will never stand in front of an abstract painting at a museum and say, “That’s stupid. Anyone could paint that.”

It’s Alive!
It’s one thing to read a novel, but another to live it. With story dramatization the kids act out a scene from a novel we just read, taking on the role of not only humans, but also doors, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAdogs, trees, and caves. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABefore we begin we discuss the scene—the motives of the characters, the part of the plot where we are at, “what’s between the lines.” Then as I narrate, they create dialogue and OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAaction that brings the scene to life. They can add or tweak the dialogue and action in the text, as long as they stay true to the plot. And everyone speaks, even doors and caves. Can’t tell you how much I enjoy hearing the lines that inanimate objects come up with (Cave wall: I wish that guy would stop chipping off pieces of me with a hammer and just find that hidden door!”)

Human Geometry
To make sure students could thoroughly identify a dozen or so geometric shapes–OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAbecause you never know when you might need to know the characteristics of a triangular prism–students walked around campus identifying and sketching the shapes they saw in the architecture and landscape (real question from that day: “Mr. Fessler, I’m drawing the guard’s head since it’s either a sphere or a cube.”). Back in the classroom they worked in a team to create various geometric shapes using only their bodies. I would definitely have sprained my back doing the moves they did.

A Picture Paints 1000 (or more) Words
In every academic subject I had students analyze visual art (paintings and sculpture) that connected to the topic. We looked at Paul Klee’s painting Fish Magic to deeper understand the concept of “magic,” something we were exploring in the novel The Wish Giver. We looked at African mudcloth and Navajo rugs to understand symmetry in math. We analyzed illustrations from the Odyssey to understand Greek mythology. In writing class we looked at Monet’s impressionistic masterpieces from Giverny to see how simple paint strokes and color can speak volumes—just like a few choice descriptive words can create an amazing essay. Of course I invested a little time upfront to teach them about the elements of art so they had the tools to analyze, but it paid off in the end. I now have a roomful of art critics who can talk about one painting for an entire period if I let them.

A Song in Our Heart
Just as I did with visual art, I never passed by an opportunity to have the kids listen to and analyze a song connected to a topic or concept in class. From the most basic level (Schoolhouse Rock videos on conjunctions and adverbs) to the more complex (comparing and contrasting the themes in Christina Aguelira’s song Beautiful and our novel Loser; identifying science fiction subgenres in the Carpenters’ song Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft and Ella Fitzgerald’s song Two Little Men in a Flying Saucer and comparing those with the subgenre of our novel The Forgotten Door), music brought more life and learning into our classroom. Plus I’ve expanded their musical knowledge/appreciation beyond Gangnam Style.

Classmates Across the Sea
As a teacher in Florida my students collaborated on a project with kids in Northern Ireland and Zambia. This year, working with my good pals at Blue Planet Writers’ Room, my students in Mali are collaborating with students in North Palm Beach, Florida. We’ve explored the concepts of community and peace through writing and art, and will soon have a live chat between the classes IF the Skype gods smile down upon us.

Multiple Intelligences in Living (water)Color
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter teaching a unit on multiple intelligences, each student created twoOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA watercolor portraits, one of a famous person they admire and another that was a self-portrait. Both had to include symbols expressing the multiple intelligences of the painting’s subject. The word “multiple” was so fitting for these projects as we had multiple spills of water across nearly-finished portraits, multiple instances of paint drops landing on another person’s portrait, and multiple times when I said, “WHY oh why did I choose watercolors for this project?”OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And that’s just a glimpse into my high-stakes-test-free classroom. Whenever I did this kind of teaching in America it was always done covertly with my eye out the window, watching for the test prep police. Now I’ve come out of the closet….as a creative teacher whose not afraid to inspire my students, not afraid to step outside of the box, and not afraid to trust my own expertise.

I think I’m still afraid of zombies though, especially ones wearing super scuffy shoes.

Chapter 21: Star Spangled Banter: How Grits, a Bidet, and a Tea Wench Helped Me Understand America & the World

Last year, just a few weeks before we left our old stomping grounds in Florida to begin a new life in Mali, we decided to pay a final visit to the West Palm Beach GreenMarket (yep, all one word, capital M…very fancy).

Fancy GreenMarket in West Palm Beach, Florida (Photo from Palm Beach Post)

Fancy GreenMarket in West Palm Beach, Florida (Photo from Palm Beach Post)

Unlike the outdoor markets we now frequent here in West Africa, the fancy GreenMarket is a tad different. It has no sheep heads, no ladies carrying gigantic baskets of bras or yams on their head, and requires about a week’s salary if you want to buy a slice of carrot cake. Seriously, for what I spent on a cup of Bob’s Fresh Squeezed Lemonade at the GreenMarket, I could buy a donkey cart full of lemons at our outdoor market in Bamako. And that would include the donkey.

loose leaf tea

photo from tealeafreview.com

But overpriced, hand-squeezed citrus beverages aside, we did enjoy strolling around the Greenmarket every week, gazing at the scenery, meeting friends, and taking out loans to buy slices of carrot cake. On this particular farewell visit we popped into a booth selling loose leaf tea, mostly because they had free samples of iced tea and we were thirsty. As we looked among the many exotic tea flavors (mango-mint-papaya, or black pepper-Listerine-garlic-hairspray, etc.) the fifty-something proprietor lady drifted over and began the hard sell. You know, the old “If you buy 4 packs you get the fifth for half price and that’s the best price you’ll ever pay for tea of this quality that’s handpicked by toddlers with each leaf individually hand-knotted blah blah blah” kind of stuff.

But this time we had a good excuse not to spend $47 on a bag of dried leaves that makes about 5 cups of mediocre tea. We explained that we were moving to Africa in a couple of weeks and couldn’t fit one more thing in our luggage—not even one, single, solitary, hand-knotted tealeaf.

“Africa? Why would you move there?” the tea wench blurted out.

“We have jobs teaching at an international school,” I answered.

“Ahhhh, so you’re doing it for the money. It figures,” she said.

"What am I going to do with all of my millions?" said no teacher ever.

“What am I going to do with all of my millions?” said no teacher ever.

I paused in stunned silence, only coming to my senses after gulping another shot of free iced tea. The money? Did she really just equate teaching with money? Because everyone knows that Donald Trump and Bill Gates made their gazillions by teaching, right? Because when I planned my future goals I said to myself, “Self, you’re going to make your first million by 30 in the highly lucrative and cut-throat world of elementary school teaching.” Because every teacher is so flush with cash that we use it to stuff our mattresses or store it in secret bank accounts in the Cayman Islands—right next to Mitt Romney’s vault.

“Um, I will say money wasn’t a huge factor in our decision,” I replied, biting my lip. “We are going for the adventure and because we love learning about other cultures.”

“Well, I’m sorry but I love A-MARE-EE-CUH,” she responded. She heavily accented each syllable in “America” for added effect.

Huh? Was this tea hag now implying that we were unpatriotic because we were moving abroad? For pete’s sake I was nearly born on the 4th of July and I once owned Old Glory-themed boxer shorts.boxers I was so flabbergasted I actually couldn’t think of a witty retort (I really, really hate when that happens). So I just walked away–with a last cup of free iced tea, mind you. We rich folks still like our free samples.

Of course 20 minutes later as we ate supper nearby, I thought of dozens of great comebacks. And was I ever ready to return and give her piece of my mind. But Jamey, wisely, prevented me from doing so because I’m pretty sure tea leaves would have been flying.

It's "offical." Tea Party members lack 3rd grade spelling skills.

It’s “offical.” Tea Party members lack 3rd grade spelling skills.

We decided it would be a waste of time though, because more than likely she was (ironically) a Tea Party freak who loves America/guns/telling people how superior her religion is, and hates anybody not possessing her pale skin, her heterosexuality, and the English language. Plus she had really bad hair and a cloying aroma of drugstore perfume that had irritated my nasal passages.

This got me to thinking, though. If I had to guess, I’d say she’s never left the U.S., and that her idea of a cultural experience is a trip to Disney’s EPCOT Center where she can have breakfast in Norway, lunch in China, and supper in Mexico–all in the same day. She probably couldn’t point out Mali on a map, or Africa for that matter. Wouldn’t even want to. I mean how can someone understand the world

Dining under the stars, well, I mean the plaster ceiling and twinkle lights, at EPCOT's Mexican restaurant.

Dining under the stars, well, I mean the plaster ceiling and twinkle lights, at EPCOT’s Mexican restaurant. (photo : attractionsmagazine.com

we live in when the only non-American she’s probably ever met is the cashier at the Chinese take-out place where she gorges on crab Rangoon?

I’m lucky that from an early age, I learned the world didn’t end at our city limits. My parents bravely took my siblings and I on driving trips across the country where I learned about people I’d never encountered before (cowboys, American Indians, southerners, surfers), food I’d never before eaten (grits, trout, oranges right off the tree), and things I’d never experienced in the Midwest (rodeos, chameleons, mountains). I also learned what

My family on our trip to the western U.S., stopping roadside for an ice cold Shasta orange soda in the cooler.

My family on our trip to the western U.S., stopping roadside for an ice cold Shasta orange soda in the cooler.

those quarter machines in the men’s bathroom were for, but that’s a different story.

I am sincerely grateful that my folks cautioned us not to demean things just because they were different from what we were used to. That’s an important lesson to learn if you are a Midwestern kid whose idea of exotic food is a Chef Boyardee homemade pizza with canned mushrooms and Velveeta cheese.

Kiss my grots.

Kiss my grits.

On a family trip to Florida I distinctly remember putting a heaping teaspoon of grits in my mouth for the first time at some roadside diner, and feeling like I was eating the stuff at the bottom of my goldfish aquarium. As I was about to say something to that effect, my dad said, “Keep it to yourself. Grits are a famous southern dish and you can’t hurt their feelings by saying you don’t like them.” So I ate goldfish poo-flavored mush and learned to be respectful. On the bright side, I do like grits today, especially when a half pound of cheese and butter are melted in with them.

When I was 16 they even allowed me to travel 3500 miles to live as an exchange student in faraway Peru. Imagine, a naïve teenager plucked from the cornfields of Illinois and plopped down into a country with stunning beaches, abject poverty, thousands of years of history, and a language I didn’t speak.

My 16-year-old self, hiking in the Andes for several days, wishing I had my Clairol Herbal Essence shampoo

My 16-year-old self, hiking in the Andes for several days, wishing I had my Clairol Herbal Essence shampoo.

I’ll admit that for a while I saw (and judged) everything through my sensible Midwestern lens. Don’t businessmen in suits know better than to pee in the street? Would it kill anyone to put a few ice cubes in the Coca Cola? What is that stupid extra toilet in the bathroom without a seat? Why do they have guinea pigs in the food section at the market instead of the pet section?

81640026

Sitting on the 1000-year ruins of Saksaywaman near Cusco, Peru, wondering if there is a McDonalds nearby.

81640022

“One of these things, is not like the other….” Me and my Peruvian host family.

But as the weeks passed I found that when I actually appreciated and valued the differences in the Peruvian way of life–instead of mocking or questioning them–I was a much happier teen. I also learned not to be too swift to judge. Each morning in the shower I remember thinking how totally stupid it was that Peruvians didn’t use shower curtains. I would shower, water would pour onto the floor, the cockroaches would do the backstroke, and afterwards the maid would come in and put newspaper all over the floor to soak it up (as she gave me a semi-dirty look). A month or two later I mentioned this to the other seven American exchange students living in the same town. “Can you believe it hasn’t dawned on Peruvians to use a freaking shower curtain?” I said. They looked at me like I was insane, and promptly told me that they all had shower curtains in their Peruvian homes. Okay, okay, so you don’t judge an entire nation on the peculiar habits of one family….I get it, I get it.

81640023

Finally made it to Machu Picchu, happy to have checked off “hiking” from my bucket list so I won’t ever have to do it again.

My experience also improved as I practiced and practiced my Spanish until I dreamed in it. Life became a little more meaningful, the world a little more interesting, and I no longer had to mime holding myself and grimacing to get directions to the bathroom. For the first time I started to think globally rather than midwesternly (probably not a word, but you get the point), and I was digging it big time.

Now to be truthful, I wouldn’t say I fully integrated into Peruvian culture. I still went out and bought ice cube trays because I couldn’t stomach warm Coke, though the warmish Pisco Sours were never a problem for me. And if I had to relieve my bladder I still bypassed the curb to use an actual enclosed bathroom. Bringing that particular curbside custom back to Illinois would have resulted in a hefty fine anyway.

I left Peru and returned to the States, starting my senior year in high school just two days later. While I’m sure I looked very international and jet-settish on the outside, I was a discombobulated, cultural mess on the inside. I mean, just a few weeks earlier I had hiked three days on an ancient Incan Trail to Machu Picchu, at one point traversing a landslide by inching across a rope. Now I was hanging out at McDonalds and watching HBO.

81640025

Me looking surprisingly chipper despite having altitude sickness, high in the Andes.

Not to say one of those experiences is better than the other–I mean a 15th century Incan village nestled on a mountaintop above the clouds is impressive, but I seriously craved McDonalds fries the ENTIRE time I was in South America. It was just that my mind had been opened so wide to the challenges and joys of another world and then magically I was back in my comfort zone, nestled in my percale sheets (I had not yet discovered the wonders of 1200 thread count, Egyptian cotton sheets).

Image0002

The Great Pyramid of Cheops, The Sphynx, an unruly camel, and sunburned me in Cairo, Egypt.

But while culture shock had set in, culture obsession had too. Peruvian culture had merely whet my appetite. I spent a lot of time staring at a world map taped to my wall, trying to figure out how I could experience all those other countries. This time I set my sights on Europe and before my senior year in college I had arranged for a summer internship in Nuremberg, Germany followed by a few months of backpacking through a dozen countries on two continents. It was another life-changing experience where I discovered things like:

  • transvestite cabarets exist
  • the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Cairo is stunning but inside smells like urine
  • cute gypsy kids aren’t shaking your hand but picking your pocket

    Trying to look Italian in Venice by wearing a gondelier shirt.

    Trying to look Italian in Venice by wearing a gondelier shirt.

  • London punks spit on you if you take their picture

    192 London

    My first exposure to live punks and my first experience being spat upon by punks.

  • a gondola ride in Venice costs the same as a night in a fancy hotel, and the gondoliers didn’t seem to be doing too much singing
  • the beaches in Nice are full of pebbles and exposed breasts
  • drinking dark German beer is like eating a Thanksgiving meal
  • one shouldn’t climb all the way to the top of the Acropolis in Athens if one has diarrhea
167 Nice

The beaches of Nice, full of pebbles and breasts galore.

And I haven’t ignored my own country either. I’ve experienced 41 U.S. states, and let me just say that some places in America can feel as exotic/bizarre/challenging as foreign lands. For example, Flat Lick, Kentucky, nestled in a dry county, chock-full of evangelical churches and dollar stores, and whose claim to fame is that Colonel Sanders built the first Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant here). I was a tad outside of my comfort zone to say the least.

But really, when it comes down to it, I strive to exist outside of my comfort zone, whether it’s mingling with Elvis fans at Graceland, or with a Buddhist monk in a cave in the jungles of Thailand, or with evangelical teachers at a Cracker Barrel restaurant just off the interstate, or with Kuna Indians on an island just off the coast of Panama. For me it’s an adrenaline rush as well as a way to broaden my horizons. I saw this quote the other day by a poet/painter/musician named Ching Hai that perfectly summed up my philosophy:

“This world is a school, the best university. One suffers too much in hell, and one is too happy in heaven. Only in this world we have happiness, anger, sadness, and joy, which make us reflect, learn and discipline ourselves everyday. The more we are disciplined, the stronger we will become.”

PatrioticHorse11-01-300

I’m proud to come from a nation where even horses are patriotic.

And this is where Mrs. Tea Bag and, sadly, quite a few Americans fail. They use Fox News, rather than the world, as their teacher. Their viewpoint is so limited, constrained, and xenophobic that they equate moving abroad with defecting. I’ll admit, I’m not a flag-waving-Yankee-Doodle kind of guy who sings Lee Greenwood’s “I’m Proud to Be an American” in the shower every morning (with a shower curtain, of course). And I’ve never felt the need to profess that my country is better than another. Jingoism isn’t my cup of tea.

foxI remember walking down the street in Lima, Peru marveling at how every home flew a flag on Peru’s independence day—until I was told that it was required by law to do so or you’d be fined. Fast forward to a couple of years ago when the Florida legislature passed a law requiring an American flag in every public school classroom, or else you’d be drawn and quartered (well, maybe not quartered). Forced patriotism is so, well, unpatriotic.

real-housewives-of-atlanta-season-5-480x320But I do appreciate many things about the U.S., such as our amazing arts culture, our incredibly diverse population, and Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” (which, thankfully, we can still watch in Africa). I really am glad I was born in the USA, particularly in the wholesome Midwest where I learned to be wholesome. On the other hand, there are many things about the U.S. I don’t appreciate so much right now, like a public education system hijacked by profiteers, people insisting that our country operate under the rules of their particular religion, and American Idol (please somebody, put that show out of its misery). Oh, and Walmart sucks too.

When Jamey and I gave up our old life in America for the sub-Saharan landscapes of Mali, it wasn’t because we hated America. Our life in the States wasn’t horrible at all, but even worse….it was routine! The Jersey Shore kids had their GTL schedule (Gym, Tan, Laundry) but we had our WGDFAIFOT schedule (Work, Gym, Dinner, Fall-Asleep-In-Front-Of-Television). I kept thinking of that darn Teddy Roosevelt quote and fearing the gray twilight approaching:

“Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”

Always give the right-of-way to animals with built in weapons. (photo: Nathan Kennedy)

Always give the right-of-way to animals with built in weapons. (photo: Nathan Kennedy)

A gray twilight! What could be worse! We strove to be daring and not let old Teddy down. So, to the consternation of some of our friends, we purposely looked for international schools in developing countries—third world countries—because, well, we like that vibe. We get excited about chaotic streets full of donkeys and cars and long horned cattle and motos and sheep and people hawking jumbo packs of toilet paper. It makes our day to see a dude balancing a dozen trays of eggs, a sheet of plate glass, and a live guinea hen on his bicycle. We actually get a thrill trying to talk the police out of a “fine” for some false offense they pulled us over for. Last week when we were pulled over for our “dark window tinting” we spoke to them in Bambara and they called us their brothers (although we still had to give them some dough, it was amicable).

We understand that this kind of environment disturbs/scares/repels many people, just as

These are not really chipmunks. (sorry to ruin the Disney magic)

These are not really chipmunks. (sorry to ruin the Disney magic)

trips to Disneyworld or fancy shopping malls disturb/scare/repel us. As we were pondering our final choices for schools, one of our best friends said to me point blank, “I’m fine with you going to any place except Mali.” While not exactly a vote of confidence, we realized that if our first choice actually frightened people, it was probably just the place for us. Fortunately our parents, while nervous, are nothing but supportive of their wayward sons carrying on in Africa.

bamako-city-centre-market

Shopping in Bamako….

The advantage to living life while possessing an enormous worldview is that you understand and appreciate the differences in people. Some of us like living in developing countries with dusty roads and questionable infrastructure, while some of us opt for swanky, glittering cities where the electricity actually

Shopping in Paris

….or shopping in Paris? What’s your pleasure?

stays on throughout the day. Some of us return like clockwork to our favorite vacay spots year after year, while some of us wouldn’t think of revisiting a place until we have seen the rest of the world first. Some of us live for theme parks, casinos, or Carnival Cruises, while some of us, um, don’t. So I don’t expect everyone to love (or even understand) our decision to relocate to a place that featured a coup and counter-coup in the couple of months before our arrival. We have our reasons, and that’s really all that should matter.

Ol’ Teddy would be happy to hear that our life in West Africa is anything but routine now, down to the air we breathe…some days there’s a spicy smell in the wind,

Some U.S. schools don't have swings because they are deemed too dangerous. Our school has a zip line.

Some U.S. schools don’t have swings because they are deemed too dangerous. Our school has a zip line.

other days it smells like fresh produce, and other times it smells like acrid burning plastic. And every day at school is an adventure, thank goodness. It’s actually routine to have a prime minister or a foreign ambassador attend the school play or attend parent-teacher conferences. Last month U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s second-in-command (with his posse and bodyguards) popped into my classroom to say hello.

One of our school tortoises assists Robin in teaching the finer points of gothic fiction.

One of our school tortoises assists Robin in teaching the finer points of gothic fiction.

One of the school tortoises found its way into the English classroom the other day. The Dutch parents are throwing a Queen’s Day party at school on Saturday with prizes for the best orange outfit. The teachers had Thanksgiving dinner at the U.S. Ambassador’s house. We don’t have to teach to a test, so we can integrate the arts and do service learning projects and have recess and teach social studies without feeling guilty and not get stomach aches just thinking about teaching. At school festivals they rig up a zipline from our school water tower to the ground, and even kindergartners partake in it. And there’s a French bakery in our lobby. Hell, I can’t top that last one so I’ll just stop.

Best of all, since our new life began abroad, I’ve yet to run into someone even one-tenth as offensive as that small-minded, large-mouthed wench pushing overpriced tea and insulting strangers with her warped version of patriotism. I won’t ever, ever, ever live someplace where that kind of behavior is acceptable, much less applauded. Not for all of the citrus-peppermint-licorice-boysenberry tea in China.

Meeting the chief of a nearby village, as he chills in a hammock.

Just another routine day in Mali, meeting the village chief as he chills in a hammock.

Chapter 18: That’s MALI. With an M. And no AW.

Malawi, not Mali

Malawi, not Mali

Me (with a Toureg) in Mali, not Bali or Malawi

Me (with a Toureg) in Mali, not Bali or Malawi

Bali, not MaliBali, not Mali

A year ago we signed a contract to teach in Mali, an African country that nobody had heard of before. People assumed we said Bali, even though it’s not a country and nowhere near Africa. But it does rhyme.

Or they thought we were heading to Malawi. It was also an obscure African nation, well, until Madonna adopted David Banda and Chifundo there and it was featured on E Entertainment News and in scholarly magazines like People, Us, and Star (whose current cover screams “It’s Demi! Cougar Goes Wild in Mexico: THE SEX WAS VERY LOUD”).

Then people would ask US, “What’s Mali close to?” And we would mention neighboring countries such as Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, and Mauritania. And they would do that nod-without-actually-understanding-what was just-said thing.

west africa map

Then two months passed and Mali’s 20 years of democracy disappeared overnight when a group of junior soldiers staged a coup d’état in Bamako. We were certain that Mali would be splashed all over the headlines, but apparently the U.S. media saves that kind of coverage for celebrity adoptions.

madonnamercydavid

Not a single call came from concerned friends or family members because the bloodless coup wasn’t mentioned in the U.S. press. Unless you count those single sentence news blips they bury a few pages in, where I found the coup mentioned right under a blip about David Beckham’s dad having his phone hacked, and right above a blip about Gene Simmons of KISS calling Rihanna ‘fake karaoke’ in a bizarre rant. Now that’s news!

It was probably better, we decided, that Mali’s troubles weren’t front page–or even back page–news in the U.S. We didn’t want our loved ones thinking we were going to be teaching in a war zone. Sure, things in Bamako were sketchy for a short while, with sanctions and a clumsy sort-of counter coup. But except for a couple of tense days at the start, the streets were calm and it was business as usual. The school where we planned to teach continued to operate, though in a “virtual school” format since many of the students and their families left Mali a couple of months earlier than usual. But it would reopen in August and we planned to be there.

But this distraction in Bamako had caused all hell to break loose far in the north of Mali, where Tuareg rebels and then Islamist militants easily overtook small desert towns (Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal) that the Malian military had abandoned. Though horrible for the Malians in the desert, this was not affecting life 1000 miles to the south in Bamako.

The Islamist militants imposed a strict form of sharia law in these desert towns. Despite the fact that Mali is a culture rich in the arts—and has been for thousands of years—the rebels outlawed dancing, musical instruments, listening to music, and even performances by griots, the African singers and storytellers (and repositories of oral history) whose tradition dates to the 13th century.

griot2

A griot at work!

They outlawed watching sports on TV. Women couldn’t wear perfume, go for a stroll with friends, or chat in groups. Those women who didn’t cover their bodies and faces were imprisoned or raped.

So what did the rebels actually allow under this extreme version of the moral code and religious law of Islam? Let’s see, it’s okay to recruit and arm 12 year-olds to fight with them. It’s cool to destroy ancient shrines, tombs, and mosques. And you can read the Quran.

And still, Mali wasn’t in the news.

But that all changed when Islamist rebels in the remote town of Aguelhok stoned a couple for having a relationship outside of marriage. And started public floggings for cigarette smoking or drinking alcohol. And when they cut off the right hands and left feet of five men in Gao accused of robbing a bus, with one of these amputations occurring in the town square.

This kind of horror sells papers and attracts viewers. When a news anchor says, “What we are about to show you is disturbing and not appropriate for young children,” viewership spikes like the Richter scale during an earthquake. They come up with alliterative headlines, like “Mali Madness” and “Massacre in Mali. So pictures and video of the Mali amputees and their bloody stumps were everywhere, and suddenly everyone we knew associated Mali with limb-cutting and death by gravel.

mayhem

I thought it was curious that the media was suddenly interested in the sharia law in these remote desert towns when other entire countries have operated under this system for decades. For goodness sakes, Saudi Arabia operates under sharia law–no constitution at all and the only Arab country that’s never had national elections. It’s the only country in the whole world where women are banned from driving. And the death penalty can be imposed for “homosexual activity” (Having an Oscar party? Singing show tunes? Making parfaits?).

Saudi women go crazy and show their hand skin.

Saudi women go crazy and show their hand skin.

Malaysia, which supposedly operates under a more moderate version of sharia law, sentenced a Muslim woman to a caning for drinking a beer, and could have imposed a three-year prison term. A Muslim male and female who are not married but in a secluded area together can be jailed. In 2003, a Malaysian court ruled that, under sharia law, a man may divorce his wife via text messaging as long as the message is clear and unequivocal. I think all of these situations would make for must-read news stories, or at least a good Lifetime movie: “Scars Across My Buttocks: The Suriawati Sayid Story, a gripping teledrama of a Malaysian housewife viciously caned for sipping a white Zin while she listened to Kenny G.”

But it was the bloody stuff, of course, from the remote Malian north that caught the attention of the U.S. media and eventually of our friends and family. “I guess you heard about the stoning and the lopped off limbs in Mali?” they would ask us in a caring, yet I-told-you-so tone.

“Oh, you mean those isolated incidents out in the middle of the Sahara, 1000 miles from where we will be living?” we would answer.

“And they lashed a guy for smoking,” they would add.

“I often feel like lashing people who smoke, especially when I’m eating,” I would reply.

Meanwhile during the same month the Islamists did those things, the following incidents happened within a 50-mile radius of our West Palm Beach home:

  • two sisters were killed with high-powered semi-automatic rifles in a home invasion; a few weeks later the 17-year-old son of one of the women was arrested for another murder
  • prosecutors released 1000 pages of evidence in the case of a man accused of killing the 6- and 10-year-old children of his girlfriend, stuffing their bodies in suitcases, and dropping them in a local canal; the wife was found dead in a landfill the previous year
  • a man broke into a woman’s home and raped her while her child slept nearby
  • a 6-year-old girl brought two loaded guns in a backpack to her elementary school; they were put there by accident by her uncle, a convicted felon
  • a deputy was put on leave after firing shots at a stolen truck coming toward him
  • a 26-year old man destroyed a psychic’s shop and used his own blood to write FEAR GOD on the window
  • a two-story condo was set ablaze by an arsonist
  • a 19-year old man randomly shot into a crowd of people
  • a judge sentenced three alleged members of the Latino street gang Sur 13’s local chapter to a total of 150 years in prison for attempted murder, armed robbery, and racketeering
  • a 21-year-old man received 9 consecutive life sentences for participating in a violent robbery of a Dunkin’ Donuts in which another man shot several people
  • a man received a 30 year prison sentence for the beating and stabbing death of his 29-year-old girlfriend
  • a man who killed a major league pitcher out for a jog during spring training was released 10 years early from prison
  • a 33-year-old woman was found not guilty by reason of insanity after bludgeoning to death her 80-year-old grandmother and shooting her aunt’s boyfriend
  • a 22-year-old man was arrested for shooting at transvestite prostitutes
  • a 16-year-old boy who brought a gun to a street fight was charged with shooting a 12-year-old girl who was among the onlookers

That same month statistics were released showing Florida ranked 4th from the bottom on the U.S. Peace Index, based on homicides, violent crime, incarcerations, and small arms.

Ahh, nothing like the safety and comfort of home.

To be honest, we weren’t going to Mali to escape the violence in the U.S. as much as we were trying to escape the slow death of our careers! Teaching in the U.S. was about as enjoyable as passing a kidney stone, and at least with the kidney stone the pain eventually passes. Teaching became more and more agonizing with each passing month. It was like some bad movie about a deranged scientist in a secret lab somewhere, constantly inventing ways to make teaching and learning more miserable:

mad sci

Setting: outside of Moody Creek, Idaho; castle-like structure with the lights aglow in a laboratory in the basement filled with bubbling beakers of multicolored liquids. 

A crazy-haired woman, with a face that uncannily resembles Michelle Rhee, wears a stained lab coat. Her assistant, with a face eerily similar to Florida governor Rick Scott peers over her shoulder.

Mad scientist: I DID it! One drop of my new potion in their Starbucks reusable cup and lawmakers will immediately pass a law requiring all the little brats in America to take a single test on one day!

Assistant with Hump Shoulder: But that’s not deranged. Kids always take tests.

Mad Scientist: But wait Humphrey, there’s more. This won’t be just any test….it will ruin lives! Kids will get stomachaches and vomit just thinking about it! Teachers will lose their jobs if their kids don’t score high enough! Schools will be shuttered if the test results don’t meet some ambiguous mark!

Assistant: But there’s plenty of money in the education budgets. Schools will be able to get any resources they need for test prep.

Mad Scientist: Do you take me for a fool? I invented a potion to make lawmakers keen on the idea of charter schools—you know, for-profit enterprises that suck the money out of public school budgets? And don’t worry, by the time states pay companies for providing and grading the tests, there won’t be much left in any budget. Mwahhhha ha ha ha!

(End of scene)

I don’t think our loved ones fully understand our complete and utter dissatisfaction with teaching under these dreadful conditions. And yes I realize there are worse job situations—maybe pumping poo out of porta-potties, cleaning slaughterhouses, or working as Donald Trump’s hair stylist. But we had invested a whole lotta time and a whole lotta money in our teaching careers and all we were getting in return was a shrinking paycheck and expanding ulcers.

Unknown

Personally, I got into teaching to amaze and inspire my students, to knock their socks off about learning, to help them become passionate and thoughtful and empathetic and creative. I have and will continue to invest unlimited time in that pursuit—but not under those conditions listed above. It’s degrading and insulting to me as a professional. In my last position in the States, as a resource teacher for our district office, half of my annual evaluation was based on the high stakes test scores of students at all of our district’s elementary schools….and I worked with exactly two of those schools. Geez, that damn mad scientist has a new potion!

Our novel turns into live action.

Our novel turns into live action.

Honestly, we prefer to teach at an international school–free of this high stakes test madness–even if it’s in a country with a shaky government, rebel skirmishes 1000 miles away, and herds of longhorn cattle blocking the main road in town. I can perfectly justify the negatives here in Mali with the negatives we endured teaching back home. As a matter of fact, let me do so in a chart (I am a teacher after all):

Mali

USA

open sewers are not as stinky as opening our paycheck last year to see a 3% salary decrease (after 5 years without a raise)

 

having to remove red dust from everything is not as bad as having to remove art, music, recess, social studies, and field trips from the school in favor of tested subjects

 

closing the windows when someone is burning tires or plastic bottles is preferable to closing schools when the test scores are too low

 

draining any standing water so as not to attract malaria-carrying mosquitoes  is not as horrible as draining the creativity, motivation, and fun out of education with constant test prep

 

giving loose change to the poor that surround us outside of stores and restaurants is better than giving public money to charter schools that do no better (and mostly worse) educating kids than public schools

 

unreasonable bands of rebels 1000 miles from us is less hostile than unreasonable lawmakers and administrators who continue to allow high-stakes testing to continue

 

Yep we’re in MALI, the place with the conflict in the north, the sharia-law-imposing Islamist rebels, and a ragtag government that’s struggling to keep up. But we are still shopping at the bottle shop warehouse for beer, tonic, and Coke, but definitely not gin because it is that lowly Gordon’s stuff. We still hit our ATM, the one that always works but gives you an amount different than what you selected on the screen. We still frequent our newly expanded minimart that carries things you can’t find anywhere else in town, such as plastic sandwich bags, Clairol Herbal Essence Shampoo, canned tuna in water, and duck-flavored canned cat food. And we still enjoy visits to our friendly neighborhood pharmacy to buy more malaria prevention meds prescribed by Dr. Me-Myself-and-I, no pesky prescriptions necessary. This is a great place to live and to thrive.

Our school sits on the Niger River, which is also just down the road from our house.

Our school sits on the Niger River, which is also just down the road from our house.

Rest assured, we’re fine–really. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but I do know that for now, at the end of the day, we come home smiling and feeling like we did one hell of a job inspiring our students.

So the next time the TV is sensationalizing Mali’s conflict, showing a bloody stump or a pickup truck full of smelly-looking rebels, picture the two of us reclining on a chaise on our roof deck, me with a glass of white Zin, and the mellow sounds of Kenny G coming from the iPod. Ain’t Mali grand?

Unknown