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.

Advertisements

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

Chapter 17: Is This Blog About: (a) Peri-urban Slums, (b) Malaria, (c) Multiple-Choice Questions, or (d) All of the Above?

bazin smoke

Don’t worry about those toxic fumes kids, just smile for the camera please.

No doubt about it, field trips make teachers as gleeful as the students. I mean c’mon, what educator doesn’t enjoy a break from the routine, a glimpse of the world outside of those classroom walls, an occasion for the “real world” to be the teacher, an opportunity to get to know a different side of your students, and a perfect chance to “lose” a student you don’t particularly care for (“Seriously Principal Jones, I really have no idea how Timmy got locked inside that ancient Egyptian sarcophagus in the museum.”)

peek

Field trips give us a peek inside the real world.

So it’s just utterly depressing that field trips in the U.S. are becoming as rare as a third grader without a cell phone. There was a time when field trips were a normal part of the curriculum, as routine as those bad baby showers in the school library where I always chipped in to buy “ones-ies” for some teacher I hadn’t said two words to in three years (and I still don’t know what “ones-ies” are).

Smoking in school and triangular sideburns have fallen out of fashion.

Smoking in school and triangular sideburns have fallen out of fashion.

But now field trips have mostly gone the way of the dodo bird and recess and smoking in the teacher’s lounge…even though field trips can be an important part of the curriculum.

Now granted field trips didn’t always appear on the surface to be related to the curriculum, but scout’s honor they were. Growing up in rural Illinois, I recall yearly trips in junior high to the Six Flags amusement park in St. Louis, Missouri where we would ingest as much fat and sugar as possible before riding an upside-down roller coaster and discovering just how the body’s digestive system does/doesn’t work.

Junior High trip to Six Flags

Junior High trip to Six Flags, where the back of the bus was the place to be.

Or how one could use an umbrella and a wad of gum to rescue coins from the fountain and finance another trip to the sno-cone cart. Or how certain chemicals in Mountain Dew can remove the vomit smell from your clothes. Or how certain forces, maybe evil ones, can allow your spit to travel in many directions on spinning rides. These valuable life lessons have stayed with me for years.bus

I can remember going on plenty of non-vomiting field trips too. We once visited New Salem State Historic Site near Springfield, IL, a reconstruction of the village where Abe Lincoln spent his early adulthood.

Boiling a classmate on our New Salem field trip

Me (right) and several others boil a classmate on our New Salem field trip.

I can still remember asking the guide what they sold at the general store back in Abe’s day. She said, simply, “A lot of liquor.” And our two teachers tried to secretly give each other the thumbs-up sign except we all saw them. So history for me has always had positive, liquor-related connotations. Now excuse me while I go study Samuel Adams six to twelve more times.

Photo: ©2012 Linda Hall Library

Photo: ©2012 Linda Hall Library

There were plenty of other field trips too. In high school we went to the movie theatre to see the rerelease of Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet—you know the one where we see Romeo’s butt and Juliet’s boobies for a millisecond each? Of course back at school those were the only milliseconds of this 138-minute film we could recall in vivid detail.romeo

In elementary school we visited the potato chip factory where we all decided we would work one day since we figured the workers ate as many free chips as they wanted. We also went to art museums where I remember our 4th grade selves sprawling on the ground to look up the dress of a realistic sculpture of a woman and getting a quick anatomy lesson.

Oregon Industries slides.Photo: Original Collection: Visual Instruction Department Lantern Slides

Oregon Industries slides.
Photo: Original Collection: Visual Instruction Department Lantern Slides

I also remember a fantastic college field trip to Toronto where we came up with redesign plans for the urban waterfront to make it more pedestrian friendly, toured the city to see cutting-edge urban design work, and watched Canadian Border guards use a drug-sniffing dog to find pot in one of my classmate’s guitar case. Good times.

Drug sniffing dog finds what it's looking for in our classmate's luggage. And it's not dog biscuits.

Drug sniffing dog finds what it’s looking for in our classmate’s guitar case. And it’s not sheet music.

But these days, school is all about that damn high-stakes test in the spring. If a school activity doesn’t involve a multiple-choice question or a fact that can be memorized and regurgitated, it’s not seen as valuable. Never mind that not a shred of evidence supports this drill-and-kill nightmare approach to “instruction.” And never mind that it numbs kids’ brains and makes them hate school. It’s enough to drive a teacher to drink. Or at least take a field trip that supports that habit.winesMy old school district back in Florida actually had an official “blackout period” in the months preceding the state test–no field trips, no guest speakers, no sending teachers out of the school for professional development. What WAS allowed was having kids sit bored in their classrooms answering multiple-choice questions to prepare for the state test that’s comprised of multiple-choice questions. On that note, I’ve got a question for people who believe that approach makes sense:

1. Why are multiple choice tests stupid?

a. They lead kids to believe that there is just one “right” answer to every question.

b. Kids can answer correctly without actually thinking or problem solving or even reading the question.

c. They give kids no way to apply the knowledge they have learned.

d. They purposely include “distracter” answers that are wrong or confusing, like “none of the above” or “all of the above.”

e. All of the above.

absolut

Point me in the direction of the free samples!

But seriously, what moron doesn’t understand the benefits of a field trip? Would you rather read a worksheet about chocolate production, or pay a visit to the Snickers factory? Analyze a report on the effects of alcohol on your short-term memory, or participate in some experiments at the Absolut headquarters? Memorize the process of human reproduction or….oh well, I think you get the picture.

Now that I’ve escaped that madness by leaving the country, I have a new appreciation for the power of field trips, especially as they relate to service learning. This is one educational trend that doesn’t suck at all. Basically service learning means that you involve students in a community service project that also incorporates one or more academic areas. They learn academic skills, help their community, and hopefully understand that they can make a difference in this world by stepping away from the PlayStation.

So with the wind back in my sails in a brand new non-test-obsessed school, I’ve partnered my class with a U.S.-based, non-profit organization here in Bamako called Mali Health whose mission is to “empower impoverished urban communities in Mali to transform maternal and child health sustainably.” As far as mission statements go, that’s a biggie because the situation here in Mali is just darn scary. For starters:

  • life expectancy in Mali averages 49 years
  • 93% of Malians live in poor, urban communities (AKA slums)
  • Mali is one of the 15 poorest countries in the world
  • 1 in 5 children dies before age 5
  • 1 in 3 children are underweight
  • 1 out of 22 women die from maternal complications

A month or so ago Mali Health did a short presentation at our school that really piqued my students’ interest. They were especially interested in the fact that the communities Mali Health serve have no sewage systems, plumbing, or electricity. And as usual they dwelled on bathroom-related questions, such as:

  • So the people poop in holes? (affirmative)
  • Does it smell? (affirmative)
  • Does it ever leak out? (yes, and contaminating nearby wells)
  • Who cleans out the holes when they get full? (someone is lowered in, and he shovels it out)
  • Do they use toilet paper? (varies)
  • Do they have flat screen TVs in their latrines? (OK, I just made that one up, but I’m sure they were thinking this)

    A latrine under construction in Sikoro. Photo: ©Sikoro Teriw - www.sikoro-mali.org

    A latrine under construction in Sikoro. Photo: ©Sikoro Teriw – http://www.sikoro-mali.org

Working with their energetic young director we decided that my students would create graphic novels (the fancy name for comic books) that teach about malaria prevention—but in an entertaining way that would engage kids.mosquito

Malaria is a big problem in sub Saharan Africa, especially this year. Most of the teachers and students at my school have fancy mosquito nets over their beds, have plenty of mosquito spray in a variety of scents and consistencies (I prefer Off Smooth & Dry Powder Formula), Offand take weekly preventative malaria medication. If we do get malaria it is easily treatable with a 3-day course of pills that cost $7 at the pharmacy (no prescriptions required for meds here). For most of us malaria is nothing more than flu-like symptoms that go away quickly with the meds.

But the folks in these impoverished communities don’t have these luxuries, though I doubt many Americans consider a can of Off Bug Spray a luxury. A doctor visit and malaria meds would cost a Malian about $10 total—or about 10% of a skilled worker’s average salary here. Quite a few organizations do donate mosquito nets.

Our mosquito net in its upright position; at night it encloses us in a netty cube

Our mosquito net in its upright position; at night it encloses us in a netty cube.

But tightly woven nets keep out mosquitoes AND breezes—not exactly a plus in an oven-like climate—so they are used as fishing nets or room dividers or bridal veils (which totally sounds like an episode of Project Runway or Design Star).

On top of everything else, because malaria is common and can go away on its own, folks here don’t consider it a big deal, even though it can actually kill them if left untreated.

So the plan is for my kids to create these books to help create awareness about this illness, and Mali Health will distribute them to local school children. Since these local kids either speak Bambara (their first language) or French (taught in schools here) my students will first write their text in English, then translate it into French. Thankfully our AISB French teachers will assist. My French language skills, while improving, are still in the Tonto-sounding phase (“Me happy big feast tonight Ke-mo Sah-bee.”)

The great part is that while my students are creating something that can potentially save lives, they are practicing their reading, writing, science, and French skills in a real world way that doesn’t require a single photocopied worksheet or multiple-choice question. I tried this approach once back in the States, where four years ago I had my students create PSAs to encourage people to spay and neuter their pets. Long story short, the Humane Society of the United States put them on DVDs and sent them to shelters nationwide, and the Humane Society still has a link to them on their website (see link at bottom of that page). Here are two of the PSAs:

To get the ball rolling we decided a field trip to the Mali Health office would be in order so that my students could receive background information on malaria transmission and prevention from the experts. So the director put together a full morning of activities and a week ago we headed to Sikoro, a peri-urban slum on the outskirts of Bamako with 80,000 residents (peri-urban, a word I just learned too, means this was once a rural area that has become urbanized). Over 90% of Mali’s population lives in poor urban communities like Sikoro.

IMG_2521

Looking down on Bamako (literally, not figuratively).

Aside from the obvious fact that this is a slum, I have to say that the locale is fabulous! The community begins at the bottom of a very large hill and climbs right up the side, all the way to the top. So like the hillside shanty towns in Rio de Janiero, Brazil with gorgeous viewsover the city, Sikoro gives you amazing views over Bamako.

But the roads in there, wow. Our two school vans struggled to navigate the steep dirt paths, full of giant craters and gullies, strewn with trash, and filled with people going every which way.

IMG_2509

Zak and Jade present our class donation to Devon, director of Mali Health.

The Mali Health office, a simple structure with rooms open to the outside, was our first stop. There we presented Devon, the director, with a donation of funds our class raised running two booths at our school Halloween carnival. Devon and Matt gave a short but kind of scary presentation on malaria that will forever make me keep the mosquito net canopy tight over the bed while I live in West Africa, or maybe anywhere in the world except for Antarctica.

IMG_2512

Matt at Mali Health gives us the scoop on mosquitoes.

Next we walked/hiked up and up and up rambling roads to Bandiagara Coura Elementary School, one of the local schools in Sikoro and one of the potential audiences for our malaria prevention graphic novel. Again, a fantastic locale on a hilltop that, in an alternative universe, would be the perfect setting for a luxury hotel or my sprawling mansion (hey, a teacher can dream, can’t he?).

Daredevil sheep.

Daredevil goat.

But instead here sat the school, several unpainted, concrete block rectangles comprised of three or so side-by-side classrooms. There were no doors. Above each doorway someone had quickly hand-painted the grade level. The classrooms were no more than 12 by 12 feet with dirt floors and a single window opening without glass or a screen. There was no electricity, hence no lights. Thirty kids sat scrunched together at little wooden desk/bench combos meant for about half that many. A piece of plywood painted black was nailed to the front wall and covered with chalked on French sentences.

When U.S. teachers complain about crowded classrooms, I'll whip out this photo.

When U.S. teachers complain about crowded classrooms, I’ll whip out this photo.

IMG_2529

No books, pencils, or floor.

IMG_2527

My tongue-tied students.

IMG_2524

Q&A with the school’s director.

The crazy thing is that this is a PRIVATE school that has better conditions than the public schools (which kids have to pay to attend too, just not as much). To attend this private school these kids pay anywhere from $5.00 to $18.00/month. It doesn’t sound like much, but remember a skilled worker here makes a whopping average of $100/month. So having a few kids in school could wipe out a big chunk of your salary.

DSC_0040

I prop myself up against a tree after hiking the steep roads.

DSC_0045

My students mix in. Well, kind of.

It was the first time I saw my students speechless. Really, they couldn’t even think of one question to ask the kids in the classroom. My vision was that this part of the visit was going to be a dynamic, back-and-forth conversation between my kids and the Bandiagara Coura kids, discovering that even though they were from vastly different worlds they were all just kids when it came down to it. Nuh-uh. Now it looked like the rich kids ogling the poor kids, and vice versa.

bagami

The bakery in our school lobby.

I suppose I understand their reticence though. After all, we had just left our expansive 18-month-old school overlooking the Niger River, with LCD projectors and classroom sets of MacBook computers and a bakery shop in our lobby and our classroom with 6 ceiling fans and sliding windows on three sides and a floor plan that is so huge for the 18 of us that I have room for an acting area, a library area, round tables for student seating, a teacher zone, a walk in closet, a computer area. And where I recently put in a work order because I didn’t think the AC was quite cool enough. Now, in 15 minutes, we were in the real world–at least as far as Mali is concerned—and the contrast was massive.

For the most part my students come from privileged backgrounds. They travel internationally at least a few times a year. They have maids, gardeners, and drivers. Their parents have great jobs in embassies, big mining companies, or international aid organizations. They mostly are kept far away from places like Sikoro, so I can understand why they were a little tongue-tied as they stared at 30 kids crammed into a room that would fit twice into our own school’s hedge maze garden (yep, we have a hedge maze at school).

IMG_2547

The Malaria Games; like the Hunger Games without the killing.

After some awkward silence my students and the Bandiagara Coura students headed to a nearby dirt play field where the Mali Health staff taught a capture the flag style game. Except this one involved students playing either humans, mosquitoes, or the malaria virus, and the goal was to capture the mosquito eggs (small plastic balls, thank goodness). Together the students kicked up quite the dust storm, but from what I could see (and taste) through the brown fog they seemed to be enjoying themselves.

IMG_2532IMG_2543

Photo: Matt Schinske

Photo: Matt Schinske

Then it was time for another hike, this time back down the hill along more rambling dirt roads. I have to say that up there at the top it didn’t seem so slummy. The small plaster houses with tin roofs were mostly spaced apart on the hillside, kind of reminding me of some rural areas in Greece. You could see for miles over the chaos of Bamako while standing in peace and quiet.

IMG_2557IMG_2553IMG_2550IMG_2554IMG_2518But, as we made our way down and the community grew denser, it felt more like a slum. Since there are no sewage systems, dirty water of some sort trickled down the wrinkles in the dirt road. It did not have a pleasant odor. IMG_2514It pooled here and there into puddles where I am sure Ms. Mosquito and her ten trillion closest friends have a hopping shindig every night, from dusk to dawn. The smell was somewhat intense too, gag-inducing actually, and we all pulled our shirts up over our noses for the better part of tour hike.

Before long we arrived at Sourakabougou Clinic, a tiny public health center for the residents. After a quick talk with the very young head doctor ($250/month salary BTW), we broke up in groups of three to tour the facility, which like the school is a concrete block structure with tiny, un-airconditioned rooms.clinicIMG_2558 One fit only four, old metal twin beds placed side by side which held malaria patients, each with an IV drip in their arm. Another, about half the size of that one, held two metal tables with stirrups—the birthing room. It was a sobering experience for my students who, if they need medical care, usually travel to Paris or the States to very fancy schmancy clinics.

Back in our own classroom the kids were so beat they collapsed into our comfy beanbag chairs (not sure I saw many of those at the Bandiagara Coura school) and I postponed the math test we were going to take. We had walked a lot that day in some pretty intense sun on some pretty crazy paths, and gave our senses quite a workout too (especially our sense of smell).

The kids were exhausted, but they were buzzing (haha) with ideas for our graphic novel about malaria and how they wanted to help the school and the kids in that community. There was talk of a school supply drive and hosting their students at our school for a day. One boy even remarked that today he realized “how lucky he really was.” Another said, “Even though they don’t have very much, they didn’t seem sad at all.”

So to summarize, my students were enlightened about malaria, poverty, community service, and life because

a. they were forced to memorize this information from a textbook at school.

b. they read a passage about this information on a worksheet, then answered five multiple-choice questions.

c. they read this information on Wikipedia.

d. they went on a four-hour field trip.

IMG_2561

Our last stop before returning to school…lunch at the Parc National du Bamako.

Chapter 16: These Are a Few of My Favorite Things

I don’t particularly fawn over raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. And if I’m ever finding myself in a situation where I notice “snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes” I’m probably getting frostbite and my toes will eventually blacken and fall off.

But like Maria/Julie Andrews I actually do have a few favorite things, none of

The African hills are alive with the sound of music.

which are Austrian-based at this time (though I’m not adverse to “crisp apple strudels”).

Nope, my favorite things all come courtesy of Mali. Which is good, I suppose, because I do live in Mali now. It would really blow to have lots of favorite things that were Malian and live in, say, a small town in Arkansas—though that would probably blow no matter what. I am extremely thankful that my Malian list of favorite things continues to grow and is much, much longer than my list of “Things That Drive Me Insane,” a list that was always growing when I lived in the States, particularly after a drive on I-95.

Speaking of thankful, I’ve noticed a lot of folks doing a daily “What I’m Thankful For” post on Facebook during the month of November. I thought about jumping on that bandwagon, expressing my gratitude for all my favorite things in Mali. But while I personally enjoy reading these “thankful” posts, there are others who, hmmm how do I say this politely, would rather gargle with bleach than read these. From the criticisms I’ve read, the critics don’t seem to complain about the concept of people being thankful (which I’m thankful for), but rather what they perceive to be the generic/sappy/not-so-creative nature of the posts. I must admit, it is interesting when someone shakes things up a bit, as with these “thankful posts” I saw online from someone named Therese Long of Pearson Education, someone I wish lived next door to me:

1. I’m thankful we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way…invite everyone in my neighborhood to my house, have an enormous feast, then kill them and take their land.

“Contrary to popular mythology the Pilgrims were no friends to the local Indians. They were engaged in a ruthless war of extermination against their hosts, even as they falsely posed as friends. Just days before the alleged Thanksgiving love-fest, a company of Pilgrims led by Myles Standish actively sought to chop off the head of a local chief. ” -from The Hidden History of Massachusetts

2. I’m thankful for watching football, making pumpkin pie, and saying the magic phrase that sends my aunt storming out of the dining room to sit in her car.

3. I’m thankful for 38 years of marriage to myself. I have always been by my side and understand me when no one else did.

4. I’m thankful you can delete status updates after 10 minutes of no likes.

5. I’m thankful Facebook is now the second place I have found comfort in talking to a wall.

6. I’m thankful that everyone who likes me is awesome and brilliant, and everyone who doesn’t, is a selfish jerk. Very weird phenomenon!

7. I’m thankful I don’t live in a bubble wrap factory, as I just don’t have that much self-control.

So to avoid any chance of my thankful posts being deemed “generic” (which for me would be the greatest insult EVER), my thankful things list will become my list of favorite things. AND I’ll bury this list deep in my blog where it will be safe from the scrutiny of the general public. Well, other than the 2726 views my Mali blog has racked up so far (!) from people in 52 countries (!!) including Madagascar, Qatar, and Bosnia and Herzegovina (!!!). Which is thrilling and scary at the same time.

 My Favorite Things: Mali Edition

One chocolate croissant, s’il vous plait. And make it fast…I’m late for social studies!

1. The American International School of Bamako lobby which includes a school store and…a bakery! I used to think my school in Florida was pretty cool because it had a soda machine, but a bakery in the lobby?! I’m pretty sure I dreamed this one time (“I was wandering through this school made of gingerbread and frosting, with a French bakery in the lobby and a swimming pool filled with gin and tonic and floaties in the shape of lime wedges, and all of the students were Oompa-Loompas.”).

To top it all off, it’s a French style bakery and the pastries and bread are warm when the bakery guy brings them in the morning. Chocolate or almond pastries are tied for my favorite. Oh, and apple. And the plain is good too. We have a standing order for 5 loaves of French bread (just 60 cents each) every Tuesday and Friday. And no we aren’t big, fat

We always get enough just in case unexpected guests pop in.

pigs…they are skinny loaves and you never know when company might show up unexpectedly. The loaves are crispy on the outside and moist on the inside, and they taste good with anything, like peanut butter and jelly, butter, or gin. Well, gin goes with anything you know.

2. Malian driversI have yet to see one get ticked off or shoot the bird or scream profanities. Even if you pull out in front them. Or hit them. Honestly, we saw a car slam into a moto and knock it clean across the road. The moto driver got up and dusted himself off while the car driver checked to see if he was alright. Then they shook hands and took off.

Out of one lane, many.

To put this all into context, there are basically few/no rules of the road here. If you need to get into traffic you just kind of pull your car into the flow of traffic and the person careening head-on toward you will slow and flash their lights and let you in. On the roads here you can also drive in just about any direction, in just about any lane, or between the lanes, or in the shoulder. Everyone just kind of accepts the traffic chaos and deals with it–without emotion or feeling like they rule the road. Plus they drive sloooooowly. How I miss those giant SUVs that used to zoom up behind my little car in Florida, driving 75 MPH about 2” from my rear bumper, the driver all red-faced and mouthing unclean words because I wasn’t going faster. Good times.

3. The Koraa traditional Malian instrument I love so much I became one for Halloween. It has 21 strings and sounds like a cross between a harp, banjo, and guitar, and maybe a zither too. And it’s made from a darn gourd! Then there’s the way you hold it….

4.  Beverage choices circa 1957: If you want soda, it’s regular Coke made with actual sugar (not corn syrup), sipped icy cold from the famously-shaped glass bottle. No diet stuff, no added fake cherry or lime flavoring, no caffeine-free. Just Coca Cola like Beaver Cleaver drank it. Actually we drink more water than anything else since (1) filtered water is free at school and (2) if you don’t drink a lot of water here you’ll faint.

5. Flag and Castel Beer – For rehydration purposes, of course.

6. K’an Bεn, Our School Cat – No sad, caged hamsters at AISB. Nope, we have a school cat that roams the open-air interior spaces of our school and just loves to be caressed by the kids. He has a weird, endearing meow that sounds like a cross between a cat and Ethel Merman singing.

7. Gingembre – Other than gin, this is my preferred bottled beverage in Mali, a carbonated, sweet, ginger juice drink that has a peppery aftertaste that makes you cough a bit. But in a good way.

8. Amadou & Mariam – Malian musical duo–married and blind–who create “Afro-blues” music that mixes traditional Malian sound with rock guitars, Syrian violins, Cuban trumpets, Egyptian ney (flutey-type thing), Indian tablas (drums), and percussion from the Dogon (an ethnic group from central Mali). They sing in French and Bambara, have opened for U2, and the kids in my class know the words to most of their songs. I move my lips like I do, mostly so I can appear to be cosmopolitan.

9. The Sounds Outside of Our Window – Wacky bird calls that I swear are from the “Voices of the Deep Jungle” sound effects CD, the chanty-sounding Muslim call to prayer far off in the distance, the rattle of vehicles as they bounce over our bumpy road losing parts, neighbors greeting each other in Bambara (which sounds kind of like arguing sometimes, unless maybe they are arguing),

angry sheep being herded to the slaughterhou….I mean to the daisy-filled meadow to frolic and play, the clip clop of a horse or donkey pulling a cart full of lime green weeds/ watermelons/garbage/kids/toaster ovens…

10. Speaking French & Bambara – It’s a slow process and sometimes curse-out-loud frustrating, but we are slowly learning to speak two more languages. The school guards and custodians are informally teaching us Bambara each day (I have a massive cheat sheet), Jamey takes a French class at our school once a week, and I’m still plugging (and cursing) away with my online Rosetta Stone French course.

We’ve been here just 3 months and we can already use our newly acquired language skills to ask for gas at the full service station, order at a restaurant AND tell them I’m allergic to garlic, purchase a variety of bakery goods (I practice this one almost daily), read the text messages from our local cell phone provider (last month one message told me I could win a sheep in one of their contests), give instructions to our mechanic, guards, maid, and/or gardener, and tell the neighbor kids to get the hell off our lawn (just kidding—the 24 hour guards and the 8’ wall around our property seems to take care of trespassers).

So…..when the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad, I simply remember my favorite things, and drink G&Ts like mad.

These are a few of my favorite things too…smart, creative students who keep me on my toes!

Chapter 14: Baa Baa Dead Sheep, Have You Any Wool?

Malians will soon celebrate Tabaski, the most important religious celebration of the year. Known as Eid al-Adha in the rest of the Muslim world, this is the “Festival of the Sacrifice” that commemorates Abraham’s willingness to kill his son for God, another charming, pro-family parable that Christians and Jews also include in their holy books.

Dad, how about you just ground me for a week?

Even as a kid I found this one to be a hard sell…it’s not okay for cult leader Jim Jones to tell his followers to drink poison Kool-Aid as a sign of obedience, but it’s okay for God to tell a father to kill his kid as a sign of obedience? I was pretty sure I couldn’t be friends with, much less worship, anyone who encouraged me to stab or poison someone.

Now listen, it’s not a secret that I am no fan of organized religion. I don’t even like to talk about religion. Never have. Even when I was part of one for many years, I considered it a private thing that was nobody’s business but my own. Which is why it creeps me out when people hawk their religious beliefs like Ron Popeil on late night TV trying to sell his GHL-9 Hair-in-a-Can-Spray (“Forget those ratty-looking wigs and toupees! Get a full head of luxurious hair in just seconds with a single touch of a spray nozzle!”). News flash! I really don’t want to know why your religion and your particular savior is better than another (“Forget those ratty-looking Buddhists and Muslims! Get eternal salvation in just seconds with a tax-deductible donation to our Christian church!”)

Back in my Florida I was pretty savvy at identifying the religion hawkers as they slinked through my neighborhood looking for convert$. Two wholesome-looking boys with white, short-sleeved shirts? Mormons with their holy undies and their spirit baby-making god on the Planet Kolub. A group of four people in frumpy clothes, mostly minorities, with a child in tow?

Source: AP

Jehovah’s Witnesses about to convince you not to celebrate your birthday. Cute-ish 20-somethings with fashionable jeans and hair styles? Non-denominational Christians from the hip megachurch with the rock band and Jumbotron screens and their “Seriously dude, Jesus is so awesome!” lingo. Icky, icky, icky.

When I was a sophomore, flyers suddenly appeared all over school inviting everyone to a Halloween event at the fairgrounds outside of town. Free food/admission/bus, loads of scares…what teen could pass that up? And my did it ever turn out to be scary—in ways I never expected! First there was a long walk through the inky black woods where the sponsors had created scenes of gruesome horror: disemboweled bodies still writhing in pain, devilish-looking monsters feasting on children, ax-wielding freaks jumping out to scare us out of our wits.

Can I get an “amen?”

Afterwards we were herded into an exhibition hall where even scarier things awaited…a Baptist church group preaching to us for nearly an hour telling us that if we weren’t “saved” our lives would be very much like that horror walk we just went on. They goaded us to come to the stage and “accept-Jesus-Christ-as-your-Lord-and-Savior” or regret it for the rest of our lives (writhing, disemboweled bodies or Jesus Christ…it’s up to you!). I was only 15, but even then I knew these religious shysters had pulled a fast one. A really creepy, inappropriate, disrespectful, and probably illegal fast one I might add.

This religious boasting thing really is uniquely American and almost always involves Christians. I’ve not seen this odd behavior in any of the 40-some countries I’ve visited. You don’t see religious bumper stickers in Thailand (“Buddha is the reason for the season”) or Morocco (“Allah is my co-pilot”). In India I doubt they say, “Vishnu Bless You!” when you sneeze. I’ve never read a Facebook post that says, “Ganesha is great!” or heard a Japanese person say, “If they just allowed the Book of Tao is schools these days we wouldn’t have all of these problems.” In my experiences, the rest of the world (excluding

crazy fundamentalists who are just, well, crazy) just doesn’t seem to find it proper to boast about religion.

Which brings me back to Mali. While Mali is a Muslim country, it is a very moderate Muslim country that actually considers itself a secular nation (and again, of course I’m not including the wacko Islamic extremists causing havoc 1000 miles to the north of here, imposing Sharia law and stoning people).

Roadside mosque outside of Siby, Mali.

I’ve been around dozens of Malians every day for three months and not once—not even one single time—has any of them told me Allah was awesome or that the Qur’an had the answer to all of my problems or that I’d better get myself down on that prayer rug and face Mecca…or else! It’s a beautiful and classy thing to see a people so secure in their beliefs that they don’t need to act like a freakin’ carnival busker to advertise their faith.

Even more endearing, the Malians are the absolute least judgmental folks I’ve ever encountered. They don’t criticize other religions, hold you to a standard set by their tenants of faith, or pass judgment on your life. I’m not an authority on this, but I’m thinking that a married, male couple sleeping in the same bedroom here in Bamako is something Islam doesn’t look kindly upon. But again, not once has a Malian given us a condescending Church-Lady stare or treated us like we were “inherently disordered” (as the Pope describes gay people—as he wears his bejeweled gown). As a matter of fact, it’s just the opposite. Malians have been gracious like grandma at Christmas time, always generous beyond what’s expected, authentically kind, and extremely genuine.

Now Tabaski is the most important holiday in Mali, a country that is 90 percent Muslim, and it involves all kinds of actions and preparations. People ask for forgiveness from those they have faulted over the year. They have family dinners. They pray. They give to the poor. For those of us with household help, it’s customary to give your maid an extra month’s salary. Fathers give money to their families to buy new clothes, jewelry, shoes, and to get their hair done.

baaaaad to the bone

Fathers who can afford it must buy one sheep (or several if they have more than one wife) that they will offer as a sacrifice on October 26th, the day of Tabaski this year. On Tabaski one-third of the their sheep’s meat is eaten by the family, another third is given to relatives and friends, and the final third is given to the poor and less fortunate.

Sheep are everywhere this time of year, and of course the prices go up as Tabaski gets closer. Malians often save their money all year long to buy a sheep that they will clean up and keep inside their house in the days preceding the holiday. This year sheep prices range from $150 and up,

roadside sheep market

with some large rams going for five or six times that price (and this in a country where the average worker’s salary is $1500 a year). Just down the road the family that owns the mini-mart (which makes Mr. Drucker’s General Store on Green Acres look like a palace) have the most beautiful, brilliant white ram tied up right outside their door. I can only imagine how many bottles of orange Fanta they had to sell to buy that nearly cow-sized creature.

Since this religious holiday is celebrated throughout the Muslim world, it results in the annual slaughter of 100 million animals in just two days (is it just me, or is it peculiar that 100 million animals are killed to commemorate a father’s willingness to kill his son?). Sheep are the go-to slaughter animal in Mali, but other countries sacrifice cows, goats, lambs, and camels.

school sheep, for now; dinner, later

Even the two sheep that were keeping our grass low at school weren’t immune from all of this. On Friday morning I was showing a PowerPoint about earthquakes in my classroom when our director rushed in, glanced at the windows, quickly pulled one of the curtains closed, and dashed out. Was she worried that the light from the window was obscuring the screen? Making sure all of the curtains were evenly arranged? Nope. Later she told me that the ceremonial slaughter of one of the school sheep happened in the playfield just outside our classroom window, and she wanted to make sure the kids couldn’t see. Supposedly it’s done in a quick and humane manner, but I’m thinking a PowerPoint about seismic waves is probably better for kids to watch than a sheep’s neck bleeding into a hole in the ground. Just my opinion.

Friday evening we went to our director’s home to attend the school’s Tabaski party, being held early since we are on fall break next week when the real Tabaski happens. The main course at dinner was, you guessed it, Mr. School Sheep Who Was Killed Right Outside Our Window.

Our director with school custodian Lassi, winner of the sheep raffle at our Tabaski party

The second school sheep was there too, but alive and tied to the fence. He was raffled off to a Muslim staffer. A young custodian won, and in my head he is going to raise this sheep as a beloved pet that he dresses in cute clothes and hats. I have to say it was rather odd watching everyone tear into their roasted mutton as the mutton’s former friend was nervously watching from a few feet away.

It’s customary to dress up in traditional garb for this type of event, so Jamey and I donned the new boubous we had

Jamey and I sproting our traditional boubous in a non-traditional polyester fabric.

purchased at a market in Siby a few weeks ago. This pants and tunic combo can be quite comfortable if it is made from a natural fiber. However, we opted for cheap boubous made of polyester that seemed to trap body heat like a terrarium, especially with our current weather conditions. Mali basically has three seasons: hot (March – June), rainy (July – October) and “cold” (November – February when daytime temps only reach into the 80s…brrr!). But oddly, October includes a brief “mini-hot season” so currently the temperature reaches into the upper 90s with high humidity, creating terrarium-like conditions under our boubous that are perfect for growing orchids, ferns, and fungal diseases. However, the Malians so appreciated the fact that we were wearing these traditional items of clothing (which are traditionally not polyester), giving us lots of “tres jolie!” and “c’est bon!” type of comments (very beautiful, it’s good) that almost made us forget the sweat streaming down our back. Fashion before comfort I always say.

teachers and student dressed for Tabaski celebrating

Despite knowing that the food had been frolicking in our schoolyard a few hours earlier, it was an enjoyable Tabaski party. The Malian band was superb and we all

traditional Malian music kept the mood festive

ended up dancing under the stars for quite some time. If polyester could actually absorb liquid my boubou would have been dripping wet after this physical activity, but it maintained its crisp, unnatural form throughout the night.                    And while I don’t share the Malian religious beliefs, I’m happy to be part of their Tabaski celebration. I’m just mirroring their approach to life, treating people respectfully despite their religious or moral beliefs. Just don’t make me eat the school pet.

everybody dance now!