Whoa! It’s been a while!

My sincerest apologies for completely abandoning this blog for, oh…6 months. A bit of stuff has been going on and I’ll try to fill you in as best as I can. Needless to say, 6 months is a really long time. So, let me take you back a ways:

Thankfully my first year of teaching with the Peace Corps FINALLY came to an end in mid-June. I honestly thought it would never end. Is that what all teachers worldwide feel like?! Because I was seriously exhausted, troubled, depressed and all sorts of other dreary feelings words…

Biggest excitement of the summer, though?! MY PARENTS CAME TO GEORGIA!! It was great to see them out of their natural environment and hang out with them in MY NEW natural environment. They were true troopers and I definitely admire them even more now. They rode local (and cramped) transportation, ate new foods and were all around a pleasure to have visit. It was also nice playing tour guide for a week. I think the best part of the week was my American family meeting my Georgian family. At first I thought it was going to be strange, but everyone got along really well and we had some great times. My host mom prepared quite the supra for us so my parents got to meet neighbors, teachers from school and even my counterpart, Margo (along with Margo’s 9 month old daughter, Nuntsa). Unfortunately, a week in Georgia is not enough (and sometimes I feel that 2 years is too long. Ha. Ha.), so we weren’t able to do everything that I had wanted to do. But my parents got try local Georgian wine and eat Georgian food. In my book, I think we were pretty successful! And, I also took them to what I guess we would call an “antique market” in Tbilisi (Dry Bridge). Mostly it’s a lot of junk, but every once in while you can find some really great stuff (I bought a good amount of Soviet medals and turned them into jewelry as gifts…the Soviets gave medals for everything, by the way). Speaking of Soviet, we also went to Gori a.k.a. home of Josef Stalin. We perused the museum, got a peek into his childhood house and even walked through one of his old personal train cars. Despite the positive spin on everything Stalin, the museum was pretty informative. Best thing though? Pictures of Soviet VIPs and their great mustaches!

AH! I forgot! There was some serious political drama before my parents got here. A number of people were protesting against the current government leading up to Georgia’s Independence Day (June 26). Things got so bad, a number of people were seriously injured and, if I remember correctly, 2 men were run over by opposition party motorcades. Crazy sauce! We were on serious emergency alert and were not allowed to leave our sites. Therefore, my parents had to make it from the airport in Tbilisi to the Marriott on their own and I showed up later. But like the super cute travelers they are, they got to the hotel with no problems. WAY TO GO PARENTAL UNIT!

After my parents left, I spent a week in Tbilisi working with Tbilisi City Hall. I facilitated 2 groups of adult English conversation groups. It was actually a lot of fun! It was a nice change working with Georgians who already knew enough English to have a concise conversation. Mostly it was great working with adults…who actually want to improve their English…and who were interested in using me as a resource to improve their English. Whew! I also had the chance to hang out with my host brothers and spend time with Volunteers Erin and Danielle who were also involved in the program.

Erin and I also worked together (along with Volunteers Kelsey and Melissa) at the Koda internally displaced persons (IDP) camp. Most of these IDPs came from South Ossetia when war broke out between Russia and Georgia in August 2008. We organized and taught activities for a week during the camp’s summer learning program. The manager of the community center, Khatia, was extremely great to work with. She is organized, speaks perfect English and is a great motivator! We had a good time, but we were all super exhausted when the week was over.

On a completely unrelated note: around this time I signed up for a few “flash sale” websites. Peace Corps is definitely not the best place to obsess over these websites. I’ve been looking at some great style blogs, too. Also not the best reading material for Peace Corps…I can’t buy or wear nice stuff here! It just gets ruined :[

I participated in a Race for the Cure event also this summer. And by “participated” I mean I walked around a Georgian park (that was not closed to the general public) and yelled at curious onlookers to get out of the runners’ ways. Crazy. I also got heatstroke. No big deal.

I took the GRE for the first time. Let’s just say my scores weren’t at all impressive and I’ll surely be taking it again within the next year or two. I’m bad a math anyway, so this is like relearning 4 years of math (that I never really learned in the first place). I need a math tutor, self-discipline…or something.

In between going to the beach and hanging out with Volunteers in the nearby town, I did a lot of lazying around in the house trying to stay cool, watched a kajillion movies and caught up on my summer TV shows. Sounds exciting, eh?! Badri (my host dad) constantly worked on the English classroom when he wasn’t doing things around the house. More on that later!

If you don’t know, some of my blog posts were chosen to be a part of Peace Corps’s 50th anniversary/Peace Corps – Georgia’s 10th anniversary blog book. Since 2011 is the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps (and the 10th anniversary of Peace Corps – Georgia), countries around the world celebrated by organizing different projects. Ours was a compilation of blogs from PC – Georgia volunteers. My “animal updates” are a hit! We had an official “Blog Book Launch” (the American Ambassador to Georgia was also in attendance) to commemorate the books being published. P.S.: these books are true legit. They have an ISBN number and will be put in the Library of Congress!

AND NOW FOR THE MOST WONDERFUL PART OF SUMMER: I WENT BACK TO AMERICA FOR 3 WEEKS! New Jersey, Michigan and a wedding in Portland, OR. 3 weeks went by so quickly but I had a great time. It was nice to be back in the States, make trips to Target (IN A CAR!) and see so many people I miss everyday I’m away! I got to go get my nails done, my hair cut, I drank yummy cocktails and ate 7 layer carrot cake (twice!). So nice.

AND THEN…WHEN I GOT BACK TO GEORGIA…AND WENT INTO SCHOOL…I FOUND…THAT THE CLASSROOM WAS DONE! Badri worked the entire time I was gone and finished it by the time I was home. It was so nice to come home to a bright and beautiful classroom! We just had to paint the walls. And, even better, the government paid for the outside of the school to be re-painted (hey there Pepto-Bismal pink) and the installation of new windows. Thankfully our classroom overlooks the front part of the school (the new windows are only in windows that overlook the street. Typical).

All that brings us back to the relative present. School started September 15, my med-service medical exams happened at the end of September (I’m healthy. For now) and I’ve started meeting twice a week with teachers who want to learn English (my host mom included). Yesterday was my 25th birthday (a quarter of a century…wow!) and my host mom gifted me a simple, yet chic silver ring (she noticed I wear a lot silver) and my counterpart Margo gave me a great 100 sights of Georgia book. It will look great on my future apartment’s coffee table. My students didn’t know it was my birthday yesterday, so they sang “Happy Birthday” to me today. And then they kept saying ‘happy birthday’ to me…numerous times…at numerous volume levels. And you wonder why I never mentioned it to them in the first place ;] On Saturday volunteer friends are coming over for a supra and a sleepover!

I have yet to really discuss how school is going, but I really only need one word: GREAT! Margo and I are teaching grades 1 through 6 and we really couldn’t be happier. We enjoy coming to school and we’re sad to leave at the end of day. The kids are still at that age where they are interested in learning and want to impress their teachers. 1st grade has been a challenge: they can’t sit still for more than 2 minutes and constantly fight with one another. It’s tiring, but at least it’s only twice a week. We also have a set of twins in grade 1. I think they’re more of a celebrity than me…I guess twins are pretty rare here, maybe?

I’ll be helping out at Tbilisi City Hall again in December and mid-November we have our All-Volunteer Conference. It’ll be nice to get out of the village and into Tbilisi before the holidays start, but I know I will (gasp!) miss going to school. But Margo has been learning to lesson plan on her own and has made some fantastic improvements in the way she conducts class. And that’s what I came here to do: transfer my skills so my counterpart could become a more competent and effective teacher. We also had a break through with one of our 2nd graders. He’s really quiet (and looks like a baby George Clooney) and, I found out today, doesn’t know how to write in Georgian. But he did so well in the game we played that Margo and I were majorly stunned! And to top it all off, my Program Manager from Peace Corps was observing our lesson…she was also really impressed! YAY! It also helps that the government of Georgia has an agreement with Macmillan publishers and requires us to use new (significantly) better books in 1st – 6th grades. Thank goodness.

Winter break plans include: NOTHING! Well, definitely sitting next to the wood burning stove so I don’t freeze my little tooshie off! And then, once January 2012 rolls around, I’ll only have 6 more months left! I’ll also need to start looking for jobs (boo hiss) and figuring out the next step. I’ve decided to forgo grad school for the moment (I want to get some GRE studying done and get some real skills, but I’m also unsure of a concentration). So, if you know of anyone that may be hiring, geography is not much of a consideration for me. I also haven’t really made much of a decision whether or not I want to continue teaching. I like ESL, but I’m definitely more interested in working with adults.

So that what’s been going on. I visited Volunteer Danielle (with Volunteer Samantha) in Kakheti for a weekend and we picked grapes for wine-making and introduced her family to s’mores. Her family is really great and they have a beautiful house. Last weekend I visited Volunteer Alissa in her village near Kobuleti (western Georgia) and we made pudding, popcorn and mac & cheese. YUM! I also had the opportunity to visit a cafe in Batumi that was a project Volunteer Craig worked on last year. Pretty nifty.

I wish there was an easier and faster way to upload pictures so maybe I’ll save those (and the ANIMAL UPDATE – lots of scoop!) for another post. I will sincerely try to post more frequently, especially since I’m in a better mood than I was last spring. Hopefully that will make me more enthusiastic to share my experiences with you!

Love you all, thanks for reading and enjoy the fall weather in your respective locales. It’s been rainy and cold here for the past few days. EW!

Cheers!

rockin’

my host cousin, misha andghuladze, performing at a bar in tbilisi. he’s also an actor on georgia’s version of saturday night live.

new tab updates

i uploaded some pictures and video showing off the start of our renovations. there hasn’t been much progress, but it will get finished…eventually! slow and easy wins the race, right?! plus, we’re in georgia. things take their own time.

enjoy!

pcv life

::advisory: graphic language, but oh-so-funny!::

one year in…

Two Wednesdays ago was the one year anniversary of the G10s arriving in Georgia! More importantly, only 14 more months to go! As for any celebrations…I went to school.

But, I feel that it is time to reflect on my experience so far. I purposely held back from doing this in previous posts because I didn’t want to come across as culturally insensitive, but I now feel that I have been here long enough to give you some honest reflections, but also do it in an acceptable and insightful way. A note: the following is solely based on my personal experience here in Georgia and may not reflect the experiences of other volunteers here or in any way should it be regarded as general statements about the country as whole.

First of all, I’ve been blessed to have a great host family that has made my time here easier and, honestly, is probably the reason I  haven’t left prematurely. We have a collection of inside jokes and I really feel like a member of the family. My host mom refers to me as her daughter and even the neighbors comment on how I’ve become the one daughter in a family of two sons. I’ve said on numerous occasions to other volunteers, my own parents and members of my community that leaving my family behind will be the hardest thing for me to do when my time here is done.

Because I work in a developing country, it is to be expected that things won’t necessarily go my way all the time, or even half the time. But I’ve come to the conclusion that my “things going my way” statistics are pretty low. At first I was frustrated, upset and disappointed that things weren’t working in my favor. But now, I realize that that’s just part of the experience and it’s the small differences that make the biggest impact.

One of the most frustrating elements of this whole Peace Corps thing is my primary project (or, my main responsibility): teaching. I don’t really think I’m cut out to be a teacher, in the developing world or the developed world, but I’m trying. It’s an incredibly difficult job, and it’s made even more difficult when you don’t speak the same language as your students. I’ve also come to the conclusion that many students (at least in my village) don’t even have rudimentary study skills. No one is really at fault for this because going to tutors outside of school is common practice (I’ve even met a girl who doesn’t go to school – even though she is enrolled – her parents just pay for her to go to private tutors) and there really is no need to “study” the material. I think that many of these students don’t need tutoring (in the traditional sense of the word) and if they just read the material and did their homework, they would be fine. I find this to be an incredibly unfair practice, especially to those students whose parents don’t have enough money to send their children to outside tutors. Many of my students have fallen behind (and not just in English) because they can’t afford the fees. However, many teachers make more money through private students than they do teaching during regular school hours (the average Georgian teacher makes less than $100 per month). It’s a difficult situation and won’t be remedied until teachers are paid higher salaries, among other policy changes.

Probably THE most frustrating day-to-day problem at my school is the general lack of attendance. My counterpart and I have rarely had full attendance in any of our classes. There is a system for recording absences and I’ve been told they do get looked at. But it seems nothing is being done to increase class attendance. For example, there are 18 students enrolled in grade 10. On the average day, 5 students come to class. It’s incredibly hard for us to plan lessons, especially more fun lessons, without knowing how many students will show up on a given day. We also can’t present as much new material as we want because students just get left behind. A student might be in class on Monday but not on Tuesday or Thursday. He might not show up again for another week or 2. The school director knows that truancy is a huge problem at the school (the local Ministry of Education people even held a meeting about it at our school), but there hasn’t been any changes implemented that even begin to combat the problem. Students also rarely arrive to class on time (even though there is a bell) and my counterpart and I usually have to waste the first 10 minutes (of 45) of class time searching and corralling our students. We’re like cowboys trying to gather in the straggling cows…every class period. Luckily the school is pretty small but we’re not these kids’ parents. The older students should be responsible enough to get to class on time…with all their materials (also another problem: kids not bringing materials to class). The thing that I don’t understand about my school’s truancy problem is that we live in a village (near a town) that has absolutely NOTHING to do. When kids aren’t at school, I just can’t fathom what else they might be doing. But, I guess it’s understandable kids might not come to school if they run the risk of being called lazy by their teachers…an especially common practice here. It certainly doesn’t help build a student’s self-esteem, and it also doesn’t give the student any sort of motivation to do better.

I remember when I was in school a lot of my teachers incited the fear of God in me (not you Mrs. Jefferies!). Half the time I was too scared to not raise my hand or to leave the room without asking first. We education volunteers have talked a lot about this: disrespectful students. For example, there was a schedule change (7th grade would have English class instead of P.E.) and one student outright argued with my counterpart. He was yelling at her to switch the schedule back and refusing to come to class. I’ve had students listen to music during class time (both with and without earphones), many students don’t do the homework assigned to them, cheating is a rampant problem (and also not addressed) and I’ve even had a few students walk into class only to leave and never come back 5 minutes later.

I think one of the easiest ways to combat all of these problems is more parent involvement. As it stands now, parent-school relations are pretty minimal.  I think I’ve met a parent of maybe 3 or 4 of my students. I tried sending home progress reports last semester and made sure to mention that I was available to talk to the parents if they had any concerns or questions. I didn’t receive any feedback. I’ve been told parent-teacher conferences are held, but I don’t know when or how they’re organized. Once I start an adult English club at school, I hope to reach out to more parents and, by helping them learn English, maybe they will be more eager to get involved with their child’s learning. Something that I can understand is that very few parents know English so, of course, it might be difficult for them to relate to what their child is learning in English class, but I’ve spoken to my host mom about this (she’s a Georgian teacher) and she feels the same way: parents just aren’t involved with their child’s education like they should be.

I think my biggest success here, though, has been the English club that I’ve started for students. We only just had our 4th meeting, but things are going strong and I have a lot of regular attendees (usually around 13 or 14). Probably the most unbelievable thing is that many of the students who come aren’t even learning English this year! Well, that and the great reaction to the Wallace & Gromit shorts we watched this past Saturday. I even shared my beloved Canadian cookies with my students. Doing so cuts down on the chances of me stuffing my face with unnecessary carbs and sugars during a depression-fueled binge. Feedback seemed to be positive. But most importantly, my counterpart and I are planning big changes for the next school year. Whether or not she continues with our new implementations is up in the air, but if everything works out (even just a little bit) that should be motivation enough for her to keep things going. Attendance, preparedness and general classroom conduct will be recorded, regular weekly and unit-based tests will be given, homework checked and recorded on a regular basis and motivators (such as computer time/assignments, outdoor activities) will be built into our teaching routine and curriculum. I’m also developing a unit outline that should be done by the new school year that will start at the elementary level and build on knowledge and skills unit by unit. I’m also planning a small computer training for teachers (that may also be open to community members) and I really want to do a teacher training that will give teachers some basic skills and knowledge they can use during their own subject lessons.

I have a number of other reflections, but I might save those for another time. I’ll be coming back to the States for a 3 week visit in August so I’ll see many of you then and will be able to give you a longer version of this…that’s not in a public forum! The English classroom is coming along, slowly but surely. We’ve ordered new desks and chairs and my host dad is still slaving away at the renovations. Next week I’ll be in Tbilisi and will have access to better, faster internet. I will post some pictures and, hopefully, some videos to give you a better idea of where we are in the process and a better indication of how things are progressing.

I’m really looking forward to the summer because I have a lot of things planned that will make up for this somewhat mediocre semester. First, I will be a facilitator for an English discussion group in Tbilisi that has been organized by the Tbilisi city government. Three days a week, I will help guide discussions for 2 groups of adults during evening language classes I will only participate in this for one week. Then, my parents will be arriving in Georgia on May 27 (OH  BOY!) and staying until the beginning of June. I’m both nervous and excited. Nervous because who knows what they’ll think of Georgia and excited because they get to see where I’ve been working for the past year and meet my host family, neighbors and friends. After I see my parents off, I will work as a counselor at an English camp for teenagers in Bakuriani for 2 weeks. Bakuriani is the hometown of the luger who died at the Vancouver Olympics. It’s a mountain town and well known for its spring water and skiing during the winter. I hope to take a long weekend trip to Yerevan, Armenia or Istanbul sometime as well. Like last year, I’m planning on holding a summer camp in my community, but maybe extending it to 2 weeks instead of just one. Also, a good friend of mine here has invited me to spend some time with her and her family at their summer home in Bakhmaro (a summer “resort” where many Georgians go to relax. Apparently the air has healing qualities). I don’t know if I’ll be able to go, but I hope so. And then I COME HOME FOR 3 WEEKS! Add in a trip to New Jersey and Krystal and Matt’s wedding and I think this will be quite the exciting summer; a good start to my final school year and my final 10 months with the Peace Corps.

Animal update: we slaughtered our mother pig. I didn’t realize what was going on (even though I remember it making a lot of noise) until I walked out into the yard and there was the gutted pig hanging in our storage shed. Yay! My host mom then boiled the innards and I practically puked at the smell. I caught the cat playing with a mouse. He then ate it. Yum! He also makes play things out of the tiny lizards who live in the yard. It is truly springtime: we have so many baby chicks peeping around now. I think the count is up to 20. In other poultry news: baby turkeys are crazy ugly. We have 12 of those now too. I also almost ate the food my host mom makes for the baby turkeys. It looks a lot like this spinach dish that I really enjoy…good thing I asked if I could eat it first. My host mom thought I was crazy. Unfortunately one of our bee families died over the winter (it was too cold and too wet for them) so we won’t have a new batch of honey until June or July. Sad panda. The smell of boiled meat (BIG EW!) will always remind me of my time in Georgia.

Funny thing: the font I’ve been using for these posts is named “Georgia”. OH! I have also successfully kept up-to-date with one of my favorite American TV shows (that I watched religiously in the US) thanks to the ability to stream TV shows online. Now that I know I can do it, I can’t wait for season 4 of Fringe. If they don’t bring Peter back, I don’t know what I’ll do!

Thank you for all of your support and I hope to see many of you when I come back to the US during the summer. I hope you are all well and healthy and that spring has sprung in your respective locations!

Cheers!

take a look at the new tab!

next to the ‘home’ tab on my blog, i have added a ‘classroom expansion project’ tab. here you will be able to view photos, videos and updates regarding the classroom expansion project currently ongoing at my school…with the help of your contributions! unfortunately, my internet is not good enough to upload videos and pictures at my site, but whenever i make my way into tbilisi i will make sure to add any new videos and pictures. thanks and hope you like the renovations!

animal update

so, there have been a number of animal goings-on for the past couple of weeks. i figured i’d give them their own post. enjoy!

a couple of weeks ago i was walking to school (and probably running late, as usual) and happened across a female pig running up a grassy hill to the right of me. i was a little taken aback because she was moving pretty fast and because SHE WAS COMING RIGHT AT ME! i started to pick up my pace and the pig just kept coming after me. i slowed down a little to see what would happen and she ended up stopping right in front of me. “that was a little weird since this isn’t even our pig”, i thought to myself. i turned around and continued on my way thinking the pig would go on her own way. alas, she would walk behind me a few feet, quicken her pace and, finally, walk right beside me. she ended up following me all the way to the school’s gate and even tried to follow me into the school’s grounds.

on the topic of pigs, our very own pig has expanded her culinary tastes to include raw chicken. i was walking in the yard a week ago and heard quite a stir going on around the barnyard. turns out the pig caught herself a live chicken, had ripped off the wing and was running away from the chicken coop with the wing in her mouth. luckily, our neighbor was in the yard too and got rid of the remaining wingless chicken carcass. but, while trying to find a place to put it, he happened upon another mutilated chicken (possibly also made so by the pig) on the roof of one of our out buildings. the animals are upset…our very own animal farm uprising, i think.

we sold 3 of our 6 piglets to a few neighbors for about $100. when i heard that 3 piglets only cost about $100 i was appalled! now, i don’t know what the going rate for live piglets is (that will eventually be turned into easter dinner, i’m sure), but surely $100 is not enough, right?! since the neighbors live close by, 1 or 2 of the sold piglets have wandered back to their brother and sisters in our yard.

speaking of money in exchange for farm animals, i got quite the shock last week: 1 of our cows was sold! she wasn’t producing milk anymore so, i guess, it was for the best. she was sold for about $250! surely, they cost more than that! but in an even more crazy cow/money exchange, my host family bought a female cow and her new calf (like a week old brand new) for $500! what?! after the initial congratulations, i went into shock with the realization that our brand new cows COULD have been our brand new washing machine! GAH! but, as my host dad said, “you want cheese bread? then we need milk”. okay, i concede. fine. although, my host mom has said that we will probably be getting that brand new washing machine in the summer! cross your fingers that this summer/fall we will  be rocking it in the 21st century! and that my host mom’s and my backs will get a break from hand rinsing pounds of clothes in the shower!

a note that is completely unrelated to animals: this past march 3rd was mother’s day here in georgia. i bought my host mom a bouquet of flowers (and told her this was the traditional american gift for mother’s day) and some chocolate. i also bought luda a small book that one of our fellow teachers recommended when i saw her at the bookstore. i think she enjoyed her gifts, but i think most of all, she enjoyed the day off from school. that’s right! we got a day off from school for mother’s day!

also, yesterday was international women’s day (also a day off from school). so, happy women’s day to all the world’s ladies that inspire change and hope among all of us!

for my next post i’m going to try doing a vlog (video + blog) and see if it works. my parents FINALLY got skype and it has inspired me to show off videos of my host family, my house and the rest of my community.

cheers :]