Sunday, May 12, 2013

Greetings, Blog Readers!

Today’s post will be framed by two quotes by John Dewey. The first reads as follows: “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” When we consider the actual definition of curriculum, many educators would claim that it is a list, map, or index of items students need to know by the end of a given course. We may also  know it as a planned sequence of learning. In the past, curriculum has been a composed litany of skills and knowledge which someone felt students should have.

John Dewey’s influence on curriculum came about during a progressive era in which he encouraged educators to use a different approach than what they were used to. Dewey was a philosopher who believed that students should be active participants in their education.

This blog has been used as a chronicle of my travels and experiences in Uganda, and I feel that a discussion about curriculum is an especially useful way to continue. John Dewey's philosophies have not yet made it to Uganda. Students are all taught in an extremely didactic environment in which rote memorization is proof of intelligence and comprehension. This form of education is displayed to an extreme in their art classes. Students have identical illustrations. There is almost no evidence of personal or individual expression. However, my experiences in Ugandan education were completely different in our schools' agriculture courses. Students were able to not only learn the chemistry of fertilizer, but they apply it to our parish farm and gardens.

Because Uganda is mostly agrarian, having an effective agricultural program is especially important. Our students were conducting a sort of project-based learning that I hadn't realized until reading about it this year. Students embraced their agriculture courses because they were able to effectively apply their classroom knowledge to practical problems.

The second John Dewey quote I'd like to talk about here is, "We only think when we are confronted with problems." I believe that this quote is especially important and evident when considering my Ugandan students in their agriculture courses. Students learned vast amounts of complex information in these courses, and they were even able to retain it for longer. Students who came back from holiday breaks were able to build upon their past lessons without much review. In other courses, however, students needed much more extra time and review before they were able to jump back into the remainder of the year's lessons.

It seems obvious that students are processing their math lessons so differently than their agriculture lessons. They are being confronted with problems, as Dewey mentions, and they are thinking through them at a much higher cognitive level. In their art, math, and other content areas, students are repeating and memorizing facts, processes, and algorithms, but they are not applying their knowledge to problems they may face. Students graduate from these schools all able to draw a desk and a tree in an identical fashion, but they know not of how to express themselves through illustrations, paintings, or other forms of artistic expression. Students can plug a number into a Physics equation, but they would not be able to recall it in order to construct an adequate pulley system for a well.

If more students in Uganda and around the world were able to receive their instruction through problem-based learning, I believe they would flourish. Students would see the fruits of their deep-thinking, and they would be encouraged by their successes in their classes. I have seen that this is possible in a Ugandan classroom through the use of agriculture. If the same class structure and philosophy could be infused into other content areas, then their education system would improve greatly.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Q's & A's

My dear dear friend from home, Caroline, has a father that teaches Religious Education in Florida. He's currently focusing on Catholic social justice teachings and asked me a few questions. I thought I'd put the questions and answers here to give everyone an update on where my head and heart are at the moment. I hope everyone had a delicious Thanksgiving!

1) why would a catholic student serve the poor when they graduate college?
In St. Luke's gospel it says that much will be required from everyone to whom much has been given. I have been given so much in my life and wanted to give something back. Throughout my years of Catholic schooling, service had always been a major part of my education. I was given opportunities to step outside of my comfort zone, give witness to the less fortunate, and learn something about the world. More often, however, I was learning something new about myself.
My Catholic education also exposed me to the social justice teachings of Pope John Paul II. One of my favorite quotes by the late pope is, 'Social justice cannot be attained through violence. Violence kills what it intends to create.' I joined the Peace Corps because it is a real part of United States foreign policy that tries to develop countries through personal relationships and grassroots, community-led programming.
2) why did you give up the opportunity to go to work as an architect and build up your career?
I love architecture, but I knew from pretty early on in college that I needed to get out and see the world in a real, intense, challenging way before settling on a career. Architecture has always been a passion of mine, but I didn't want my life to be spent designing penthouses for the wealthy. This experience so far has shown me so many different ways in which I can use my skills (as a builder, counselor, taxidermist...whatever) to help others and attempt to bring them out of poverty.
3) is it hard to be away from your family and friends?
Being away from home is one of the hardest things about living abroad. It's not easy to hear about my friends getting married or graduating college without me there, but I think it's even harder when they're going through tough times and you cannot be there to support them. I'm very lucky that Uganda is a developed enough country (although it's still third world). I'm also blessed to be living near a large town where I can access internet and buy airtime to call home.
4) what is life like for the people who live in your village?
I live at a secondary school for girls in a village about 2km outside of a large town. Our school has 900 students. The school, St. Theresa's, was founded on the principle that poor girls need to receive an education. Most of our students are less fortunate, many have lost their parents to the war with the Lord's Resistance Army, to complications from HIV/AIDS or other diseases, and other tragedies. Our school fees are some of the lowest in the country, and we strive to provide the girls with a decent education. We have students from all over Uganda, but most of the teachers are from the district where I live, Masindi.
The rainy season has just ended, and it was awful. We had El Nino wind and rain which ruins crops, floods communities and destroys buildings. Two of the buildings, a classroom block and our library/student chapel at St. Theresa's lost their roofs. When the roofs came off, bricks and timber fell onto the students and teachers in their classrooms. Fifty were brought to the hospital and thankfully all recovered. Sister Daisy, who is the Head Teacher at St. Theresa's, tells everyone how grateful she is that God is so faithful and did not give us the burden of a death in our community. Through all of the tragedy the school is facing, we are still strong in our faith that God would never give us anything we couldn't handle. Now that the rains are over and they have destroyed many people's farms, the dry season is here. Famine will soon take over Masindi and surrounding districts. Food prices will increase, and many families will suffer.
5) what do you do as a peace corps volunteer to help the people there?
I teach classes at St. Theresa as my main project. I teach computer basics and health. I also teach woodworking at the boys' secondary school. I spend some time with the widows' group in the Nyamigisa parish, making charcoal from banana peels. And I do HIV/AIDS education with the primary schools in Nyamigisa, my village.
6) what is the most difficult part of your work? what's the most rewarding part?
The most difficult part of my work is finding people to work with me in order to make a project sustainable. There's an incredible amount of money being poured into underdeveloped countries from the West. As a white person living in Uganda, I am seen as a walking dollar sign. People often expect me to come into their community and just start giving things out. It's not their fault, however, since this is how the culture has developed to view a Westerner. In order to make a project sustainable, it needs to come out of the community and they need to be responsible for all aspects of its execution. It's sometimes difficult to convince Ugandans of this fact.
The most rewarding thing about my experience in Uganda has had nothing to do with my work. The personal relationships that have been created are so much more important. I've been able to become friends with many of my students and listen to their struggles. I've also spent a lot of time with myself, which I know sounds boring, but God has truly brought me to my face while in Uganda. Most of my life has been spent within a fellowship of Catholics and Christians, and sometimes I feel like this is my time in the desert. I've not been able to rely on others for support and have instead had to find it within the Word and personal prayer.
7) what do you miss from home the most?
I don't go a day without thinking about my family and friends at home. They are my support system, and some days are really tough not having them next to you. Also, one of the hardest things is not having mass in English. I've been a Catholic my entire life so I know the order of the mass by heart, but I really miss being able to connect to the Gospel as it is spoken by the priest.
8) what is your fondest hope for your students?
Life for a woman in Uganda is so different than an American's. Women are second class citizens here. My hope for them is that they defy this rule and disregard any person who would tell them they are worth less than a man. I hope that they can walk with the Lord, live healthy and happy lives, and believe in themselves even when all of the odds are against them.


Sunday, September 20, 2009

Mukama gyendi! (God is good!) In case you haven't googled "Uganda" lately, there's been a bit of civil unrest. I was kind of caught up in it last Thursday, but thanks to my guardian angel (a man named Tom Luwega), I am safe and with all of my body parts in tact. I was very lucky that he was around the taxi park when I almost walked right into a violent mob. He got me to safety and I am praying for him and his family- I would ask that you do the same! Uganda is back to normal now.
(I would like to point out that Peace Corps Uganda did an excellent job through out the weekend and week after. I am proud to be a part of this post and feel safe and blessed with the staff working with so much dedication to ensure my safety and success in Uganda.)
Please pray for those Ugandans who were not as lucky as I was. I've begun praying for the unemployed as well. Much of the violence was caused by unemployed young men. Uganda has a gigantic unemployment rate. The riots gave them opportunities for looting, taking advantage of women, and acting violently towards one another. It's really sad to see.
Well, I'm back at site now and am busy with the last term of the year. I'm also doing a few projects with the boys' schools and am looking forward to widening my scope in Nyamigisa. God bless you all. Thanks for the concern, prayers, and well wishes. I miss you all so much, but am very happy now in Uganda! One year left!
Love, Tori

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Give 'em more than a banana

On the walk from my house to Masindi town, I pass by a small pair of homes where a few families live together. From what I've seen, these families consist of three mothers and about sixty-five children. I've been in Uganda for a year and in Masindi for about ten months, and everyday the children still freak out, start screaming and running towards me only to hug me and ask me for money, bananas, sweets, anything they seem to think that I just carry around in my pockets. I usually greet them in Runyoro, ask how their days have been, and move on quickly to town. I got into the habit of bringing them a few bananas so they would let me walk in peace back and forth from my house.
My friend Peter came to visit my site a few months ago. While we were on our way to town, those same kids freaked out, started screaming, and running towards us. They asked for bananas again, and I thought I'd bring some back. On the way back from town I saw the kids and immediately reached into my bag for the bananas. I gave them to the kids and they ran back down the path to their houses. Peter immediately said to me, "You know, Tori, there are other ways of loving those kids besides just giving them bananas." I've been dwelling on this statement ever since Peter said it to me. I've been trying to figure out how to love people and have realized it cannot be in just giving them things. I began sitting down with the mothers of these households and having actual connections and exchanges with them instead of just waving and passing them by. I started teaching the kids songs and playing duck duck goose and tag with them. Our relationships are all we have. Our money, our things, our ideas, are all transient, but our relationships are what last. Sister Marie O'Hagan told me that my senior year of high school, and I have never witnessed it so much in my life as I am now in Uganda.
I have considered this on a macro level, too. It made me disappointed in the way development is done in Uganda and other developing nations. Most[certainly not all] of what I've seen over the past year is the following: 1-Someone has a lot of money and a feeling that there are things in Uganda/Africa/Wherever that need to change. 2-They believe that their way of doing things is absolutely right. 3- They pour astronomical amounts of money into a project that is completely top-down with no recognition of or consideration for culture, long-term effects, and community needs/priorities/capacities. 4- Everything is done in an office in Kampala and the village or individual person scale is never addressed. 5- The appeasement of the wealthy consciences is taken into consideration but not the actual development of the country and it's PEOPLE. These ingredients plus a few others lead to disjointed development, a lack of understanding on the part of country nationals about what is happening and why, and information is passed on but no skills are acquired.
Hand outs are not sustainable. Love is. [I know that's the corniest thing ever, but it's true! I also know that this post may sound negative, but these are my experiences and I have created this blog so that a piece of this can be shared with you. Anyways...] The whole reason we are here is to glorify God and love His creations! The way I was treating those children and the way some development organizations treat Uganda is the opposite of love. It's just doing the minimum to appease ourselves and feel good about doing something to help all of those poor people out there. I have to give the children more than bananas. I have to give them sacrifice, time, and love. And development orgs have to give more than money. They have to at least give cultural considerations and at most make their projects sustainable and make themselves self-eliminating. NGO's should not last forever. If their missions are completed, it should mean that they close up shop. I'm definitely not a development expert, and not all development orgs are doing it wrong. However, some of the patronizing, corrupt, insensitive work I've seen being done here really makes me sad. If love is what we've been given, then love is what we must give!
I am probably the most loved person on Earth, because today I'm getting on an airplane to see my family in Italy. After a year without them (and without decent wine and cheese) I know it will be such an amazing time! God Bless you all!
Webale! Mukama Akuhe Omugisa!!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Katimba K'Emibu na Ebitabu

The rainy season has absolutely come in full force this year. It rains for about one or two hours everyday very heavily. Almost everything in Masindi shuts down. Except for our school. When the rain is pounding on the corrugated metal roofs, it can almost drown out the bellows of thunder. However, you can always hear a teacher yelling their lungs out so that the students don't miss an entire hour of class just for the rains. The rain gives satisfaction to the thirsty soil, and everyone can begin to plant their crops. Also, spring wells and rain tanks will fill up making it easier for people to find water. The down side of the rainy season is the mosquitoes. They mate in standing water, and during the rainy season that is not difficult to find. Malaria kills about 320 people everyday in Uganda alone. When a student at St. Theresa gets Malaria, she can be out of school for weeks, rendering her basically incapable of passing her already difficult end of term exams. I'm trying to raise money now for mosquito nets to protect every student from Malaria. We have 900 students at St. Theresa School. A net in Uganda costs 6000 shillings. That is for a Long Lasting Insecticide-treated Net. (LLIN) Most nets that people buy are cheap and untreated. With an LLIN, the net will last around ten years, and! it will kill a mosquito that lands on it. These nets are easy to care for, will last long, and will save lives. In my project to obtain enough nets, I would also like to provide for the staff who live on the school compound with the students. There are about 30 staff members, and most of them have small children who are the most vulnerable population to die from Malaria. The need at our school is genuine and immediate. Thank you so much for your prayers and well wishes.
God Bless You All!
Mukama Akuhe Omugisa!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Giving up giving up

I have a small piece of paper that stays in my Bible. It's a Lenten reflection from EWTN that I've picked up somewhere along the way... This is what it says:
Give up complaining- focus on gratitude.
Give up pessimism- become an optimist.
Give up harsh judgements- think kindly thoughts.
Give up worry- trust Divine Providence.
Give up discouragement- be full of hope.
Give up bitterness- turn to forgiveness.
Give up hatred- return good for evil.
Give up negativism- be positive.
Give up anger- be more patient.
Give up pettiness- become mature.
Give up gloom- enjoy the beauty that is all around you.
Give up jealousy- pray for trust.
Give up gosspiing- control your tongue.
Give up sin- turn to virtue.
Give up giving up- hang in there.

I LOVE this reflection. It basically goes through all of the things I do multiple times on a daily basis and gives me better options. How many times a day do I become discouraged when one of my students has to drop out of school and go back to the village? How often do I gossip about others? How often am I jealous of the volunteers whose sights have pools and golf courses (yes, they do exist, and yes, I visit them a lot)? How often do I pass by an unfortunate man on the road and judge that he must be an alcoholic? How often am I annoyed or angered with the little children that just won't give me five minutes to myself to read a book? I do all of these things constantly (sometimes all of them in a single day).
I do think, however, that Lent in Uganda is getting me closer to giving these things up. After reading St. Theresa of Avila's Interior Castle, I've tried to be less focused inwardly. She tells us that we should not focus on how sinful we are, but instead consider the great humility, glory, and power of God. Through this lense, we can offer praise to God for all His greatness, and consider how prideful and small we are.
I've definitely been able to focus more on gratitude here. I have a little dance that I do whenever power comes back from being out for days at a time. I'm also extremely grateful now that it is the rainy season. It's a perfect 80 degrees now as opposed to the 125 degree peak of the dry season. It's very easy for volunteers in Uganda to become cynical or pessimistic towards their work. After witnessing this attitude in too many people, I made it a personal goal of mine to always focus on the good things about being here.
All of these things are daily struggles, and they don't only exist during Lent. I'm so blessed to have come to Uganda. They are certainly an Easter people. They don't bother with the insignificant details. They care about their families; they worry about school fees and making sure their children get something to eat. Many of my concerns become fairly ridiculous when I reflect on the struggles of my friends in Uganda. May Easter be a time of rebirth for all of us!
On a lighter note, my language learning has hit a hilarious point. I'm actually learning a lot, and asking questions I've found is a great way to get answers. ;) When I greet someone, I usually say, "Oli ota?" It means, "How are you?" People either respond with, "Ndi kirungi" which means, "I am fine." Sometimes, thought, I'll find someone who becomes very excited (and usually very grateful) that I've took the time to learn the language. They'll answer happily, "Eh! Omanyire Runyoro!" ("You know Runyoro!") I would respond, "a little" by saying "enkaito". I recently discovered that "kataito" means "a little", and "enkaito" means "shoe".
God Bless You!
Mukama Akuhe Omugisa!!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Conquerors' Voice

Today was the first meeting of first ever St. Theresa Secondary School for Girls student newspaper. First on the agenda was to get to know all about newspapers. We learned about headlines, bylines, captions, how to write a lead, and the 5 w's and 1 h questions. After all of the boring stuff, we got to name the newspaper. Some of the suggestions included St. Theresa's International Newspaper, The Winner's Choice, The New Vision (the exact name of one of the top two newspapers in Uganda), and The Courageous Vision. The girls were stuck between The Winner's Choice and The Courageous Vision. We eventually got into a Thesaurus (one of those giant ones that takes up two laps), and looked up 'winner'. Once the girls heard the word "Conqueror", they were absolutely sold. The Conquerors' Voice will be the student run newspaper at our school. I couldn't be more proud today. They expressed their opinions, they compromised, they discussed, and they eventually came to find that when they all work together they'll find better ideas than they could have alone. Beautiful. The newspaper is made up of girls from all years of secondary school, from all walks of life, some are orphans, some have parents who work for oil companies, and some live in horrible conditions and are receiving an education out of the courageous and merciful hearts of the Sisters of St. Theresa who run the school.
The amount of students was incredibly underestimated this term. We thought we would be receiving 700 students, and we're about to round 900. Beds were scarce in the beginning, but as more school fees are coming in, we are slowly able to board every girl who wants a bed. These beds, however, are in Uganda where about three hundred and twenty people die of malaria each day. It is the number one killer in the country, and it has devastated countless families and villages.
My hope while I am here is to see that each bed at our school can be equipped with a mosquito net. I am currently organizing my application for a grant that will help us purchase 800 nets for all of the students who sleep in our dormitories. So far, my incredible mother has been slowly collecting money for us from my amazing friends and family at home including Jim and Pat Padula, Uncle Billy, Aunt Linda, my cousins Johnny and Nicole, Aunt Emma and Uncle Jack, Diane and Aunt Eileen McNellis and my faithful Nana. The grant that I'm applying for will allow even more people to help. It's called the Peace Corps Partnership Grant and it sets up an account online where people can donate money to this immediate need at our school. As soon as I hear about the details, I will be sure to post them here. Even if you cannot donate anything, know that prayers are just as important and equally needed here. God is most definitely here in Uganda, and as many of us know, when He is here, the devil is not too far behind. I've started some one on one counselling with some students, and I'll only say that some of their burdens are unfathomable.
God Bless You All, and please pray for all of us in Uganda.