It’s finished!!! After 6 months of work, the Jalal-Abad Rural Teachers’ Methodology Camp is over – and I’m so proud of the results.
Back in March, I wrote a Small Projects Assistance (SPA) grant through Peace Corps to fund a camp for teachers in Jalal-Abad oblast. At this point in time, I knew I would be changing sites, but I wanted a chance to have one last impact on Jalal-Abad. The idea for a teachers’ camp came about through conversations with some colleagues from Jalal-Abad State University, who complained about the lack of opportunities for English teachers in the region. My cohort is the first to send volunteers to Jalal-Abad in 5 years, and even then, the volunteers are clustered around the regional capital – leaving the western raions (think counties) without access to methodology trainings, English practice with native speakers, and teaching resources. Together with my counterparts Gulmira and Aliya, I wrote a grant asking for $1300 to put on a 5-day camp that would bring teachers from the 4 western raions of Jalal-Abad together for teacher trainings and an exchange of best practices and ideas for activities and classroom management strategies.
At the time, writing the grant felt overwhelming, but it turns out that writing it was the easy part. Actually finding a place to hold the camp, gathering 24 teachers to take part in it, buying all the materials, writing all the lesson plans… Now that was something else. Add in the struggles of doing all this planning from afar, and you’ve got a recipe for logistical disaster. But! I managed to work out a system of communication with my counterparts; we eventually figured out who was good with email versus phone calls, who had the network to accomplish certain tasks best, and who could manage the money. The final product looked a little different than what was proposed in the grant application, but the camp was successful nonetheless.
We held the camp in the beautiful Padysha-Ata Nature Reserve, about an hour outside of Kerben and several hours from Jalal-Abad City. My friend Jacob, a volunteer in the Naryn region, made the trek to come help, and we were joined by 4 local trainers from Jalal-Abad City. We had a day to go over the final camp schedule and all the materials before the participants showed up the next day… and to have a little party with plenty of toasts to the success of the camp.
After registering for the camp, taking a pre-test, and playing some ice breaker games, we got straight to work. The teachers, who had traveled upwards of 8 hours to attend the camp and who have barely any opportunity to practice English at their schools, dove right in to 8 sessions (taught entirely in English) about teaching methods. We learned how to give instructions, how to give feedback, how to set realistic goals, how to write a lesson plan, and ways to better teach the 4 skills (reading, writing, speaking, listening). It was exhausting, both for the participants and for the trainers, but in the end, the trainings seemed effective.
After the methodological trainings, the teachers were paired up to give demo lessons in anticipation of the 3 trainings they would be required to give in their communities after the camp in an effort to spread knowledge and make the camp sustainable. Despite having only 3 hours to prepare, these teachers came up with incredible visual aids and really fun activities. It was amazing to watch them incorporate the lessons we taught (giving clear instructions, organizing a lesson into 4 parts, using interactive games to practice new material), and I’m so excited to hear reports about the trainings they give at their own schools in the future.
We also did a session about Student Friendly Schools, a project initiated by UNICEF that’s been picked up in a handful of Peace Corps countries. The main goal of Student Friendly Schools is to improve the overall quality of schooling and address threats to participation, which in Kyrgyzstan include bullying and racketeering, pulling kids out of school during the harvest, and kids staying home to take care of younger siblings, among other things. We talked about the roles and responsibilities of teachers in Kyrgyzstan, the way “bullying” takes place, and the link between these two themes. It was amazing to watch certain teachers who had been quiet during other methods sessions really come into their own as leaders during this Student Friendly Schools session; they had incredible ideas for how to improve quality and access of education for Kyrgyz children that I hope will be implemented in their schools soon.
Of course, camps are a chance for volunteers and their counterparts to teach their communities something. In the case of this camp, the trainers definitely succeeded. The pre/post-test scores demonstrate the need for this type of methodological training in rural areas and the effectiveness of methods trainings in a short period of time. The average score on the pre-test was 2.5 / 40. After just 4 days, the average score on the exact same test had jumped to 23.9. While not a perfect average score, I am still so proud of what these teachers learned in such a short period of time, and I hope that with the handouts and materials we provided them, the participants will only continue to fortify the knowledge gained at this camp.
But these types of projects also offer a chance for volunteers to learn something from our communities. In my case, it was learning to let my American need for precision and order fall away in favor of savoring The Moment. One afternoon, when I was cranky and grumbling about the fact that we were 90 minutes behind schedule, I let go of the plan and followed my counterpart into the woods on “an excursion.” And thank goodness I did, because walking across rickety-clickety bridges gave me a new appreciation for my life and civil engineering, I got a hundred selfies with my teachers in various spots around the park, and I learned just how delicious wild plums can be.
So the camp wasn’t all work, and we tried to incorporate some organized fun into the schedule. One night, we played Jeopardy, with categories ranging from TOEFL vocabulary to American Geography, and there was a Final Jeopardy about Beyoncé (because who else?). Another night, Jacob taught everyone the Bunny Hop and the Cha Cha Slide, until the Kyrgyz songs came on and he wowed everyone with his Kara Jorgo skills. It’s not a camp in Kyrgyzstan, after all, until there’s an eje dance circle.
Now the camp is over, the evaluation forms have been filled out, my report to Peace Corps has been submitted — now I finally get to enjoy a short week of summer. Any bad memories of receipts or budget spreadsheets or scheduling confusion are gone, and I’ve got the thought of hugging all these teachers goodbye and wishing them good luck in my mind. That’s a wrap on my last big project for Jalal-Abad, folks!