Saat September & October—Moments of September & October: What do I do every day?
This blog entry is a long and wandering account of what my day looks like on a week to week basis. Parts of the text jump into a more reflective mood, but this post still paints a simple rendition of what my life has been like. I wish I could write something more substantial right now, but I realize it’s been two months without updating my blog, and there are some people back home who might want to have even the slightest clue of what I’ve been up to. One major reason this post simplifies service in the Peace Corps is that I’ve focused almost solely on successes and aspirations. I’ve given no time to failures, frustrations, and reality checks that will come in the future. I elaborate on this omission a little more at the end of the post, but for now I’ll continue onto the task of filling you in.
During September, the school schedule finally started “as normal.” The semester officially stated around the middle of July, but the first couple of weeks were merely stalled through until the beginning of Ramadan. During Ramadan (coincidentally coinciding entirely with the month of August), school was cancelled for the first and last week and only in session for half-days during the middle two weeks. The first week of September was also cancelled for Idul Fitri. So now that school has been “in-session” for three-and-a-half months, there have only been real classes for the last seven weeks. What’s more—or less, actually—is that I was in Surabaya for Peace Corps’s In-Service Training (or “Reconnect,” for fellow PCVs in other countries versed with different lingo) for the last two weeks of October. All things totaled, I’ve spent a solid five weeks really doing my job in Indonesia. And I’ve been here for six months. Let’s just say “settling-in” is still a phase I’m going through, and my role in the school and community are still very non-descript.
Though it will do little in terms of conveying the suka dan duka (ups and downs) that all Peace Corps volunteers deal with on a daily basis, I would like to describe to you my daily schedule:
I teach eighteen jam a week (jam directly translates to hour, but it means period in the school context). My teaching schedule is divided between nine classes—all in grade X. I teach each of my classes two jam a week. Out of my nine classes, four of them are Seni/Budaya (Art & Culture) and five of them are English. All of the Seni/Budaya classes use applied English to teach the lessons. I co-teach these classes with one of the school’s English teachers, but the Seni/Budaya lessons liberate us from the pre-conceived notions of what Indonesian students must learn in English as defined by the “nationally set” curriculum and hammered-out syllabus (I’ll refrain from further commentary, if you know what I mean; take the word ‘liberate’ as a strong hint) that the school has been using for years. (In the upcoming weeks, I hope to be able to share with you some very exciting products from my Seni/Budaya classes, but I won’t give away the treat now.)
Over the course of the week, my nine classes are scheduled for Monday through Thursday. I’m at the school from before the first bell at 6:40 up until after the 13:10 dismissal. On Wednesdays, I stick around after school while the staff studies English from 14:00 until 15:00. The school’s English teachers run these lessons, and I stay out of them. I’ve been surprised by the staff’s motivation as a whole, and a few of them will readily practice their new phrases throughout the week. My Wednesday actually continues after the teachers’ eloquently named “English Conversation Share” into the faculty’s “Doing Sport” program, which lasts until 16:00. I participate in “Doing Sport,” which is an hour to hour-and-a-half exercise period for the staff to play volleyball together. There is some scary volleyball talent from more than a few teachers who do not give an outward appearance of athleticism or coordination.
My Thursday extra-curricular, UP2ME club, is an hour long session for a small group of students who are motivated to learn English outside of the classroom. There are one thousand two hundred students at my school, but my most packed UP2ME club was fourteen. Only seven showed up last week, but I’d be happy if that’s the most I ever had. These kids are great, and I can give a lot of attention to each one. We decided to call the group—officially named “Student English Conversation Share” by the school—UP2ME club because I wanted to emphasize that the activities would be driven as much as possible by the students. My wish is that eventually the students will feel a sense of ownership over the club. True student leadership hasn’t developed in the group yet, but I try to remind them that the day’s activities are up to them—I give them choices. It proved to be too early to see real progress when my students decided not to hold English club for the two weeks I was in Surabaya. They had feebly promised to continue before I left, but they decided to put the club on libur (on break) until I got back. One student texted me to say the club would be boring without me. I was mildly flattered but mostly disappointed.
On Saturdays, I don’t teach, but I come in for the seventh and eighth jams to lesson plan with two of my counterparts. I’ve only had one of these meetings (they started when I got back from In-Service Training), but I hope they will continue. Frankly, they’re going to have to continue if I’m going to stay sane or ever really enjoy my job teaching English.
Describing the purpose of these meetings leads me to a slight digression into what it feels like to have the job as an English teacher in Indonesia. It’s pretty safe to say, objectively, that little to no formal planning gets done before classes. Typical cross-volunteer banter includes, “My counterpart and I rarely talk about what we’re going to teach until a few minutes before class,” “Sometimes I’m lucky, and I know what I’ll teach a day in advance,” or even “I have no idea what I’m going to teach until I get into class.” As an institution, Peace Corps emphasizes the necessity of formal lesson planning in order to alleviate the uncertainty of classroom education. But, one of my counterparts correctly pointed out that lesson planning isn’t a replacement for “good-teaching.” Still, I have no experience in teaching, let alone teaching English Indonesia, and I—a person built on more rigid structure than most—need to know what I’m doing before I go into class. I’ve found amongst my counterparts that they have actually thought about what to do in their class ahead of time, but before the formal meetings with me, the ideas were rarely communicated to me. Harnessing that perspective, I’ve billed the idea of “lesson planning” as a necessary process of informing me, the inexperienced one, as to what the hell is going on at my school. This seems to be proving a more successful approach so far.
Considering that we’ve been following my weekly schedule, you might be wondering why I skipped Friday. I skipped Friday because Friday is the day I get to shake up the whole routine and work on my academic work as volcanology student. Every Friday, I bike approximately 25-30 kilometers to the Gunung (Mt.) Raung observatory post. Gunung Raung and Gunung Ijen are adjacent statovolcanoes that are still active. My trips to Raung are a breath of fresh air–a chance to really focus on something different. So far, I have installed two digital seismic analysis software packages on the observatory computer and started to provide instruction in basic volcanology and geology to the youngest staff member (i.e., the one who wants to learn).
Another short digression is warranted to comment on the nature of splitting my responsibility at my school with that of my Master’s work. The gap between the role of an English Education volunteer and a volcanologist seems irreconcilable, but I want to ensure you that they’re not. I am incredibly lucky to have been placed in Indonesia with a blossoming program led by an ambitious staff. Peace Corps’s only real wish is that the volunteer and the counterpart (my school) develop and agree upon an efficient working relationship that exploits all of the talents at hand. There is an expectation that this will lead to a uniquely rewarding experience for everyone involved, and is why Jody Olson, Peace Corps Deputy Director from 2001 to 2009, described the organization as “upwards of 200.000 stories” and not a list of 200.000 former volunteers who rigidly fulfilled an assignment.
Everyone involved—be it in-country Peace Corps staff, Indonesian government officials (so I’ve been told), Michigan Tech, and USGS counterparts—has been enthusiastic about letting me write my story. There are already two unique talents and interests that I see at my permanent site to form the foundation of my service. I have already described how the first talent, that my counterpart is a professional dhalang (wayang kulit puppet master) and Javanese cultural enthusiast, has already led to my involvement in Seni/Budaya classes. The second is my background in geology. The first step of school cooperation is in place as my principle, a math teacher himself, introduces me as “an English teacher and ahli volkanologi (volcanologist)” and has asked if I’d like to help teach calculus.
The action of entering math classes has been slower going as the more applied steps, such as overcoming the language barrier, still need to be tackled. You can say that math is an international language, but how much explanation in a native tongue was needed to explain calculus last time you studied it? I received six weeks of intense language training from Peace Corps, but the word for square root or derivative never came up (though I think the later is the same). What’s more than the pit-fall of instructional language is the necessity to build a healthy relationship with a possible counterpart. It’s taken me a solid four months to “settle in” to a comfortable roll working with teachers who speak fluent English, so it’s just going to take longer to develop the same roll with non-English speaking staff. I hope, in the mean-time, that my participation in Seni/Budaya classes will prove to be an example of how my presence can be extended outside of the English language classroom into a more applied roll. Whether or not any of this works out will be the result of adding the small progress (or setbacks) experienced on a daily basis.
Continuing on with my weekly schedule, Sundays are free. I generally continue to work on my Michigan Tech work by preparing slideshows of photos, diagrams, and videos of basic geology as it relates to Raung and Ijen. I will write more about Raung and Ijen later, but these two volcanoes are great examples to work with. They show a wide range of geologic features including a collapsed caldera, one of the world’s largest volcanic debris avalanche deposits, an active summit crater, and the world’s largest collection of acidic water.
I realize that this post has led you on a long, windy road of information loosely tied together by the structure of my daily life. I haven’t even told you about the host family next door, the soccer games I occasionally take (took) part in (until (I’m pretty sure) I broke my toe). I also did a pretty poor job of explaining the whole emotional roller coaster of living in a new place and working a new job. I didn’t intentionally force myself into it, but I focused solely on the positive developments I’ve had over the past six months. I assure you, there have been frustrations and lows. Things seem hopeless at times—pointless at lower times, and even maddening during others. It’s a complex wave of suka dan duka, but all of the positive things outlined above have to keep you going.