Today, James and I have been in Mongolia for exactly a year.
Let that sink in for a moment.
I’ll probably post some very introspective, self-gratifying post about what reaching the 12-month mark means to me soon, but I digress.
School doesn’t officially end until the beginning of June, but most of my clubs have evaporated already because frankly, most of my students have already checked out for the summer. And who can blame them? After a couple of freak snowstorms in the middle of the month, I am fairly certain the hot weather is here to stay and the sun is going down later and later in the day so that I actually get some daytime after work.
A couple of weeks ago we had the school graduation ceremony during which I took my standard position against a wall, waiting for someone to tell me to stand somewhere else. Such is the life of a Peace Corps volunteer. From that vantage point, I had a great time and may have shed a single tear watching some of my 12th graders graduate during the outdoor ceremony which was held in the courtyard in front of the school.
It wouldn’t be a true school event unless the teachers had a quick beauty session in the English classroom beforehand. Outside chaos reigned as it usually does during big events, but inside, we ladies were getting pretty.
My Mongolian is pretty dismal so the finer points of the ceremony were lost on me. Names were called, hands were shaken, certificates were awarded. What I did understand was that the best academic achievers got medals (and that I was asked to help with that) and the best athletic achievers got a lot of medals plus a gift bag. Mongolians are serious when it comes to basketball, volleyball, and wrestling. I was once missed ONE shot during a teachers’ basketball tournament and was subsequently benched for the rest of the tournament.
Each class of graduating girls decided if they wanted to wear the “old” uniforms (the Soviet-looking brown dresses with white aprons) or the “new” uniforms (the blue button-ups with grey skirt and navy blazer that the students usually wear throughout the year).
The ceremony was held in the courtyard in the front of the school and some parents and other community members gathered in the street to watch. I think though, that the pictures say it all, so with no more ado:
Not to get too emotional, but I am really going to miss some of my 12th graders, who are moving on to bigger and better things. I was so touched when some students in my “Olympic English” club (thus called because it is my most challenging class) gave me a mug with pictures of their favorite moments on it. Here’s to hoping that next year’s crop of seniors live up to these last ones!
I have always been a big believer in celebrating the small victories in life. Getting a small English library started at my school feels like more than a small victory for me. It is still a work in progress (and I hope it will keep being a work in progress after I leave) but here is what we have so far, and how we did it.
Step 1: Decide if you need a library.
Our Town is home to four public K-12 schools. I work at School #2 which is located in the oldest building in town. The building had already been up for a while when the school was created 60 years ago this summer (we are having a big party to celebrate in September). I have a lot of questions about the construction of the building (Why is the gym on the second floor, above the library and a 5th grade classroom? Why is there a set of stairs that lead nowhere?), but overall it is similar to most buildings in Mongolia in that it’s stairs are uneven and I hope to never be in it in the event of an earthquake.
The school library consists of a classroom with desks where students can study before or after classes. In a small adjacent room are shelves of government-issued textbooks, which teachers check out at the beginning of the year. At my school, there is about one textbook for every three students. Students are not allowed in the back room, but I doubt they would even want to go back there because there ain’t nothing but old textbooks.
Needless to say, English books are non-existant. One day I decided my students needed something to read.
Step 2: Aquire books.
Turns out, there were books in English at my school. A teacher had travelled to America some 10-15 years ago and had brought back some books that no one had looked at in a loooooong time. That teacher has since retired, but the books were still around waiting for someone to rescue them from the dusty pile in the back corner. I was happy to find some books but I was fairly certain that Crime & Punishment was going to be bit too challenging for most of my students (or literally anyone I teach).
Some of those books were in dismal shape, so even if a star student wanted to attempt it, they were not ready for prime-time. Cue montage of me working with paper, markers, and a several rolls of clear packing tape.
Even with the freshly discovered tomes, I still had a lack of level-appropriate books. After consulting with some other Peace Corps volunteers, I ran across Darien Book Aid. Don’t be fooled by the slightly dated website, they actually provide an amazing service to schools around the world. An e-mail and a short application later, and our request was approved. Jump to four months in the future when our request was filled by volunteers and a 20lb box of books arrived at our local post office. It was a great day and there was definitely a party in the English classroom. Darien was incredibly helpful because they only send books that your school needs. In our case, I asked for EASY EASY EASY. If I am going to get kids to like reading, it is not by crushing their spirits and making them feel dumb (my personal opinion, I like positive reinforcement).
Step 3: Organize your books.
Darien killed it and all the books were perfect: we got everything from picture books about superheroes to short chapter books about puppies. With all our shiny, new, level-appropriate books in hand, we had to organize them. Sure, we could have just left them in a pile in the corner, but that’s what happened with the books we had before. Furthermore I wanted to make finding books an enjoyable experience, not a chore.
During the next school break, I gathered some loitering students from around town and told them to put all the books into the pile they thought was best: Very easy, easy, medium, hard, and very hard. I did a little rearranging from there, but I mostly followed their recommendations.
The biggest help in learning about small libraries was American teachers writing about their experience on sites like this.
After the books were seperated, each book got a code: (the letter representing the level) -(a number), i.e. VE-014. The reason I did this was so I could catalogue all the books into an excel spreadsheet and easily see when books are missing on the shelf. It also makes it easier for kids to check out books if they don’t have the Latin alphabet down yet. To do this, I employed the extremely technical, paper, markers, and clear tape design.
Step 4: Make rules and enforce them.
My counterparts and I tried to keep the rules as simple as possible. Students can keep the books for one week unless they have a teacher’s special permission to keep them longer (for a longer book that takes more time to read for example). One of my counterparts, Tegshdelger, is the designated librarian who is responsible for calling students who have kept the books too long.
There are a lot of cool programs for organizing and keeping track of book check-outs for classroom libraries online that I found, but our school, like most of my student’s homes, doesn’t have internet, so they were not very useful to us. Instead we use the old-fashioned method of pen and paper. You don’t have to be fancy to be effective.
Step 5: Step back and let the kids enjoy the books.
Being in Mongolia puts America into perspective a lot of the time. You think about the access students have to something as basic as books in the average American classroom and compare that to your average Mongolian classroom. Many of my students thought it was cool to have any books around and when they found out they were allowed to take them home, they were floored.
Azjargal practices her letters as she signs out a book.
If you’re a Peace Corps volunteer with a need for books, reach out to Peggy at Darien Book Aid. If you find yourself in the Connecticut area, consider giving them some of your time, because their work really does make a huge difference in the lives of a lot of kids.