The Library is Open

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.

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It may not be much, but it’s all ours.

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).

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This was our starting point (along with most of the books from the “Hard” section). Not exactly ideal, but it’s a start.

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.

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The simple pleasures in life: knowing that some Mongolian’s perception of America is going to be shaped by this book.

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.

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I bought bins for the easy and very easy books because the books are an odd shape and bins make it easier to look through them.

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.

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“Books are your friends!” A James-ism that had to be included. And yes, we noticed the missing “s” after the picture was taken.

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.

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As you can see, the Easy and Very Easy books are quite popular.

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.

 

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.

Yay books!

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Snow and Ice Festival

There is a big river near Our Town called the Tamir River that has been completely frozen over for a couple of months already. During the summer, the Tamir River is a lovely place to have a picnic and maybe fish for trout (so I’m told). In the winter, the Tamir River becomes a place for games like ice shagai (use small metal rectangles to hit small pillars 80 feet away) and what they call kurling (like giant shuffle board on ice). Upon finding out that we had never been to the river (we don’t have a car and we have been busy, ok!) our community English club that meets on Sundays decided to rectify the situation and we all drove out for an afternoon of history lessons and practice.

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Cigarillo in my mouth, shagai in my hand.
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I thought Mongolian kids couldn’t get any cuter, then they started wearing father-son matching deels.
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James was great at it, as usual. Damn he’s annoying sometimes.

It was cold, but I didn’t feel it much, because I spent most of the time gliding across the ice trying to put enough force behind my shagai to propel it 80 ft. while simultaneously trying not to fall too hard. It was so much fun getting to learn to play from strangers who were more than happy to teach the strange foreigners.

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Power Posing.

Little did we know, we would be returning to Tamir River the very next weekend with our schools for the annual Snow and Ice Festival. Everyone dressed in their traditional dress finery, packed themselves into a van, and headed down to the river.

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21 people in coats, plus driver, plus food and drink packed into this van. If we weren’t good friends before, we are now.

During the Snow and Ice Festival, we lowly amateurs were not allow to actually play any of the games, but the people-watching kept us busy. I kept a mental checklist of who had the most flamboyant hat and how many animals it probably took to make it.

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Some of my colleagues, looking fly. 

Being a California girl, I was a bit put off by the ostentatious use of fur and leather when we first moved to Mongolia, but I have changed my tune pretty quick. Not using every part of every animal would be wasteful (and Mongolians are anything but wasteful) and until you have experienced -35 C, you really can’t appreciate how wonderful being warm is. I am almost ready to invest in some authentic hat and boots, but I keep having to remind myself that while I might feel stylish and cozy wearing horse-hair boots in Mongolia, I doubt I will get a positive response back in the US (that and my feet would be a sweaty mess).

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We live in the coolest place.
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“Kurling”
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I participated in a wrestling tournament! I lost this time, but I’ll be back, you’ll see! I’ll be back!

Zoom back to the festival: because we went with my school, we didn’t have any say in when we would go home. By hour four, I was getting a little chilled despite the huge amounts of buuz, hot milk tea, and vodka that was being passed around in the various vans where people would hole up to warm themselves. Despite the cold, my school teachers insisted on staying until the sun went down, six hours after we got there. James and I got home, got under the covers to warm up, and immediately fell asleep.

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Just in case anyone forgets how cold Mongolia is. Bet you couldn’t tell I was wearing three pairs of heavyweight long-underwear under those leggings. 

So, what would you say you do around here?

School directors are political appointees in Mongolia, so they sometimes get replaced after an election, as mine was.
Which is how I ended up in the new director’s office a month after starting, being asked the Mongolian equivalent of “So, what would you say you do here?”

My new director and I are on good terms now, and I thought it was probably about time I answer that same question for you.

As symbolized in this Teacher's Day card, I mostly stand around looking pretty, and I think the students are really responding to that.
As symbolized in this Teacher’s Day card, I mostly stand around looking pretty, and I think the students are really responding to that.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I am under the Teaching English as a Foreign Language umbrella, but that doesn’t really describe what I do on a day-to-day basis, or even what my big goals are supposed to be. Peace Corps conveniently breaks down what we are trying to accomplish into three goals:

1. Build capacity in whatever way we can, mostly improving people’s English but also teaching life-skills like how to be good at google search and convincing people drinking water is healthy.

2. Help Mongolians understand American culture (hopefully in a positive light).

3. Help Americans understand Mongolian culture (which is what I try and mostly fail to do here).

Having cake at work is critical to properly integrating.
Having cake at work is critical to properly integrating.

On a day to day basis I work with the six English/Russian teachers (my counterparts, or CPs) at my school (by the way, James and I work at different schools), and help them improve their English. Most TEFL volunteers team-teach a lot of classes with their counterparts, but at my school, I don’t do as much of that. Now I have a lot of clubs and specialized classes, which I really, really enjoy. I am completely spoiled in this respect, because it means I get to work with a lot of motivated, smart, funny kids and more importantly, I get to create my own lesson plans. Real talk: the books the government gives teachers to use are pretty awful. I spend a significant amount of time helping my CPs rewrite the books to make them useable. My biggest gripes with the textbooks are that they use both British-isms and American English almost at random and focus on weird, ultra-specific vocabulary.

The winners of our school English mini-Olympics! It was a weekend and no one told me we were all dressing up.
The winners of our school English mini-Olympics! It was a weekend and no one told me we were all dressing up.

An average day can include anything from a 5th grade speaking and singing club, coffee break English practice for my CPs, beginner’s English for adults, Olympic English for 12th graders, to American movie club (my most popular club by a mile). There’s plenty more, but if you want a full list, e-mail me.

A rare scene of high-schoolers paying rapt attention in class.
A rare scene of some high-schoolers paying rapt attention in class.

When I’m not at work-work, there are always plenty of community events going on. Schools like to hold song-and-dance competitions and seemingly random parties for teachers, so that between both James’ and I’s schools, we have a pretty packed schedule. We don’t technically have to attend all community events, but I take integration pretty seriously and because so much of our work here depends heavily on being considered upstanding members of the community, I try to at least turn up for most things.

School's field day way back in September.
School’s field day way back in September. Let the games begin!
During a weekend judo competition  in the school gym.
During a weekend judo competition in the school gym.

A lot of people we talked to and blogs we read before coming to Peace Corps told us to prepare hobbies and plenty of movies because there is a lot of free time, but so far the opposite has been true for us. I am honestly looking forward to getting a couple of days off for New Year’s just to catch up with some reading.