Monday, August 2, 2010

My hotel had a sign that said, "Welcome to Your Country!"

Welcome to your country. We’ve cranked the a/c up. No trouble –we thought you’d enjoy it. Help yourself to the sushi, the blueberries, the hot pretzels, the Cinnabon, the sandwiches – watch out for the aoli – and we’ll get started.

First, a few general notes:

It’s hot outside right now – easy for you to acclimate, we hope. Some time in the next couple of months, though, you’ll notice you’re sweating less behind your knees, and the mosquitoes are going away. Eventually, leaves will change color and days will get shorter and there will be a magic crispness to the air and you will realize: it’s fall. Finally. Appreciate it, okay? Because something tells us winter will be rough for you this year.

Some things in your country may seem smaller than you remember. Others (buildings over 2 storeys tall, for example) will probably make you a little giddy. Just walk around a little and soak it in. You’ll most likely start feeling to scale after a couple of weeks.

Your country has been here all along. Remember this when you feel the urge to marvel at how clean the floors are, or how patiently people are waiting in line, or how very sales-oriented everything seems to be. Remember that we’ve been living our lives as you’ve been (we assume) living yours. Congratulate us on getting real jobs and finding nice apartments and having babies – we appreciate it! Then, tone it down and try to find something normal to talk about. For more specific ideas, see below.

You may be overwhelmed by the volume of movies, music, books and “new media” to catch up on. Don’t worry. It’s still August, and we’re going to read beach books and watch reruns and blame it all on the heat. You should probably figure out about Hulu and Netflix before September, though.

You can’t go too far wrong with movies: you’ll find that pretty much anything looks amazing in a real movie theater, especially now that we have 3D. Sometimes things may start to feel too big, too slick, or too bright; but within these things, pieces will resonate. Trust us. Watch the airport scene near the end of “Inception,” with all the strangers who know each other; watch Leonardo DiCaprio get waved through customs and welcomed home. You can make this part the emotional center, if you want. We groaned at the end, too. It’s all right if you feel like you really need for the top to stop spinning.

Pop music will also offer you its own little toeholds. Try turning up the radio whenever “Riding Solo” comes on, for example. You can do a little fist pump, too. Remember, you have your own car now.

You can buy many, many things in your country. Quick tip: don't multiply the cost of everything by 25 or 30. This will only depress you. Focus instead on what you can buy with these hundreds of dalasis. For example:

The shoe selection is pretty exciting in your country. You’ll be interested to know that – in addition to name-brand sneakers, ballerina flats, and high heels you can wear on the street, because the street isn’t made of sand – we stock a lot of ankle boots. Many have jewels or tassels on them, and some are even available in a summery sandal style! Perhaps this will help ease your transition to actual shoes.

If you're wondering how to cover the rest of your body, we are still rocking the skinny jeans and learning to mix plaids and floral prints. We’re also into things that might be little dresses, or might be long shirts, and are kind of see-through. What do you mean, these don’t even look like clothes? We look cute. The secret is to layer.

Speaking of things that might be shirts or might be dresses, it’s okay to show your knees in your country. You’ll probably want to shave your legs first, though. Sorry, we don’t sell the blades that fit your old razor anymore. There’s a 3-blade minimum now.

Despite rumors to the contrary, people in your country do not yet have flying cars. We have smart phones, which are better.

Getting Around
Public transportation is pretty good in your country. You’ll be flummoxed by the fare cards in cities other than New York, but you’ll get your own seat, and usually a/c too.

The DeCamp bus still leaves from gates 412 and 413 at Port Authority. The fastest way up is still the stairs by the Duane Reade, then the escalator behind Drago Shoe Repair. The 33 (Grove) is still the sweetest option, unless you’re leaving after hours. Remember when you were 16 and your dad walked you through so you’d know where to go? It’s all still here, and it all still smells pretty much the same. We do try to keep some things unchanged.

Don’t look at everyone you see on the bus, train, or subway, thinking maybe you know them. You probably don’t. Some of them will turn out to be people that you went to high school with, or who used to date a friend of yours. In this case, you probably won’t remember their names. It’s okay – there are a lot of us. We got taller, or fatter, or hipper, or sadder. A lot of us got married. All of us got older. And we forgot about you a little, too. You were in Africa, right?

Monday, May 3, 2010

Why I Smell the Way I Smell

I realized recently that I probably smell like an old maid. There are several likely reasons for this. In the morning, I take two showers: one with water and a mild boring soap (nothing too overwhelming before 7:00, I always say), and a second one with Gold Bond Medicated Powder. This is intended to keep me fresh throughout the day, or until it hits 90 degrees. The latter usually beats the former by a long ways, but at least when I start to sweat in earnest, I tingle a little. I also give off, I imagine, little puffs of Palmolive and menthol.
I smell like an old maid in the evenings because that’s when I take my second first shower, and that’s when I break out the really exciting substances: lavender or sometimes (on special occasions) Summer Hill shower gel, for instance. I use these because they came in sweet little boxes in the mail from my mother, and they smell pretty and are said to be calming, and besides, they were free. Then it’s time for the second second shower, this one with lily-of-the-valley powder that came with its own puff, from my godmother.
I scrub and rinse and dust myself with these things because they make me feel like a lady for a few minutes, albeit a little old one. And because in between showers, I suspect, I mostly just smell.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

2 things that make me feel like a teacher...

...and I'm not sure how I feel about that:

1. To celebrate Literature Week, we made posters of The Books We Love (and why). I just finished making a sign for our display. It says, "What's at the heart of the books we love?" and yes, it is on a piece of red construction paper. In the shape of a heart.

2. Half of our school was running around the playground today playing a new version of tag. It's called "Take a Break," and it involves catching someone, screaming "TAKE A BREAK!!!" and dragging them over to the picnic tables, where they have to sit down and not play for a while. I asked; it was invented by two of my children, who "got the idea from me." My informant then tagged me and said, "Ms. Cochran, now you have to go and think about what you've done!"

Re: 1: When parents come in for Read with Your Kid day tomorrow, they're going to think I'm lazy and have left this stuff up from Valentine's Day. Whereas I ignored V-Day entirely, but was on my kids all week about getting a final draft ready for Our Display. Maybe the folding and cutting out of a red paper heart is just something I'm programmed to do around this time of year, and I can't be easy until I've done it. Maybe I emphasized product over process this time around. At any rate, I'm learning that sometimes, you just have to have something up on your bulletin boards.

Re: 2: We all know intellectually that children mimic what they hear; and all parents have, I'm sure, experienced the acute embarrassment that comes from hearing your words and tone coming out of a 3-foot-tall body. I know in my brain that I'm modeling liberal bourgeois speech patterns for my children; I do it on purpose. And yet, and yet - it's always a little disconcerting when children learn what you teach.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Here is why my kids are capital-A Awesome

They love Yoshimi.

They admire her capacity for kicking ass (look at the purple hair; the determined expression; the detached robot arms)...

...and her sass. Butt-length pigtails and complicated robot wiring? No problem.

Here we see the narrator looking out of a high-rise in the threatened city, singing to she takes on an evil-natured robot. In terms of voice, action, and point of view, this is probably the most thoughtful piece I've gotten from this kid all year.

It's been a few months since I taught them the song, and I'm still pleased when I put the album on. Their little heads all start bobbing along to the opening hook, and then they start singing along in the middle of writing time.
I'm ridiculously pleased that they all, boys and girls, think she's a hero. Civic responsibility, taking one's vitamins, defending the human race (including boys) - one could find worse role mod els in the pop canon.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

But Daddy, I Want a Book Suit Now!

Yes, Veruca, there is a way to make your own.

You will need:
-8 meters of poplin (2 for the cover, 6 for the interior pages)*
-Chalk or a pencil
-A permanent marker or two
-4 snaps
-Needle, thread, and basic sewing skills; or, a helpful tailor

To make full pedagogical use of the Book Suit, you will need:
An audience
A medium-sized child (2 is better)

1. Make the cover. Using the medium-sized child as a guide, mark off the 2 meters of cover fabric into front cover, back cover and spine. I made my spine a bit too narrow – it should probably take up between a quarter and a third of the cover to map well onto a human body. Divide the rest of the cover up evenly between front and back covers.

2. Depending on the wingspan of your child, you’ll probably end up using more like a meter and a half. Leave a bit around the edges for hemming; cut off the rest and use it to test your marker on.

3. Go nuts with your pencil, chalk, and (once you’re happy with the results) permanent markers. Put an illustration on the front; make up a blurb to go on the back. I ran out of blurb ideas after about two sentences**, so I stuck a bar code and an ISBN number on there, too.

4. Measure and cut up your interior pages into 3 equal lengths. (Use the medium-sized child and your cover as a guide.) Divide each length in half to create a right page and a left page.

5. The first length will be sewn directly onto the cover, sandwich style: so, the left half of the length will be your inside cover***, and the right half will be the last page.

6. The other 2 lengths will be sewn together back to back to make the middle pages. On one of the lengths, the right half will be the first page, and the left half will be the next-to-last page. The other length will have the 2 middle pages.

7. Write on the pages separately, to avoid bleed-through. I wrote nice and big, to make the text readable and so I wouldn’t have to make too much up.**** I also included illustrations, for similar pedagogical/labor-saving reasons. Luckily, hippos take up a lot of room on the page.

8. Assemble! This is where you’ll need sewing skills, or a tailor to whom you can explain what you want, which is:
-All edges hemmed to avoid fraying
-The inside cover and last page sewn onto the cover, caftan/grand bubu style – i.e., attached at the top and sides with room for the head and the arms
-The middle two pages sewn back to back along all four sides
-The middle two pages attached to the inside cover/last page by a vertical seam down the middle. (Be careful not to attach them to the front cover, or there’ll be no room for your medium-sized child.)
-Snaps at the top corners of the pages so you can attach them to each other, then detach and turn them.

9. Try it on for the benefit of your compound. Feeling stylish, comfortable and informative? You are ready to go!

10. Find a school library that has people who are willing to run it and willing to teach kids how to use it.*****

11. Facilitate a training! Include a spiel on the parts of the book, the way it’s supposed to “stand,” how to turn the pages, and how to try to figure out what it’s about. Take lots of volunteers from the audience, and give the kids a chance to practice on real books. If the school has an active library committee or a potential librarian, get them to co-facilitate. It increases the likelihood that they’ll remember and teach others.

12. Sit back for a minute and congratulate yourself on helping under-resourced schoolchildren build concepts of print, while laughing at you. Go ahead – you are a good volunteer...and you do have a caftan handy, after all.

*Poplin is the cheapest and most readily available fabric upcountry; plus, it’s sold in nice wide bolts, which means you can just use it horizontally; however, it’s very thin. I used part of an old bed sheet for the cover, which I think bleeds less and holds up better.
**“This book is about the magnificent hippopotamus. If you are interested in hippos, you should read it.”
***You might as well include a bit with publication information and/or a dedication, right?
****It turns out I have no idea how much hippos eat in a day, for example. Solution: make up a number, and then make up a joke about how that’s even more than people named Fatty (there are many here) eat. Despite the jokes and the obvious handmade/made-up quality of the product, though, I still found that people took the number as real. Such is the power of the written word – and the Book Suit.
*****Er, this is the hard part.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Behold the Book Suit!

About a year and a half ago, I noticed some things:
  • A lot of the schools I visited had at least a few books aside from their government-issue textbooks. Some even had set up libraries.
  • Hardly anyone used them.
  • When they were used, it usually wasn't pretty. Books got torn; books got shelved backwards and upside down; books got lost.
  • I had a lot of time on my hands.
  • I also had a lot of art supplies.
Thus was born the Book Suit: a teaching tool *and* a fashion statement.

Made of stylish, easy-care poplin, the suit is nice because it's big and pink, and you can put a kid inside it - all good attention-getters when you're doing a training session.* It also helps to anthropomorphize the book - kids seem to remember better which parts are which, and which way is up. After all, you wouldn't want Lamin or Annie to end up on their heads, now would you?

So, it has most of the standard parts of a book:
a front cover
a back cover
and a spine. (Get it?)

The second edition of the Book Suit also has pages you can turn, which is good for modeling gentle reading.

Thanks to Mr. Samba Marong and his excellent mechanical snap-bedazzling machine, the pages stay put when the book is standing straight and tall...
as it always should be when you close it and shelve it.

I liked to have kids model with a real book too...
and practice themselves.

Then, it was time to sit back, reflect on how we'd helped build concepts of print, and fold up the suit for next time. (This is the main reason that poplin is better than paper or rice bags - it travels better. Plus, it comes in handy if you find yourself in need of a caftan.)
Next up: instructions on how to make your own!

*Some of these pictures are from a Peace Corps workshop, and feature volunteers; some of them are from a school training, and feature kids. Thanks to Ellie Adelman and the staff and students of Kerr Sait LBS, and to Annie Larson and Amanda Drapcho, models.

Monday, December 28, 2009

One year plus later...

I'm out of the Peace Corps, but back in the Gambia. Life is easier than it was the last time I posted - I live 5 minutes from the beach, for one thing, and not the River Gambia tar beach. It's a little quieter, too - not nearly as many neighbors, and not so many minor adventures.

However, it's the end of 2009, and I'd like to put up some pictures. A little year in review, if you will.
The end of my street during the rainy season.
Thanksgiving in my living room. Peace Corps people and a couple of American visitors, who were no doubt a little less excited by the turkey and cranberry sauce than we were. The hand-turkey wreath at right has stayed up and warms my heart daily. The house plant at left is still alive, a testament to the knowledge of Ebrima the plant guy - he rightly steered me away from buying anything "not strong." Note also the 2 couches and numerous chairs -that's 2 more couches and a lot more chairs than I had a year ago.
Above-mentioned house plant, being loaded for shipment. Now that I look at it, I can see that Ebrima took better care of it than I'm doing. At least it's surviving, though.

My friend and neighbor Ellie made turkey rolls! (Those are rolls in the shape of a turkey, not rolls with turkey inside. Look closely - she even gave them little skinny legs.)

My classroom (the middle door), all done up for the holidays. Colleen (the door on the right) and I went all elementary-school multicultural - from left, we have papel cortado, prayer flags, and Chinese-style lanterns. On the far left is our assistant, Mr. Allen, who actually hung all that up. And in front are some mango and eucalyptus trees, which help contribute year-round to the back block's Secret Garden/100 Years of Solitude feel.

The inside of half my classroom, set up for our first-ever publishing party. The kids looked at different currencies and wrote books about them, which they then read aloud in thoroughly adorable fashion. (I won't post pictures of them publicly, but email me if you want proof.) As part of the usual classroom set up, we have (from left) class rules, pictures of baseball (we started playing Baseball Multiplication - thanks, Everyday Math! - and I realized that some of my kids have never seen a baseball I was a little shaky on the concepts of innings and at-bats, too), the world map, the word wall, and the single most fascinating machine the kids have ever seen: the overhead projector. Old school. On top of the chalkboard is our nascent Nifty Thrifty Fifty list - holla, fans of Patricia Cunningham! I know you're out there.

I just got back from a trip to Sierra Leone, which generated a lot more beautiful and dramatic pictures than your average week in the G, but also made me realize that this place too is unique and pretty darn neat. So, watch this space for more beauty and also for more ordinary cool things. Also coming soon: instructions on how to make your very own Book Suit. Stay tuned.