Sunday, November 13, 2011

Today is my final Sunday at site and next Saturday I'll be heading to Kyiv for the last time. I'll start packing and saying my goodbyes this week at school, hopefully escaping without too many tears. I was hoping that this weekend would be filled with quality time with my host family, but there is illness and a lot of work-related issues to be taken care of. The weather has been gray and cold as well, limiting random strolling and conversation. So, I'm pacing my room trying to prepare everything that I can think of to make my next transition as stress-free as possible. I jotted down a list of things I'll miss that I wish to share.

Things I'll Miss

- Tomatoes. Pickled tomatoes aren't that bad, but that first crop in June makes all the waiting worth while. Ukraine has killer tomatoes for three months.
- Words being a gift. As I've stressed countless times, Ukrainians love celebrating. They celebrate births, weddings, name days, birthdays, national holidays, Soviet holidays, Saint days, and occupation days (Nurse Day, Teacher Day) to name a few. Typical gifts are flowers, chocolate, and cognac that are always accompanied by a short speech. I guess in a country that has suffered so much, words are one of the more original, thoughtful, and inexpensive ways to show someone that they are important to you.
-Time to think. Like today, I have had more time to just be than I probably had in a month in the states. Life is much slower here for me.
- The spring awakening. Ukraine resembles northeast Ohio for its winters. It's cold and gray for weeks on end. I can't get warm no matter how many pairs of tights I put on. Sometime during April there is an overnight change; green grass, buds, blue skies, and a deafening din of animal husbandry.
- The joy of getting water. Almost every week our water is turned off. Sometimes just for a day but more often for two or three. I hate cooking when there's no water, it slows down the process and I get headaches from dehydration. When the water gets turned back on, I do a little dance and thank the water gods. It's a simple pleasure that never gets old.
-The 6th form. The students in the 6th form can make me smile even on the worse of days. They aren't necessarily a smart class, but they're witty and enjoy a practical joke.
- Naps. What else am I supposed to do in winter?
- Escape into the simple life. There are so many problems and injustices, however people that I interact with daily don't always put their energy into complaining about these things. I never hear conversations about the future, philosophy, or character development. Most of the time I find this frustrating, I wish to hear something more complex and thoughtful. I'll miss being around people that cope by focusing on the simple things and daily life.
- Summer outfits. I've often joked with Americans about what it would be like if What Not to Wear came to Ukraine. Granted, the culture barrier and spending money on useless accessories would ultimately cancel the show. I thank the local interpretation of globalization for the incredible originality that shines through women's fashion, particularly in the summer.
- Babushka waddle. Women over the age of fifty have a distinct universal walk. It involves short steps or shuffles with the weight being passed onto the forwarding foot. It appears as though it's a natural part of the aging process, of becoming a babushka.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Earlier this summer I listened to an interview of Abhijit Banerjee on Econtalk about poverty. I found myself agreeing with what he was saying, particularly in regard to education and health for developing countries. His descriptions of programs never mentioned Eastern Europe, but parallels to Ukraine were made again and again. Below is an excerpt of the interview where he talks about education. What he is describing here is exactly what I've experienced during my Peace Corps service:

Let's turn to the role of education, which is often thought to be the biggest single barrier to development; and as many have pointed out, there have been some dreadful results and attempts to improve education. This isn't only true in developing countries; it's true in developed countries as well. I always find it ironic that people look at the ineffectiveness of government spending on education via aid and forget how ineffective American spending on education often is in our own country. Let's talk about the big picture first. You contrast what you call the demand wallahs and the supply wallahs, where wallah is a term that means "provider of." Some people suggest we need to build more schools, create more teachers in these poor countries. Others say that unless there's a reason to go to school, a reason to invest, all the schools and teachers in the world won't matter. Talk about what's true and false about those views and what we do know that can make students better educated in poor countries. We know that the demand method--when it's clear that there are benefits from education, people put more effort into it. Also the supply method--when people have schools to go to, they learn more. It's not true that you can just tell people that you should want education and then magically schools will appear. There is a lot of clear evidence that school construction and more generally making schools more available does affect the educational level. Having said that, the reason why that debate is a bit besides the point is that if you look at where the big failures are, they seem to be inflated with our putting effort into sending these children to school and schools are there and still true that people aren't learning. That's the most striking thing. The striking fact is the lack of learning in settings where there doesn't seem to be any obvious lack of demand, or any lack of supply in the sense of there being a school, a teacher, etc. I think what makes it really interesting is that fact. You see a lot of private schools in developing countries. Interesting there are private schools that the poor send their children to, $1 a month or $2 a month kinds of private schools. They are all over the developing world. These parents are very poor and for them, $2 a month is a lot of money, so they are putting effort into this. They are making sure that their kids are getting something that they value. Yet even in those schools, you see slightly better results than the government schools, but still very disappointing results even in those cases. The average kid there isn't studying at great levels, either. The problem seems to be attitude of the entire education system--the teachers, the parents, and even the children toward what the goal of education is. They seem to have the idea that the goal of education is to get through some difficult exam and get some job having got through that. And that's something that only a few people can do it, what we call a winner-take-all education. It's like education is some long large gamble, something everybody should try, but it can't work out for everybody or for most people. Whereas in fact we know that most people get something out of being educated. Even if you can read a little bit you understand what these instructions are from the doctor; you do a little bit better in bringing up your children. The benefits seem to be much more widespread than people assume. The teachers seem to assume that most of these kids are hopeless; there's no point to trying to teach them anything. They just teach to the top of the class. And the parents don't complain, because they also think that the goal of the whole system is to train somebody, to find out whether your child is one of those few lucky geniuses who is going to go on to get a good education and a fine job; and if he isn't, what's the point of educating him? Everybody is much more pessimistic about the education outcomes of the median person than they should be. So, based on that, the curricula are way too hard, the teachers don't pay any attention to any of the children falling behind in class, the parents don't complain when the children fall behind in class--either they assume that there is some rough justice there, either your kid is really smart and the education is worthwhile, otherwise there is no point. So, everybody kind of colludes with that, and the kids very quickly lose hope. They kind of figure out that they are not one of these anointed people, and they start giving up. You see these children sitting through class after class where they understand nothing. They are in fourth grade, they can't really read. They are teaching history, they understand nothing of what's going on, but they sit calmly through school and start kind of dropping out. They vote with their feet. When they are in fourth grade they are too young; maybe keep coming. But by the time they reach sixth or seventh grade, they know the school thing is not working out for them, so they just drop out. You see this pattern over and over again, of unreasonable expectations that then are effectively used to clean out most of the people in the education.

Pincus the Peddler

I found this song by Benny Bell to be quite funny: Pincus the Peddler

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Fall Break

This past week was fall break for schools across Ukraine. After taking care of some business in Kyiv I visited a friend in Crimea for a few days. Crimea is beautiful all year, but I especially enjoyed the changing leaves this time. We hiked around Bahcisaray, a Turkish settlement surrounded by mountain caves.

Almost There

My friend Karen sent me this card for my birthday. It almost made me emotional. This evening I spoke to my parents about an outing they had this weekend in Cleveland and now I can't wait for cold December weekends of shopping and drinking milkshakes. I'm almost home, Ohio.

Happy Halloween

11th grade's jack-o-lantern for the school's dance party

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Let Me Count the Ways

It's been a busy period for foreign correspondents in Ukraine with Yulia Tymoshenko's trial. I was a little surprised that no one has mentioned to me the results in the past week. The teachers' room, birthplace of all my gossip, has been completely silent about this issue. Perhaps I missed the conversation but I'm more inclined to believe that it hasn't occurred for two reasons. First, my colleagues are refraining in order to avoid a heated debate. It's not in their nature to discuss politics. Second, it is too distant from their day-to-day lives.

Hence, I was surprised today to overhear a conversation I never expected. Most conversations in the teacher's room are about the personal lives of students, the weather, when it will be pay day, and how much everything costs. Today's conversation took the typical route. First, they stated how cold they were and asked each other about the temperature in their classrooms. Then, they asked each other if they were heating their homes (it's in the low 40s). This was followed by what the price of Russian gas is and what each of them heard on the news the night before.

The next comment I'm still trying to process, translated from Ukrainian, was, "I like the system in Belarus, people are satisfied there. It's good that the president has all the power and that the media is censored." Bam.

This wasn't said by a babushka, but a woman in her early thirties. Everyone in the room (except for myself) agreed with her. It goes against everything Peace Corps is trying to promote in Ukraine (democracy, freedom of speech). It hurt to hear after spending so much time working in this community.