Thursday, May 1, 2014

The End

At the beginning of this experience, we were supposed to develop an essential question that would guide our thoughts and questions through the trip.  After having weeks to reflect post Ghana, I realize that I completely selected the wrong question from the start.  I previously decided to find out how environmental degradation influences the incidence of disease and subsequently the academic success of students in Ghana.  What I found was that, just like in the US, most people in Ghana do not really understand the quality or source of their own resources, like water.  They are not fully aware of what environmental factors are impacting their lives.  Most people in Ghana and the US are so busy trying to make money, raise children, and run their lives they have little time or inclination to investigate environmental issues.  This question was in fact a total conversation killer throughout my trip.

There was however a topic that was enthusiastically raised over and over by many Ghanaians and was in fact the focus of my efforts and attention prior to my visit to Ghana.  Throughout our trip we were asked repeatedly to help the schools.  We were asked what we "intended" to do to help.  We were told that the schools needed books, computers, money, etc., etc.  Of course we knew before arriving that the average citizen and school in Ghana is not as fortunate with material possessions and technology as we are in the USA.  But we were not prepared for the expectation that we were there to provide for their needs.  Our understanding was that we were visiting Ghana to collaborate with educators, trade professional strategies, share lesson plans, and make friends and connections.  But it was a fortuitous change of focus, it lead me away from my previous inquiry and on to something more meaningful.  What is the best strategy to provide meaningful aid?.

Through other experiences I have learned that simply " giving" is not enough and if done improperly can actually cause more damage than good.  I think it is important to consider several things before offering assistance to anyone.  First, we should ask the recipient what they want or need.  Too often aid is based on what the donor imagines is best for the recipient and not what is really most appropriate in the context of the recipients culture and environment.  Secondly, it should be something that is truly meaningful and not gratuitous.  The gift should be of high quality and beneficial to the recipient.  Too often donations are the "leftovers" or rejects" of the donor.  This kind of giving amounts to simply dumping our junk on another person.  Third, the donation should be self sustaining or enable the recipient to make meaningful changes that will lead to a higher quality of life.

Service Learning is an important part of my science curriculum.  The experiences I have when traveling,  including my experiences in Ghana, shape and direct the projects I present to my students.  I will continue to work with Sam Agyapong and fortunately was able to also add a few more Ghanaian teachers to my list of collaborators. 

Twelfth Day March 27

Today we depart Okim Oda and travel to Cape Coast.  Our primary visit here is to the Cape Coast Castle, site of the historic slave trade out of Ghana.  This is an informative but depressing tour.  We have all had years of education on this horrible part of human history so I don't need to reiterate it, but it was a somber experience at a beautiful location.

Eleventh Day March 26.

Today starts with Catholic mass at the school.  Many students take the opportunity to break out and dance during the mass.  Specifically, when the offering of gifts takes place, the students are dancing to the front, dancing in the aisles, dancing at their seats........  I was raised Catholic and I have never seen anything like this in an American Catholic church.  I love it!   The spirit and happiness at this school is, once again, so impressive.  I wish I could bottle this and take it back home.  What is the secret?  I don't have an answer for this.

Next we had an  opportunity to talk to the kids about the US.  I have a classroom of kids with whom to trade questions, answers, and comments.  We discuss many things, but the major ideas I take from the conversation are these:

  • the students really like boarding school
  • the students like wearing uniforms
  • despite the school rule against dating or "fraternizing", romance abounds
  • kids in Ghana LOVE to have their picture taken
  • social networking is alive and well in Ghana

In the evening, we are escorted to a farewell dinner at a local restaurant.  There is a buffet of delicious food and great company with some staff from St. Francis.  One of the most curious things I have experienced in Ghana is the wide enjoyment of rap music.  At tonight's dinner the background music is rap. Not only that, the music is so loud it is hard to carry on conversations.  I ask the gentleman across the table from me if this is common dinner music for adults on an evening out.  He smiles and says "Sure" as he bounces to the music while eating.  This was one of the most curious and surprising things I experienced in Ghana.  Most places we went, it seemed that loud music was being played.  This included in vehicles as we were driving, in the office at faculty meetings, and at restaurants.  Everywhere the music seemed loud and often rap was the choice.  Hmmmmm.  I don't know the "why" for this cultural characteristic.  The Ghanaian's say that rap was imported to them from the US.  But I have heard experts here in the US say that rock, blues, and rap all started in Africa.  What is the answer.  I need a music expert.

Around that time, dancing begins, quite suddenly, in the middle of dinner.  During the midst of some spirited dancing, a prayer circle suddenly forms.  Now we are praying together where moments ago we were dancing.  Then it is suggested that this would be the best time to give out gifts.  So Bonnie and I give our gifts to the headmistress and now the hugging and picture taking commences in full force.  I absolutely love this.  Dancing, hugging, all a moments notice at a faculty dinner. The Ghanaian spirit and love of life is beautiful.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Tenth Day Tuesday March 25

Today is our trip to Kumasi and to meet my pen pal Sam Agyapong.  The school is located in a very rural area ~1.5 hours out of Kumasi.  Sam has been my pen pal and co-teacher for almost 5 years but this will be our first visit in person.   My students assembled care packages for the students and also conducted a fundraiser to purchase two computers for the school.  I am happy I was finally able to meet Sam and very grateful to Victor Tsegah for arranging the visit, however, I am immensely disappointed that the visit had to be cut short to only one hour.  Maybe this means I have to come back on another trip?

Passing out pen pal notes and care packages from my classes

Ghana pen pals with Boonville Spirit shirts.

Presentation of the computers.  One computer will be used to teach students computer skills.  The second computer will be used by teachers and administration for presentations and school business.

There are a total of 62 students at this Junior High School and six teachers including the headmaster and assistant headmaster (Sam).


Ninth Day Monday March 24

Today is spent at St. Francis observing classes and having a meeting with teachers. Everyone is very friendly and welcoming.

Ghanaian class sizes are so large, 50-70 on average, that there is little opportunity for group or project based learning, particularly in the case of science labs. There is also very little technology available for Power Point lectures or similar formats. Consequently, Ghanaian teachers are often masters of the lecture.  They are animated, entertaining, and focused.  This chemistry teacher was one of the most energetic lecturers I saw.  He always had this great smile on his face.

Meals are served at big tables in the outdoor assembly hall.

                                                              Cooks preparing meals.
Most of the kids are super friendly and ready to talk.


I had the opportunity to answer questions about the American education system and cultural customs.
 The students had many questions including whether students in the USA are disciplined with caning.  This is one of the tricks to the discipline you see here in the schools.  One of the possible punishments for students who misbehave is to be hit with a cane, similar to the old American custom of paddling.  The teachers assure me this is used rarely and only as a last resort.  The students however expressed how much they don't like the practice.  Student behavior at the schools in Ghana is remarkable and quite frankly I envy it.  But although several people in our group commented that we need to bring corporal punishment back to US schools to achieve this kind of discipline in our schools, I don't think that is really true.  I asked the teachers of the science department what advice they had to offer on instilling student respect, cooperation, and participation.  Their number one piece of advice was to develop relationships with the students and gain their trust.  Treat them with kindness and respect.  None of them liked the idea of corporal punishment and several stated they outright avoid it.  I think stating that caning is the important key to the wonderful student attitude and behavior at St. Francis is an oversimplification.  What I saw was a community culture of respect and warmth with an emphasis on hard work, personal responsibility, and high achievement.  These young people are required to work harder and accept more personal responsibility at a much earlier age than most US students.  This logically produces young people with a higher level of maturity and appreciation for the education they are receiving.

 It may seem that these students are thrilled to see us, and they do seem happy and interested most of the time, but the majority of their enthusiasm comes from the camera.  The Ghanaian students go crazy at having their picture made.  They beg for you to take their picture