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Student Voices: What Makes a Good Teacher?

Student Voices: What Makes a Good Teacher?

At this point, we’ve spent close to a year traveling the world, visiting schools, and talking with students. One of our most interesting observations from this project is how consistent students are when we ask them a very basic question: ‘What makes a good teacher?’ High-end private school or low-income government school, small children or high school students, South America, Africa, Europe, America, or Asia; students everywhere answer in the same way with nearly the exact same words.

  1. First they say, “They’re nice to us,” or “They don’t yell.” The order of these statements varies a bit, but they are always the first two statements students make.
  2. Next, one student will add, “They help us when we don’t understand.” If there’s a group of students, the rest of the will murmur in affirmation.
  3. Students also tend to say, “Makes learning fun,” which can mean anything from playing games with content or just being an especially engaging lecturer. The point seems to be that the teacher has put some thought into how students will be experiencing class, and she wants to make it enjoyable.

There is sometimes a jokester who chuckles and says something like, “Doesn’t give homework.” And older students at exceptional schools will often talk about strong personal relationships with teachers who seem to be more like mentors. But the first three comments have literally come up every time we’ve asked this question of students, and almost always in that order.

What else is interesting is that students tend to react in essentially the same way when they hear the question. They smile and start answering almost immediately. This is a question they’re comfortable with. They know they have some expertise in this topic, and they’re fairly matter-of-fact about letting us in on what’s so obvious to them.

These comments may not be especially surprising, but I think their clarity and consistency warrant attention. One thing that stands out to me is how personal the comments are. Teachers often think about their relationship with a class, but students hardly ever think of themselves as just one member of a group. They see their relationship as a personal one with the teacher. Students talk about how a good teacher responds when they personally don’t understand far more often than they mention how well that teacher explains something to the whole class.

Teaching is tough, and teachers can get bogged down in disparate responsibilities and constantly changing criteria that they’re supposed to live up to. They get so caught up trying to be what their district and administrators want them to be that they can sometimes forget what their students are looking for. Since good teaching can’t happen without the students’ consent, I’m going to say that this student perspective matters a great deal.

So, teachers, if you’re looking for a few ideas to help anchor your approach to teaching, I might recommend these questions:

  1. Am I nice to my students? How do I show it?
  2. Do I refrain from raising my voice when I need to discipline a student or class?
  3. Do students who struggle get the support that they need?
  4. Can I make class more enjoyable for students while also maintaining/deepening rigor?

I’d like to say that these questions are simple, but anyone who has run a classroom knows that they can be incredibly complicated to address. And that complexity is even more of a reason to keep these reflections in the front of our minds. There are lots of ways to try to improve as teachers, but if we’re not ‘good teachers’ in the eyes of our students, chances are we aren’t going to get very far.

  • Will
The Power of Poor People: Two Days at Barefoot College

The Power of Poor People: Two Days at Barefoot College

After hours of driving on sporadically paved roads, we parked in a small and remote village. The stars were brilliant above and the air was quiet enough to hear the chewing of a water buffalo in a nearby pen. We turned a corner and there was this circle of light lined by the silhouettes of children. They each had a small notebook and a pencil and looked curiously at us as we approached. The children here spend their days taking livestock to graze, but for the past six months they’ve been assembling on this patch of cement at night to learn.

There are dozens of these night schools in the surrounding countryside, most of them much more established, and all organized by the TED Talk famous Barefoot College. Barefoot is most famous for its adult learning programs, specifically its program to train semi-literate grandmothers to become solar engineers. The women come from all over the world, and when they complete their 6 month training they return home to solar electrify their villages. The women I spoke with (one from Namibia and two from Colombia) were five months into their program. They all said that, at first, it was very difficult. Most of the women don’t share a common language, and the food took some getting used to. A Colombian grandmother gave me a look of surprised concern when she said, “The food. They don’t eat meat. And there’s no fish.” I asked one of the trainers what it was like on the first day. “On the first day, there is a lot of crying. They are thinking too much about their husbands or their children, and they are missing home. We do a lot of hugging and watching to make see who is not eating. But after two weeks most of them are OK.”

But the women talk about these early challenges as distant memories. When I asked how they felt about what they had learned, their faces lit up in flashes of joy. One Colombian grandmother looked up from her screwdriver and circuit board to explain, “For me, to learn something like this at this stage in my life. It’s something to make me very proud.”

This kind of pride is found all around Barefoot. There is a disabled man who trained to become a blood pathologist and now runs tests for thousands of people in nearby villages. There is a Barefoot dentist who was trained informally by an Italian dentist during her six month visit. She now does regular exams, fills cavities, and educates children at the night schools about dental hygiene. The entire complex was designed by a Barefoot architect. He was awarded a national award but refused to accept saying that he was just one of many people who came together to make the new campus a reality. None of these people have any formal credentials. In fact, there is a general disregard for ‘paper’ qualifications and the stuffiness that comes from people who hold them.

Barefoot College meeting

A morning meeting of the staff at Barefoot College

Barefoot is a living testament to the wisdom and capacity of poor people. It’s a statement against those who think solutions need to be imported to places like these. I asked the Barefoot architect how he learned to design buildings if he never studied. “From each other,” he said.

Of course, efforts here are not always easy. A long-term volunteer told me that, after being here a while, people started to open up to her about how for every success Barefoot has had there have been 5 or 10 failed attempts. But what allows people here to keep going is that these are their ‘failures.’ Missteps can be treated as learning experiences. There is a palpable sense that Barefoot is an institution of, by, and for the people who live here and in the surrounding villages. This feeling of self-determination is powerful and ripples out to the culture of the night schools as well.

When we left the night school, we couldn’t help contrasting it with what we had seen in rural schools in Malawi. In Malawi, the attempts at education took the form of imitation. Once they had the appearance of learning (a physical school, teachers, desks, uniforms) there was pride that education was happening. But the reality was far different. Students weren’t learning much of anything in the classes we saw. Here they had none of these things. Children were circled up on the ground outside in the same clothes they wore all day. But they were engaged. They knew that this space existed to serve them and curriculums were adjusted to be more relevant to their daily lives. Children led each other through phonics drills and corrected the teacher when he made ‘mistakes’ in his multiplication tables. Hours away from any city and kilometers from formal electricity, in a circle lit by solar powered lamps that were engineered by semi-literate grandmothers, children were sitting and eager to learn. I asked them what they enjoyed the most about night school. “Everything,” they said. It was beautiful.

  • Will

barefoot college night school (2)

Athens and The History of Democracy in Photos

Athens and The History of Democracy in Photos

During our time in Athens, I explained to a number of Greeks that, as a history teacher, Athens was a pretty special place to me. I had always wanted to come here. I spent a lot of time sitting around pondering the history of democracy.

Athens Will Contemplating

 

Here I can be seen at what’s left of the Theater of Dionysus looking out at the stage where western theater was born. Sophocles and Aristophanes scripted plays that were performed here. As one historian put it, the Greek dramas don’t tell us much about daily life but they give us insight into the spirit of the people. Art. It’s not overrated.

Athens theater

 

Down the street is this much larger complex built for concerts and recently renovated for use during the Olympics.

athens music spot

 

I also thought a lot about the benefits and excesses of Democracy. In other countries we’ve visited we’ve seen grand ruins that served only the rulers of an empire. In Greece, the monuments are almost all public buildings. But Democracies are far from perfect. Here is the jail where Socrates awaited his death. Athens had recently lost the Peloponnesian War to Sparta. They had lost standing as a major power and they were angry about it. And angry nations can do crazy things. Like kill the founder of Western philosophy. Maybe the most rational man of all time.

Athens Socrates jail

 

Of course, the most enduring symbol of Athens is the Parthenon. Unfortunately, the front is currently under renovation.

Athens parthenon

 

But the back still looks pretty cool. Notice how it seems to swell as it rises instead of tapering like most tall things? That impressive feeling it gives off? That’s not an accident. There are a series of optical refinements to create the sense of an enhanced perfection. The corner columns are wider than the others. The horizontal line across the top is actually slightly curved. And each pillar is sculpted to bulge slightly in the middle. Geometry. Finding real world application since 438BC.

Athens parthenon back

 

The Parthenon was meant to display the might of Athens and project the superiority of its democratic system. But the heart of its democracy is tucked on the side of a park, hidden from most tourist maps. Here is the assembly where the property owning men of Athens would meet to debate and vote on the laws they would live under. Early in the Peloponnesian War Pericles stood on the orator’s platform on the right and gave one of the most thorough defenses of Democracy ever argued. He talked about how, in Athens, the power was in the hands of the many and that there was equal justice for all. He spoke of how a man was judged for his merit and not by his birth. Anyone could rise from poverty to greatness. He talked about the benefits of being an open society eager to learn from the world. He bragged that this was a city where citizens could trust one another and did good because of civic duty. I stood in this spot for a while, as I do, and thought about how hubris led to the decline of Athens. I dwelled how long the world went without a Democracy before the American Revolution. Democracy is delicate, not to be taken for granted. I think, in America, we may be forgetting that.

history of democracy

 

There’s slightly more recent history in Greece too. Like this hill where Elizabeth is standing near the acropolis. This is where St. Paul gave his first sermon and essentially launched Christianity as an up-and-comer religion. A few days before this we stood here and watched New Year’s Eve fireworks above the acropolis. That was pretty cool…

Athens Liz and Paul history of democracy

 

Even if you’re not interested in history, there’s still plenty to do in Athens. The gyros are awesome (much better than in Turkey). The ouzo is delicious. And there are so many great hills for sunset, you could hike a different one every night of the week.

Athens Sunset

The islands get all the buzz for traveling Greece, and I’m sure they’re great. But Athens is pretty cool too, especially for anyone interested in emotionally connecting with the foundations of western civilization.

  • Will

For more reflections, specifically about American democracy, you can check out this post about my reflections after running around the National Mall in DC.

Also, this in descript case at a museum is one of the coolest things we saw in Greece. It’s crazy these things still exist. Conspiracy, Betrayal. War… For full context you may wan to check out this documentary.

Athens Themistocles history of democracy

Capturing the Essence of Venice in Photos

Capturing the Essence of Venice in Photos

To plan the Italy portion of our trip, we leaned on the recommendations of our friend Stephanie who had lived here for many years. Her endorsement of Venice was unqualified, “Venice is the only place I’ve ever been that can’t be captured in photographs. The Greek islands are beautiful, but they basically look like the photographs. Being in Venice is an experience.”

I decided to take her comment as a challenge. Over our 10 days in Venice, I set out to capture the essence of the place in photos.

Of course, the first thing people think of when they hear ‘Venice’ are the canals. They’re not overrated. There are no wheeled vehicles on these islands, not even bicycles, and that reality lays the foundation for a truly unique setting.

vebice canal

 

At night the bridges are even more charming, and the streetlights flicker in the water.

venice brideg

 

The shops that line the narrow streets are as much a part of Venice as anything else. You can’t talk about the essence of this place without mentioning affordable Italian leather handbags.

venice shopping

 

Or elaborate masquerade items.

venetian masks

 

There are scores  of fine dining establishments, but if we’re talking about the essence of the Venice, it’s the piles of baguettes in street windows that come to mind first. Though the spaghetti with clams, at pretty much any restaurant, is incredible as well.

venice food

 

We loved how the narrow and angular streets open into irregularly shaped squares with very little warning.

venice square

 

The grandest square is around St. Mark’s Basilica.

venice outside st marks

 

And the Byzantine style, gold leafed interior speaks to the opulence of this place like nothing else.

venice st marks

 

Great art is also woven into the essence of Venice. The consistency of the quality and the shear scale of the canvasses surpasses anything we’ve seen in or outside of Europe. See how tiny Elizabeth looks at the bottom of this photo?

Venice tintoretto

 

Of course, you can’t talk about capturing Venice without at least one photo of a winged lion. Coolest city mascot ever!

venice lion

 

The view from this bridge down the street from our hotel became my favorite view in the city. I love how the streetlight also serves as a lighthouse.

venice light 2

 

Now, I know I’ve failed miserably in my attempt to capture the essence of Venice. But I think it was worth a shot. We loved our time here, and it’s in the running for our favorite place of the trip. Spending time here truly is an experience. Still its essence remains elusive. In photos Venice will always be a place shrouded by fog on the other side of a grand canal.

venice fog

  • Will
How to Bargain for a Carpet, Rug, or Other Goods

How to Bargain for a Carpet, Rug, or Other Goods

I remember the first time I went shopping in a price-tag free environment. I was 20 and alone in Morocco, and rugs were piling up in front of me. A tray with tea magically appeared. I had no idea how to bargain. Details about the amount of work that went into the rugs and how great a time this was for me to purchase, swirled around my head. It was a disorienting experience. I didn’t even want a rug, but I ended up buying one and paying a lot more than I needed to.

A lot of people are put off by bargaining and don’t quite know how to go about it. Over the last 12 years, I’ve found myself bargaining more than a few times, and I’ve come up with a process you might find useful.

  1. Start a negotiation at 1/3 the asking price. If the person is talking a lot and making a big show, you probably want to lower this to 20% of the asking price. I know it seems like a lot, but you’re aiming to pay 50-66% of the original price. When they tell you the price, it helps to look hurt or surprised and say something like, “Very beautiful, but I’m only prepared to spend ___.” Then smile. This is the most uncomfortable part of the negotiation but also the most important.
  2. The dealer will probably respond by repeating all of the special traits of what you’re buying and reminding you that this is ‘quality stuff.’ Then he’ll probably talk about a ‘cash discount’ (if they take cards at all) and bring it down by 5-10%.
  3. Whatever amount they decrease the price, that’s how much you should increase your bid by. It also helps to wait an uncomfortable amount of time before speaking. Settle in, this conversation may take a while.
  4. Next the dealer will talk a lot and also wait an uncomfortable amount of time. He’ll tell you he’s already giving you a better price than he should. DO NOT SAY ANYTHING until he gives you a new price. He’s trying to awkward you into raising your bid without having to counter.
  5. Look dissatisfied and then generally repeat these steps until you’re near the 50-66% percent range you’re aiming for. Then, wait an even more unusually long period of time during which you seem, excited, pensive, and generally deep in thought. Then smile and say conclusively, “OK, (an amount ~10% lower than his last number).” Then offer your hand to shake, and say confidently, “It’s a good price.”
  6. If he then tries to squeeze an extra couple of bucks out of you, go ahead and let him. There’s no pride to be taken in hustling this guy out of a few dollars that, will certainly mean more to him than you.

Now, all of this advice is for actual high-quality handmade or delicate stuff. If you’re buying something that’s machine made you can normally start closer to 10% and end up paying 20-40%.

On the other hand, there are usually 1-2 shops in a market that will give you a much better starting price than other stores. The main rug in the feature photo for instance. One shop showed a rug of the same size and quality with a starting price of $1200. The shop I ended up buying from had a much less over-the-top dealer and gave a starting price of $450. Our friend Sarah wanted the other two rugs so, we bundled the deal and I ended up paying $350 for the main one in the photo. So, less than 1/3 the price at the first shop but only a ~20% discount from where we actually bought it. Maybe we could have squeezed a slightly better deal, but we were happy with the price. Point being, it pays to get initial quotes from a few places.

Also, my experience comes mostly from Morocco, Egypt, and Turkey. In South America bargaining is less of a thing, and people will kind of stop talking to you if you start as low as I’m recommending here. I look forward to trying this method in India and South East Asia in the coming months, and I’ll amend this post if I find things are drastically different.

Happy Shopping!

  • Will
Reflections on Terror from Istanbul

Reflections on Terror from Istanbul

Yesterday a suicide bomber approached a German tour group by an obelisk near Sultanahmet square and took the lives of at least 10 people. Less than 24 hours before, Elizabeth and I were walking around Sultamahmet with our friend Sarah. We talked about the layers of history around us and lamented that American students aren’t exposed more to the richness of culture and history in this part of the world. We stood before the obelisk and realized that, a thousand years ago, we would be in the midst of racing chariots. This was the Hippodrome where emperor Justinian once massacred tens of thousands of protestors.

Elizabeth and I were at breakfast on the other side of the city when the explosion happened. We didn’t hear anything. There were at least a million people closer to the blast than we were. We heard what happened like most people several continents away, on the TV. As details emerged, we began to feel increasingly uneasy. This was the exact place where we had stood the day before. We thought of our families and worried for the groups of German tourists we’d seen around the city. We were lucky.

Blue Mosque 01

Photo Credit: Sarah Payne

We were perhaps too cavalier when we dismissed the concerns from our friends and family about visiting Istanbul. This is a country whose eastern border is an active war zone. The crossing with Syria is porous, to put it mildly. On our first night here, we met a journalist who joked about taking us to the east. As we left, he made sure to be a bit more serious, “Do not go to Syria,” he said. “You will be kidnapped, 100%.”

So, many people are reacting to yesterday’s attack as something that’s tragic but unsurprising. For me it’s underlining a different reality: Nowhere is ‘safe.’ Boston, Paris, Cologne, San Bernardino, an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. I have friends who were personally affected when a gunman opened fire in a movie theater in my home state of Louisiana. Black people in our country live with the fear that routine interactions with the police could end in death. Sending their children to play in a white part of town has become an act of courage. Terror is everywhere. I don’t feel any less safe today than I did on Monday.

One of the most startling things about yesterday is how quickly a place can appear normal. Yesterday evening people came back to the hostel having just learned what had happened. One man had spent the whole afternoon near Sultanahmet square without knowing a thing. Public transportation in the area was briefly halted, but it’s running again now. Of course the political ripples will continue much longer, and for many people life will never be the same. A certain melancholy hangs in the air. Periodically I imagine what the scene must have looked like and feel sick.

Data shows that the world is actually safer than it’s ever been. But the ways it’s unsafe today are unfamiliar, and they are especially susceptible to narratives of fear and aggression. There is a temptation to define an ‘other’ and rage against them. The broader the ‘other’ we define, the more satisfying our anger will feel. But fear and unquestioning anger will only further radicalize people in all the fractured pieces of our world. I am not a pacifist, but I know that strength cannot be righteous without compassion.

Last week I visited the hill in Turkey where, it’s believed, Saint John wrote his gospel. When I returned I decided to read some of it before going to sleep. I was reminded that Jesus also lived in turbulent and oppressive times. His guidance was clear, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.” I don’t think you need to be a practicing Christian to think that there’s truth in that idea. In times that seem dark, maybe each of us should do our best to find the light we wish to carry. It’s difficult, but it’s a more uniquely human ability than fear.

  • Will
Spice of Life in Zanzibar and Dar Es Salaam

Spice of Life in Zanzibar and Dar Es Salaam

Dar Es Salaam is big and dirty. Cars and motorbikes swerve around pedestrians. Potholes fill with murky puddles. Parts of the sidewalk by our hotel were taken up by people welding a variety of metal contraptions. But the city is also a vibrant mix of peoples and cultures. Mosques, churches, and Hindu temples can be found just a few minute walk from one another. A variety of tea shops offer masala (chai) tea and an assortment of delicious snacks. There’s at least one sprawling vegetable market that wraps around two sides of a large city block and some of the best Indian food we’ve ever had. Coming from Malawi, Dar seemed like a return to civilization, but it’s also the sort of place that can tax your energy just getting from one place to another.

Most people come to Dar Es Salaam on their way west to do Safaris in the Serengeti and Ngorongoro crater or to take the ferry to Zanzibar. Dar doesn’t have any ‘attractions’ per se, but it’s definitely an interesting place to explore for a day or so. And, seriously, if you’re there, find some Indian food.

We stayed at Safari Inn. We had our own room. No frills but affordable.

Ferry to Zanzibar

The Ferry is pretty straight forward, but follow basic travel advice when buying your ticket. 1) Ignore the people who are telling you they’ll take you to where the tickets are and just go in the building that’s obviously marked as the place to buy tickets. 2) There are a ton of porters who will ask to help you. Our taxi driver emphasized that we should not let them take our bags.

Stone Town

stone town square

Some people go straight to the beach and only do Stone Town as a day trip. This is a mistake. Stone town in unlike anywhere else in East Africa. There are narrow streets, a variety of stores selling clothes and spices, and an outdoor eat-on-the-spot seafood market that makes for an unforgettable experience. There are ‘sights,’ like a couple palaces and museums but they’re pretty run down and not really worth the effort. The church where the old slave market used to be makes for an interesting and powerful visit though.

The real joy of Stone Town comes from wandering the streets, buying snacks from local shops, and perusing the textiles and crafts, before heading to the seafood market for dinner. The hidden treasure there though isn’t the seafood at all, it’s the Syrian kebab stand on the edge of the market. Delicious.

night market zanzibar

We also took a day trip to a spice plantation from Stone Town, which surpassed my expectations. We walked through the forest and our guide pulled spices and fruits from the trees around us. Black pepper, bark from a cinnamon tree, cardamom, roots for turmeric, and several fruits whose names I’ve forgotten. We got to taste it all. You don’t see the manufacturing side but I preferred the hands on, spices-in-mouth approach much more.

zanzibar spice tour

We stayed at Zanzibar Lodge. At first we thought we walked into a woman’s home but we had the right place. Free breakfast, affordable private room, and great location.

The Beach

Zanzibar sunset

There are several ways to do the beach in Zanzibar. The northern part of the island has a reputation for being more developed and having a better nightlife. We didn’t stay there. Instead, we opted for the undeveloped east side. And that’s what we got. There really isn’t much here at all, other than a few hostels and one mid-size hotel. We could walk for a mile in either direction on the beach and only see a handful of other people. There are a few options for activities. I took a traditional sail boat to go snorkeling one day, which was awesome. Other people at our hostel took day trips to Stone Town and to the jungle in the middle of the island where you can see red backed monkeys. One night there was a birthday party for a guy who works at the hostel and we were invited to take shots and eat a goat they roasted, but I don’t think that’s a common thing. Mostly we just lounged and relaxed at the back and in the hammocks around our hostel. It was perfect for what we wanted. But if you’re looking for more of an active scene you may want to check out other parts of the island.

swimming zanzibar

Tips: check the tides before heading to the beach. At low tide the water slinks back behind the seaweed and it’s pretty tough to get to.

We stayed at Sagando Hostel. It was nice. Sand floors. Lots of hammocks. There’s one local restaurant on the other side of the dirt path, where you can eat for a bit less but options there are limited. We ate most of our meals at Sagando where the food was a bit more expensive but outrageously delicious.

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This two week stint in Tanzania was the final chapter in our Africa adventures. At the airport, I began to feel a premature nostalgia for the continent we were leaving behind. But once we got to Italy that feeling quickly slipped away. Stay tuned for more.

  • Will