Social Justice


Lest you think my primary project is playing “Itsy Bitsy Spider” with my little buddies, I am actually posted here in South Africa as a Life Science Teacher Trainer in 8 rural secondary schools.  By far, my best day on the job was my March workshop. I pushed for more opportunities to train my teachers as a group but unfortunately, subsequent workshops were all “postponed” indefinitely.

Then my housemates got an idea from a Peace Corps staff member–write a grant to host a large, multi-day, multi-subject workshop at a nice place with good food.  The Maths/Science Symposium was born.

Edited in Lumia Selfie

Elandsheim: a nice place with good food.

Challenges.

Principals, teachers, and Ministry of Education officials universally agreed that the symposium should be in September.  The big, fat national exams that the 12th graders take were to start on October 26th, so a September workshop would still give the teachers time to revise with them.

Unfortunately, there was no way to receive grant money until the end of September, so we either had to run the symposium for free using ministry resources, or push it to October, closer to the behemoth that is the national exams and the general end-of-year mayhem.

On August 11th, we met with Mr. D and the subject advisors from the Ministry of Education district office.  These folks were supposed to be our right-hand men and women throughout the year, but in our 7th month, this was our first meeting.  Collectively, we chose the venue (Elandsheim) and the date (Oct 23 – 24), reconciling schedules for the teachers, volunteers, and the venue.

I had some doubts.  The date was not optimal, the venue was beautiful but a bit far, and the grant required a 25% community contribution.  Could we make it work?

  • Will the teachers be willing to come so close to the matriculation exam?  If we tell them to come, they will come.
  • Will the principals support the symposium?  Will they agree to release their teachers that day as well as provide transportation?  We will write an official letter of invitation to show that this is a collaboration between the Ministry of Education and Peace Corps.  Ultimately, this will help their learners, so how can they refuse?
  • Is the venue too far?  It is better to be in an out-of-the-way place.  Teachers will stay focused on the mission instead of going out.  Many of them have cars; they can carpool together.
  • As part of the community contribution, we need the schools to provide photocopies of handouts.  How many pages do you need?  Email us your files and we will arrange to make copies in the district office.
  • Can we get microscopes, science kits, and projectors?  No problem.

I felt reassured.  The three of us submitted our grants:  John for mathematics, Randee for physical science, and myself for life science.  Mr. D and the subject advisors gave us their blessings and promises of collaboration.  We spent the next couple of months developing student-centered teaching materials, making friends with local hardware shopkeepers, and talking up the symposium to everyone we met.

IMG_1689

Science takes a lot of stuff.  And a good friend with a pickup truck.

The plan unravels.

Then Mr. D became ill.  Very ill.  We lost our Ministry of Education go-to guy.  Other people tried to pick up the slack, but he was the one who had the to-do list and he was the one with the drive and authorization to make things happen.

There was no official letter to the schools from the Ministry.  People willing to help us did not have the authority to write it and people who had the authority were not willing to help us.  Principals were hesitant.  Teachers were confused.  We handed out fliers and registration forms as best we could, but we could not reach all the schools we intended to invite.

My life science subject advisor was also too busy to return my calls.  To add insult to injury, the district boss called a last-minute, all-day meeting for the subject advisors for the first day of our symposium.  I scrambled to beg and borrow microscopes from area schools.  I planned to proceed without the life sciences practical kit and resolved to be content with my bits and pieces of recyclables, hardware, and pharmacy supplies.

We had to travel 100 km to the office a day early to make photocopies ourselves on the district machine.  Until we ran out of paper.  And toner.

But we were still optimistic.  Most events here come together at the last minute, and there was genuine interest among some of the teachers.

For the sake of the few.

On the morning of October 23rd, I had a very early breakfast and checked my classroom for the umpteenth time to make sure everything was in order.  I held my breath and waited.  And waited.  And waited some more.  I should have passed out.

I planned for 14 life science teachers.  I got 3.  One of them was also a mathematics teacher, so I had to wrestle John for him.

Those 3 got the best science experience of their lives.  We sewed butterfly nets, built transpirometers, and constructed alcohol burners.  They saw Spirogyra for the first time:  a green, filamentous algae with helical chloroplasts that looks like a fancy bracelet.  They made their own microscope slides from clear welding glass and plastic bags.  They investigated surface area-to-volume ratios with play dough.  They developed number sense by playing “higher-lower” for Cadbury Dairy Milk bars.

Symposium

Life science shenanigans!

All the teachers got together for an evening discussion facilitated by Peace Corps Volunteer Cathy on teaching HIV/AIDS and sexuality to their students.  Broaching the subject of sex with young ones is difficult:  there are cultural taboos and personal discomfort.  But South Africa has the highest rate of new infections in the world and teachers have a captive audience.

HIV

A lively discussion on HIV and teen sex continuing way past my bedtime.

Before leaving, math, physical science, and life science teachers gathered to identify what skills and topics their subjects had in common.  They found they could share equipment, reinforce each others’ lessons, and maybe even teach together.

When all was said and done, I had to return a large chunk of change that was meant for biology apparatus because the community contributions from teacher travel, registration fees, copies, and equipment could not add up to 25%.  Some moments, I wish I could go back in time and not submit that grant.  I could have closed my service early, skipped the chaotic doldrums of term 4, and spent Thanksgiving with my family.

However, for the sake of the 3, I am glad I did the symposium.  They had an eye-opening weekend, and they vowed to make the other teachers sorry they missed out.  One teacher declared that she had always thrown her hands in the air when it came to doing practicals because her school had no equipment.  Now she knows she can improvise.  Seeds were planted.  That’s all I can do:  sow seeds and let them take root where they will.

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Look in my crochet basket and you will find an astonishing number of works in progress (WIPs).  Perhaps I am a process crocheter–I love starting projects and once my curiosity or creativity is satisfied, I may or may not finish the item before starting another one.  Because of this habit, you might think I should have more empathy for the half-finished or neglected structures I see around my community in rural South Africa.  However, I feel a sense of loss and frustration for the opportunities and resources squandered by WIPs.

The house with some electricity and nearly running water.

The house with some electricity and nearly running water.

“The house has electricity and running water,” Peace Corps said during our conference call before leaving America.  This statement is half-true.  There is electricity in one room in the house, and extension cords snake their way from this room to the distal regions.  All the rooms have wiring; all that is required is to install outlets, switches, and a distribution box.  The hard work is already done.  Why take years and years to give that extra push to make the house completely electrified?

The house does have pipes, sinks, and faucets, and when the tank on the tower is full and the valve is open, we can get running water.  However, the tank had laid empty for many years and on its second filling, the pressure proved to be too much and the tank burst.  Its carcass still lies on the school grounds.  The kids now like to feel the biceps I have developed by hauling water from the borehole.

Everybody loves to hang out at the borehole. EVERYBODY.

Everybody loves to hang out at the borehole. EVERYBODY.

The hand pump at the borehole was once obsolete.  A windmill once pumped water up to the tower tank (in its younger days), supplying the house, the administration block, and a standpipe.  Windmills make my Nebraskan heart sing.  There is so much wind power here, I’m surprised there aren’t more of them.  Unfortunately, this lovely Antarctic wind-powered machine was destroyed by a storm.  She still lies in a valley.

Casualty of a storm.

Casualty of a storm.

There are tanks, gutters, and pipes all over the school, but not a single fully-functional rain catchment system.  Gutters are missing, pipes lead to nowhere, and tank taps are broken.  After every hard rain, water pours steadily from the broken tap of the tank next to the 12th grade classroom for two days.  Meanwhile, we place bets on when the borehole will run dry from the drought and the increase of students and their laundry.

The pipe that leads to nowhere; a nearly functional catchment system except for . . . the broken tap.

The pipe that leads to nowhere; a nearly functional catchment system except for . . . the broken tap.

There was once even a solar panel at the school, a very sensible, progressive use of a renewable resource.  The current teachers don’t remember what it powered:  perhaps electricity for the classrooms, perhaps a water pump.  It was stolen.  Now the frame serves as a hot spot for after-school scrambling and hanging out.

The empty solar panel frame. Where all the cool kids hang out.

The empty solar panel frame. Where all the cool kids hang out.

The current acting principal has a vision.  If he gets the principal position permanently, he wants to fix the gutters, reinforce the water tower, and install globes in the house.  He also wants a strong, sturdy gate to prevent the stealing of taps and pipes.  He has even found a tap that comes with a lock, so people can’t steal it from the tank and the wee ones can’t bust it. He has already started renovating the classrooms, so we know he is a man of action.  The realization of his vision comes down to money.  It’s a no-fee school, so funding comes from the government.  The government takes time and often falls short, so schools often try to find sponsors, both locally and abroad.

The money may come.  Eventually.  In the meantime, rain falls unharvested, extension cords fill the gap, and the WIP list grows.

Weird he may be, but this little guy is king of the laundry line.

Weird he may be, but this guy is king of the laundry line.

The chameleon is a weird little dude.  From its roving eyes to its freaky feet, it has many characteristics that set it apart from your average lizard.

Adaptations

Chameleon eyes sit on raised stalks that rotate around.  Independently.  You may think it’s paying attention to you, a scary predator, but it is also following that tasty fly buzzing around.

Their tongues are lightning-quick, even if the rest of their bodies are sluggish from cold.  While other lizards wait to warm up for breakfast, chameleons can feast on insects early in the chilly morning.

Their zygodactyl feet have five toes split into two groups, all the better for grabbing branches and climbing trees.  Many of them have prehensile tails that also help them to hang out in the aboreal scene.

The prehensile tail:  good for holding tree branches and biology teacher thumbs.

The prehensile tail: good for holding tree branches and biology teacher thumbs.

They also have a funky walk:  a slow, lurching gait, as if it were grooving to disco music only it can hear.  I have no idea why it does this, but if I were a predator, I would certainly be put off.

A little dude, strutting his stuff.  Don't stop 'til you get enough, little buddy.

A little dude, strutting his stuff. Don’t stop ’til you get enough, little buddy.

Most famously, chameleons can change color, particularly the males.  Part of this is for camouflage, but much of it is for communication.  Like a full-bodied mood ring.  Guanine nanocrystals in their iridophores (think “iridescent cells”) rapidly change the overall color in some species (Teyssier, 2015).  When he’s relaxed, the crystals are close together and he’s a calm blue or green.  When he gets excited, the crystals spread apart and make him appear more red.  He can tell the ladies to come hither or tell competing males to back off.  He can warn other chameleons of predators in the vicinity. He can also regulate his temperature by increasing or decreasing the infra-red rays he absorbs.

Folklore

The unique qualities and behavior of the chameleon has landed it in the myths of many cultures.  In the Zulu culture of South Africa, God was happy with humans, so He sent the chameleon to deliver the message that they should live eternally.  But the chameleon dilly-dallied, eating or basking in the sun.  God had time to change His mind, and instead sent the lizard to tell humans that they would die.  The lizard was much faster than the chameleon in delivering its message, so humans are now mortal.

The lightning-quick tongue has also led people to believe that chameleons can smite their enemies with lightning. This belief and the association of chameleons with mortality have made many people afraid of them.  Not Eddie, though.  Eddie is a student at the school where we live, and his gentle nature with small children and small critters has earned my deep respect.  He’s a bit of a chameleon whisperer, coaxing them out of trees and off laundry lines and showing the little ones there is nothing to fear from this weird, fascinating lizard.

Judge a man by how he treats the wee ones.

Judge a man by how he treats the wee ones.

Women are the backbone and muscle of rural African society.  In addition to cooking, tending crops, and caring for children, they haul water and carry firewood over long distances. To celebrate Women’s Day in South Africa, I’d like to present Wonder Woman’s best accessory:  the Wonderbag.

My Wonderbag.  We found this beauty in the small grocery store an hour's walk away.

My Wonderbag. We found this beauty in the small grocery store an hour’s walk away.

The technology behind the Wonderbag is simple and almost as old as cooking itself:  insulate a hot pot so the heat will slowly cook the food.  Moving a pot from a cooking fire to an insulated bag has three benefits.

1)  Less firewood.  Or propane or electricity or whatever you’re using to cook your food.  Less energy means a smaller carbon footprint.  It means less time spent going to the forest collecting firewood and hauling it home.  If you are cooking over an indoor fire, it also means fewer particulates and reduced risk of bronchitis or asthma.

Reducing fuel means reducing deforestation and carbon emissions.

Reducing fuel means reducing deforestation and carbon emissions.

2)  Less water.  Slow-cooking food means less water evaporation.  Hauling clean water is hard work, so anything that reduces water consumption helps.

3)  Less time tending the pot.  Anyone who has ever lived with me knows that I tend to get bored watching pots on the stove, resulting in many scorched meals.  With slow-cooking, I use that time for something else with no fear of burning the beans.

I’m from the Great Plains of America and we love slow cookers.  The crock pot is my favorite kitchen appliance by far.  Anything that tastes good over the stove tastes amazing in a crock pot.  With the Wonderbag, I cook my food over the stove for a while (5 minutes for rice, 30 minutes for beans), put in the insulating bag, and let it continue cooking slowly for 45 minutes to a few hours.  Easy peasy.  And no fear of electrical fires.

In the developed world, something like the Wonderbag means using less energy and water, fewer scorched pots in my case, and saving a little bit of time.  In the developing world, something like the Wonderbag means slowing down deforestation, improving respiratory health, and saving several hours per day that can be used for education or income generation.

Happy Women’s Day.

The impact of the wonderbag according to the World Health Organization.

The impact of the Wonderbag on a single family in the developing world according to the World Health Organization.

I love color.  My clothes are arranged in rainbow order.  I can spend hours re-arranging my yarn stash into different color combinations.  Even my PhD thesis was inspired by the diversity of pigmentation in cultures of Trichodesmium.

Extracts of Trichodesmium spp.:  the pigmented cells that launched a thesis.

Extracts of Trichodesmium spp.: the pigmented cells that launched a thesis.

Gogo Squirrel asked me to help her teach creative arts in her 2nd grade class, and I peeked over her shoulder as she flipped through her South African curriculum.  The color wheel popped out at me.  Forget symmetry or bean mosaics, I wanted to teach color theory.

Droplets of rain acting as tiny prisms to form a rainbow over the school.  Alas, how I miss rain.

Droplets of rain acting as tiny prisms to form a rainbow over the school. Alas, how I miss rain.

Our perception of color is a combination of physics and biology.  Visible light covers a small range of wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum (400 – 700 nm), and these wavelengths can be separated by a prism into a visible rainbow.  Our eyes have three different kinds of cones that detect red, green, and blue, and with those three channels we can detect millions of colors.  Remove any one of these cones, and you get color-blindness.  The mantis shrimp has 12 cones. That’s insane.

There is some overlap in the detection wavelengths for human cones, especially for red and green, resulting in fun effects.  Concentrated yellow food dye looks red.  Green or yellow algal cells can produce a red tide; ocean water goes from blue to green to red as more blue/green light is absorbed, red light is backscattered, and the upwelling color hits the sweet spot between human red and green cones (570 nm) when a bloom develops (Dierssen et al, 2006).

When South African students learn about the human eye in grade 12, all the detail they are given is that the retina has rods and cones.  No red-green-blue, no shift from yellow to red, no understanding of why chlorophyll appears green.  They study the genetics of color-blindness without understanding what makes a person colorblind.  I have to get my color fun in the fundamental phase.

Well, if they aren't used for Winogradsky columns, the bottles may as well be used for color theory.

Well, if they aren’t used for Winogradsky columns, my bottle collection may as well be used for color theory.

In Gogo Squirrel’s 2nd grade class, I made a color wheel for them.  I used food dye in soda bottles to show them how primary colors mixed to form secondary colors, and they did their own color mixing with play dough.  After rolling balls and snakes to our hearts’ content, we drew flowers. Gogo Squirrel was very strict; each flower must be the right size and have exactly five petals.

After admiring the color display in 2nd grade, the grade R teacher asked me to repeat the lesson in her class.  It was a big hit.  Mixing colored water elicited awes and applause.  It’s wonderful to watch a child’s first experience with play dough, and they somehow managed to keep it out of each others’ hair.  They are young and new to school, so their flowers were wild and unconstrained.

The ladies of Grade R display their snakes.

The ladies of grade R display their snakes.

As my grade R kids grow up and learn about the electromagnetic spectrum, I hope they think about chlorophyll and why it’s green.  When they learn about photosynthesis, I hope they think about the elctromagnetic spectrum and how pigments are tuned to absorb specific wavelengths.  I hope their flowers stay wild and unconstrained.

A selection from the masterpieces of Grade R.  Note the dutiful presentation of complementary colors on the left.

A selection from the wild masterpieces of grade R. Note the dutiful presentation of complementary colors on the left.

Look!  I caught a Squirrel!

Look! I caught a Squirrel!

My best friend in South Africa is a moody four-year-old boy. Most people around here call him “Boy.” I call him “The Squirrel.” You think you have your eye on him, but if you blink, he’s gone.

The Squirrel lives next door to our host school and his gogo (grandmother) is a 2nd grade teacher–very tough but very good, just like my 2nd grade teacher. He comes to school and steps up to the front of the line at assembly, looking like kid in a catalog. Sort of. His trousers are too big, his shirt never stays tucked, and getting a tie on him would be a small miracle. He used to wear a white faux fur jacket that made him look like a tiny pimp. I miss that jacket, but I am thoroughly enjoying his current little pea coat.

The Squirrel with some of his cousins.  They usually follow the oldest girl closely, but today they are extra close because she has a giant bag of candy.

The Squirrel with some of his cousins next door. They usually follow the oldest girl closely, but today they are extra close because she has a giant bag of candy.

He’s a smart little man. In class he catches on quickly and adds his comical anecdotes to the teacher’s explanations. The Squirrel works hard and plays harder. He’s front and center for songs and stories, and he’ll fight to the death for the right to hold my hand. He laughs heartily but also sobs deeply; almost every day he ends up wiping his tears in a teacher’s lap.

The Squirrel and his bestie with the coolest toys in Grade R.

The Squirrel and his bestie with the coolest toys in Grade R.

After hours, he plays with his many cousins, often on the school compound. He’s not as quick as the older boys at soccer, but I once got a one-on-one game with him and a bread sack ball. For a big kick he takes a few steps back, winds up his little hip, and lets it loose. If he’s herding livestock, however, he’s all business. No time for greetings or games, just keep your mouth shut and help him get the goats out the gate.

The boys next door.

The boys next door.

The Squirrel is very cat-like. If you approach him directly, he will scatter. If you do something interesting near him and pretend not to notice him, he will hop in your lap to play along. Once in a blue moon if he’s in the right mood, he will run and jump in your arms.

A rare quiet moment.  Photobombing courtesy of one of my twins.

A rare quiet moment. Photobombing courtesy of one of my twins.

The easiest way to engage him is to make “Itsy Bitsy Spider” fingers. He’s an expert. In fact, he knows all my songs, even the ones I haven’t sung in a few months. For a long time, his favorite song was “Six Little Ducklings,” but now he seems partial to “The Hokey Pokey.” I think he likes wiggling his backside.

When the sun goes down and it’s way too cold for him to stay out in bare feet, The Squirrel says “Bye, Missi!” and runs home to his gogo.

The many faces of The Squirrel.

The many faces of The Squirrel.

A rotating schedule for eight rural South African schools is bound to have some hiccups.  Sometimes transport never arrives.  Sometimes transport arrives, but it is the bed of a pick-up truck, forbidden by Peace Corps.  Sometimes transport arrives, it’s the right kind of vehicle, but you find your teacher absent from school.  Sometimes transport arrives and your teacher is present, but they are too busy to deal with you.

These little lovelies ride in the back of a pick-up every day to school.  It's a no-go for PCV's.

These little lovelies ride in the back of a pick-up every day to school. It’s a no-go for PCV’s.

One day, we arrived at school #7.  My teacher was there and she actually had life science lessons on her schedule.  When I found her, she was heading to a natural science class.  “May I come with you?”  Deer in headlights.  That’s okay, we’ll wait for life sciences.

After her class, she came to tell me that she had to take her child to the clinic but that she planned to be back for her afternoon class.  Perfectly reasonable; life is hectic for working parents.  But to keep the focus on training teachers, I vowed to not go down the rabbit hole of substitute teaching.  So I spent some quality time with a text book (a rare treat, indeed) and sat quietly in the staff room.  My teacher never returned, but one of her colleagues brought in leftover birthday cake, so the day wasn’t a total bust.  At least I got cake.

I have no photos of South African cakes, so please allow me to entertain with some of my favorite American ones.  This is from my sister's baby shower, New Jersey, 2013.

I have no photos of South African cakes, so please allow me to entertain you with some of my favorite American ones. This is from my sister’s baby shower, New Jersey, 2013.

Some days are good.  I’ve had good communication with my teacher, we have hands-on activities planned together, the students enjoy the class and perhaps something clicks for them.  I discover something I didn’t know about South African education and my teacher discovers a new teaching technique.  But the merry-go-round of visiting schools week after week can leave me feeling tired and uninspired.  I’d much rather gather my teachers together and do an intensive workshop where I can control the time and they can learn from each other.

The fantastically retro doll cake.  Woods Hole, MA, 2011.

The fantastically retro doll cake. Woods Hole, MA, 200X.

The best work I’ve done here so far was my first life science teachers’ workshop.  I couldn’t wait to do it again.  At the beginning of second term, my teachers scheduled it for the end of the term on 6th June.  I didn’t want to wait that long, but I am here for them, so I shall do what they ask and provide what they need.  I worked long and hard on practicals with locally available materials, activities on topics the learners had difficulty with, and a boatload of handouts fresh from the photocopier at the library (best deal in town).  While sitting at the taxi stand on Friday the 5th, waiting for the public transport back to my school, I received a text.  “Most of the teachers can’t make it tomorrow–can we please postpone?”

Where’s my cake?

Kitty Gato guards a Garfield cupcake.  Falmouth, MA, 2009.

Kitty Gato guards a Garfield cupcake. Falmouth, MA, 2009.

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