"Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me."

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Marathon Mountain

Mount Elgon is the remnant of a massive volcano that was active 15 million years ago, and it has the largest base of any solitary mountain in the world. Some researchers say that it used to be the tallest mountain in Africa, but, as the oldest mountain in Africa, the 15 million years of weathering and erosion have reduced its height significantly. Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Kenya are relatively young in comparison (Mt. Kenya is 3 million years old and Mt. Kilimanjaro is just a million years); thus, they have had less time for weathering to reduce their height. Mt. Elgon also has one of the largest calderas in the world, which is a valley created by the collapse of land after a volcanic eruption (the empty space left inside of the mountain from the ejected lava causes the collapse). In addition, Mt. Elgon features hot springs at 14,000 feet, numerous massive caves, and a host of wildlife and rare African plant species (including enormous, ancient trees).

For these reasons, my fellow teacher, Kennedy, and I decided to climb this unusual mountain.

The Uganda/Kenya border goes right through the middle of the Mt. Elgon National Park. This means about half of the peaks are on the Kenya side, and half of the other peaks are on the Uganda side.

Here is our climb in pictures:

Kennedy at one of the ancient, massive trees close to the base of the mountain. The trees get smaller as you go up.

After two days of hiking (about 35 kilometers) we finally see our first view of our final peak!

Our peak is getting closer!

Kennedy on break before the final push.

Looking back on our trekking. The picture makes it look less steep than it really is...

One of the creeks fed by the hot springs flowing from the top of the mountain.

A look from the final ascent.

The very top of the peak. It might not look like it, but there is no way that we could have climbed to the top without equipment. The guy with me is our "porter."

A look into Uganda--also, the valley is part of the Caldera

Between these guys and the peak off in the distance is the Caldera.

Relaxing at the top

Endebess Cliff - a cliff we saw on our way down the mountain

Another view of Endebess Cliff

A giraffe close to the base of the mountain. We saw a lot of animals, but none this close! All the others ran away as soon as they saw us.

At the end of the trip, Kennedy and I both agreed that we had a terrific time, even if hiking 80 kilometers with over 50 pounds on our back made the trekking arduous (and made our legs incredibly sore).

Monday, February 7, 2011

My Reason For Not Writing

Starting in January, I had planned to write a blog every two weeks, but I have already failed!

Why? There's not a moment to spare. In case you are curious, here is my schedule for a typical day:

5 AM - Wake up. Then, stumble around for 5 minutes in an early morning haze putting on my shoes and my long pants (which is my protection from mosquitoes).

5:05 - 5:55 - Drink up some home brewed Kenyan coffee in an old fashioned gas stove espresso maker (which was a recent Christmas present from my brother Erik) and eat a homemade cereal made with Kenyan ingredients: bananas, raisins, peanuts, fresh whole milk, and something called terrero which is like miniature oats without glueten (it is called Armanath in English).

6:00 - 6:45 - Mass with the boys at the nearby boys' boarding school.

7:00 - 8:00 - Off to school! The girls come at 7 AM to start the day off right with an invigorating mathematics lesson with Mr. Rathke. The girls have a deathly fear of mathematics, but at 7 o'clock for some reason, the freshness of the early morning seems to allay this fear. So, we start every morning with a heavy dose of mathematics. We are currently doing problems that take up an entire half page to solve--problems better left for those in college. In fact, many of the problems are better left for no one. We are currently using logarithm tables to solve complicated mathematical expressions. However, ever since the invention of calculators, logartihm tables have been rendered completely unnecessary (those Americans older than 50 might remember using logarithm tables when they were in high school).

8:00 - 4:00 - Teaching! The Kenyan system is much nicer on teachers than the system in the United States. I usually have 5 to 6 lessons a day (each 40 minutes long), which gives me ample time for planning and grading, so it is not too stressful (although our day is technically longer than in the U.S.). For my students, it seems like it is going quite well. I just gave them an English  exam, and they did extraordinary compared to their first exam in August. I remember the first exam when 75% of the reading comprehension and poetry questions were left completely blank (all my questions are open-ended). Their exam essays were also an unorganized jumble. Now, the girls are putting some effort into it! I don't think it is that I have really taught them that much, I think it is just that they are starting to really try. All the question spaces are being filled up, and they are putting some thought into their responses. This perhaps is why the class average has gone from the 30's to the 60's.

4:00 - 5:30 - Athletics with the girls! I was just asked to start a track team, and we started out today. It was a little bit of a mess... I opened up registration to all the girls, and about a third of all the students in the school showed up to practice today--meaning I had to organize 60 girls on a field that is shared with an elementary school that has 200 children prone to screaming and running around chaotically (the primary school teachers leave by like 3:00, meaning there are 200 kids completely free of their teachers' whipping cane--and they utilize such freedom). However, the girls still seemed to have fun, and I managed to get an idea of the girls that will be competitive for our track meets coming up.

5:30 - 8:00 - After school, I usually head to the track at the Boys' boarding school next door (our girls aren't allowed to use it) to run 5 miles or so. Then, I either finish up writing my lesson plans or I read (or both). This year, I have read the Count of Monte Cristo, the Fountainhead and Freakonomics--I recommend all three!

8:00-8:20 - Dinner with the priests and brothers--the food is home-cooked by a couple of girls that are from the countryside. It's always delicious!

8:30 - I am so utterly exhausted that I lay down in my bed and fall asleep as soon as I close my eyes.

On Saturdays, I teach and then do some chores (like washing clothes, cleaning my room, or organizing things for the next week).

Sunday is my day of rest. The past three Sundays have been so beautifully restful that I decided that it would be a shame to break such a reverie by getting on my computer and writing a blog--hence the reason why I haven't written recently.

We have a midterm break coming up and my plan is to hike through the tropical Kakamega Forest and trek up the second tallest mountain of Kenya known as Mt. Elgon. This trip will feature splunking in elephant infested caves (they come to lick the salt from the walls), hot springs at 13,000 feet, another 14,000 + foot peak, and hiking in a forest densely populated by animals. We will be camping this time instead of using lodges! I will travel with one of my fellow teachers--he doesn't know what he is getting himself into.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Back to School!

School is now in full swing! Since I seem to rarely talk about my teaching in my blog, I feel that I should fill you in (although it may or may not be as exciting as climbing mountains or visiting the village people…)

I am teaching the same students that I had last year, although they are no longer freshmen (they moved up to the sophomore level). The new freshmen won’t come until February or March, which is disappointing, because that means they will be missing out on a full two months of learning… It makes it just about impossible to finish the entire year of freshman work when you start two months behind. However, when they come, we’ll get down to business (at least in Mathematics and English).

In Mathematics this year, I have set up a simple structure where we first discuss the necessary concepts for the lessons, then we do 3 or 4 problems together that encompass everything they need to know for the lesson, and then the students are off to work on their own. If you have read my previous blogs, you will remember that many of the math problems provided in their textbooks are far beyond the level of the average (or above average) high school student. For this reason (and because I only have 5 textbooks for 70 students), I type the problems for their lessons, and then I make a copy of the problems for each student.

The problems that I write are “scaffolded,” which means that they start out with basic problems and then gradually move up to problems like you find in their textbook. The students seem much happier now—they are not immediately frustrated as soon as they start their first independent problem, which is unlike how they were when we used the textbooks. And, to top it off, they are much more likely to solve the harder problems after doing some of the easier ones (the easy problems build their confidence). What I am thinking is that when we are done with this year’s work, I can just put all the lessons I wrote in a book and make lots and lots of money.

English, on the other hand, is not as easy to teach as Mathematics. Where should you begin when teaching a language? You have speaking, listening, grammar, spelling, reading stories, reading poems, reading non-fiction, and writing in a vast assortment of genres. Kenya’s solution to this problem is to teach a lesson from each topic every week. I feel that it makes for a confusing week when you jump through so many topics. Yet, I am still using their method, and while there are many lessons that flop (like today’s lesson on context clues), I feel that their English is rapidly improving (their writing, reading, and speaking all seem to be growing). So, while I have toyed with different approaches to teaching English, I suppose I will just stick to what I am doing.

Continue praying for the students and me. Pray especially that the students will see the need in their education—one of our smartest students was just married and will probably never enter a classroom again (even though she was just a sophomore).

I also just finished my applications for graduate school—you are welcome to pray that I get accepted (the competition is stiff for philosophy and theology)…

Here are some pictures of my students decorating the classroom during the first week (there was nothing on the walls last year, which made the room look pretty depressing, so I thought that we should change that):

Sunday, January 2, 2011

New Year's Resolutions

After an exhausting 37 hour transit from Houston back to Nairobi, I arrived safely at St. Bridget’s Friary. However, the same cannot be said for my luggage.

Here’s the story: My first flight from Houston to London was delayed due to the rain in the United States on December 29th. Although my first flight arrived in London an hour before my next departure to Nairobi, a strange series of circumstances prevented me from boarding this next flight. First, there were apparently no “boarding tunnels” available, so we had to exit the plane using the traditional stairs. However, the stairs took a full twenty minutes to reach the plane. Secondly, once I arrived in the main London terminal by means of a bus, I had to go fetch my boarding pass for my flight to Nairobi, because the British Airways personnel in Houston said that I wouldn’t be able to get the pass until I arrived in London.

I finally reached the British Airways desk 25 minutes before my flight was supposed to take off. However, I, along with about 10 to 15 other passengers trying to travel to Nairobi, discovered that British Airways had already cancelled our flights. Instead, they moved our departure from 10:10 AM to a Kenyan Airways flight at 7 PM later that day, which, I suppose, doesn’t sound too bad. However, I assume the unplanned change in carriers is what caused the problem with my luggage. Even now, three days after I arrived in Nairobi on December 31st, British Airways and Kenyan Airways are still informing me that there is no record of my luggage. Perhaps this is God’s way of saying I didn’t need all of that extra baggage, and I should have just come with the clothes on my back…

Despite this upset, a strange sense about being back in Nairobi fell over me as soon as I arrived—it is a sense of peace mixed with a sense of excitement. I believe that the sense of peace arose out of the fact that I feel Nairobi is the right place for me to be, because there is so much work to be done. Consequently, the sense of excitement arouse out of the fact that there is indeed so much work to be done. Due to this excitement, I decided on a few New Year Resolutions:

1) I will update the blog every two weeks (at least). I miserably failed at consistently updating my blog last year; therefore, I will change that for this upcoming year. Just for your information, I plan to update the blog every other Sunday, and they won’t be nearly as long as they used to be.

2) I don’t think it is right to attempt to make a bunch of changes to an organization if you are either an outsider or new to an organization. I was both of these last term at Pumwani Girls; so, even though I saw a bunch of “opportunities for improvement” last year, I simply observed the problems and made note of them for later terms. I think that this upcoming term will be a good time for me to gradually try to make some changes. However, I don’t want to attempt to make these changes on my own, because I think I would completely fail in doing so. Instead, there are a couple of teachers who have a similarly way of thinking and teaching as me. We have seen problems in religious prejudice, severely low expectations for academic performance, misuse of classroom time, and discipline/punishment issues. Thus, my resolution for this upcoming year is to act with foresight and diligence with these teachers and the administration to begin to solve some of these issues. My blog will keep track of the results. Some examples of my thoughts are: starting a student council, organizing the Physical Education time that was typically used as a 40 minute break last term, and developing tracking and goal systems to keep track of students’ academic progress and discipline.

3) Last term, I had a habit of coming home to St. Bridget's for lunch and sometimes even taking a little nap (those that know me really well, especially those at Port Houston, know how important the nap is...). However, since my students stay at the school from 7 AM to 5 PM, I feel that I should too. Therefore, I plan to stay at the school all day, everyday, so that I can be there for my students.

4) I need to focus more on what is important. Due to my training from Teach for America and from Houston I.S.D., I have a tendency to dwell on my students' scores, instead of focusing on the students as individuals. The original purpose of education wasn't to teach students how to get good test scores, and I don't even think that the underlying purpose of education is so that students can learn. Instead, I believe that the driving purpose of education needs to be to better our lives: to make us happier, wiser, and more honorable individuals. Thus, I need to make sure that my students are excited about coming to school, committed to God (which I am allowed to talk about in Kenyan schools!), and developing values that will guide them as adults. I have some ideas about how to make these ideals tangible in my classroom, but I don't want to expiate about them right now; instead, I will write about these ideas as I use them in the classroom.

5) I need to see more of Africa! There are so many places that I haven’t seen—and I need to see them.

I want to offer another message of thanks for those who have supported me, especially those that donated to make this experience financially possible. Know that I have been careful about the use of the money, and I plan to utilize even more of the funding this upcoming term to truly change the lives of my students.

p.s. I really enjoyed coming home for Christmas so that I could see my family, friends, and my new nephew!

Here are some pictures of the family:

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Confession of a Wild Teacher

Forgive me everyone for I have sinned. It has been 2 weeks and 6 days since my last blog…

This is what I have done:

1) I attended a huge AIDS awareness event for youth in a small town called Karagoya, which is on the way to Mt. Kenya. Martin, who is the friend that climbed Mt. Kenya with me, was one of the leaders in charge of the event. It was called a “Chill Day.” In the schools, the code word for AID's Awareness is “Chill,” which means to be abstinent in order to prevent the spread of AID's and other unwanted consequences of sex. Their “Chill” hand signal is the peace sign, which, as you might assume, means that they are granting “peace” to or “chilling” their desires. The “Chill Day” consisted of a bunch of clever and exciting games where the different schools in attendance competed against each other. Each game had a specific theme that was supposed to teach the students a lesson about abstinence and the benefits of self-control.

This picture shows the students shouting their team yell before they began one of the games.

When the students moved to the next game, they sprinted and shouted:

Here's me giving the top award... with the "chill" sign:

 2) Then, Martin and I did the unthinkable: we climbed the 17,000 feet summit of Mt. Kenya. The climb was a thrilling three day adventure through rain, ice, snow, hail, glaciers, bog, swamp, paths turned into creeks, and indescribable sights. What makes it even better is that we were trekking through ice, snow, and glaciers on the equator! Here is the story of the trek in pictures:

Below is the park gate to the Mount Kenya National Park, so this picture marks the beginning of our ascent by foot:

This is a picture of our first day trek, which began with rain on an extremely muddy road. However, the day cleared up and turned out to be beautiful.

 This is the sign outside of our lodge on the first day (note, I am covering up the 10,000 feet):

This shows us resting after the first day hike--Martin, the friend travelling with me, is the one in the middle who is covered with sweat. The guy to the left is our porter. The guy to the right... he, as you can tell, is a native Kenya:

We had a relaxing first evening by the fireside with some vegetable soup and rice (or "lice" as our guide pronounced it). We were totally not roughing it on the first day...

The second day! The path of the first half of our hike was a creek:

Here is a better picture of the path/creek:

Here is the picture of the second half...you can't tell from this photo, but this area is a bog. This means that below the tall grass, the ground is covered with 2 or 3 inches of stnading water.

Here is one of the bog plants. At night time, this plant closes up like a cabbage. If you look to the bottom left, you can see a little sliver of the standing water:

Here is another bog plant:

Closer to the end of the second day, we reached an area where we started to see rockier terrain that gradually became something like what you would see in west Texas:

Here is west Texas in the middle of Africa:

Here is another one of the outlandish plants.  Below is the Teleki Valley, which leads to the final ascent of Mount Kenya:

This is a picture taken in the Teleki Valley. I decided to cool off in the near freezing water after a long second day:

A beautiful mountain creek:

Martin reflecting on the end of the second day:

The sign outside of our second lodge. The final ascent is behind the clouds off to the left:

We began our final ascent at 2:30 in the morning, so that we would be on top of the mountain by sunrise. Yes, that is a head lamp on my head:

The final push! This is our peak:

And we are there!:

This is the sight from the peak. To the very bottom right, the solid white patch is a snow covered glacier:

More of the sights from the peak:


We reached the peak at 7:30 AM in the morning. Then, so we wouldn't have to pay for another day of climbing fees, we rushed down the mountain. However, we hiked through falling snow, hail, and rain, which turned into creeks, then rivers, then ponds, then veritable lakes. This was our path through the bog on the way back. We were soaked from head to toe:

Finally, after hiking from 2:30 AM until 6:30 PM, that is 16 hours of hiking, we finally arrived back to the park gate:

3) A mere week and a half after my strenuous Mt. Kenya adventure, I ran my second half-marathon in the Nairobi Standard Chartered Run for Sight. I started with a great start, running the first half of the race (6.6 miles) in about 47 minutes. However, the second half was a long, miserable stretch that gradually inclined almost the entire way. The incline, however, wasn’t my difficulty… it was my shins. I have been running for some years now, and I have always had slight trouble with my shins. However, because of the vigor of the run, because my shoes are probably a little worn out, and since the race surface was a concrete road (my usual running surface in Kenya is a dirt track), my shins became completely shot. They gave out all of a sudden when I was at the beginning of an incline after about 7 or 8 miles. However, even when I ran downhill, the pain radiating from my shins made it feel like I was running up a steep incline. Despite this setback, I gritted my teeth and forced my legs forward stride by stride. The second half took a full hour, leaving me with a time of 1 hour and 47 minutes, which, I suppose, isn’t too bad for a rookie…

Here's me putting on my race number at the beginning of the race:

This is George, who is my friend that volunteered to be the photographer (and to run with me whenever he wanted to):

This is at the start of the race!:

This is a video taken during the final few minutes before my shins were shot:

Here we are at the very end, with me about to collapse...

4) Last Saturday, my students and I gathered together at our school to participate in a school beautification day, which was led by one of the national banks of Kenya. We planted trees and bushes, cleaned out classrooms, fixed a broken fence, and removed a mass amount of dirt on our sidewalks. Here are some pictures from the day:

This is a picture of me with my students at the work day:

I had to use a machete to help dig the holes for the trees:

5) All the while, teaching has been progressing well! Last week, my students had common exams in Math and English, and they did incredibly well. The tests, unlike the usual tests that my students take, were aligned to their ability level. This means that the tests weren't too easy or too hard. When the students received their tests back, many of them shouted with glee seeing that their grades went from a 20% or 30% to a 60, 70, 80, or maybe even 90 percent. I feel like all of our hard work is starting to gradually pay off…

Despite all of these things, I have no regret, no sorrow, no sense of guilt for what I have done…

Perhaps it sounds like I have been “busy.” I hate that word—it has a connotation that life has been miserable and stressful. Instead, I have been “fully engaged,” I have been “utterly alive,” I have been “thriving” –anything but miserably busy. If I have learned anything of value over the past three years of my life after college, it is this: to live life with true abundance, I need to experience the diversity of beauty that God has woven into every corner of this world; I cannot let life pass me by without reveling in its beauty, without jumping at the innumerable and novel experiences that present themselves to me each day. Hence the reason for the above stories…

However, despite all of my extraordinary experiences, I look forward to my trip back to the United States for the month of December, when I will be able to see my first baby nephew, along with my friends and family. Secondly, I look forward to devouring a juicy steak without bones and grizzle and enjoying mama’s homemade lasagna.