The classrooms are loud, acoustics are bad, outside noise is distracting, and facilities are decrepit. Empty bottles, paper, dust, dirt, and mud disguise the floors. A dusty, often chalk-covered blackboard greets me when I walk into class. So do the students, most of them eagerly waiting my arrival, dressed as if they are off to Sunday Mass. Random students often interrupt our class discussion to take chairs out of our room so they can have a place to sit in an adjacent classroom. Study groups are always eying our space to hold meetings. There is constant movement and noise in the hallways and courtyards. Walls are thin and discussions are difficult to coordinate.
Students don't have a textbook for the class. I pre-assign a copy to the class coordinators, whose job it is to make the page(s) available for everyone to copy before the next class meeting. One page costs 5 cents but still many students avoid and can't afford the payments for each class. So they share or cower in the back rows. I have learned to check before assuming everyone's following along. I have struck up a relationship with the I.T. guys so I'm allowed to print things out for lesson plans once in a while. But printing out one photo or one page is usually not enough to satiate a class of 53. Other times I use realia, such as a piece of fruit, book, sunglasses, baseball...anything to elicit a point I'm trying to make.
The chalkboard eraser is usually a crumpled up piece of paper lying on the floor. I had an eraser the first week of class but forgot it one day and now's it's someone else's.
My assistant is a MA student who has come to exactly one of my classes. She's assigned to assist in essay grading but has yet to mark her first paper. She had malaria last week and a conference the week before. I'm learning to assume I'm on my own unless otherwise proven.
Some students struggle with the organization style and form of an essay. Others commit basic grammar mistakes that impede communication and clarity. Most of them are getting it, but slowly. There a few outstanding ones that submit near flawless work.
Spoken English in Uganda is a bit different than we're used to at home; ascertaining meaning from local idioms and colloquial speech in their essays is often a matter of guesswork. I sometimes feel as if I am reading cryptic compositions in Sanskrit or Czech.
Dillis had a headache and was leaning against the wall at the start of class. She's part of the three-headed monster of female personalities that sit in the front or back row (depending on their arrival time) and stay late each day to talk to me for a few minutes. Christine and Bridget are the other two. Most everyone has a wonderful sense of humor but these three ooze personality and caustic wit. They complain when there's too much homework, they highly anticipate getting scores on quizzes and essays, and openly ask for help when necessary. In fact, almost all students have asked for individual help.
After we discussed common mistakes in the essays I had marked, we turned our attention a reading on "Shyness" that served as an example of a cause/effect essay. Not the most brilliant onset to a class, but a necessary one to develop a working model.
In fact, I really have a hard time encapsulating what goes on in my lesson; if it goes well, it's self-aggrandizing ESPN highlights, but if it's poor it's shameless self-pity. Regardless, this lesson is fairly productive. After sensing their malaise after a brief lecture on cause/effect transitions signals, I quickly put them to work on practical application. I hand them a topic on a strip of paper, asking them to brainstorm causes and effects before they are to demonstrate a situation to the class using dialog. The students, normally well-behaved and glued to their seats, go wild with creative adaptations, interviews and scenarios that had most of their peers in stitches. It almost went too far. The objective illustrations of causes and effects were masked by improvisational discourse that highlighted male dominance and immaturity. I had to put a stop to it and be a responsible authority figure.
Students dress in a bevy of pastels and creams. Yellows and pinks and oranges for men. Lots of neckties and leather shoes. If a man doesn't wear a collared shirt to class, he's in the minority. You can imagine how I fit in with my hawaiian shirts and linen draw-string pants. I have yet to don flip flops into a lecture, however.
Students have been eager to meet me in office hours lately, taking time out of their days to sit down with me, one-on-one or two-on-one to discuss their essays, questions they have about lectures, or just rap about life. I usually ask a few questions about their lives and goals so I can remember them the next time I see them in class. After eight weeks, I've pretty much nailed down all the names, but keeping track of their writing strengths and weaknesses takes a sizable excel spreadsheet.