My phone alarm’s muffled ring comes from somewhere buried under the sheets. In that momentary burst of energy that comes from a sudden arousal from sleep, I dig through the bed sheets, tossing pillows aside and hitting the snooze button almost immediately.
The alarm now silent, I exhale softly. Rolling back over, I close my eyes and doze off for just a few more minutes as the bustling street sounds of pedestrians, school children, traffic, and the incessant early morning crows of what seems like a thousand roosters echoing outside my window.
I was never much for the snooze button. For much of my life, I had always set my alarm for the last possible moment to ensure the longest duration of uninterrupted sleep. But in my apartment here, just about everything outside my window interrupts my sleep anyway. Consequently, I’ve come to relish in the powers of the snooze button.
After finally climbing out of bed, I prepare a quick breakfast. Chopping up tomatoes, onions, and peppers, I throw them in a frying pan as I scramble some eggs that I purchased from the market. Served with a dash of the local hot pepper sauce, it’s just the kickstart meal I need for the school day ahead. Locking my door, I step out onto the road and begin my walk to school.
Walking in through the gate at the compound of the school, the bell rings as screaming and laughing children dash in every direction to their respective classrooms. After greeting my principal, Mr. George, I slip off into the stage area behind a pull-out chalkboard wall. Taking a seat, I check the log book I keep of my lessons. Looking through my supplies box, I ensure that I have all the materials for that afternoon’s pull-outs. I pick up my bag and step back outside.
My shades dim the hot, early morning sun as I hug the walls of the corridor, staying within the shade it provides. Without much shade cover in my five-minute walking commute through the streets of Gouyave, I’m already sweatier than I care to admit.
Climbing up the stairs to the second floor and turning a corner, I step into my classroom with a soft knock on the door.
“Good morning,” I say.
“Good morning, sir,” my counterpart, Ms. Pierre, responds as she looks up from behind her desk.
I’m welcomed by a chorus of “Good morning, sir!” or “Good morning, Mr. King!” from the students, who reach out for my hand or wrap me in a hug as I walk to my small desk in the back of the room.
This is the time our first Language Arts lesson of the day typically begins. The Language Tree textbook, workbook, and their exercise notebooks are the foundational materials of all our lessons. Looking around the room, various posters and charts my counterpart made out of colorful bristle board decorate the front and back of the room. A soft breeze rolls through from the forested trees outside the windows, partially blocked by a large, immovable bookcase. Adjacent to my desk is the “Activity Corner,” a small table on top of which are hand-drawn alphabet memory cards, magnetic letters, dry erase boards, and beginning blend and vowel team sample sheets sealed in plastic wrap. The Activity Corner has been a recent endeavor of my counterpart and mine to liven up the classroom. The kids have finally started buying into it, too.
“Sir, can I lend the cards?”
It’s a question I’m often asked now during any downtime in class. It began at the beginning of this school year, when on a stack of notecards I hand-drew letters of the alphabet and created poorly-drawn pictures corresponding with each letter sound (i.e. Aa, apple). I used the notecards in a few pull-out lessons for some of my students in the beginning of the year, those who needed further instruction in letter recognition and sounds. With the cards we’d play a “memory game,” flipping them over and trying to match the letters with their example sounds to win the game. One day I brought it back with me into the classroom and it’s been a hit ever since.
My counterpart calls the attention of the students as the lesson is about to begin. Standing up, I take my place beside her desk along the windows. Leaning back against the shutters, the breeze from the river outside rolls in with a soothing relief. I follow along as my counterpart introduces the lesson.
Our working relationship in the classroom often works in a “One Teach, One Assist” fashion. Ms. Pierre often takes the lead in the first lesson of the day, during which I provide support from the side. Once the instructional part of the lesson is completed, the students have time to work on their in-class assignments. During this time, we circulate around the room to provide support and further explanation for the students, particularly guiding the ones we know tend to struggle.
The bell rings, concluding the first part of the morning. The students scramble from their seats, running outside for their break time. The laughs, shouts, and cries of students reverberate endlessly outside, the prototypical sounds of the schoolyard. If a student lingers back to finish their work and needs guidance, I’ll stay alongside them until they finish. Otherwise, I return to my desk in the back of the room and pull out whatever book I’m reading.
I’ve made it a resolution to read more books this year, an alternative to wasting time scrolling aimlessly through the apps on my phone. I’m on my fifth book and counting now, filling little gaps of time in my day to escape to wherever each novel might take me.
Students often come and go, curiously stopping by to ask me what I’m reading, see what I’m doing, or show me something they created.
The bell rings again as the students rush back into the classroom, sweaty and riled up from their time playing outside. It takes a few minutes for them to calm down, their excitement bubbling over as they drink water from their plastic bottles and finish their snacks.
It’s time for the classes to switch, as we have two grade three classes in my school. The first lesson is typically a shorter version of the second lesson, but since the schedule alternates each day, the lesson time balances out over the course of the week.
My counterpart and I try to bring technology into the classroom, whether it be through the school’s Smart TV, my laptop, or Ms. Pierre’s Bluetooth speaker, and a downloaded song or video. It’s important we have everything downloaded, as the Wi-Fi connection is not always reliable in our part of the school compound. The way we use the technology varies, whether it be a song about similes, a dance routine with verbs, or a simple phonics lesson video for the students to watch. We’ve come to incorporate it as much as we can, as it engages our students’ interest much better than the standard style of, “chalk and talk.”
In the second class, I typically take the reigns of introducing the lesson while my counterpart provides support. After a Literacy Workshop hosted by Peace Corps for the Volunteers and their counterparts, our chemistry in the classroom has blossomed. As it turns out, our styles of running a classroom are very much in-sync. We feed off each other and aren’t afraid of asking each other questions, while addressing the needs and concerns of the classroom together.
After conducting the lesson at hand we’ll assign the class work of the day, typically a couple sentence or story problems out of the Language Tree textbook. Walking over to one of the students that typically struggles, I crouch beside him.
“How are we doing?” I ask. “You understand what you have to do?”
“Yes, sir,” the boy smiles.
“Sir!” another boy raises his hand, catching my attention. “I don’t understand.”
I take my place beside the next student, tactfully helping him along in a way that he still finds the answer himself. It’s a delicate process, as I don’t want him to have to rely on me entirely for each answer. After all, there will come a day where I won’t be there to help him. Consequently, I encourage him to sound out and read the sentence problems on his own, before asking the necessary questions to guide his understanding.
“Okay, now try the next one on your own,” I say with a pat on the shoulder, standing up and looking around the room.
Another student has her hand raised, so I move over to her and begin the process all over again. It’s in these little opportunities during their school work I try to reinforce the lessons from my pull-out sessions. It’s also a time for me to see how well they’re understanding the material and progressing in their school work. If they struggle with a particular word or phrase, I begin a call-and-response process for them to remember what to do:
“What happens when we have a ‘Silent e?’”
“The vowel says its name!”
“And what happens when two vowels go walking?”
“The first one does the talking!”
“What do the letters s and h say together?”
“Shhhhh,” they respond with a finger to their lips.
As I work around one end of the room, my counterpart is working her way around the other. This continues for the remainder of the class time.
Again the bell rings, the students breathing a collective sigh of relief as everyone in the school begins assembling outside for prayer. After prayer, the students scatter in all directions. Some run to the kitchen for their lunch, others straight for the footballs or cricket bats and wickets. The principal gets on the microphone and repeats that morning’s announcements over the laughs, calls, and cries of the playing school children.
I reach into my backpack and pull out a book and walk to the staff room. In the staff room, a few teachers are gathered around the table and eating their lunches. I join them there, having either what the school provided for lunch or something I brought from home. I try and make the most of that hour off at lunch, taking part in conversation with the other teachers or reading my book, sometimes both.
After the bell rings again, the students freeze momentarily before scrambling in a frenzy back to their classrooms. I walk back up to my classroom, gathering my backpack and going downstairs to my designated area by the stage. The students recognize what I’m doing, gesturing and calling after me in hopes that this time it might be their turn to, “get a try.”
I smile and pass it off with a simple shrug and a “maybe,” “we’ll see,” or “I’ll let you know.”
I never knew how to navigate that conversation with them. I don’t want them to know that the students I pull-out for lessons downstairs are the struggling readers. As far as they’re concerned, I might as well be choosing them at random and the same ones I always take are just supremely lucky. For as long as possible, I try to keep it that way so none of my students would be teased because of it. The other students can be jealous at times because the ones I do take often come back with tales of the games they’ve played and large stickers proudly displayed on their uniform.
Downstairs, I organize the stage for the lesson. I join two desks together with two chairs for the students, and one for me on the other side. While I do this, a student’s voice nervously comes over the loudspeaker, prompted by a teacher. It’s the “live-reading” that takes place immediately after lunch every day. A grade is assigned to it each week, an opportunity of showcasing students’ reading capabilities in front of the school.
When the third grade is assigned for the live reading, my counterpart and I try and to give an opportunity for students who haven’t done it before. Coincidentally, these are typically the students I work with in my pull-out sessions. You may recall my experience with one student last year, in my post Little Victories.
A few weeks ago, in thanks to live reading I’ve had a similar experience that I had with the student mentioned in that post from last year. During our live reading week, we had three students who had never done it before read to the school: T, S, and A. T was the first one from that group of improving readers to go. He had struggled through most of the first semester, seemingly lacking motivation. Yet since the start of the second term, he’s been improving in his efforts. Due to this, I believed he was ready and could really benefit from the live reading experience.
“Hey, T,” I said to him one morning. “How would you like to do the live reading today?”
“Yeah!” His eyes glimmered with a mix of surprise and excitement.
I picked out an excerpt from a short story from one of the larger books in our classroom library. After practicing the reading and rehearsing some of the tougher words, he was ready.
“Can I go tell my mother?” he asks.
“Is she here?”
He points through the window across the school compound, where I recognized his mother talking to his older sister outside of another classroom.
Moving over to another student, I kept him in the corner of my eye as he approached his mother across the way. After a brief exchange, his mother immediately fixed his collar and pulled out a comb, running it through his hair. A smile cracked across my face, although the live reading would be done hidden away with the sound system in the staff room, he was going to look the part.
The live reading with T went well, as my counterpart worked alongside him for it. In the weeks that followed, T began staying inside during break time and lunch time. Unprompted and independently, he was delving into that large book I had given him, reading his live reading story start to finish and reading new ones. Ever since his live reading that day, his motivation in the classroom has taken off and it has shown in the progress of his work. I used to have to monitor him regularly on in-class assignments. Now, he’s bringing his completed work to me on his own like the rest of the class. That right there, is why an opportunity like live reading is so important for a young student.
On the weeks the other grades conduct live reading, I simply prepare for my pull-out lesson during that time. I review my log book again, a record of which students I met with last and what we covered, how it went, and what they’re ready for next. After determining a plan, I’ll wander the school compound, looking to connect to the Wi-Fi to load a literacy video, or set up a literacy game for them to play.
When the live reading is finished, I walk back upstairs to the classroom. On the way, I pass the fourth grade classes that are typically lined up outside, about to exchange rooms for the afternoon. These are my students from last year, whom I don’t have much direct involvement with anymore. They welcome me with calls of “Sir!” and outstretched fists. I reach out to give each one a “bounce,” knowing what’s coming.
“Jellyfish!” one girl laughs, pulling her hand away at the last minute, moving it like a jellyfish.
“Snail!” another student ducks under my fist-bump with his hand and two outstretched fingers.
A next one fakes me out with a dab.
“Wave!” another boy exclaims as he waves his hand over my outstretched fist.
“Squirrel!” One boy, with a broad grin says as he chases his hand up my shoulder.
“Aha! Good one!” I laugh.
I can’t help but smile at that one. Last year, a scene was made when one of the boys faked me out on a fist-bump in front of the class. In turn, I took that opportunity to teach them a few creative ways to pull the same trick. When I first mentioned the squirrel maneuver, they had all looked at me with confused, dumbfounded faces. Then it hit me.
There aren’t squirrels here. They’ve probably never seen a squirrel before in their life.
So I looked up a few photos of squirrels online and explained to them what they were and how they move. Since that day, let’s just say the squirrel has become a fan-favorite.
Moving past the fourth graders, I step into the doorway of one of the third-grade classrooms. With a soft tap on the door and confirming with the teacher (sometimes my counterpart, other times the other third grade teacher) that the students aren’t taking an exam and are available to come with me, their hands shoot up in the air as all eyes light up with eager anticipation. I call out the names of the students I want, as they celebrate victoriously between themselves and hustle out of the classroom while the rest sigh dejectedly. Giving them a bounce as they step out into the corridor, they take off in a sprint downstairs to the stage. They know the drill.
Downstairs, I conduct my pull-out lessons. They largely focus on phonics, ranging from the magic e, bossy r, vowel teams, and everything in between. With one or two of them that struggle the most, we’re still working on CVC words (consonant-vowel-consonant words, i.e. cat, dog). Based on their reading levels and personalities, I’ve paired most of them with another like-minded student. A few others I take individually, as they benefit more from the personalized attention. Admittedly, most of the activities I use with them comes from Pinterest, an unlikely but honestly well-equipped source of materials, ideas, and resources for phonics lessons. For those that are paired, I use games in which they compete against each other. They love the opportunity to challenge each other and come out victorious.
When the lesson is completed, typically after about twenty minutes, I dismiss them back to the classroom as they run off. I record in my notebook who I had and what we did before returning upstairs. After selecting another set of students, the whole process begins again. On most days, I’m able to conduct three separate pull-out sessions in a single afternoon.
The bell rings a final time, a conclusion to the school day. I pack together my things and close up the stage, returning back upstairs to my classroom. I sit down with my counterpart as we discuss the events of the day, review our students’ work, and discuss our lesson plans for the next day. When this is done, we close up the classroom before heading home.
Some afternoons I’ll linger on the campus, hanging out with a few teachers in the pre-school, chatting with the caretaker, or playing cricket with a few of the older students that have stayed back after school to play.
“Sir! I’m gonna hit a six off you!” one student exclaims (a six being the cricket equivalent of hitting a homerun in baseball).
“Oh, you think so?” I smile back, tossing the tennis ball up and down in my hands. “I’ll show you a six.”
With a soft step I bowl the ball to the boy, who hits into an out, the ball having been caught by another student playing the field. The boy hands me the bat as I give him the ball. I take the bat and stand in front of the wickets.
“Sir, this isn’t baseball!” another laughs after seeing how I was holding the bat.
I just smiled. Although cricket is somewhat different than baseball, they’re more alike than they are different. Not to mention that before I came down here, I did play a year and a half of collegiate baseball; they were about to find that out. The boy runs forward with a start, flailing his arms as he releases the ball toward me. The ball veers down to my feet, just in front of me. I throw my hands out, the flat side of the bat connecting with the ball as I lift it into the air. Powering through, the ball launches over the roof of the school to the carpark on the other side.
“Now, that’s how you hit a six!” I laugh as after a momentary shock, the boys chase after the ball.
“Mr. King!” my principal appears, gesturing for the ball as the boys return a moment later.
The boys toss him the ball excitedly, anxious to see what will happen. My principal grasps it strategically in his hands as I take my stance in front of the wickets, honing my vision on the ball in his hand. He runs forward and arms flailing, releases the ball toward me. I start my swing, following the trajectory of the ball into the ground as I look to play it off its bounce. Then just as it strikes the ground, the ball takes off in a tailspin and slips under the flat front of my bat and strikes the wickets behind me.
The kids roar with laughter and excitement, as I grin sheepishly and begrudgingly congratulate my principal on the out.
What goes around comes around.
I typically arrive home around this time. Immediately undressing into something comfortable, I down a cold glass of water and take some time to cool off in front of my fan. After collecting myself, I set out on the tasks I have in mind for the day. This varies greatly from day to day, week to week. Sometimes I spend the afternoon reading, other times writing, sometimes running errands, hand-washing my laundry, cleaning my apartment, or picking up groceries in the market down the road.
Honk! Honk! Honk!
A very distinct horn sounds above all the traffic on the road as a small white van cruises to a stop. Happy Time Bakery is painted in bold red letters across the door, which slides open as pedestrians flock toward it, including me.
“Ehh, Scott!” The driver smiles broadly, wearing a dark t-shirt and a flat-brimmed cap.
“Kelly! How you doing, man?” I ask him.
“Good, man. Good.”
I reach inside and pull out two of the cheese rolls, my absolute favorite item from the bread truck. I slip a few dollar coins into his hand and head back to my apartment, waving to a few students waiting for a bus on the side of the road. Sometimes, catching the bread truck is quite literally the highlight of my day.
I pull the chicken out of a bowl of water, where it’s been thawing and soaking with freshly-squeezed limes, a tip I picked up from a neighbor. Taking out a knife and cutting board, I chop up tyme and cilantro and throw them into another bowl with the chicken. Shaking various spices and pepper sauce on the chicken, I mix them all round so the contents are spread evenly across it. I put them on a pan and slide them into my gas stove oven.
Walking out to my verandah, I peek at the sky for a glow in the clouds. If the sky is taking color, I walk down the road to the Sea. Stopping and chatting with community members I see along the way, I pause on the seaside rock-line or the small beachhead to watch the sun fade below the cloudy horizon. Pedestrians and traffic go by, hardly paying mind to the colorful display overtaking the sky. A peaceful transition into the night, it’s just what I need to step back for a moment and appreciate where I am. Not to mention right now it’s cruise ship season and it’s pretty wild watching those “floating cities” drift by on the horizon.
Digging through the vegetable drawer in my refrigerator, I set its contents on my counter: cabbage, onions, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, and carrots. Coming fresh from Esther, the lady I purchase them from in the market next door every Saturday, I make myself a salad. After throwing some plantains on a frying pan with some jerk seasoning, I pull the chicken out of the oven.
On most nights this is my dinner: roast chicken, a tossed salad, and sometimes fried plantains or homemade bakes. It’s pretty lean, but it’s also pretty healthy. It took some time, admittedly, but I finally learned how to cook well for myself on my own. Occasionally, I’ll mix it up with a local dish of saltfish, tania log, or walk down the road for fish and chips if I’m feeling for eating out.
Depending on the time of year, I’ll watch a game from home; whether that be the Cleveland Indians, Columbus Blue Jackets, or my cousin’s basketball team at Mississippi College. I have pretty reliable Internet connection at home and can find most games using Reddit. Growing up, there always seemed to be a game on the television in the evenings, so in that sense it’s my way of maintaining that connection to home.
Other nights, I’ll continue reading or writing. Other times I’ll edit photos or videos for various projects I might have going on. Sometimes I’ll connect with friends or family from home via FaceTime.
Some nights, I’ll walk up the road to Mansa’s. There I’ll watch whatever game or movie is on the television while intermittently shooting a few games of pool with the guys there.
I settle back into bed, reading to wind my day down to a close. My eyes start getting heavy, despite the resonating sounds of the crickets, the distant crashing of the waves of the Sea, the dogs barking endlessly in the night, or the occasional voice of a passerby or vehicle, I fall asleep.
My phone alarm’s muffled ring comes from somewhere buried under the sheets. In that momentary burst of energy that comes from a sudden arousal from sleep, I dig through the bed sheets, tossing pillows aside and hitting the snooze button almost immediately…
The days are flying by.
Time is marching on.
Note: Below are a few photos from the second “Story Night” I hosted at my school last week. We also had a recent all-Volunteer gathering to celebrate, thank, and properly send-off our Peace Corps Eastern Caribbean Country Director, Mary Kate Lowndes, who will be taking another position with the Peace Corps in Washington D.C. Enjoy!