All of Group 83 has now finished our first two weeks of school here in Samoa. That does not, however, mean that much learning – or teaching – has taken place. As I wrote last week, the first week of school is devoted to cleaning the school grounds and the classrooms. Classes finally began this week, but I could tell that neither the students nor the teachers were too excited about the school year beginning. Let me start by describing a typical day at my school.
The students are supposed to arrive at school somewhere between seven and eight am. I believe that the only acceptable excuse for arriving later than seven is attending morning mass (which doesn’t end until around seven) – but since the teachers don’t show up at seven, it doesn’t much matter. Until school starts, the students busy themselves cleaning up the yard – picking up the rubbish, cleaning the toilets, sweeping the outdoor hallway, weeding the grass out of the rocks, scrubbing the steps, and any other task that you could possibly think of. Most of the teachers start to show up around quarter to eight. We all sign the sign-in book – although the point of a sign-in book is defeated by the rampant lying occurring in the book. I have not once arrived for school before 7:50, and yet the sign-in book says that I am there by 7:15 each morning. At the end of the day, most people don’t bother to sign out and the principal fills in their time for them.
After sign-in, it is time for morning assembly or prayer. The students stand in military formation in the schoolyard, one row for each class. The teachers, including me, line up on the porch, while one teacher leads the prayer. This consists of prayer, a Bible reading, questioning of the students based on the reading, a few hymns, and the daily berating for insufficient cleanliness in the yard. Students that arrive after assembly has started wait by the gate to the yard, with their heads hung in shame.
At the end of prayer, the teachers assign the students some tasks to do in the classroom (usually review the previous day’s lessons), while we retreat to the comfort of the teachers’ lounge for morning tea. Depending on the day, morning tea can consist of tea, coffee, Koko Samoa, buttered crackers (masi), bananas, pineapple, cocoa rice, pancakes, or whatever else shows up. One day last week, we had a new type of banana that I had never eaten. It’s bright orange and has to be boiled in the skin. Once you cut it open, it is surprising similar in taste and texture to cooked pumpkin. I may try making a pumpkin-like pie out of it sometime in the future. Tea seems to last until whenever some teacher finally decides we’ve sat around long enough – usually around nine.
Since I am just observing classes for the first few weeks of school, I rotate through the classes, watching the teachers and the students in their “natural” environment. The quality of teaching varies widely within my school. Some teachers use small group work, TPR, a variety of presentation techniques, and copious amounts of review to ensure students understand the material. Others teach completely using the kill-and-drill method, without ever asking students for their comprehension of the grammar structure being taught.
Corporal punishment is a fact of life in school here. The students get hit often and for minor errors or misbehavior. I’ll let Dave write about the travesties that occur on a daily basis in his school. My school is tame by comparison. Punishment is usually a rap to the back of the head with the knuckles, a smack with the tied end of a Samoan broom, or a smack on the back with a ruler. The difference in harshness of treatment can be seen in the faces of the students. In one of my classes, the students look terrified of getting hit by the teacher and they look upset after one of their classmates is smacked. In another, the teacher probably hits as often, but with much less force. The students laugh sheepishly when they get hit, as if knowing they “deserved” it for making an error or acting badly. It doesn’t seem to affect their willingness to speak in class.
After a few hours of lessons, it’s time for lunch, provided by the parents of the students. A menu of this week’s offerings:
Monday: taro with coconut cream and fish soup
Tuesday: taro with coconut cream and a gigantic platter of lobster
Wednesday: a bowl of instant noodles with crackers and chicken sausage
Thursday: canned spaghetti, an entire size 2 roasted pig, baked taro, and palusami
Friday: taro with coconut cream, two cans of herring fried in onions and pumpkin, and crackers
After lunch, we resume classes. Usually this means the teacher gives the students a writing assignment and then sits in the back and tries not to fall asleep. I usually head home somewhere between 12:30 and 2. Today was Friday so it was a work and sports day. The principal led a PTA meeting while the other teachers directed the cleaning. I sat on the porch and read a book. The older students used machetes to cut the grass and cut down some small coconut trees. Then the more talented boys scaled the trees in front of the school, 2 foot machetes clenched in their teeth, and trimmed the low branches. Spending a morning watching your 8th graders climb trees and hang like monkeys from tree really makes you realize how far away from the US Samoa really is.