Friday, March 26, 2010

The Little Things

Much better today. It's the little things that do it. An NGO worker pointed out a cute little tea shop in town where you can buy fried egg sandwiches for 35 LD (about 50 cents), and the sandwiches are warm and delicious and contain no bones or intestines whatsoever. The kids around my house (the ones I know and like) have been extra enthusiastic lately, shouting out my name as soon as they spot me coming down the road toward the house and running up to say hello and grab my hand. I've had rice bread for breakfast almost every day this week (a not particularly tasty but somehow very satisfying snack made of pounded rice, oil, and bananas; in the mornings, women and children sell bite-sized slices of it out of buckets they carry on their heads, and I always consider myself lucky if I can buy a few pieces before it sells out). And best of all: yesterday, a teacher randomly came up to me and said I was doing a great job, that the students notice I work hard and tell their other teachers that I make them work hard too.

So yes, things are OK.

Classes have been going relatively well also. It's funny how certain subjects are so much easier for the students to grasp than others. The ones I think should be a breeze often end up being incredibly confusing, and the ones that seem tricky are a piece of cake for the kids. In my general science class, the most confusing and frustrating subject we covered was an overview of the scientific method (too abstract, I think). Yet although the students are still hopelessly confused about this topic, they easily grasped my brief introduction to physics and the topic we are covering now, taxonomy of living things. My math students are having no trouble whatsoever with prime factorization, but addition and subtraction of large numbers still gives them problems – not to mention the most confusing topic we attempted to cover, and which I eventually gave up on: multiplying and dividing by powers of ten.

Of course, a lot of this seeming incongruity has to do with the way the kids are taught in primary school. Concrete topics – even somewhat complex ones – are by far easier for the students to understand than ones requiring critical thinking, which is likely due to the fact that many teachers still teach using rote memorization. But what I find more interesting to think about is the ways in which the students' everyday lives affect their comprehension of certain subjects. For example, the reason that multiplying and dividing by powers of ten was so confusing for the kids was that many of them simply don't get what a decimal point means, and so my instructions to move the decimal to the left or right were not helpful (I realized this after I found out some of my students literally could not tell the difference between the numbers .01, .001, .00001, or 1. My pet theory about why decimals are so difficult here is this: The currency here does not use cents. From a very young ages, Americans are forced to learn the meaning of a decimal; 5 cents, 50 cents and 50 dollars are very different things. But here, where the smallest unit of currency is a 5-LD note (about 7 cents), decimals are rarely used.

In any case, decimals are just one example of the ways in which the most random things – like the currency we grow up with – can affect the way we think. It's funny to think of all of the things we learn without knowing, and to realize that the place in which we are raised can change something as fundamental as our reasoning -- our very brains, in fact.


  1. Glad to hear things are going a little bit better!

    And you're probably on to something with the currency. As a kid in this country the idea that .25 x 4 = 1 is reinforced all the time by simply counting money, whether it's from the toothfairy, for the icecream truck (do those still exist?) or whatever.

    Still, it seems odd that given the sort of communal, sharing attitude you've described in past entries, your students would have difficulties with what essentially amounts to just a different way of writing fractions (since I assume you're not jumping into rational vs. irrational numbers just yet :) ). It's also gotta be hard with such a huge class to bring props that students can actually use to see "oh yeah .5 + .5 = 1 and .1 x 10 = 1" etc.).

    Also, I'm watching Celebrity Rehab with Dr. have got some friggin' awesome TV to catch up on when you get back. I feel so much better about myself and the show's only been on for 5 minutes.

  2. Wow...I got a little parenthesis crazy there...clearly this calls for more beer.

  3. Yeah -- well, I tried to do the multiplying/dividing by powers of ten thing before I did anything else with decimals or fractions, because I thought it would be super easy . . . We're covering fractions for real now and that isn't going so well either. The idea of one thing being written in two different ways (like equivalent fractions, or a fraction being the same as a decimal or a percent) is really tough.

    I think it comes back to the whole "not understanding what numbers mean" thing again, too . . . The idea that a digit in the tens place represents ten times whatever number is there, for example, is still really difficult for a lot of these kids. And if they have trouble with that concept, it's hard to make anything else make sense at all, really . . .

    Also, you shouldn't have mentioned ice cream trucks . . . Ohhhh, what I wouldn't do for a Popsicle right about now . . .

  4.'s kinda hard to expect kids to get fractions if they don't already have a pretty solid foundation in basic arithmetic.

    And my apologies for mentioning the ICT word...s. I'll only mention thoroughly disgusting foods from now on. So to that end: scrapple. Good day.