Two weeks ago today, my kids started school. For the first time ever, all of my children left to spend all day with other teachers. Every day. For a whole school year. This has been a big ole adjustment for Chez Campbell. I'm talking immense...cavernous (I took these adjectives from Lily's vocabulary list, are you impressed?)
Overall, it's gone okay. They aren't exactly soaring yet, but they are making serious steps in that direction. Most of our learning curve hasn't been about the academics or the content, at least not yet. It's been more about the systems and the styles. The heart of the school is precious and the social environment is as good as you're going to get when you put a bunch of young'uns together for 7 hours a day for 170ish days. It's a good fit for our family.
One of my biggest fears about sending them was that I have some pretty strong ideals about education. And sometimes, it's hard for me to be flexible in those. I knew that I would have a really hard time letting go of the planning and oversight of their curriculums and their instruction. And I was right, it has been difficult. Nearly every night, there has been something that I have been handed or heard from one of my children that has forced me to narrowly resist raising my eyebrows. If I'm being totally honest here, I haven't been completely successful at that...there has been some raising of eyebrows. There may have even been some mumbling about Bloom's Taxonomy and higher level thinking skills. But alas, I'm rambling.
For the most part, I have behaved myself, bit my tongue, and moved forward in the homework march, even though I am pretty thoroughly opposed to homework. I have tried to focus on the positive things, with varying degrees of success. But there was one issue that I simply couldn't let go of and after days of praying, researching, and battling my inner self, I decided I had to approach a teacher about it. I won't go into the details here, because it's not the point of this post. But I will say, that as I wrestled with whether or not I needed to shut up or speak up, I did a bit of self-examination. Why is it that I can't simply send my kids to school and be okay with the provided instruction? Why would something like the details of instructional choices get me so torn up? I mean, there are dozens of other really great parents who send their kids to the same school every day and assume they are getting what they need. Why can't I be one of those parents?
Through my questioning, I ended up taking a trip down memory lane. The time was December 1996 and Ryan and I had been married for about 18 months. I was a fresh college graduate, eager for a classroom. Because of my December graduation date, I spent a semester substitute teaching in a system that I hoped I might get a job offer to work in. With Ryan still in school, we were ridiculously broke. We still laugh about our Valentine's Date that year. We did a cheap takeout pizza special, eating out of the pizza box in the car with a two liter of Coke and two straws, in the parking lot of the dollar theater. We really wanted a real job.
I wanted a classroom and I needed an income. So, when hiring time rolled around, I remembered the words of our university education advisors, letting us know that the state of KY had 18 applicants for every opening available at that time. I applied all over the State and took the first job they offered me, which came from the first interview I had.
It really was a miracle that I got the job. When I went for the interview that day, the hall was lined with other interviewees. I knew my chances were slim. It was a county where teaching positions open only upon death or retirement and there are always lots of homegrown candidates waiting for the jobs. But God had a plan for me in that place. As it turns out, the new principal at the school had a sister who had taught my husband in high school, 2 hours away. The crazy thing was, she was one of my husband's favorite teachers and she thought pretty highly of him too. I can't remember how we made the connection, but I do think it is the thing that brought my thin resume to the top.
There were 4 of us that year who were new. All of us were fresh college graduates. The decision was made to put 3 of us together and call it the 4th grade team. Some principals would have cowered at the thought. Not this one. She treated us like we were her dream team. We were teachable and instead of lamenting, she invested. As a first year principal, she had dodged the administration bullet much longer than many of her colleagues had. Though she was only a few years from retirement, she had a ton of energy and spunk. She wasn't your average teacher and she definitely wasn't your average administrator. I think I knew it then, but I really know it now.
We spent a lot of time that year learning about the 7 multiple intelligences. We were challenged to teach to a variety of learners, through a variety of methods. We had trainings in kinesthetic movement, art, writing across the curriculum, and just about anything you can imagine to challenge us on how to get kids to learn in a variety of ways and to move beyond basic knowledge to higher level thinking skills. As she got to know us, she poured resources into us so that we could grow in the areas we were most interested in. I had the opportunity to go to lots of trainings in Language Arts because that we where my passion was. After Abby was born, my first time leaving her alone was so that I could go to a conference on how to teach algebraic thinking skills in the elementary classroom.
Not only did she get us training, but she challenged us to "teach outside the box." At the time, fourth grade was the time when students did units on state history. Our little 3 teacher team followed her lead and wrote a grant our very first year. They were doing an archaeological excavation in our town of a fort that had been an important part of KY history. With her encouragement, we used our grant money to take the kids to the dig site and then research the fort and the period it was built in. After that, the students proceeded to calculate and build a 1/10th scale model in the parking lot. That's right...seventy fourth graders. In the parking lot. With hammers and nails and a 1/10th scale model of a fort. Forts are big, y'all. Even 1/10th of a fort is big. Those that weren't on building duty rotated into other history based activities like candle dipping, folk dancing, making strawberry jam, and lots of other fun stuff.
You know what, those kids loved it. And we loved it. And there was some pretty darn authentic learning going on in that hallway. I can't assure you that any of them finished 4th grade having memorized the state bird or knowing the state motto. But by golly, they had gained so.much.more.
We had the longest planning times in the county. The highest classroom budgets too. I remember her telling me that the county administration questioned both. But, she knew that to plan and prepare for authentic learning and to assess it in a way that isn't just multiple choice and matching took time. So, she arranged our instructional schedules in a way that the kids had lots of arts and electives and we had more than 30 minutes of planning a day. I don't remember her being stingy with anything... except the copier allowance. She had to get that extra classroom budget money from somewhere. And who needs worksheets anyway, when you're building a fort and writing about what you're learning?
I only had the privilege of working with that school and those people for two years before God called us to move to NC so that Ryan could continue his education. But those two years made a significant impression on who I am, the kind of educator I am, and what I understand about how people learn. I have carried those lessons with me everywhere I've gone. Through 2 more public schools, 7 years of teaching in homeschool co-ops, 12 years of homeschooling my own children, and more Sunday School lessons than I can count, they have shaped the way I interact with students of all ages.
I am so thankful that God saw fit to put me in that tiny little tobacco town where the soil of my heart and mind were so wonderfully cultivated by such a brilliant educator.
So, Mary Jo Gibson, wherever you are, whatever you're doing, thank you. Thank you for taking a risk and putting 3 newbies together and then leading us to believe that the sky was the limit. Thank you for not settling for tidy classrooms with well-maintained columns of quiz grades. Thank you for constantly pointing us back to the standards and asking us how we were going to meet them in ways that fostered a love of learning and addressed the needs of every child, not just the ones who were "good at school." Thank you for teaching us that good grades don't always equal understanding. What a gift you gave to me!
Monday, August 17, 2015
A few photos of life at our house, as of late:
Here's Raphael, one of the giant tortoises we inherited with the house.
And this is Henri, a scraggly stray that we've taken up with. He is the sweetest cat and loves lots of ear scratching and leftovers, while happily making his home in our yard.
My Sunday morning clothes, on my Monday morning clothesline.
Here's one of the many hedgehogs that also call our yard home! The kids love to catch them and play with them for a little bit before setting them free again.
This bird, that Isaac thinks must be a juvenile kite, happily ate the hot dog pieces leftover from dinner last night. He was super friendly and spent much of the afternoon interacting with Isaac.
Abby and her Eno. Anytime, anywhere, she loves it!
Sunday, August 16, 2015
Thanks to so many of you who have been prayng for us as we are making the transition to school. We made it through the first week! Never mind that it was only a 3 day week, we're counting it as one in the books. Abby had to point out that truth on Friday AM when they were headed out the door, "Just think Mom, if this was a normal week, it would only be Wednesday!"
First day of school, grades 11, 9, 8, 6, and 2!
All in all, it was a solid start. The kids are all getting the hang of the routine, finding friends among their classmates, and learning a bit about their teachers. None of them are begging to come back home, so that's a good beginning!
Here are a few initial observations about our school entry:
- It is really, really nice to tidy the house at 7:30 and find it's still tidy at 2:15!
- It's also nice to be able to start and finish a task uninterrupted.
- The novelty of lunch by myself is gonna wear off quickly.
- Trying to debrief 5 children on a 7 hour school day during the 30 minute car ride home can be a recipe for a headache. There were points when I think all 5 were trying to talk over the other 4 to make sure I heard their perspective. At least they're talking to me!
- Anything times 5 is more intense than anything times 4 or 3 or 2 or 1. Likewise, it is less intense than being a mom of 6, 7, 8, or 12. Whether it's homeschooling or school prep, being a mom of lots of kids just takes time. I'm not complaining or bragging, just observing.
- All of the "free time" I now have during the day, gets trumped by the insanity of the evening! Washing water bottles, supervising lunch box packing, overseeing homework, setting out clothes, feeding them the insane amounts of food they request after being at school all day, and listening to their detailed descriptions of their days is exhausting. We've all been collapsing into bed at night. I'm thinking that it may be a toss-up as to which is less demanding- homeschooling or sending them off!
- I am very thankful that God has led us to a school community where family involvement and discipleship are high priorities.
- My high schoolers thrive on peer interaction.
- Middle School PE is as intimidating now as it was 30 years ago.
- My limited lunchbox ideas are gonna get really old, really fast. I'm missing American grocery stores more than ever.
- Your child might be attending a school full of evangelical-minded families when you ask him about the class roster and he rattles off the names, Jonah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Levi, Noah, and Joseph.
- I may live in the capitol city of my country, but school drop-off and pick-up during rainy season makes me very thankful for my high clearance, 4 wheel drive vehicle!
Week two starts tomorrow!
Friday, August 7, 2015
Returning to West Africa for a second term has certainly been easier than it was arriving the first time around. Many of the systems and shortcuts I learned during my first term have translated well to our new country. For example, instead of eating scrambled eggs and macaroni nearly every day while I figured out how to produce meals, we settled right into some sort of normal.
Despite these advantages, I am still finding little differences that I’m learning to navigate in our new host country. I think it might be a bit like living in French-Speaking Canada instead of America. Many things are very similar, but there are enough differences to make you go, “OHHHH, that’s different!” every now and then. I’m sure there are many factors that contribute to the differences and the way the cultures have developed, but some include the fact that the climate is different, the lay of the land (being in a land-locked desert vs. a coastal country), and of course, the fact that Niger was occupied by the French, while Ghana and Nigeria were both occupied by the British. I thought I’d share with you just a few of the differences we’ve been adjusting to, in no particular order:
- Rest time. Things close down here in the middle of the day. People work until about 1PM, go home until about 4PM and then return to work to finish out their day. In theory, I’d like to embrace the concept of a midday rest. In reality, I’m not there yet. If I want to grab groceries at 2PM, it makes me a bit crazy to find the store closed. I am told that, in time, I will learn to embrace it. We’ll see.
- The mop. They don’t use an American style mop here. They use a push broom type thing with a cloth that they push around. Then they wring the cloth out, separate from the brush/ pole. It works, but it’s still very strange to me.
- Male house helpers. Many folks in the Francophone countries use men as house helpers. I didn’t think I could handle it and initially I was resistant to having a man help with my laundry (it took me at least a year to be okay with another woman doing my laundry!) But, we had the opportunity to inherit a very well-trained house helper and I decided to give it a try. It is working out great. He has a great attitude and works hard. He is able to do anything our female helpers did, and for some reason, I feel less tension working with him than I did with the women, though they were wonderful! The kids are old enough that I don’t really need him for childcare and even if I did, he seems to be comfortable with the kids too. It’s working out well.
- The availability of goods. In our former countries, we got lots of British imported goods. We grew fond of McVities digestives, Cadbury chocolate, and Lyle’s Golden. We also could purchase sliced bread at nearly every bakery, though it was often a bit sweet for my taste. I can find very little of that here. But, I am finding more varieties of cheese, lots of fresh cream (which was very hit or miss in the Anglophone countries), and plentiful baguettes.
- Apparel. In many ways, clothing is similar. However, the clothing in Accra was very, very western compared to the clothing here. I rarely saw women with their head covered in Accra. They often wore trousers or knee length skirts. Here, women generally keep their head covered, wear ankle length skirts, and do not wear trousers at all.
- Language. We need another one. Very few folks here speak English. They often speak 4-5 languages, but English is very rarely one of them. This has a ripple effect on everything. You wanna go to the zoo? The signs will be in French. Wanna fill out a form at the Dr.? Better be prepared to read French. Wanna host a volunteer team? Better have some translators ready to interpret for them. I know it sounds silly, but even though I knew the people here didn’t speak English, I had not thought through all of the ways it would affect daily life.
- The cost of items. We live in one of the poorest countries in the world. Actually, according to the 2014 UN index, it is THE poorest country in the world. Which means that there isn’t much money floating around, especially for “extras.” We find that the prices of things are interesting. It’s as if there isn’t as much of a mark-up on certain things because people can’t pay it. But then, there is precious little actually produced in this country, so things that we could purchase more reasonably in Nigeria or Ghana have to be imported here, so they are more expensive. So, it seems that imported items don’t have as much of a mark-up, but more has to be imported so in general things are more expensive. Or something like that. I’m such an economist, can’t you tell?
- Donkey carts and camels. We never saw them in our previous homes. They are very common here. I’m here to tell you, I don’t think seeing a camel in the road will ever get old. Ever. Come have a look for yourself!
- Seasons. We definitely seem to have more of a cycle of seasons here than we did in Ghana. There, it was basically hot, humid, and sunny about 95% of the time. There were times with a bit more rain, but in general, the temperature was pretty consistent. Here, we have a hot, dry season (like 120 F), a “cooler” rainy season (like 90 F), a mini-hot season after the rains, and then a cool dry season, when the harmattan comes off the Sahara. I was told by my language helper today that when that harmattan season comes in December, I will be cold. Y’all it’s like 85 in the day time. Cold?!? We’ll see.
Thursday, August 6, 2015
Thirteen years ago, on Memorial Day weekend, I went to the first of many NCHE homeschool conferences which I would attend. I only went to the beginner classes and the book fair. I had a 4 year old daughter who I was planning to homeschool and I wanted to get a head start on it that year. Someone had given me good advice to take very little money and to gather as many free catalogues as I could. I followed that advice, bought almost nothing, took home a stack full of curriculum brochures, and spent the next year pouring over them, developing ideas and dreams for our homeschool journey.
Since that day, homeschooling has been one of my chief occupations and it has been way more than a means to an end. It’s been my method for educating my children, my hobby, it has entailed some of my favorite parts of every day, and often my least favorite too. It’s been more challenging than I could have ever imagined and more rewarding than I dared to dream. Through homeschooling, I have made some of the dearest friends and been allowed a front row seat to so many “firsts” in my children’s lives. There have been days when I have been convinced that my children would be destroyed by my antics, but fortunately, there have been many more where I have seen precious progress. It has been my joy and my privilege to educate my children for these many years.
In less than a week, my homeschooling journey is coming to end (at least for now.) I know that for this season of our lives, it’s the right choice. I’m not giving it up because I’m tired (though I am tired.) I’m not giving it up because I have something more important to do (as if that were even possible.) The reasons why we are changing our course for this season are many and varied. But, ultimately, we feel like this is a time where our children will benefit from relationships that go beyond what we can offer them in our home here in West Africa. They need some things that are difficult for me to provide to them just now. And so, it is with a heavy heart that I hang up my apple for at least a little while.
Now, I know that sending my children to school doesn’t make me any less of a mom to them. I realize that we are going to have many opportunities to make memories in other, different ways. I think we will all benefit from having the greater community that will come from the school environment they will be a part of. But, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that there is some deep, deep grief happening in my heart.
Recently, we gave away a kitten we had found when it was very tiny and emaciated. We nursed it back to health and when it had grown healthy, with a pudgy little tummy and lots of cuddles to give, we chose to give it to another family. For lots of reasons, we knew it was the best thing for our family and for that little kitten. Regardless of that knowledge, one of my girls had a little meltdown. When I attempted to dry her tears she said to me, “Mom, I know it was the right thing to do, it’s just very sad and so, so hard.”
That’s the place where I find myself now. I know that putting my children in school is the right thing to do at this time. But, it is very sad and it is so, so hard. I think part of the reason I’m mourning so deeply is simply because I know that this is the beginning of the end. I have junior in high school. In 2 years, I’ll be leaving her in the States for university, and I will be living on a different continent. This goes way beyond the fact that we won’t be cuddled together on the couch reading “Little House on the Prairie” together after lunch. It’s time to give her some wings, but man, it’s hard being a mama!
If I live to be 100 years old, I don’t know that I could find a more beautiful way to employ my time than the investment I’ve been allowed to make these last dozen years. Here are just a few of my favorite perks from our homeschool journey...
We haven't been limited to the basics of the 3 Rs. Home economics, hospitality, character building, and the like have all been key elements of our learning.
The world has been our classroom. Grinding on the very stones the cliff dwellers of Mesa Verde used will make a pretty strong impression about how Native Americans lived.
Lots of hands-on possibilities. Studying Christmas in France? Why not try making a Buche de Noel?
The friends! What dear friends we've made on this journey! There are no limits to the things we could learn and do together.
Meeting the needs of individual children is easy! If someone needed to learn by doing, we let them!
Plenty of time to read. Day or night, rain or shine, electricity or headlamp, beach or classroom...there is always time for a good book.
The field trip are amazing! Ellis Island, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Civil Rights Museums, Natural Science centers... you name it, we’ve tried it. Sometimes we’ve had to sleep in tents or eat scrambled eggs to save the money to have the experiences, but we’ve been able to give our kids some pretty cool memories.
Togetherness! The memories we’ve made while reading, playing, making, doing, and leaning together have been so very special.
Needless to say, we covet your prayers as we begin our new journey of learning. The next week will likely be full of emotions of all kinds. We are excited to see what kind of special memories and favorite perks we will have to share from this new adventure!
Saturday, August 1, 2015
We’ve settled into a bit of a routine here in Niger and I feel like we have a rhythm. For now, my main focus is on learning French and being a mom. Being a mom here looks a lot like being a mom in the States, though the details of it can be a bit different. Much more of my time is spent feeding them and suggesting ways to keep busy with simple things like books, games, and outside activities. My kids tend to fight a lot more in Africa, and I think it’s because they have less opportunities to get out and about as well as fewer interactions with other. We are hopeful that beginning school soon will help to alleviate that. Much less of my time here is spent juggling social activities and taking my kids out for trips to the park, museums, etc. In fact, our calendar can be exceedingly boring. We know that with time here, things will pick up and our plates and schedules will be full again.
We have had the opportunity to meet a few of the families that the kids will go to school with. However, many families left soon after we arrived to spend the summer in their passport country. We’ve seen them begin to return over the last few days and the kids are hopeful they will all find friends once school starts. I think they are hopeful that next summer won’t be quite as quiet as this summer has been. I am hopeful that my formal French study will be completed by then so that we can have more play time and less study time.
Of course, life with kids always leaves room for adventure. “Ordinary” days often offer unexpected diversions. So far this summer, we’ve rescued a tiny emaciated kitten who we nursed back to health and passed onto another family. Currently, we have a pigeon with a broken leg that the kids are trying to get keep alive until his leg mends, so that he can go back to the wild. We think he likely got into a trap and managed to get out and then make it as far as our yard with his injuries. The kids found him in rough shape and made it their mission to save him. Our house helper assured me that they make good food, but I explained to him, in my limited French, that the kids wouldn’t be keen on that idea.
Here is the pigeon the kids rescued in an old cage we found in a storage building. The vet friend we have here explained a small cage is best for him while he's healing. They don't sell bird food here, so we've made a mixture with things we found in town...barley, chick peas, oats, and sunflower seeds. He seems to like it well enough.
French study is progressing. By God’s grace, I had some weird fascination with French in high school that continued into college. According to my university, I managed to take enough classes to have a French minor. However, in 7 years of French study (20+ years ago) I had one conversation class. One. Which means that even when I graduated from college, I had lots of vocabulary in my head, and almost none on my tongue. As pathetic as my conversational skills were, I am finding that there are lots of words in my rusty old brain just dying to come out. So, though French study is slow, I know it’s not nearly as slow as it would be without that head start. French is certainly coming much, much faster than my Hausa did. I feel like I’m speaking as well after 8 weeks of French study as I did after 15 months of Hausa study. And my reading and writing skills definitely exceed my highest point of Hausa study.
To learn French, we are using the same GPA approach we used for Hausa. We’ve hired a Nigerien who has good French and he understands the grammar pretty well so when we have questions, he can generally explain why something needs to be said in a certain way. He is from the city we live in, but we actually developed a friendship with him during our time in Accra, as he had come there for university. He moved home a week after we arrived to help us with our French study. He comes to my house for about 4 hours a day- two with Ryan and two with me. We do very advanced things like move pieces of dollhouse furniture around and I say increasingly difficult things like...”The cat is on the dresser in the bedroom on the second floor.” Or I lay various items on a picture of the city and produce sentences like, “The sad man is at the post office.” Similarly, he speaks highly advanced phrases to me such as, “I am hungry, I want some bread.” Then I respond with witty responses like, “Go to the bakery.” I know...you are so jealous!
Each afternoon, I review the vocabulary I’ve added for the day and do some grammar work on my own. At least one day each week, Ryan and I spend a few hours out in town trying to meet folks and apply the language we’re learning. One thing that is very different for us here is that we actually need the language for everyday life here. In our previous African cities, which had been colonized by the British, the vast majority of folks spoke English. Our efforts to learn language there were primarily ministry related, not necessary to life. So, when we would try to practice our language, people would quickly grow impatient and switch the conversation to English. Here, that’s not an option. Folks may still find our French exceedingly painful, but we can’t switch to English. That makes language learning much more accelerated. I have to say, my house helper and I have had some good laughs at my expense, but we are increasingly understanding one another. Yesterday, he even told me a story about something that happened to him and I think I understood nearly all of it.
Ryan has started his “day job” even though he still has lots of language study ahead. He works 1/2 time doing French study and 1/2 time with the work we came to do. Once the kids start school, I will work several hours a week helping him with job related stuff as he can be spread pretty thin some days.
Another “special joy” this summer has been math catch-up. Though we worked hard during our time in the States to stay on course with our studies, math just had to come back with us. One by one, the kids have been finishing their curriculums. However, I still have two that are still hanging on. One will finish in just a couple more days. The other, well, she’ll finish in time for the first day of school. I honestly don’t know who will be more excited when Algebra II is done...she or I!