Dealing with the Unexpected

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A lot has happened in the three and a half weeks since my last post. I kind of can’t imagine only posting once a month for the next nine months. Lucky for me the goal I set for myself was a minimum goal, not maximum, so if need be I’ll post more often in the future. For now, I’ll get started with the details of this month.

November started out to be kind of, sort of awesome. The first week of the month on Thursday and Friday, they decided to finally install the central heating units that had been sitting around in my school for the last two months. Cool for two reason: first, my school will have central heating!!!, second, we got to have five days off from school- including that following Monday and Tuesday, plus a planned field trip on Wednesday for the students. Not having school that Friday ended up working out perfectly for me because that Thursday evening my host sister from my PST family messaged me and asked if I was free the next day. I replied that I was and she replied with “Good, cause tomorrow we’re coming up to Peja to see you”. Ehhhh, spoken in true Albanian form and fashion. But yes, they did come all the way to Peja, from the other side of the country, just to visit me. It was great and so touching and my heart just swelled at all of their kindness and love.

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A failed attempt at a host mom, host daughter photo actually turned out great!

We went to out to eat in the square and then went to Drini Bardh, a very famous waterfall in the Peja area. After that they started back on their three hour journey home. And of course before they left they reminded me to come back and visit whenever I’m free. I want to, I truly want to, but it’s far and expensive on a PCV stipend. I’m glad they came to visit me though. My host mom always said they would once they bought a car and they did!!

Overall, I originally thought this month would be really busy. I’m currently involved in self-improvement projects like NaNoWriMo and two TESOL teaching classes I’m taking through Coursera.org (this is mainly to become a better teacher for my students), plus all of my school related work, but it didn’t turn out that way. On the contrary, the second week of the month I ended up not being able to do much of anything, because we were without internet for a week. That was really frustrating and has a complicated backstory, but long story short we have wifi again and my productivity can continue.

At the moment, things are progressing well. I just had my first after school English Club meeting with my 6th graders today, because a few expressed interest to me about wanting to take English after school lessons once they saw me working with my students in grades 7-9. Let me just say that course with 6th graders probably wouldn’t work if I didn’t speak Albanian. It’s already a hard enough language as it is and nothing is harder than trying to decipher what a bunch of screaming 6th graders are trying to tell you in their native tongue. But during course, while feeling the onset of a headache from having to classroom manage so much, a part of me realized how precious it was that my students were confident enough in my abilities to understand them (falsely so) that they could spit rapid fire Albanian at me. It was a truly cross-cultural moment if I’ve ever had one. I was also very proud of them for deciding by themselves that they wanted to stay after school in the first place.

Another honorable mention moment – two actually – would be showing my students pen pal letters that were sent from students in Georgia (the country). Another PCV is serving there and together we decided to create this letter exchange for our 5th and 9th grade students and let me just say that both grades absolutely lit up when they received the letters. I didn’t know what response I was going to get (I’d hoped they’d like the letters) from either class, but to say I was surprised by their excitement would be an understatement. Even my counterpart looked happy as she translated the letters to the 5th grade students enthusiastically sounding her. It’s absolutely true that their joy was infectious. This type of program is great for teachers like us, because there’s a tons of lessons rolled into one: practicing English outside the classroom and cross-cultural exchange, to name a few.

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My 9th grade students with their pen pal letters.

This year, I’m doing a lot more activities like this with my students, trying to be creative and take English outside of the classroom. Tomorrow, instead of having a standard lesson, my 9th grade English Club students are going to a museum in the city and after that I’m taking them to an American owned bakery where they will have the chance to practice ordering in English. I’ve also asked my Albanian language tutor to come and chat with them in English as a motivator so that they can see where all their hard work will lead if they keep practicing.

On Saturday of this week us Kosovo PCVs are throwing a going away party for our CD, because he’s leaving next week. I was one of the ones who offered to get food so I have to go in early. After this weekend, I’ll have pen pal letters to mail, mid term test to grade, normal teacher planning, and cooking to do for two Thanksgiving dinners I’ve been invited too. That will basically wrap up November. As far as school as a whole goes, we are now just under the one month marker for how much time we have left in this semester. I can’t believe it’s almost over, but I’m also really excited about my travel plans. I’ll write in my next monthly update about how my last month of first semester went and just what I plan to do over holiday break. Definitely a post were reading.

 

 

“To expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect.” ~ Oscar Wilde

Looking Forward

Snow capped mountains and wilting corn stalk can only mean one thing.

Snow capped mountains and wilting corn stalks can only mean one thing.

I am on the downslope of my Peace Corps service. I’ve been on the downslope of my service since August and ever then since, I’ve been in awe over the fact that I have less than a year in country. I’ve been really bad about blogging my PC experience this last year and change, although anyone who knows me has probably caught me furiously writing in my journal at some point in time. Even still, I’d like to commemorate my last ten months in country by writing at least one blog entry a month and posting it every 19th of the month. Barring extension or change of date – where one can leave 30 days before or after their official COS date – August 19, 2016 is my official COS date and surprisingly, I’m really looking forward to it.

I say surprisingly, because I love my service, I love being a Peace Corps Volunteer, and a year ago this time, extending was a definite possibility. However, now I can actually see myself leaving Kosovo in August. Maybe that’ll change in the next few months, who knows, but for now the impending August 2016 leave date for me feels like a bittersweet close to an awesome period of time in my life. The second year is so different from the first.The familiarity with the language, my community, and the way of life here makes everything more comfortable. I know the people and can move about with more ease than I could last year. It’s honestly, the little things that only time could have affected that make the second year what it’s turning out to be.

If I had to put it into perspective, last year was the learning year where a lot of mistakes were made all in the name of progress. This year seems like it’ll be the year of growth and successes. My November alone is packed to the brim with things that I have to accomplish, some for my own personal growth, but most to grow me as a teacher and volunteer. My students this year are all the students I had last year. I know what they’re all capable of after working with them for a year, so this year I’m a little more educated on how to approach their strengthens and weaknesses when it comes to learning English. In turn, I feel like they’re expecting more out of me as a teacher. In these first two months of the new school year alone I’ve had students come up to me, bright eyed and hopeful, about having English extracurricular courses, students who I’d originally thought were apathetic about learning the English language. I’ve had other students come up to me and give suggestions about what they’d like to learn about and do in the extracurricular English Clubs, when a year ago I would have been met with silent stares when asking for their input.

If last year was about planting seeds, then this year is about watching them grow. Peace Corps is always quick to remind us volunteers that we won’t see the effects of our service during our service. They say it might even be years before any changes in our communities start to show and maybe they’re right. If you’re planting the seeds of a giant oak tree then yea, it’ll take years to see it become the big, great mass that it’s meant to be, but if you look close enough in the beginning, you might just be able to see the little leaves of the sapling poke out from the soil. That’s what I’m witnessing now in this second year. I’m witnessing my students’ progress with the English language, their desire to speak out more and take initiative, where before they just waited for me to tell them what to do.

These last few months are definitely going to be great. I’m not looking forward to winter and the cold that it brings with it, but November is so packed with stuff to do, I’ll blink and it’ll be over. Then I’m blink again and Christmas will be here. I make it sound so dramatic when I put it that way, but it’s exactly how I feel at the moment.

“The most beautiful moments always seemed to accelerate and slip beyond one’s grasp just when you want to hold onto them for as long as possible.” ~ E. A. Bucchianeri

My (Real) First Day of School

I feel like I finally have something to write about, apart from the day to day adventures of living and working in a foreign country, that is. School in Kosovo officially started September 1st, but unfortunately for me, my school’s currently being renovated. A new roof, new bathrooms, but until the bathrooms are complete the school can’t officially open up to the students. So last week from Monday to Thursday I got up, went to school, amended teachers’ meetings I couldn’t understand, received my books for class, and went back home. There’d be the occasional trip in to Peja for coffee, and the sporadic trip to Rugova where I ate the freshest fish I’d ever had it my life, but that was about it. I was told earlier last week that the bathrooms would be ready by Monday of this week and by the end of last week that statement was corrected and I was told that it’d be another week before they were complete.

Rugova Mountains

Rugova Mountains

I understand about the schedule changes. These things happen, but I was starting to wonder about what that meant for me as a volunteer. What would Peace Corps do if they found out that I wasn’t working in a classroom? What should I be doing instead, besides reviewing the books for the school year? I was considering contacting someone, maybe Peace Corps or the Ministry of Education and seeing if an open school would like a volunteer for a week, but today I learned about the solution that had been agreed upon. As it turns out when the school does finally open we’ll be having class from Monday to Saturday until all the missed days are made up for. My counterpart told me to keep reviewing and rest for this week, because starting next week or so, we’ll be having class six days a week, which I really don’t mind. I like this solution much better than going to visit a school in a community were I won’t be living and working in for the next two years. I’ll gladly work a few Saturdays if it means the students in my community get the attention they need from me when it comes to learning English.

Speaking of students, I had the chance to introduce myself to two of my classes today, while the students were in school being informed about the schedule changes. It was a perfect chance for me to gauge my students’ English ability to figure out what level of understanding most students where at in both classes. I’m really impressed at the level of English that both my classes speak. Because today wasn’t a real class day I tried to make the exchange communicative as opposed to focused on accuracy or grammar. There were nerves on both sides, but the more we talked the more they opened up and in the second class there were enough students to play a game.

After exhausting the standard, “What’s your name? “How was your summer? questions, I saw that I was losing their attention quickly. I asked if they wanted to play a game and this one student was very adamant in saying that she didn’t like playing games in the classroom. I almost went back to asking questions, but decided to at least try the game to see how it’d work. It’s a game I’d played myself before – while studying Albanian – called “Bang, Bang”, a game that another volunteer had introduced us to. It’s a game of speed. Usually how it goes is -when I played – someone would say a word in English and the people playing would have to be the first to say it in Albanian then yell “bang, bang” as they held their fingers like pretend guns. The person who said it first and correctly stayed in place while someone else replaced the loser. Minus, the whole having them fake kill each with pretend guns and shouts of “bang, bang”, I basically had two students stand in the front of the class facing each other as I called out a word in Albanian. It was the perfect opportunity to embarrass myself in Albanian, so that they knew it was okay to potentially embarrass themselves in English.

It was a great game for them, allowing them to review the English they’d learned, without the atmosphere being terribly competitive. By the time my counterpart said that it was time to go, all the students had taken at least two turns (including the girl who wasn’t interested in playing games in class) and they still expressed interest in continuing the game even though “class” was over. That kind of enthusiasm for school makes me really happy as a teacher. It’s going to be challenging at times for sure, but I’m confident that this is going to be a great school year for all of us.

 

 

“Teaching is more than imparting knowledge, it is inspiring change. Learning is more than absorbing facts, it is acquiring understanding.”  ~William Arthur Ward

It’s Official

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I am now a Peace Corps Volunteer. It’s a title that’s really interesting to use and that we’ve all been working toward for the last 11 weeks. The distinction was made very clear throughout Pre-Service Training (PST), that we were Trainees until we took the oath even though we were considered volunteers, for volunteering our time to travel halfway across the world to serve in another country. I understand the distinction now more than ever and I’ll continue to understand it in different ways the further I progress in my service.

I don’t really know how to explain yesterday’s swearing-in ceremony other than it was very emotional, more emotional than I’d prepared myself for. The ceremony itself was very straightforward, very nice. A lot of people gave very moving speeches about their hopes for Peace Corps in the coming years including the Ambassador to Kosovo, Tracey Jacobson and Kosovo’s President, Atifete Jahjaga. We had the honor of being sworn in by the Peace Corps Director, Carrie Hessler-Radelet and of being the first group she swore in as the new director (a lot of first in Kosovo). One of my favorite parts was when two of our very own gave amazing, very well practiced speeches in Albanian.

The hardest part came during the informal reception when I had to say good-bye to my PST host family. Kosovo’s a small country so it’s guaranteed that I will see them again, but even if that is the case, the dynamics won’t be the same. I don’t live there anymore and even though I was always kind of a visitor, I’ll be a visitor for real whenever I go back. Internalizing that was the hard part and the part that made the tears flow. It was amazingly ironic having my host sister wipe away my tears telling me not to cry in Albanian as tears fell from her eyes. I could tell my host brother and sister were happy for me. I was happy for myself and I wanted to express that happiest, but it was a hard thing to do knowing that I wasn’t returning to the comfort of the home I’d known for the past two months. Instead I’d be traveling to my permanent site in the Peja municipality to begin my Peace Corps service not even an hour after swearing in (well maybe an hour, I was too emotional to keep up with the time).

My awesome host sister and brother at my swearing-in ceremony.

My awesome host sister and brother at my swearing-in ceremony.

That’s where I am now, in the Peja region meeting my new host family members (I have a big family here in Peja), getting a feel for my site, and trying to mentality prepare myself for the toughest job I’ll ever love (Peace Corps should seriously consider bringing that slogan back). It’ll take awhile to get used to my new environment, but I’m up for the challenge. I’m also comforted by the fact that even though I’m the only volunteer in the Peja area, there are 24 other awesome volunteers walking this Peace Corps journey together with me in Kosovo. We came in as 25 and we swore in as 25, which is so reassuring. I’m positive that great things are going to happen in the next two years and I’m so proud to be a part of Kosovo 1.

So Far

I’ve been in Kosovo for three weeks now, so it’s about time I’ve written something about my experiences here. The problem is that so much has happened these last three weeks that if I were to give you a minute by minute post of everything, I’d have a novel length post. To generalize things a bit my opinions on Kosovo haven’t really changed all that much since writing my “Kosovo First Impressions” post. If anything they’ve gotten better. I still think that Kosovo is an absolutely beautiful country. Just when I think that I’ve finally gotten use to all of the natural beauty around me, I take a walk down an unfamiliar road or a hike up a hillside, and I’m blown away all over again by the beauty that’s before me. There’s probably a part of me that will never get over the fact that I walk out the door to the sight of rolling hills every morning .

The view from my house in Kosovo.

The view from my house in Kosovo.

People are so amazingly pleasant as well in Kosovo. My host family is amazing and they’re so patient with me as I completely destroy the Albanian language or struggle with explanations of cultural concepts. They’re quick to tell me that my Albanian is improving when I get a particular word or sentence structure right and are very delighted when I take interest in learning about their culture, like how to make Turkish coffee for example. I pretty much have that down so if I ever have guess in my house in the next two years I’ll probably offer them Turkish coffee or Turkish tea. I haven’t learned how to make Turkish tea yet, but I’m eager to learn. I’m very careful to watch my host mom and sister as they work in the kitchen. I’m really determined to learn how to make different Kosovar dishes, because I think it’s some of the best food I’ve had so far. It’s definitely not as easy as it looks though. Sometimes my host mom will start cooking at around 4:00 and the food won’t be ready until around 5:30 or 6:00 when we all sit down to eat. Other times they can have a meal prepared within the blink of an eye, which is nothing but skill to me.

My host sister and I the day we were introduced to our host families.

My host sister and I the day we were introduced to our host families.

Strangers are very pleasant as well and that has a lot to do with Kosovar and American relations, which is a entirely new topic of its own. The general consensus seems to be that people want us here, that they’re happy that we all like and are taking an interest in their country. I’m asked all the time how I like Kosovo and when I say that I like it here and that Kosovo is beautiful people’s moods seem to lighten. It’s like a point of pride for them to have a foreigner praise Kosovo, which is totally understandable. And the Kosovar people should definitely be proud of what they have here. No country is without its ability to improve, but at the point I’m in right now, I feel like there’s a lot more that I’m learning than I’m imparting on the community. That’s really what PST is all about though, integrating, language learning and technical preparation so that we can be effective volunteers once we swear in and enter service. I’m really looking forward to it, my two year service as well as my next eight weeks of PST. I want Kosovo to become my home, but I also want to think of each day I’m here as an adventure.

It’s Here

Today was my last day with family and friends and surprisingly I’m not as freaked out about leaving as I have been these past few weeks. I think it’s a mixture of having support from my family and the actual date being so close. There’s no more time to be nervous or freaked out. At this moment I just have to be ready and I think I can say that I am. I’ve done the whole leaving and coming back before, so at this point it doesn’t seem like “Good-bye forever”, but just a really long “See you later”. Two years will fly by in no time and at that point I’ll probably be sitting here writing about how Kosovo has become my home and how, even though I’m happy to be going back home, it’s really hard to say good-bye to the family and friends I’ve made in Kosovo. At least, I hope it turns out that way.

Bittersweet moments are a part of life and just because I’m calm and collected now, doesn’t when I won’t become a big ball of tears when my family finally sees me off at the airport tomorrow morning. I’ll be in Washington, D.C. for a day before flying out together with the other volunteers chosen for Kosovo. I think it helps a lot that we’ll have a chance to meet each other here in the States before heading out. We’re the first wave of Peace Corps Volunteers to head into Kosovo and while the notion is exciting, none of us know what to expect, because no one has ever gone before us. Joining the Peace Corps is already a scary endeavor without having to add novelty to the equation, but to be honest, I think that’s why I was so drawn to this particular program. Either way this will be my life for the next two years and I hope to share as much as possible of it with you. Look for new pages that will answer questions like why I chose Peace Corps, acronyms the Peace Corps uses, what I packed and what I should have packed, and specific situations that are unique to my particular story. Also if you’re in the Peace Corps, thinking about joined, an RPCV who’s finished their service, or you just like traveling, then I’d love to hear your story as well.