Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Venturing Out!!!

I’m not sure why, (My Bulgarian is not getting better!) but Lynn and I seem to be getting “more adventurous”. Lynn traveled to Sofia by herself, and got there even when the train she was on never left the station. (and there were no other trains). I traveled with my counterpart to Veliko Tarnovo (4 hours north) last week for a PC conference. Krum drove, and I navigated us through the mountains – it was easy. Next weekend, Lynn is doing a seminar for current PC volunteers in Kazanluk (about a two hour train ride northeast). I am going with her. And Monday (Sept. 21) we made our first “day trip” adventure outside of Plovdiv. We visited Bachkovo Monastery which is about a 40 minute bus ride into the Rodopi mountains just south of us. Most importantly, we got there and back without having any “adventures” (i.e. problems). Even better, we found a gorgeous place to visit.

We both had Monday off as part of the Bulgarian Independence day long weekend. The weather was spectacular. Clear skies, crisp air, beautiful early fall day. We had read about the monastery. It is the second largest in the country, and is located a short distance into the mountains. It was first built in 1063, but has been “rebuilt” several times due to wars and destruction. We had visited a small monastery during our pre-service training, and wanted to see this one. So… we packed up our rucksack and took off. When we got there, we had to walk through a half mile of “trinket” stands with food, toys, clothing, pottery, and honey stands before getting to the entrance. It is almost like the bible story when Christ tossed out all of the “money changers” in front of the temple. I guess some things don’t change over time.

We had brought Lynn’s camera, and were hoping to get some good pictures of the Monastery. However, they did not allow any photography anywhere inside the walls. I was a little bummed out. However, we had a great time just wandering around the grounds, talking to one of the monks, and visiting the 300 year old chapel.

We had read that there were some short trails that were “not well marked” according to our guide book starting from near the monastery. We found them outside the gate, and decided to take a walk! Four and half hours later, we got back from our “short walk”. It was unbelievably beautiful!!! The trail continued going up further into the mountains. Along the way, there were several other buildings associated with the Monastery. These included small 400 year old chapels situated on cliffs or nestled in-between 300 year old trees, and monk “hermitages”. In addition, there were other local hiking trails continuing even higher into the canyons. Everywhere there were spectacular views.

It was great to be out of the city. It was wonderful to find this treasure so close to us. We will visit it again – and probably often (unless we find other spots just as nice). Enjoy the pictures of our day.


Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Wood Stove . . . In The Back Yard!!!

There are several blog entry ideas from our training site, which we did not have time to complete during pre-service training. But they represent an interesting facet of life here in Bulgaria. Therefore, from time to time, you will see Blogs which do not represent our lives here in Plovdiv, but things that have happened to us during training. This is one of those entries.

The kitchen of my host family is on the lower “half basement” floor. This is also the level where all of the canned foods, wine, and rakia (a kind of “white lighting”) are stored. The kitchen is small compact, and functional. It is also where the old wood cook stove is located. The newer electric stove which they use is located in the small hall just outside of the kitchen. In the winter, the wood stove provides heat, as well as a surface to cook on. This wood stove looks just like pictures I have seen of the wood stoves used in the US more than 100 years ago. I had never seen one of these working, but I had certainly used many of our wood heating stoves to heat (or simmer) foods on when we lived in New Hampshire.

Early during our training, I came home to find Yancho putting a new wood cook stove in the back yard. This new one looked just like the one in the kitchen, so I assumed (incorrectly) that the old one in the kitchen was moved into the back yard, and that here would be a new stove in the basement. But…. that was not the case. The one in the kitchen was still there. And I was left puzzling about why we had this nice wood cook stove out next to the chicken coop.

While I was trying to figure this out, Yancho was busy putting the finishing touches on the stove installation. He made sure that it was level, checked all the door hinges to make sure they opened and closed easily, and decided we need to have a “test” fire in the stove. We needed to do some work on the door hinge where we put the wood, but otherwise, the smoke went up the short 6 foot makeshift metal flue, and the top of the stove got hot very quickly.

But I was still confused about why we had a wood cook stove (and a nice one) in the back yard. All my experience with wood stoves involved heating the house, moving hot air, and making sure we had enough wood to take us through the winter. There was never any reason to heat “the back yard”. Within a week, I would understand.

In the villages in Bulgaria, everyone has gardens, and everyone one puts up (cans) all the food they have. And they have lots. We had more than 120 tomato plants, plus two apple trees, and a pear tree. That did not include all the pepper plants, potatoes, etc. Nor did it include what was gathered (harvested) from the hillsides (things like black berries, raspberries, mushrooms, and what ever else could be eaten).

A few days after the “back yard” wood stove was installed, we had some guests. The guests brought about 20 pounds of strawberries for us. They had been picking in their garden, and had too many berries for themselves . So… we got the extra. The next day when I got home, the mystery of the wood stove was solved. All of the canning is done on this stove. It is efficient. It can be done in summer, and not heat up the house. It does not use any electricity, so it saves money. And the heating surface is large so you are able to can lots of jars at the same time. At my host families home, that would be important.

Now about those axes, and hatchets that appear at the top of the blog. They look old! And I think they are old - - maybe even from medieval days. But… do they ever work well. Yancho would sharpen them by hand, and I think I could shave with them when he was done. I have had a chance to use them, and they split wood as easily as anything I have ever used. It’s just another one of those lessons about “judging a book by it’s cover”. Things don’t always look as they appear here in Bulgaria. But it is always “interesting”.


Friday, September 11, 2009

The Little I Know

The kids arrive at school on Sept. 15, and I truly feel unprepared. The Peace Corps teachers have had seminars

and workshops on how to write lesson plans, teach multi-level classes, and have been alerted of the discipline problems we might run into. We’ve had special language lessons to learn “the language” of teaching. We’ve observed and taught in Bulgarian classrooms, but nothing the training staff offers can really prepare us for our first year as teachers of English in a foreign country.

I’m one of the lucky ones who have actually taught for many years and have some experience to draw on. I’m also Team teaching which is not true of all the PC volunteers. I am working with the youngest English learners, 2nd through 4th grade (at least to begin the year), close in age to those I have taught before. There is a higher level of excitement for learning at the earlier ages, making it easier to engage them and more forgiving of what you do not know.

All of the Peace Corps teachers are in very unique situations. Mine is that I am working in the 2nd largest segregated community in the country, a very densely populated area with 60,000 minorities (primarily Roma Gypsies) living within its boundaries. It is obvious living conditions for most families are very difficult. The school is one of five or six right within this neighborhood (called a Mahala). The classes are large running between 25 and 30 and the resources meager. The building is equivalent to many other Bulgarian schools, not always the case for minority segregated schools. Though I observed great effort by four industrious women to clean the school paint would give it a completely different look and lift the spirit of all within.

With the start of school only days away, I know very little about what I will be doing…other than teaching English. Class lists are still fluctuating and will continue to do so until the end of the month. A schedule has yet to be announced and that too is fluid for several weeks. My counterpart who is an English teacher was told on her first day back that she would also be covering for an ill first grade teacher for an undetermined amount of time. The Bulgarian schools do not have a substitute system. If a teacher is sick, either another teacher covers for them or the children do not have class. Petya (my counterpart and team teacher) and I are very unsure what the changes in her schedule mean for us.

The Educational system in Bulgaria is very centralized. There is a lot of reporting up and paperwork that is redundant (they are not alone with this one). It seems everything needs to be approved by the central government including the daily schedules of all teachers in Bulgaria.

Teachers reported to school on the first of September and have 10 days to prepare for the year. There is a lot of time put into the yearly plan of lessons which is one of the documents sent up through the chain of command for approval. The plan is a listing of the lessons in the textbooks for each subject, divided by the number of days for teaching with some days built in for review. The plans for the most part remain the same from year to year but are refreshed with the current year’s dates for teaching each lesson. There are a few computer savvy teachers who bare most of this work and one desktop printer for producing them.

Because regular attendance is an issue for this community of families, each of the teachers does a home visit to see the children, encourage them to come and remind the families of how important it is to go to school daily. This is not an easy task as there are many 8 story “bloc” apartments without working elevators. Finding the families may require knocking on neighbors doors, talking to grandparents, aunts cousins etc. Many of the teachers already know their students as teachers in my school are promoted with their class each year. Having one teacher for the first four years of school can be a double edged sword. The pros and cons of this theory would be an interesting discussion, but will wait.

Time is also spent preparing the room. It is important that it look “beautiful”. The teachers have limited resources with which to work. They do not each receive a supply of tape, scissors, crayons, markers, rolls or stacks of colored paper, with which to accomplish this task. A few of these things might be available from the art teacher. The teachers start with the few educational posters that every class has, usually a map of Bulgaria, the alphabet and number chart. Beyond that, they find simple creative ways to add some color and interest. The halls have some permanent displays of children’s art and the art teacher puts effort into making the entryway of each corridor inviting. What is quite different from American classrooms is the lack of teaching materials. Beyond textbooks, there are no shelves of books, games and teaching resources for every skill to be developed throughout the year. There are no cupboards of paint, paper, craft supplies, and seasonal holiday decorations.

There are no charts depicting how many teeth have been lost, when each child’s birthday falls during the year, who is the star of the week or who are the helpers of the week. Teachers of America, look around as you start your school year, an

d be thankful for all you have. You are rich in ways you cannot even imagine.

These lack of resources seem to be part of “the Bulgarian Way”. There always seems to be a shortage whether it is in human or material resources. Bulgarians’ lives encompass a “make do” attitude with little expectation that things can or will change. Teachers are poorly paid even by Bulgarian standards. They are expected to work 21-24 hours a week in the classroom in what would generally be considered difficult conditions. There are accountability issues (not just for learning) that influences many practices

such as grading. They do not have a space they can call their own in school with the possible exception of a drawer in the teacher’s room. Prep, grading etc is done at home. Most schools run on double sessions so even a classroom is shared. Some of the classrooms in my school are half the standard size (probably some kind of storage space originally), with one high window. Desks and chairs fill 85% of that space. I can’t imagine the noise, and how difficu

lt it must be for both first graders and their teacher!

So as school is about to begin, there is still so much I do not understand about how a typical day unfolds. I’ve asked questions and gotten answers, but somehow it is all still so murky. I’m trying desperately to remain patient with my uncharted course, prepared to chart it myself if necessary. I’m anxious to meet the children, many of whom only speak their native Romi language leaving us with smiles and gestures as the base of our relationship. I’ve been told they are free spirits and love lif

e. What a great place to begin.