Whale Watching by Alan Strathman

Recently my Grade 1 boys completed a worksheet on the "wh" sound. Here is Jeremy's:

Notice that one task asks them to draw pictures of some "wh" words. I noticed Jeremy's whale and loved it. It's such a happy whale.  As I looked at some other whales I discovered I loved them all.  So I arranged the papers to capture their whale visions.

They just love drawing, still without any worries about what people will think, or if it will be good enough. Every time they draw anything they bring it up to show me because they want me to see what they have drawn, and, I think by now, because they know I will say how great it is. These are some pretty great whales!

C.O.S! (See below) by Alan Strathman

Last week all of the 24 remaining PCVs from the four islands (8 in our group early-terminated) converged on Rodney Bay, St. Lucia. The occasion was our Close of Service (COS) conference. The PC arranged it to be held, and for us to stay, at a nice hotel in the north of the island. Rodney Bay is the tourist part of the island so it has nice hotels and lots of shops and restaurants. Another term for Rodney Bay is Fake St. Lucia.

Our COS date isn't until August 24th but they have COS months ahead of time to help people figure out next steps. Many of the 20-something PCVs are interested in going to graduate school and there are a number of PC-related scholarships available. Slightly older PCVs, who are going back to find a job were interested in sessions on....how to find a job. Service in the PC entitles a volunteer to one year of non-competitive eligibility (NCE) for federal jobs. But as you can imagine there are many ins and outs of using NCE.

Being interested in neither graduate school nor a job, I was free to place my thoughts elsewhere. Often I placed them near the pool and wondered if they would notice if I stopped attending sessions. Being the rule follower I continued to attend regularly but didn't pay much attention. 

After the sessions we had drinks and dinner and caught up with others on the various islands. They scheduled us to have dinner at the Country Director's house and to have a barbecue on the beach. Here we are on the beach:

Much of the week was surreal because when we started serving, COS seemed like it was 10 years off. And we have seen similar pictures from earlier groups. It was a nice week because the 24 of us have a bond. We were together almost every day for 7 weeks during Pre-service Training and over the months we kept in touch with each other and tracked the ups and downs we all had at one time or another.  And, now, after almost two years serving together it is a group of people that I feel close to. Though, closer to some than others! It is also surreal because some of these people I will never see again. Many, though, I am already looking forward to meeting back in normal life.

And just for those of you who still believe that I am serving jail time and not actually in the PC:

99 Bott....Uhhh....Days To Go by Alan Strathman

Today I have 99 days to go until my service is finished. I booked a flight for August 24th. This is the first time that I have thought about my time in the PC in terms of days rather than months or years. For the first 20 months I casually marked the anniversary of my arrival in St. Lucia, June 12th. That is, on the 12th of each month I would reflect on how many months had passed since I had arrived.

But sometime around the 21st month I think I started paying more attention to how much time I had left, being aware that on the 24th of each month I had one month fewer to go.

I'm not sure you can read this far without thinking, "But who's counting!?"  And despite what you might think, none of this is a sign that I don't like it here and am ready to go. I am happy in the PC and happy serving in St. Lucia.

It's not necessarily a good sign that I am so keenly aware of the all these dates. In my pre-PC life I was always so time urgent: where am I going next, what time is it, am I late? When I arrived here in St. Lucia and began serving I put all that behind me. And I think it caused my blood pressure to go down. I still take less blood pressure medication than when I arrived. So being here has been good for my health. One reason I was able to do this was that I knew I would be here for 27 months and that seemed so long that I didn't feel the need to think about time in the same way that I had.

Another reason I have become less time urgent, not at all time urgent really, is that I do not have a car and must rely on travel by bus. But bus travel here is unpredictable and uncertain. When you get on a bus you have to wait until it fills before you leave. This can take minutes or hours. And there is nothing you can do to hurry it along.  So you just sit back, relax, and wait.  It's important that whenever I am meeting other PCVs and am technically late because my bus has not filled yet, I know that the friends I am meeting understand the situation and wherever they are they are waiting patiently for me, and likely others, to arrive. And often I can be sure that even though I am technically late, others are probably later. Through no fault of their own.  I say "technically late" because when we set a time to meet we all understand that meeting at that time is a goal, something to shoot for, but given how little control we have over how quickly we travel somewhere, being on time is a relatively fluid concept.

So, I'm fighting my return to time urgency. I really hope that when I return to the U.S. I can maintain a relatively low level of time urgency.  If I can, it will be one of the many benefits of having served 27 months in PC-St. Lucia.  Though, I admit, if you were betting on who would win the battle--me or time urgency--the smart money is on time urgency! 

How far the Mighty Have Fallen by Alan Strathman

I think I have titled other posts similarly, suggesting I've just slipped another few feet down the slope. For example, teaching at the boys' school has basically flushed 25 years of award-winning university teaching down the drain.  I can't get the boys here to listen to me long enough to learn from me.

Anyway, today was a different example.  As I have said many times, I live in a small fishing village on the southwest coast of St Lucia.  Small fishing villages in developing countries, of course, don't have ATMs.  We do have a credit union but evidently they don't have an ATM because they don't want people taking money out.  I think their reasoning is that if people need to take out cash right away, in a small fishing village where there isn't much to buy, then they are likely going to spend it on rum. I mean, that's what I would do.

So, to get to the nearest ATM I have to take a 15 minute bus ride to the town of Vieux-Fort. St. Lucia has one city (Castries), 2 towns (Vieux-Fort and Soufriere) and then many villages. The bus ride costs $2 EC (that's Eastern Caribbean dollars; $0.74 US). When I looked in my wallet I realized that I only had $0.90 EC.  Sheesh! I did not even have enough money to pay for the bus to get to the place with the ATM.  I had to borrow $1.10 EC from Teacher Irma. It's fortunate she would give it to me because it is close to the end of the month and I might not actually have $1.10 EC in my bank account.  I'm pretty sure she had a pitying look as she handed me the money.

By the way, it is only 118 days until my close of service on August 25th. And then I will move to Vermont. And after that I still have no concrete plans.


Home Sweet Home by Alan Strathman

Today is my first day back at school after having taken emergency leave because my dad was ill. Actually I went to Tampa twice.  I went to Tampa on March 10th, returned to St. Lucia on the 17th, went back to Tampa on the 23rd and then came back to St. Lucia on April 3rd. Sadly, my dad passed away on March 25.  He was 93, in bed at home, surrounded by his family. He went as well as we could have hoped for.

Today, my first day back, is also the second to last day of the term. I wanted to come back before the end of the term so that it did not feel like  years since I had been there. But there is no point in coming to school today.  No work happens during the last week of the term. And very few boys attend. Today 5 Grade 1 boys showed up. Here is a picture of what the day looks like.

Five minutes after I took this pic, Rashad, the awake boy fell asleep too. The other two boys are asleep in a different corner of the room.

Five minutes after I took this pic, Rashad, the awake boy fell asleep too. The other two boys are asleep in a different corner of the room.

I am ready for the two week Easter break. Week 2 I will spend on Guadeloupe with Doug, PCVs Ellen and Terry, their friend Pam, and PCVs Mary and Steve.  We have rented a house and will have a great time.  I am ready to rest and relax from all that has happened for the past 5 weeks.

Sports Day March by Alan Strathman

In the next post and the one after that I describe sports day.  In Laborie, sports day begins with a march from the school through the village to the field. You will notice that the first team is the green team, Caribbean Pine.  The team that wins the previous year gets to lead the march the following year. So next year my team, Lucaena, will lead the march because we won this year.

Sports Day Training by Alan Strathman

The next post explains what sports day is in St. Lucian primary school.  This is a little video of a day of training for sports day. . Click on the video and try to identify the odd sound in the background. And notice teachers Amanda and Jeanneve trying diligently not to be on camera.

Yes, its the OCEAN! The Caribbean Sea to be more specific.  Right there! This is the Laborie playing field and cricket balls and footballs are commonly hit or kicked so far they land in the ocean. 

Sports Day by Alan Strathman

Term 2 in St. Lucian primary schools is known as sports term.  Each school has a sports day, which is basically a track meet.  It's a terrible term for teachers, though, because they do all the training for sports day during school time.  Many afternoons everyone goes down to the village field and practices running. But the time on the field is mostly a chaotic waste of time.

Anyway last Friday was Sports Day and then this past Monday they gave out medals. Our school has three houses, all named after local trees: Caribbean Pine, Blue Mahoe, and Lucaena (my house).

Here are some pictures of the medal ceremony.

There are many interruptions to the school day here. That is time off task. But the time spent training for Sports Day is repeated and systematic  time off task. Though I want to mention that my house, Lucaena, won sports day.

TS Matthew by Alan Strathman

This post was supposed to appear on September 29, 2016.  I just realized it was still in my drafts folder. Sorry about that.

Tropical Storm Matthew has come and gone.  We were lucky in St. Lucia that we did not feel the full brunt of the storm.  And I think on St. Lucia, Laborie did not get the worst of it. We had some flooding but no real damage.

It basically rained for 24 hours, sometimes very heavily.  But much of the damage of a storm comes from high winds and we did not have dangerously high winds.  My guess is that they were gusting to 40 mph or so. What is so interesting is that the foliage in places like this has evolved, at least in part, to tolerate high winds. Here, plants and trees bend but don't break. Unless the wind is extremely strong. I bet everyone has seen those videos of hurricanes bending palm trees to the ground.

After school on Tuesday I had stocked up on groceries in case the storm was bad enough to prevent leaving the village for a few days.  Around 6 pm, when the storm was intensifying I realized that if the power went out none of the food I bought would be much good uncooked.  So I raced to put together a pizza and cook it. An uglier pizza you will never see. More a pizza pile than a pizza pie.  And I tried to whip up some hummus. The pizza turned out fine but my blender is so terrible that it doesn't really blend.  I need to buy a new one. So I am racing against the storm and the blender is not blending.  I fed the dogs some turkey and one of the puppies wanted it so badly that it bit through my finger.  There I am, throwing the pizza together, cursing the blender, and bleeding, while racing to beat the inevitable loss of power. I thought what a fine mess this was. In the end, I did not lose power until about 9:30 pm.

I was kept company by the six dogs I have been feeding. They were happy to have a port in the storm. In the video you can hear the rain, which obviously isn't keeping the dogs from napping:

Fortunately, Tropical Storm Matthew didn't do significant damage in the Eastern Caribbean.



Stay tuned..... by Alan Strathman

I wanted to let you all know that I am going to start blogging again very soon.  I have several good things to write about.  But let me say that for the last 6 months I have been spending most of my waking moments thinking about what to do next.  

I have been here just over 20 months now and I finish here in St. Lucia on August 25th. Part of my thinking has been whether or not I should extend my service here and stay another year. After almost constant dwelling, I have decided not to extend. So, if not here, doing this, then where, doing what?

First a little background. All my life, until I quitired (see QUITIRITIS! (WHAT?) /MARCH 21, 2015) in 2015 I was on a steady path from school to school to school to work. And then I stayed at my first job for 25 years. So a big part of my change of life (very different from the change of life) was jumping off the path and living life a little more spontaneously.  That was all well and good when I had a 27-month appointment and, importantly, 27 months of paid health insurance, ahead of me.  Now that I have just 179 health insured days left, the terrain is rougher.  Keep in mind, I wasn't stressing about it at all when ObamaCare was around.  But then some of you went and did the unthinkable.

Anyway, though I don't have any solid plans for my future I have adopted a much healthier perspective: Relax, it will all work out.


The Prince....and the Vomit by Alan Strathman

Today I was up early to go with two other teachers and 12 students to see Prince Harry who is visiting a few Caribbean islands and today was participating in a "fun" cricket exhibition. The Darren Sammy National Cricket Grounds, named after a current successful Lucian cricketer, is in the north of the island, a 75-minute bus ride from Laborie. That is, it's a 75-minute bus ride if you don't stop many times for various boys to vomit. 

In fact, five times we stopped because one boy or another felt car sick and had to throw up. We came to find out that none of these boys had either a good breakfast or any breakfast at all. I'm afraid it became a little tiresome.

We finally made it to the stadium. Not long thereafter Prince Harry came out to shake hands with the members of the two teams.  The Prince's team was playing the Prime Minister's team.  Both teams were composed of members of representatives from the Prime Minister's political party and members of the media.

I was disturbed that the public address announcer kept referring to Prince Harry as Prince Henry. At least a dozen times he did this.  Finally, I guess, someone mentioned it to him.  Thereafter, he alternated between the two. He ought to have been so mortified that he never said it wrong again. But Lucians don't do mortified. 

It turned out to be a boring event, just very chummy playing at cricket. Which left just the long drive home. I had some motion sickness pills in my bag and I gave one to each of the vomiters. They may have helped because only one boy continued to be sick. This one boy, Toby, did not have breakfast and had not eaten anything all day. Some of the boys were hungry so the bus stopped at KFC.  The first thing Toby had all day was fried chicken and french fries!  Was it any surprise that we had to stop again for him.

All in all this was a waste of time, though it did not have to be.  There was just no teaching surrounding the event.  But there are so many possible ways to have turned this into an educational field trip. My guess is that only three of the 12 boys could even tell you why we went to watch this silly event.

Thanksgiving Report by Alan Strathman

A few times I have said that one reason I like blogging is because, after spending 25 years writing lectures and journal articles that required clear, concise, linear writing, I am thrilled to just ramble. Not all of my posts are rambling. But this one will be.

Today is U.S. Thanksgiving; it is not a holiday in St. Lucia. And I had a TG unlike any other, which I suppose was one of the goals of retiring and joining the PC.  I was going to stay home today and watch football and cook TG dinner. But then a) my Principal told me that the school was going to be visited by a group of primary school principals in the afternoon and he wanted me to be there to show off the library and b) sadly the husband of my Grade 2 teacher, Irma, passed away suddenly and the teachers at my school decided we would go visit Irma after school today. So, I went to school in the afternoon.

Before I went to school I made some chicken--turkey is very expensive here, about $16 EC per kilo, and all the turkeys were at least 4 kilos (8.8 pounds)--and mashed potatoes.  Last night I made cranberry sauce. And I planned to make stuffing and corn when I got home (I need to learn how to make gravy). After we visited Irma, some of the teachers wanted to go for a drink. Now, in St. Lucia, that doesn't mean finding a bar. It means going to the store having their yearly alcohol sale, buying $110 EC worth of liquor and driving to the beach to drink. But before that my Principal, who was driving me, decided he would drive for about 25 minutes to get some pork.

When we got to the beach we started drinking rum and soon they all starting talking about relationships and sex. Many times I wanted to interrupt and say, "Excuse me, the research clearly shows that...," but I didn't think that would go over well. So I just listened and drank rum.

Then I came home, heated up the food I made in the morning and cooked the stuffing and corn.  It was delicious.  I missed both of the early football games. And the dog show for that matter.  Many of the Peace Corps are getting together on Saturday for a more traditional TG celebration.

Tomorrow, I am going to school early so I can chaperone a group of 15 boys to a cricket match up north where Prince Harry, who is visiting St. Lucia, will be in attendance.  See, different.

By the way, this is a picture of Daphne, who really likes it on the couch but who smelled chicken.

I hope you all had a nice TG.


Certainly not a calling by Alan Strathman

On Tuesday I went with three Grade 3 students, who I know well because I worked with them in Grade 2 last year, to the District 7 Grade 3 Spelling Bee.  Justin was our speller and Jaden and Sayid were supporting.  All are very nice boys and we had a good time, despite the fact that our speller did not correctly spell any of the words he was given.  In Round 1 each student was given 10 words to spell.  Alas, Justin struggled.  In a funny twist, the spelling bee is sponsored by the dental association (dental health on the island is atrocious) so all the words were dental in nature. It's funny hearing little kids spelling words like temporomandibular and apicoectomy.

Anyway, we traveled to the bee with the students and teachers from Banse-La Grace Combined School, which is up the hill from us, and Laborie Girls' RC Primary School. During a break, Doug, the PCV at Banse-La Grace Combined, wished happy birthday to one of his teachers.  She is a young-looking woman and when I asked how old she was she said she was 21. Not just young-looking, young-being.

On the way home I sat next to her on the bus and asked her what she had done before beginning as a teacher this year. She said that she had worked at Coconut Bay Resort, first as a waitress and then at the front desk.

So, in sum, she graduated from secondary school at age 17, worked at a resort for three years, and then began as a primary school teacher.  When I asked how she liked it she said it was okay.  I suggested that it must be better than working at a resort and she seemed ambivalent, remarking that the children are often difficult. In her defense Doug says the children in her class are extraordinarily troublesome.  The class comprises only 9 students but Doug says each student displays five-students'-worth of troublesomeness.

My point, though, is that primary and secondary education must be a calling. No one can go lightly into a teaching career and hope to remain for very long. There are teachers in the village for whom teaching is a calling. They genuinely care about the students and cannot imagine doing anything else. And this is what St. Lucia needs. Reforming the education system is such a significant task that it must be undertaken by people who have the children's best interest at heart. Without this kind of passion little change will result.

On this island, teachers are still hired for mysterious reasons. Teaching is not a calling for the new teacher at Banse-La Grace Combined.  It is certainly not a passion.  In fact, from my conversation, it is not even clear that it's an interest of hers.

Coming away from my conversation with the new teacher left me wondering about her motivation to teach. We could have an equally frustrating conversation about her ability to teach. She graduated from high school. There are no education courses in high school. She did no student teaching. She simply has no idea how to teach primary school. She can only rely on what she learned going through an education system in need of a major overhaul.

Sadly, hiring teachers who are not passionate about teaching and who have no experience teaching is not a recipe for child-friendly education reform.


When the textbooks are wrong.... by Alan Strathman

As I have said many times the boys here face a wide range of hurdles in learning to read and write.  One of the easily fixable ones is having school books with many errors. Here is one example:

My co-teacher Amanda and I gave the book authors and editors every chance to be correct. The word car is not made plural by adding "es," and neither is auto, automobile, vehicle, thing, moving thing, or transportation device. It isn't made plural by adding an es in French either (la voiture). Aha, wait, they must have meant automobile in Spanish: automóvil to automóviles. Glad we figured that out!

By the way, the item after the car isn't made plural by adding "es" either.

Attendance: The root problem by Alan Strathman

As I have mentioned a few times now (and bemoan daily), the root of the illiteracy problem in St. Lucian primary schools is the amount of time spent off task. Starting with the fact that grades K-2 have just 4 hours and 15 minutes of class time a day, continuing with all the ways that schools shrink class time for sports, religious speakers, prayer, and countless other ways, and including all the time spent when class is actually meeting on behavior management rather than teaching and learning, it is no wonder that students are not performing at grade level.

Time off task is also greatly affected by school attendance. Many parents keep children home from school for any number of reasons not related to illness or other legitimate causes. In Grade 1, the same four boys (plus random others) are usually absent.  And these boys are, by now, way behind the other students.

Case in point.  One of the village elders died a couple of weeks ago and his funeral was scheduled for Friday at 3:00 pm. With this in mind, school let out at noon (time off task). Because this was announced in advance, many parents decided it was not worth their time to send their children to school for a half day. Grades 1 and 2 each had just six boys show up.

In Grade 1, we reviewed capital letters and punctuation, until the small group seemed to have come to understand it. If we had gone on, the majority of boys who were absent would get even further behind. So I went to the library and got some coloring books and we colored. Here are the six children and their colorings. 













Miss Amanda

Miss Amanda

My........well, masterpiece is the only word for it. 

My........well, masterpiece is the only word for it. 

My shirt got wet too by Alan Strathman

It is really hot here. No surprise, it's the Eastern Caribbean after all. But it has been hotter than it needs to be.  Even Lucians think it is unusually hot.

So, it's hot and every morning when I walk to school I have to walk up a hill right toward the rising sun. As a result every day I arrive at school drenched in sweat.  So drenched I sweat through my shirt. This picture isn't at all as bad as it usually is. And my shirt is soaked through on my back.

I finally realized that I need to wear one shirt to school and bring my school shirt in my bag. The other day I asked Justin, the boy below,  why he did not have his uniform on.  He said "I did, but my shirt got wet."  All I could think was, "So did mine, my boy, so did mine."

By the way, Justin is a very sweet looking boy. You might even be able to tell from this poor photo.  He has an angelic face.  But do not be fooled.  No, no, Justin is no angel. He is as troublesome as a boy can be. Of course so is Jeremy. And Ethan. And Alpha. Jakim. Keyon. Shemron. Oh, never mind.