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.

This isn't dangerous at all by Alan Strathman

Very often when I walk by the staff room at my school I see this:

If I was a mischievous, not to mention troublesome,  7-12 year old boy, and we have many, many such boys at my school, I would think it might be funny to put another (less on the ball) boy's head in there and pretend to pull down.

It only takes one beheading to ruin a day at school.

A Pail to Pee In by Alan Strathman

Even after more than 16 months in St. Lucia I continue to be surprised by St. Lucian culture. Here is one minor example.

In Grade 1 Teacher Amanda and I were teaching the "ai" sound, like you have in the word "pail." I was going around as the boys were doing their morning work, in which we had written words like p _ _ l on the board. Boys needed to insert the "ai" to make a word.

One boy asked what a pail is.  We live on an island with sandy coasts in the middle of the ocean. So pails are used to make sand castles. I said something like, "it's like a bucket with a handle." The boy said, "like you pee in?" Ha ha, yes, like you pee in.

As I continued around another boy asked what a pail is.  I gave him the same answer and he responded by saying, "like you pee in?" Yes, like you pee in.

To the third boy who asked, I added, "like you pee in" to my original answer.

And come to think of it, I have not seen a single Lucian child making sand castles.

Water please! by Alan Strathman

On May 21st I wrote about the water outage we were having. In that post I said that water outages for me are not rare, but neither are they too problematic because my house has a big tank and a pump. So even when the crappy water company doesn't send water there is still water coming out of the pipes.

That is.........UNTIL THE TANK IS EMPTY.

We have not had water since Tropical Storm Matthew went through last Wednesday (5 days ago) and the tank ran dry on Saturday. Today is Monday. So since Saturday there has been not a drop of water coming from the pipes.

It's one thing to lose the internet. That's just inconvenient. It's worse to lose electricity. That requires finding solutions for various problems.  Losing water is MUCH worse. That requires finding solutions for......surviving.

I bought some big bottles of water. But I am close to running out of the big bottles of water because yesterday was Sunday and stores are only open for a few hours and today is a holiday (Thanksgiving) and nothing is open.  Of course, you can't do laundry. You can't wash dishes. You can't flush the toilet. And you can't find any water to drink!

The water company on St. Lucia is called WASCO (Water and Sewer Company) and they are terrible. The send water on what seems like a totally random schedule.  Actually, that's not true: they appear to send water only as a way of messing with people. Last night I went to stay with Doug in Banse, his little community in the country. They often have no water and there is not a pump for their tank so the only water he can get comes out of a pipe outside. When we woke up this morning we discovered from a neighbor that the water had been turned on from about 2 am until about 4 am.  After that it was off again. Why, why, why?

I asked my landlord about it. He said he called WASCO and they told him that the pipe is blocked. So in Banse that means the pipe was blocked until 2 am. Then it was not blocked until 4 am. Then it was blocked again at 4 am. Un-unh!

In the U.S. if there was no water at all in a community for an extended period of time, the water company or district or whatever would be coming around with cases of water for residents.  This would be big news.  Someone would get to the bottom of it and it wouldn't happen again. Here it happens all the time and nothing ever is done about it..

Developing countries are still developing.

Weather and Lobster by Alan Strathman

It is just after 6 pm EST and the weather is beautiful.  It was a good, though not great, beach day. Hot as can be, clear blue skies, though not much breeze. This has been the weather for the last 7 weeks.  It has been hot, hot, hot, very humid, and not at all breezy.  I walk to school with a change of clothes because I am drenched in sweat by the time I arrive. And I just marinate all day.

I mentioned the weather being nice tonight because that is supposed to change.  A storm, cleverly called Invest 97L,  is on the way and should arrive in the early morning hours. School has already been cancelled. Imagine that I had not told you that a storm is on the way and see if you can tell from this forecast what day will be bad:

Let me help.  Do you think it is the day where they predict 8 millimeters (.31 inches) of rain, 5 mm (.20"), 2 mm (.08"), or 156 mm (6.14")? Invest 97L has yet to be labelled a tropical depression (winds < 37 mph) which means it's very far from a tropical storm (37-73 mph) and very, very far from a Category 1 hurricane (74-95 mph). The PC has issued a STAND FAST order, which means we have to stay put. They actually gave us the option of staying home, staying with another volunteer who lives on higher ground, or staying with our host family. At my home, I am they say here.

On another note my friend Tony gave me this lobster:

He says he doesn't much care for them; the last time he had one he fed it to the dogs. But he's British. It's a big lobster too, easily 2 lbs. I'm off to cook!


Busy and....Something by Alan Strathman

I haven't written in more than a week and today it dawned on me why that's the case. I'm so busy!  And of course it's my own fault. I tend to take on more things than I have to.  I heard so often that PCVs have so much free time on their hands that they get a lot of reading done. Well, not me.  And for me that's probably a good thing.

I've heard the phrase "half-assed job" several times lately and I always hate it.  I think it comes from 25 years as a professor hearing students brag that they did a half-assed job on a paper or that they didn't start a paper until the night before it was due.  At some point, the things that we should be embarrassed about became badges of accomplishment.  So, I tend to take on a lot and I try not to do a half-assed job, because it is not something to be proud of.

Sorry about that little rant. Anyway, here is a smattering of the things that are keeping me busy. Note, that in general these are good things, and tasks I am glad to be engaged in....but they are making me busy.

1. My Grade 1 co-teacher Amanda, with whom I worked last year in Grade 2, has come to embrace the idea of balanced literacy and we have literacy stations during our literacy block, This is very good and I think the students will really benefit, but it means each night I have to prepare for the next day. 

2. Currently I am feeding four dogs and two adorable puppies. As anyone who knows me knows, I am a dog person and I love them all. Not only am I the only one feeding them but I am also the only one giving them flea/tick prevention and heartworm pills.  All on a PC stipend. Ugh! Plus, my service here is up in 11 months. All that means that I am actively looking to find homes for these dogs.  There are two dog rescue organizations and tomorrow or the next day I will post pictures of the dogs on their Facebook sites and see if I can find permanent homes for them.

Scruffy -- skin and bones despite my ongoing efforts

Scruffy -- skin and bones despite my ongoing efforts

As yet unnamed puppy -- still hasn't let me close enough to touch her, but she's getting there

As yet unnamed puppy -- still hasn't let me close enough to touch her, but she's getting there

3. I am beginning to work on organizing a parent workshop. The Primary Literacy Program that I am a part of has three main goals: teach students, train teachers, and reach out to parents and the community at large. One giant problem here is that parents are typically very uninvolved in the education of their children. Parents think that teaching is the school's responsibility and not something they need to contribute to. But each school day here has only 4.5 hours of class time (for Grades K-2 and 4.75 for Grades 3-6) and often that time gets wasted in one way or another. And so I am hoping to persuade parents that they can use some of the remaining 19 hours each day to help their children learn and succeed.

As I said, parents are typically uninvolved in the educational process.  There are two main reasons for this. One is that a lot of parents, and I never thought this would be true but I can tell you it is, just don't care enough about their children to make an effort to help them. They sometimes don't make an effort to feed them! How can I expect them to read with them. Maybe I can make inroads with this group or maybe I can't. I'm not sure yet. But the second main reason that parents don't help their children is that they just have no idea how to help them. If they knew what to do they might be more likely to help.  And this is the group of parents I'm after. The workshop will basically involve teaching parents some literacy skills so that they can use some of the 19 hours productively.

4.  I have just started to think about what I will do when my time here is up.  As I mentioned above my service is up in 11 months.  This is not tomorrow of course, but the time will fly by. And some things I would need to apply for well in advance. Looking into options has been taking some time. I had a variety of ideas, that is ideas to do this or do that, but I realized the only think I am qualified to do is teach.  And after this 27 months I will be able to do more than just teach psychology to 18-22 year old Americans.  The new skills and experience are more marketable, it seems, than a Ph.D. in social psychology so that's good.

I will be done here around August 25th 2017 and I would like to have some time off before I do the next thing. But if I have some time off I will need health insurance. The PC will continue my coverage for a month after my close of service, but it might be nice to have more than a month off.  So, I began my education into the Affordable Care Act (ACA).  And aged 10 years. Here is the situation. My PC stipend pays me about $10,600 US per year (though half of this I use for rent). I have friends in the U.S. who earn more than this and still qualify for subsidies that reduce their insurance cost to next to nothing. So imagine my shock to learn that....and get ready for this..... I actually earn too LITTLE to qualify for a subsidy and will have to pay full price.  That means, of the $10,600 I earn yearly, I would pay more than $6,500 of it for insurance.  Yes, I would pay more than 60% of my salary in health insurance.

I know you are thinking that I must be confused. And the few friends I emailed about this to check on it said just that.  But here is how it works. The Family Poverty Line (FLP) is $11,800 a year for a single individual. So my income would put me below the poverty line. My stipend is 89% of the FPL. In order to qualify for either subsidies or premium tax credits I would need to earn between 100% and 400% of the FLP.  Yes, I would have to earn more to be charged less. If I made 44% of the FPL or less than I would qualify for subsidies to reduce the cost. This seems to be known as the Medicaid coverage gap. Individuals (and I think families) who earn between 44% and 99% of the FPL must pay full price. Full price is more than $6,500.

But here is the catch--all of the above is true only in Missouri or one of the other 18 states where Republican Governors did not want the Affordable Care Act to succeed and did not agree to expand Medicaid to cover those in the 44%-99% FPL gap. Those f%$%^&*! Here is a sample of the statements/explanations I have received:

  •   Person #1 (age 52) doesn't appear to be eligible for a premium tax credit or other savings.

Based on the information provided, members of this household don't appear to be eligible for a premium tax credit or other savings on health insurance. But you can use the Health Insurance Marketplace to shop for a health plan at full price.

Below $11,880

Since your state hasn't expanded Medicaid, you probably won't qualify for Medicaid based on your income alone. You also won't qualify for savings on a Marketplace insurance plan. 

 Next steps

If your income is below $11,880:

·       Since your state isn't expanding Medicaid, you won't qualify based on income alone. 

·       Your income also falls below the range needed to qualify for savings on an insurance plan. If you wanted to buy a Marketplace plan, you'd have to pay full price. 

All of this really threw me for about two days. Eventually I learned (I think) that because I will have lived outside the U.S. for 27 months and will have just lost my insurance coverage I will be able to return to a state that has expanded Medicaid.  Will I ever live in Missouri again? Nope.  I also can't live in Florida, which given that my dad lives there, was a likely destination. 

So, the "and...Something" in the title of this post refers to feeling a little depressed, harried, put upon, etc. This too shall pass. And other than what I learned about the ACA and its implications, I don't know what I will do when my service ends. Though Thailand looks cool.

A Star is Nowhere Near Born by Alan Strathman

One of my friends and fellow PCVs, named Hannah, works in her spare time doing reporting at a Lucian television station. She has done many reports that appear on the evening news.  She went to university in Connecticut, which is how her very modest self describes having graduated from Yale. And after her PC service she is hoping to go to graduate school in broadcast journalism.  She is really talented and already is terrific on air.

Each Wednesday she creates a segment for the local news called "Corps Values," which is a segment on some aspect of Peace Corps life and work. It is great work and also great public relations for the PC.

I have now appeared in two segments and I just know you are dying to see them. So here are the links.

Segment 1: I served as a counselor at Camp GLOW, which is week-long overnight camp for girls aged 13-18 to help them become more involved and engaged and empowered in their lives.  GLOW stands for Girls Leading our World. The camp was organized by another PCV named Cladia.  She did a wonderful job of putting the camp together and the girls benefitted greatly. SO the first clip is about the camp. The PC segments starts at 21:54.

The second segment covers the summer reading camp I put together at my school. This clip is  begins at 28:48.

As you will see, my suggestion that a star is not born is totally accurate.  But I am very glad I participated in both events and happy that they received some attention.

My second first day by Alan Strathman

Today was the first day of my second school year. And what a difference a year makes.  Last year I had no idea what I was doing or who I was doing it with. Today was much better.  it was much better for several reasons.

Parents and teachers know me and they make me feel like a valued member of the school.  Last year I worked with Grades 1 and 2 (I do this year too) and today a few parents of my Grade 2 boys who are now in Grade 3 wondered whether I could continue working with them. Either with their current teacher or instead of her. 

Both of my co-teachers this year will be great to work with and have been very open to incorporating my ideas.

I understand what I should be doing.  I'm still not always sure how to do it, but that is what the job is all about.

I feel good about what I accomplished in the first year and I have clear ideas for what I want to accomplish this year.

So, all in all, the second first day was much better than the first first day.

Home Again by Alan Strathman

Though it was a week ago I wanted to write briefly  about my visit to Tampa.  It is an odd trip. The main goal is to visit my dad and his wife Claudia.  That's not what makes it odd.  What does is that I never lived in Tampa, so i don't know anyone else.  I went for 10 days because that was all the vacation time I had from the Peace Corps and it wouldn't have been any shorter because it is so expensive to fly from St. Lucia.

But it is a solitary 10 days.  I am out most days and the only way to describe what I do is to say that I am soaking up life in the U.S.  That is to say reveling in the freedom that comes with a rental car, enjoying the wide variety of ethic food options, and sitting in coffee shops reading or listening to an audiobook. But all those things I do alone.

When I used to come to Tampa from my life in Missouri, the solitary nature of the trip was nice because back in Missouri I had friends to hang out with. Here, during the week I see people that I have a good relationship with, people who enjoy my company,  but would never, for instance, call me up to do anything.  This is kind of how I thought it would be so it's neither here nor there, but it does mean I don't need more solitary time in Tampa.

Back to food for a minute. People think that because this is "the islands" the food is light and fresh and healthy.  It isn't.  Much of the food is fried, which is partially responsible for the high rates of diabetes and hypertension. The food is also exactly the same across the island. If one orders a fish meal one gets, no matter where one is,  one or two fish steaks (often tuna, but not sushi grade or anything; no place serves fish filets), rice and lentils or other beans, and ground provisions (see a much earlier blog post where I explain ground provisions).  Rice and beans is not light and ground provisions are the heaviest foods imaginable. 

St. Lucia doesn't have any kind of "foodie" culture. Most of the restaurants serve Lucian food. Few people eat out but when they do they eat Lucian food.  That is, they eat exactly what they eat at home. In the tourist area of the island there is more choice but it's also more expensive.  And not that good. There is one Mexican restaurant in the touristy part of the island up north, but it's Lucian Mexican (Luc-Mex).

Both times I have returned from Tampa I have been in a bit of a funk.  It takes a few days or a week to return, re-enter, and readapt. Which I have now done.

Alone Alone by Alan Strathman

I am waiting in the departure lounge at the St. Lucia airport (Hewanorra International) for my flight to Miami and then to Tampa. Going back to the U.S. in April was surreal because I had become accustomed to life here.  U.S. life through "Lucianized" eyes is, literally, incredible. Even though I have only recently become Lucianized I stare with disbelief at many of the things I see: indoor malls the size of villages; price tags that I know are more than people here have made in their entire lives; the silly, random, unnecessary things that people buy. 

In addition to seeing my dad and Claudia, eating and driving are the two joys of returning to the U.S. As well as the ability to eat and drive without anyone noticing me.  I can blend in the U.S. in ways I cannot in a small village in St. Lucia. For all of us PCVs, the feeling of living in a fishbowl is a bit tiresome.

Anyway, what has caught my attention at the moment, as I watch tourists stream in to fly home after their vacation/honeymoon, is this: I am the only person in this entire airport traveling alone. Granted, it is not a huge airport.  As you'll notice below there are only five flights leaving this afternoon, though each flight will probably have 100-200 passengers.  And it strikes me that his is the first time I have ever been the only solo passenger at an airport. Most airports have thousands of travelers, many of whom are traveling alone on business. But here, without many business travelers.

I know how I arrived at this spot in life; that is, the spot of always traveling alone. And being here, existentially, is consistent with how I remember feeling my whole life.  I have been thinking existentially a lot lately, which should make anyone think, "Oh, no, what now?" It is nothing bad, just....well, just something. If I can figure out how to write about it I'll let you know.

As I said, there are only five flights departing this afternoon.  Here is the departure board.  See if you can identify what's odd about it:

Yes, North Carolina has become place where airplanes land. I'm not surprised. They have all seemed pretty confused in North Carolina lately.  What with all the concern about who's peeing where. My guess is that they really don't have any idea where the plane will land. I figure that because airplanes don't care who uses which lavatory, North Carolina is pretty ambivalent about having airplanes land at all. I think gender-specific travel will soon come to pass. Alternatively, we could just stop worrying about bathroom use. {P.S. I have no idea how this blog post turned political.}

CH-CH-CH-Changes... by Alan Strathman

From time to time people ask me if I've changed over the 14 months and 2 days I have been here. Sometimes they seem to be asking a little too hopefully! Anyway, it is hard for me to say if I have changed because I live with myself so any change would be incremental, and, therefore, hard to see.

Last week, though, Kim, one of the PCVs who is finishing her service this month, remarked that my Lucian accent is coming along well.  So that's good news.

And I am aware of one other way I have changed. This is how I turn on the fan now.

In the U.S. I would have considered this fan broken.  But Lucians would not. They would think this fan works just fine.

Incidentally, I can also start propeller jets this way too.

The Summer Reading Camp has happened! by Alan Strathman

The six days of the summer reading camp have come to an end!  I think it was a grand success.  And it would not have even happened without the support I received through the campaign.  Thank you all so much. Without your help it would have been nothing more than an idea. A missed opportunity. A disappointment because we had teachers interested in teaching and students interested in learning.

I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to hold the camp. And even more grateful to Dr. A, Jessie, Lauren, and Sarah, who came from Missouri to serve as teachers. Jessie, Lauren, and Sarah were very brave to sign up for this study abroad experience in this first year.  I am sure they understood that they would be the guinea pigs who would help us learn how to, and how not to, run a summer reading camp in St. Lucia. They came from the U.S. to this developing country with open minds and very generous spirits. Most people come to a place like St. Lucia and leave with their bags fuller and heavier (with souvenirs) than when they arrived.  Or they leave with an extra suitcase. Not so for these four folks.  They brought so many materials and prizes and books, all of which they left for our students, that they left not even needing the suitcases they brought. They were able to pack one bag inside another and still have room for their clothes and things.

Thank you Jessie, Lauren, Sarah, and Dr. A.

Jessie, Lauren, and Sarah arrived on July 31. August 1st is Freedom Day in St. Lucia and Carnival in Laborie. The Carnival parade is nothing if not eye-opening and mind-expanding. It was also their first of many doses of music blasting so loudly that no communication, or thought for that matter, is possible. We had dinner after the parade outside on the village square. We sat down, ordered food, and then listened as a deejay informed us that music was starting. It started and we never spoke again. As we were paying the bill, the music ended. Good timing.

Jessie, Lauren, and Sarah are studying to be librarians, not teachers. But they bravely taught groups of children that tend to be somewhat troublesome.  Fortunately we had both boys and girls and the girls help to moderate the boys' behavior.

The camp ran from 9 am to 1 pm, including lunch for the students. In the afternoons and on weekends we toured the island.  Here we are at Tet Paul, a short hiking trail with fabulous views of the Pitons.

Dr. A., Jessie, Lauren, Sarah, and I with our friends Doug and Hannah and her friend Lauren

Dr. A., Jessie, Lauren, Sarah, and I with our friends Doug and Hannah and her friend Lauren

Here are some images from the camp.

Jessie's class with the paper bag dragons they made after reading The Paper Bag Princess.

Jessie's class with the paper bag dragons they made after reading The Paper Bag Princess.

Karvel spelling in shaving cream in Jessie's class.

Karvel spelling in shaving cream in Jessie's class.

Derrell and Lee spelling Froot Loop words in Lauren's class. (Had to use generic fruit circles because Foot Loops are too expensive here.)

Derrell and Lee spelling Froot Loop words in Lauren's class. (Had to use generic fruit circles because Foot Loops are too expensive here.)

Ruthie and Teryn too.

Ruthie and Teryn too.

And, of course, Jaydah.

And, of course, Jaydah.

Sarah and her students Dave-v, Derrell, Derwren, and Kianté doing their morning class song.

Sarah and her students Dave-v, Derrell, Derwren, and Kianté doing their morning class song.

And, finally, two all-camp pictures, including campers, counselors, teachers, and camp cooks.

So many people came together to make this camp a success. All students experience summer loss. My hope is that the camp will help these 31 students experience less loss and be more ready to make progress when the new year begins. Thank you everyone.

It's Official! I have joined a new club! by Alan Strathman

Today I received a call from the PC doctor who told me that the Zika test I took a month ago when I was not feeling well was positive.  I had Zika!  I feel important.  Like I am part of an elite club.

About a month ago, I woke up on a Monday morning with pain behind my eyes.  I thought that I was dehydrated so I drank a lot of water. That didn't help.  I googled "pain behind the eyes," and only got hits about sinus problems. My sinuses were fine.  I went to work that day and the following Tuesday and Wednesday too.  I didn't feel great but I wasn't in agony either. But I decided to stay home Thursday and Friday because by then I had terrible joint pain. My fingers and wrists and back were really painful.  You don't realize just how many joints you have in your fingers until every single one is radiating red-hot pain. Though the pain behind my eyes was gone.

My friend Jan took me to the lab to get tests done and in the car it looked like I had a rash on my arm.  It's a little hard to tell because with all the sun I get here, I am always kind of red anyway. And often very red.  Often at school a boy will say, "Sir, why you so red?" I either say, "I'm red because I'm white," which always confuses them or, when the situation calls for it, I will say, "Because I'm ANGRY!"  Though that happens less as time goes on.

So, I had terrible joint pain on Thursday and Friday and then was fine on Saturday.  I even travelled on several buses up north that day and stayed overnight.

I know it's a little anticlimactic to learn that a month ago I had Zika. But a month ago I had Zika.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen! by Alan Strathman

I was visiting the guest house where the MU students will be staying while they are here teaching at the summer reading camp we are offering.   It is a guest house that has two apartments on the ground floor and then the owner lives in a big space on the second floor.

I was looking at the place with Frances, who is the guest house manager.  She is also the sister of Mama Ju, my host mom, with whom I lived for three weeks when I first arrived in Laborie. After she showed me where the students will stay she and the guest house caretaker went upstairs to the owner's place.  The owner spends most of his time in Minnesota.  Frances looked through the cupboards and started throwing things out that were past the expiration date.  Some of the things "expired" only last month. Including this:

I may have eaten Kraft macaroni and cheese three times in my whole life.  I didn't even eat it in graduate school.  But I snapped up this box like I was a first year grad student who couldn't boil water.

One way in which graduate school and Peace Corps are alike is that with neither do you get a salary. Instead, you are given a stipend. Here is a lesson for you: If you are taking a position in which you are being given a stipend, start hoarding mac and cheese.  And don't say no to rice and beans.  

Really, the lesson is that you should start acclimating to "and" foods.  Here is a quiz: Which of the following can you afford on a PC stipend?

a. mac and cheese
b. chateaubriand  (trick question because the "and" is not between two other foods)
c. rice and beans
d. filet mignon
e. cheese and crackers
f. sushi
g. peanut butter and jelly (but, in St. Lucia, only cheap pb) 

If you guessed a, c, e, g then you have a good understanding of PC life. The long-time slogan of the PC is "The toughest job you'll ever love." It's good.  And accurate for many. But here is one that is even more accurate: Peace Corps: The toughest job you''ll ever wish you got paid more for.

The PC just rolled out a new logo. Maybe its time to freshen up the slogan too!

On or Off Oven by Alan Strathman

I have started making pizzas at home.  They are really delicious.  And the grocery stores here have all the fixings. Except that fresh mushrooms are too expensive so I have to use canned.

On the package of frozen crusts I buy they offer the following directions: Preheat oven to 425F then reduce to 375F for 12-15 minutes. Preheat oven to 425F then reduce to 375F? Uhhh.......This is my oven control button:

I have not yet figured out what the little rounded rectangle means. The only kind of cooking directions I can actually follow are: Turn oven on. Cook food. Turn oven off.  How will I ever make a soufflé under these conditions?

Big (Dumb) Bird by Alan Strathman

As most of you know, I arrived in St. Lucia without having ever taught literacy to primary school students. One consequence of not having taught primary school is that I did not have a stock of materials that I had found worked well in class.  Contrast this to teaching Introductory Psychology, which I had done for more than 15 years. For every topic, I had great examples, engaging demonstrations, and countless charts, graphs, etc.

So, not having anything to work with, I went to a local teachers store. The store was like a wonderland of teaching materials. It had so many resources that I, literally, had no idea where to start. Not being an expert in primary literacy education, I relied on a tried and true, well-loved institution in the world of children's education:

How could I go wrong? Who doesn't trust Big Bird? Well, now, I don't.

First, before you read any further, generate a list of words you would expect to see in this box of "beginning" words.....

(just try it)


(come on)


(don't cheat)

Ok, if you made an effort at this I bet you generated words like these:

Words you might expect to see in a set of beginning words.

Words you might expect to see in a set of beginning words.

OK, fine. No problem so far. These are, indeed, beginning words. But the deck also has these words:

These may seem like easy words. They're short. But they are not that simple for beginning readers to decode. Combinations like "ea," "oa," and "ai" are called vowel digraphs and students have a hard time with them. Eventually you teach them the rule, "When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking," meaning one pronounces these letter combinations by making the long sound of the first vowel. In the interest of time let's just ignore the fact that  "ice cream" is doubly confusing because it has a soft "c" sound in the first word but a hard "c" sound in the second.

But anyway, they learn this "when two vowels go walking...." rule and then why don't we confuse them right away with this:

Ok, whatever, so then we teach them that "ou" makes a sound that isn't like an "o" and isn't like a "u" but is a sort-of melange of the two..  Though teaching "ou" isn't too bad because they have all made that sound when something hurt. And when we teach them the "ou" sound we also teach them that "ow" makes the same sound (see, look at that--you just read sound with an ou). (Now you did it again by reading now.) :) So it would (would--an "ou" exception) make sense that if Big Bird is going to consider "ou" a beginning sound he would include a card with an "ow" to help a brother teach his 7-year olds that the two combinations make the same sound. Except Big Bird did this:

Oh no he didn't!! Well, I'm afraid he did. He picked an "ow" that is an exception.

Oh no he didn't!! Well, I'm afraid he did. He picked an "ow" that is an exception.

Having forayed into tricky vowel digraphs why should he not include a consonant digraph:

So does it sound like "sosks" or is it a hard c but then that would sound like "sok-ks????" So you're saying I just ignore the middle letter??? To first graders the correct pronunciation of "socks" is "WTF!"

So does it sound like "sosks" or is it a hard c but then that would sound like "sok-ks????" So you're saying I just ignore the middle letter??? To first graders the correct pronunciation of "socks" is "WTF!"

And for good measure Big Bird threw in that well-known beginning word, practically the first word a toddler utters, right after mama and dada:

Look, this language is hard enough to teach as it is. One day, and it will be the day they start hating me because they'll think I'm just messing with them, we have to make them understand  "though," "thought," and "through." And then "drought!" And "rough!" What sound does "ough" make? Apparently any sound you want it to.

It's exhausting. Next time, let Oscar choose the words. At least they'll know "grouch."