Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Low Tides, Low Toilets: Yesterday for the first time, I flushed the toilet and for the first time in a long time, it didn’t make a large sucking noise. Toilets all over the island have been acting up for the last few weeks, and a colleague suggested a reason why: Low Tides! You see, we don’t have enough fresh water on this island to be able to afford to flush it down the toilet (no pun intended!) so we use salt water in out toilets. But on some days when the low tides are really low, I think that the pumps have a hard time supplying us with toilet water. So for the past couple weeks all the toilets would make a gurgling noise after being flushed (how’s that for a way to announce to everyone in the building that you’re coming out of the restroom?) At my apartment it was the same story, until this weekend it just refused to flush completely. Well, in the States, at that point I would probably call the landlord and ask for a plumber, but not here. Oh, no….non-flushing toilets are so common here that almost every bathroom is equipped with bucket of some sort for occasions like this, and you just scoop some water (wherever you can find water) and throw it into the toilet bowl until the level gets high enough for gravity to do the flushing for you. It’s something I learned during my first week here, and it works like a charm. So this week I’ve been filling buckets from my shower in order to flush the toilet, until this morning a miracle occurred! In my groggy state, I reached for the handle, forgetting that flushing was futile, and low-and-behold, it worked!! So now we’re back to normal, no gurgling, no buckets of shower water, just regular old flushing. I’ll have to check the tide table to see if our theory is correct.

Ok, enough of the bathroom humor…how about some Final Exam humor? I wrote my last blog entry with funny test answers just before grading my final exams. Wow, was that a mistake, because my students gave me more wonderful material. Let me share a few more for your amusement:

Question: The speeds (in miles per hour) of 20 randomly monitored drivers between the Airport and Ajeltake are recorded in the table below. Make a frequency table and a histogram of the data. What observations can you make from the histogram?

Answer: 40-50 miles per hour has the highest frequency. 60-70 mph has the lowest frequency, so in my observation I think too many students drop out of CMI so they have to get more advice from the counselors, attend the workshop, and see the tutor, better than dropping out. (WHAT?!?)

Question: Write an example of a Cardinal Number and give a brief explanation.

Student 1: “I kissed two girls last week” (Cardinal Number means the quantity of objects)

Student 2: “If she kissed you once, would she kiss you two times?” (How many objects in a group or set)

Student 3: “My girlfriend kissed me twice” (how many objects in group or set)

(Although we don’t really have seasons here, I’d say spring is in the air, eh?)

Question: A family has 3 children. Draw a tree-diagram that represents the gender of the genders (boy or girl) for each successive birth into the family. What is the probability that there will be exactly two girls in the family?

Student 1 Answer: Probability shows that when a family have children of 3, they want to have 2 girls because girls are important to fathers because they can listen and they are afraid so they follow what fathers tell them to do. (Very creative, but I was hoping for a fraction between 0 and 1)

Student 2: Mom + Dad = 3 Kids

(3 stick figure kids hanging here)

Moms have high average of chromosomes than Father. So the highest average of chromosomes from the Mom, and it comes out 2 girls and 1 boy. (Again, very creative (and entertaining…I loved the illustration of the kids with nooses), but we never discussed chromosomes in our class!)

The sad part is that the number of students who passed was abysmally low. It broke my heart. Part of the problem lies in the fact that we’re not adequately preparing our students for the rigor of credit level math. It’s asking a lot to catch them up to college level in 2 semesters when they are coming to us so under-prepared after 12 years of primary and secondary school. Still, we could do better. We must do better. Very few of my students have the discipline, capability to think independently, and the study skills that it takes to succeed in higher level courses. I have been beside myself to help them (all 110 of them) this semester because my classes were too big to allow me to meaningfully connect on a regular basis with many students. I really care about them, and it pains me that so many fell short of passing, but I can’t lower the standard. The best I can do is try to strengthen as many as are willing to work hard to meet the standard. I have spent the last week doing statistical analysis on our archives of pass-rate data to try to make a case for lowering our class enrollment limits. Currently Math classes are set at 25 students (more are allowed if there are not enough sections offered) while English are set at 15 (seems very inequitable to me). I presented the research I did to the Dean of Academics yesterday and I hope it will make a difference. We are also looking at adding an individualized computer-lab component to our developmental courses that would allow students to pinpoint their strengths and weaknesses and work until they have mastered each skill they need. I am praying that it will make a difference.

Despite the fact that many of my students did not pass, the good news is that those whose graduation depended on passing passed, and graduation was wonderful. It was full of pomp and ceremony (a strange contrast to life on this island). The president and first lady of the country were present, as well as ambassadors from Taiwan, USA, and Japan. Can you imagine President Bush showing up at a community college graduation? Despite the fact that the highest degree programs we offer are Associate Degrees of Arts or Science, we gave "Honorary Doctorate of Public Service" awards to 2 individuals. They were well-deserved, but it was a little bizarre, coming from a community college. We had an “employee appreciation day” at Enamanit which was lots of fun until the deluge came down and soaked us. I’ve included some pictures from the trip. Our VP for research and planning and his wife have an adorable little girl named Annabelle, who I got to read books to and became good friends with at the picnic. She is so adorable and just so sweet. After bonding with her at the picnic I volunteered to babysit anytime Jim and his wife want to go out.

Today 3 of my favorite instructor-colleagues (Morton and Emson and Rosana) left for University of Guam to finish up their degrees. I will miss Rosana. She is keeps things lively and has really made me feel welcome here, in her country. She will probably be away for about a year, which means her husband (of 3 months) will care for their daughter and his son single-handedly. I really have a lot of respect for his willingness to sacrifice to help Rosana finish her education. Now that school is finished for a couple of weeks (before we start again) I’m making an effort not to spend too much time in the office. Susan and I went kayaking in the lagoon today. Yesterday was pouring down rain, but this morning there were blue skies, sun and cumulus clouds everywhere, so we went down to EZ Price (every store in Majuro has “Price” somewhere in it’s name, there’s EZ Price, Fair Price, Crazy Price, and Cost Price) because the owner, Neil (who is a wonderfully nice man) offered to let us borrow a couple kayaks that he has in his warehouse (along with about 10 windsurfing boards as well) and take them out. He really wanted us to go camping with them, and was disappointed when we told him we only had a couple hours to spend on the water, but he let us borrow them anyway. We had to drop them down about 7 feet into the water and climb down the pipes on the side of the dock. Then we navigated them through the creepy graveyard of government-owned rusting abandoned ships and out into the lagoon. Once we got past the rusty ships it was great. The wind was at our backs, and it was pretty easy…until we turned around to try to come back. Then we were paddling against a pretty strong wind and it took about twice as long to get home. It was nice to be out on the water, which was blue as always. Maybe we’ll take Neil up on the camping offer sometime when we have a few free days.

Well, it’s late and I’m ready to head home. It’s my vacation and I’m still in my office in front of this computer! I need to get away now. Until next time...

PS. Susan was exonerated! Many of you read in my last entry here about the personality profile test and how disappointed Susan was when it categorized her as a "Field Marshall" and potential cult leader. Well, she retook the test and was assigned to a completely different and much more accurate category (ENFP, or "Champion Idealist") which is a pretty good description of her personality. It's also only one letter different than mine (ENFJ) which is probably why we have a similar mindset on many issues. Whew, what a relief!

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Suddenly the Trade winds stopped last week, and the temperature feels like it has risen 10 degrees! Out here in the tropics the only difference between summer and winter is that the Trade winds blow in the winter months and make it feel a bit cooler, but it’s really the same temperature anyway. Well, we’re heading for a long, hot summer. I’m so glad we have a blue lagoon readily accessible to jump into when we just cant stand the heat any longer!

It is finals week, and I’m so relieved to be in the “home stretch” of this semester. Looking back, it has been rugged, but I’ve had so many good experiences with my students and I’ll really miss them (all 110 of them). I regret that my classes have been so large that I’ve not been able to interact one-on-one with ALL my students like I did last semester, but I’ve been able to build good relationships of trust with students who have taken the initiative to come to my office or talk to me in class. These relationships of trust and care are one of the sweetest rewards of being a teacher.

Before Exam Week finishes, I’d like to share with you some comical answers that I’ve read on my students’ tests this semester. It just demonstrates to me the difference in perspective between island mentality and western mentality:

Question 1: How many ways can 32 children in an Uliga Elementary School class be arranged for a class picture? (Duh, I didn’t realize that they don’t take “class pictures” here, they only do that in suburban American schools!)

Answer I Anticipated: Permute 32 children in 32 spaces: that’s 32! (32 factorial) or 2.63 x10^35 ways to arrange the children.

Student’s Answer: “2 Ways: They can all sit or they can all standup.” (Why make it harder than it needs to be??)

Question 2: At Payless you find a quart of milk and a liter of milk sold for the same price. Which is a better value for your money?

Answer I Anticipated: Since 1 Liter of milk is equal to approximately 1.04 Quarts, the Liter box of milk is ever-so-slightly bigger, so you get a few extra drops of milk for your money.

Student’s Answer: “Well, 1 Quart is smaller than 1 Liter, so it’s lighter in the grocery bag and not so heavy to have to carry all the way to my house, so I think that’s the one I’ll choose.” (At least he recognized that a Quart is smaller than a Liter, which was the point of the lesson!)

The Politics at CMI are getting out of hand. There are several faculty members who enjoy bringing politics into our office space, and they distract us from effectively serving our students. (I personally feel that some faculty members are more committed to politics and power struggles than their students, but that’s just my opinion). Anyway, we’re in the process of making some big, big changes at CMI as we try to finally break free from the accreditation problems that have plagued us for several years. Many of the ideas that are being foisted on us (mostly by committees of faculty) and not well thought out and not well-communicated to everyone before they are implemented. Some decisions are just plain ridiculous. I believe partly this is a result of the fact that we have many faculty members who have never taught at a community college other than CMI, so they don’t have a good objective perspective and precedent to base decisions on. Others have personal agendas and they figure that this place is small enough that they can push their agenda through without the consent of everyone else. In any case, it has been really turbulent here and a lot of last minute things have popped up that need to be taken care of before the semester ends to insure our sanity at CMI in the future. My friend Susan and I run together a few times per week and it serves as good stress relief and also a chance to vent our frustrations and laugh about the ridiculous things that our colleagues do. These last few weeks we’ve been so stressed by the politics that we’ve run really aggressively. We share a similar perspective on teaching and serving students here, and when we get together, it’s like, “Oh my goodness, you’ll never guess what my department tried to do today!!” “What?!? Where do they come up with these half-baked ideas?” And then we return to our offices and crazily write emails to try to circumnavigate disastrous decisions before they’re implemented as new CMI policies. Next day, back in class, we smile at our students, teach them, and remember that they are the reason we’re really here after all.

On a lighter note: buying beauty products is a bit problematic on this island. I am a bit worried about the day (coming soon) when I run out of fair-colored makeup. There is not a pale shade to be found in any stores! I recently ran out of conditioner, and I was lucky enough to find a store that had a couple types. Most stores just sell shampoo because there’s not much of a Marshallese market for conditioner. Well the first one I bought made me nauseous, so I gave it to Mary who liked the smell. The only other option was a really, really pungent raspberry flavored type. I can stand the smell, and when combined with my Pineapple scented shampoo and Citrus scented soap, I leave the house every morning smelling like fresh fruit salad! Could be worse, I suppose.

A colleague at work who likes to spam the entire faculty with random emails (asking for such things as play-dough recipes and day care for his kid) actually sent something interesting last week. He wants to give his students a personality test to help them determine some possible careers that might suit them. He found an online version of the Meyers-Briggs test and asked us (instructors) to take it and tell him if we think it’s useful. Well, I needed a diversion from the stacks of grading on my desk, so I did it, and was very interested by the results. Here is a link to the test: http://www.humanmetrics.com/cgi-win/JTypes1.htm It categorized me as ENFJ (Extrovert, Intuitive, Feeling, Judging). In plain English, this personality type is characterized as a “Teacher Idealist”. As I read the sketch explaining my personality type I was quite amused. (the sketch can be found at: http://keirsey.com/personality/nfej.html). Here are a few highlights: Teacher-Idealists believe firmly in the potential for greatness in others and are self-sacrificing in order to try to help everyone try to achieve it. They have an almost-limitless supply of enthusiastic encouragement to share. They are good hosts at parties, making sure each guest’s needs are met, and they are good at remembering special dates. They have a hard time saying no (or turning people away) and they occasionally become annoying to others because they are constantly trying to teach and help other people “reach their potential”, even when the others are not willing candidates. It also says that because of their very direct and expressive interpersonal communication style, sometimes they overwhelm people with the volume and complexity of their communication.

Wow, pretty accurate and true for me on all accounts, I’d say. (Several years ago my mother located an audiotape that we listened to. It was me, at age 4, teaching my younger brother, Clay (age 2) how to count. It was funny because I kept messing up the lesson and occasionally he would point that out, and then we would start all over again. He was a patient little soul! And I was a persistent little soul, too! Ha ha ha!) You can probably tell just by the length of my blog that I have a difficult time knowing when to stop communicating and just chill out. I gained a bit of insight into why the people closest to me often tell me that they never feel like they can live up my standard. I hold myself to a very high standard, but I’ve never consciously imposed my standard on others. But I’ve realized that even if I don’t consciously impose a standard, my idealistic zeal is implicitly and indirectly communicated to others, and often makes them feel intimidated and incapable of living up to the ideal, even though that’s not how I feel about them. I spoke with Susan at 2+2 later that day, and found that she really hated the personality test because it categorized her as a “Field Marshall” (aka: power-hungry and commanding) which is completely inaccurate. (Believe me, I know, I had a very high score in the “Judging” category! ha ha ha!). So I guess this test is not fool-proof, but I’m really interested if anyone else learns something from it. Please feel free to leave ideas or comments on my blog if you find anything interesting. And please, if it completely mis-characterizes you, don’t take it too seriously! Ok, I can’t avoid it any longer.

I have the bite the bullet and start grading the finals my students took yesterday. Sitting still for 6 straight hours of final exams (3 classes) with no breaks in between nearly killed me! But I only have one more left tomorrow morning, so the end is very, very near. Ok, is anyone still reading? I’m so sorry to running off at the mouth (there goes my over-active communication again, darn it! J) I’ll write more later. There’s SO much more that I haven’t even gotten to get. Next time I’ll tell you about “Low Tides, Low Toilets”, so stay tuned!

PS. The picture at the top is our farewell dinner for Amber, who is heading back to Taiwan this weekend. From left is Amber, me, Anita, and Susan.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Happy Constitution Day Everyone!! Today marks 28 years of constitutional independence from the United States for RMI, and it’s fantastic to have a holiday.Ij Lukuun Naninmej ilo wiik in (I’m feeling very sick this week). My hectic schedule has caught up with me and I got really sick at the end of last week. Luckily, just when I couldn’t juggle work and not feeling well any more, we have a wonderful holiday, so I’m resting and grading like a madwoman today.

I got up at the crack of dawn to put a dent in the pile of Math 70 tests my students took last week, and after a couple hours, I needed a big break. I jumped on my bike and rode down to the ATM to deposit my paycheck. The ATM is just across the street from the Capital building, and just as I approached, I noticed an Independence Day parade coming by, so I stopped to watch. It was quite impressive. It was led by the national and local police (all 30 of them) decked out to the nines (including white gloves and guns), marching. After them was the RMI national band, which were quite impressive as well. It’s a full-on marching band, and they were very good. In fact, last August when I first moved here and lived at the resort, I heard them practicing across the street and they were atrocious! Hearing them perform so well today was nothing short of a miracle. I can’t believe that we even have that many French horns, trumpets, piccolos, etc…on this island! They were followed by marchers from each of the schools on the island (about 7 different elementary and high schools…with their respective uniforms of different colors). Following us were the basketball teams representing each of the outer islands. The national basketball tournament is a major event for Independence Day. I saw a few colleagues of mine from CMI, so I followed them to the capital grounds (have you ever heard of a country that can fit everyone who wants to attend into the grounds of their capital?!?). The ceremony at the capital was short and sweet because it is so darn hot outside today (just yesterday the sky was dumping buckets of water on us!!).

Following the speeches I went to the ATM and then stopped by NTA (the national tele-communications authority) to buy some long distance phone-cards because no-one else on the island sells them any longer. NTA happened to be celebrating their 20th anniversary and giving away free cake, soda, T-shirts, and hats. So I got a bright green (great for Saint Patrick’s Day) polo shirt (size 3XL….I think that the lady giving out shirts saw how tall I was and over-reacted!) and three phone cards and chatted with the missionaries who all have their preparation day today. Tonight there are fireworks over the lagoon (courtesy of Taiwan) that I’ll try to photograph. My new friend Heidi, who is working with the students activities at CMI (she just arrived last week) invited me and a couple other colleagues as well as the student leaders to her hotel room balcony tonight (great view of the Lagoon) to watch, so that should be fun. Wow, I had no idea that today would be so eventful! I had in mind just sleeping the day away!

This week in my Survey Math class, we started our last section, about Statistics. I am hoping desperately to make this relevant to them. Every chapter in our book should be relevant, but I have learned this semester that my students (particularly the ones who grew up on outer islands) have no contextual framework on which to hang new, useful math. The section on Geometry and measurement should have been really easy for them, or so I thought, but it too, like the other chapters I had such great hopes for, it was painful for them. None of them ever studied Geometry in high school (they don’t offer high school geometry here), and only the students who have lived in the states or abroad are at all familiar with the English and Metric systems for measurement. Our textbook (written for American students) assumes that everyone knows that there are 12 inches in a foot and that 100 degrees Fahrenheit is pretty hot. But 75% of my students didn’t know that before last week.

So anyway, since statistics is extremely useful in policy making, and everyone keeps up with what’s going on in the government here (you can’t help it, sessions of the senate are broadcast live on the radio everyday so every citizen hears everything…how’s that for public exposure? Unfortunately it doesn’t prevent corruption in the government!). There are lots of relevant-to-students’ lives topics for us to talk about. Also social trends are really great for statistics projects, too, and we’ve got plenty of those here in the RMI. So as a way of introducing population, sampling, and frequency tables, I asked my students to each write the number of people living in their household (including themselves) on a slip of paper. We then took the information and organized it in a frequency table and made a histogram. The results absolutely amazed me! I think they will amaze you, too. Below are the responses from my two classes:

6 10 9 9 8 6 7 6 9 14 5 5 10 7 9 9 8 5 6 11 7 7 16 5 4 10 5 5 12 12 9 3 13 4 7 9 13 7 13

Here is the frequency Table:

Number of People........Frequency
in Household:...............of Response:
3 -------------------------1
4 ------------------------ 2
5 ------------------------ 6
6 ------------------------ 4
7 ------------------------ 6
8 ------------------------ 2
9 ------------------------ 7
10 ----------------------- 3
11 ----------------------- 1
12 ----------------------- 1
13 ----------------------- 3
14 ----------------------- 1
15 ----------------------- 0
16 ----------------------- 1

Well, it doesn’t take a math expert to be amazed at these numbers! According to the discussion we had in class, our sample (our class) is a fairly good representation of the population (all households on Majuro). Class members come from a variety of communities from Rita to Laura (one end of the atoll to the other). They come from a variety of social classes, education traditions, etc...The frequency table would indicate that the mode is 9 and the mean number of people living in a household in Majuro is 8! Not only that, but 75% of my students live in a house with more than 5 people. These are not large suburban houses like Americans live in (although some members of the upper-class here have big houses like suburban America). But most of my students live in a house with 2-3 rooms, very little furniture (sofas just provide shelter for termites, rats, and other unwanted houseguests anyway), one bathroom, and most catch water from the roof and bring it inside to use for cooking and bathing. Then I thought about the difficulties they face in school. When they go home to a house like this, there is very little quiet time for working on homework. There are constant family concerns (the majority of them are parents themselves). Privacy is nonexistent! Now I can understand better why Marshallese are so shocked to hear that I live alone. That just DOESN’T happen here. Me rattling around by myself in my apartment is just as far out of their realm of their understanding as living with 16 people in one house is for me. (By the way, the student who responded 16 is one of my hardest working, most devoted students, a young woman who is my age who has 3 kids and a husband who struggles with alcoholism.) I have profound new respect for my students every time I learn more about their lives. Sure, there are those that try my patience, that are lazy about coming to class, and don’t turn in their homework for weeks at a time. There are students like that everywhere. But there are plenty who are also NOT like this. There are those who struggle uncomplainingly against tremendous odds, and I feel that it’s such a privilege to be their teacher.

Here's a humorous anecdotal story: I have one student in my afternoon section who has a great sense of humor. He lived in the states for 2 years during high school, so he’s a lot cheekier than most of his classmates. He reminds me very much of a typical 20-something-year-old, ipod-listening, b-ball playing, college student in the states, and he’s too bright to stay here at CMI for long (he’s transferring to UH Hilo in the fall). Instead of just writing a number on his paper, this is what he wrote: “# of people in hz: -myself (1), -set of parents (2), -sisters (2), -their husbands (2), -niece (1), -nephew (1), -brother (1), -live-in girlfriend (mine) (1), total: 11 and a partridge in a pear tree!

Well, there’s so much more to say, but very little time, and I’ve got to get grading again. I’ll write more later. Happy holiday everyone!
Cheers, Britt

PS. The pictures at the top are of Mary and I after running home in the rain on Sunday after visiting a friend from our branch. I’m more than 1 foot taller than she is, so it’s virtually impossible to get the two of us in one picture without cutting off someone’s head or chin (as you can see). It makes for some fun contortions, though!