Waiting for Wah Wei Wei, July 11, 2012

Understanding is a two way street. -Eleanor Roosevelt

I’ve been picking up some Chhukese phrases and expressions.  Nesesor anim (nes-sohl ah-neeeeem) Good morning. Nepong (Nay bong) Good night. Kinisou (keedeeso) Thank you.

The language is incredibly complex and difficult to negotiate.  Part of this stems from the alphabet.  The Chuukese use the same Latin alphabet we do, but the letters and sounds do not correspond in the same way.

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The Chuukese are a shy, deferential people.  Calling attention to oneself is seen as bragging, and bragging brings shame, and nothing is worse than shame.  They are incredibly generous, and “no” is rarely heard.  If you were to ask someone a question, the answer is invariably “Yes.”  Can you meet me for lunch? Yes.  Is your brother older than you? Yes.  Can you help me later? Yes.  The problem is oftentimes when someone says  “yes,” they don’t always mean “yes.”  They just don’t like to say “no”– so they don’t.

This cultural tick becomes doubly prickly in a teacher-student dynamic.  “Do you understand what I’m trying to explain?” [smile] Yes.

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The island I’m living on is spelled Weno; it’s pronounced Weh duh.  Depending on how letters are juxtaposed, the sounds they make vary greatly-“N” between two vowels sounds like “D”, but at the beginning of a word, it sounds like “N”.

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I’ve been charged with designing a basic English grammar curriculum for students here.  Now, “teaching grammar” goes against almost everything I believe as an English teacher.  But I need to prepare them for a standardized test, and guess what’s on the test?  Grammar.  “Chris, I know you want to teach these kids to write.  But with where these kids are, that’s like building a wall without bricks.  I need you to help these kids make bricks.”  The students are from various schools around the island.  They can all speak English–sort of.  Some are quite fluent and proficient. Others…not so much.  But it’s hard to tell who’s who because all of them are reluctant to speak in class.

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Sometimes R’s are R’s and sometimes they’re L’s.

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It is not uncommon for public school teachers to just not show up at school.  As a result many schools are just holding pens for children during the day. Often schools bring in volunteers from other countries to teach. I know an Australian who teaches at Sapuk Elementary School, just down the road from here.  He just graduated high school himself.  He turns 19 tomorrow.  The Catholic and religious schools on the island practice what Paulo Freire called the “banking concept”of education.  Kids sit in rows, don’t talk, and the teacher deposits information into them like a bank.  As a result, my students’ skills and abilities vary greatly.  But they are all uncomfortable with  the give and take of class discussion and an interactive classroom environment.  Student centered pedagogy is almost unheard of in these parts.

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There are certain letters–b, d, x, z, c, m, q, and j for example that just don’t exist.  And depending on who you ask, there are either six vowels or nine in the Chuukese alphabet.

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All of these cultural factors and language barriers, coupled with a crumbling or outdated education system has dealt a pretty bad hand to both me and the students.  I feel under-equipped to teach them, and many of them lack the basic skills for even the most rudimentary scaffolding of ideas. For the past few weeks, connections between concepts have been nonexistent.  Inside the classroom, there have been no “Ah-ha moments”–those times when a kid’s eyes light up and you can see the nurons firing and ricocheting around inside her skull.  A few days ago, I thought I heard someone behind me in the room say, “Ahh.”  Almost ah-ha, but when I spun around to see where it came from and ask who said it, a roomful of shy, Oceanic tweeners just smiled back at me silently.

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Sa monga (Sah Mōgah) translates literally into English as “We eat.”  But it means much more.  You see, when a Chuukese has food and someone enters the room, he will say, “Sa monga.”  It is an invitation to share what he has. I was sitting on the porch the other day when some local staff members came out to have their dinner outside.  “Chris, sa monga”  Join us, we have some and will share it with you. It’s quite a warm and sweet custom.

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My students recently took a quiz on identifying predicates where the average score was 71%. Before the quiz, I said to the class to come see if they needed extra help.  “Ill be in my student center classroom during study hall.”  No one came.

After I handed back the quiz, I asked if anyone had any questions.  What do you need me to go over one more time?  No replies.  Terenina, do you understand the material on the quiz?…..Yes. (She scored 50%)

Outside the window, I saw Ruffina, one of the staff members who invited me to join him the other day.

I announced to the class, “If you are not happy with your quiz score, I invite you to meet me in the student center to go over the material again at study time.”

Sa monga–let me invite you to the table to share what I have.

Seven students showed up.

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My guests and I went over the material again. I asked questions. They answered. They tried . They failed. They tried again–and again–and again. We laughed a little. They took a retest. Ternina got 93%.

In the middle of the quiz she grinned said aloud, “Wah wei wei.(I understand.)”  Ah-ha.

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