Friday, August 6, 2010

My handover letter to the next volunteer about my experiences in Manu'a

Dear Future Volunteer,

Talofa! Ua mai oe? You are about to begin an amazing adventure in American Samoa. During your year here, you will experience the understandable highs and lows of a year lived abroad, but by Flag Day weekend in April next year when you’re writing your own handover letter to another future volunteer, you’ll agree (I hope) that the experience was all worth it. This year has undeniably changed my life and strengthened my character. I’ve learned some valuable lessons about teaching and cultural immersion. I hope this handover letter can offer you some advice about what to expect. That said: my biggest piece of advice is going to be “expect the unexpected.” At school or at home, your life here is going to be radically different from your life in the states. It’s best to throw expectations out the window as best you can and live in the moment. I will try to keep my letter to generalities, as each individual’s experience out here is idiosyncratic. So, here’s a glimpse into what adventures and challenges I faced this past year and thought that you might encounter, too.

I’ll begin with my experiences in the classroom. Teaching: It’s what we came here to do. It has definitely been the most rewarding part of my time on the outer island. This year, I taught the fifth grade class at Faleasao Elementary School. The school itself is one out of only three on the island of Ta’u, which has a population of about 400-500 residents in total. On average, there are about 10 students per grade. My class had about 13 kids (the largest in the school). I say “about” because in AmSam, it is very common for students to transfer from school to school at any point throughout the year- the teachers and kids are all very used to it. There is one other Faleasao volunteer, KC, who taught in the eighth grade. It was really nice to have another teacher here to share the good and bad with, and we’ve kept each other motivated throughout the year. My biggest advice on the topic of teaching is take behavioral management seriously at the beginning of the year, and it will save you a lot of headaches later in the year. Our orientation at the beginning of the year offered one or two sessions on this topic. I know the year before they may have not offered this- but I found it the most useful part of training. I didn’t have an education background, so I really utilized the tips they gave us. I can only speak to my experiences at the elementary school, I don’t know how it worked at the high school, but at Faleasao Elementary, the administration was really absent- literally. There were many days that neither the Principal nor VP would show up, and the office would be empty. So, when you have a problem student that is acting out and your in-class management isn’t working, just kick them out. Students here (my ten year-olds and KC’s 8th graders) hated it. The threat alone can often quell them for a while. I only had to do it once or twice each semester, but it’s great option to remember when you feel like you’re losing control. Attitude here in the classroom is a big problem. There is a lot of talking back and disrespect (sometimes attributed to cultural differences like race or the fact that as WorldTeachers we don’t use corporal punishment). Sadly, almost all teachers and administrators still beat the children. It’s attributed to being “a part of their culture,” which I have a hard time stomaching. I just tried to keep all matters inside the classroom. Involving administrators or parents usually means a serious beating for the kids. I would say with sixth grade and younger you won’t have a problem keeping the kids in order if you have some sort of warning system or token economy set-up. Older kids might need to visit the office (KC experienced this more than I did because inevitably the attitude problem gets worse the older they get). I began the year extremely strict. I’m a really nice person who’s always smiling, but it was advised by another volunteer to not even smile the first week and really intimidate your class. I was a little nervous to approach it like this- but it worked so well! It’s always easier to establish that you’re serious right off the bat than to try and make up for it later. So, the first few weeks will be mayhem, some students won’t show up until your third week- so really just focus on managing behavior for those first few weeks, set a routine, and then you can get to lesson planning.

As for lesson planning, they’ll go over it at orientation. My advice on this front is just follow the textbooks. You definitely won’t get through everything in the standards packet. In my opinion, I think it’s more important that the kids master a subject than trying to rush through everything without retention. I mean, these kids are learning in their second language- not an easy feat- so respect that and if you need to go over a lesson for a couple extra days, why not? Materials- you will have ZERO in Manu’a. We often didn’t have internet, and for the second semester had absolutely no copier or printer. Utilize your textbooks, teachers editions (ask your administrator to make sure you get yours) and other volunteers to come up with lesson plans. The beginning of the year is going to be hard. The first couple of months you’ll be lesson planning for hours- it will be all you do. BUT- every week it will get easier, I promise. By the end of the year, it took 2 hours to lesson plan for a whole week compared to my 10 hours the first week I was here. It’s a learn as you go thing- try to have fun with it and so will the kids.

Finally, when it comes to teaching out here in Manu’a, be prepared to face a very varied schedule. The bell rings when it wants, the teachers teach when they want and there is very little accountability. I don’t know whether you’ll have the same principal we did, so that might change. But this year, she checked my plans maybe 5 weeks out of the year and never even observed my teaching. The lack of accountability has its plusses and minuses for you. For the school overall it’s definitely a bad thing because the other teachers are rarely teaching, which will make it hard for you to stay motivated. But- keep reminding yourself you’re here for the kids. And with the absence of the administration, you are really free to experiment with different teaching techniques. This whole year, even though I had to recognize certain standards, I tried to teach from a Montessori approach- leaving a lot of what we focused on up to the kids. I found the most important thing to pass on to my class was the love of learning that doesn’t always get explored out here. Many of my students are hungry for knowledge and with the laid-back island vibe out here, not many teachers are prepared to give that to them. So, I found my role in showing up everyday as their way to experience passion for education. When they saw me get excited about studies, they would, too. It’s contagious! So try to keep that passion in the classroom as much as possible because the laidback approach of other faculty can suck that out of you.

And, as for what to bring, I stress that there are NO materials on the outer island- so anything you need you will have to get from Pago. Your field director can ship these to you after classes have begun, so don’t worry if you don’t get them out here the first week. I recommend having with you from day one: a stapler (one that opens up so you can put up bulletin boards and hang their work), duct tape, construction paper, many sharpees (they dry out quickly in the tropics), crayons, glue. Some of the other teachers may share what they have with you, but otherwise, there is a great teacher store across from Laufou on the main island- so hit that up!

Teaching is going to be wonderful and exhausting! So make sure you make time for yourself. Find time for yourself after school doing things that make you happy. I went for long runs, meditated, went swimming and during second semester I coached softball and basketball with KC in the village, Ta’u. Coaching was really great because it got us out of town for a while and allowed me to feel closer to students from the other village I didn’t get a chance to see as much outside of school. There are a lot of great people who live in Ta’u, who are good to know- I’ll be sure to mention them later in the letter. I did try to get some after school tutoring going first semester. It’s hard because the schedules are so unreliable here and the kids have a lot of afterschool commitments with church and chores. Be respectful of this, and just do as much as you can. I found that the afterschool tutoring also burnt me out a little, which is why coaching became a better way for me to donate my time. Just keep a healthy balance, and you’ll be fine.

Let me also tell you a little bit about the culture of Manu’a and American Samoa more generally. This year, our group experienced some challenging events from natural disasters. You may be aware that in the fall, a horrible earthquake and tsunami hit the country. It was a terrible tragedy that definitely caught everyone, volunteers and locals alike, off guard. Luckily, Manu’a went essentially untouched by the wave, but many of the families who have relatives on the main island were affected. After that, my family bought me a NOAA weather radio and had it shipped out here. It alerted me when ANY natural disasters were occurring in the South Pacific, including hurricanes, which we got to experience in February. Before this year, the country was ill-prepared for such occurrences, especially tsunamis. Sadly after the tragedy in the fall, they’ve begun to take the issue more seriously. Just be aware that these natural effects could occur during your stay and have a plan and know how to evacuate. You will most always be more informed than the locals, so with a radio (b/c you won’t have internet and sometimes cell service- it really is helpful to have the radio) you’ll be set for the possibility of a weather threat (I’m going to leave my radio here for you with Saonoa- so find him at the beginning of your stay out here). Flashlights and candles are also necessary materials to have- even just for the common power outage (one this year lasted a whole weekend). Always good to be prepared.

AmSam’s location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, though it can bring the rare threat of natural disasters, has it’s HUGE advantages. Pacific Islander culture is beautiful. Especially living on the outer island, you will be wholly immersed in traditional cultural events and traditions. Americanization has definitely changed a lot of the traditions post-missionary contact in the 1800’s, but a lot of traditions still exist that are fun to parktake in. Ukulele playing is big out here (if there are ukes around to play on)- and most locals know a few songs. I enjoyed playing mine, which I purchased at Tropik Traders on the main island for $25 bucks. I’m not musical at all, but I found it a worthy investment. You can also enjoy some ‘ava or kava, which you can buy at Ale’s store in Ta’u. They have traditional ‘ava ceremonies for special occasions, but if you’re a woman, and even as a man, it’s rare you’ll be invited to one. The town event I love the most are the (almost) monthly sivas (dances)! There’s a live Samoan band and the whole village comes out to dance. The church is mostly what life centers on. It can take ALL your time, so be careful how much energy you want to invest- but it’s necessary to attend every week. It’s not too bad, I’m not a church-goer, but it was a nice time to journal write and reflect on my experiences.

The language is really fun to learn, but really hard! I bought a dictionary and workbook before I came out here, but I never used either. Locals (especially your schoolkids!) are excited to help you learn, so take advantage of that. But, because everyone speaks English out here, you probably won’t learn as much as you’d like. I certainly didn’t, just enough to have a basic conversation. I recommend hitting up the Mormon Missionaries for lessons. They live in Fitiuta and have much better language training than the DOE provided.

I guess I should also talk about some cultural issues I’ve dealt with this year. Samoans have a different idea of stealing and “borrowing” than I do. If you leave something out on your desk or outside of your house, it will disappear. This isn’t ever malicious- it’s probably more boredom than anything. Like in most developing territories, Americans are seen for their money first. Kids will straight up ask you to give them things all the time. Even the teachers in school will ask to borrow things- don’t give them anything you don’t want back. I hate to say it, but I’m a very trustful person, and by the second semester, I had to just deny people any materials, money or food I have- otherwise people will take it. A lot of it also has to do with the cultural tradition of “what’s mine is yours” out here. AmSam is a collectivist culture that puts sharing and family first. It’s really wonderful, but when they’re used to pilfering things from each other, they won’t see your belongings as any different. Just take it as a compliment and lock up your valuables.

I have to stress that the corporal punishment was really hard to witness inside and outside of the classroom. I saw kids beaten really badly. I attempted to intervene and talk with adults about this being problematic. They always cite it as a part of the culture. I would really like to see future volunteers work to fight against it. If you see it, you must report it to social services (legally speaking). The corporal punishment I witnessed was, in my opinion, straight up child abuse. Do whatever you feel is right, but just be prepared to witness it or hear your kids talk about it happening at home. You can always talk to your director, principal (if they’re against it) or social services on the main island.

Finally, Samoans are extremely generous! They will give you the shirt off your back and expect nothing in return. Hitching rides is very common and fun! In Ta’u, our coaching was paid with a generous supply of food from the town’s minister and at every social event (whether it is at church or school) you’ll get a ton of food. (Respectfully) Enjoy this! Their family-oriented and generous ways are my favorite parts of the culture.

I got the rare opportunity to stay with a host-family. It had its ups and downs, and some parts of the culture are hard to witness. You might feel overcommitted to your family, but ultimately, it did help me feel closer to the culture this way. I ate dinner with them four times a week, and I even had one of my host sisters in my class. You don’t need to stay with a host family to have a deeper cultural understanding, though. There are many families in town who would be happy to have you over for dinner (especially the ministers in each village). Take your time meeting people at the beginning of the year and find a family or local who’s a good fit, and try to set something up with them. Living in Manu’a, you will inevitably be more connected to the culture than on the main island because it’s a VERY small community!

That said- on this small island “coconut wireless” is alive and well! You’ll hear a lot about this so I won’t spend a lot of time on the subject, but just anticipate that everyone knows everyone here, so don’t talk smack b/c who you’re whining about could be that person’s second cousin. My host family and kids new my every move I made in town (even when I was out of town)- they knew what I bought at the store and how late I was out at night. Do your thing, be respectful of town rules and curfews, and you’ll be fine. It’s innocent gossip, and I never felt threatened by it. So, fair warning, EVERYTHING you do will be under the radar- but the effects I experienced were always superficial talk and nothing more.

Travel: Getting to and from Manu’a can be quite a feat! Fair warning: travel out here was stressful. Once you’re on the island, you have one road to worry about- so hitching rides is nothing. I might even recommend buying a bike on the main island if you can- we didn’t this year, but it would be a great way to get around. Our group had a lot of trouble with the planes. Both for Thanksgiving and the past couple of weeks (late April) there has been a complete absence of airline (broken plane)- that means no way off the island. There is only one airline (and 1 propeller plane!) that flies out here, which means they can do pretty much what they want. Be prepared for a lot of headaches. They may say you’re flying out on Friday, and you won’t leave until Sunday. My biggest advice is buy your round trip tickets in Pago (or have your director buy them and mail them out to you). If you have a purchased ticket- they usually won’t give you any trouble. If you try to fly back to the main island without one, as someone without status out here- you will always get bumped by a chief or a minister who has clout (even if you had reservations). Make your reservations months in advance and keep checking on them...because they might just disappear off their handwritten lists and they’ll have “no idea what happened.” Like I mentioned before about the laid-back island vibe- it permeates every aspect of the culture- from travel to communication- so take a deep breath and remember that worst case scenario, you’re living on a beautiful, tropical island.

As for communication, buy your cell phone in Pago and buy phone cards in Pago. Cell phones can’t be purchased out here in Manu’a. Phone cards don’t really exist out here, and they’re MUCH cheaper purchased on the main island. I made a lot of phone calls home so I just had my director purchase phone cards and call me with the code as I needed them. ASTCA is the only company which has service out here, and if you have a Verizon phone from home- you might be able to use it with ASTCA- I could (I had an Envy and I could use it with ASTCA). Internet out here is hit or miss. There were two months where we didn’t have it, and then a month when it worked just fine. I was applying to grad school out here, and it was really stressful. There is no fax machine either- so make sure you have all your ducks in a row before you get out here- b/c there are no promises for reliable technology. You won’t have it from your house (fale) for sure and the elementary school had one computer that worked reliably. The main island has much better access, so take advantage of your two or three holidays there!

People to know: While you’re here get to know: Saonoa!!! He’s the man. He lives on top of the mountain in Ta’u (the house that has a sign that says “You shoot Lupe (a bird) and I’ll shoot you!”). He is Samoan, but was raised in Hawaii, so he bridges both Samoan and US culture. He is the nicest man on the island, and he loves to chat! He’ll also hook you up with some delicious fresh fruit from his plantation. If you’re at the elementary school, his niece June, works there. She taught level 6 this year. She is super nice and really funny- a great teacher to know. The doctor, Malo, is also a great guy. He is more laconic than Saonoa, but like Sao, he is Samoan but educated in the states, so he has a great perspective on the local culture. He can also always use volunteers at his clinic. His wife and kids are great to know, too. Leafa, who has one of the three stores in Faleasao, is awesome. She’s hilarious and is a really great person. Lastly, the minister in Ta’u is great. KC and I are coaching basketball and softball for his youth-group. He’s really well educated (though a bit old-fashioned), and he’s enjoyed getting to know the volunteers. He’s got a great family with three very spunky and smart grandkids who go to Faleasao elementary. Everyone on the island will be friendly, and you’ll get a lot of attention out here, especially your first few months because it’s such a small, homogenous community so mainlanders stick out. I do want to say that because of this, I had a hard time getting close to any of my coworkers and neighbors. I always felt like I was friendly with everyone, but never had any real, close friends. Samoans are a tight-knit group, and they all grew up together, especially on the outer islands. I also found it hard to connect because I’m not fluent in Samoan. For these reasons, you may feel like an outsider a lot. I just tried to remember that I’m only here for a year, and I understand that it’s hard to get close to anyone when their life-long friends out here, if they aren’t family, are as good as family.

Finally what to bring. I guess I’ll start with what they have out here….very little. The handful of small stores that exist out here have less than a gas-station convenience store in the US. They carry foods that are high in preservatives because it’s hard to ship anything this far away from farms and fruit stands of the mainland. We had biweekly shipments of groceries picked up for us by our field director. She just took the total out of our stipend and sent out our groceries in a cardboard box on the planes. Granted- the planes have to be running to receive these packages, so get used to buying in bulk. But we never went hungry. The stores out here are mostly junk food (soda, chips, sugary cereals). If you want healthier options, buy them in Pago. I bought a lot of canned veggies and beans. They will sometimes have carrots or onions out here, but that’s as far as fresh produce goes. The plantations can provide you with local produce, but because these are family run, you’ll have to get in with a family to get a hold of this food. Other items I found handy are random and maybe not all-inclusive. The list they give you in the guidelines before you fly out here is great.

Generally I’d recommend:
Medicine (the clinic is rarely stocked b/c of lack of boats and planes out here) so any prescriptions you’ll need for the year, cold meds, vitamins, Neosporin/alcohol (cuts/mosquito bites get infected real quick in the tropical weather!), gauze, thermometer, pepto! And any other dietary problem relievers, sunscreen. I would even bring your own supply of anti-biotics if you can. We had a couple months when the clinic was completely empty, and I needed to use my own supply. Oh, facewash! (I would even get this in bulk before you come from the states- it’s like non-existant in AmSam), aloe, sunglasses, waterbottles or camelbacks (you’ll drink the rainwater out here and it’s fine- no one had any dietary issues), keens or industrious sandals for hiking, one or two nice outfits for dinners with the DOE on the main island or special occasions with your school (b/c otherwise you’ll live in basketball shorts and tshirts and tanktops), cash! (no ATMs or bank on the outer island) *b/c the stores out here don’t take cards or checks that aren’t personalized*, batteries, books (you can swap with your other vols so 5-10 will do), movies/movies/movies!, crafts and hobbies that keep you busy. B/c in Manu’a, you’re going to be faced with a TON of free time. Bring what keeps you happy- especially pictures of family and friends from home b/c your host family and students will enjoy looking at them, too, a zip drive for shifting documents around without the internet, powder! (I had two straight months of heat rash and it was the only thing that relieved it), laundry bag (I did my laundry at a free washer and dryer at the principal’s house), and remember- anything you forget- you can probably get in Pago, or within a month and a half shipped from the states.

Finally, I’d just like to say- enjoy it! Keep a positive attitude and rely on other volunteers for support. It’s a lot to take in- I don’t even feel like I’ve processed everything yet. Just keep an open mind, remember you’re invested, but ultimately, you’re here to observe the culture- trying to get a better understanding for it. Highs will feel really high and sometimes lows will feel really low, but it all passes- all too quickly. So expect the unexpected and enjoy the ride. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Keep a journal, keep a blog, take pictures and try to savor the adventure!

Manuia malaga,

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