Christmas in September; Our Grant Finally Coming Through!

September was the month of things finally coming together in my Peace Corps Service. Almost a year to the day of when we started the grant process, we finally got to see the results! Last September we made a wish-list of all the technology resources we would like to see in an ideal English classroom, and then we wrote the grant to include as many of them as possible given our budget. Then I worked with Peace Corps to tweak the grant to their specifications, and finally it was added to the Peace Corps website, where wonderful people like you donated money to our project! In May, the American portion of the grant was completely funded, and Peace Corps sent me a credit card with $2660 on it. The school was still working on raising their part of the contribution, about $350, so we postponed buying the technology and textbooks until the new school year started.

Fast forward to August: after a few hiccups along the way, my school came through with the money and I went to Chernivtsi (the nearest big city) to order everything! I have a Ukrainian friend in Chernivtsi who teaches English at the university and who is a methodologist for our region. Her name is Kate (too) and she gets a discount on Oxford textbooks when she orders them in bulk, so I went to her for help.

She’s worked with other Peace Corps Volunteers before, and she gave me a presentation on all the different textbook series from Oxford that she recommends. Then we budgeted how many books we could purchase depending on which series we chose, given our budget. We settled on the Solutions series from Oxford, ordering 20 books at the Pre-Intermediate level for the 10th grade, and 15 books at the Intermediate Level for the 11th grade. Kate also included a teachers book for free, complete with lesson plans, for each of the levels we were buying, as well as a workbook with additional exercises. One of the technology items we were buying was a Xerox copier/scanner/printer, so having one workbook to copy additional exercises from would be fine.

Kate was so incredibly helpful with the textbooks, and after our meeting she insisted on helping me purchase everything else! I had the money from the grant in my wallet in dollars, so we started at a bank and exchanged the dollars for hryvnia (Ukrainian currency). The bank teller’s eyes popped out of her head when I handed her $2660, mostly in hundreds, and she made a big show of checking to see if any of the bills were counterfeit.

Finally she gave us the money in hryvnia, and then Kate took me to a computer store that her husband’s friend owns. After greetings and introductions, she whips out a copy of the grant budget, and tells him exactly what we want to buy and how much we have to spend on it. He sits down and starts talking a hundred miles an hour, speaking geek and in Ukrainian no less! I was so thankful Kate was there to do the communicatingshe wasn’t accepting anything less than exactly what the grant specified, and she insisted he give us a discount because this grant was for a good cause. She was a superstar; I have “writing Kate a huge thank-you note” on my to-do list, because she totally made it all happen!

Once everything was ordered and the total was rang up, I handed over more than 14,000 hyrvnia for the new computer, printer, and projector. The exchange rate is 8 hyrvnia to 1 dollar, so 14,000 isn’t as much as it sounds, but its still more hyrvnia than I’ve ever had! I was happy to have it out of my wallet; knowing I had that much cash was making me uncomfortable. Then I paid Kate for all the textbooks she ordered, and the only thing remaining to be purchased was a dry erase board. I went to METRO, which is like the Walmart of Ukraine, where my friend Tammela had found white boards when she was shopping for her grant.

I found the biggest board they had, and also a dry-erase kit of markers, erasers, and magnets. I put the board on a cart, and drove it up to the check out, attracting lots of stares. As the cashier rang it up, I requested an official receipt, because Peace Corps is very particular about Volunteers carefully documenting and accounting for where all the grant monies are spent. The cashier had no clue what I was talking about, so I asked if I could speak to a manager. As I was explaining what kind of receipt I needed to the general manager, I realized that my Ukrainian has come such a long way. If I was doing this last year, I don’t know if I would’ve been able to articulate what I needed without calling a Ukrainian for help! The manager quickly produced an official receipt, stamped and everything, and Kate called a taxi to take me and my huge board across town to the bus station.

I take the bus from Sokyriany to Chernivtsi quite often, at least once a month, and luckily for me, I recognized the driver waiting by the bus. I probably looked crazy, as the taxi driver and I, each holding one end, maneuvered the board through the bus station. Putting on my best big American smile, I asked the driver if he would be willing to drive the board back to Sokyriany for me, as it was for my classroom at school. He was shocked and assumed that I was using my own money to outfit my classroom, and said he’d happily drive my board back for me. SUCCESS! I called my counterpart, Natalia, and explained that I was on my way home and I had a huge white board that I need help with. When the bus pulled into the station at Sokyriany, she and her husband were waiting with a van to drive the board to school. It was a long day, but everything on my to-do list was checked off. Mission accomplished!

The next week Kate called me to inform me that the books had arrived at her office in Chernivtsi, and her contact at the computer store said the computer and projector had arrived too. Kate said her husband Nazar was willing to drive all of the stuff to Sokyriany for me, if my school could just give him gas money for the transportation. Sokyriany is a 2-3 hour drive from Chernivtsi, one way, and gas is pretty expensive here in Ukraine too. I called my director at school and explained the situation, and she agreed! So Nazar picked up the computer, projector, speakers, and printer from his friend’s shop, and Kate put all the next textbooks in his car too.

The next day, teaching my first lesson, my phone rang and it was Nazar calling. He was in the school courtyard, waiting for me to come down. I told Natalia that the stuff had arrived, and we took the whole 6th grade down with us to meet Nazar and help carry the things upstairs to the English classroom. I’ve never seen Natalia so animated, and the kids “ooh-ed” and “ahhh-ed” appropriately, every time a box was taken out of the car. It was so exciting, I can’t even relate how enthusiastic everyone was!

Our English lesson was derailed by the arrival of the textbooks and technology, but we had a blast unpacking each box and squealing with delight when something impressive was brought out. I think the English teachers were most excited about the printer/scanner/copier, while the students were most impressed with the textbooks. Speaking of which, I took some pictures to illustrate what an improvement our new textbooks are over the old ones that we were using.  

The new Oxford Solutions Series vs. the old “Your English Self” Ukrainian textbook.

This isn’t just a beauty contest, although the Solutions books are very aesthetically pleasing. This is about content, and unfortunately, most of the Ukrainian produced English textbooks are full of mistakes. The English taught in these textbooks, which they claim to be British English, is outdated and practically useless. Here’s a page out of “Your English Self,” so you can see for yourself how uninspiring and downright dull the material is.

A page inside of “Your English Self.”

Half of the new vocabulary words taught here are never going to be useful to the students. For example, “chalk cliffs, leek, thistle” (which no Ukrainian will ever be able pronounce because of the “th” sound), “heather, to be home of something” (which is incorrect, it should say “to be the home of something”), and “to go down like a backbone” (seriously? who says that?). This is just one page as an example, but most pages in the textbook are just as equally as bad. I have no problem with the map of the British Isles, but I don’t see how teaching geography will help any of my students speak conversational English.

Now for the sake of comparison, look inside of our new Solutions textbook. 

Teaching the grammar concept of Present Perfect vs. Past Simple

Every Solutions textbook comes with a listening CD (which makes me happy, knowing the kids will still hear English spoken by a native speaker after I leave), and there’s listening exercises on every page. The grammar principle is taught through dialogues and fill-in-the-blank exercises, and a helpful “learn this” box tells the students what they need to memorize to master this concept. Obviously I’m very biased in which textbook I’m endorsing, and the point of this blog post isn’t to demonize the Ukrainian-produced English books (although I do that often in the company of other Peace Corps Volunteers, as we bemoan the poor quality of textbooks we have to use at school).

The point of this point is to give thanks for the grant finally coming together, for the results that my school is seeing as the 10th and 11th form students use brand new books (that they actually find engaging!), and for the lessons my students will soon be experiencing in the English Technology and Resource Center. My next few weeks will be busy, teaching the teachers about all the cool things they can do with the computer and projector. My goals are teaching them how to make Powerpoint presentations for lessons, and how to find supplementary materials on the Internet to include in their lessons. My first seminar for the teachers is going to be on the beauty of Youtube; they are always amazed when I find applicable Youtube clips, either for teaching the second and third graders the alphabet, or for music videos for English Club that get our older students’ attention. I want to show them how easy it is to find a Youtube video for a lesson, in the hope that they’ll continue to do so once I’m gone.

I promise I’ll include a blog post with pictures showing how the English classroom has been transformed by the new technology, but for now you’ll just have to be content knowing that its all coming together. If you’re reading this and you happen to be one of the wonderful American donors that helped make this possible, I want you to know that you’ve made such a difference in the English education my students are receiving. I’ve seen some of my teachers tear up when admiring our new computer and projector, and I’ve seen my older students get enthusiastically involved when Green Day was part of their lesson in the Solutions book. All of this is because of you, and I hope you know how much it means to me and my school. Thanks again, from the bottom of my heart.

I’m working on a thank-you newsletter for our donors, complete with pictures and thank you notes written by my students. I’m hoping to send it out next month. I have a list of the donors who agreed to have their information released to me, but one donor, who gave a whopping $1700, decided to remain anonymous. And I respect that decision (or at least I’m trying to), but if you change your mind, we’d love to thank you properly, with a newsletter and thank-you cards from my kids! If you have any information relating to this mysterious donor, I promise a reward of Ukrainian chocolate will be bestowed in exchange for a name. The suspense is killing me, especially as I make a poster-board thanking our donors, to be displayed in the English classroom. I’d love to have a complete list, instead of just writing “anonymous” at the bottom. Pretty please? 🙂

That’s it for now, pictures will follow soon. Thanks for reading, and more importantly, thanks for donating and being part of this incredible adventure.

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