Saturday, October 26, 2013

Leap of Faith

zim001Okay, this last trip was something a bit new for me and Sara. We had never been sub-Saharan before so we leaped at the opportunity. Somehow the Association of International Schools in Africa got my name and their director contacted me about presenting at their annual conference. Of course I accepted, on one condition, that Sara was included.

This was a bit of a role reversal. Since Sara is the one with all the kids’ publications under her belt and it was she who introduced me into the education world a dozen years ago it is usually the other way around. A conference calls for her or more commonly nowadays both of us, and I come along as part of the deal. So I have not let it go unnoticed by her that I was the original contact on this one. Gotta take those small victories. Well in any case we both won on this one. We’ve been working the international school system for over a decade now, but mostly in SE Asia so when the prospect of visiting a new continent was raised, we swan-dived into the prospect.

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Thanks to the transience of the entrepreneurial population who make up the talent pool in international schools we have contacts all over the world now. As such we have a modus operandi when a new overseas request comes in. We send a warning shot over the bow of folks we know in that particular part of the globe to let folks know we are in the neighborhood. It was through the efforts of Rita a librarian in Abuja, Nigeria who we had met long ago in Vietnam and who Sara had worked with in Sumatra that our month long tour of the Dark Continent became a reality.

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We told the director of the AISA conference our intention to tour about the continent before attending the conference and he tried to dissuade us – noting the difficulties of traversing the expanse which is Africa. He wanted us fresh for the conference – free of jetlag, parasites, stomach distress, lost luggage, and not sitting in some sauna impersonating airport lamenting missed connections instead of presenting a session on writing across the curriculum.

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Of course we ignored him – of course he was right. Luckily for all of us we had plenty experience in unpredictable travel twists and our schedule was (just barely) flexible enough that we were able to make all our commitments.

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One thing we learned on this journey – we love the Africa we have come to know. We love the changeability of all situations, the color, the heat, the people, and the food. When we landed in Lagos, Nigeria and were tossed into the tropical tumult that is the roiling olio of the airport immigration and its Kafkaesque musical chair routines of standing in this mass of humanity and then that and then back for inscrutable reason - I couldn’t stop smiling.

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The night before we returned home Sara and I chatted with another consultant presenter at the conference, a New Zealander whose specialty was learning and brain science. I asked him what was the impulse in the Kiwi psyche that impelled his countrymen to jump off of high things with rubber bands attached to their ankles. It is after all the home of bungee jumping.

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He said it was the desire to confront fear and to conquer it – to step up to that edge, lean forward and let go. I think travel in the developing world is very similar and the aspiration to do so is that stretchy cord looped around one’s ankles. There is nothing like that first jump into a new place, when experience has no bearing, that initial step off the ledge when you just wing it.

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Thanks for the ride Africa – we’ll be back.

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Friday, October 25, 2013

Association Of International Schools in Africa 2013 Conference

aisa000Sara and I were lucky enough to be invited to present at the Association of International Schools in Africa’s annual conference. We both talked about using poetry as a vehicle for learning across the curriculum.

It was a poet rich event – Sara Kay – the young YouTube performance poet keynoted the first night and a local cat named Sir Black was also in attendance during the conference as a guest of the Lincoln Community School where he has worked with youth (see my earlier post re: the visit Sara and I made to this school). Add me and Sara to the ix and you have potent concentration of poetic prowess.

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Sara – Sarah – and me.

The format was very interesting – as presenters, Sara and I gave two 6 hour sessions on consecutive days and then a three hour session the third. I liked the extra time to get a little deeper in the lessons with the teachers, but I didn’t think I really hit my stride with the format 'til the second day.

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Not everyone had the best time at the gala dinner – this pig seemed pretty incensed.

Sara and I were presenting separate – and it’s been awhile since we have done so. Plus there were a couple tech glitches – on my part I couldn’t get the slide projector working correctly the first day so that I could see the slide on deck before it projected to the attendees. This doesn’t sound like a big deal but that little thing really adds to the smooth flow of a presentation. I had it figured out the second time around.

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At least I had it a bit easier than Sara – her air conditioner gave up the ghost – and with a full room she did the whole day in the Ghanaian heat without losing a single participant!

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As for the rest of the conference – the organizers had everything moving smoothly. Peter Bateman and his crew ran a tight ship. They even had a new compressor installed in Sara’s room so that the air conditioner was better than new for the next day. 

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We really enjoyed our time with the AISA crew and it’s delegates and we certainly hope to be seeing and working with them again soon.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Lincoln Community School Accra, Ghana

LCS001There is nothing better than getting to work with students for an extended time. Our librarian hostess Rhona, here in Accra, Ghana at the Lincoln Community School knew this.

Sara and I spent three days working with the 9th and 10th graders at this IB school. This meant we each got to see a class of 25 or so two times. That’s a total of four sessions of an hour twenty each. This is such a treat, by that fourth session we are able to call the kids by name.

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We worked on personification, extended metaphor, narrative structure and public speaking. Rhona asked us to steer the kids toward global issues to coincide with a summit that she and the kids are working on that will be held at the school. So we did.

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We ended the visit with performances by the students in an open performance space and every single kid we had in our sessions got up and performed one of the three pieces we had produced in the two days.

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I am always amazed at the quality of work that kids put out. Not because I don’t have high expectations – but because of how often they exceed these expectations. The LCS gang popped the roof off writing and performing poems about world hunger, LGBT rights, terrorism, personal conflict and other real world issues. The pieces were thoughtful and specific and the fact that all stood up and spoke out just illustrates the fine job the school has been doing with these students long before Sara and I got our hands on them.

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It was a pleasure to help these guys and gals raise their voices.

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Just some of the students who performed their work.

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Sara warms up the second grade audience before the 9th graders perform.

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Our hostess and librarian extraordinaire – Rhona.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Resorting to Ko Sa.

kosa006What beeps like a dying smoke detector, eats mangos and has a three foot wing span? Answer at the end of this post.

Our bags are packed.

This is a common occurrence for this couple of itinerant poets from the Ohio. Sara and I wait for our driver, Godwin, to pick us up and transport us back to Accra after having spent a couple days of rest and relaxation at the Ko Sa Beach Resort about three hours from the city. I am always surprised that everything fits back into the suitcases.

Rhona, our hostess back at the Lincoln Community School of Accra, made the reservations for us. She knew that the place would be a perfect site to recharge off the grid so to speak after a couple whirlwind weeks in Africa. Especially after our misadventures and misconnections trying to get to Ghana in the first place from Nigeria the relative tranquility of the gold coast was welcome respite.

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Consider, we had no way of knowing if our messages to Rhona about our delay in Lagos had even got to her, our relief to see her placidly sitting in the arrival lounge of Accra international. The calm of the airport compared to the bubbling cauldron Lagos couldn’t have been more disparate.

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Off we go to Rhona’s place for a quick cup of coffee, a banana shake, some toast and conversation then into the air conditioned car which whisks us to the beach. And here you find us – ready to visit school tomorrow and start working with the students and teachers of Lincoln Community.

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Find the crab.

Enjoy the pics.

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And here is you answer:

African Fruit bats, they would begin beeping (they really do sound like a smoke detector or a travel alarm) and calling at dusk then again at 4am as they returned to their roosts in the tree outside of our bungalow. Unique, but still a bit early for a wake up call.

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The not so friendly skies of Arik Air

Okay, I suppose our luck couldn’t hold out forever.

So our flight leaving Abuja was three and a half hours late which led to us missing our connecting flight to Accra and thus were we thrown into the blender which is Nigeria’s Lagos International Airport – set to puree please.

We landed at 4:15pm while our connecting flight was scheduled to take off at five. We’ve made tighter connections but there was just too much working against us this time. First off, Lagos airport is divided into two terminals, Domestic and International. They use the same runways, but the terminals themselves are a couple miles apart. We landed in the domestic and had to make our way to the International for our flight to Ghana. Add to that, even though our bags looked as if they had been checked through to our destination we had to pick them up in the domestic terminal and then load them ourselves into the back of a truck to cart them to International.

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But I’m getting ahead of myself – it wasn’t this easy.

Before we had the privilege of tossing our bags onto that truck we were told by alternating folks in the domestic terminal that we would and then that we would not make our flight, that the plane was waiting for us and that it was not, that there was a 7pm flight out that we could catch and that no the flight was at 7am.

We marched, dragging six bags behind us, from baggage claim to the Arik Air desk, to baggage claim, to Arik Air, to the transfer area where we are told to take a shuttle bus to the International Terminal and then told to take a cab, then told to wait for the shuttle, then told that Arik Air should call us a cab so back to Arik Air desk again – this time we were led back to the transfer area by an airline representative who told us to sit on the ground by the window. This we did. Things could have been worse I suppose – A South African lady we were waiting with told us that the area we were sitting in was a tent with dirt floors two years ago. It’s the little things that count.

It’s now getting to be around 5:15 but people are still saying they will hold the plane for us. Little by little we become a group of about fifteen waiting for the transfer bus to show up. Eventually the driver in his crisp white shirt appears apologizing to all and subsequently and mysteriously disappears for twenty minutes. Things ain’t looking so good. On the plus side – we haven’t been asked for any bribes yet.

Then all of a sudden after what seems to me to be no discernible change in our situation we are told the bus is here, the bus is here! – get moving. Sara and I lurch into the dusty heat outside the domestic terminal and careen with our bags down the steep embankment into the busy road running in front and then alongside the terminal. A cop shouts at us to, “Please save your life! Move to the side!” We see a truck the size of a mid level U-Haul and the folks in front of us begin tossing their bags in. I figured we were to clamber in after the bags and I would have done so at this point without batting an eye. But, one should always count one’s blessings, in front of this moving van was a standard shuttle bus and we scurried in.

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We finally arrive at the International Terminal; get our bags off of the ersatz U-Haul and make our way to the Arik Air desk here. It is now we finally get definitive word from a tall man with an Arik Air badge – the flight to Accra, Ghana is gone. In an instant, so too was the tall man with the badge. We are left standing with a crowd of fifty or so folks who have been displaced by the airline milling about in front of a half dozen empty check-in stations. It is now that I pick up through crowd rumblings that some folks have been stuck for two days! We dutifully wait in place, for the most part,  like the good citizens we are, I do wander off a bit every now and then to see if I can spot the tall man and call Rita (see earlier posts) to ask her to let our host in Ghana know we are not gonna make it.

Then over toward one of the unmanned check-in stations I see a man standing on a chair announcing something to the stranded masses. I sidle in to find out what is up. It is not an airline rep – but rather one of the marooned mob who is trying to rally some sort of uprising to the cheers and affirming grunts of his audience. I am starting to imagine that single line buried on page 47 of the New York Times, “Two Americans missing in Nigerian Airport riot.”

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I spy a young lady wearing an Arik Air uniform who is cautiously watching the crowd. I calmly ask her what we need to do to get boarding passes on the next flight to Accra. She takes the ticket stubs of our late flight disappears (people come and go so quickly here) returns with a couple porters and escorts Sara and me down some steps behind the check in stations where we are introduced to her supervisor, named appropriately, Blessings who turns out to be, someone we could count on.

We are booked on the first flight out the next morning. Arik Air is going to pay for a hotel and grub for us for the night and shuttle us back and forth. Well, in order to wrap this post up, I’ll let it suffice to say it was the second worse hotel we have ever stayed in – first place is still held by a dump in Breezwood, PA. While the hotel was a bit frightening, the staff was cordial; our driver was on time the next morning and our flight was only an hour late.

So here I sit, typing this up at a beach resort 2.5 hours outside of Accra listening to drums in the distance and village children laughing and shouting as they gather nuts from the tree alongside our bungalow.

Looks like our luck might be taking a turn for the better.

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American International School Abuja

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Look, there is green!

This is the first thing I noticed as we flew into Abuja from Lagos. It was a welcome sight after the dust and mud of the former capital. The new capital Abuja, with its wide and relatively pothole free roads felt wide open as we road to the school it's welcome was only surpassed by that of our librarian hostess Rita who came bearing Thai food - a sure way to elevate your position in this poet's esteem.

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Elementary assembly: before

That's the good news. The bad news is that our original flight had been cancelled and we were rushing late to the school to a flip flopped schedule. True to the high standards of the international school system - everyone rolled with it and made our visit a joy.

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Elementary assembly: during

We did a couple assemblies and then some writing workshops with the students and a little professional development with the teachers after classes on out last day. I worked with the middle and upper school and Sara wrote with the carpet crowd. We couldn't have felt more welcome. We stayed with Rita, her principle husband Lyle and their two sons. This doesn't mean that Rita has a second husband somewhere; Lyle is the principle of the upper school. Rounding out this clan is Bubba the African Gray Parrot and Max - the forever fetching canine.

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Sara and I tried a new thing this trip. We emailed a packet of sixty of our poems leveled. That means we sent 20 poems for elementary, 20 for middle and 20 for high school. Sometimes getting books to a place like Abuja, Nigeria isn't he easiest thing to do but e-mailing a cross section of work that can then be disseminated so the kids are familiar with us before we get there has made the visits so much more successful. We are going to carry this practice over to our stateside work as well.

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Anyway, we had a terrific time with all the kids big and small at AISA (pronounced eye-sa) and hope we get to see everybody again sooner than later.

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Go Crocs!

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Librarian Rita modeling the down portion of the Up Down I received from the general – See earlier post.

Abujian Amphibian oratory

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As much as we enjoy our time with students it is nice to get out read some of our adult work. We've had the opportunity to do so in Beijing with some Polish performance poets at the Bookworm Cafe, in Korea with the teachers from KIS in conjunction with a wine tasting (the audience at that one became increasingly amenable as that evening progressed) Shanghai we did a Friday set at the local watering hole. Here in Abuja, Rita provided us the chance to sing for our suppers at a funky but chic joint called the Salamander Cafe.

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Sara and Rita plotting before the show.

We teamed up with a couple local musicians, guitarists who accompanied as we performed some of our poems. Working with a musician can be a hit or miss endeavor but, if I do say so myself, I think this gig came off really well. The guitarists and we clicked from the first piece no matter what we threw at them.

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"Play bear music", I would say - or "How about a little flamenco?" And our guys made it sound like we had been rehearsing for a week. The audience of a dozen or so filled up the seats of the small room we were playing and were generous in their response. To top it off all book sales loot went to a local school for the blind.

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Not too shabby for a couple of crackpot poets from Cleveland Ohio.

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The musicians who made us look good.

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