GradSWE Overseas, Liberia

Camp continues: Experiences in the classroom – SUCCESS Camp 2017

I stood under a door overhang just past the clock tower next to two other men, staring out at the rain fall. Not violent, but a consistent pour. Volume of the drops against the sidewalk surging and shrinking until a steady rain was dialed in. My rain jacket had gotten me this far, but the shell now felt saturated. Drips from the hood hit me around the knees and worked their way down my shins to collect in my sandals. It was Wednesday morning, classes for the day had not yet started, and I could already press my big toe gently down and see water bubbling out of my sole.

When I heard the rain intensity weaken, I had a moment to make the decision of waiting or walking. I boldly walked, but immediately recognized my error. The brief lull gave way to full blown cats and dogs, and there were no more door overhangs until I arrived at the Engineering building. I had also decided early on in my foray from breakfast that I would protect my backpack containing my computer before the rest of my body, so my coat was acting as a rain tarp with my hood as an anchor point. The arms of the coat hung at my side. I reached the steps leading into the Engineering building with my computer safe and the front of my shirt a shade darker, soaked to the skin.

Aeriel started the morning by introducing a multi-day group project – developing a case study, including solutions, for the waste management issues in Liberia. The groups were given background materials that contained research on the current state of waste management in Liberia, example case studies and attempted solutions for other countries, and information on landfills and recycling programs. There were suggested questions to guide the groups, with the end goal for each group to give a fifteen-minute presentation on the solutions they developed. It was not an easy task. There were obstacles to consider from many vantages – economic and political constraints, the public awareness battle, feasibility in terms of time and scope, corruption. The groups took a collective breath. Aeriel mentioned that the winning group would receive a fabulous prize. The groups began immediately working. Armed with WiFi, poster paper, colored pencils, rulers, glue, and courage, the race began. The finish line was Monday morning.

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After supper, I leaned into the breeze from the railing just off the cafeteria. It was the coolest I’d felt yet. Walking back from the Engineering building that afternoon, I had seen one of the campers, Littie, wearing a winter jacket, green and puffy with a fur-trimmed hood. I still had shorts on, and I felt thankful for them. Watching the rest of the evening light slip from the sky, I heard singing. Softly at first, then building with added voices. Gospel, soulful and sweet, voices climbing, weaving. Beautiful to the point of heartache. It was a group of campers lingering at the dining tables in the cafeteria. Clouds were breaking in the distance.

We woke to sun on Thursday morning. Striking. I blinked a dozen times in surprise and mild pain before I could open my eyes fully. Then I smiled. But with the sun came the heat, previous rainfall boiling out of the ground and rising. I felt a little like steamed broccoli by the time I arrived at the classroom. The heat continued through the day, but nothing like the fires that were started in the late afternoon.

The workshop was named Conflict Resolution. It started with the usual flow with which the campers had become familiar: worksheets were passed out and filled in and discussions proceeded in small or large groups. Aeriel and Caroline then introduced the final activity of the workshop. It involved role playing a conflict that escalates and then resolves. Small groups had total freedom to choose their storylines, characters, and steps taken for conflict resolution. The UM graduate students decided it was their duty to lead by example, so we ran into the hallway to throw together a conflict. We shuffled through some ideas, landing on a bit of a soap opera-esque story. The details are not important, but suffice to say, I was the aggressor and Aeriel was the subject of my wrath. Of course, as the story is supposed to go, we worked through our issue, but not before I frightened even myself with my passionate response to Aeriel’s alleged indiscretion. Perhaps it’s the environment in which I’ve been for the past several days. The openness of emotion is so prevalent, so embedded in every day, every workshop, every interaction. Either that, or I was suffering from sleep deprivation. Whatever the cause, I BELLOWED at Aeriel. I did not know I had it in me. I’ve never used the word “bellow” before, because I have always been waiting for the right moment. This is the right moment, because it is precisely what happened.

I’m not sure what we as graduate students were thinking. Our performance was, of course, well-received by the campers, whooping and hollering in response. In the US, an inspired performance as an example would probably be required to rouse a classroom. This classroom did not need additional inspiration. The graduate students’ skit was three minutes. The first group of campers took eight minutes to set up and resolve their conflict. The next several took ten minutes each. Elaborate, detailed stories of made-up conflicts. Shouting, pretend fighting, total immersion in the acting. The electricity on campus has a mandatory shut-off period from 5-7 PM, which is when we are scheduled to end our day. At 5 PM, we had four groups left to present their skit. Lack of lights and fans were paid no mind. The show went on. And on. We walked out of the Engineering building at 5:45 PM. I smiled realizing this was my first classroom experience in which students happily volunteered to stay past the scheduled end to class. Presumed requirements, like electricity, fell away in the face of joy.

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