September 03, 2008

Back to School

Welcome back, class. Let's begin this brand new school year with that time-honored tradition, the pop quiz.

1. The school supply aisles at Staples and Wal-Mart are jammed packed with moms and dads and shopping carts because

a) Willy Wonka slipped a few Golden Tickets into specially marked packages of
b) they heard it's where the Libertarian Party is holding its
c) it's where that old woman giving out cheese samples on
toothpicks is hanging out.
d) it's that season commonly referred to at
OfficeMax corporate headquarters as The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.

2. Which country is in the midst of supplying every student with a desktop computer?

a) United States
b) Russia
c) China
d) Macedonia

Ok, if you answered D for both questions, you get a star. Indeed, it is that time of year again, when millions of American children head back to school. Time to fire up the school buses, pack those brown bag lunches, and wrap up enormous textbooks in protective paper grocery bags. The weather is still warm, your teachers all still seem so nice, the homework still feels so manageable and no one has yet uttered, "How many weeks till Columbus Day?"

Of course, American kids aren't the only ones heading back to school. Here in Macedonia the school year has begun and we're both very glad we're here to see it and take part in it. And so in honor of this new beginning, some observations:

#1: Before you buy the book, check the kid's grades. Perhaps the most startlingly obvious difference between Macedonian and American schools is that students here must buy their own textbooks. The school doesn't supply any. Zero. There are no locked cabinets bursting at the seams with used hardbacks. No spot for the students to fill in their name, the school year, and the condition of the book (which always seemed like the most useless query, anyway). So students buy their books from shops in Skopje, photocopy a friend's book or, more likely, they buy them from students who took the course the previous year. More often than not, books in this third category already have the answers filled in for most of the exercises. While this may sound like a sweet deal for the purchasing party, it leads to some rather hilarious instances of students answering questions in class with positively ridiculous responses. Rather than attempt the question themselves, they'll simply read what was written last year.

#2: This town needs itself a good steam whistle. Most people who bemoan the state of American education point to overcrowding in schools as one piece of evidence. Surely no one wants to cram thirty kids into a classroom and then expect the teacher to give them all the sort of attention they deserve. But what happens when you have 1,100 kids in a school that can hold 500? You get what many communities in Macedonia have, a two-shift school day. For instance, at the high school the day begins at 7:45am. Around 1:00pm there is a mass exodus of teenagers and teachers from the building and into the city center. Thirty minutes later the other half arrive and stay until around 7:00pm. Every two weeks the groups switch shifts.

#3: The proverbial horse and cart are a bit mixed up. There's a scene in Star Trek IV (the one about the whales) in which Chief Engineer Scotty is forced to use a 20th century computer. Describing the PC as "quaint" he begins by picking up the mouse, holding it to his lips and saying, "Hello, computer." So Scotty was a bit too advanced for our primitive desktops, yet I couldn't help but think of him on the first day of school when I saw the evidence of Macedonia's new one-computer-per-student plan. There on the desks, brand new and sleek black, are hundreds of new PCs. Everyone's got one. To be honest, they look great. Ok, but now what? For a country still trying to modernize its teaching practices and curriculum (that's partly why we're here, after all), this is a peculiar move. Teaching with computers is a lot harder than it sounds and that's assuming the teacher is fluent in technology to begin with. Many of the older teachers in town have never used a computer, I'm quite sure. So maybe they have something in common with John McCain, but this doesn't bode well for the use of these particular PCs.

There's the bell, time to go. Hope you took notes, because there will be a quiz next time.

1 comment:

Rock Shamrock said...

Danman, something made me think of you guys this morning, so here I am. Keep writing, it's great to hear from you. Hope everything goes well for Year II, and we'd love meet up when you get back.