May 25th marked my one-year anniversary in my site and just over fifteen months in Morocco. It’s been a long couple of months, ripe with “typical” Peace Corps happenings—language blunders, inefficiencies, integration attempts juxtaposed against hiding in my house when I want to be antisocial, successful projects and not so successful ones—as well as experiences more typical to Morocco and ones unique to my service.
To be honest, I feel more than a little uncomfortable listing the projects with which I’ve been busying myself, but the number one question people ask me is: “So, what exactly are you doing over there?” I was going to keep this reflection of my first year of service to myself as a private assessment, but after thinking about it, I realized that sharing it will provide a better understanding of what Peace Corps service is really like—and will hopefully attempt to answer the question of what it is I do.
The Dar Chebab: “If you build it, they will come.”
In Morocco, Peace Corps’s partnership is with the Ministry of Youth and Sports, not the government as a whole, so volunteers are technically assigned to a dar chebab (youth center) or sometimes a women’s center. Some volunteers work exclusively out of these locations throughout their service, while others use this as a jumping off point.
From the beginning of October until the beginning of April, I taught English for First and Second Baccalaureate students (the equivalent of high school juniors and seniors) four evenings a week. Even though I had spent the whole summer introducing myself around town, my first class consisted of one student. I dragged every kid I knew to the dar chebab, and soon my classes were consistently so large that the mudir (or manager) of the youth center had to stand in the back of the classroom while I was teaching to keep the kids under control.
If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ve heard me talk about Access a number of times. Access is the first project I began in Zagora, and it’s still going. Access Program is a microscholarship program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, pioneered in Morocco in 2003. Geared towards students from disadvantaged backgrounds, Access delivers a curriculum of English and American culture over the course of two years. Access Program is currently active in 55 countries.
Access students in Zagora meet every Sunday morning (except during certain “intensive” terms, during which they meet every day during a two-week marathon) for four hours of classes—two hours of English followed by two hours of American culture. At first, I floated back and forth between the two class levels, providing cultural lessons and leading drama and games. This spring, two Access teachers quit, and I became the official culture teacher for the upper level. Having the opportunity to teach American culture (Goal 2!) and watching the students’ language abilities, confidence, and skill sets grow has unquestionably been one of the highlights of my service.
Zagora Summer Camp
Last summer, immediately following two intensive weeks to kick off Access’s first term, I was somehow roped into coordinating an English summer camp in Zagora instead of lying prostrate in a pool of my own sweat in the sanctity of my blisteringly hot apartment. The camp was very similar to Access—English classes followed by English games and cultural lessons—but was open to any students unfortunate enough to be stuck in the desert during the month of July.
English for Adults
From the end of November until the beginning of April, I taught English to a small group of adults—officials at the airport, a female doctor at the hospital, managers of the regional Electric and Water companies—twice a week at the private school. These students all had a basic knowledge of English and were hoping to learn more to use at their jobs.
An unexpected surprise: I try to incorporate music into my classes as much as possible, and I was delighted to find that my adult students enjoyed this—and were just as eager to sing along—as much as my high school students.
Spelling Bee Morocco
Jim Dana, a Peace Corps Volunteer in my region, has one of those enviable Peace Corps fairytale services.
In his words, he’s always been a bibliophile, and he wanted to get students in his site interested in books and reading. Not long into his service, he had the idea to run a spelling bee in his dar chebab, and the idea exploded. This year, the spelling bee went national, with schools participating from all over Morocco.
I was just a worker bee in this case, carrying out a small part of Jim’s vision. I organized the elimination rounds at my high school and then the High School Bee. I organized and judged the District Bee, which included contestants from both of Zagora’s high schools and five schools from neighboring communities.
I was blown away by the students’ interest and talent, although that made it even harder to deliver those crushing words: “I’m sorry, that’s incorrect.” To top it all off, the first and third place solo spellers and first place team in the District Bee were students that I coached. This is definitely a project I will be continuing next year.
When I first presented the idea of a film club to my counterpart one brain meltingly hot day last summer, he replied with an unimpressed, “For sure.” Translation: No.
However, that autumn, he called me up one day and called a meeting, during which he immediately requested I draw up an action plan for the club. Two weeks later, fifty-four students piled into a cramped classroom—three to a desk in some cases—to watch Dead Poets Society.
Video Club is another highlight of this past year for me. I led the students in viewing several movies from December until May, trying to provoke them into examining films with a critical eye. My main motivation was to instill critical thinking in them, especially because film is essentially the only art to which they are exposed, but on a practical level, they also need to write mock film reviews for their Baccalaureate exams. Next year, I hope to redouble my efforts.
Reading and Writing Club
Out of the two clubs I founded at the high school, this was admittedly the less successful one. True, the students did read books over the course of the entire school year, stopping only recently when their classes ended, and submitted book reports. It’s also true that I delivered occasional creative writing workshops. However, I wanted to do more with the club—discussions, teaching kids how to research, presenting student-written works for review—and it just didn’t work out. I may or may not continue this next year.
The Zagora Public Speaking Competition
This May, students from Zagora’s two high schools came together to compete in the categories of theater, singing, and public speaking. Like with the Spelling Bee, I was again the organizer and judge/dream crusher. Even though it was all highly chaotic, the best part of the event in my eyes was that absolutely packed with students, teachers, and—uniquely—some parents. Growing up in America, I’ve always had plenty of opportunities to strut around a stage to an audience, but most Moroccan students never see that opportunity. More kids entered the ranks as the evening went on, gaining confidence from watching their peers stand up in front of the crowd, which consisted of more than one hundred people at its peak.
The MATE Conference
Regular viewers of my blog will have seen photos from the Regional MATE Conference on May 24th – 26th, but you didn’t see the months of planning behind the three-day event. Starting in December, my counterpart and I began discussing logistics, and I began working with students whose performances, writing, or presentations would be showcased during the conference.
This regional conference for MATE (the Moroccan Association of Teachers of English) is alternately hosted by one of the region’s three province capitals each year. This year, Zagora came up in the rotation. Unbeknownst to me until the week before the conference, a committee of five or six MATE teachers typically organizes the event, but my counterpart insisted that he and I would be the sole organizers this year.
Teachers from all across the region and guests from as far as Wyoming came to participate in the event and attend its workshops, and many gifted students from a number of schools once again had a chance to perform in front of an audience.
Well, there you have it—my first year as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a nutshell. Mixed in there were a number of smaller projects, such as my workshops at the women’s center, and activities in which I participated, like an annual bike trek and summer camp up north, but the above activities are the major things I’ve worked on this year.
These days, exams are looming over the students’ heads, the temperature continues to climb past a crisp 115°F, and work has finally wound down for me. I still have evaluative meetings and drama club practice, and I’m teaching at Access once a week, but most of my time now is spent looking forward and planning for my next and last year of service.