Friday, July 24, 2009

Test Your Knowledge

It’s exam time again and I have finally finished grading all of my tests. This time around the form fours took “mock” MSCE examinations in order to prepare themselves for their national tests coming up in October. For biology (the form four subject I teach) this involves one paper testing general biology theory and a second paper testing practical skills such as following lab directions, measuring, sketching, calculating magnification, and constructing dichotomous keys.

Setting up and administering the practical exam was one of the most frustrating things I have done so far in Malawi. I wrote the exam a month ago and at that point consulted with the head of the life sciences department and the principal about procuring the supplies I would need. The list was modest, consisting of a bag of potatoes, salt, 20 razor blades, and 50 small plastic containers. The principal and life sciences head assured me that there would be no problem getting the supplies, after deciding to ask students to bring in used plastic water bottles which we could cut to make containers. I had my doubts about the administration’s ability to collect 50 bottles in a month, but decided to trust to their judgment and organizational abilities. So that’s why I found myself the evening before the test scrubbing the lab’s entire collection of plastic and glassware (amounting to a grand total of 19) which, supplemented by plastic cups from my hut, allowed me to set up 8 stations for the 76 students to take their test the next day.

After finishing the glassware, I returned to my desk to collect my things and head home only to discover a neat stack of the next morning’s exams awaiting collation and stapling. Armed with a finicky stapler machine which required a seemingly random and perfectly placed amount of pressure to produce a staple through three sheets of paper, I experienced the joy of ‘pinning’ biology tests with a stomach that grumbled that it was definitely time to go home.

Pinned exams in hand, I returned to the lab for one last check that everything was in order. With the light flipped on, I realized a key detail that had somehow escaped my notice in all of my earlier preparations. The walls of the lab were covered in beautifully detailed posters explaining such pertinent topics as the digestive system, circulatory system, and excretory system. Those extra hours I spent with my markers and colored pencils had just come back to bite me in a sensitive place, but it was my stomach that protested the loudest. To my ire, upon closer inspection, I noticed that students had penned in their own sideways and less than academically motivated notes across my own officially markered explanations. I ran back to the hut to get some blank poster papers to cover the offending diagrams, all the while devising threats to any who would dare take their pens to the virgin sheets.

Although the task of preparing for the exams was onerous and the actual grading to the exams even more so, I do look forward to the random bits of biological knowledge that I learn from my students whenever they get a chance to put pens to paper. This last exam period was no exception. I learned several interesting facts about reproduction, such as that the testes are both the place where ovaries are produced as well as where fertilization takes place. I also learned that diarrhea is caused through sex-intercourse.

My general understanding of the classification of life was also expanded after reading these answers:

“…bacteria is a virus that cause disease in humans.”

“Algae are flowering plants that decompose.”

"The bacteria can develop legs to enable it to move fast when it realise that the antibiotic coming will definitely kill it."

And my favorite-

Q: What type of plant is plant specimen A?
A: animal cell

But, I am always impressed by my students’ ability to get their point across, creating new words if necessary, when a certain vocabulary term escapes their memory:

“…it cause some species unend or disappear on the world. Population had caused the species of some animals and plants to become unexistence either by killing them or cutting them.”

In case the reader would like to try their wordmaking skills against those of my students I have selected a few questions from both of my exams. Being a mathematician, I of course had to keep track of how many students answered each of these questions correctly, which is why there is a number in parenthesis next to each questions. In case anyone is interested in the math curriculum, I have also posted a few questions from my math test. Next week Jesse and I head up north for a bit of exploring for a two week vacation before it is time to hunker down during third term for some serious review time. Based on those numbers in the parenthesis, my students really need it.

Samples from Form Four Biology Test:

1. The following is a chemical equation for a reaction:
6CO2 + 6H2O -----> C6H12O6 + 6O2

a. What biological process involves this reaction? (80%)
b. In what type of living organism does this reaction occur? (75%)
c. Give two uses for product C. (49%)
d. Why is the conversion of product A into product D important for an ecosystem? (28%)
e. Other than the molecules in the equation, name two things necessary for the reaction to occur. (52%)

2. Briefly explain the role of each of the following in the process of reproduction:

a. meiosis (11%)
b. follicle stimulating hormone (15%)
c. testes (78%)
d. placenta (54%)

3. Describe how vaccination causes immunity to a particular disease. (6%)

4. What is the role of each of the following in digestion?

a. saliva (74%)
b. peristalsis (43%)
c. stomach (62%)
d. villi (37%)

These are three essay questions which the students were required to answer:

5. Describe two ways that rapid population growth can affect an ecosystem.

6. Use the theory of natural selection to explain how the use of antibiotics can cause the evolution of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria.

7. Describe how insulin and glucagons act as chemical messengers to regulate the amount of glucose in the blood. Make sure to specify the endocrine glands and organs involved.

Samples from Form Three Math Test:

1. Simplify (2 1/2 x 2 1/4) – 5

10 (4%)

2. Make y the subject of the formula. H = P + 3x

2y (4%)

3. Given that logx1/3 + logx12 = 2. Find the value of x. (17%)

4. Find the equation that has solutions x = 5 and x = -3. (16%)

5. Solve the equation 5(x+2)2 = 20. (6%)

6. A girl 1.5m tall measures the angle of elevation to the top of a tree as 60° from the horizontal. If the tree is 6.5m tall, how far from the tree is the girl standing? (4%)

7. A circle has a chord of length 8cm that is a distance of 2cm from the centre of the circle. What is the radius of the circle? Leave your answer in simplified surd form. (11%)

8. Find the image of the set {1, 2} under the function f: x------->log2 x. (3%)

9. The sine of an angle is 4/5 . What is the cosine of the same angle? (13%)

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Not That Far From Home

Sometimes riding down the road on the back of the bicycle, passing thatch roofs and naked children, I feel like I am on another planet, rather than only half-way around the world from my home. A twenty-dollar phone call to Delta to change my airplane flight only cements the feeling of isolation from my previous life. But when news of Sarah Palin’s resignation reaches me via an email from my mother only 12 hours after its announcement in Alaska, I am reminded that I’m not really that far from home. Certain news items do filter their way, with surprising speed, down to us Malawians living in our mud huts.

Before the event drifts too far into the misty and forgotten past, I must comment on the effect of the death of one pop culture icon on our rural secondary school here in Malawi. I wonder if the students here even knew that he wasn’t even really black any more. That didn’t seem to matter. My first inkling that something as amiss was a cut-out photo and painstakingly hand-written obituary posted on the notice board by a student. Held back by the crowd of students craning to read the newest announcement, I didn’t notice the subject of the obituary and thereafter forgot about the post until the next week during Assembly.

Every Monday morning we have an assembly in which student groups perform songs and plays and the week’s announcements and admonishments are read by the teacher on duty. Running late from and extra-long staff meeting prior to the assembly, there was only time for one student performance before getting on with business. That one performance though, was priceless. The Chronicles, a group consisting of three young men from form four, are known for their self-composed gospel/rap songs in English which, though full of catchy harmonies, are often performed without sufficient rehearsal, leaving the audience laughing and cheering. The administration isn’t too fond of the group since it is composed of three of the school’s trouble-makers, but I’m actually rather impressed with them and hope to get a couple recordings before I leave. On this particular Monday morning assembly, the group’s leader, Evison addressed the school saying that this was to be their final performance before the graduation ceremony to be held on September 19th and that the group’s fans would have to wait until then. At which point the deputy principal leaned over and informed Evison that The Chronicles would not be performing at graduation, an announcement which cause a good three minutes of uproar. When the student body was finally settled The Chronicles began their last performance, a tribute to Michael Jackson.

I’ll have to try to get Evison to give me a copy of the lyrics they sang that day, but I have to say it was probably the most heart-felt song that was sung for the infamous pop artist in all of Malawi. Of all the group’s previous assembly performances it was by far the most well-received with the student body cheering through the whole thing.

The Chronicles were not the only students to acknowledge Michael Jackson’s death. Upon walking into my first class that morning I spied one young man in the back row wearing one white glove and I’m sure it wasn’t just because the weather had turned cold, though I guess it is possible that he only had one glove. Later that day Evison came up to me during biology class with a question about America. He’s always asking random cultural questions and like most students has dreams of going to the US one day. He even asked me to find him a pen-pal. Anyone want to exchange letters with a 20-year-old Malawian song-writer who like rap? Anyways, on this particular day he wanted to ask me about funerals. He had watched Michael Jackson’s funeral on television the night before and was shocked to see that his brothers carried the coffin. “Is that really true?” He asked me, “do relatives really carry the coffin in funerals in America?” I told him that, yes that was our tradition. He was very incredulous and informed me that the tradition in Malawi is to hire outsiders to carry the coffin so that family members are able to grieve properly.

I’m always surprised by the ways that I gain insights into the culture here. I learned about marriage customs from conversations in the staff room, witchcraft from the newspaper, and now funerals from the death of Michael Jackson. I look forward to the next random source cultural revelation and I rest assured that if anything else important happens in the world, my students will keep me informed.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Easy Fixes

Our toilet has the small problem that when the flow of water is low, the reservoir doesn’t fill with water. Unfortunately this small problem becomes quite large and odorous when one considers the fact that the flow from the water tower is always just above a trickle and frequently intermittent. Last week, after tiring of the stench emanating from our bathroom, I decided to fix the toilet. Solution: it was easy. I bought a bucket. Now we have a flush toilet again.

Malawi is full of easy solutions. Got a flat bicycle tire? Don’t buy a new tube, just get some sticky glue stored in an old penicillin bottle, apply it to the affected area, and slap on a cut up piece of an old tire tube. Repeat thirty times as necessary. Then, when you are ready to fill your newly-fixed tube with air, don’t bother finding a bicycle pump that actually fits the valve on your tube; simply find a scrap of plastic bag (called 'plastic paper') and wrap it around the valve until you have a nice tight fit. Works every time.

Each Sunday I am greeted by a colorful collage decorating the bushes around the girls’ hostel. Lacking a clothesline, the girls drape their clothes over the neatly trimmed hedges when it comes time to dry their laundry. Walking down to the beach, the sight is the same as women bedeck the sand with skirts, shirts, and chitenjes. No need to spend money on a piece of string to hang clothes, when the sand is hot and brushes off when dried.

The school has recently been having a shortage of blackboard erasers (called ‘dusters’). Each class tends to go through an entire duster in about 2 weeks and with 8 classes and a limited budget, the expense was just getting too high. At one point three classrooms were sharing the same duster so that each time I filled the board I would have to send a student out to go search for a way to erase it. The school’s simple solution was to contract the tailoring shop to sew new duster pads stuffed with scraps of cloth. These lasted about three weeks before they started bursting open under the strain, spilling their innards onto the floor. I now erase the board with a duster bearing close resemblance to a spider puppet with too many legs.

Innovative fixes are so common here that Gracious Secondary school found it necessary to include in its school rules “Do not make dangerous electrical connections.” alongside the old standbys of “Show respect to teachers.” and “Do not bring cell phones to school.” Since our hut is not technically on school property, Jesse has decided to follow a more Malawian approach to our broken electrical appliances. He fixed the plug on our electric water boiler by installing a new fuse (after first electrifying the ground circuit of the entire house so that anyone who touched the refrigerator received a rather large shock) and when I accidentally cut through the computer power cable by smushing it with the sharpened leg of my chair, he cut the cord, stripped the two ends and wrapped the wires back together. Of course, we don’t have any electrical tape so any movement of the computer cord now runs the risk of shorting out the power converter. But don’t worry, we’re not trying to burn down the hut.

While many cultures spend their creative power in intricate weavings or beautiful pottery, Malawians have put theirs to use to treat problems for which they simply don’t have the money to solve the original cause. Coming from a culture that prefers to throw away broken problems and start anew, living here has done more for my appreciation of the value of reuse than any well-intentioned “save the planet” speech. I save all of our plastic bags so that I have trash bags and grocery bags. I save all of our paper scraps so that we have fire starting material. I hold onto cardboard, plastic containers, and even bits of string in case I can find a use for them in any of my classes. It’s been fun to try to come up with creative ways to use supplies I might have otherwise thrown away. I’ll have to add the skill to the quietly growing list of things I’ve learned from living in Malawi.