Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Day Five in Akhaltsikhe: Students, BBQ & Stars

As I have said before, the days keep getting better in Georgia. Today, we got to visit our new friend Irma, who is an English teacher at a small village school. The sixth grade class we observed only had 4 students! The boys and girls analyzed Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree, and we were so impressed by their effort and higher level thinking!

Village school: Only 4 6th graders

Later, we got to spend some time with Lela's adorable students. We read books to her 1st grade English class, who were so excited to see us. We even got to celebrate little Giorgi's birthday with a Mickey Mouse cake!

Reading to the 1st graders
Giorgi turns 7 years old!

In the afternoon, we got to visit another monastery (Zarzma), where one monk was kind enough to tell us about the history of the site. Then we headed to the resort town of Abastumani where the Romanovs used to vacation. It is said that Abastumani has the cleanest air in Georgia and can cure your health problems. We stopped at the grounds of the old royal baths, where our driver, Amiran, prepared a traditional Georgian barbecue for us! He made pork skewers and Khachapuri (cheese bread) and served us other delicious foods he brought from his home.

Amiran cooking for us and Lela being silly!

As it began to get dark, we drove up to the top of the mountain which is the site of the National Observatory. No one was there except for the security guards and the famous astronomer Narsvlishvili, who lives and works there. He has discovered over 100 stars! He kindly gave us a private tour of the observatory and let us look at the surface of the moon and Jupiter through the enormous telescope. It was one of the most amazing things I have ever experienced. As we rode home that night through the pitch black countryside, I couldn't stop thinking to myself how lucky I was to have had a day like today.

The ceiling opened, and the floor moved up and down, so the telescope could find the best view!

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Days Two Through Four: The Adventure Continues

Because I have experienced SO much in the past few days, I thought it best to share my journey through my photographs. Of course, I have hundreds of photos and it was very difficult to narrow it down! I hope these pictures give you just a small taste of what it is like in the beautiful country of Georgia (and FYI, Georgians pronounce it George-E-Ya)

Students: Based on this slideshow, what do you imagine Georgia to be like (culture, people, food, history, etc.?)

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Day One in Akhaltsikhe

This morning, my travel partner, Joe, and I parted ways with the rest of our cohort to go to our different host teachers' regions. It was bittersweet, as we really have become a close bunch! We are so excited, though, to finally meet our host teachers in person and begin our work in the schools. On our four hour drive to Akhaltsikhe, we had an awesome driver who pulled off the main road twice to show us some bonus sites! One was the resort town of Borjomi, known for its naturally carbonated spring water. Our driver filled his bottle and gave us a taste...warm and salty (yuck!) I am glad I tried it though! He also drove us up a mountain to the Green Monastery. We were the only people there, except for the monks who live there. In one tiny building were the skulls and bones of monks killed during the Ottoman Empire. Inside the monastery were beautiful religious relics and the haunting sound of chanting monks.
Our driver getting us some famous Bojomi water!

The dirt road to the monestary
Green Monastery

Skulls and bones of monks killed during Ottoman Empire
Finally, we made it to Akhaltsikhe where we got to meet our host teacher, Lela! Lela gave us a tour of her school and we got to meet some of the children who were still in the building for aftercare and dance class. We also got to meet the school director and many of the teachers, who all welcomed us warmly. Later in the evening, Lela took us up to the top of the hill to Rabati Castle, which was an important destination on the Silk Road. It was eerily quiet and we had the place to ourselves, as tourist season is not until the summer. On the walk back to our hotel, Lela told us fascinating stories about her childhood growing up in Georgia when times were very difficult for all Georgians. She had no electricity or running water until the new Georgian government took control in 2003. We had delicious dessert and tea at a small cafe and talked more about our cultures, our families and our profession. Joe and I are so excited to spend the day in Lela's classroom tomorrow, where the students will be presenting for us!

Students: Research Akhaltsikhe and tell me one interesting thing you learned!

Lela, the school director, Joe and me!
Georgian dance

Dance students

Queen Tamar (called King Tamar because she was such a strong leader)

Rabati Castle

View from the top

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Days Three and Four: Tbiisi

Yesterday was so packed with adventure, I had NO time to post an update! There is so much to say, but I am going to try to give you just my favorite highlights so this doesn't turn into a 200 page book (which I WILL write one day!)

On Monday, Tiko gave us an overview of the Georgian education system. It is surreal to think that it wasn't all that long ago that Georgia was a part of the Soviet Union. Because of this, many classrooms still resemble the traditional classrooms of the Soviet period (i.e. teacher in front of class, students silent and in rows, rote memorization, etc.) This is beginning to change with the new education reforms, but the change has not happened overnight. What was MOST surprising to me was that students who want to go to university (which most parents want for their children) must attend private tutoring sessions after school. Because regular school day classes are not leveled (Honors, AP, etc.) and classes have between 25-30 students with very little, if any, technology, teachers do not differentiate for different styles of learners, and do not provide students with one-on-one assistance. Their school days are shorter than ours (from about 9am-2pm with no lunch break,) so the vast majority of teachers tutor from 3pm until late evening (Tiko tutors until 9pm!) Students may see several tutors every day. If their parents cannot afford tutors, it is very difficult for students to adequately prepare for the university entrance exams, so parents take out loans and/or work extra hours at their own jobs to provide their children with these private tutors. Education is extremely important to Georgians and it is clear that they prioritize it over anything else (there are no after school clubs or activities.)
7th grade Classroom in Tbilisi

On Monday, we also got to speak to some representatives from Teacher's House, which is responsible for Teachers' Professional Development. I was fortunate enough to ask these women about my research topic which is technology integration in the classroom. While they explained to me that technology use is slowly increasing in the schools, it is mainly limited to a computer class that the students take in their elementary years, instead of being integrated in every subject area. There is only one computer lab (if that) in every school, but there are usually not enough computers for a single class, the computers are old and in disrepair, or the teachers lack adequate training to implement technology effectively. Most classrooms still have chalkboards, and there are usually only one or two projectors in each school. There is a new emphasis on STEM education in Georgia, so there is a lot of hope that technology integration will continue to improve.

The Georgia Cohort at the Open-Air Museum!
18th century Georgian home
Our tour guide <3

Corn and wine storage

Finally on Monday, we got to visit the Open Air Museum of Georgian History. It was so fascinating to hear about life in the 18th century from our kind Georgian guide, and walk though old houses from the time period. The other teachers and I have decided to make a little visual quiz for all of our students with all of the pictures we took. Students will have to guess the purpose of each item Georgians used (and in some cases, still do!) Stay tuned for the quiz!

Exterior of K-12 school in Tbilisi

By far, the best experience I have had so far on this trip was today's visit to Public School 52 in Tbilisi. All schools in Georgia are K-12, although the older students and younger students are usually on opposite sides of the building. When entering the building, it was obvious that the school was going through renovations. There was graffiti (look closely for American references in the pictures below,) as well as dilapidated corridors and staircases.

Some areas of the building had already been renovated and were very nice, especially in the primary grades area. The teachers, administrators and students were so excited for us to be there and a photographer followed us around the building, so we felt like celebrities! We were lucky enough to observe a 7th grade English class who showed us some of the activities and games they played to learn English. We even got to play a "speed dating" game with the students where we sat in rows facing each other, asking and answering questions about ourselves. I was very impressed with the students' ability to understand me and respond correctly in English! When we visited the elementary classrooms, the students were so eager to show off their English skills by counting to 10, singing their ABC's and saying "Hello, my name is___." Students stand when an adult enters the room, and they also stand when they are called on to answer a question. They also raise their hands, holding up two fingers only.

A little one showing off his skills :)

Getting to know the students!
7th grader leading class review on careers in English!

My favorite picture! They were so happy to see us!

Brand new computer lab that is rarely used
Unfortunately, the brand new computer lab was not in use because it only had 12 computers and all the classes have between 25-30 students. Because teachers move from classroom to classroom instead of students at the secondary level, the rooms are sparsely decorated, and only contain a chalk board and student desks.  I don't know what I would do without my projector, Smartboard and student Chromebooks!!

Ministry of Education

We also were fortunate enough to visit with officials in the Ministry of Education today on the topic of inclusion. While inclusion is a fairly new concept in Georgia, they have clearly come a long way in trying to ensure that EVERY child receive an education. Unfortunately, they are facing many challenges and it was humbling when the officials asked us to share our thoughts and experiences on special education and inclusion. They have a long road ahead of them, but it certainly seems like great strides are being made in this area of education.

We ended the day with a panel discussion at "Women's Fund" where representatives from several Gender Equity organizations shared their challenges and success stories related to equal treatment for women and girls. While girls are encouraged to get good educations and even to go to university, this is not translating into career opportunities. Most highly skilled jobs go to men, and when women do choose to have careers, they make less than men in every field. When one "young feminist" was asked how society defined the "perfect Georgian woman" she answered, "In one word? Obedient." Mariam, a 17-year-old civic activist, has even had parents show up to her gender equality meetings to pull their daughters out for being a part of something so controversial. I left this meeting so inspired by what these young women were doing to influence the change they want to see in their communities. These women are proof of how quickly things are changing for women in Georgia.
Teen civic activist, Mariam

So...this was quite a long post. What experience that I shared resonates the most with you, and what is your opinion on the topic? (i.e. education system, women's status in society, etc. OR comment on a video or picture!) Look forward to seeing lots of comments from my super intelligent students! :)

Monday, March 14, 2016

Day Two in Tbilisi

March 14, 2016

The Supra

I can barely write after the never ending supra we just had at an amazing restaurant in Tbilisi. I am STUFFED full of delicious Georgian cuisine, which is unlike anything I've ever tasted! A supra is a traditional Georgian feast where the food just keeps coming. I am not kidding when I say there were at least eight courses! The supra was the highlight of yet another culture-filled day in Tbilisi.

Khinkali, a meat-filled dumpling
We began the day with an informational session on Georgian culture and history from our in-country consultant, Tiko. In addition to the fascinating information, Tiko also graciously shared some personal stories with us, like how during the years after Soviet rule, her family had no electricity and were literally starving, waiting on line for hours for a half a loaf of bread (for a family of four.) Tiko, and others we have spoken to, have refereed to Georgia as a true success story, in that it has come so far in a relatively short amount of time, unlike many other former Soviet regions. It has established a Parliamentary government, reformed law enforcement and is in the process of improving the education system, among other things. The U.S. is well respected here for assisting Georgia in this journey (we even watched the video of George W. Bush dancing in Georgia during his visit in 2005.

Tiko, our Georgian Host

Me, Lela (Georgian/American student) and Joe

After Tiko's session, we  headed to the Youth Palace, where we heard from four alumni of the TEA (Teaching Excellence and Achievement Program,) also funded by the U.S. Department of State. These young people talked about their early educations in Georgia, and the wonderful opportunities they have had in the American school system or as students of American teachers (like our awesome IREX leader, Claire.) The students reflected on the differences between American and Georgian schools. One of the biggest differences they all agreed on was that American students have more choice. Our students have electives, clubs, sports etc., which is not the case in Georgia. Even group work (collaboration), and voicing one's opinion is not encouraged in the typical Georgian classroom. Technology is also very limited, with maybe one computer lab with spotty wifi in each school building. Although Georgians love Facebook, digital citizenship is not taught in the schools, and parents are very unaware of their children's digital footprints. After hearing from these students, I just reminded my own kids on Google Hangouts just how LUCKY they are to be Americans and to have access to a topnotch education. They probably don't fully appreciate what I am saying, but I will KEEP reminding them!

The old Parliament building, the site if Georgia's
Rose Revolution of 2003

Finally, we spent a few hour at the U.S. Embassy just outside of Tbilisi, where we were given a security briefing, as well as more specific information regarding programs targeted at improving Georgia's education system. Embassy officials kept reiterating how important our role was as educators in forming lasting relationships between the U.S. and Georgia. Georgia is an extremely important ally and our being here is clearly appreciated by our government as well as the Georgian people. What a great feeling!

Tomorrow is another busy day in Tbilisi, where we will get to visit our first school. That's all for now...Madloba! (Thank you in Georgian)

Students: What do you think? Do most American students take their freedoms and educational opportunities for granted?

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Where to Begin?

March 11-13, 2016

Well, I guess I should begin with the broken plane on the runway in Newark, NJ. Unfortunately, sitting next to a man with "Jimmy legs" made me even more nervous than I already was...I will spare you the traumatic details, but we FINALLY made it off the ground, just after I frantically texted our IREX leader, Claire, that they would have to go to Georgia without me!

Once arriving in DC, it was beyond wonderful to see the smiling faces of the rockstar educators in my Georgia cohort! Their smiles turned to scowls when I broke the news that somehow I had ended up with a Business Class plane ticket to Munich (just kidding, they were all happy for me!) So while I woke up refreshed in Munich yesterday morning, the other poor fellows look a bit rundown. I don't think I can ever fly Economy again! We only had a few hours to explore Munich, and our rooms were not ready, so the other ladies and I treated ourselves to a five minute refresher in the hotel spa locker room, and then met the guys to brave the Munich mass transit system! 

Mareinplatz, Munich (home of the Glockenspiel!)
We successfully found our way to Marienplatz, which is the central square in the city of Munich. It was amazing to see medieval buildings and famous sites like the Hofbrauhaus right next to Louis Vuitton and H&M. We ate a delicious, authentic German lunch and my friend, Megan and I then explored the side streets and a beautiful church. We made it back to the station just in time for to get back to the hotel, freshen up and jump on our flight to Tbilisi. And yes, once again I had Business Class (although this time it wasn't quite as luxurious...I know, poor me!)

Hofbrauhaus (next to Muncih Hard Rock Cafe)

Echo enjoying a German pretzel!

Arriving in Tbilisi at 5:30 am was terrifying. About 30 feet from touchdown, the pilot suddenly realized the visibility was so poor he could not land, so around and around the city we circled, the fog so thick we all thought the worst! Old Georgian women on the plane were praying and doing the sign of the cross...not a good omen. Our IREX guide Claire listened to Frank Sinatra to calm her nerves!

Thankfully, we were eventually able to land and we dragged our tired bodies to baggage and then took a van to our hotel in the city. At first glance, Tbilisi reminded me a lot of Rome, with some cobblestone streets, small cafes and street vendors. After exploring Old Tbilisi this afternoon at greater length with our wonderful Georgian tour guide, the city now seems much more diverse than Rome. Fifth century churches stand next to more modern mosques and temples. Georgian architecture seems to be a mix of Roman/Grecian, Persian and Soviet influence. Many of the Soviet era buildings are made of glass. 
Bridge of Peace
TGC Fellows: Meredith, Me and Renee

The ladies and Mario atop the fortress

We visited the ancient fortress Narikala, which overlooks the entire city. It was quite a hike to get to top, and I realized how very little I have used my treadmill at home :(  We visited several Georgian Orthodox churches, where we women covered our heads with scarves out of respect. We weaved around the side streets, smelled the sulphur in the water used in the ancient baths (which are still in use), saw the awe inspiring Bridge of Peace, danced on a smaller bridge with a waterfall as our backdrop (yes, I danced...kind of) and learned so much from our guide about the history and culture of this wonderful city. (I will post our dance soon!) I haven't been many places in the world, but Tbilisi seems to be so unique because of the how the cultural elements of numerous invaders over the centuries (due to its strategic location on the Silk Road and proximity to Russia) have been infused into Georgian life.

View from the fortress
We ended the day with a scrumptious steak dinner at our hotel (Rooms Hotel,) which is an incredible Georgian boutique hotel, nothing like anything I've ever seen! As I get ready for bed and eagerly await day two in Tbilisi, when we will be learning more about the Georgian culture and education system from our in-country host, Tiko, I feel so absolutely grateful that I am able to be on this incredible journey with such a TOP NOTCH group of educators.

So students...would you like to go to Munich and/or Tbilisi? If so, tell me the thing(s) you would most love to see! (Don't be afraid to do a little research!)