Thursday, April 30, 2009

English Olympics

One way the school system in Mongolia motivates students and teachers to work on their specialized fields is through big-time competitions they refer to as “Olympics.” There are all sorts including physics, math, Russian, and among others, English. Including Leila in a nearby village, there are six volunteers in Bayankhongor, and since we all speak English pretty well, we were the official judges.

English Olympics might conjure up thoughts of a gymnastic language contest in front of a captivated, cheering audience like a spelling bee, but in reality it’s a cerebral, intense, quiet, mostly written examination. There are different sections of the written test including fill-in-the-blanks listening, multiple choice vocabulary, open-ended questions, and reading comprehension. Afterward, students sit before the judges for a speaking test that involves direct and open-ended questions like tell me about your family or compare and contrast five given pictures.

Here are some examples from the 10th grade written test:
  • When I was younger I _(used to)__ swim in the river.

  • I have had this book since ___________.
    a. one year b. three months
    c. April d. now

  • What are you going to do this summer?
The events reminded us of solo and ensemble, and regional to state choir and band competitions for music students in the States. In those, students sit before a panel of judges and play or sing prepared pieces of music alone or with a group, which they are subsequently assigned a score for. Parents and other competitors usually are allowed sit in the room and watch at least portions of the events. In Mongolia, it was interesting: of the hundreds of competitors, we never saw a parent or spouse. Here, it seems, teachers teach, students learn, and that's the end of it. Usually spouses are not invited to work events (we're an exception) either. Family and work or school are completely separated.

Our first experience with the language-off season came a few weekends ago. Friday was an event at our friend Tysen’s business school among his teachers. It wasn’t the most polished group of competitors, and it seemed as though almost no one took it very seriously. Much like their students’ competition a few weeks later, the teachers were able to prepare written remarks ahead of time, but almost no one really did more than a few minutes in advance. As a result, the competitions dragged on a little and were sometimes ruled by flush-faced awkward silences. Even still, those who chose to compete bravely performed through charades and a Jeopardy-like answer and question game.

Sometimes, waiting until the last minute to do things yields a team name like, "We Wish Raining."

For our continued support in judging competitions, the business school had a cake made for us with the "Thank You" in English. It was totally unnecessary, though completely welcomed.

Our second round of competitions was the next day and involved sanctioned tests for 9th graders, 11th graders and the teachers. Winners from this round will go on to Ulaanbaatar (the capital) next week to compete nationally. Each of our three high schools and those in some nearby villages had vetted and registered their best candidates for the two hours of writing and 15-20 minute verbal interviews, which we Americans exclusively administered. There were a few real stand-out students and some unexpected results from the teachers. The latter created a bit of a fall out with one teacher who was perhaps the favorite to win. Though his written scores were far above the field, his verbal scores were nearly the lowest. Apparently he talked a lot and eloquently, but he failed to answer the questions, perhaps expecting a “gimme” from the volunteer judge. Instead, the teacher disappointedly accepted the bronze medal, and for the next few days he verbally and via text message accosted the judge. Thankfully, the sour-grapes teacher won the Russian Olympics the next day, putting him in a better mood. After the dust settled a few days later, he humbly apologized and we’ve all tried to move on. Obviously, he was among the competitors who really took the Olympics seriously.

From the competition, Nathan has asked two graduating 11th graders (Mongolia goes to 11) to collaborate with him on a project he’s working on to build their resumes for college. The project will aim to reclaim a dust bowl portion of the countryside left gutted my illegal mining activity. As that project develops, we look forward to telling you more about it.

The next day was a genuine joy to administer. It involved 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, and 10th graders, many of whom speak English better than their teachers. On this day, we only verbally interviewed the top five scorers on the written test, as opposed to needlessly interviewing everyone as we were required to do for the sanctioned test. Nearly every student we talked to was composed and confident resulting in some fun and interesting interviews. Though this round of tests won’t send anyone on to compete at nationals, it introduced some exceptional students to us, who have subsequently asked for private tutoring.

Students wait for and receive medals for their efforts. Noticeably missing from the competition for us were parents.

Leslie has been successfully holding English Movie Night every Friday at 6 pm. Only 2 students showed up the day before the English Olympics because their teachers said they needed to study for the next day’s event. The ones who did show up were two of the gold medalists.

Next week, our 11th grader pal, Bilegt, will be showing his skills in UB. We’ve been working hard on phrasal verbs, how to write an essay, and verbal test techniques. We have our fingers crossed for him!

All and all our 11th month in Mongolia was an interesting one, and we kept very busy working on plenty of work and community projects. May will be our 12th of 27 months.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Whiffleball in Full Swing

Though there's been some wicked wind storms ripping through Bayankhongor the last two days, (resulting in 1 of our 2 our back doors being ripped open, which broke the glass and has allowed nearly unfettered entrance for sand and dust), last weekend I played wiffleball with two other Bayankhongor volunteers and the Gold Medalist in the English Olympics and Silver Medalist in Russian Olympics.

We played for about 2 hours using a good ol', made-in-America, Whiffle ball and an sawed-down old shovel handle with a pronounced banana-like curve in the center. Because it was only 2-on-2, we played with kickball rules, which allow for a fielder to tag out a runner by throwing the ball at him. We also played with only two outs, and there we no walks. In other words, it was a lot like American League Baseball.

Because the field is very dusty and sandy, it was difficult to drag a single into a double or longer and the wind was knocking down anything with loft making it hard to catch. Consequently, it was a lot more fun to be on offense than defense. That didn't stop the fielders from also having some good laughs.

This is third weekend in a row where we played, but this is the first time we had our expert photographer, Leslie to capture all the action as it unfolded. It was a crisp and chilly but sunny Spring day with an often stiff breeze. It was the perfect day.

We had a blast and though it was competitive, we were all happy to play. Our friend, Bilegt, the English phenom, is going to UB next week to compete in the national English Olympics. We wish him luck and hope he can find some time to play again this weekend.

To check out all the photos, click here.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Spring is here! Kind of!

This post is for you, Uncle Alan.

"The weather in Mongolia is always changing: some days you can experience all four seasons."
-Traditional Mongolian Proverb

The last few weeks, the weather has been awesome. It snowed about 10 days ago, but it quickly warmed in the late afternoon to temps high enough for a light jacket. Routinely since then, the it's been in the 30's at night and in the 60s-70sF during the days. Consequently, we've put away the long underwear for the season and have now embraced Spring. However, Spring, while it does include mild summer temperatures, also includes mild winter temps as well. This Friday is the last day the city heating plants will be running heat, but it's only 55F in our apartment, so I think they gave up a little early.

It's 55F in our apartment, but the smokestack shows no sign of life.

Leslie's curled in a sleeping bag sarcophagus on a chilly morning.

So you can keep up on all the latest weather in beautiful Bayankhongor, we've added a widget to the left side panel or our blog. Check it out.

Spring = Dust Storms

In all seasons in Bayankhongor, we've noticed that it is windy. But with Spring in Mongolia comes dust storms without warning. We went for a pleasant Easter hike down to the river with one of my counterparts Sunday. We lazily ate jelly beans and chocolate (courtesy of our benevolent site mate Tysen), and shared bread, peanut butter, pickle salads and huushuur. It was a good thing we left when we did, though, because in rolled a storm worthy of a name.

As we walked back toward the city, we could see it enveloped by the flying dirt and debris. Our faces were pelted with small rocks and the whirring wind was so loud in our ears, we could barely hear each other speak. The more we walked, the more intense it became.

And just as suddenly as it had appeared, the clouds of sand and whirling trash came to rest back down to the ground, merely rustling as the wind continued to quietly blow around us.

The Sky is Gray
Since Spring has rolled around, the sky has been noticeably gray and gloomy, but the sun is coming up much earlier now. At Tsagaan Sar in late February, the sun came up at around 8:30 and during January it wasn't up before 9 o'clock. Now in mid-March, it's pleasantly up before 7am and doesn't go down until almost 8pm. This is a good feeling as we climb out of the winter blues.

Spring has been a little gloomy so far, but more people are out and about as the weather eases from the below zeros to the triple-digit summer heat.

A child walks to school next to our building on a gray morning. The metal thing on stilts is where we burn our trash. This is also the field where we've been playing whiffle ball recently.

Spring is also the time for construction to begin, so of course, they're putting a third floor on our apartment building. It's been a bit noisy as they've been welding and knocking down wood walls to brick up the full loft above us. It will be a welcome addition come next winter. There was no insulation up there, just a slat wood floor, so the heat from our place bled right out.

Our landlord has begun adding a third story to our building. Here they've welded the frame for the next flight of stairs.

As you can tell, construction in Mongolia is a non-specific art. We're not sure what's level here on the new support beams. Try coming up those stairs with no light in the stairwell. We didn't know we'd miss American building codes so much.

Care Packages

Thanks to the Reeders, Michelle and Cindy, and Leslie's parents for awesome care packages full of leisure and travel books, socks, macaroni and cheese, bagged/canned salmon and tuna and chicken, fruits, dry soup and dry soup makings, nuts, peanut butter and all the fun personal notes. We really appreciate it!

And a big thanks to Julie and all the folks at Easter Seals of SE Pennsylvania for sending a box chock full of instruments for the center for children with disabilities. They are quickly being put to use. We can't wait to show you some pictures. (The peanut butter and Mama Mia DVD were awesome surprises too.)