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Here are some excellent sites I’ve come across recently either for those interested in teaching in Georgia or just interested in Georgian politics.

 

http://eslgeorgia.com/

http://theyounggeorgians.wordpress.com/

http://www.evolutsia.net/

http://dfwatch.net/

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…and why I love it.

Tuesday morning. I wake up in yesterdays clothes because it is too cold to take off any layers before sleeping–undershirt, dress shirt, sweater that hasn’t been washed since arriving because I don’t have enough sweaters to afford letting it air dry for five days, and jeans I have been wearing for a week. It’s a frost on your skin kind of morning. I look in the mirror and think, “well, these’ll do again for the day,” and I walk out the door, faithful briefcase from goodwill in the states slung across my back.

I set off on my dirt path to school. Instead of just droppings lying across my way, the heard of cows is lying across my path this morning. I have to climb up the hill through the brush to continue forward. The nieghborhood’s stray dogs bark and follow me to school as I pass my children shouting “Hello Mr. Cass!!!” and enter the school.

After first period, a teacher comes up to me and asks if I’m staying after school for the party. “What party?” She didn’t know, but she told me there would be cake, so I had to stay. I wasn’t quite in the mood, seeing as I had a private tutoring lesson in the evening, so I gave her the typical Georgian line “oh I am so sorry, but I cannot tonight. I have business.” The teacher was distraught. She ran off to another group of teachers, animatedly chatted, and in a few minutes my English coteacher Natia came over to me and handed me a cup of sugary, sugary instant coffee, in one of the three communal cups we all use for water and coffee and never wash. “Cass, you must stay for the party. We’re having cake!” “Natia, what is it even a party for?” “Umm, I don’t know.” The bell rings, and we go to class.

After a great class of “What is it? Is it a boat? Nooooooo. It isnut (Georgian pronunciation of “isn’t”) e boat. Itz e doll,” I head back to the teachers’ lounge. One of our Georgian teachers confronts me. “Cass, you must stay for the party, even for a short time.” “What is it a party for Manana?” “For grandchild.” “Oh! Does someone have a new grandchild?” “No.”

After third period, I get shepherded into the assistant director’s room. There are the sad remains of a torte and champagne. Natia and I sit down to enjoy our compulsory share and give toasts to our fellow teachers. Ok, so I’m happy because I’ve satisfied my obligation and my teachers are happy that I’ve eaten the cake with them. I go, teach my remaining two lessons, and get ready to leave the school.

After the last lesson, a teacher grabs me and says “let’s go to the party!” “I’ve already had some of the cake, I really can’t eat anymore,” I excuse myself. “No, no. There is a different cake.” I’m really confused, and she leads me to a room I have never been in before, our school’s biology room, strewn with plants, anatomical dummies, and student-made posters dedicated to motherhood. The beginnings of a supra are laid, and I am told the cake and chicken are coming. Here I at last find out that we are having a party for the grandmothers in our staff in general. The teachers wanted to have a party, so their planning went something like this; We should have a party! Ok, what for? I don’t know, what to we all have in common? Well…we’re all grandmothers, aren’t we? Yeah! Let’s have a party in honor of our grandmothers and grandchildren! Great! I’ll bring the cake tomorrow!

And so we had a party.

Natia jokingly said, “Cass, we should call it the ‘Grand Party’.” I loved it, and so wrote it around the beautiful flower drawn on the board. I open the champagne for the teachers (a strange simple secret delight of mine, along with pouring liquids from great heights and having milk-crate bookshelves) as the teachers shout with each pop ‘vaiiime!’ The only other male classroom teacher in the school (besides the two athletic teachers) pours me some of his homemade cognac after the champagne runs out. Rough stuff. The mandatorebi, our school’s security, and the directors stop by and make toasts. Up till this point, I had not had much communication with many of the teachers. I give stumbling toasts in Georgian, and since then they love me even more. Especially the other male teacher, who didn’t talk to me much before the party.

The cake comes, we eat, we drink from not enough plastic cups, passing them back and forth with each other, and then separate for the day. I call and cancel my private lesson for the day.

The dogs chase me back home. I am sincere when I say I could not love my work and fellow teachers any more than I do.

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Halloween. A day that I learned was viewed by many Georgians as an unholy celebration of evil spirits, and is quite frowned upon by the Georgian Orthodox Church; no representations of skeletons are allowed. But still, as one of the few strong American traditions in a land where traditions are everything, it needed to be celebrated.

Part of Teach and Learn with Georgia’s mission, besides bringing native English speakers into the country to improve English instruction and introduce alternative pedagogical ideas, is to promote an exchange of culture between the Teachers and their host country. Georgians are always willing to share their traditions and specialties with guests or foreigners. Whether it’s holding a supra and sharing food and wine, bringing visitors on excursions to cathedrals, taking a guest to a Georgian Dance, or even just inviting them fishing, in my experience Georgians will always go out of their way to introduce the trappings of their ancient customs that form such a large part of their identity, and have in fact served to preserve their identity throughout centuries of war and invasion. From many first-hand stories told to me by a few close friends, and through some of my own experiences, the further one travels outside of Tbilisi, the less willing Georgians become to be on the receiving end of a cultural exchange. Part of crafting an individual identity throughout a hundred years of Russian presence, and many preceding years of other foreign control, includes a high level of conservativeness in the culture; many Georgians will expound on their love for country and culture, but are unwilling to admit new ideas into their daily lives. Living in the city however, I figured I’d have a chance to be successful in holding a one-day celebration for an archaic tradition.

I spoke to my co-teachers a week before and asked them if we could make masks in our classes on Monday for Halloween. It took a bit of explaining to get them to fully understand the idea of Halloween; they were all familiar with it, but their ideas were a bit vague: something about walking from house to house and candy. They were all for the idea though (YES!), so I prepared.

Stepping into my first class on Monday morning, one group of my third graders, my one teacher turned to me and said: “Now you know we might have some problems with this. Many Georgians view Halloween as a strange forbidden holiday…and one of our boys’ father is a priest.” I couldn’t quite figure our her tone, so I asked: “Well, would you still like to do it?” “Of course.  Just try not to focus on…well…ghosts?” I stepped in front of the room and asked her to translate for me. First, I told the class that today was a very special holiday in America that children loved to celebrate, called Halloween; then I asked the children if they had heard of it and what they knew. Cue the typical explosion of Georgian children’s excitement to answer a question. The first girl who stood up said: “Everyone puts on black dresses as costumes!” Ok, that’s kind of true…. “people give candy when you walk into their house!” Getting warmer…. “Kids dress up as scary things like skeletons!!” shouted a boy in the back of the room. It was time to take control of the conversation.

I explained to the children that Halloween had some roots attached to the religious holiday of All Saints Day (slight side explanation that the Georgian Church is on a different calendar and yes, for many people All Saints Day is tomorrow) but as more people of different religions moved into America, it became a time for children to dress up as their favorite movie or book characters, like Winnie the Pooh or Spiderman. Then, at night, they walk around with their family and friends to all of their neighbors’ houses, and when they knock on the doors, they’re given candy as gifts. This explanation hit on all they shared values between our celebration of Halloween and majority Georgian values: religion, family, friends, parties, and gifts. It was my best attempt at putting a pleasant mask on a Holliday that many celebrate as an opportunity to evoke their inner undead or to experiment with facial alterations involving copious amounts of blood.

After the brief history, it was time to make masks!!!! I drew a few examples on the board, and as the children began cutting out their masks, I made one out of a few note cards I had lying in my bag, and taped it to my pen like a typical masquerade mask. The children got very creative; some even made head straps out of paper for their masks. While we were working, I played the Monster Mash, and most of the children got up to dance with their masks. To make the lesson more official, I taught basic features of the face in English—eyes, nose, mouth—having the children point to theirs on their mask. At the end of the lesson, I had all the children put on their masks, shout “Trick or Treat” at the tops of their lungs, and then passed out candy. I must say, it was the BEST day of teaching I’ve had so far.

Luckily, there hasn’t been any anti-Halloween sentiment fallout over the past couple of days. In fact, I’ve had just the opposite experience as the negative one I was preparing for. On the walk home on Monday, one of my students who I was walking with asked me if we had the lesson that day because Halloween was the following. “No, Halloween’s today.” “What? Only today??” She was a bit crestfallen by the short holiday duration. Today, when I went into the same third grade class again, a few students had their masks with them complete with augmentations added at home, one girl had brought in a black plastic mask, and another had brought in a mask that she made at home with her father. I consider myself so fortunate that I work in a community where my fellow teachers support my ideas and my students and parents are excited to learn about cultures outside of their own. It goes directly against many of the stories I’ve been told, and I’m happy in my work to be an exception to the generalization.

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Excursions

Written last week, posted now. The beauty of having one family computer.

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The last week of September, I entered my school for the first time on a Thursday morning. I saw a graying man in a subdued forest-green tweed jacket standing at the door ushering students in; I assumed he was the director, so I stepped up to introduce myself in my best Georgian. “Oh! You’re our American!! Come in come in, how are you?” Luckily, one of my English co-teachers who I had met at an orientation the previous week met me and led me up to the teacher’s lounge. As I expected, I stepped into a room full of Soviet-era women, most dressed in black, who were thrilled at my Georgian and immediately sat me down and asked if I wanted coffee. I was surprised when one woman turned to me and said, “so you’re coming on our excursion to Kazbegi with us this weekend, yes?”

Georgia is mountainous; fact. Traveling in marshutkas East and West I’ve been amazed by the hills and valleys that frame the village-speckled landscapes. Even Tbilisi itself, nestled in the mountains, affords me surprising breathtaking views when I least expect it. However, I was not prepared for what I would find on a drive to Stepantsminda, a town nestled in the northern region of Kazbegi to the East of Ossetia and close to Russia. I have not yet been more awed by any piece of this green earth as I was on this trip.

We spent the day visiting churches, heckling with cab drivers, climbing mountains, eating, eating, and eating. My fellow teachers know how to have a proper excursion. Each woman cooked some aspect of a full meal and loaded into the marshutka laden with bags, plastic containers, and bottles. I sampled everything from rose vodka to homemade cakes. At one point on the ride, I turned to the woman next to me and jokingly said, “I’m so tired; I wish I had coffee.” “Me too,” was the reply, and before we knew it a thermos was being passed forward and we had a small coffee break. I should have known they would be prepared.

The best adventure of the day: after several hours of riding, I was ready to get out and hike in the beautiful mountains surrounding us. We unloaded from the marshutka to ascend to Gergeti Sameba Eklesia, an ancient church on one of the peaks of Stepantsminda. Many of the teachers wanted to take a taxi up—and by taxi, I mean a Lada 4×4 with heavy-duty shocks to handle the eroded dirt and rock roads to the top of the mountain—but the drivers were asking for too much money. After arguing for about a half an hour, climbing into and jumping out of three different taxis as part of negotiations, finally, prices were settled. Throughout this frustrating process, two of the teachers’ daughters and I talked about how we wanted to walk up the mountain. We managed to convince the one mother, my co-teacher, Natia, and another teacher to hike up with us. The taxis set off, and we started hiking.

At the foot of the mountain, a man sitting on a fence told us that there was a shorter foot path leading up the mountain we should seek, instead of following the road. The one teacher spotted a path and started leading us up the mountain. It was only wide enough for one person at a time, and winded around the other side of the mountain. My suspicions were validated when I stepped over my third pile of cow droppings; we had taken an old cow path. Although hiking on the wrong mountain, in the wrong direction on precipitous paths for almost forty minutes, the hike did afford some spectacular views.

On the correct path we languidly made our way through the fresh mountain air and falling yellowed leaves (my first breath of fall) to the peak. We joined a few remaining teachers in a taxi down, and then spread out blankets and stoked a fire in a park for our post-hike feast. The food and the air were cold, but the company and conversation were warm. As my co-teacher Natia explained: “we Georgians must party. We must gather and talk and eat. We cannot live without this!” And they know how to enjoy each other. I’m heading on another excursion with the teachers to the wine-making region of Kakheti this Sunday and cannot wait to spend the day exploring the holy sights of their country with them.

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Lazy Sunday

My brain is fried.

I would say that today has been my first day of full-language immersion. My previous roommate Joe, another TLG teacher, decided that the culture shock of Georgia was too much for him, so he is headed back to the states. What this means for me is that I am now living in a room inside my family’s house rather than the separate building, and that when I spend a day with the family, all I hear is Georgian–or maybe more precisely, Ginglish. Enough of my family speaks enough English that we bounce words back and forth in both languages using pantomiming to fill in the gaps. After having conversations over breakfast and lunch, showing them pictures of my family, and watching a dubbed version of Robinson Crusoe, I find that I can’t study any more for a while. The words are just bouncing off my dull, sleepy head.

Tomorrow is my first day taking over my English classes! Because I am replacing another teacher, I am starting classes halfway through the designed course. All of my students are very eager to learn and enjoy coming to class; this makes it extremely easy for me as a teacher. I teach four classes at three levels, Starter, Elementary, and Pre-intermediate. The starters know a lot of grammar, but have close to no speaking skills. The pre-intermediate class is able to have educated, although sometimes broken, conversations about topics ranging from politics to geography. I am thinking about doing a basic introductory lesson where they make name tags and introduce themselves to me so I can get a sense of their level of oral proficiency. My chief focus will be to make them comfortable having conversations in English. We’ll see how it goes: six hours a week is a fair amount of class for each student, but I’m not sure how frequently they use the language in their other interactions.

Tonight, a fellow previous member of OLEG, Tim, is going to stay with me at the house. He has been teaching here since January. I am excited to hear his stories and for him to teach me some quintessential Georgian phrases.

Hope you all are more than well. It’s so nice for me to take a day and just relax, letting my mind focus only on the river flowing by our yard. It’s been a long time since I allowed myself a life of slow growth.

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