Tuesday, April 23, 2013

National Spelling Bee 2013: The Un-official Write Up

A Day (or two) in the Life of the National Spelling Bee Committee

- Friday -
9:00am: Plan to arrive at University American College-Skopje (UACS) to meet the Tinex truck that is delivering donations.

9:15am: Actually arrive at UACS after spending 5 minutes arguing with the taxi driver in Macedonian about the price. I may speak with a Minnesotan accent, but I know the price didn't change overnight! Finally throw the 200 denari at him, call him a thief, and hop out of the car.

9:30am: Stand around with Alastair waiting for our contact at UACS to show up and help us figure out what to do with the 50+ 2-liter bottles of water and boxes of snacks. Eavesdrop on a conversation (in Macedonian) being held by some nicely dressed people outside the college who keep staring at us.
Tinex (a local grocery chain) donated lots of water and snacks for the event
9:45am: Finally one of the ladies asks us in English what we plan to do with all of this stuff. We start to explain about the event happening the following day, to which we learn, she is well aware.

9:50am: Our contact shows up and there is some debate as to where we can store these things since the college has classes going on. The nicely dressed women make a few phone calls and it is all taken care of.

10:15am: The last bottles of water have been carted off by the maintenance guys and we head upstairs to begin our preparations. Lori and Michelle arrive to get working.

10:35am: We are in the swing of preparations- making signs, finalizing registration lists and volunteer schedules.

11:20am: We discover there is a problem. The college has overbooked itself due to some communication issues. We are told the rooms we had planned on using aren't available.

11:25am: Head want to bang against the walls as we thought we were ahead of the game.

11:45am: We meet with one of the nicely dressed ladies. We find out she is the Vice President of the college. Our rooms change around for the fourth time this week.

11:55am: We finalize our schedule and start getting back to work on preparations.

12:05pm: The VP comes in again and says we need to make more changes. Preparations halt at this point because another change means redoing everything.

12:25pm: I meet with the VP and we figure out a schedule. She tells us which rooms we can use and we agree upon a schedule.

1:00pm: A new lady comes and says we need to talk about the room schedule. We though we had it all cleared as the VP agreed. Turns out there need to be more changes to the rooms. I clarify that this new lady is the one who will give the final say, not the VP. Correct.

1:10pm: We have a new room schedule to work off of and are ready to get started making signs, finalizing volunteer schedules and registration lists.

1:15pm: Our Peace Corps liaison shows up after a busy week of training. I have been in contact with her all morning about the rooms changing and she is happy to hear that we have finally worked out a schedule with the college.
Evelina is the queen of multi-tasking. I couldn't have survived the Bee without her.
1:50pm: The lady appears again and says we need to change around a few rooms again, this time losing rooms, so we wont have enough. I politely argue with her almost making her cry, but we eventually get things figured out and we only have to give up one room. It isn't ideal, but we will make it work.

2:00pm: Claire arrives with the t-shirts. They look fantastic! Thanks for the design Ari.

2:20pm: The lady appears yet again with more changes. I rip another clump of hair out of my head in frustration at the ever changing schedule. We do a walk-through of the building with the lady painstakingly going over which rooms we can use and which rooms we can't. I clarify and re-clarify, making sure there aren't any language miscommunications. We are told we are good to go.

2:40pm: She comes back yet again to change around more rooms on us. This time, spreading us out all over the confusing building- only one or two rooms on each floor on each wing. This is not a good solution for us, but its the day before the event, what can we do.

3:15pm: The rooms change once more, but this time the change is in our favor. We now agree on a schedule that is almost identical to what we originally had- nice big rooms, one side of the building, only a few floors. Hooray! Fingers crossed that it won't change again.

3:25pm: We decide that this late in the day we need to keep working on preparations and just cross our fingers nothing changes again.

3:40pm: Our new "friend" appears once more with another change, but again, its for the good. One of the groups that was going to also be using the college on Saturday cancelled, so that has freed up one more room for us. It is a small room, but will work great as our Volunteer HQ.

4:20pm: The rest of the committee appears with the goal of having one last meeting. However, because of how far behind we are from all the room changes, the meeting is scraped and another committee member takes them on a tour of the building giving me a few minutes to finish up the registration lists and the volunteer schedules.

5:00pm: YES! The college offices are closed for the day so they can't change our rooms on us anymore! In appears an amazing maintenance man who is here to do anything we want from him. He tells me he is happy we are there because it makes his night and day tomorrow far more interesting.

5:15pm: The registration room starts getting set up. Signs are hung and well as the paper Bees my students helped me make. Teacher certificates are having names added and the large whiteboard is being decorated welcoming everyone.
One of the Bees I designed with the help of 5th graders. We made about 50 or 60 of these.
You have to throw a few "Bee" puns in there!
6:00pm: The registration lists are almost done. The bulk of the committee is sent home, leaving only a few of us to finish up.

7:00pm: Lori and I start to print registration lists and volunteer schedules. The printer is a little slow.

7:45pm: We are still printing our lists.

8:15pm: We finally finish up and grab our stuff to head out for the night.

8:45pm: Lori and I arrive at our apartment where our boys and a few other PCVs are starting to make dinner for us (and themselves- we aren't that special!)

10:30pm: An early night for all as tomorrow is the big day!

- Saturday -
6:25am: Early to bed, early to rise! Good morning!

6:55am: Phil makes Lori and I some oatmeal- this could be our only meal of the day, so we better make it count.

7:35am: Time to call the taxi and hope it can find our apartment. We can't be late today.

8:00am: We arrive at the college to double check everything is ready to go. Organize one last meeting before we open the doors of the Registration room to a hallway that is already packed with teachers and students.
Quick run-through of the day
8:15am: My registration volunteers arrive- many of them Peace Corps staff members. I know we will be off to a fantastic start as PC staff members are excellent problem solvers, work efficiently and quickly, and are so positive.

Phil and Evelina were partners in crime for the day. They worked registration together and judged together.
8:30am: Registration is open! My mini-me (next year's registration guru) Kaitlin has jumped right in directing people. It is clear she is the perfect person for the job.

Go Kaitlin!
8:45am: My earlier thoughts about Peace Corps staff at registration are proven correct. They are all so positive telling every kid good luck. While only one of them speaks Albanian, the others write themselves a cheat sheet so they can speak to the students in both Macedonian and Albanian.

9:00am: Someone has thrown up in the bathroom. Good thing our trusty maintenance man from last night is on duty again and left me with his phone number.

9:45am: Grade 5 registration is almost complete. The time flew by. We are ready to start grade 6.

10:15am: A late bus has arrived. The grade 5 Mini-Bees have already started- time to improv. I grab a few PCVs and an Albanian speaker and we hold a Mini-Bee for the four 5th graders on that bus in the volunteer room.

11:10am: Grade 5 Mini-Bees are underway and Grade 6 Mini-Bees are about to start. We have a slight break at registration. I didn't even realize what time it was as the registration room was so busy. Despite having almost 600 kids and their teachers come through our doors to register, it seemed so calm compared to last year. Clearly good organization!
6th graders from my school waiting to compete
11:12am: I discover what Phil had been hiding from me for the last few minutes.

Thank you for all your help inmate 182.
11:45am: Ahh! We have opened registration up for grades 7 and 8, which means almost 600 kids to get through in an hour and a half. Can we do it?

1:00pm: We all survived and just in time. My entire staff will now change over as only the high schoolers have yet to register.

1:10pm: The 5th grade Bee is still going on and using rooms that we need for the 7th and 8th graders. Time to make some more last minute adjustments. A quick hallway meeting will help solve this issue.

This is a posed photo. But we really did have a meeting at that point.
1:40pm: The 7th grade Bees were supposed to have already started, but those 5th graders are still spelling! We are out of materials and rooms and have 100 7th graders and their teachers standing around the halls waiting to be told what to do and where to go.

1:50pm: The 5th grad Bee finally finishes! They ended up spelling words off of the 8th grade word list!
Lori and our 2nd place winner
2:00pm: Finally the 7th grade Mini-Bees are all started. I can breathe now and go back and check on registration.

2:15pm: My counterpart found me and we had time to take a quick photo.
Apparently the cool thing to do here is take photos at an angle.
2:45pm: My phone rings for the billionth time today. It's the Peace Corps Macedonia Country Director. He will be arriving shortly and wants to know where I will meet him to show him around.

2:50pm: Our photographers are everywhere.

Thanks for all the photos Aaron!
Part of the Kamenica group hanging out
Demir Hisar/Zhvan is in representing!
Everyone has time to pose for a photo.
One school arrived in matching shirts they had made for the Bee.
Certificates are a big deal in Macedonia. This year we introduced Grade-Level Finalist ones in addition to the Participant ones. Thanks Friends of Macedonia for helping us fund these.
3:00pm: I meet the Country Director and escort him into the 8th grade Final Bee. I point out to him where the Ministry of Education officials are sitting. We stand and observe the 8th grade Final Bee.

3:20pm: The judges are debating on whether a student spelled “survey” correct or not. They ask the student for clarification, but he is unsure of what is being asked. I step in and confirm that the word was written correctly.

3:25pm: I run down to registration to check in one more time. Kaitlin has everything under control.

3:35pm: I head back up to the 8th grade Final Bee.

3:37pm: A student spells a word incorrectly. His teacher starts throwing a fit about how the word her student received wasn't fair, that it was much harder than the rest of the words. I step in and explain that these are hard words (the 8th graders are now spelling words from the high school lists) but they have been published two months in advance so the students could all have studied them and that the words each student is given are completely randomized. The teacher yells back throwing a fit. The Country Director steps in and politely asks her to leave. She leaves in a huff. No one is sure what to do. I tell the judges to just continue.

3:45pm: Thank goodness Stephen was there. I am not a huge fan of confrontation like that.

3:50pm: The 8th grade Bee finishes. The awards are presented by our Country Director and Ministry of Education officials. Congratulations to the winners.

3:58pm: The room is emptied and Erin and I start cleaning, getting the room all ready for when the Ambassador arrives for the Year 3 and 4 Bee.

4:15pm: The room is ready to go and we start to let in the contestants.

4:25pm: Erin gets everyone lined up and ready to go while I go meet the Ambassador and his wife.

4:30pm: I am waiting at the entrance to the building with our UACS contact and a photographer for the Ambassador, but he is no where in site.

4:31pm: Phil calls saying he is with the Ambassador. Where are we? (They went in a different door).

4:33pm: We fly up the stairs and run down the hall and I catch up with the Ambassador. I thank him for coming and make some small talk.

4:35pm: We all sit down and the Bee starts.

Just hanging out with the Ambassador
5:30pm: The competition is still fierce.

5:45pm: The students switch over to the secret bonus list that no one outside of the committee has seen. This will now test their spelling abilities, rather than their memorizing abilities.

6:10pm: The competition is even harder. Words like “smithereens” and “liaison” are being read.

6:24pm: And we have a winner! The winning word was “celestial”.

6:26pm: The Ambassador makes a speech thanking everyone and reading off some pretty outstanding numbers:
- We had about 6000 total students participate at the local level.
- Of those 6000, almost 1400 qualified for the National Bee.
- There were over 90 Local Qualifying Bees held in 60 different towns and villages, and approximately 130 different schools.
Presenting the award to the Year 3 and 4 winner
6:35pm: The Ambassador chats with some PCVs and locals while the committee does the final clean up.

6:50pm: The clean up is all done. We head outside to take a team photo (or what is left of the team).
What a FANTASTIC group!
7:00pm: A little celebration!

7:10pm: Someone suggested we do a jumping photo. Ugh oh....
7:35pm: We arrive back at the apartment where Stephen has cooked us another fantastic meal- homemade burgers. Best burger I have had in Macedonia.

7:40pm: Phil and Aaron treat Lori and I to some rum and cokes to celebrate the completion of a very successful event.

8:45pm: Lori and I lock ourselves in one of the bedrooms and sort through all of the paper we brought home from the Bee, hoping to leave a bunch of it in Skopje. We are almost ready to call it a night.

9:30pm: Lori and I finish our work for the night.

A complete set of photos from the event can be viewed on Facebook by clicking here.

Monday, April 22, 2013

National Spelling Bee 2013: The Official Write Up

This article will hopefully appear on the Peace Corps website shortly (keeping my fingers crossed it actually does)
Saturday, April 13, 2013, marked the 4th annual National Spelling Bee (NSB) in Macedonia. The event was organized by Peace Corps Volunteers and held at the University American College - Skopje. Approximately 1400 students in grade five through year four of high school qualified for the event out of over 6000 students who participated in nearly 100 Local Qualifying Bees held by PCVs, local teachers, and American Corners around the country. This year set a record for number of participants, making NSB the largest PCV-run event in Macedonia.

Students from approximately 130 schools were required to spell 12 words correctly without any mistakes in order to qualify for the National Bee. Words across the age levels included "basketball", "scissors", "quarrel", and "smithereens".
Local teachers praised the event for not only making spelling fun, but also as a great way to teach students new words through the translations from English to Macedonian, Albanian, and Turkish.

The goals of NSB are to: expand student vocabulary and encourage accurate word usage and pronunciation, increase the students' phonemic awareness, practice common spelling patterns, and increase students' confidence in their ability to use the English language. The National Spelling Bee aims to give students a forum in which academic excellence can be recognized and encouraged in an atmosphere of friendly competition between all ethnicities living within the Republic of Macedonia.

Peace Corps Volunteers worked closely with counterparts, students, and local volunteers to hold qualifying events, arrange transportation to and from the National Bee, and help participants master the challenging word lists.
A last minute cram session before the competition begins
National Spelling Bee Committee Chair, Sara Scholin described the event as "the highlight of my service both personally and for my students who are already asking if the National Spelling Bee will happen next year when I am gone." Both Peace Corps Country Director Stephen Kutzy and US Ambassador to Macedonia Paul Wohlers spoke at the event, highlighting its importance for English education in the country.
Peace Corps Country Director, Stephen Kutzy, and US Ambassador Wohlers presenting the 1st place winner in the Year 3/4 Bee with her prize.
The project benefits from the strong dedication of local teachers, Peace Corps staff members, the Macedonian Ministry of Education, and other community stakeholders, increasing its long-term sustainability. Schools and municipalities throughout the country provided funding to support student transportation, University American College - Skopje donated space for the event, and the Tinex supermarket chain provided free snacks and drinks for participants, making it possible to implement the entire project for only $300, generously provided by former Peace Corps Macedonia Volunteers through a Friends of Macedonia grant.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

A Little Bit of This, A Little Bit of That

A few random photos (because if I am paying $2.49 a month to have extra space for posting photos, I may as well use it!)

When President Obama (or a cardboard lookalike) came to visit American Corner Stip, of course he demanded a photo with the one and only Phil Guthrie!
And his trip to AC Stip wouldn't be complete without a photo with Kiki- they're close personal friends- can't you tell!
I made chicken and rice soup from scratch and it turned out fantastic! No Dad, I didn't raise or butcher the chicken, but I did everything else from scratch.
Right before the recent mayoral election, our mayor opened up the brand new pazar in Kamenica. It is the nicest one I have seen in the country. Some of the babas were all dressed up to serve food at the opening ceremony.
To teach the first graders yesterday, I made "magic glasses" that were different coloured. The kids loved them, so of course we had to take photos! (The little boy in the blue and green shirt is practically fluent in English thanks to his 5th grade sister).
This group wasn't quite as happy to take a photo. But once they knew I was going to put them up on Facebook, they happily agreed (well somewhat happily).
My glasses were black and official NASA approved stare-at-the-sun-and-not-hurt-your-eyes glasses!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Fact or Fiction?

Peace Corps is full of rumors. There is the PCV rumor mill where volunteers like to spread the newest gossip to other volunteers. There is also another rumor mill lead by the Host Country Nationals (HCNs) about the PCVs. The PCV rumor mill can get really annoying and tedious, as can the HCN rumor mill. The HCN one, however, tends to be far more hilarious. Here are a few of the rumors that I have heard within the last two months about myself:

I am a spy.
FICTION: I am a Peace Corps Volunteer. Peace Corps is a US government sponsored program that places trained Americans in countries around the world to help transfer skills. My job here is to help teach English to the kids at the local primary school. I am in no way a spy.

When I go to Skopje I stay at the US Ambassador's house and have slumber parties with his daughters.
FICTION: While both the Embassy and Peace Corps are US government affiliated, we do not know the Ambassador on a personal level and I don't think he would really want to open his house up to a bunch of PCVs.

I bought eggs last week.
FACT: I did, in fact, buy eggs last week.

I will call President Obama if someone's house isn't dusted well enough.
FICTION: Sorry to break it to the HCNs, but I am not that tight with Obama. Also sorry to say, but Obama has a little bit more important job to do than to worry about the dusting of one Macedonian household.

I am going to take Macedonian children back to America next month at my expense.
FICTION: While I would love to expose some local children to the American culture, it is not going to happen. If I had the kind of money it would require to bring children back to America, sorry to say, I probably wouldn't spend it that way. Also, just for the record, I am not into kidnapping children. (One teacher received an urgent phone call this past Friday wondering why she had not been notified that the American was taking her child to America next month- lele).

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Those Times When You Realize, "Hey, I'm in the Peace Corps."

It is easy, even over here, to get stuck in the hum-drum of life. It's easy to wash, rinse, and repeat each day. But then there are those days that just throw you for a loop and you have to remember you're not in America. You aren't living a "normal" life. You are a Peace Corps Volunteer.

- You talk about poop- your own, your fellow PCVs, the animals, and your host mother 's (and unfortunately got to witness that last one).

- You don't even ask what you are eating until after you have eaten it because chances are, you don't want to know and if its free, you probably don't care.

- You don't shower every day, every other day, or sometimes even every week (don't judge us- we're either too poor to pay to heat the water, our town/village once again has no water, or we're on a so-called "vision quest")

- You give a stray dog a chunk of bread on your way home from the store so you can have a friend in town. 

And then there are those things that you can't even begin to describe.

The other day I came home from school and went downstairs to collect some wood to start my fire- however I didn't make it to the wood pile. I walked out on my host mother cleaning goat intestines. I will let the pictures do the rest of the talking since I have to include them (A. This is something hard to imagine without seeing it and B. My host mother laughed for a good 3 minutes when I asked if I could take pictures). One thing the pictures can't capture is the smell. It was horrible- very ammonia like. The smell is so strong it has been known to make PCVs quit smoking!

My host mother working on her intestines. The first step was to find the end of the intestines and hook it onto the end of a long stick.
Then she would push the intestines onto the stick so they would bunch up- she did this quite fast too I might add.
She really bunched them up on the stick.
The next step was putting the stick in the bowl and pulling on the intestines to turn them right side out (she had already turned them inside out and cleaned them by the time I got there).
The bowl of "cleaned" intestines
Then she washed them over and over again in clean water. The bubbles aren't from soap, but rather simply the intestines themselves.
After washing them, she threw them in a pot with water to boil for awhile. At this point, I stepped out of the action and just asked her what she would do. She said after they had boiled, she would throw the water, chop them up into small pieces (about the size of your thumb tip). After that, they would be eaten in a variety of manners- cooked with rice and spinach, soup, etc. I told her I would pass on eating them as I have already tried intestines and despite being a delicacy, I don't like them. So far, I have escaped having to eat any, but we shall see.

Oh to be 26 and living the life of a Peace Corps Volunteer. I know you all wish you could trade lives with me!

Monday, March 25, 2013

Macedonia is Buzz-ing

The last month and a half of my life has been filled with work for the National Spelling Bee. You know you are working on a project way too much when your dreams involve kids spelling words and when you hear a word you think to yourself, "oh, that's on the x grade's word list" (or at least I usually think it to myself- Phil has, however, had to put up with a whole lot of NSB talk).

This year's National Bee, on April 13th, is expected to have between 800-1,000 kids in attendance, along with their teachers and about 80% of Peace Corps Macedonia (including PC staff). This is by far the largest project done here in Peace Corps Macedonia as we have already had over 2,500 kids involved and numbers are still coming in. There are close to 100 Local Qualifying Bees happening in March this year, which is a big increase over last year and we are getting more and more teachers and communities involved. This is definitely a project the kids remember. In September this past year, on the first day of school, I had a 6th grader come up to me and ask when the word lists would be out so he could start studying!

Rather than keep talking about this, I will let some pictures from my Local Qualifying Bee give you a better idea. You can also feel free to check out our Facebook page or our Blog.

An 8th grader trying to qualify- she was spelling "counterfeit". Other 8th grade words include- "admiration", "embarrassed", and "poultry".
Two 8th graders just qualified. I decided this year to make paper bees as the invitations instead of just printing out a half sheet of paper with the information. I was up half the night making them, but it was definitely worth it when the next day there were excited kids "flying" their bees around the halls in between classes. I also gave each student a fun pencil and an eraser (courtesy of the Target Dollar Section and my parents!).
Three 6th graders who qualified- typical Macedonian smiles. I promise they were actually quite excited and happy.
8th graders
6th graders who qualified- again the serious faces.
Group of 8th graders who studied hard and qualified to go to the National Bee!
More 6th graders who qualified. The 6th graders had to spell words like- "university", "tarantula", and "national".
Some of my 5th graders- these girls rock!
Half way to qualifying...
....and he spelled all 12 words correct!
More 8th graders (if you couldn't tell, the two girls were quite proud of their bees and wanted their picture taken over and over again).
6th grader focusing on spelling those words right.
5th grader spelling- They had words like "cake", "basketball", and "family".
 Best Peace Corps project ever*.

 *This statement reflects my personal opinion at this moment.