Friday, November 21, 2014

Big Moment In Peter's Life

Saturday was a big day in our young son's life, as he played right back the entire game in Central Catholic's 3-0 win in the state championship game and,  as you can see, was first into the stands after the game.

Peter started playing soccer year round in second grade, ten years ago.  So it's been a decade of 6:00 a.m. indoor soccer games and wet, late-night practices.  I think what he's most enjoyed about soccer is his teammates.  Whenever a choice came along as to which team to play on, he always chose to play where most of his buddies were, and I've always appreciated what a good leader he was on the field in terms of encouraging teammates or breaking up fights before they got started or endeavoring to enlighten referees who had wronged a teammate--at least in his view.

He's also not been afraid to fail.  He'll jump in to take a penalty kick, volunteer to play keeper or center back despite having no experience, and keep playing hard even when a game seems out of reach--all good life lessons for his overly cautious father.

One of Peter's other strengths is that he knows how to have fun.  As Coach Sean put it many years ago: "he has the biggest smile when we win and the biggest frown when we lose."  Saturday it was time to smile, and no one had a bigger one.

Peter's a senior, nearing the end of a transition from a life of play to one of work.  Saturday provided a wonderful exclamation point and will be a benchmark that he'll always look back to fondly.

We are so thankful to the many people who donated their time and patience to help him over the years, a long list that includes Coaches: Dave, Sean, Parke, Reggie, Erik, Mike, Adam, and Tim.

Friday, November 14, 2014

In Praise of Crazy Middle School Teachers

Mr. Essan Weah and I had the pleasure of spending today at Briggs Middle School in Springfield Oregon.  What a delightful place!

Essan taught for several years in Ghana before becoming the headmaster of Morle Junior High School, a Yo Ghana partner, and he has a wonderful rapport with students here in talking about what life is like in Ghana inside and outside of school.

Teaching in the U.S. is in some ways more difficult than teaching in Ghana.  There are, to be sure, lots of books and often computers, and many other learning aids. But our children are often scarred by modern life, and by middle school it is considered uncool, in most early adolescent circles, to express enthusiasm for learning.

How blessed we are, then, to have so many teachers like the ones at Briggs, people who both exude and command respect, who so manifestly care so deeply about the children we entrust to their care, teachers who when faced with the unworkable demands of the modern classroom say "yes" to additional challenges and opportunities.

Thank you.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Four Principles of Yo Ghana!

Yo Ghana! is always thinking about how to define its mission more precisely.  Here is the
most recent version:

Exchanges for Transformation
We believe that becoming friends with and learning from students across the globe transforms lives by breaking open new possibilities and opportunities.

Schools in the U.S. are not above schools in Ghana.  Each set of schools has its own strengths and challenges.  We work together, as equal partners, to learn from and help each other.

Local Initiative
Yo Ghana! does not simply give money away, and we don’t want any buildings named after us.  But if your school has started a project—from a library or computer lab to visiting your partner school—we would be honored to help.
We believe that everyone is in a position to help someone.  Yo Ghana! students encourage and educate each other.  Yo Ghana! projects offer people on both sides of the world an opportunity to improve the lives of others.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Secularization, Education, and Drift

I've been reading and thinking about secularization lately as part of my research on Ashesi University and its blending of Western and African motifs.

In Ghana schools, as in the rest of life, religion is a deeply ingrained part of the routine.  Religious and Moral Training is part of the state curriculum.  The photograph here is of students and staff worshiping as part of the school day.   Religious beliefs are diverse.  Christians are in the majority in most parts of the country, but there are also many Muslims as well as followers of Traditional beliefs and practices.  But a belief in God is widely shared.

Americans of course no longer share that assumption.  In fact at most universities it's safe to say that professing strong religious beliefs will lead, at best, to people regarding you as quaint.

The shift toward secularism has been going on for a long time in American universities, but for the first two thirds or so of the twentieth century the ethos of most campuses--like the culture as a whole--was still strongly informed by Protestantism, broadly defined.  So when professors or administrators talked about serving the public interest, there was a general understanding of what that entailed. In the past several decades academic and mainstream culture have been dominated by an emphasis on what is commonly referred to as expressive or radical individualism, or what some critics have described as a shift from a focus on one's social responsibilities to a focus on one's personal rights.

This expressive individualism has led us to become more sensitive than before to injustice.  But since the alpha and omega of life is the pursuit of individual rather than collective happiness, universities have become much better at deconstruction than reconstruction; we excel at identifying oppression but struggle at advancing positive alternatives, in part because to do so would be to impose, we assume, constructed and arbitrary beliefs on radically free individuals.  The result, as Columbia University cultural historian (who identifies himself as a secular Jew) Andrew Delbanco puts it, is a sense of "drift."

His solution, (advanced in College; What it Was, Is, and Should Be)  is to recapture the sense of mission that U.S. colleges once articulated: "to serve others is to serve oneself by providing a sense of purpose, thereby countering the loneliness and aimlessness by which all people, young and old, can be afflicted."

As Portland State's motto is "To Serve the City," I think we have an excellent foundation from which to build a sense of shared purpose.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

What Do You Do When There Is Too Much To Do?

One of my pet theories is that the great majority of people who live comfortable lives in the U.S. try to arrange our lives so that we can remain more or less ignorant of human suffering.

Father Mawusi, shown in the photo to the right, does not enjoy that luxury, as he lives in a place, Kpandai, where the needs of his parishioners and the rest of the populace are staggering.  Brando and I sat one night over dinner with him and listened to a litany of classrooms without teachers, families without money, women in labor having to travel over a deeply rutted road for thirty miles on the back of a motorcycle or even a bicycle to the nearest health center.  "And it's getting worse," he concluded, cradling his head in his hands.

But after a pause he looked up, smiled and said "we are grateful to God" to be able to serve and make some differences.  The next day he and Father Richard toured Brando and I around St. Kizito Basic School, where we saw part of that labor, teachers and students hard at work, such as the junior high school class Brando spoke with, to the left.  There are many success stories, students who graduate and go on to the neighboring high school and beyond, parents and teachers who make great sacrifices so that their children and students can have better lives.

Brando and I were particularly struck by the four kindergarten classrooms, which accommodate over 300 students.  Currently there are three teachers, including one volunteer.  Father Mawusi is optimistic that they will soon find another.  In the larger scheme of things, it's one small need among hundreds or thousands.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Accomplishing a Lot with a Little

It is easy to pick on Ghana's education system. Teachers lack the sort of resources that their counterparts in more prosperous parts of the world enjoy, which is one of the reasons why Ghana teachers often rely on a system known as "chalk and talk" or "chew and spew" that emphasizes memorization.

But reading through the several hundred letters from Ghana students have recently contributed to their Yo Ghana! partners reminded me that in some respects the current system is very effective.  The great majority of letters are well written.  This is true in the literal sense (the letters are very legible) and of the prose more broadly, in terms of sentence construction and clarity of expression and clever turns of phrase. Students from Ghana who come to to college or university in the U.S. may at first struggle with assignments that require independent thinking rather than rote learning.  But most adjust quickly and then thrive.

This is all the more impressive when one considers that for the great majority of Ghana students, English is a second or even third language.  Indeed, even pre-teen students commonly remark that they can read or speak or write in two or three languages.

Clearly, then, a thirst for learning and access to dedicated teachers counts for a great deal.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Face of West Africa

If you travel to West Africa, you'll find many people like the girl here: friendly children full of laughter.

Such people are rare, though, in mainstream U.S. media's treatments of West Africa.  Here you'll find Muslim extremists, blood-crazed child soldiers, and, now, Ebola.  And why are Americans paying so much attention to Ebola, as opposed to diseases that kill far many Africans?  Well, in part because unlike malaria (or starvation), the disease may "break containment" and come to the U.S.  That was the message of the Hollywood movie "Outbreak" from the 1990s, that a mysterious, deadly disease could move from the steamy and sinister "Heart-of-Darkness" jungles of Africa to ravage innocent American communities.

Ebola is a very serious problem in parts of West Africa that requires our attention.  But its presence should not lead us back into tired stereotypes about the continent and its people.