Settling In

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At the end of my first week here in St. Thomas, Jamaica I feel much more comfortable than when I left the airport this past Sunday. In fact, I’d go as far to say that I am pretty much settled in. Those feelings come and go, but for the most part I’m pretty happy with where I am and what I’m doing. That’s not to say that I didn’t and still don’t go through some culture shock here and there! So far the days have been long and busy. In this blog post I will attempt to detail everything as much as I can. Here goes nothing!

The first week was mostly visiting the sites that we would be given the opportunity to work at over the month here. We started at Yallahs Primary School. As an early childhood education major, I was set up in a first grade class. Miss Bogel’s classroom had  43 students, a few of which, as she told me had severe autism. As it was just day one in the room, my main goal was to just observe; to feel things out. I noticed that Miss Bogel rarely included the children with autism. They were given seats off to the side, where they played with toys or ‘read’ from books. It was hard for me to see. In the States, children with disabilities are given IEP and receive special attention and accommodations to help them learn. It appeared that here in Jamaica, at least in my classroom, that was not really included. Miss Bogel seemed to care about the children and their education, but simply did not quite know how to deal with them. She would hug them often and occasionally check up on them, but they were not really being taught like the other kids. That frustrated me; I thought Miss Bogel was failing them a bit as a teacher. But then I realized she had 40 some other students to teach and probably was not trained in special education. I began to realize the education system in Jamaica was just totally different from mine at home. When I return to the Primary School next week I hope to give these kids some individual help. I also observed the use of corporal punishment in the classroom, something I disagree with strongly and plan to provide a different approach to dealing with challenging behavior for Yallahs Primary.

After the Primary School, we visited the Basic School and the High School (both in Yallahs). Basic Schools are very interesting here in Jamaica; they are schools that start children at the age of three. It was so much fun to work with these little tikes! They get a lot of play time and important socialization. In addition, they are taught self-help skills. My favorite part of working with these kids was watching them play with my camera. They loved seeing their own face on the screen; it was like magic. I plan to work at the Basic School as my secondary site here. The High School was a totally different atmosphere than the Basic School. It was very strict, especially the dress code. Students in most Jamaican schools are required to wear uniforms, but at Yallahs High there are rules about how low you can wear your pants and that shirts must be tucked in. Talking to the principal we found out the reason they are so strict about everything is because High School is pretty much these students last chance to make something of their lives; most Jamaica students will not continue to University. For this reason, the high school is set up like a technical school as well. There are classes for the agriculture field (complete with a farm and chickens), the cosmetology field, and the metal works field. In addition to that they have the standard English, science, computer, etc.

Day one completed with a visit to the Women’s Center, an education setting for teenage mothers. I found out that most of the girls there were only 15 years old! We met some of them and their babies, who often come to the center with them. The place was very hospitable and if you ask me, a very important place.

On our next day visiting sites, we went to RADA and WRADA. RADA stands for rural agriculture development authority, while WRADA is the women’s sector of that. Both these sites were located far away from our residence, so we crammed into buses and headed off. On the bus I really noticed how bad the roads here in Jamaica are. Yet, the people have no trouble driving. They zoom down those things like they’re constantly rushing to be somewhere on time. I found this funny, because as I am learning, Jamaican culture is at a much slower pace than American. They are a much more laid back people who seem to do things on their own time. It appears they really enjoy their lives this way. But getting back to RADA. RADA is essentially set up to educate and help farmers, whether that be finding them work, assisting their wives in cooking help, identifying the best crops to grow. I loved the women’s part of RADA. The women we met were so independent; proud and happy about their work. They seemed like awesome people. In addition, they welcomed us with great warmth. They gave us samples of their mango wine and guava cheese (which tasted exactly like natural fruit roll ups). I plan to make the trip to Bath once a week to help at WRADA.

The rest of the week was spent exploring and adjusting to Jamaican life. We had wonderful food, like jerk chicken, cod fish, rice and peas, porridge, chicken and beef patties, bread fruit…the list goes on and on. We had a few lessons in Patois, the Creole language here. We went swimming in the beautiful blue waters. We met some wonderful people from the neighborhood, like good old Aunt G who sits outside her home/store everyday selling “anything you’d ever need.” This weekend we get another beach day and will be going to Kingston to see a Jamaican national soccer game, a world cup qualifier. So far, the experience has been a ride of ups and downs, but overall quite amazing. There are moments where I feel uncomfortable: I may miss home friends and family or feel guilty for my wealth compared to the people here or not know how to handle being called whitey or being hit on every moment…but all that being said, I’ve been laughing and smiling everyday. Living in a foreign country is tough, but this service-learning trip will be an experience unlike any other. Bring on week two!

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