Spanning the Globe
When I was a kid, I had a fascination with foreign languages. I would walk up to a stranger in a grocery store and start talking gibberish with the hope that they would think I was exotic and foreign. This behavior didn't impress my mother and older sister, and led to my waiting in the car. But even that was okay, because the car held maps and an atlas, which I would look at and dream. Dream of doing something important in those places that, at the time, were just dots on a map.
In 1986, I became a teacher. Though I was delighted to wear my apple pins and denim jumpers, I quickly tired of putting my energy into fitting the stereotype of a teacher staying in her classroom, sitting behind her desk, never getting out, never encouraging her students to reach beyond the curriculum. So I turned my energy into making my classroom a place that could reach anywhere. We not only had pen pals in distant places, but we created books and sent them to students in places where books were an exotic treasure, whether made by factories or with crayons.
In October of 2000, I received the Milken Award. To this day I find it absolutely amazing that I was chosen for such an honor, and it changed how I was viewed as a professional. Doors seemed to open everywhere and opportunities abounded. The Milken Award also gave me the opportunity to travel to a wide variety of foreign countries — places I have always wanted to go — to teach the things I think are important. Teaching has proven to be an educational adventure; literally, it has taken me around the world. And my experiences in third-world countries have been more of an education than anything I learned from a textbook. I am truly humbled by the generosity of those with so little who are willing to share so much! It is my privilege to share with other educators how these opportunities evolved into educational adventures.
An integral part of my time abroad is that my students at home have vicariously shared these experiences with me. Connecting via email, phone conferences and InterVideo Educational Networking (IVEN), the driving force behind what I do in other places is the interaction with my students back home. Socioeconomic status limits many of my students from physically traveling farther than the state line; that can sometimes lead to provincial thinking. It has been incredibly fulfilling to see my students shed old stereotypes and grow to take pride in being an active part of a global community.
A Nigerian teacher trained by Rettig teaches an outdoor class. Students sit on plastic chairs that keep fire ants away from them while they learn. The chairs were purchased with funds that Rettig raised.
(click image to see larger view)
Even before receiving the Milken Award, I had enjoyed the opportunity to travel to other countries for educational purposes.
In July of 2000, New Zealand was the home of the International Reading Association's (IRA) 18th World Congress on Reading (www.reading.org). IRA's biennial World Congress brings together teachers, teacher educators, administrators, researchers, policymakers and others involved in literacy education. Our state reading coordinator, Joyce Hinman (who is to reading in North Dakota what Tiger Woods is to golf) invited a colleague and me to present with her. We filled out a proposal to present on picture books of the prairie. It seems that many countries have areas of prairie, so the topic was appealing to a broad-enough base. To our delight our proposal was accepted.
It was my first time flying outside of North America, and the only bed I saw in three days of transit was during a layover in Singapore. However, it was all worth it! Over 180 countries were represented at that World Congress on Reading. I will always remember the opening ceremony, in which children from each country carried in their flags dressed in their native attire. I was able to tour schools while in New Zealand and was surprised to see many children without shoes. This was not due to poverty in any way, but by choice. It seems the climate allows for it, and while New Zealanders take their education and work seriously, they are very relaxed in their dress. I found schools to be bursting with colorful artwork and ringing with sounds of a variety of dialects. My students back home were fascinated by the artwork and very jealous of the "barefoot okay" policy.
In 2001, representing the North Dakota Reading Association, I attended an IRA world literacy leadership conference in Washington, D.C. There I met a man from Nigeria with an insatiable enthusiasm for the promotion of literacy. We conversed at length and realized that our literacy and global citizenship goals for our students back home were very similar. We exchanged email addresses and an email or two, and then I didn't hear from him for a year.
One day I opened my email, and there was a message from Dr. Obiajulu A. Emejulu, now the vice president of the Reading Association of Nigeria (RAN). He was going to be in the United States and was looking for someone to host a portion of his visit. I agreed to be his host, and during the week that he was here, he shadowed me at both the university and elementary schools where I teach. It was not until he returned to Nigeria that we decided to write a grant together so that I could work with his students, both at the university and in the field, in the same way he had interacted with my students. We also proposed a workshop for teachers using the best ideas we had acquired from conferences we had attended.
We received the Constance McCullough grant through the IRA and our workshop was the first of its kind in the Owerri area of Nigeria. I traveled there by plane, first on well-known airlines. But as we got closer to Owerri, I flew on smaller African planes, on which they don't even ask your name or expect you to give your real name with the ticket purchase. I found myself at the airport painstakingly spelling my name to people behind the counter, only to have them nod and smile and give me a ticket similar to a movie ticket to board the plane. Oh, and it was okay to carry guns on those airplanes, which nobody mentioned to me until I was on board. I was very alert during the flight, without the aid of any caffeine.
A classroom in Nigeria
In Owerri I stayed with Obi, his wife and their four children. It was wonderful to instantly be part of a local family. The four boys thought I was some sort of new pet and asked their parents in their native language what I ate that made me so white. I was quite the novelty. People would run after the car yelling onyocho, which means "the white one." It was pretty close to rock star status for me. If it weren't for the heat, the lack of water or electricity, the community bowls, not using silverware, and the really big bugs, I could have made that place my home forever and ever. It was an amazing four weeks and I loved every minute of it!
I had been home for only a week when I got a call that I thought was from a telemarketer. I politely explained that I don't do any telemarketing and hung up. The phone rang again and the first thing I heard was, "Don't hang up!" It was the World Bank calling to ask about my availability to return to Nigeria the next month.
A young girl grinds breakfast for Rettig, which consists of "swallow food," a little ball that must be swallowed, not chewed. "The idea," says Rettig, "is to fill your stomach, not to have a tasty sensation."
To this day I don't know how the World Bank found me. Personally, I think my Milken Award in 2000, along with my successful teacher training in an area that the IRA had not been able to reach, may have worked together to somehow bring me to the World Bank's attention. However it happened, I was delighted to return to Nigeria.
This time the in-service involved half as many teachers and fewer lessons, but all the teachers that we trained would go on to be teacher trainers, therefore sustaining the educational gains and spreading the solid pedagogy. Obi was also a teacher at this in-service and I stayed in a hotel in Owerri so I could see his family again. I was delighted! I did take a little ribbing for thinking the World Bank was a telemarketer, but it was an absolutely amazing in-service.
Project Harmony (www.projectharmony.org) is a school connectivity program that operates by linking schools, with the idea that together people can learn from each other and, by building friendships, build global understanding.
I was one of 15 educators from across the United States who received technical and cultural training through Project Harmony, and spent three weeks in Armenia to help schools go online. While I was there, I learned that women in Armenia are so gracious that it took me a while to learn how to translate their translations. For example, "I don't know" means "No way." They simply have a gentler spirit and a softer way of addressing people.
This proved to be a problem for me when I tried to convince the principal to let me set up three computers, connect them to the Internet, and instruct teachers on how to use the World Wide Web to find information as well as new and interesting ways to present their lessons. The principal, while small in stature, was a man of great power. Whenever he took out a cigarette, his teachers would compete to be the one to light it. I tried to imagine this scenario with my administrators back home, but couldn't quite picture it.
I had plenty of time to think, as my translator was making no headway with the administrator. She eventually turned back to me and said in English, "He is a very busy man, we should go." Since they had been talking for at least 12 minutes, I quickly realized this was not a direct translation. I asked her to ask him if I could stay and help a man who had been painting the wall in the hall of the school. She looked horrified and said that she could not ask him such a thing. We went back and forth on this for a while, and I explained that I had come to help the school and would do whatever I could to show I really was there to help. Still she refused to translate.
The principal asked her something. She turned to me and asked, "Are you hungry?" To which I replied, "Usually." She shook her head and said, "That cannot be the answer, it is a yes-or-no question." I asked her to translate it to him exactly as I had said it. She was a bit embarrassed. He must have asked her what I had said because she turned quite red. I learned later that she had translated all that I had been saying, verbatim. The administrator laughed a big rolling laugh. People came from the hallway to see what was going on. Apparently this was an unexpected sound from that office. The administrator took me by the elbow and showed me where the computer lab could be set up. He had people hauling computer boxes for me. We had lunch, and even had ice cream, and then took a taxi to see the city. The next day I started my in-services with his teachers. He never left the room, and despite the language barrier, guaranteed the success of our project with his ongoing support. It remains a very successful connectivity partnership.
When people ask me where I'm going next, I simply tell them that I don't know what's next, or if there is a next. I didn't plan these opportunities, but am blessed to have had them. I figure I'll just keep doing my best here in North Dakota and keep my eyes and ears open for wherever else I can be of service.
Oh, and I will never, ever, hang up on the World Bank again.
The Armenian Genocide Memorial at Tsitsernakaberd in Armenia
For more information, contact Pam Rettig at email@example.com.
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