Sunday, February 12, 2012


In Portuguese, the verb “provar” means “to test.”  In my Lisa-brain, where I match, sort, and categorize words, it means “to probe.”

Eu provei a comida.  I probed the food.
Nao quero provar seu carne de cabrito.  I don’t want to probe your goat meat.

This helps me remember.

Following that logic, then, the noun “prova” can mean either “test” or “probe.”

I probed the depths of their knowledge.
I plumbed their brains with my probe.

I mention this now because after three weeks of school, my handy school schedule dictated that we were now due for our first examination. 

“This will be fun!”  I thought.  “Now I’m a real teacher!”


And so, Week 4 became Probe Week.  On Monday, I gave a Practice Probe (a Pre-Probe, if you will), in preparation for the proximal proper probe.  The probing commenced in earnest on Tuesday and I did not abate until 2PM on Friday afternoon. 

It was, as you can imagine, a terribly exciting week.  My diary entries for the most critical days read as follows:

Monday, February 5

The French toast was good.  Since returning from Tete City, our food options have been really spectacular.  This was our second round of French toast.  We’d also had ratatouille (with eggplant!) and corn chowder.  I hoped to bake bread and to make a cake later in the week, too.  Pancakes?  Maybe.

In reality, I was cooking for two reasons.  One, because I am almost always hungry and am looking for something better to eat (snack food does not exist in Mozambique).  And two, because I am avoiding the other responsibilities that I find less favorable (i.e. grading homework, washing dishes, cleaning up urine, and the awful dreaded laundry).  Cooking is also a mindless stress-reliever with a delicious outcome.  

I was pretty excited about my lesson plan for this afternoon, and spent most of the morning preparing for it.  

“It will be fun,” I thought.  “Practice test, peer grading, prizes.”  I had gotten this idea from a predecessor’s notebook.  Would it work out?  I hoped so.  I was feeling a little bit nervous.  I would be trying this out with 8E, who was arguably my worst class. 

When I arrived at school, the kids were still singing the national hymn.  I bustled into the classroom and began to write the test:

“1. )  ______________ morning, ______________ morning
And _________ Do You Do?
_______________ morning, ______________ morning
I’m ______________, How Are ________________?

2.)  Por que Ingles e importante?  Da-me 2 razoes.
Why is English important?  Give me two reasons.

3.)  Da-me 5 paises que falam-se Portuguese.
Give me five countries that speak Portuguese.”

Just then, the door burst open and the class spilled inside. 

“Good afternoon!”  I said.  “Welcome.  Let’s sing.” 

The class stood at attention at their desks. 

I began.  

“Good morning, good morning, and how do you do?”

Without missing a beat, the class continued,

 “Good morning, good morning, I’m fine, how are you?”

“Okay, thank you.  Sit down,” I said.  “Today, we are going to have a practice test.”

“Yes, teacher.”

“Answer these questions in your notebook.” I said.  “These questions are very similar to the questions that will be on the test.”

I got a lot of blank stares.  Of course. 

“You only need to write answers.  Write the answers in your notebooks.  After twenty minutes, you will trade notebooks with your neighbors and they will correct your work.” 

I looked around the room.  “Does this make sense?”

No answer. 

“Duvidas?”  I asked.  Doubts?

“Sim.”  Yes.

“Sobre o que?”  With what?

“Todo.”  Everything.

Very slowly, I started over.  “Take this practice test.  It is similar to the real test.  Then, we will exchange notebooks and correct each other’s work.”

Then, I added as an afterthought, “The top score will earn a prize.”

The class shuffled somewhat at the mention of the prize.  All eyes shifted towards my prize box. 



“Then, copy.”

They set to work.  Slowly. 



There is not much for me to do while they are copying.  I paced around the room to check their progress.  Frequently, I checked my watch. 

“Ten minutes left to write answers,” I said.  “Then we will exchange notebooks.”

I could see that this was not going to work out.  Most of them were only halfway through.  And had only written the questions. 

Ugh.  This was so familiar. 

“Just answers, please.  You can’t win a prize unless you have answers.”

Finally, I said, “Pencils down.  Let’s exchange notebooks.”

Haha. What did I expect at this junction?  Most people continued to write.  A few looked up at me, inquisitively. 

“Stop,” I said.  “We are done copying.  I want you to trade notebooks with a neighbor.  Please correct your neighbor’s work with a red pen.”

Nobody moved.  For a heartbeat, I pondered what to do.  I had an idea, I guess.  I could try this…

“Let’s take a vote,” I said.  “We can just go over the answers together, as a class, and not give prizes.  Or, we can exchange notebooks and give a prize to the person with the best score.”


“If you would like to just go over the answers, raise your hand.”

No movement. 

“Okay, if you want to exchange notebooks and try to win a prize, raise your hand.”

My four best students in the front row raised their hands.

“Okay,” I said.  “You four, exchange notebooks.  Let’s talk about the answers.”

I pointed to questions and began to discuss the answers.  There was some shuffling and copying as the entire class tried to keep up with my fairly frantic pace.  I only had five minutes left in this lesson. 

As I finished writing the answers to the last question, the bell rang.  “But,” I thought, “I didn’t talk about their cheat sheet yet!  And I didn’t give prizes.”

Quickly, I ran through the process for the test. 

“When you enter the room,” I said.  “You will put your pastas and cadernos in the front of the room, by the blackboard.  All that you will need with you at your desks is a pen and one extra paper.”

The class seemed to understand this.  Finally, something that was familiar to them and to me. 

“I am giving each of you one piece of paper right now.  This paper either says “Primero tempo” or “Segundo tempo.”  If it says “Primero tempo,” what time do you think you need to arrive to take the test?” 

Silence.  Sigh. 

“Primero tempo,” I said.  “Clearly.”

I continued.  “Okay.  I am dividing the class in half.  Therefore, if your paper says “Segundo tempo,” I want you to arrive for second period.  Make sense?”

A weak “Sim” was echoed throughout the classroom. 

“Finally,” I said.  “And this is really important.  I want you to listen.  On this piece of paper, you can write anything you want.  You can look through your notebook and choose the things that you think are most important.  Then, you can bring this paper with you to the test.”

“Does that make sense?”  I asked. 


“You can write down the most important notes and bring them to the test.”  I clarified.  “Got that?”


The second bell rang.  I was supposed to be at second period, now.  I apologized to the class. 

“I can’t give out prizes today.  This was a little bit confusing.  Next time, I will try to think of a better way to give out prizes.”

My four best students looked a little disappointed.

“Okay,” they said. 

“All right,” I reiterated.  “Pastas em frente.  Traza este papel para ajudar-se.  Oh!  E eu vou recolher um Metical, tambem.”  Bags in front.  Bring this paper to help you with the test.  Oh, and I will collect one Metical, also.

“Sim, professora.”



“Chau, alunos.”


Thank goodness I had remembered to mention the Metical.  Dan and I had printed out the tests on our own dime, but we were expected to charge the students for their “role” in their examinations.  That was good news for us, because it had cost us nearly fifteen US dollars to print our own examinations.

As I hurried to my next class, I re-evaluated my decision to have them check each other’s notebooks.  That concept was too new, I decided.  It was just overwhelming for them.  Those that understood my Portuguese had just assumed that they had not understood correctly.  The others, well, the others didn’t even speak Portuguese. 

There was no way that I was going to try the same trick with my next class.  Instead, I simply wrote the Practice Test on the board and said,

“Copy.  Copy and answer.”

I was so disappointed.  Was I disappointed in my students or in myself?  Both, I guess. It had been a bad start with my first class, and I had lost confidence.  I had wanted today to be fun (reviews were supposed to be fun), but it had turned into copying.  Again.  

By the time I went home that afternoon, I was just sad. 

“Well,” I said.  “That’s over.  Tests tomorrow.”

I made pancakes for dinner. 

Escape.  I escape into cooking.  I like to watch the little bubbles in the pancakes.  When the pancakes stop bubbling, it is time to flip.  It’s so consistent.  And always successful. 

Sometimes, I hate being in Africa. 

Tuesday, February 6

Lots of days seem to be vying for the title, “Worst Day in Africa.”  Sometimes, there is physical discomfort and diarrhea.  Sometimes, there is nearly unbearable heat and crowded chapas.  Sometimes, like today, there is a collapse of faith in myself as a teacher and in my students as rational, functioning individuals. 

The better part of the morning was spent correcting homework assignments.  I had collected these homework assignments (their first!) yesterday while the students were copying their practice exam from the chalkboard. 

To me, it had seemed like a simple, fun assignment. 

“Draw your own family tree,” I said.  “And respond to these five questions..."

Upon receiving and grading their homework, however, I was disappointed by the fact that almost nobody seemed to have understood the assignment.  Some turned in a copy of my family tree, complete with Dora, James, Laurie, Amy, Nathan, and ME!  Some copied a family tree from a classmate, including the name of the individual that they had copied from.  Some just made a list of all of their family members.  Others (about half) ignored the family tree entirely and just answered the questions.  But even those were answered wrong!  Take this answer, for example.

1.  Question:  How many brothers do you have?  
     Answer:    Luis

Or this one

1.  Question:  How many brothers do you have?  
     Answer:    Laurie is my mother.  She is 49 years old.

I would invariably respond to the latter with the statement, “Laurie is my mother,”
in my red teacher’s pen. 

As I looked over their homework assignment, my faith in their ability to learn was beginning to erode.  I was also beginning to question my teaching methods.

“Clearly, I need to describe my assignments more clearly,” I thought.  “Maybe I should leave five minutes to write out the entire assignment and go over it more thoroughly?  Also, they clearly don’t know how to make a family tree.  And, how should I say “Family Tree” in Portuguese.  Am I saying it wrong?”

Some kids had done a serviceable job on the assignment as a whole, so it seemed like I had gotten my point across.  To at least one or two people.

In this dejected mood, I showered, dressed, and trudged over to the school to give my first-ever high-school exam.  Actually, my first-ever exam, ever.  I was feeling nervous, but tough.  My bad mood was helpful, actually.  It gave me a strong, exterior shell.  I was angry at these kids.  I wanted to crunch them with my feet, like a line of ants. 

I was absolutely no-nonsense when the class entered at 12:30.  Briskly, I wrote the rules of the prova on the board.

“1.  Bookbags in front!
 2.  Silence, please.
 3.  He who cheats earns a zero.
 4.  When you are finished-
            A. Bring me your test
            B. I will collect one Metical
            C.  You may leave
            D.  Thank you!”

I put the chalk back in my pocket and turned to face the class.

“Pastas em frente, cadernos em frente,” I said.  “Depressa!  Temos 45 minutos para fazer esta prova.  Uma pessoa para cada cadeira, por favor.  Obrigada.”  Bags in front, notebooks in front.  Quickly!  We have 45 minutes to take this test.  One person per chair, please.  Thank you.

It only took about a minute to get everybody sorted out. 

I walked around the room to hand out tests. 

“Silencio, por favor.  Obrigada.”  Silence, please.  Thank you.

25 little heads bent over their test sheets.  I walked up and down each row, checking for irregularities.  This is when I started to realize that I love giving tests.  Why?  I don’t know, exactly.  There are many reasons, I suppose.

I love the silence that falls over the classroom during an especially tricky exam.  I love smiling at them when they finish and hand me their individual test.  Most of all, I love looking for cheaters.  The students cheat in so many exciting ways.  There is a pattern to checking, and I like that, too.

I start by doing a lap around the room.  I check pencil boxes and scraps of extra paper. 

“Nao tem nada aqui?”  You don’t have anything here?  I ask, unfolding the scratch paper on the desk next to their elbow.  Confirmed.  “Bom.”  Good.

Then, I do a names round.  I look at all of their names on their papers and try to match a few names to a few faces.  Nora, for instance, is tall, willowy, and fairly developed for an eighth grader.  Her hair is short.  Oswaldo has a large, shiny scar on his head.  He would have bald patches if his head wasn’t shaved. 

Next, I go to the front of the room and just watch them.  I keep a special eye on those kids that fidget, are not writing, or keep glancing up at me. 

Finally, I will do a cabula run.  The cheat sheets come out towards the end, when the bad students are getting desperate.  They know that they can not get the answer without the cheat sheet and they are willing to be a little bold.  Cheat sheets can be found in a variety of fun places, too.  Just this week, I have seen them crumpled in the left hand, stuffed into the shirt pocket, or pinched between both feet.  Oooh, what fun to search for cabulas!

When the students give me their test, I like to be in the front of the room, at my desk.  I keep change in my left pocket and, when the student dutifully hands over their 1 Metical, I write a “P” on the top right-hand corner of their test sheet.

“P for Paid,” I explain.  “Obrigada.”

I make a special effort to read their names out loud to them, as well.  Usually, this is helpful.  Today I found out that a certain “Loano” is actually just a “Joana” with terrible handwriting. 

So, for an hour and a half today, I attempted to take out my aggression in the form of some very strict proctoring.  I was ready to pounce and give a zero to the first cheater that I could find, but pickings were slim this afternoon.  I would just have to grade harshly instead. 

Unfortunately, back at home, my faith in my students was not restored.  Their test was not any better than their homework had been.  In fact, it was much, much worse. 

The first question had to do with our song.  The song that we sing every day, at the beginning of class.  The song that I wrote on the board every day for the first two weeks. 

“Good ____________________, Good _______________________
And How Do You Do?
Good _____________________, Good _______________________
I’m _____________, How Are ________________?”

The answers, of course, were morning, morning, morning, morning, fine, and you.  Considering the fact that I gave them this same song on the practice test, we had sung it every day for four weeks, and I let them bring in information on a teacher-sanctioned cheat sheet, it seemed like a fair question.  In response to this question, however, I was receiving an interesting variety of answers. 

Let’s take Sandra Rosario Albana, with:

“Good Good, Good Good
And How Do You Do?
Good Son, Good Nog,
I’m Fop, How Are Drodo

“That’s fun,” I said.  “That’s great.”  All in all, Sandra earned a whopping 0.5 out of 20. 

Equally disappointing was Berta Elias Mozes. 

“Good Good Mother, Good Good Mother
And How Do You Do?
Good Good Mother, Good Good Mother,
I’m Foot Good Mother, How Are Number 5

Inacio Inocencio had some trouble with spelling.  He wrote:

“Good Moning, Good Mong
Good Mong, Good Mog

In fact, over the course of 50 exams, I saw “morning” spelled in a variety of exciting ways.  I saw:


Please keep in mind that the students only had to copy these words from the board and onto their official cheat-sheets.  How had things gone so terribly wrong?


How?  Who?  Ohw?  Ow.  Wow. 

Next, they had to answer a few questions. 

“My name is _____________________________.
I am from _______________________________.
I am __________________________ years old.”

My not-so-favorite student, Gracinda, who had to be moved to the front of the room for cheating, had the following answers,

“My name is ____to write____.
I am from __sister = irma__.
 I am __finished__ years old.”

Another student, Flora, in a fit of nerves, wrote:

My name is Frora

Finally, they had to translate the following words into Portuguese:

Sister:__________________         Aunt:_____________________
Brother:________________        Uncle:____________________
Mother:________________         Husband:________________
Father:_________________         Wife:_____________________

When making the test, I had originally felt unsure about including this bit about vocabulary. 

“They’re all going to get it correct.” I thought.  “It’s too easy.  It’s just copying.  And they can bring their notes to the test!” 


A sampling of answers from one student:

Sister:  __Raise Your Hand__           Aunt:  ________Book_______
Brother:  _____Sit Down_____           Uncle:  _______Pen________
Mother:  ____Stand Up_____             Husband:  ______Door_____
Father:  _______Copy_______             Wife:  ______Window______

And from another student:

Sister:  ______Tia = Aunt___            Aunt:  ____Primo = Cousin___
Brother:  ___Tio = Uncle___           Uncle:  __Marido = Husband_
Mother:  ___Pai = Father___          Husband: ___Irma = Sister___
Father:  ___Mai = Mother___         Wife:  ___Irmao = Brother___

This second example was extremely frustrating.  It was all I could do to not stomp around my little yellow house, screaming.  The answers were RIGHT THERE!  They were RIGHT THERE!  All the student had to do was sort out which was which! 

It was at this point where I lost all faith in myself and in my students. 

“Are they stupid?”  I asked myself.  “Am I a bad teacher?  Is it both?”

In reality, the problem is that many of my students do not speak Portuguese.  Unfortunately, I am only capable of communicating in Portuguese or in English.

“Listen to this,” I said to Dan,

“Question:  Why is English important?  Give me two reasons.
Answer:  Why is English important?  Because it is important.”

I put the tests in a stack on the bed.

“Time to cook,” I said.  “Ready to try some tortillas?  I can make egg burritos.”

Wednesday, February 7

Today was the same as yesterday.  I strode around my classroom with a scowl, watching, waiting, and hoping to find a few cheaters with whom to make a good example. 

Tests were disappointing and I was angry.  I suppose that angry isn’t the right word, really.  I was sad.  Sad, sad, sad.  Helpless?  Demotivated. 

The kids, one on one, are delightful.  I love them, I still do.  Most of them, at least.  I still like to smile at them when they hand me their tests.  But when I go home in the afternoon and look over the answers, I find myself becoming more and more depressed. 

Finally, I will look up from my grading. 

“Finished?”  Says Dan.

“No,” I say.  “Hey, do you want some pancakes?”

Thursday, February 8

Today, something interesting happened.  I was giving my test when I noticed that one girl had something hidden under her test sheet.  As I moved closer towards her, she made a rapid movement and started scribbling rapidly.  I sidled up to her desk and frowned a little bit. 

“What’s this?”  I said.

The girl looked ashamed and sad. 

It was a cheat sheet.  And not the teacher-sanctioned piece of colored paper, either.  It was a sheet torn from her notebook. 

I don’t know what happened, but in that moment, I couldn’t do it.  Though I had written “He who cheats earns a zero” on the board in every single classroom and made a BIG DEAL about my stance on cheating, I could not bring myself to write a zero on that girl’s paper.  She was just too scared. 

Instead, I sat down next to her. 

“Why, menina?”  I said softly.  “You could have just written all of this-“ I gestured to the contraband cheat sheet “-on here.”  I pointed to the legal cheat-sheet, the one that I had given her. 

Then, I marked a negative five on the top of her paper and walked away. 

“If it happens again,” I said, from my desk.  “It’s a zero.”

The class was silent, so I knew that everyone had heard me.  Twenty-four pairs of eyes swiveled to look at the girl who had just cheated.  She bowed her head and resumed writing. 

I guess that’s my policy now.

I don’t feel so bad about that.

Friday, February 10

I tried to bake bread last night, but something went wrong.  Maybe I added too much water, or maybe the yeast wasn’t working.  I stayed up late, though, waiting for it to rise and cook.  Finally, at about 11PM, after waiting and waiting and checking and checking, I gave up.  I pulled it out of the oven and covered it up, leaving it on the stove top.

Not a perfect ending to the day. 

I had trouble falling asleep after that.  The mouse was running around the kitchen and biting the mattress under my back.  It had been three days, and he still wasn’t taking the bait on my toilet-paper-bucket trap. 

I sat up and stared out into the darkness with my headlamp. 

“It’s just a lot of little things, right now.”  I thought to myself.  “I just wish one of these little things would work out.  Then, the other ones wouldn’t feel so bad.”

Today I gave out the last of my tests, to 8B.  The rest of the day was spent grading or doing simple chores. 

I’m not sure where to go from here, with my classes. 

I gave them all of the answers, I did.  I expected to get exceptional grades.  I had given them a practice test, reviewed the answers, and then allowed them to bring a sheet of notes with them to the actual test. 

The fact that so many of them failed, and failed spectacularly, has left me feeling confused and without confidence. 

The class averages are low. 

They are, as follows:

8A:  9.8 out of 20
8B:  12.1 out of 20
8C:  12:1 out of 20
8D:  12.0 out of 20
8E:  10.0 out of 20

Where to go from here?  I don’t know yet.

But I can whip up a batch of pancakes in eight minutes flat. 

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