Archive for Thursday, November 30, 2006

Teaching abroad

Peace Corps assignment lands Durkin in Mongolia

November 30, 2006

Like any first-year teacher, Beth Durkin drafts lesson plans to make her subject more interesting. Sometimes that means finding the right materials to make sure her lessons stand out.

The books, bright markers or dry-erase boards Durkin needs aren't a few steps away in a supply closet -- they're on a different continent.

Durkin joined the United States Peace Corps in July and is serving in Mongolia for two years teaching English to middle school-age students through adults.

English was declared the country's official second language, and the government's goal is to place a Peace Corps volunteer in every county in Mongolia to teach the language.

Durkin graduated from college in 2005 with a degree in business and international studies. Upon graduation Durkin said she was certain she wanted to work for an international non-profit organization.

"The Peace Corps in particular attracted me because with this organization you live with the people you work for and not above them. Many international organization workers make considerably more than the people they work for and with, and I feel like I am able to learn more by living with the people of Mongolia," Durkin said via an e-mail interview.

With her experience studying East Asian cultures in college, Mongolia seemed a good fit, Durkin said.

"Most of where you are placed is dependent on where your skills will fit into the grand scheme of Peace Corps," Durkin said.

Since she arrived in the land-locked country between Russia and China, Durkin has learned the throaty Mongolian language, dealt with spotty technology and adjusted to the customs of a people half a world away.

She had some idea of what to expect at the beginning.

"In any third-world country, you will have difficulties. They are inevitable," Durkin said. "Knowing this is the first step, the ability to laugh at a bad situation is also imperative. You need to balance safety with the realization that things will go wrong and be prepared for the worst but hope for the best."

That philosophy helped get her through the first weeks of training.

During the training sessions, she took four hours of Mongolian language courses in the morning and then culture training in the afternoon.

"It was intense but very helpful. I think the most important part was not in the classroom but living with a family. I learned more by going through the culture events than being told about them," Durkin said.

Eventually, the language began to click.

"In Mongolia the level of English is extremely low, so it is imperative that I learn Mongolian, which makes it easier to learn," Durkin said.

Her training also included practical tips like how to cultivate food and do laundry without modern technology.

"I do have a much greater appreciation for a washing machine; however I do realize now that it is not a necessity at all," Durkin said.

While living with a host family in the early weeks, she became somewhat of a local celebrity, she said. She also had the chance to hone her teaching style with the local children.

She quickly found her way was different than that of a standard Mongolian teacher.

"Mongolians generally teach directly from the book and never do anything different," Durkin said. "When the Mongolians teach English, they also use little to no English in class. I am attempting to change this. In my classes I only speak English -- while playing charades so that the kids understand. I also attempt to play games in class to keep the kids attention, plus it is so cold in class sometimes that it is necessary to get them moving."

After completing her training, Durkin moved to her post in Moron where she began her teaching in earnest.

Durkin said she is one of the first Peace Corps volunteers in the area in almost three years. She said there's a possibility more might come.

"My city is often looked over by international organizations because it is difficult to get to," Durkin said. "It is tucked away in the northern mountains and only dirt roads, if any, lead in and out of it.

"It would be nice to have someone who I could relate to in English. As far as my job goes, I believe it would be much easier to accomplish larger projects if I had help."

To do the best on her current projects, she's looking to Eudora for help.

Her parents, Don and Monica Durkin, are collecting books and other school supplies to send to their daughter.

"Some people have called and asked me to go through what they've got, or some people have mailed or handed me a check to go buy the supplies," Monica said.

Entry-level books -- around third-grade level -- are needed. She said the books should be simple enough for the Mongolian students to read, but interesting enough to keep the high school students' attention.

Visual aid school supplies like dry-erase markers, erasers, flash cards with basic words, maps, stickers and educational posters are also needed.

In addition, they are accepting monetary donations to help with shipping costs.

Monica said she plans to send the first shipment Friday.

Donated items may be taken to the Durkin's home at 722 Ash St., Eudora.

Monica said she is proud of her daughter for going so far away in such a foreign country.

The Peace Corps provided Beth with a cell phone so she could stay in touch with her family. They communicate on a regular basis with phone calls and by e-mail.

Monica said visiting the foreign country while their daughter was serving in the Peace Corps would be a big challenge.

"We wish it wasn't so far and so hard to get to," Monica said.

With her volunteer time just beginning, Beth had advice for others who might want to join the Peace Corps.

"It is the hardest thing that I have ever done but also the most rewarding," she said. "The Peace Corps takes strength, but it also develops that strength.

"We don't build bridges or schools -- what we do is build relationships with people and attempt to learn as well as help."

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