Rain and rubbish at the Same B session trainings

I’ve returned to Same (SAH-meh) municipality for the penultimate B session training.  I first heard of this district upon meeting Licinio, a son of Same, in a mountain town back in 1997 when my partner and I were traveling here on our honeymoon.  At the time, Timor-Leste was still under Indonesian occupation.  Though military lurked everywhere, this youth knew English pretty well and wasted no time in telling us of the ongoing human rights violations in his town.  He went on to brave his life insisting we take a photo of him holding a poster imploring the UN to investigate and give Timorese a chance to vote on the question of their independence. For us, it was a stark testament to the indefatigable spirit of the Timorese in their search for self-determination.


Two years on he got his wish: August 30, 1999 Timorese voted 3-to-one in favor of independence despite massive intimidation and several massacres leading up to the UN-sponsored referendum. Two weeks of horrific destruction followed, including around 2,000 people killed and over 200,000 forcibly deported, but Timor-Leste was finally free.  Licinio now has three kids and works at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  I visited his proud family’s home in Same.  His father works in the district education office, which faciliated our training.

Mornings dawned clear beneath the great Kablaki massif standing guard over Same.


By late morning, clouds would form over the lush peaks.

If there was one word for the week of training it was ‘rain’.  Many afternoons it poured so hard that the cloudburst onto the sheet metal roof meant we had to scream at the teachers or give up for a while.  Once I got them laughing by moving my mouth without saying anything. Transportation of any kind is treacherous during such tempests and so we were stuck there smiling at each other over the pratika. 

By mid-afternoon, the mountains had vanished completely and we witnessed a cool and deafening downpour.

In Same once again the point arose that teaching with pratika requires a load of stuff.  Not expensive stuff, but much stuff.  Our classrooms for these trainings look like a pile a junk to the untrained viewer, and many a time has the well-intentioned janitor chucked some of our finest articles.  Cardboard, empty bottles, scrap wire, bamboo skewers, used playing cards, used plastic cups, rocks, random wild fruits, old string, scrap paper, rusty and shiny tin cans, batteries live and dead, buckets of sand and water, half-burned candles, dirty plates, and the list goes on.

We often smile at the teachers in the midst of this refuse heap and say, “This, my friends, is what your classroom should look like!”  Not quite true, but we push the extreme, because they tend to conform to the opposite ideal: a clean classroom, empty of everything but chalkboard and desks.  My great aunt had a wall-plaque that said, “Boring women have immaculate homes.”  The pedagogic equivalent would be, “Useless teachers have spotless classrooms.” Or, more to the point, “A classroom filled with stuff makes learning fun and effective!” Not to mention, “It’s HARD to learn without real stuff!”

Our cardboard-and-rubber band spring scale pratika. Total cost: less than a cent for a fresh new rubber band. All else is from the trash.

Some teachers name it as one of the top obstacles to teaching with pratika: the embarrassment of all this trash management.  While some embrace it, making an elaborate system of labeled boxes, others are repulsed by the idea of having all this unaesthetic paraphernalia in their midst.  The response is inextricably linked to one’s personality, but it’s something every science and mathematics teacher has to come to grips with anywhere in the world.

Perhaps our ultimate achievement in low-cost pratika: Newton’s laws using rocks and marbles. Here they’re doing law #1: Flick the pebble and it stops quickly. Flick the pebble from a higher point and it goes farther, but stops when it encounters the ground. Flick the marble and it goes a long way (no sliding friction!).

SESIM has been criticized by some teachers and even some Ministry higher-ups for using only simple stuff.  From this distorted perspective, we’re keeping the nation down, stuck in the past, dwelling only on unsavory day-to-day artifacts, some directly from the dustbin.  Where are the modern instruments seen in all the foreign texts?  Where are formal experiments in a real laboratory, or mathematics on a computer?

This teacher is presenting the stick sequence activity, which employs toothpicks and bits of flip-flop sole. The table behind him on the board shows the different numbers of sticks and bits needed for different numbers of hexagons. It’s not clear how commercial educational manipulatives could improve this one.

When we stop chuckling over these protests, we say, with a straight face, that we’re in no way opposed to such learning methods, and the moment that each school is equipped with the gear to make it possible, we’re going to be on the front lines to do training.  But, um, it appears that dream may still be a considerable distance off, and in the meantime, children are growing up, eager to learn, so why not use what we’ve got, eh? I don’t fail to point out that in my home nation, model of modernity (though not sustainability), teachers routinely use trash to teach, and so what’s there to be embarrassed about?

Leaves, pebbles, sand, and salt: a delectable mixture, ripe for separation.
Without access Bunsen burners, we have found great success using multiple candles. Without access to glass or stainless lab ware, we raid the rubbish heap. Here they are separating the last two items in the mixture: salt and water.

Two issues make it hard in Timor-Leste to achieve the stimulating stuff-filled classroom I hold as paradigm:  many schools are not secure, with kids dodging in at all hours to wreak havoc; and many teachers are forced to share classrooms with other teachers and classes of students, who tend not to be respectful of the classroom stuff.  This second issue is due to insufficient classroom space, requiring creative scheduling with morning and afternoon sessions. I always encourage them to really talk to the other teacher and work out mutual agreements about the space, but it’s more complicated than that because in many schools, the classrooms are run, for better or for worse, by the students themselves.  Teachers come and go, like a university system, and students have free reign in the interim.  And of course, one rotten guava spoils the whole basket.

We find teachers embracing the rich mathematics and science in traditional artisania, and can’t follow the argument that this is somehow a backward teaching technique.

So we coach teachers to create a supply stash in the teachers’ room, to commandeer any half-empty cabinets on campus, to mount little hasps with locks on any possible storages spaces, and commence squirrelling away useful stuff in every nook and cranny.  It’s always a little thrill when we visit a school and actually see this in action.  I’ve seen many times that the organization and preservation of a system of materials is something new for most Timorese.  Hoarding junk is one thing; keeping it accessible and organized, ready for repeated use is quite another. Timor’s dampness and profusion of destructive bugs do not help one bit.  But success is contagious, and we’ve seen some teachers who’ve got a great system going.

My washing station, behind the new bathroom building. I have mastered the squat, and while my colleagues continued the training , I soon had the gear all clean and set for the next training.
Mestre Fin lays down the relevant concepts involved in a solar panel before the rain sets in.
This sign marked the junior-high school hosting our training. We didn’t find any evidence of high-level physics being taught, but the sub-optimal seating arrangement shown was in use in most classrooms.
On the road to Same construction crews had felled a giant acacia tree directly across the road. Two hours of intermittent rain and much haggling later, a path was cleared.

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