My Peace Corps Partnership Project: A Plea

I’m working on a project here in Ukraine to get my school English textbooks published by an English company, and the funding has really stalled on my grant. I’ve written to a lot of newspapers and the UCSD alumni group to see if they would be interested in publishing something about my work in Ukraine, with no luck. We’ve still got a little over $3,000 left to raise. I’m hoping that you can help me!

Me with 5th formers Natasha and Katya

The textbooks that my students are currently learning out of are the state sanctioned Ukrainian authored textbooks, and quite frankly, they’re terrible. Ukrainian students are lucky in that they start learning a foreign language in the 2nd grade, but even after 10 years many of my students can’t respond to a simple question like “How are you?” or “What is your name?” The fact is the books are poorly organized, riddled with typos and grammatical errors, and don’t prepare students for any kind of real communication with an English speaking person.

This problem not only affects students who are genuinely trying to better their chances in life by studying English–it affects the teachers as well. Just like in America, Ukrainian teachers are massively overworked and horribly underpaid; they have to supplement their income with private tutoring. In order to keep herself and her son in decent clothes and good health, (not to mention to cover the bribes that are demanded for her son’s college education) my counterpart Olga tutors at least four students every day, sometimes more. That means she comes home from school and continues to work until ten at night. She doesn’t have nearly enough time to prepare the supplementary materials and activities necessary to make her lessons more communicative, to give the students a chance to learn the language functionally.

My counterpart Olga, during our summer English camp.

This is where most of my work as a Peace Corps Volunteer comes in. I am the first native English speaker these students have heard outside of movies or television, and the difficulty I have making myself understood is staggering. After a year working with the same students, they are finally getting used to the tasks I ask of them, to actually using English in a short conversation, to making up sentences as they go along, to not simply memorizing lines from textbooks and repeating them in a monotone.

But what happens when my 27 months of service is up, and I leave? Sure, Olga and the other English teachers have observed my lessons and have collaborated with me during my service, but they will still face the problem of little pay and precious little time. They may have learned the different communicative games I play with students to make them speak, and they may have more ideas about ways to supplement lessons, but they will not have the time or resources to utilize their new skill sets. The goal of my work in the Peace Corps is sustainability, and I want to leave my school with not only skills but materials they can continue to use long after I’m gone.

Corruption is rampant in Ukraine, a culturally accepted commonplace. If my school won some kind of prize for the excellent work of its teachers, the money would undoubtedly go into various pockets before it trickled down to the English department. I’ve seen this happen. The teachers shrug their shoulders. This kind of blatant corruption and unblinking, pessimistic acceptance is one of the more detrimental holdovers from the Soviet Union. The teachers at my school want things to change, but don’t see how they ever will.

I have the unique opportunity to provide my school with valuable teaching materials without the risk of corruption. The money donated to my Partnership grant will go to textbooks and teachers’ books, not to any pockets. The Peace Corps does an incredibly thorough job of holding me and my school accountable for every cent spent. The rigorous process of writing this grant, of creating a detailed plan and budget surprised my counterpart. The fact that I adhered strictly to the regulations put in place encouraged her to do the same on the community’s side of the grant.

This is a two part project; the funds donated by friends and family back home will go towards authentic English teaching materials, but the school is also investing in this project, providing roughly 28% of the total budget. They are working towards making English lessons more experiential and engaging by purchasing and installing a projector, whiteboard-screen and computer in the classroom. When students can see pictures or videos of what they are learning about, they absorb more. When we can provide a quick and environmentally friendly alternative to printing out expensive worksheets every class, the school saves time and money.

I have been so impressed with my counterpart Olga’s determination to make the community side of this grant above board and practical. I know that developing this project with me has shown her the value of project design management, and that not all regulations are for the sole benefit of higher ups. It’s this kind of cultural exchange that is most beneficial, will have the most lasting impact on a country that is still struggling to assert itself as an independent nation.

I want desperately for this project to succeed, for Olga and my school to see their hard work pay off, to chip away at the beleaguered pessimism children are brought up with. The opening of Ukraine’s national anthem perfectly encapsulates this mentality: “Ukraine has not yet perished, nor her glory, nor her freedom.” We haven’t perished yet, but the threat, the reminder, the knowledge that we will hangs with us every day.

We are playing the waiting game, Ukraine and I. Ukraine is waiting for some unknown future, and I am waiting for this project to move forward, for our grant to be funded. We have done the hard work, the budgeting, the planning, and now we are waiting for your help. We cannot implement this project without the kindness and generosity of friends and family, fellow Americans. Please, help us achieve our goal. Click here to view the executive summary of our grant and donate. We need your help. Thank You!

English teachers, fellow PCVs and kids pose at Planeteer Camp, a week long English language environmental summer camp designed by Olga and me.
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