Join our adventure in The Kingdom of Tonga

Trying to teach in Tonga…

I wanted to share a link to the blog of a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer in Tonga.  Sarah completed her service here about six months ago, and compiled a list “25 Reasons you Know you Volunteered in Tonga.”  It is hilarious, and totally worth a read.

Teaching has been incredibly challenging lately.  The Ministry of Education dictates extremely high standards for students.  Which is all well and good, but the standards are incredibly difficult to implement.  Students are routinely promoted to a new grade, often times regardless of merit or achievement.  A 50% is considered a passing score, and cheating or “sharing work” is often times cultural acceptable.  There are very few textbooks– not because the school cannot afford them or that piles and piles are not donated annually.  Students simply write all over them, tear out pages, loose them, etc.

This year, I have about 90 students, in Junior and Senior English and Junior Geography.  The Ministry of Education determines each syllabus for the courses.  My Geography class just completed a unit on Environmental Conservation.  Here was my experience with that unit.  We spent several days studying the mangrove trees.  They are vital to the coastal marine ecosystem here for a plethora of reasons, such as protecting the coast from erosion, storms and tsunamis.  Their roots provide refuge for crabs, fish, algae, oysters, lobsters, and shrimp.  All of which you can imagine are very important to a small island nation that relies of sustainable fishing for survival. Mangroves are also a natural water filter, which helps the coral reef ecosystem.  I honestly thought my several day emphasis of studying the importance of the mangroves was overkill.  I even had a Tongan expert from the Ministry of the Environment come and give a special presentation on the subject.  So when the students took their quiz on the subject, guess what the most common answer was for “Why is it important to protect the mangroves?”  For firewood. Wow.  The response was a bit disheartening to say the least.  I understand people need wood, but I guess I had hoped that maybe all the discussions would have illuminated why some other trees might be a better choice.

The Ministry of Environment then requests for all students to write a research paper on the “Effects of Waste Disposal on the Coral Marine Ecosystem.”  I am not even going to go into detail about the mounds of waste on the beaches and littered on the ground in Tonga.  I know there are cultural reasons that correspond with the litter.  I think some of it has to do with the fact that imported (non-biodegradable) goods are relatively new to Pacific Islands.  Historically, if you threw something on the ground, it was biodegradable.  Tonga is fortunate though, in the current funding and opportunities for waste management.   The Australian Government just built an incredible landfill a few years ago, and there is an island wide (on Tongatapu) weekly trash pick-up service.  Seven years ago, a Tongan family also started an incredibly impressive recycling business (Gio Recycling.)  I worked with my students on this Research Paper for about a month.  I had a guest speaker from Gio Recycling come in and talk extensively about recycling here in Tonga.  The day the projects were due, I expected my students to simply turn them in to me.  Oh no.  When I got to the class, it was massive pandemonium.  Everyone’s papers were circulating around the room, for copying, copying, copying.  They furiously scribbled down notes from old papers, passed down from neighbors or siblings.  I can honestly say after reading them, not one student wrote one authentic thought.  Every single word was copied from someone else’s paper and not one student even mentioned recycling as a way to help with the waste issue.  Seriously, the only thing they seem to care about recycling is one another’s work.

I understand living in a collective, communal society.  Intellectual property is just a foreign concept here.  It just gets really frustrating in an academic setting.  My Senior English students had to write a paper on “My Culture, My Education, My Future.”  I understand getting some help from siblings or friends, but I was just really angry when a Tongan student turned in a paper clearly downloaded straight from the internet about her life as ” A Buddhist Chinese American living in the Bay Area.”  This girl has never left this island and she is most definitely not Buddhist or Chinese.  It is one thing to get a little help, but to not even read the paper you are passing off as your own?!  Ugh.  The same experience happened with my Junior English students.  They are supposed to write and present speeches on a Tongan tradition (ex- kava ceremony, Tongan wedding, traditional dance, Tongan funeral, etc.)  These are topics that are very familiar to them.  I spent weeks, trying to explain and demonstrate writing an outline and rough draft.  When it came time to present the speeches,  I honestly think 2 students out of 35 read something they actually wrote.  The vast majority were clearly written by an older relative or friend.  Many of my students truly hope to study in Fiji, NZ, or Australia next year.  There are EXCELLENT scholarship opportunities for continuing their education overseas.  It just puts me in such a difficult situation, because if they study abroad, I want them to be prepared.  They certainly will not be allowed to blatantly plagiarize in those settings.  Yet culturally, it would not be out of the norm to smile and pretend to not notice plagiarized work and keep promoting students.  I am thankful to have the support of my Principal and Supervisor on this matter.

I did just complete reading a novel with my Form 6 students.  We read an abridged, condensed version of “Cry the Beloved Country,” specifically created for ESL students.  It was the first glimpse many of them have ever had of Africa or apartheid in South Africa.  We had some great conversations about economic injustice.  I have not read the actual, full length novel, and I know it is much more detailed.  It may be very different from the shortened novel we discussed, but I was a bit disappointed that it did not seem to have any strong female characters and all the white characters were depicted as virtually flawless.  Nevertheless, I do think it was a really interesting novel for the students.  I guess like most of my experience here, I am just taking it all day at a time and trying to focus on the few, small “successes” I have.


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