Saturday, October 29, 2011

National Exam Week

With year 8 during an exam study session.
There’s a certain level of excitement that leads up to exam week in Samoa. It’s a week that is taken seriously by both teachers and students alike. This year’s exam schedule ran for one week, where all students in year eight (8th grade) throughout Samoa took the same exam in five different subjects: Monday—Samoan Language; Tuesday—Basic Science; Wednesday—English; Thursday—Social Science; Friday—Maths (Australian and New Zealand spelling).

I have spent more time with year eight over the past two years than any other group of kids at the school. They were my students last year when they were in year seven, and so we started this journey together then. At the beginning of this year, I started mentioning the national exam to them, trying to give them a goal to work towards. It is a very challenging exam for the level of most Samoan students, and I wanted to do everything I could to give my students the best chance of succeeding.

In February I started giving them each a packet of work for the week that had English topics they could expect to see on the exam. They did a packet like this each week throughout the school year. In July I knew I needed to get them more prepared for the essay portion of the exam, and by the grace of the Holy Spirit I was able to develop an effective outline format to help teach them essay writing. I drilled this into them week after week doing all kinds of examples as I tried to break them of their old habits.

Samoan students have a tendency to write a short paragraph for what is supposed to be a full length essay. They normally will include in this paragraph a sentence such as, “I like fish and taro,” or “My mother weaves the mats.” No matter the topic of the essay, they always revert back to these sentences they have learned and been drilled on from an early age. So when having them write an essay about going to New Zealand for a vacation, I tried to explain to them that they don’t need the sentence, “My mother weaves the mats.”

During the week leading up to the exams I really raised the bar for year eight, giving them a big review packet of work and holding evening review sessions, and even one on Saturday evening! I think it helped get their attention and focus them more before the exams began. For the three different evening sessions I had, I only had two kids who missed on one day, so I was so proud of them taking the time to come and be responsible for themselves. It was just me and them, no other teachers at the school so it really gave them the chance to feel relaxed and more comfortable.

On Wednesday evening, after the end of the second review session, I looked down at my desk while they were still in the room and just looked at the pile of papers, folders markers and books and realized I just needed to chill out and take it easy for a minute. I had been pushing them really hard and I suddenly had a desire to just talk to them and calm them down, as well as myself. It was only a test.

I had them bring their chairs in to form a circle and I sat there for a few seconds trying to think about what I wanted to say to them. I looked around the room we had shared for two years, and at them, and the memories of all the things we had accomplished together started hitting me. I realized that the curtain on our two years was starting to close. As I was saying how proud of them I was, I couldn’t hide my emotions. Before long, nearly all of them were crying as well. Samoans normally don’t show many emotions, other than laughter, so a few of them were covering their faces. I looked over at a boy who has been one of my weakest students, yet has come so far, and he was crying the hardest. I collected my thoughts again and gave the kids examples of how much they had accomplished since we had started together. It was one of the best teaching moments in the past two years, and it wasn’t planned out in a long lesson plan, it just unfolded as we were living it. I’m so glad we had that time together to reflect.

The teachers and year eight students came to the school on Sunday evening to help get things ready for test week. Students were sweeping out the classrooms, moving desks and woven floor mats. They were the final preparations before the big exams started on Monday!

Monday morning the teachers arrived at the break of dawn to start preparing food for the test supervisors who were visiting from a neighboring school. Samoan culture places a lot of importance on receiving guests with a lot of hospitality, and this is most reflected by the amount of food that is prepared. Each student in the school was assigned a day when their family was to prepare or buy a certain food to give for their assigned day. Brothers and sisters in the same family shared a dish, and food was served for both breakfast and lunch. Food ranged in variety throughout the week, consisting of both traditional Samoan dishes as well as more palagi foods (white person’s food). Kids brought hard boiled eggs, chicken soup, cooked bananas, breadfruit, corned beef, clams, octopus, and the list goes on. The big ticket items were size two pigs which were given to test supervisors to take home for their families to eat. Pigs are classified by their size using a number. Size two is a nice size pig that is typically slaughtered for several occasions throughout the village. A size 4, 5 or 6 would be a huge pig offered to a family at a funeral or wedding.

On Tuesday I had offered to make omelets for breakfast. The Samoan teachers had never heard of them before, so I was excited for their reaction. I woke up early that morning and started cracking the 24 eggs to make the eight huge omelets stuffed with sausage, onion, tomato, cheese and sprinkled with basil. They were a huge hit and one teacher ate three of them! That was nine eggs in all for her, but it was a nice complement I suppose.

Wednesday was the day I was waiting for: the English exam! Since Samoan kids normally don’t eat breakfast, I told all of them to stop by my house early in the morning and I would have rice ready for them to eat. All of them showed up and some even ate a couple bowls worth of rice. After they had finished I sent them on their way to take the long awaited exam.

A few hours later after they had finished, I saw them out in front of the school and got a picture of them with relieved looks on their faces! It all felt kind of anti-climatic for me since I wasn’t the one taking the exam, but I knew that I had done my best to get them ready for that day. In the end, it was only a test, but I think it became more than that along the way. It became a goal for them to work towards, and something they could feel proud for having achieved. I hope they can look back on the process we underwent in getting ready for it, and use it as motivation to accomplish their dreams of the future!

Working with students during our Tuesday evening review session.

The kids working at a our Saturday review session.


A size 2 pig that was brought by a parent of a year 8 student.

Octopus which I found to be pretty good!

The omelets I made.

The size 2 pig after it was cut up!

This little piggy got eaten.

Plates of food that were sent home with the test supervisors from the neighboring villages.

Crab anyone?

The school's copy of the 2011 English Exam.

The gang after their English exam on Wednesday. Malo lava...good job!

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