Some Stray Notations – My Fall Internship with Geneva Global

Justin Rubenstein, IEDP ‘22

Everything about my internship hinged on a little yellow notebook. How on the flight from Washington DC to Addis Ababa where I was to begin my work with Geneva Global, it gathered a new alphabet, letter by letter. And how in between the in-flight movies, naps, and required readings, it acquired the first labored scribblings of polite greetings and pronouns. Into the yellow notebook squirreled and scrawled all the tentative questions and insecurities of my newness, of my otherness.

How will I apologize for mistakes?
What does a classroom feel like?
Who else has questions about what’s going on and how do they go about getting answers?
What am I even doing here?

Justin's laptop and his yellow notebook.

The simplest answer was learning. A lot. As quickly as possible. More operationally though, my charge over the following three months was to build relationships with one or two of Geneva Global’s partner schools and collaborate with teachers on strategies for integrating concepts and practices around social cohesion and psycho-social support into their activity-based accelerated classrooms.*

Easier said than done. Impossible to be done though without being said. Into the book tumbled the words for ask, problems, feelings, hopes, discuss, solutions, along with the scattered fragments of lessons I could learn from my seat in the back – and often more awkwardly directly in front – of the classrooms that welcomed me. Eyes, ears, mouth and nose.

Of the possible takeaways from a blog, I wonder about the transferability of writing specific sensations, though they have their place in demystifying a distant experience by placing us in the warmth of a turquoise-walled home, a light drizzle outside and new friends all drowsy from digestion, the smell of coffee beans swirling and smoking in a hot cast iron. Or scribbling word games with a stranger, pressed shoulder to shoulder on the weekly minibus ride through the dense green slopes that rise gently then almost suddenly from the rift valley, their iron-rich soil stretching out in red shadows across the highway and climbing the walls of brightly painted houses. A child next to me – one of her classmates had offered me a seat at their group table – copying and re-copying letters onto slate. The way her attention had floated from the teacher leading a number game at the front of the classroom to the Amharic alphabet hanging above us like prayer flags. The absent-minded learning of opened senses.

The wall of Justin's classroom.

Here and there, the things we learned in IEDP fell into place like tiny electric plugs peeling off the tangled ball of wires that had been crammed into my head for the past year and a half. A little workshopping of the precise phrasing for an RFP, here. Some useful light along the way towards better overall situational awareness of the project cycle, there. Most useful to me though, was everything I’d absorbed about how questions are asked. And which questions to ask. Including the ones about myself, and what I bring to relationships, intended and unintended. But how to understand enough to even know what to ask, and then, how to understand the responses? The single biggest factors working against that process were time and language. How does your sense of such abstract things as emotional learning, conflict, trauma get from your mind to mine, and vice versa? Let alone how to begin to explore those questions with children. Into the yellow book skipped and skittered interrogatives, clauses, past and conditional.

When X happens, how do you respond?
How would you like to see your students deal with Y?
What does all this mean to you?

I’m not sure if there is any precise takeaway from my internship experience that might help whoever is reading this. It was a somewhat singular experience, it seems, as far as internships go. A bit of a choose-your-own-adventure. There was no preceding role to plug into nor prescribed methodology to apply. And there were times I even doubted if the program stood to benefit at all from me, or anyone, adding more responsibilities on para-professionals who already face out-sized expectations. There were demands for improvisations and certain soft-skills that our courses could not possibly prepare us for and there were certain realities surrounding the operational chaos that the program can only touch in the abstract, though to some degree it is simulated in our group work. I guess, that is where the internship plays in, in this journey.

But no matter the doubts, the unpredictability, the chaos, I cannot over stress the importance of an open notebook. And an open you: head, shoulders, knees to toes.

*Geneva Global’s accelerated learning program for out-of-school, overage children has operated as an intervention adjacent to and hosted by government schools and is currently being adapted for Ethiopia’s government school system as a part of its curriculum and teacher education.

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