Friday, July 31, 2009

Public School in Azerbaijan

Public education for everybody is one of trademarks of a progressive society, yet the reputation of public school can be unfavorable. The public school we visited in Baku contradicted this unpopular reputation. The classrooms has been recently equipped with SmartBoards, which are projection screens that allow the teacher to use their computer via the board. When we observed English classes the teachers used their boards to keep students interactive with the material. The feel of the classrooms were very similar to the Heydar Aliyev School. The students were eager to answer and ready to speak in front of the class. A theme in the Azeri classes we have visited is the fast paced environment of the classroom. The students were preparing for the final exams, so the school was quite empty. We got to tour the new gym facilities, which were outstanding. We were all impressed with the large classrooms and the teachers.

I saw something in this pubic school that I have not seen before that I liked. There are certain days that teachers sit in on other teachers’ class, so that they can give them feedback about their lesson. This helps teachers to keep improving all of the time with the help of their colleagues.


Hospital Visits

SURPRISE! I ended up in a hospital. Even bigger surprise: they took incredibly good care of me. No one knows what to expect when they visit a foreign emergency room, but I hadn’t even heard of this country until last December, so my knowledge of the nation, let alone the medical system, was entirely limited – so much that I didn’t know if someone would poke at me with sticks, or if I would be wrapped in golden blankets. I mean, who really knows?

I do. And, shockingly, my experience was more like the second option. Of course, nothing gilded was involved, but not only did I get my own room, I got a team of doctors and nurses, a medical examination, and a CORRECT evaluation the first time around. They attached me to an IV and I immediately felt better. I had to return three times for further treatment, and then I was strong enough to continue treatment by antibiotics after that. Funny enough, one of the medications they prescribed is only available in four Middle-Eastern countries. Pff FDA ShmeFDA, it worked for me! The only unfortunate piece of the experience was that my insurance was not accepted in their system, so we had to pay cash up front and file for insurance once I got home.

-- Katelyn

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Land of Fire

On Thursday, May 21, we learned the reasoning behind Azerbaijan’s pseudonym: the Land of Fire. Within a forty-minute drive outside Baku we saw a mountain spewing fire called Yanar Dag, one of several mountains in Azerbaijan that erupt in flames when heat and gas combine. The natural gasses from within the Earth ignite when they meet the hot air in the atmosphere, creating the perfect sauna for a photo-op! Everything made sense after we saw the natural fire; with inexplicable flames shooting from the side of a mountain it was no wonder the Azeri people used to worship fire. People tend to explain the inexplicable with either magic or deities, and in this case it was believed that fire was a divine spirit since there was no reason behind it and it provided heat, a way to cook food, and light. This practice of worshipping fire became known as Zoroastrianism.

      We also visited the Ateshkah fire temple just outside of Baku City. The fire was in a circular pit in the temple in the center of the complex, which originally contained rooms for traveling merchants and their horses as a Karvan Sarayi. When Islam became the religion of Azerbaijan around the ninth century, the temple was destroyed. Later, Indian monks and merchants, who still practiced Zoroastrian religion, sponsored the restoration of the temple. Enjoy some pictures of Ateshkah, as it was restored and presented to us.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Our Weekend Getaway to Sheki

     On our drive from Baku to Sheki we saw rolling hills of farmlands, fields of poppies, tree covered mountains, and snow capped mountains in the distance. The picturesque countryside was like scenery from a fairytale. The Caucasian mountains looked like crumpled blankets sprawled across the land. The drive there was a trip in itself, and we spent a great deal of the ride hanging out of the car taking pictures.
     When we arrived in Sheki we found out that the road to our cabin had been washed away from the heavy rainfall the day before. This kind of rain is typical for Sheki because the river that runs through the town catches all of the water coming from the mountain. The roads in town have trenches about 2 feet deep to help contain the rivers that form in the streets during the rainstorms. These rainstorms are called “sels”. Thank goodness we did not arrive during the “sel”. We parked the cars and got into taller cars to take us on a back road to our cabin. Our ride was like the computer game Oregon Trail, except it was real life! We traveled down narrow stone streets in a small village in the mountains, woodsy back roads, and then across a river- all in a car. Once we arrived, we had a traditional Azeri meal family style. There was a traditional folk music performance celebrating a female composer Shafiga Akhundova from Azerbaijan being filmed in the same place.

     Shekhi has some very ancient places to visit such as the Xan Sarayi’s palace that was built in the 18th century. This palace is indescribable because it is so magnificent. There were gorgeous old trees that were planted around 1530 that looked like the guards of the palace. 

     We also visited an Albanian church from the 5th century that had the walls of a pagan temple from the 1st century B.C. buried underneath it. It’s almost unimaginable how old this place is. This church is one of the oldest standing churches left from this time period in Caucuses.

     We stopped to see the 18th century hotel Karavansaray that was a resting place for merchants on the Silk Road.

     We experienced some of Sheki’s famous sweets in a candy shop. All of the sweets such as Sheki baklava and various candies are made by the shop owners.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Thoughts About the Heydar Aliyev School

Language is an important part of a student’s education in this school. All students begin learning four languages in the first grade: Azeri, English, Russian, and Arabic. In grade six they also start to learn another modern language, either German or French. As I have learned in my short time here, nearly all language classes begin with a simple “How are you today?” and with writing the date on the board. In addition to this, many teachers ask their students to describe the day’s weather. This light conversation puts students in the right mindset for class, as was the case in a third grade level Russian as a foreign language class that I observed. After a brief discussion about how nice the weather was, the teacher transitioned into teaching the students about the four seasons of the year. By taking a concept, in this case the weather, that the students were already familiar with and building onto it, the teacher was able to build on what the students already knew.
After calling each student to the front of the class to talk about the day’s lesson, the class was allowed to ask that student various other questions in Russian, such as “What is this called?” (pointing to a body part) or “What is your favorite fruit?” This was a brief review of the past lessons and allowed students to strengthen their speaking abilities and listening comprehensions, and also tests the knowledge of the individual answering the question. This encourages students to have the same knowledge level as their peers, and be comfortable in front of the class.
“Today, I started to get acclimated to the classrooms in the Azeri school. I am no longer lost in the school, and I am not so surprised at the difference in the culture of the classroom. Although most of the teachers use some of the same methods in their classrooms, I am starting to see differences in their teaching styles… The teachers here use almost 100% positive reinforcement. If a student is not staying in their seat or speaking out of turn, they will be ignored. The students who get the most attention from the teacher are the students who answer frequently. The students would rather get a question wrong and receive feedback than be invisible,” (Manci, C. May 19, 2009).
“The first thing I noticed going to the next class was that the relationship between the teacher and the students was very friendly and open. It was a six grade English class, and Ms. K. was the teacher. The students gathered around her desk before class began and they all talked and laughed until the bell rang. While most students were talking to Ms.K., some were getting started with the lesson before the bell by writing the date and the day on the board.” (Knapp, K. May 19, 2009)
The next class I observed was an eighth grade level class which was taught by Catherine. Part of her lesson involved the students reading aloud about Johnny Appleseed. While the individual students read aloud, I noticed a few issues that they had with pronunciation, such as saying past tense words with an “-ed” ending as a separate syllable, or pronouncing “wild” as “willed.” These are common pronunciation mistakes that even some young native English students might make, and could probably be remedied by hearing more native English speakers, so that the students could hear the correct way to say the words.
Despite these mistakes, the students still seem very comfortable speaking in front of their classes. The teachers tell us that the students are nervous because they have guests, but I find this hard to believe, because overall the students still perform outstandingly.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Shirvanshexlar Sarayi

The first part of the city is now known as Old Baku City, or “Icheri Shahar.” It was built during the twelfth century and has since been surrounded by increasingly new architecture. One such building is the Shirvanshexlar Sarayi, which has a beautiful architectural mixture of plain stone and intricate carvings that line the windows and doors both inside and out. It was built in the fifteenth century entirely of stone, even the old baths, which had hot and cold running water in 1438! We also saw a private collection of artifacts from the time period that included money and household appliances dating from the tenth through nineteenth centuries.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Azeri Dance Experience: Georgian Treasure and The Azerbaijan Ballet

The origins of dance go very far back for the people of Azerbaijan. We got a healthy dose of dance during our first weekend in Baku. Friday we saw a performance of Georgian dancers, and then Saturday we visited the ancient Gobostan caves that had depictions of people dancing. That night we also saw a wonderful performance at the Azerbaijan Ballet Theater.

The Georgian dancers gave a good glimpse of the dance culture in the Caucuses. We were very entertained at the women gliding about the stage and the men leaping and bounding. I learned about another culture of dance that has a different technique, presentation, and abilities. I was also interested to learn that this dance style heavily focuses on the male dancers. It seemed like the men dancing were having more fun than the audience.

Our trip to the ballet was surprising. It was a modern ballet performance of a classic piece accompanied by a live orchestra, which is what I was not expecting. The performers wore soft ballet shoes (not Pointe shoes), which is unusual for a professional company in the US. These performances would be more cutting edge in the US and would be mainly presented with modern music and mainly attended by other dancers. The choreography was modern in the style and the dancers used props like chairs. There was a live classic orchestra playing. The acts of the show were quite short, but it was enlightening to see modern Azeri take on classic Bolero ballet. No matter what style of dance they are doing, the Azeri people love dancing. Dance is a force of nature here that one has to experience.

*Click here to see the Georgian national dance.