…for such a time as this

Stories about the adventure that is Peace Corps Tonga

Sosefo Builds a Bridge

A few weeks ago in my Vocational English class, we were doing some picture writing. I had brought in a Conde Nast magazine that my Nana had sent. I asked the students to look at a picture of a draw bridge going over a forest and write a story about where they think that bridge led to. Like so many lessons before, it did not go exactly as I had planned. The students started asking me how the bridge stayed up over the forest and how it was constructed. Coming from a construction background I welcomed these questions and it gave me an idea.

That night, I asked the industrial arts teacher if he thought we could build bridge models to explain to the students how bridges are constructed and stay standing. He thought it was a good idea and we went to work. I searched online for hands on lessons on bridge building. I brushed up on my knowledge of compression, tension, dissipation, buckling and snapping and the industrial arts teacher (Sime) started building a model suspension bridge. Resources are limited in Ha’apai. We were able to construct the models out of drinking straws (from the main island), yarn (from Sister Malia), masking tape and popsicle sticks (found at the local bookstore). I told Blair about the lesson and she said she had a class set of books called “The Impossible Bridge.” She brought me those and I added that to the lesson.

While Sime was working on the model, other teachers joined him. We planned to do the lesson on Wednesday. In true Tongan fashion, my class was canceled Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. On Friday, I insisted that I get the students for 3 hours on Monday. Finally Monday came around; I was so excited to do this with the students! Our class began and I only had 6 of my students. We decided to start anyway. 10 minutes later, all 12 of my students were in the room, a true accomplishment. We did the lesson. Sime was impressed by how much English the students were using. A few times, he would explain a concept (like compression) in Tongan. We used the example of a spring to explain compression and tension. We explained that if the tension and compression is off just a little bit, the bridge will buckle or snap. We talked about three different kinds of bridges, beam, truss and suspension. Then we gave them the supplies and told them to get building. The task was to build a bridge that could hold my camera and cell phone.

Team A’s task was to build a truss bridge. They got right to work by reinforcing the deck with several popsicle sticks and doubling the strength of the truss. They worked as a great team, problem solving as they went along. In Tonga, teachers tell their students what to do. I didn’t want this happening in this class. I wanted them to think critically about how to apply the concepts just learned in the lesson to the building of a bridge. I asked Sime to walk around the room with me, but not offer “help.” When they completed the bridge, it not only held my phone and camera, but scissors, a shoe, an exercise book and a broom. They were so proud of their accomplishment!

Team B’s task was a bit harder, to construct a suspension bridge. There are more forces at hand in this kind of bridge. By looking at some of the pictures in the book, they were able to construct a bridge, but it buckled when we put the camera on it. I told them to go back to work at strengthening the bridge. They did it completely on their own, they added a straw beam to the deck and reinforced the towers. Then they stretched the yarn out farther, making more tension. I was so proud of them but what is more important is that they were proud of themselves.

This lesson took many hours to plan and execute. I purposefully involved another teacher and worked on the lesson in the teacher’s lounge so that the other teachers could see that learning can be hands on and fun. Several teachers asked me how I did the lesson and I explained it to them. I almost gave up because it didn’t seem like I was going to get a chance to be with my class again. It’s difficult to teach in Tonga because it often seems like you are the only one who cares. It’s not that I am fighting the students, once I can get them in the class and working, we have very successful lessons. It’s that I am fighting the teachers and administration to have my classes consistently. I am learning how to better work within the system, but I am thankful that this was my last lesson of the year. Welcome Summer!

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1 Comment»

  heidi wrote @

wow juleigh, that is so cool!! your hard work and dedication are really paying off, even if in small steps. congrats on the last class of the year! how long is summer?


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