Secondary Education Activity in Macedonia

Text related to March 2005 trip in black

Text related to June 2005 trip in green

In March 2005 I took part in the Secondary Education Activity as a volunteer from the International Reading Association. The trip was just as outlined by the coordinators, but it was vastly more rewarding on a professional and a personal level than I would have expected.

The International Reading Associaton, in partnership with the American Institutes for Research, implemented an EQUIP1 project from USAID in Macedonia. Previously, I had associated USAID projects with food and nutrition in areas damaged by natural disasters or wars. The image of the bag of grain with the USAID logo was a visible and frequent site from news reports. However, USAID promotes foreign development in more ways than food distribution, and they have a number of activities related to education. USAID funds a number of Educational Quality Improvement Programs (EQUIP) in Macedonia, one of which is the SEA (pronounced with two syllables, SAY-ah). In order to implement the SEA, USAID through EQUIP1 contracted with AIR and the IRA to plan and deliver the training. The official SEA website is at

Before I arrived in Macedonia, some other educators had done the heavy lifting and designed training modules. Elena Ackovska-Leskovska, Branko Aleksovski, William Brozo, Sonja Gosevsak-Ivanovic, Vesna Janevski, Jill Lewis, David Moore, Gary Moorman, Lirie Rexhepi, Florina Shehu, Elizabeth Sturtevant, and Allison Leopold put together Module I, a series of activities related to classroom instruction. My role was to assist, guide, and support two Macedonian instructors, Susana Trendafilova and Valentina Anastasova, secondary technology and math instructors, as, over a three-day conference, they taught about 30 other teachers and administrators how to implement the Module I activities in their classrooms.

Susana and Valentina did a great job presenting their materials. They clearly outlined the task, showed examples, collaborated with colleagues as they wrote up their own examples, and constructively commented on the examples as they were shared with the group. In addition, to knowing the content, Susana and Valentina were very competent working with colleagues, some of whom were older, and with administrators. As I listened to the instruction and comments, I was to help the presenters achieve their goals and support them if they had problems. At the end of each day, the participants completed an evaluation form, and on the next day I began the session by trying to address the questions. Many of the comments showed the usual teacher concerns, such as lack of resources, pressure to complete a curriculum, and worries about student motivation. However, most of the participants were actively engaged in the activities and showed a willingness to apply the activities in the classroom. Since there were about 300 educators in total working in 6 other clusters, the overall level of engagement and interest, even given the language differences, were evident.

SEA participants, Valentina Anastasova, in white, lower left and Susana Trendafilova, kneeling, lower right

I have been involved in a number of professional development activities, and this was one of the best. The trainers were excellent and the participants were very involved. It was also stimulating to note what practices the authors of Module I selected as best practices to be exported as aid, to paraphrase the USAID motto, "from American educators." Macedonian secondary education is traditional, with the teacher transmitting knowledge to the student, and adequate. The teachers are very qualified - most have university degrees in their disciplines - and the students are attentive in class and they attend class. For the most part, the educational system has satisfied local needs; however, when comparing the level of educational attainment with other countries and when considering how Macedonia, as a member of the European Union, will attract new industries and services in the future, Macedonian educators identified areas for improvement. Part of that improvement intends to make instruction more student-centered by encouraging instructors to consider background of knowledge, forming questions to guide instruction, designing authentic writing assignments, and developing and sharing rubrics to evaluate student work. I feel comfortable with these approaches to improve critical literacy, and it was a pleasure to share them. While these activities are not novel in the Macedonian educational context, the emphasis they received and their active integration into the routine instructional practice are significant.

In June, the participants met after the students had left their schools. The school year was not over since the teachers had to take care of paperwork and other tasks until 1 July, but classes had been dismissed in mid- June. It was good to see some familiar faces and to note the brighter colors and lighter clothes. The teachers seemed very relaxed, but this did not detract from their commitment to the task and work. They were familiar with the schedule of the workshops and easily shifted, as needed, from groups based on schools to groups based on subject area. They earnestly discussed the topics and wrote their suggestions or plans on large sheets of paper which again, as in March, plastered the walls of the meeting room.

This module focused on learning in the community. One of the activities included in the module was techniques for interviewing. I had the opportunity to interview, and be interviewed by, Mitko Kosev, a vocational teacher from UC "Josif Josifovski" in Gevgelija. We both attended neighborhood primary schools and had fond memories of our first year teachers. We both sat at desks which were attached to the chair and had holes drilled for ink wells. Each did well in school, albeit in different subject areas. I gather that in Macedonia there was a greater emphasis on celebrating the promotion from one grade to the other. Except for one teacher who had a picnic, I recall the school year ending with kids shouting "No more pencils, no more books, no more teacher's dirty looks" with more gusto.

School Visits

The visits to the two schools were a study in contrasts. “Goce Stojancevski” in Tetovo focuses on training workers for the textile industry. A local textile mill used to employ about 7,000, but now it has shrunk to just 1,000, and the future for textiles in Macedonia is bleak due to foreign competition and outdated infrastructure. To some extent, the run-down condition of the physical plant reflected the deterioration of the economic situation in the community. The principal described how the school, however, has adapted to changes in the past, and recently it has eliminated some courses and now teaches equipment maintenance and fashion design. (See image to left.)

About 180 students, 60% male, are enrolled in double shifts. Both Macedonian and Albanian are languages of instruction. In a class on pattern making, the teacher explained that the students were practicing placing patterns on a sheet of fabric, represented by a sheet of paper, in order to economize material; on the job, this would be done by computer. The three girls in the class were engaged in the task; one said that she likes math. (A good sense of spatial relationships and comfort with mathematics, e.g. calculation of area, would enable one to do well with this task.) The principal acknowledged the problems in the local industries and the need for material resources in the school, and he mentioned the expertise the students were gaining due to their participation in national fashion shows and their marketing of some of their projects. Since Monday, 21 March was just after the first day of spring, it was designated as Ecology Day. Students and staff were cleaning the campus and buildings, and I had the chance to plant a tree. There are plans to build a new school, but everyone seems to realize that is in the distant future, and now they seem committed to making the best with the resources at hand.

DSU Dimitvar Vlahov in Skopje prepares students for the service sector - cosmetology, food processing, and graphic arts - and while the service sector is not booming, the prospects are stronger than in manufacturing. This faint promise was reflected in the school building which was brightly painted and well-maintained. In her overview of the school, the assistant principal mentioned that more pupils wanted to attend than could be accommodated and that there was a great demand for the graduates. About 150 students are in the fourth year, so total enrollment is probably about 600. The schedule allows for 3 hour blocks devoted to vocational area and academic subjects are taught 3 days a week.

We observed a cosmetology class of about 25 in which students demonstrated the application of a facial mask, and again the teacher was very well-prepared and the students participated by answering her questions and handling the materials - the facial cream, which had to be prepared from scratch, and the heated mask, which had to be used carefully - with confidence and competence. The cosmetology program has received equipment from SEA, and it has established a school company. Ecology Day was also recognized at DSU Dimitvar Vlahov, but more students were in class than were on the grounds with a tool or broom.

Since classes had been dismissed by the June visit, there were no school visits. On our way to lunch in Struga, we saw kids swimming in the Drim River, and it seemed that they were enjoying a rather idyllic summer: up late, swimming in the river, home for lunch... However, it was not so simple. One of our contacts, the "Texan" owner of the Village restaurant on the right bank of the river, had spent a lot of time in the States and started his family there before returning to Struga. His English is excellent and his personality and priorities are more those of an American than Macedonian. He worried about his 15 year old son who knew a good deal about computers, but who was not able to find equipment to use nor a job in the only two local stores with computers for they hired their own family to work there. Since the boy had been raised in the States, his Albanian was not that good, and it seemed that the teachers were not helping him when he had difficulty with the language. In Macedonia, opportunities are limited.

Mirroring the Past

As we were encouraging the spread of literacy, found ourselves in historic center for Slavic literacy, and the comments of one of my colleagues, who has a personal and informed knowledge of Slavic history, helped me realize that what USAID and the IRA were doing in some way reflected what had been done over a thousand years ago.

Macedonian is a south Slavic language, similar to Bulgarian, which is written with the Cyrillic alphabet. I made an attempt to learn how to decode some names and signs with this 31 character alphabet since it is regularly phonetic. (Some interference which Roman alphabet learners might face was a confusion illustrated through the red title at the top of the page in which what looks like the letter H is a consonant and what looks like a backward N is a vowel.) The brothers Cyril and Methodius are cited as the originators of the pre-cursor to this alphabet, called the Granolithic alphabet, in the 800s. In order to spread the alphabet, and literacy throughout the Slavic world, they had to develop a system for dissemination and at the same time maintain consistency. Monasteries in the area of Lake Ohrid served as training centers and two followers of Cyril and Methodius, Clement and Naum, were instrumental in spreading the Cyrillic alphabet. Naum showed up in a number of icons, and I appreciated his distinctive features.


We had an opportunity to visit one of the local mosques in Struga. From the center of town, a minaret is visible on the right bank of the Drim, and past the open square with a statue to Mother Teresa is a small mosque. One morning, an English-speaking congregant opened it for us and gave a brief tour. From the exterior, the churches, often referred to as monasteries, and mosques seem to be constructed using similar blueprints. A square, domed structure is built out of brick or stone; topped either with a cross or flanked with a minaret. However, the interiors of the structures differ greatly. In the mosque, our co-ed group was allowed on the ground floor even though the balcony was reserved for women. The walls were painted white with beautiful Arabic calligraphy just beneath the dome. A picture of the Ka'aba in Mecca serves as the focal point of the open space without any pews or chairs on the carpeted floor. A copy of the Koran, in Arabic, was near the pulpit.

In Struga is also an historic church dedicated to St. George. The icons make the interior even darker, but once the lights are switched on it is possible to identify Bible stories told in adjoining frescoes which line the walls. Here, also, the floor space was open and empty. Seats, designed more like supports for those standing, lined the walls, and there was a screen to separate the celebrants in the mass from the congregation.

The SEA project has a five-year timetable and in general it seeks to seeks to disseminate the instructional approaches by encouraging the participants in the large general meeting, such as the one I attended, to share the approaches with colleagues back home in their local schools. The problems faced by SEA, dissemination of a system and consistency of standards, are somewhat similar to the challenges faced by Cyril and Methodius. The brothers relied on monasteries to help train and support the literacy teachers over decades; SEA will rely on trainers going from the large meeting I attended to working with colleagues in local schools. The project will succeed as it ripples to small, and in some cases, beleaguered schools.

Impressions of Skopje, Lake Ohrid, and Food

In 1963 Skopje was devastated by an early morning earthquake. The city was rebuilt, but now it suffers from quickly erected structures which are neither visually appealing nor well-built. When walking around the city, it is a delight to note the occasional art deco facade, but the skyline is low and modern. The clock in the remains of the old railway station is frozen at 5:17 am.                                                                                                                                                                      

There is an old citadel on a rise on the left bank, and from there it is possible to see, in one direction, a cross on a hill (a controversial installation) and in the other, a minaret.

Near the frozen clock, is a memorial to Mother Teresa, who was born in Skopje. The size of the monument might represent her spirit and generosity, but it does not match her appearance from news pictures as a little, frail woman. She was Albanian, but not Muslim, so she does not fit in with the current stereotypes.

The city seems much friendlier and livelier in June. It was very green. Throughout the city, there were fragrant lindens, plane trees, tall poplars, and flowering horse chestnuts. The promenade by the Vardar River was not empty and cold, but filled with cafes. Kids, and some adults, whizzed by on in-line skates and there were people on the streets until late at night.

We spent about five days at a resort hotel on Lake Ohrid (below). The lake is rimmed in the west by the Albanian mountains, which were still snow-capped, and it is very beautiful. It is very old, formed before the Ice Age, and fed by springs and snow run-off. Some days, it was a lake without a horizon since the water surface disappeared into a misty sky.

My swim in the Drim. The weather in June was hot and it did not rain for the whole ten days we were in country. Lake Ohrid has only one outlet, the Black Drim River, which is controlled by a dam and a narrow, stone-lined channel as it races through Struga. The kids swimming in the river seemed to be having a blast, and I was eager to test myself against the current. I entered the chill but clear and refreshing water at one of the ladders just downstream from the dam and as soon as I let go there was no getting back. I tried to swim to the ladder, but just lost ground (so to speak.) I went with the current and drifted downstream about 50 meters, at maybe 5 mph?, until I grabbed the next ladder. Here, I tried to swim across the river, angling upstream to compensate for the current. Missed that ladder by about 5 meters. Now I was about 55 meters from where I started and on the opposite bank. Luckily, Wayne Linek had volunteered to carry a bag with my pants, sandals, and shirt. By now the current was less strong, and I could enjoy swimming in the clean, clear water and intrigued by the weeds and rocks on the bottom.

The servings in Macedonian restaurants are quite large. In order for Americans to eat a satisfying meal without wasting too much food, it is advisable to multiple the courses by .8. For example, if 7 volunteers are dining out, rather than ordering 7 salads and 7 entrees, the 14 courses should be multiplied by .8 and 11 dishes ordered. This formula is still being developed, and it needs to include the "dessert anticipation variable," "distance walked multiplier" and "time-to-next meal" quotient.

Lake Ohrid is famous for its trout, which was excellent. Usually, it was just served grilled. The food was substantial, but not spicy. A solid, white cheese was served often, but we were reminded that it is not feta. Actually, the Macedonian cheese does not crumble as easily and is not as salty. Macedonians seemed to be quite proud of their peppers, and they were present at every meal. The sweet ones showed up on the breakfast table and in salads; small, hot yellow sticks of dynamite were also on the breakfast table. More one person told me about preparing gallons of ajvar, a pepper spread, each fall. Here is a recipe.

In June, our trip ended with a recital by students from the Braka Miladinovci School for the performing arts in Skopje. The performers had won prizes in international competitions and their piano, violin, and horn performances showed their talents. The last performance, by the six girls in native costumes, was a folk song related to the arrival of spring. Their voices were clear and strong, and the call-and-answer verses were sung in a distinctive and beautiful style.

Here is an annotated bibliography of some books for more information on Macedonia.

Macedonia: Warlords and Rebels in the Balkans by John Phillips This account, written by a journalist, may suffer from a lack of perspective since it focuses on the years 2000 to 2003, but it is a superb introduction to the current political situation.

Milosevic: A Biography by Adam LeBor and Milosevic: Portrait of a Tyrant by Louise Branson Any understanding of the current situation is linked to Milosevic, but his story is still being told, especially in the Hague tribunal.

The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andric This novel is actually set in Bosnia, but its historical scope and vivid characters make it valuable for an appreciation of the Macedonian culture which is divided between Christian and Muslim and which was under Turkish rule for even longer than Bosnia.

Confessions of a Macedonian Bandit: A Californian in the Balkan Wars by Albert Sonnichsen This first person account by a California journalist “embedded” with Macedonian guerillas was written in 1906. The firefights with Turks and Greeks along with the political infighting with Bulgarians present a background for current conflicts a century later.

Macedonia, Bradt Travel Guide So far, this seems to be the only English travel guide on the country.


Picture of USAID bag of grain from ei/pix/b/sa/af/events/9292.htm

Picture of St Naum from

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Maintained by Jay Howard, July2005