teaching, learning and living around the world
Last week I was observing a Swahili reading lesson. The teacher wrote on the board a series of letter combinations to review with the kids. The sequences looked like this:
Ba Be Bi Bo Bu
Ca Ce Ci Co Cu
Da De Di Do Du
Fa Fe Fi Fo Fu
Ga Ge Gi Go Gu
Ha He Hi Ho Hu
All the way through the alphabet. The next day she created a similar list, but with consonant combinations like
Nda Nde Ndi Ndo Ndu.
The teacher pointed to each combination, said it aloud, and the kids repeated. Then a series of individual students got up and attempted to point to each one and read it aloud.
I quickly noticed that a lot of the kids would point to a combination and wait for either another student or the teacher to tell them how it should be pronounced. After that, they had memorized the vowels so they could easily follow through with the rest of the line. Once they knew they were on the Ba line, they could easily finish the Be Bi Bo Bu. I thought to myself- wait a minute… they aren’t really even reading! They just memorize the order and often times don’t even really look at the board as they’re reciting it.
After class, I tried to share the idea that maybe the teacher could go through the sequence in a more random order- to really assess whether or not they can look at the letters and say the right sounds. Then I realized that even with that, there wouldn’t be much to build on further. So then I suggested that maybe we could make cards, each one with a different letter combination. If we had things that the students could move around… there would be so many possibilities! The teacher sounded interested so I said I’d make some and bring them the next day.
Off I went to make the cards, thrilled that I FINALLY had an idea that built DIRECTLY on what the teacher was already doing. An idea that made sense. The following tidbit I think can help provide a context for what this actually means:
When I first arrived, I made a massive list of ideas in my notebook of things we could do with the kids. For example, having the kids keep a daily journal- so that they could practice writing every single day.
The only writing they do now is copying from the board. They never think of ideas or things to say, and then write them directly on paper. So I thought journal writing would be great! Even if they can’t really write, and would spell things totally wrong- we could then review them and write the correct spellings below their own writing. (I totally got this idea from the book “Push” by Sapphire.) Anyhow, this journal writing idea was one out of fifty different “brilliant” ideas I had.
So I decided to try to translate the concept of “Journal Writing” into Swahili. Now, before I started learning Swahili, I always imagined that translations couldn’t possibly be that complicated. It’s only two words, right? Journal… and writing… WELL! Three pages of notes and two frustrating conversations later… I realized that the concept of writing down what you did that day, how you feel, what you’re thinking about, what you hope for… is an utterly foreign concept. I even tried to incorporate things that I thought might resonate more with them- writing about your family, writing about what you pray for… but still, nothing but frustration. At best… the journal writing that I tried to explain sounded… STRANGE.
I learned patience.
Two MONTHS of patience,
Two months of observing,
Two months of failing to have ANY ideas that weren’t completely American.
So! When the teacher understood the word combination card idea, I was totally thrilled. Here is what I created and showed her the next day:
As you can see, there are a LOT of little cards. When I showed them to her we immediately started combining the cards to make words- but it was a little more time consuming than I imagined. We had to sift through SO many little pieces of paper. Too many pieces of paper. If it was taking two teachers a long time… how long would it take the kids?!
The teacher didn’t look nearly as excited as I’d hoped. And I was quickly realizing that maybe this wasn’t the most practical strategy… Then, she suggested that we make cards with numbers on them. It would be more manageable and we could use it for both reading numbers and also math.
I never imagined I could get so pumped up about making a set of number cards… but it just felt so right! It was exactly the kind of collaborating that I hoped I could participate in. My idea alone just wasn’t quite right, but by putting our heads together we were really GETTING somewhere!
So how did it go with the number cards??! TO BE CONTINUED…