teaching, learning and living around the world
… you land among the stars. So true, yet still so disappointing to not yet reach the moon.
As I near the end of my school year in Goma, I’ve been reflecting quite a bit. There are a few aspects of my work that are just not quite there yet, the biggest example being that a large gathering of international and local teachers to share ideas did not fall into place. As I continue to work toward that goal, I remind myself that I am an international teacher, so my work with local teachers, sharing ideas day in and day out, is building the foundation for something so much bigger.
I have learned a new language, new culture, and new schools. I plan on continuing to pursue educational progress for DRC in some capacity for the long haul, and I think this year spent observing, listening, and responding to what’s already going on will serve me better than if I had spent my days pushing my own agenda. As they like to say here, pole pole. Slowly slowly.
Way back when, I think sometime in February, Beatrice and I had a great after school chat and decided to make some changes. For a long time we had talked about dividing up the class- I could teach the preschoolers outside, and she could teach the primary kids inside. I resisted because I didn’t want to try things that would require two teachers- knowing that eventually I would leave and Beatrice would be on her own again. Considering sustainability, mmhm! (The deeper truth is, both Beatrice and I don’t really know much about teaching preschoolers… and we both would rather attempt it together rather than alone.)
So! The compromise was a split in recess time. For 30-45 minutes each day, we could teach each group while the other was at recess. We talked about the importance of teaching reading and writing, and proceeded to divide the class based on literacy rather than age. We gave them a simple assessment- write their name, the date, and the alphabet. Three relatively clear groups emerged. Three students passed with flying colors, six were so-so, and five could still barely manage putting a pen to paper. This led to another discussion.
During our teaching time with the primary students, the super stars could work with the Healing Arts program, learning to make crafts to sell, while we worked with the so-so group on reading and writing. This turned out beautifully- happiness all around.
As Beatrice and I began to think more deeply together about creating reading and writing lessons, we got into a sort of routine. Whichever letter we were teaching, at first I would write out simple sentences in Swahili on construction paper to read aloud to the kids. I’d try to pack in as many of the focus letter as possible. This evolved into writing whole short stories. For herufi O we read about Kondolo (sheep), for herufi I we read about Imani na makima (Imani and the monkeys), for herufi U, Ushindi na bugali. After a while we began to connect our drawing time with the stories. If we were reading about Imani and the monkeys, we would draw a girl with monkeys. The routine turned into:
8:45-9:30 – Drawing characters from yesterday’s story
9:30-10:30 – Writing practice with new focus letter
10:30-11 – Recess
11-11:30 – Reading story and identifying focus letter
11:30-12 – Singing, dancing, and closing prayer
Classes were more fluid than back in November when we were teaching five completely unrelated subjects each day. The kids began to retain things with more ease. Once we got to letter combinations, they got chances to be more creative- coming up with small skits (which most of them time ended up revealing how traumatized they are) and making lists of words with the focus letter combination. One day the kids were on FIRE with Ba Be Bi Bo Bu, and even after the blackboard was completely full of words, they started shouting things that really got me laughing.
Sara, Sara…. KiBUtutu!! (They remembered the village where my stepmom did peace corps.)
AH! Sara… BUjumBUra iko na BU mbili! (City I visited for spring break… and it has BU twice!)
When ideas were dwindling, Beatrice was prodding them to say Banafunzi (students). She said, “You all are… YOU ALL arrrre…” And one kid so proudly shouted BASHENZI!!!! UNCIVILIZED!! Beatrice and I both totally lost it laughing.
Not everyday is this good. A lot of times after school we sit and complain about work and life and Congo. Sometimes we run in separate directions, off to do our own thing. Sometimes Beatrice reads to me from her English notebook and I help her with pronunciation.
A few times Beatrice complimented my teaching and ideas, but one day, totally out of the blue, she described in detail some of the things she’s learned from working with me. She said she sees the value now in keeping track of each student’s writing notebook. She sees that reviewing things in different ways over the course of the week, helps students remember things better. She sees that moving the desks to face the wall for writing time not only makes it easier to reach over students shoulders and help them, but also makes more space in the room for singing and dancing time.
Disappointed in not yet reaching the moon?
On to the next star…
The Mugunga teachers crack me up. There’s just no better way to put it. I’ve been teaching them English after school three days a week, and we often find ourselves laughing.
When I first started lessons, I followed an incredibly dry workbook that the director passed on to me. Please forgive me, Gods of Teaching, but I didn’t know where else to start! After a few boring and frustrating lessons I simply used the table of contents as a grammar guide, and let all the rest flow more organically, more logically, and more INTERESTINGLY.
We got new vocabulary from translating school songs. Then I created some new texts to show that same vocabulary in a new context. We worked in pairs, in groups, we drew pictures, interpretted, laughed at both the drawings and interpretations, wrote words phonetically, laughed at our spellings… and after a few lessons the questions started coming:
If I moved the desks this way in my classroom, half of the students would have their back to the teacher. Isn’t that a problem?
If we had the students read from their notebooks instead of from the chalkboard, wouldn’t they take more care in writing things correctly?
One day, after a lecture from the Ministry of Education Inspector, one of the teachers pondered- why is it that no matter how well I try to teach, there are always a certain number of kids that don’t get it. There will never be a time when 100% of the students earn 100% on something. What followed was an amazing discussion about the different ways we can ask students to show that they know something. I pulled out this example from our English class:
Ephremm is one of the most advanced English speakers in the class, but look at his drawing! Based on that drawing you would think that he hardly understands the text at all. But when I verbally asked him questions- he answered them all perfectly. Other teachers chimed in, “Of course, some students can draw well and some can’t. Some dance well and some can’t. Some write well and some can’t.” So why aren’t our assesments of what they’ve learned… more… diverse? We thought and discussed and pondered some more. Oh, the delight of discussing big ideas with a room full of teachers. So many opinions, so many different ways to do things… so much to learn from each other.
So, back to the glory of abandoning that cursed workbook. The big project we’re working on now is our exploration of the present tense via writing as much as we can about our daily lives, our families, our work, languages we speak, churches we attend, etc. And my oh my it is much more fascinating than those awful fill in the blank exercises. (As far as I’m concerned those workbooks should all be BURNED!! Trying to fill in blanks not only involves cultural subtexts and knowledge of idioms, expressions, and vocabulary not yet learned… but most of it is random, and leaves the learner feeling CONFUSED instead of EMPOWERED.)
My “Aha, that’s why after ten years I never learned Spanish, but I learned Swahili in one,” moment came the day we first shared our one page write ups about our daily life. First, everyone went outside to find a quiet place to read aloud their page a few times- alone. I made a few rounds listening, helping them to jot down phonetic notes for pronunciation.
You are a pentacostal!
He also builds houses!
You speak Kinande!
He has 8 children!
No he doesn’t, he has 9!
At the end of the lesson everyone was so tickled at their ability to listen and understand a presentation and create true and correct sentences. Everyone was engaged. The beginners could keep their writing and speaking simple, while the more advanced could be more creative. In the car on the way home, in all their excitement, the teachers continued coming up with sentences. It felt glorious- like a long overdue triumph over the evil empire of language workbooks. Ah, the feeling after a well done lesson.
I, too, was starry eyed.
Feeling closer to the moon everyday.