Friday, August 14, 2009

Reflections on the Last Leg

The final leg of my African journey is coming to a close. Each and every location that we have worked in has been a very different experience.

Many of the teachers who came to Utumishi Academy in Gilgil were only expecting English/Math/Science workshops. In many cases, they had never touched a computer and were very excited to have the opportunity to do so. Sharon planned a simple week of basic workshops that incorporated a lot of time to explore. It set just the right tone. It was lots of fun to work with the teachers as they realized what they were able to do. I had an especially good chat with Moses, a Kenyan teacher who attended the workshops last year and came back to help facilitate this year. His eyes were wide as saucers as he considered the possible classroom applications of what he was learning.

It was in talking to the teachers this week that I rediscovered some of my own energy. They were giving up their holiday time to come for PD. They teach in incredibly challenging conditions. Many North American teachers I know would throw up their hands at the large class sizes and lack of materials (to say nothing of the myriad of other issues here) and say that they could not implement any new strategies. I have heard it before. “Oh, we don’t have the money to buy a new set of books to do that program,” (So adapt some of the ones you have!). “Oh, I have 28 students in my class, that strategy just isn’t manageable.” These teachers got excited about what they recognized as superior teaching strategies.

I think that this week was another set of high quality sessions. It was especially interesting to watch as the Kenyan facilitators began to take over parts of each session. I can really see the sustainability beginning to be built. It is like they say, a good teacher works him/herself out of a job. That is our goal too.

Monday, August 10, 2009

A Sad Day

John and Lois left this morning. It has been a sad day for me. We have spent together and I think that the experiences we have shared havemany weeks made us quite a tight-knit group. In some ways, it seems like this is the beginning of the end of our time in Africa. In another week, we will all be heading home. Breaking up the group is just the beginning.

Lois made a nice analogy to explain why she is not staying longer. She says that when she reads a book, she needs time afterwards to digest it before beginning a new one. Our experience in Mbita was one book and she was not ready to begin a new one yet. I am recognizing the wisdom of that decision today. I am still trying to process what has happened in South Africa and Mbita. I am not sure whether I am ready for another challenge. I feel tired and it seems like it will take a lot of energy to merge with the other team for another set of workshops.

Time to gear up and dig deep.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Leaving Mbita

It is with some sadness that we have left Mbita behind us. We have felt so welcomed over the past 2 weeks. I hope that one day I will be able to return.

In reflecting on the past week’s sessions, I think the thing that I am most proud of is the way that I modified the workshop I lead on Assessment and Evaluation. The workshop was scheduled for the afternoon. The feedback that we had been receiving was that it was difficult to stay awake in the warm room after a heavy lunch. I needed to keep the participants working. In addition, my original plan called for showing several rubrics using the projector. Unfortunately, we were expecting the possibility of an all-day power outage because of power sharing. I had to rethink.

In North America, I might have decided to make photocopies of the rubrics in question. That option was not available to me. Instead I changed things around. I copied six rubrics onto chart paper and used them for an activity. I had all the participants head outside for a 10 minutes active game on the topic. I created another activity to illustrate the necessity of sharing objectives with students.

Even though the power stayed on all day, I am glad that I didn’t need it. Copying the rubrics out was a lot of work, but in the end, it was a better activity. Working within the constraints and challenges forced me to think harder about my approach. I am proud of the workshop that resulted. I certainly will make me reconsider my classroom lessons. I also think that I will be less stressed on days when the photocopier is out of order.

On to Naivasha!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Wonderful Conversations

This week’s sessions have flown by. At times it seems like we have barely scratched the surface, and I begin to wonder whether any of these teachers will have an opportunity to use what little they have had a chance to learn. At other times, I have a brighter perspective on what we have managed to accomplish.

John has got the computers at the SUBA centre working at their optimal levels. Software has been installed, viruses eliminated, and RAM added from defunct machines as well as various other adjustments. A wireless network has been set up, as well as an eGranary Internet in a box. It is now truly a resource centre that can help teachers, as well as the rest of the community.

Teachers who had very limited experience with computers at the beginning of the week have learned basic skills, experienced PowerPoint, used cameras (digital still and video), and learned to use a browser to search for information on the eGranary. They have also done some hard thinking in various pedagogy workshops that are appropriate to ICT integration, but may be equally useful in their classrooms right away.

The most important thing that has come out of this week may be the connections that we have made with the teachers here. This is the first year of a four-year program. There are so many talented, and thoughtful teachers that I hope will return next year to continue building on what we have begun.

I have had so many wonderful conversations with inspiring teachers this week. It is hard to believe that tomorrow will be our last day in Mbita. My heart is already heavy at the thought of leaving. As we left South Africa last month, we could extract promises to keep in contact via email. With the lack of connectivity here, this is not realistic.

It has been a special pleasure to chat with Catherine, Dorothy and Fautuma. Catherine and Dorothy especially have taught me about what everyday life is like as a mother and a teacher in Kenya. I will treasure the insights they have given me into their lives, and the moments we have shared. They are gifted, talented teachers and strong women, I am sure that they are wonderful role models for the girls in their lives. I will miss speaking with each of them. Each one is a beautiful, strong woman and amazing, thoughtful teacher. I hope that we will find a way to keep in touch and I look forward to a day when we will meet again.

I am sure that I will cry when the workshop ends tomorrow.

Monday, August 3, 2009

A Testing Culture

As we were visiting classes last week, the students were writing exams. The students here write a great number of exams. They write national exams at certain grade levels, practice exams for the national exams, and of course, local exams. When I chatted with a few teachers today about how to evaluate students, tests and written homework assignments were the two suggested assessment methods

The national testing program definitely puts pressure on the teachers here. Student grades on these tests determine what kind of high school the students are eligible to attend. The best marks get into the best secondary schools. Student eligibility for university is also determined by grades on national exams. Students who do not score high enough will not get into university. Schools are judged by the success of their students on these exams. There is a tremendous orientation toward preparing students for these exams.

I think that this is creating a testing culture. The school system is revolving around the tests rather than the learning. When this level of importance is placed on exams, it is difficult to appreciate the place of other forms of assessment. It will be difficult to convince teachers of the benefits of cooperative learning and project work. It takes a leap of faith to try new approaches and trust that, with better learning taking place, the students will perform even better on the exams.

I am hopeful, however. One teacher, in particular, expressed things very well after today’s sessions. She said, “So, we are killing our students.” She gets it, and after just one day! I hope that the conversations will continue and that we will be able to convince several to challenge this culture of testing and try some new approaches to evaluation.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

More Similar Than You'd Think

In visiting the schools, one of the things that has become clear is that many of the challenges they face are similar, albeit to a greater degree, to those experienced by North American schools.
  • Many children come to school hungry and cannot concentrate on learning.
  • The classrooms are over-crowded, although clearly, 50 students per class represents greater over-crowding than is typical in N.A.
  • There are not enough textbooks to go around, although one book for four or more children represents a greater need than is typical in N.A.
  • There is never enough money from the government, although few North American schools resort to hiring extra teachers paid by the community.
  • Drugs are a concern everywhere.
  • Students must travel great distances to attend school, although few students in N.A. leave home at 5:00 am to walk two hours to school and return home at 7:00 pm.
  • Parents have difficulties paying school fees.

In this area, the main economic activity is fishing. The only education required is enough literacy to read and sign a contract and enough numeracy to count money. The men fish at night and women go down to the shores in the morning to get fish to sell for the day. The fish populations in the lake are getting smaller. Women form relationships with the men who supply them with fish to sell. The men move around a great deal following the fish leading to quite a spread of HIV/AIDS. The result is that many children are orphaned. Many stay with relatives who have little interest in their education.

The biggest difference may be the challenges facing the “girl-child,” or “girl-learner,” in this area. There are great pressures on girls to drop out of school before graduation. Girls are often responsible for helping with meal preparation and bringing water from the lake. These responsibilities make it difficult to be at school on time or to do any studying at home. In looking at the top academic grades at one school, we noticed that the top girl had an average that was 2 letter grades below that of the top boy(C instead of A). Also, parents often do not wish to invest in a girl’s education because they fear she will become pregnant before graduation and waste the investment. A teacher at one of the island schools explained that girls who are sent to collect fish often meet fishermen who give them money for small things they need (sanitary items, food,…). They decide that this is a man who can support them and that they should get married. They leave school and get married as young as 13 years old. I don’t think that girls in 7th grade at home could even imagine a life like this.

Continuing to wrap my mind around how we will help these teachers to help their learners through ICT. Lots to think about. Tomorrow, thoughts on a testing culture