On Wednesday I went out in the country with a team from our school. Half of us went to one school and half to another. We were working with some professors from a university in the United States who have been coming here to do professional development for the teachers at these two rural schools. Since the professors can only be here three times a year, they wanted to have some of us who live here do some visits in between. Most of the staff at these schools have had very little educational opportunity and they don't have access to things like conferences or professional books.
The school I visited had 260 students. The sixth grade meets in the afternoon, so I didn't see them, but the students I saw were crammed into eight classrooms, sitting four to a small, rather uncomfortable bench with attached desk. They were in uniforms, though here and there you'd see a student in other clothes. The director said that many of them have just one uniform, and by Wednesday it's dirty.
The teachers were (mostly) enthusiastic and doing the very best they could with what they had. The educational system here involves mostly rote memory, and the students recite what they have memorized in unison. The classrooms did not have full walls, just a piece of particleboard that stopped about two feet from the floor and perhaps six feet from the rafters. This meant that in one classroom, you could hear recitations going on all around. The teachers were forced to yell to be heard, and the noise was terrific. Many of the noises I have in my classroom (generator, air conditioner, fans) were not present, because there is no electricity at all in the village. The director told me that he has a tiny generator at his house that runs a small TV and a radio, but there's no national power and no other generators. The classrooms each had a particleboard chalkboard, and most of the kids seemed to have copies of the textbooks, which are more like booklets than real books.
In the morning we observed some lessons taught by one of the visiting professors and then walked around watching what was going on the classrooms. We had lunch together, and in the afternoon we attended a professional development session. The focus was on reflecting after a lesson about what went well and what could go better. Several of the teachers shared about lessons they had taught. Then some shared stories they had written. There is not much children's literature available in the local language, so the professors had suggested that they try writing some stories of their own. These were enjoyable to listen to, as they told them with a great deal of drama.
As they reflected on their lessons, I reflected on mine, too. I wonder how I would be able to teach without any way to make handouts, without a classroom library, without any kind of soundproofing, without windows (the dust billowed in through the half-walls, so that I had to wipe it off my notebook every few minutes), without an overhead or a decent white board, without my library of teacher books, without the internet, without - and this is the biggest one of all - my expensive education. In many ways, our school is basic compared with what is available in the United States, but compared with the school we visited, ours is palatial and ultramodern.
The families who send their kids to this school do not pay any tuition, because an American Christian organization is providing sponsorships. The organization also dug the well in the school's courtyard, helped build the school, and helps pay the teachers' salaries. The parents are asked only for a small contribution to pay for chalk and the lady who sweeps the classrooms. I wish I had asked how much this was, but I didn't. The director told me that even this small amount is well out of reach for many of the families in the community.
When we go back to visit, one of the things we've been asked to do is to help the teachers learn how to use the supplies that have been donated for them. Things like construction paper, crayons, small white boards similar to slates, and math manipulatives. They have also been given some books in the local language, including some big books. They were taught a lesson on how to read aloud to a class, as many of them have never done this (not having any books to read aloud).
I hope that we will be able to provide some useful help and not be seen just as people coming from outside to tell them what to do. Their situation is very different from ours and we have as much to learn from them as they do from us.
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