Saturday, August 15: Learning

Teaching is a learning process. Friday was the end of four weeks’ teaching and yesterday the one month mark of my arrival in this country. At the end of a month, I have a bit of confidence in what I’m doing, that I’m not a terrible teacher and the like. At least, the students seem to be progressing. I am nonetheless certain that I learn more on a daily basis than my so-called students.

Working with the kids and with the women can be very frustrating. This generally has less to do with the students and more to do with the state of education in the country. In the Katambora schools, the students go to class for not more than four hours a day, and usually closer to two hours. Meaning that the average American third-grader has been in class for as many hours as a Zambian student entering high school. For the women, this means that even if they have finished 7th grade, they are reading on what I consider a third-grade level. They do not know math that I can’t remember learning because I was so young. It is an unfortunate state of affairs when the government cuts education to try to cover their own debting rear.

The students are enthusiastic, although some of the preschoolers would rather talk and play than pay attention. But we are making definite progress.

*       *       *       *       *

With the preschoolers, progress is easy to see. When teaching the alphabet and numbers to kids who knew virtually nothing about either, each new number is progress. I have hardly ever heard an Alphabet song sung with such gusto (they are singing the Zambian version of that song, which ends with an emphatic “x, y, zed, Zambia STOP”) and for the most part they recognize uppercase letters. We are still working on lowercase letters. Turns out, “a”, “b”, “d”, “g”, “p”, “q”, plus the numerals “6” and “9”, are confusingly similar when one doesn’t recognize the importance of orientation. I write a “b”, ask “What is this?” and hear more answers of “6!” than of “B!”

M— is a miracle worker as far as I’m concerned. The children listen to her, for one (it helps that she speaks a language they understand). And she comes up with really creative ideas for teaching. On Wednesday, she told them all to show up to class with a handful of sticks. We used the sticks to teach the basics of addition and subtraction, proceeding leaps and bounds beyond anything we’d managed before. Things got a bit shaky when we tried to move on to multiplication, but then, you can’t win them all.

That’s not to say there’s not a lot of chaos involved. There is. It’s just a much more predictable chaos than when we started, I suppose. We still have 45 children, but at least they’re usually the same 45 children. They still overturn tables in their rush to leave.

Before (Guest starring M—e)

Before the preschool class arrives (Guest starring M—e)

After class (on a good day)

After the preschool class departs (also guest starring M—e)

*       *       *       *       *

This week marked a major change in the shape of days. The public and private schools let out for a month-long holiday on August 7, so now I have a passel of schoolchildren show up wanting me to teach them after the preschoolers leave. I’ve not been doing much in the way of teaching, per se, as I have kids from 1st through 7th grades show up. But I know that the schoolhouse has resources the children lack at home, things like maps and picture books and paper, and don’t have the heart or mind to turn the kids away.

I’ve been dividing anyone who shows up into two groups of 1st-3rd graders and 4th and higher grades. The younger kids I work with for an hour or so. Sometimes we do addition or multiplication. Sometimes we work on sounds (yesterday -ow and -ou- constructs) or reading. The older students I tell to pick up a book or a newspaper and read, write down any words they don’t know, and ask me about them later. When I’m done with the younger group, I’ll go to the older kids and have them read aloud to me. Sometimes we’ll do other things. I’ll pull down the Wall Atlas of Zambia or map of the world and ask them to find things; yesterday we made Möbius strips.

*       *       *       *       *

At 1430 I send the schoolkids home and the ladies start to arrive. (Of course, most of the women don’t arrive promptly at 1430, Zambian Time being something like Rez Time.) Progress is harder to define than with the preschoolers. Most of the women have been to school, many for as much as 7 or 8 years, so there’s a huge range of reading levels. Most can sound out words, but do not necessarily understand what they read. Perhaps two can read a newspaper and get much out of it.

I tell them to ask me whenever they do not know a word, but they often do not do so. There is a cultural barrier to asking questions of a perceived superior, a status the ladies apply to me as their teacher (and one that makes me deeply uncomfortable). Plus they’re understandably embarrassed to admit to not knowing something.

When I came here, I brought a suitcase full of children’s books for the school. They are American children’s books, so many of the words are unfamiliar and not perhaps the most useful for the women (what need have they to know what a “moose” is when they’ll never see one?) Many of the books are hopelessly dated – the dangers of selecting from slim pickings at library book sales. But the women like to read the books, and I can’t say that I blame them. Children’s books are much more fun to read than the newspaper when you’re developing vocabulary and comprehension skills.

We alternate days learning maths and English, although math ends up being an English lesson anyway. The maths lessons are somewhat haphazard because I don’t know what they know and not everyone shows up every day. We’re working through basic operations – long division, multiplying large numbers, pattern recognition – and learning about fractions, a concept entirely new to the women.

Though they may or may not have been to school, the women learn very quickly. We talked through long division in an hour, and they were all working problems on their own by the end of class. They always ask for homework, wanting something to do and discuss for the next day, want me to grade their answers, want more than anything to learn. They are more committed to learning than too many of us with far greater access. There’s a lesson to be learned here.

And with that pontifical note I leave you.

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