Monday, February 20, 2012

Back in the Classroom

Although the school year officially started back in mid-October, it takes a while for things to get going around here.  Children drag their feet about  going back to classes and parents don’t always push them in this direction as it’s difficult to come up with inscription fees and, truth be told, some kids are considered more useful at home.  When things finally do pick up, they are then interrupted by the Muslim and Christian holidays in November and December.  So, in a normal year, the curriculum doesn't really begin to stabilize until January.  This year, however, in addition to the political strife we’ve seen (and maybe even because of it), we’ve had a series of strikes by teacher who are demanding higher pay.  These began in mid-January and just ended last week.  For over a month, public schools have not been functioning.  First, the teachers began a strike and did not show up for class, then the students went on a solidarity strike, and more recently, the teachers have been holding classes for just the first hour and then releasing the kids for the remainder of the school day.

After the initial “snow day” reactions of not having to go to classes wore off, the kids in my neighborhood started their own study groups in the classroom in our compound.  That was nice to see.  Anna, the French volunteer who lived with us for the past few months, tutored a group of young girls in French every morning, and I took on a student who needed help in English.  As the strikes continued, there was talk of having an “Année Blanche” (white year), which meant that school would officially be closed and kids would have to begin again in the same grade next year.  No one was happy about that possibility.  Thankfully, some agreement was made late last week and the kids returned to school full-time this morning.

The school where I teach wasn’t affected by the strikes because it’s run by the Department of Justice, rather than the Department of Education.   Why, you ask?  Well, it’s a technical high school and there’s a portion of students who are sent to live there by courts to learn a trade.   Others are there on their own accord, or because they just don’t fit into the regular school system (think, alternative high school).  Maybe I should re-watch that Michelle Pfieffer movie, “Dangerous Minds”, for some tips and pointers?  Anyway, this is where I’m teaching my Junior Achievement “Mini-Entreprise” class.  So far, it’s going fairly well.  I have 36 students from three technical sectors:  home economics, electricity, and metalworking.  I also have 4 teachers helping me out, so that’s helped with keeping the class in order and with much-needed translation.  There are 10 sessions in this course that covers the creation of a small company.  The kids elect a president and a secretary and form a board of directors.  They choose a product or service for their company and learn how to conduct proper meetings, deal with human resource issues, conduct a market study, understand costing/pricing, and develop a logo, among other things.

As I blogged about last year, teaching in the developing world is rife with challenges. The classroom is an empty, dusty room, with only a wooden chalk board and simple two-seater desks.  The first thing I did when starting this course is rearrange the desks so that the students would be sitting in groups.  This was a new concept for them, but they’ve embraced it and have been fairly good about working together in teams.  You cannot assume that kids will show up to class with pen and paper, and, I was surprised to discover, this holds true for the teachers who are helping me, as well.  Textbooks are a rarity, so it's a special treat for these kids to get the ones for this course that were supplied by Junior Achievement.  The pace of class is slow, for many reasons.  One reason is that getting the kids to show up on time is like pulling teeth.  Even the teachers who are working with me are hesitant to round up the students who are often milling about outside the classroom 20 minutes after the scheduled class start time.  Another reason is that everything I say in French, has to be translated and repeated in Wolof by one of the other teachers.  Also, kids are very deliberate about copying everything down, and they take great pride in their handwriting, so even passing around an attendance sheet can take up the first 15 minutes of class time.  One of the requirements of the program is that I submit a report with each kid's name, birth date, place of birth, and signature in order for their certificates to be created.  Sounds simple enough, but it's not.  25% of my class did not know where or when they were born.  The same held true in the Junior Achievement class I'm holding with a group of younger kids, but the numbers there were even higher, over 60% of the elementary school-aged kids did not know this information.  You can rest assured that nobody will be bringing in cupcakes for the class on their birthday.

A stark classroom
Working in groups

Visiting American grad students who
visited my class last week.

As I just mentioned, I've also been able to involve the kids in our Eco-Ecole in the Junior Achievement program.  These are the kids who meet at our compound every Saturday morning and who I've been working with on the paper briquette project.  Junior Achievement has developed a shorter program for elementary school-aged kids that runs for just 5 sessions and focuses on the concept of Community Economics.  In this course, we focus on the roles people play in the community, how the government and the private sector interact, and how money flows through a community.  Some of the classroom behaviors that I've noticed in my high school class are present with this group, as well, and there are some other interesting similarities.  Because we do a lot of group work, the groups are often competing with one another in activities.  I come prepared with candy prizes for the winning teams.  Last week, I witnessed an interesting phenomena in both of my classes.  The winning teams not only shared their winnings with each other, but then shared them with the rest of the class as well.  This was more easily accomplished in my high school class, as I gave the winning team a box of Nerds.  They passed it around so that everyone got at least a couple little pieces.  In the Eco-Ecole group, I gave each person on the winning team an individually wrapped Life-Saver.  I stood in awe, as they opened the cellophane wrappers and then bit each Life-Saver into several smaller pieces so they could share them with the kids on the other teams.  Forget the striking and cupcakes, now THAT'S solidarity!

This kids in this 12 second video are saying "Madamadamada.... (or Madame, Madame, Madame).  
The alternative is Meshurmeshurmeshur...(or Monsieur, Monsieur, Monsieur).  
This practice (and the snapping of fingers) is common in classrooms when kids want to be called upon.  
To me, it conjures up images of baby birds in a nest waiting to be fed.

P.S. - Check out the my recently updated Spare Time page to see the results of my latest crafting-craze.

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