I found out at the teachers’ conference that even when you speak the same language there can still be barriers. Put two Californians, a Georgia peach, a Nigerian, several Ugandans, and a whole host of South Sudanese together and it is humorous to watch us all try to communicate…in English! The vowel sounds are not the same, the blends are different, and if you are trying to teach some phonics skills there will be much frustration all around. The phrasing is different as well, as is the syllabication. The speed of speech is also difficult to master, because we all need the others to slow down so we can comprehend each other. The best part of all of this, is the joy and laughter we share when trying everything but charades, to communicate.
The teaching strategies in most schools in this region are explain and repeat. The teacher is in the front of the room and 100 children are in rows. The teacher explains and then says repeat. The children repeat verbatim. “Girls repeat.” “Boys repeat.” “All repeat.” Then on to the next topic. Part of the Greater Hope vision is to increase critical thinking skills and partner with teachers to make teaching more learner-centered. To that end, the teachers conference included several sessions where we demonstrated active learning activities. The teachers know no other way to teach than what they experienced as children. Their request, and our goal, was to show them some ways to get the learners more engaged in the day to day lessons. In our sessions, Karin and I, gave them numerous strategies such as, cooperative learning groups, think-pair-share, affinity groups, expert groups, role playing, guided discussion, open ended questions, and several others. By the end of the week, they were moving into groups with relative ease. The main thing is that they were hungry to learn these new ways. How to do them with 100 students is the biggest challenge.
One of the phrases they commonly use is “Are we together?” (Say it with your best British accent.) It replaces “Do you understand?” or in my case, “Do y’all get it?” The thing I love about their phrasing is, it is unity based. It does not raise me above them as the one who knows, and they the ones who don’t. It asks, are we of one mind? Are we all thinking the same about what we are learning? It gives dignity to the learner, rather than taking it. If we are NOT together in our thinking, it allows the learner a way to ask without shaming them. I am not together with you in your thinking, because I think differently. They explain their thinking, ask a question, and discussion follows. I do not know if they use the phrase with their students, but in our conference, it brought about some pretty great conversations about the different topics…one of which was corporal punishment.
The man leading the session on corporal punishment brought some revelation to them about how “caning” students can affect their view of learning. I was wondering how the session would go, since it is common practice to beat students with sticks if they do not perform well on their classwork. However, since we had already discussed trauma, they were all ears. They do not want to contribute to the trauma of their students, but figuring out how to manage the behavior of 100 students alone is a daunting task. We had made a list early in the week of their worst learning experiences as children and their best. Almost all of the “worst” ones had to do with being beaten by a teacher or having to do physical labor for one. Teachers are to be feared and avoided. The question in the corporal punishment session became, “What kind of teacher do you want to become? A “worst”or a “best” teacher?” All of them want to be a “best.”
Then the question. “Are we together?” Yes, in the idea of avoiding beating students. But how to avoid it, how to make them behave is a different matter. Questions and specific behavior problems rolled off their tongues. Then one man shared a story, which made everyone in the room stop and think. When he was a boy, he lived a long way from his school. It took him two hours to walk the distance. His family needed him to help with the farming and did not see the value in getting an education. He would get up early and do his plowing of the land before heading off to school. He was late every day, and he was caned every day. Yet, he kept coming late. He cleaned the latrines. And he kept coming late. He did all the worst jobs at the school, and he kept coming late. One teacher, finally asked him why he was coming late and found out the story. Once it was recognized how motivated this boy was to get an education, despite hard circumstances and horrible punishments, he went from being a “problem” to being a top student. Then he posed the question, and produced a powerful moment.
“Are we together?”