Language Lessons

By Lara McTeigue

Learning body parts in Chichewa

Learning body parts in Chichewa

During our first week in Malawi, we took 2 Chichewa lessons. Our teacher was a local man who had just finished Teachers College and works with TPM to help run the Learning Lab on campus. We had a session amongst our student group about intercultural communication prior to these classes where we discussed differences from individualist and collectivist cultures. One of the points of variance raised concerned how learners and teachers operate in the classroom in terms of asking questions. In collectivist societies, students may tend to refrain from asking questions in the classroom setting to avoid making the teacher look as if they did not do their job competently. With the new awareness of this cultural norm, I found myself feeling hyper sensitive to my natural dispositions. I was second-guessing my own instincts to question the presentation of course content in order to gain a deeper understanding; something I would habitually do in Canada.

Our first lesson together started off with the introduction of a greeting. “How are you” was translated on the board from English to Chichewa and we repeated the phrase after the teacher aloud several times. We were then asked one by one to say the phrase aloud. Kate, a student returning to Malawi for a second time, asked the teacher then what the very first thing you should say upon meeting someone is. We learnt that “how are you” is in fact what Malawians say when meeting for the very first time.  I thought about the encounters we had had so far with locals and how they often replied “fine” when we would say “hello” or “nice to meet you”. This would explain the error. It also would be an early glimpse at how teaching with this very rehearsed “I say, we say, you say” structure that prepares students to reply with standard memorized responses in the language class really hinders their ability to communicate in authentic situations outside of the constructed classroom context.

Our teacher then jumped into teaching us numbers and days of the week using the similar threefold repetitive method. It was quickly being affirmed that repetition and memorization were patterns of teaching here without much explanation or deeper thinking of the content presented. We were asked to repeat the sayings aloud and then to close our books and practice in front of our peers. When questioned by the teacher, he often followed by asking if we were “confident” in our responses several times. He would also ask the class, “does she have the right answer?” Instead of encouraging us by praising our efforts, it became very intimidating to participate. I imagined that learners may be discouraged from contributing if the possibility to be ridiculed by peers was so high. On several occasions he also asked that we guess the next word to come without any prior knowledge to work off of. I found that this unfamiliar teaching style was slightly frustrating but we were able to chuckle off the majority of the awkwardness for now.

Chichewa is also an alphabetical language, like English or French, and so our second lesson started with a Chichewa song to help us remember the unique pronunciation of vowels. The song was short and fairly easy to perform. We sang it nearly 10 times in a row. We were all getting anxious about the chunk of time spent on singing from our short class together. We realized we were entering the schools and communities soon with next to no practical language knowledge.  The teacher planned to move into parts of the body next but several of us collectively began to feel more comfortable to verbalize our learning expectations. As we grew more at ease with raising questions and steering our own learning, we learnt more subtle cultural features of the language. For example, adding ‘please’ to a request is a sign of begging rather than simple politeness. I always knew that language classrooms were spaces rich with cultural influences but as someone who had not personally been in the position as language learner for quite some time, I was reminded of how much one can learn of another culture while learning the language spoken.

I was perceiving the new language standards that we were learning and the teaching style carried out as being very much so a reflection of the country in which it took place. Through reading Pennycook, I’ve come to understand that the parallels I drew from my observations of the class (which were causing me to question what I previously learned about effective learning) and what I knew of the socio-political-cultural state in Malawi was more so “part of the outside world, and play[s] a role in how that outside world operates.” This awareness would come to help me comprehend the structures in the Malawian classrooms as results of the nation’s narrative. Considering Malawi’s history as a colonized nation which had only gained independence a mere 60 years ago, its education system and teaching practices are still young. How they develop their own institutions will be a big factor in how the country progresses and gains resilience as an independent state. When frustrations arise surrounding methods that are different from ones we are used to applying in our own classrooms, it is imperative that this context is kept in mind.

Schools are spaces that mold young students on a fundamental level. As learners and teachers who are constantly trying to improve our systems, we must try to push the confines of the four walls of our familiar classrooms if we hope to avoid having them become spaces that “serve to maintain the status quo” (Pennycook, 2000.)

Differences and Similarities from my Own Experiences

By Yuyin Ning

A peek inside

A peek inside

Disintegration Stage: As the euphoria of the “newness” wears off, the perceive negative reality of the host culture begins to affect the student in an uncontrollable way. Confusion, tension and frustration are then mixed with a student’s desire to attempt to “fix” problems in the host culture. An overwhelming feeling of despair and hoplessness is often described, with thoughts of self-blame and hopelessness.  (Pedersen, 1995; Stonebanks, 2013, p264)

As planned, we had the chance to observe some classes at Chilanga Sighted Elementary School. The First class was a Standard Five Class. The moment we showed up in the classroom, all the students stood up and said: ” Good morning Sir.” We smiled and answered back:” Good morning, students.” The headmaster said something in Chichewa (local language) and arranged for us to sit at the back of the classroom. Class started. Not surprisingly, many of students kept staring at us now and then. I ignored them, and there was a kind of similarity rising up. I was pretty sure the same thing would happen if some “asungu” (foreigners) showed up in my elementary school.

The feeling of similarity showed up in my mind a couple times when I was eating “Nsima” (a local food made by corn flour and water); when I saw the chicken or goats running around; and when I was watching the beautiful starry sky. I grew up in a small village in China. I didn’t think of my early childhood experience often until I got here.

I looked around the classroom. There were about 50 students sitting on the ground sharing seven English books. They sat in circles with the English book in the middle. Each group had about 6-12 students. The teacher was talking in front. I couldn’t hear clearly. A lot of people were gathering outside of classroom, waiting for the procedure of getting national IDs. Their voices came into the classroom directly from the window without glass. I couldn’t see clearly. The black board was in really poor condition. It was very hard for students to concentrate on the class. Not to mention too that some classes were given outside of the classroom since there was not enough classrooms in the school.

The English class session lasted for about 30 minutes. The students were reading the paragraph in the textbooks. The teacher was very encouraging them to read and answer questions by saying: “Try it!” “Thank you for trying.” Therefore, the students were all willing to answer questions by raising up their hands and clipping their fingers to show their eagerness. Despite the very poor environment, the teacher was trying her best to create a safe and secure English learning environment for children.

After class, we had a very short talk with the teacher. She mentioned that for the students learning English, it was very difficult for them to comprehend some concepts that are not familiar to them, such as the word “pub”. There is no electricity in the school. The only way is to draw on the paper. The study resources are too limited here. I totally understand what she means. When I was learning English, a similar thing happened to me. I understood what the word “bus stop” meant literally, but I couldn’t comprehend it. Because there is no bus in my village, and the bus in the town stopped whenever we waved our hands to it.

The fact of the limited resource here makes me really upset. Everything about us is new to them, who we are, where we from, what kind of food we eat, what kind of life we have. The simplest life back in Canada is something far beyond their imagination. I thought about their situation and the reason behind of it, the government system, the education criteria, the teachers development. Is there anything we can do here? In every school, you can see “The future is in education” on the wall. The rest of the schools are on strike because of the absence of holiday pay from the government. Obviously, it is complicated with what it said on the wall and what is reality.

In the five stage of culture shock: honey moon, disintegration, reintegration, autonomy and interdependence. I am in the second stage: “disintegration”.

Differences Make Gaps

By Ning Ma

A typical classroom block

A typical classroom block

Continue getting shocked. On these two days, I have visited three local primary schools: Chilanga, Mponda and Kapiri. They are very different through instruction, teacher resources and learning environment. I believe Kapiri has the best classrooms of the three schools. It is pretty big and has large windows to let the sunshine in, considering they have no electricity at the school. They also have iron doors and news locks to keep the classrooms safe. Although teachers are still on strike for their unpaid salary, we had a nice conversation with the teachers. They are very honest with us. One thing that really made me upset is that a teacher told me the reason why he has become a teacher. When he chose his university, because his family cannot afford his tuition fee for learning business, he could only choose to become a teacher as this major is free from tuition. The reality is cruel. Thinking about myself as an independent human being, I have a chance to choose my future, and I even have a chance to change my future by changing my major. But I can feel that he has set his mind on his dream. And now, he also tries his best to be a better teacher.

Going back to the other two schools I have visited in these days, Chilanga appears to be a key school in this area. Children here are not so curious about us and they are organized. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, the head teacher will organize a brief meeting with the whole school in the court yard. Although their classrooms are not as big and bright as Kapiri’s, they have desks and chairs in the Grade 7 classroom. When I observed two of their classes, I can feel the enthusiasm and energy those students and student teachers have. Teachers also use objects as examples to help students learn and remember what they have learned.

The third school, Mponda, is the poorest one. They have no windows for the classroom, and it is very dark inside. Different from the other two head teachers’ offices, there is only one shabby desk for him as an office desk. The head teacher told me because of lacking of funding they cannot finish building the classrooms. The Grade 5 class is held in a small church now.

This is a world that I have never seen before. People go to bed at sunset and get up when the sun rises every day because they have no electricity. They cannot do anything during the night time. I hope we can help them more. Instead of money for support, they also need support inwardly. That is also the reason why we are here. We hope to help them realize they are full of potential and fantastic and they can use the local resources to develop themselves not only in education but also in their lives. From now on, I will talk with them more and get to know them more to see if I can work with them at least to help a little. I hope in time their lives will be better so they have a more equal life compared with us.

Getting the Go Around

By Mark Freedman

The wall of planets that is no more

The wall of planets that is no more

“O my body, make of me a man who always questions” –Frantz Fanon

I found the above quote to be quite fitting to the theme of the past couple days. After visiting a couple schools, we seem to be getting the ‘go around’, as in there are no direct answers or we are not being given direct answers after asking a question for the first time and as such we have to continuously question. For example, the teachers here are standing in solidarity together on strike because they are missing payments from the government, totally understandable, but we only found out they were on strike a couple days before going to the schools when we asked them if they were ready for us to visit, and as we continue to visit the schools and ask the teachers questions, the story keeps getting more and more complex and the answers vary across the table. It’s good experience if I ever wanted to become a detective. Sadly, however, I’m not on path to be a detective. I joined the teaching profession to be able to work in great teams and collaborate. Although, another side of the profession is to engage in tough conversations, as I believe is the case here. These constant questions are getting us the real answers to our questions, but it is not without hard work. Dialogue is tough and exhausting, mentally and physically, but it is an essential tool to the alleviation of the colonized mindset. The ideas of Paulo Freire on dialogue and collaboration look like the starting point to the fundamentals of decolonizing the minds of the historically colonized; after all, Malawi has only been an independent nation for about 70 years. It is based on these ideals, of great educational writers like Freire, that I can remain grounded in this endeavor of collaboration and knowledge transfer, because some of the conversations and realizations of being in a country with so much poverty and historically colonized is indeed, tough.

One such tough realization came to me upon visiting the primary school in Chilanga yesterday, where last year the wall in the main courtyard was painted with all the planets (as you can see in the picture). However this year, the same wall is now covered in blue paint with a small advertisement for tablets in the corner. A little backstory: a number of tablets were donated to the school for interactive learning

for the children and they are being used for standard one and two. The extent to which they are used and for what skills has yet to be determined…a little more detective work to go! Anyway, the point is that a beautiful wall with all the planets painted on it had been replaced with an advertisement this past year…. at a primary school…one can make inferences of where priorities lie.

At the same school, I saw their library in construction last year and it was really great seeing that it had since been finished.  They just need to put the chairs around the room so learners can sit at the desks to read, and put computers in the spots sectioned off for them, though there is no telling when they will get said computers. Currently, while the teachers are on strike, I was told that learners aren’t using the library…hopefully this strike ends soon.

Every school that we have visited so far, which is all three of the partner schools working with TPM, have had children there because this week all of them are getting vaccinated for measles, which means one less illness that causes so much death. Just like our work here with TPM, the vaccine is anther drop in the bucket that will one day add up to a full bucket of drinking water for everyone to rejoice in, metaphorically speaking.

A Taste of the Warm Heart of Africa

By Lina Xu

A view from the hostel

A view from the hostel

As we drove further, we passed several markets, where fruits like tomatoes, sugar canes and apples, together with clothes, meat could be seen. However, we did not see many buyers around.  When we passed the town, there were several banks and two gas filling stations facing each other. There were also snack booths along the road, a board caught our eyes by its advertisement: the best beer in the world. I guess maybe the locals consider this as the best they have ever tasted and they do not have the desire to learn what is outside of Malawi. To some extent, they are happy with their lives.

Upon approaching Kasungu, the road became bumpy and there was dirt everywhere when we drove by. We were too excited to arrive at our destination, the campus. It was striking in the area since the layout was quite neat. The minute we got out of the Toyota, we were surrounded by a group of people, most of whom were offered a temporary job during our stay. They took turns to greet us by shaking hands and hugs, the warm heart of Africa, I love it. They helped us move our luggage to the hostel.

After that, our peers who had come before showed us all the basic facilities. I was informed by Dr. Stonebanks that there were no electricity and no running water. Thanks to the solar power technology, there was limited electricity generated by the device, so there were bulbs in the hostel, but it was not bright enough. I believe we could get used to it.

Our first supper here was curry chicken. It was delicious, beyond my expectation. The rice tasted far better than what I had in Canada. In addition, there were shower rooms, but no electricity inside. We needed to rely on headlamps. By heating water over fires, the local women helped us with the hot water. I was too eager to take a shower after the long flight. I was told that hot water was ready and I got fully equipped. I heard from our peer that we were given a bucket of warm water for our shower. I assumed that there would be a big wooden bucket of water, like what we see in the sauna. That will be enough for me. To my surprise, a small plastic bucket of water was in my sight, which I believe to be 30 liters at the most. It was not enough for me to wash my hair. How can I take a whole shower with this limited water? What shall I do? The Field Director and my peers told me how to shower with this amount of water. Seeing the women working on others’ hot water, I decided to have a try. I made it at last, without complaints. I was somehow proud of myself in completing this. There was no hairdryer allowed here due to the scarcity of electricity. Feeling exhausted, I had to go to bed with my half wet hair.

I was woken up at midnight by some noises in the corridor, it seemed like several snakes were crawling and fighting from time to time. I was too terrified to open the door to see what was going on outside. I did not know when I fell asleep again. I checked with my peers the next day, no one heard similar noise, maybe I was anxious. But hopefully, it was not true, it was only my” imagination”.

On June 8, our first entire day on the campus, we got up at 6 am and had breakfast afterwards. It reminds me of the military training session when I was a freshman. I did some reading and went around the surroundings. It was good to know the people working here, they were hard working here. In the afternoon, the lab was open. I was surprised to see seven laptops, a printer and a projector. I could not imagine that under such severe conditions, how much effort Dr. Stonebanks and his team spent and how determined they have been.

There was a lot for me to explore further, the people as well as our projects.