Monthly Archives: August 2013

Not the ‘Teacher as Carpenter’ Analogy, Please

By  Dr. Christopher Darius Stonebanks



We have been walking to the school site at the end of the work day lately, checking on the progress of the construction, and I am uneasy about how good that feels. Many years ago, a professor told me that he was envious that I knew how to do basic renovation and construction work. His reason was that as an academic, he always saw just pieces of the “big picture” through his own work, and never got to really see if his ideas actually contributed to any concrete change. To build a deck, put in a floor, stairs, or even simply paint a room, he thought, must give someone a great sense of accomplishment. A sense of finality; “That’s it, it’s done, now someone can actually make use of what I have done. Up the stairs with you.  Go!”  Being a part of building the school and the soon-to-come teachers’ houses has reminded me of that professor’s comments. For many years I have worked with a number of education students that feel a great sense of frustration as they examine, let’s say, creativity in the grade four classroom, because their thoughts turn to (understandably) immediate concerns about the poor conditions of the students’ outdoor bathroom. What good is formulating a strategy for better artistic expression if the child risks dysentery? There are a multitude of voluntourism projects that bring Canadians and Americans to developing nations and give them a tour of the exotic beauty and then at some point put a hammer in their hands and ask them to help put up a wall in a classroom or a clinic. Photos are taken of these voluntourists with the locals, while they (I imagine) feel quite proud of the dirt on their hands, face, and clothes and their own kindness as they are arm and arm with locals … for a day or two. My thoughts always turn to the skills the voluntourist actually brings to the table. I am not referring to a carpenter’s union who flies to Haiti to build schools, applying their trade to a good cause. I am talking about the very well-meaning individuals who want to “do good”, and recognize that the ethics of travelling to such places as, for example, Mexico and staying in a gated resort while poverty exists right outside of the walls is questionable. For me, the problem with many of these voluntourists is that I wouldn’t trust them to hang a picture in my house, let alone trust their ability to put in a supporting wall in a school structure. But, I am beginning to understand that there certainly is something attractive about the immediacy of the act.

Pre-service teachers and teachers are now in a space where the curriculum they are developing has the potential to make a significant difference to the lives of children in the Chilanga region. But there are so many variables that there are no guarantees of immediate reward. The teacher who will be implementing the curriculum has a tremendous professional responsibility on his shoulders to enact the curriculum he has helped to develop; so much rides on his shoulders. The community had to give up farming land for the school’s construction, and I am sure their expectations will be high as they rightfully will await some dividends for their temporary loss as the Senior Chief allocates new land for farming. Will they support the school? What about the curriculum designs itself? Will an unstandardized curriculum be met with resistance?  Will it stand up? The classroom certainly looks like it’s standing up without any problems. Built almost entirely of brick and mortar, it seems like overkill in a region that does not normally (and thankfully) suffer from natural disasters. Foundation of concrete, doubled brick upon brick the walls go higher and higher each day we see it, with its surface picture of “real development”.

Before it appears as though I am slipping into an argument against building schools, I am not. Classroom spaces and teachers’ housing is in desperate need. But, so is a curriculum that will actually begin to address the needs of the community. Banking of information has failed to make positive change to the human condition in Malawi and buildings alone are not the answer. The work that the pre-service teachers and teachers are currently undertaking is as exhausting and important as the construction of the school. Although finding funding for schools in Malawi is a daunting task, it is nonetheless doable. Trying to get funding for students and teachers to come to Malawi, work with local stakeholders, and develop curriculum seems almost impossible to me. The sacrifices that all of the students (education, biology and our CEGEP students) have made to come to Malawi should be applauded and the work they are completing should be admired. I hope, as Amy, Annabelle, Corinne, Elise, Farah Roxanne, Frank, Jae, Linden, Louisa, Naomi, and Rebecca look at the school going up, they see it as a parallel to their own amazing accomplishments.

But I Don’t Want To Leave My Room

By Farah-Roxanne Stonebanks

Learning to live in groups like hippos

Learning to live in groups like hippos

I’ve never liked camp. Or at least, I’ve never liked the idea of camp, since I’ve never been. The group activities, the organized sports, the silly little crafts and the whole “creating new friendships” always seemed ridiculous to me. At the beginning of every school year growing up, I always had friends who would have stories of the great time they had at summer camp. I would always stare at them, bewildered and unconvinced.

“You actually like going there?” I’d ask, after they had finished telling me about the fun they had experienced beading necklaces or playing touch football. (I’m guessing at this point. To be quite honest I usually zone out when people tell me about camp. But I feel like those are the types of activities one does at camp.) “You do that on your own free will?!”

I was always told that I just didn’t understand. The only reason I didn’t like camp was because I had never been. And you know what? That was just fine with me. Why spend your summer outside of your comfort zone with a bunch of people you didn’t even know, when you could just stay home and do whatever you please?

You understand now why whenever I would tell anyone that I knew about my plan to go to Africa that summer, I would get looks of confusion.

“You’re going to spend 5 weeks in one house with a bunch of different people? But Roxy, you hate people.”

I don’t hate people. That would be ridiculous. I am, however, a very introverted and solitary being by nature. You know that kid who, whenever the teacher would give the option to either work alone or in pairs, would choose to work alone? I was (am) that kid. So why was this girl, who was so against camp and who would choose to be alone instead of with a bunch of other people 95% of the time, joining a program that would force her to spend all her time with 10 other people?

To put it simply: because unless I decide to live the life of a hermit, I can’t avoid being around people forever. And considering I don’t really know how to hunt or grow crops or even construct a basic shelter, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the hermit-life is out of the question for me. Like I stated in one of my past blogs, I can’t stay in my comfort zone forever. If I want to continue with my education and to someday go out and get a job I need to be able to live and interact with a mix-match of different types of individuals.

Yes, living in one house with 10 other people can be challenging. You’re with the same people for five weeks; working with them, eating with them, relaxing with them, going on excursions on the weekends with them. You have to spend 7+ hours with them on untrustworthy buses, and 12+ hours with them on (thankfully) more trustworthy planes. And they’re there to witness your finest moments: when your hair is sticking up in ways that defy the laws of science, when you incoherently stumble to the table where you can sit face-down in a cup of coffee or tea and when you walk back into the hostel dusty, windswept and slightly sweaty after spending a few hours walking to various locations.

Even as I write this, my laundry hangs to dry behind me on jump ropes tied to the ceiling beams, my underwear on display for all to see. Boundaries have shrunk down to almost nothing and that’s a hard thing to get into. These are a group of people that, 9 times out of 10, you’ve never talked to before. And now you’re travelling with them to a completely different country to live and work with them for 4 to 6 weeks as you all deal with major culture shock. That’s a lot to deal with and, for people who’ve never lived with a group of people around their own age before, that’s a lot to get used to.

Was it difficult? At first, yes. I’m used to being able to come home from school and going to hide in my room for a while after spending a day socializing. I need time by myself, to have space to breath and just sit quietly with no one else around. While being here, having time by yourself is pretty much non-existent unless you want to sit in your room under a bug net (which I wouldn’t recommend). You’re forced to get used to being around a bunch of people all the time. And you do get used to it. Of course there are still little spats that occur here and there, as that would normally occur in any setting if a bunch of people were put together. But as time goes on you do feel more comfortable with all those other people around.

And now with the first two people leaving this Monday, I imagine that it’s going to feel strange with the lack of two members in our group. We get so used to seeing everyone all the time that with them gone, it’s going to be very obvious that something changed.

I think now that I’ve experienced what this is like, I’ll be more open to activities and educational trips that involve being with other people for extended periods of time.

I’m still never going to camp though.

They’re still super lame.

The Lions and Giraffes are Amazing; our Safari in Zambia and the Freedom to Travel

By Barbara Hunting

Thornicroft giraffes

Thornicroft giraffes

Our 26-seater coaster bus gives us freedom to travel great distances and explore Africa.  You notice in rural Malawi, that many people walk, very few can afford cars, or transportation. This past week, we took our weekend in the middle of the week in order to get a better deal at Zikomo Safari Lodge (in Zambia).  Victoria and her son Damien planned a few unforgettable days in Zambia; thanks go to Dr. C. Stonebanks for negotiating this experience (as well as bringing Praxis Malawi into being).  We went to South Luangwa Game Park and had several jeep (photo) Safari tours in the park.  I cannot express in words the awe at being a short distance away from wild animals and the care and valuable knowledge that the guides provided to us during these excursions.  You simply need to experience it for yourselves!

Our adventures are sometimes produced by getting lost.  Yes, well—we have also discovered that when roads are under construction sometimes what we would call a detour is referred to as a road deviation; yet parts of the road redirection may be incomplete.  It all adds to the spice of the day.  One more thing, going into a small village with a 26-seater coaster bus is not the wisest thing either, yes, we did get stuck; sand is similar to snow (tires need a stable surface), in that respect, the sun goes down at 5:45 p.m. and then it is dark; yet everyone from the small village was more than helpful…some planks, some student and village strength to PUSH out of the soft sand to the path or road that is hard-packed and we were on our way.

I enclose a few pictures this time—and I cannot repeat enough the awesome feeling of seeing an elephant size you up while you are in an open jeep. Let me explain the jeeps, they are special touring jeeps with three tiers of seats added; one was covered, with a tarp, the other was open. Lucky me, my party got to ride in the covered jeep! The guides were very knowledgeable and explained how we should behave around the animals (the animals see us as one large object, unless someone does something to change that).  We saw wart hogs, baboons, Thornicroft giraffes (indigenous to Zambia), different types of colourful birds, pods of hippos, a few different prides of lions, one pride of lions had killed a water buffalo during the night and we saw the younger lions gorging themselves on the carcass; it was like we were in a wild-life documentary. On the second day we encountered a group of seven elephants of various sizes walking across the road not far from us; the guide stopped the jeep and we sat quietly as instructed, took pictures and watched the reactions of the elephants, they smelled us, and stopped and looked at us, and one of the mid-size ones walked to the left of us and turned and waved her ears at us—really amazing—it was like she was saying goodbye as they walked off into the bush.  At one point that same day, we saw nearly every animal at the watering hole; the most amazing were the group of fifteen giraffes and a herd of buffaloes who ran behind them—it was like being part of a National Geographic documentary! Amy leaned over at one point and said, “Pinch me; I don’t believe that I am seeing all of these animals together!”

Victoria and Damien fed us well with a bar-b-q on the second evening—what a treat!  We slept in tents and the second night we could hear lions and hippos calling to each other across the water.  We were snug in our tents and there were night watchman; no worries. Presently it is the dry season in Zambia and it was noticeable how few mosquitoes there were.

That is the touristy stuff that we allowed ourselves to do; we came out of our mosquito netted beds in Makupo Village and stayed in eight person tents, roomy and snug—and appointed a tent watch person to be sure the tents were closed up snuggly. Although we travel outside of Makupo Village, we are always happy to return to Makupo Village, as our second home. All of our excursions are complete now, one group has left today to return home—yes, it has been a month since we arrived—hard to imagine. Yet, we have all come out of our comfort zones moving through various experiences. Fear of insects, and we discovered white frogs in the women’s showers in Zambia; they harmonize with the colour of their surroundings (really cool). I was concerned about tenting—we took a few of the mattresses with us strapped to the roof of the bus and this was a great comfort; others had air mattresses.  Once again, the wonder of a shower on weekend excursions was experienced—it is the little things that make the difference (we have bucket showers in Makupo Village, check out other blogs).

Zambia action theatre group

Zambia action theatre group

One more event that we experienced that was truly exceptional was a local company of people came to the lodge in Zambia and put on a play entitled “The Bush” that was a collection of vignettes of local actions, animals, a parody of tourists (picture taking safari tourists) and a young girls’ struggle to understand her developing identity.  This type of theatre is ‘action theatre’ and this troupe is very good at making and using props to enact short scenes and narratives.  It was very impressive and they perform plays about the prevention of HIV and AIDS, Malaria prevention and alcohol abuse. We hope to see them again and invite them to the new school in Malawi!

Our freedom to travel and experience new places has not been overlooked by this member of Praxis Malawi.

Stay tuned for more adventures!

Baablah (Barbara Hunting)

Reflecting and Returning

By Linden Parker

School construction

School construction

Praxis is defined as the action of putting theory into practice. Based on my experience with the program, Praxis Malawi seems very aptly named. I am sure that it depends on the project you choose to undertake while in Malawi, but I found that there was a close connection between the theory I have been studying at McGill and the work I have been doing with this community in Kasungu. The curriculum we are developing for a grade one class in this rural area is based on the competency framework of the Quebec Education Program (QEP) about which I have been intensively studying for the past two years. It’s also pretty incredible to finally have the opportunity to see sustainable development initiatives in action in this community, making learnings from my first degree in Environmental Studies additionally relevant. The way the school is being built and even our work on the curriculum is very much designed to be sustainable and community-oriented. It is such a long-term project intended for the greater good of the people that it requires the continuous and established support and commitment of all those involved at the local level. I mentioned in a previous blog about the ongoing debate that seems to be occurring about the level of tangible support the community is willing to provide for the actual construction of the school, but local support for the curriculum development aspect has been positive from the outset. People in the village are very open and willing to share their knowledge about customs and traditions, allowing the units we are developing with our local co-learners to be relevant and meaningful. I believe that the opportunities I had to gather information from people about their area of expertise not only helped to strengthen the community’s connection to the school development, but also helped me put theory into practice. I hope to carry this tradition with me when I return to Canada and will attempt to develop my own teaching curriculum. Using local knowledge and drawing on the expertise of others is an incredible resource that I want to be sure to draw upon back home. It can be so easy to use the Internet as the principle source for collecting ideas, but this easy fall back isn’t an option in Malawi. Our limited access forced us to step away from the pattern of dependency to which I had personally begun to fall prey. Under these conditions, it was that much more important to rely on each other and those around us for the brainstorming of new ideas. As we discuss in school, the chance for innovation and creativity is also that much more likely when we are forced to use limited resources to create something new. I know it will be hard when I return home to resist using the Internet as a first resort when beginning to design a new unit or lesson plan, but at least now I have seen in action how organically they can develop when drawing just from your surroundings and those around you.

This practice is also significant because there is so much emphasis placed on collaboration in the QEP and in my studies in education at McGill. Not only were we collaborating with locals in Kasungu to develop the curriculum, we were also effectively using the power of group work to more efficiently create fourteen well-founded units. We do a lot of group work at McGill to build theoretical units, but I think because we were developing units that would be implemented in September for an actual classroom, the commitment to the project was more concrete and the practice of collaboration was more successful. It definitely helps that the people with whom I am working are all equally devoted to the work and the level of trust between us was at a maximum. I’m hoping that for my third field experience in the fall I get placed in a school where this level of collaboration and trust can be experienced again. I would love to continue the practice of putting collaboration into action on multiple levels and not just with my cooperating teacher. In my first field experience I witnessed the benefits of collaboration as two teachers challenged each other outside of their comfort zones to design a unit that allowed their students to create a radio show to be aired on a local radio station. They began with a field trip to the radio station and then spent weeks having students research, write and plan their own radio programs. This was an incredibly intensive and extensive unit that required collaboration and coordination for it to be successful. Likewise, it is our attempt to provide the teacher for the new school here in Kasungu with that same level of support so that he feels capable of carrying out such grand units. I am especially excited about a unit created at the very end of my working time in Malawi based on the theme of occupations. This unit is not directly part of the year plan, but is supplemental depending on the needs of the class. The various ideas that were brought to the table addressing this theme and the universal concepts of diversity and interactions allowed us to create an interactive, student-driven unit that solidly developed entrepreneurship, creativity and critical thinking. The unit invites students to explore the occupation opportunities available to them, develop an action plan to achieve their dream occupations, and create a functioning community while improvising the responsibilities they hope to take on in these roles. I believe the fact that we were able to develop such a strong extraneous unit perfectly showcases the level of commitment and the strength of collaboration we had for this project. It was also nice to have my last day working on curriculum development in Malawi end on such a positive note. Once again we were able to leave for a weekend excursion with our work well wrapped up, allowing us to fully enjoy ZAMBIA.

Lions eating

Lions eating

Zambia was so much more exciting than I ever could have imagined. We literally camped with lions, hippos, and baboons. Sleeping in a tent at night with three other girls, I could hear these animals calling out. It sounded like we were surrounded, but with guards around, I was never overly concerned. While on safari, we were incredibly lucky to get close to a pride of lions eating a buffalo they had killed the night before. It was so scary and yet mesmerizing to see and hear them gnawing on the bones. We were also surrounded by a herd of elephants and “lucky” enough to have one trumpet warningly in our direction. Between that moment and the time when a full-grown male lion roared behind our open jeep, I’m surprised I didn’t have a heart attack. While these were some of the more sensational highlights, it was just as awe-inspiring to see the herds of zebras against the backdrop of the African landscape and to witness a giraffe stretching his neck and using his tongue to get passed thorns to the leaves of the tree. The plethora of birds was also so unique and led to the excitement and wonder we witnessed around every bend. Returing to Zikomo Safari Camp after a full morning in the back of an open jeep with the sun shining down and the warm breeze blowing through our hair, I had the biggest grin on my face. I LOVE animals and having the opportunity to see so many in their natural habitat with no barriers between us was a dream come true. At the end of the day when we were enjoying the delicious food, looking through our pictures, playing games, or admiring the hippos in the river in front of the camp, I was still in heaven.

Giraffe eating

Giraffe eating

With one last day to pack, enjoy the village, and spend time with this group that has become my family away from home, I can truly say that this entire trip has delivered a greater depth and breath of experiences than I could ever have imagined. The weekend excursions and our interactions with the warm and welcoming villagers is all icing on top of the cake, which was the fact that we managed to create a unique final product that will hopefully bring about positive change for the next generation of Malawians. I am excited to stay in touch with the group as they continue to work over the next week or two and then to maintain an ongoing communication with the teacher who will be putting the curriculum into action. While I am happy with the contribution I have made to the project during my stay in Malawi, it is pretty amazing to know that it does not have to be over. I think that this is making it easier to say goodbye. In the long-term, I look forward to following the progress of the school’s development and hope it does reach its final goal of establishing an adult education program. We are starting with the youngest learners and plan to build a new classroom each year, slowing increasing the number of people who are encouraged to think critically, creatively, and innovatively. The hope and empowerment of initiatives such as this one is inspiring, and if community members continue to pursue sustainable development initiatives on their own, the potential is limitless. With my entire career as a teacher ahead of me, I can only say the same for myself. If I continue to challenge myself as I have done here and draw upon the resources around me, the potential is limitless.

June 23 – Keep Good Company

By Naomi Crisp

Loving life

Loving life

Today was a strange day in the hostel. Linden and Jae were leaving the next day and it was obvious that it was on their mind. By 9 am Jae, Annabelle, Elise, Themba and Snowden were off to climb Mount Kasungu again. This made it even weirder as the hostel felt empty. People finally had a chance to sleep in, blog, journal and read. I took the opportunity to work by myself in typing up the advance work that we did as a sort of preface to the curriculum development process. This took me all morning and partly after lunch but I still didn’t complete it all. At that point my mind was mush and we were to leave within the hour to walk to Kay Jay Pee`s. It is funny how far that 5km walk felt the first time we did it and how easy it has become now. Our time spent at Kay Jay Pee`s was wonderful and relaxing. There were huge crowds in Kasungu as there was a political even going on but we had the whole restaurant to ourselves. The food was delicious! We had samosa, wing balls, burgers, kebab, chips, salad and a chocolate cake from Francis`s birthday. It got cold quickly when the sun went down and even though I was enjoying myself I was eager to wrap myself up in the sleeping bag. We were incredibly spoilt and I cannot wait to see Keith and Jenny again on Saturday.