Everyday at 14:30 Malawian time, the Community Centre on our Campus is full of lively children eager to learn. The Education students are putting together an excellent curriculum for the Praxis Malawi Charter School and the After-school program is a chance for them to give it a trial run. Today, for the first time, three children with intellectual disabilities were included.
My friend and I had previously met with the children’s mothers and they agreed unanimously that Education was the biggest concern they had for each of their children. Some of the children had begun in local schools, but failed to stay there long due to bullying and exclusion. The children’s response to their new classmates today was natural and as expected. There was a level of discomfort, a quiet giggle, and curiosity; all feelings that can be altered by promoting inclusion, exposure and education about disability. These together lead to a richer society where all are valued and everyone is given the same chances.
In the class today, the children learned about their national flag and the meaning of their national anthem. The Malawian sun shone through the windows and the children stood together, all with different abilities, all with their hands over their heart singing the beautiful melody of the Malawian anthem. The anthem is a prayer to God, and I hope a glimpse of the future here;
Join together all our hearts as one that should be free from fear.
Time is both slow and fast here. A general routine fills the day allowing for time to pass, yet the tranquility of just “being” and “doing” seems to stop time in its place. The work feels easy, fun and creative.
I’ve come to realize that when you are confident in what you are doing it is easy to feel comfortable; when tasks fall within your realm of understanding it is easy to feel competent and it is easy to be yourself. This comfort is a feeling I am very weary of. Wasn’t I on this adventure to get away from my comforts? Wasn’t this the time to step into something a little more unknown?
I have been told that learning comes when you are outside your comfort zone- that box that you draw just around the perimeter of what you know and of what you are used to. This theory is known to Education students through the Education Psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, who called this your Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), the zone of what you can achieve when you receive scaffolding to step just outside of what you can already do on your own.
So following this theory, I must move past that work which I feel most comfortable doing and into an area which I feel more uncomfortable. Once I reflected on this I realized that what scares me most right now is my comfort in this project and the notion that soon I should probably step out of it.
If I could peel apart the layers of this comfort, I might find that what give me the most shelter is the interactions I choose to surround myself with. If I wish to fully immerse myself in this experience I think I need to gain some confidence in engaging in dialogue- not with my young adult peers, not with the English speaking cooks, or our Malawian teacher friends- but in dialogue that is not convenient; dialogue that must be worked towards, and translated; some dialogue that requires me to sit in discomfort.
From my readings on Freire, he speaks dialogues praise, and in fact dismantles any development (Pedagogy) work that does not include dialogue at its core. This is what I realized I needed help doing. My father likes to say, ” You are only a stranger until you say hello”. I hoped to get a little further than this.
I decided to bring my concerns to the attention of the group. We decided to set up meetings with four of the nearby villages to talk about Education and their ideas on its future place here. One person expressed some apprehension, “how about if we don’t like what we hear? Aren’t we trying to bring a different perspective to Education? Don’t we want to be different?” I thought about this for a second but questioned that without dialogue how would we even know where to start and develop if we don’t know the current ideas, attitudes and realities? How can this school’s curriculum (the work we are here to help construct) serve the community if we don’t even bother to ask?
Dr. Stonebanks suggested we have discussion groups with just the woman as they would be the only ones to give us an honest opinion, and not just what they thought we “wanted to hear.” Meetings were arranged then changed, then rescheduled due to funerals…then etcetera, etcetera… but they finally took place. Debriefing afterwards illuminated a lot, confirmed other things and also changed some of our original lesson focuses. I will not go into detail here about the conversations as I have already done a lot of reflection and as I am sure others are blogging about these conversations so I wish not to saturate the topic.
What I do want to express however, is the amount of joy I felt when I recognized a familiar butterfly in my stomach just prior to our meeting with these women. I also really reveled in the awkward moments during the actual conversations, such as when I was offered cooked corn from a toddler and when the women asked us for a water well. This was the feeling I was searching for, the evidence that I was stepping out of the comfort and into the unknown.
We taught our first real lesson today! Alex and I designed a math lesson from the grade two curriculums that others before us had developed and it went really well. I was really happy to be working with Alex because she hasn’t really worked with curriculum before and it was really fun to watch things click in her mind. One of the things that I really like is when people get it. It’s happy because they’re happy and it is a nice reflection of the work that I am able to do. Although our lesson plan was designed for grade two students, we made it work with students aged 10-14. We had about 20 students by the end and we quickly discovered that these students are very smart. It seems kind of ridiculous and rude that we wouldn’t assume this, but we were more practicing the lessons from the curriculum that was developed. The students that we were working with were very engaged and got everything that we spoke about. At the end of the day we did the Macarena, which they love, and then they sang a song for us. The song was really nice because they used our names, but then they started to sing in English and I got a little bit uncomfortable. The song was saying that they were happy that we came and that they will remember us when and if we return. It was really quite sad because I began to reflect on how many people have come and gone from villages just like this. These children knew the song like the back of their hand and I wish that we were not such a novelty to them.
We talk a lot about glamourizing minorities in social justice education and I always try to keep this from happening in my mind and actions, but I have never thought that I would be glamourized. We come to third world countries and we are showered with love and happiness from children and it’s so easy to forget that we are soon going to leave these children until one day when the next group comes in. One of our main goals in this project is to avoid the Madonna complex where we come in and act as saviors, but I never critically thought about how we are thought of by the local people that we are working with. We know how we want to be viewed, but it can be really difficult to change the minds of the people that are around us and how they view us. As we attempt to act as catalysts in our new environment we are not always looked at as such. There are even some times when I’m with the children and they are all looking at me, waiting for me to do something like I’m a jester. It comes down to always having to act as a role model and to hold yourself as a person that acts as a leader; which is something that we have to practice as teachers in the real world. So, I guess that once you are a teacher you always have to act like a teacher.
A little girl, about eight-years old, walked into The Community Center to participate in our After School program. The very first thing I noticed was the curiosity in her eyes. She didn’t say anything as the children got into two circles. She simply looked on and stood with everyone else. I also noticed a small child, no more than two-years-old, tied to her back wrapped in her chitenje. The young two year old girl had the same look of curiosity in her eyes as her older sister. The older sister sat down next to me as we started a ball-name-game. She untied her sister and placed her down next to her. She continued to pay extremely close attention to her sister and helped her participate in the game. After the program, the little girl retied her sister on her back and crossed the road and out of sight.
She is such a young girl with such a different life than I lived when I was eight years old. I would go straight to daycare after school, have a snack, go home, eat dinner, listen to my dad read me a story, then go to bed. I never had more responsibilities than making sure I ate my lunch or that I got on the right bus home. I cannot imagine the great responsibilities this little girl had, like taking care of her sister as well as herself. I am simply awed by this little girl and I am very glad that she continues to be herself and keep a slightly toothless smile on her face.
How does Malawi’s past affect our present identity?
This was the title of our first unit that we completed today. The unit theme was “Malawi” and focused on past/present, and identity as our concepts. We found this was a great way to be introduced to our co-learners. We were able to ask them questions about Malawi and they had some great ideas of lessons and subjects we should add.
We had an Education Boot camp back in April and we chose the final two units for the grade 2 curriculum that were started on last year’s Praxis Malawi trip. We decided the two units should be water and discussing how important water is and then finish the grade 2 year with a unit called Malawi.
We thought Malawi would be a great way to end the year as some of the activities would be based on prior knowledge from previous units that year. The final project would allow students to answer the question of: “What does being a Malawian mean to you?” Students would then be able to answer this in a multitude of different ways.
I am enjoying working with everyone here and I am really using what we have learned at Bishop’s in real life situations. Getting to use Lynn Erikson’s curriculum building model for creating units using themes and concepts and then trying to put them into practice here in Malawi is exciting! What a unique experience.