Tag Archives: Christopher

Looking Back and Gazing Forward

By Dr. Christopher Darius Stonebanks

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During my latest stay on mount Livingstonia, I had the chance to spend some quiet time and do things I otherwise have never been able to do during my last five (or is it six?) times at the magnificent Lukwe Lodge. In many ways, this chapter of Praxis Malawi represents many firsts for me. This was the first time I did not climb Mount Kasugu with the students, nor did I go to curios with them either, or even walk up to the top of Livingstonia to see the town. That crazy town at the top of a mountain that, to me, has always represented the madness of colonialism as I try and imagine Dr. Laws convincing the Malawians that building a mission at the top of the mountain is a sound idea. I get the escaping mosquitoes and malaria in the higher altitude and all that, but I still would have loved to be there when the local Malawians turned to each other and said, “Is he serious? Did he just say we’re hauling all the materials up the mountain??”

In any case, at this point there’s been enough of a relationship built with community that these sorts of excursions, like the hike up Mount Livingstonia, essentially run themselves and risks have been minimized through the experiences of trial and error. So, this time I hung back and had the time to do things I otherwise never have the chance to do; like take a nap in the sun, read a book, look at the landscape, observe some amazingly colourful butterflies, and investigate the workings of the compostable toilets. Okay, the last part was not that wonderful, but it was informative to the planning of our Campus. I don’t often get the time to read in Malawi. The first few trips usually involved packing a quantity of books that only made sense if my destination was for a conference on “coffee connoisseurs and speed reading”. Add to that my choice of books; not a single piece of fiction, but a stack of academic writings that I was sure to catch up on and revisit, but never do. Sure, who wouldn’t want to ruin a beautiful Malawian sunset while slogging your way through the uncooperative translation of Max Weber? Perhaps the original German writing is more enjoyable, despite the fact I don’t understand German, eh? Nowadays, I have learned to put a bunch of books on kindle so as to save luggage space on all the books I am guaranteed not to read.

There aren’t really many of those deep reading periods for someone coordinating a trip like this. You don’t get to have many quiet moments where you simply get “to be”.  There’s always something that needs to be organized, someone who needs to be reminded of coursework objectives, community meetings to attend (or reschedule and reschedule and reschedule…), finances to be reorganized so we have enough fuel to get the bus back to the airport, and a million questions to field. On this morning, however, the students went up the mountain with a for-real-certified guide, and I was alone to reread Frantz Fanon’s (1961), The Wretched of the Earth.

It’s been many years since I had first read Fanon’s book; in fact, it was probably at the end of my undergraduate years and more than likely a book that I picked up to have the appearances of being interesting when I sat around a campus café or bar. “Can I have a large cappuccino to go along with my book that clearly shows how smart and deep I am? Can you see what I’m reading?” I do remember it coincided with Gulf War One, and Fanon’s analysis of the oppressed Arabs of North Africa was particularly pertinent to me in those days. Even then, I wondered how such an influential book failed to make any kind of connections in any social justice circles in regard to action to a growing human tragedy, beyond the giant papier-mâché manikins of a distorted President Bush (senior), blowing whistles and banging drums at anti-war protests. Years later and Fanon’s book is still relevant … but what has changed? Frustrated, I put Fanon’s book down and ordered a cup of coffee, once again looking over the lush, green valley and trying to capture some of the peaceful moments I had lost when I decided to reread the book. And there “he” was on the cover of Fanon’s 2001 version of The Wretched of the Earth. Wearing old, worn and tattered clothes, emaciated “he” sits on the floor in some common outdoor space, looking away and simply waiting in anguish. I don’t know him, but I realize “he” is still everywhere in Malawi and, again, nothing has really changed.

On this trip of firsts, I try and remember “him”, and as we drive from Livingstonia and back to Kasungu, I see “him” everywhere. Of course, I haven’t just seen “him” through the window of a moving vehicle; I have met “him” as well. We have sat, and talked in brief exchanges, but “he” knows more about me, because this isn’t a first encounter for “him” either. “He” knows I will go somewhere else, perhaps somewhere on the side of a lush, green mountain and take the time to order a coffee and ponder over “his” picture. Even when we look for optimism and, I see “him”. The Chilanga community has already started moulding bricks as part of their “fair labour” contribution to the Campus, with the faith that this effort can turn into hope for their children, and it appears that there “he” is again. I want to believe this time I am mistaken in my recognition of “him”, and for the first time in my years in this area, things are starting to change.

What’s in a Word?

By Dr. Christopher Darius Stonebanks

Development discussions

Development discussions

So, what’s changed since last being in Malawi with students in the spring of 2013? Quite a bit has developed, I’d say. But, before we get to that, let’s put aside the usual semantics of word-play in international work for a moment. I used the word “development” and I think that needs to be addressed. Yeah, the meaning, sub-text, etc. of words is extremely important and words like “development” need to be analyzed. What are we talking about when we use the word “development”, do we really mean something growing, evolving and/or transforming from one entity to another? Are we suggesting that a person is not fully human when any sort of language associated with improvement is used? Can we say an acorn is not fully “developed” until it becomes an oak tree? My youngest daughter until she becomes eighteen? A caterpillar until a monarch butterfly? Myself, until my PhD, or from part-time lecturer to full professor? What does “development” mean? It is important to understand meaning to words. However, what seems so crucial in the contexts of academia hyper examination of terms are luxuries ill afforded in locations of extreme poverty, like the rural regions of Malawi. I can read the looks on students’ faces when they hear the word “development” used by local Malawians; somewhere along their education someone has rightfully brought up the discussion that the word denotes a message of not being fully human, and there’s little doubt that this can sometimes be the case. I have noticed that the word “transformative” has replaced “development” in academic language, but to what end? Can’t it be argued that transforming a person from one thing to another is the same process of a top-down, colonial attitude of being the architect of “making a human”? I often don’t know if we have the luxury for such conversations.

Admittedly, I do have little patience for patriarchal language (or even matriarchal language for that matter when it comes in the form of condensation) when it comes to some words. For example, terms like “nos enfants” (our children) when referring to any indigenous communities around the world seems to elicit a critical response from me regardless of the social context. One time a particularly kind administrator of a school board which employed me happily told me that she was pleased when she was told by a secretary that I was Iranian. She mentioned how she had spent a few months in pre-revolutionary Iran, accompanying her spouse who was stationed there working for the Canadian government. She then proceeded to tell me how much she loved the people of Iran, because they were like happy, simple children. It was a statement without the slightest hint of malice, which made it quite hard to process at the time. Over the years I am closer to understanding the underlying reasons for such common responses that are not exclusive to one philosophical leaning or another. With those memories I am conscious of the importance of language, but try to understand intent rather than risk ending progressions of dialogue.  For instance, I don’t quite feel the need to rage against the use of “development” when I understand it is being used locally to describe the improvement of the human condition. Development, even with all its historical baggage, is nonetheless the optimistic buzzword in Malawi right now, spoken with the same vigour as “transformative” is used in Canada. And, if you have spent any real time in the communities we are working with in Malawi, the understanding of the intent and urgency of the word “development” becomes quite clear.

So, back to change: On our arrival in Malawi the case of voter recount was in the courts, with the final decision of President Joyce Banda being replaced by newly elected Professor Peter Mutharika declared as winner. As I understand from the local Traditional Authority (the indigenous governing system), President Mutharika’s party has run on a platform of “development” and the return to Malawians taking control of improving the human condition and working in solidarity with foreign agencies.  We hear in speeches that the days of passiveness, leaving the decisions and actions to NGOs and the like, are over. Wonderful!

Since we last left Malawi in 2013, there was a return trip in January 2014 to meet with the Malawi Ministry of Education and the development (there’s that word again!) of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). By far, the focus of the MoU on the part of Praxis Malawi was the clarity of reciprocity and comprehension of needs. Sometimes it’s better to start a conversation on “what you are not” as opposed to trying to define “what you are”. “What you are” can sometimes leave spaces for interpretation that leads to spaces that simply can’t be addressed, with potential anger and disappointment ensuing. We begin the conversation with the understanding that we are not, in the formal sense, an NGO, a charity group, a volunteer group, a religious group or any of the myriad of well-meaning organizations that are mandated to provide service of change through an often top-down format. Defining words are important, after all. Reciprocity of respectful knowledge transfer is the key to our work; those words are important. Action from that knowledge transfer is although initially enacted through our combined efforts, and the decision for that to leave our space of communal learning is up to the local people. Deviation from these words and the core philosophy attached to them is simply not Praxis Malawi.

Shortly after arriving in Malawi, and at these early stages of introduction to the realities of Malawi, stress becomes an overwhelming emotion; students will often feel the pressure of expectations and succumb to uncertainty and Malawi participants become equally uneasy of their role as leaders in this joint endeavour. Part of the stressors with the model we are developing (damn, I wrote that word again!) are the moments in between times of close in-field collaboration. When the airplane leaves to Canada, momentum is often lost. The initial optimism that existed when university students and professors work on our Campus projects slowly become replaced with fear of risk and self-doubt from all participants, regardless of their citizenship. Whether you are a Canadian or Irish university student, or a Malawian community member, you want to see movement that will alleviate human suffering in a sustainable and meaningful way. Of course people want to see development (ugh, I can’t stop myself!) no matter where you reside, but it’s not easy. Authentic change is slow and can often be painful. At every step there is the temptation to try and go for the quick fix and lose your focus. I know that giving the man or woman begging for money on the side of the street will not solve Malawi’s problems of poverty, yet I often can’t help myself and the man throwing starfishes back in the ocean story does not provide comfort in this context.  Development, or transformative education doesn’t feel or look like time-elapsed films of seeds growing to flowers or caterpillars turning into butterflies. Sometimes you wonder if your transformative moment will end up on the cutting room floor, just like all the caterpillars and seeds that don’t make it out of their respective shells. Maybe that’s why we focus on defining words in academia, which seems much more manageable and attainable.

Maybe the Best Group Ever???

By Dr. Christopher D. Stonebanks

Leaving on  a jet plane

Leaving on a jet plane

I do not think there was a single year of my elementary or high school experience where a teacher did not publicly exclaim, “You are the worst behaved class I have ever taught!” Reflecting on that annual experience years later, I am pretty sure these comparisons are fairly common, and I’m also fairly certain that there must be some group out there that was “the best class ever!” … maybe that was the class of 1987; who knows.

I can remember as students we were certainly aware of this ranking, and depending on circumstance, either took great pride or mortification on being at one end of the spectrum or the other.  I suspect it’s still pretty common, because as a carryover, university students often jokingly ask me “Sir, aren’t we the best group you ever taught!”, to which I usually respond with equal sarcasm, “Never mind other groups, teaching your class ranks ahead of the birth of my children and the day I got married, combined!” Praxis Malawi learners are no different, even if the course they are taking are outside of the formal walls of academia, they still like asking questions about past groups.

Well, let me clarify: they typically do not ask if they are “the best group”, as every cohort has shown a deep appreciation that their work is an extension of prior efforts. Everyone has always demonstrated great respect and interest for what has been done in the past. Each group has pushed the vision of Praxis Malawi forward a little bit, and that struggle has always been acknowledged. Rather, when they ask about past groups, it’s more like, “What’s the worst thing that a past student has done in Malawi?” or “What does it take to actually get sent back home?” I imagine that every student that participates in Praxis Malawi creates wonderful experiences in their heads even before they arrive in Malawi, but I am sure they also imagine failure as well. On the positive, there’s the secret romanticized and stereotyped hope that a village thanks you profusely for your presence and maybe you get the Sub-Sahara African version of a Kevin Costner movie and get a new name (that’s not going to happen). On the negative, a Chief expressing that their village committee took a vote, and “that thing you did was so bad, we just want you out of here!” After all, the course outline for Praxis Malawi clearly states that each student must meet the expectations set in the University Student Code of Conduct, with the penalty of being sent home. Holy smokes! What does it really take to be asked to leave a country!?

My guess is that are a myriad of images and scenarios that play in most of our minds of what could go tremendously wrong regarding behavior in sub-Saharan Africa. Maybe an attempt at riding a hippopotamus on Lake Malawi, organizing a coup to become village chief, or perhaps starting a Fight Club are all ridiculous scenarios playing out in our minds long before Malarone induced nightmares can make them worse. When my eldest daughter, Roxy, was in Malawi last year, she had a vivid dream that a little girl from the village followed her home; had she pulled a Madonna and simply taken the child from her village? Was that wrong to take a child home with me? Is that something that would get me kicked out of a country? Is kidnapping frowned upon?

When I am asked about past groups and how they fared on the “conduct while representing the University” front, my usual response centers on questioning whether or not the student is genuinely concerned of prior history, or if they are trying to figure out the limit of risky experience and conduct to create some sort of legal defense. I wonder if I am going to be faced with appeals such as “Sir, the course outline didn’t say that I wasn’t allowed to take home a Green Mamba in my carry-on” or, “Before you say that I acted inappropriately, maybe you should have clarified more than once that starting a crocodile wrestling side show was frowned upon”. Sure, they want to take some risks and create some memories, and who can blame them. But, I am mindful that my responsibility is to repeatedly tell them not to run with scissors.

So far this group should be proud to say that they rank with all the others as an amazing group of students who actively and collaboratively want to work with the Chilanga community. They’re no class of 1987 mind you, but they are pretty darned good!

Not the ‘Teacher as Carpenter’ Analogy, Please

By  Dr. Christopher Darius Stonebanks

Construction

Construction

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.

The Poor QEP

Dr. Christopher Darius Stonebanks

Rule Britannia

Rule Britannia

The poor Quebec Education Program (QEP). How can something called by the nickname “The Brick” not have a self-esteem problem?  That nasty moniker came to the QEP because teachers would often leave it in the corner of the classroom, complaining about the weight and size of the document, and making comments, such as, that it would be better used as a doorstop than anything else.  One cooperating teacher, when asked how she was supporting her guest pre-service teacher to better understand Quebec’s official curriculum, motioned to the cellophane wrapped and dust covered document on a corner shelf in the classroom. She didn’t use. The standardized, pre-formulated curriculum of a purchased language arts program from the USA was her curriculum of choice. The idea of legal or professional responsibilities towards the QEP meant nothing compared to the ease of following a step by step pre-fab lesson plan of watered down, tasteless literature accompanying stencil sheets and daily handouts provided by a publishing company. Hey, it’s easier than breaking open the plastic-wrap and actually reading the official curriculum, eh? Oh, the poor QEP.

Perhaps even more disappointing were the amount of professors who would lecture on the dangers of standardized curriculum, utilizing US based readings about the No Child Left Behind act, and then transpose that reality onto Quebec. Many of these talks would center around the promotion of teachers as professionals and the pedagogical principles of emancipation, and far too often the fact that the QEP is actually based on these philosophies would be omitted. Freire himself is mentioned in the official government curriculum and I am quite convinced that this reference is unique to Quebec, Canada.   For over a decade, we’ve had this wonderful curriculum in Quebec that did not force content on teachers. Rather, it let them develop exciting relevant and accountable curriculum (the good kind of professionally accountability, not the ever present US No Child Left Behind discussion) that so many good teachers crave, and yet I still hear people in critical circles lament what a difference they could make in schools if schools followed a critical model.

One of the first comments I often hear about our work in Malawi is the disapproving response to the notion of meshing the QEP with the Malawian context and curriculum. Most have an understanding of the QEP that is content specific and believe that we would be teaching students in Malawi about Samuel de Champlain, the War of 1812 and Pierre Elliot Trudeau. Nothing could be farther from the truth, and such misunderstandings or preconceptions of the foundational principles of the QEP usually indicate that the individual has not read the document.

I won’t go into details of the specifics of the QEP (I don’t want to ruin a good read for you), but the QEP is a competency based approach to education. The targets in the curriculum are universal, and I would be hard pressed to say that any teacher around the world would argue that the learning objectives cited were beyond the development of his/her students. We work on local themes, the context that have deep meaning for children, and universal and timeless concepts to create curriculum. The QEP, in the case of our Malawi school, becomes the indicator for progression of learning. I would argue that the QEP is based on best practices and good pedagogy, and that tailoring teaching around themes and concepts has been successful and respectful teaching far before the QEP came into existence. I expect that although concepts  such as “governance” for instance, would be attached to different themes relevant to local children across Quebec, that the end outcome of deeper learning would be shared amongst all students. Actually, I am lucky to know some of the key English Education authors of the QEP as well as the teachers whose classrooms they used as a model for the program and appreciate that this is indeed the case.

When I go to schools in Malawi, I am always amazed at the overtness of the British curriculum that is still infused as a part of daily education. I couldn’t help but capture an image of the Union Jack on the social studies study guide for the secondary final exam. In our curriculum, the only time Malawi students would learn about Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau is if they were comparing government structures and key leaders across the world in the 1970s and 80s as it related to Malawian President Kamuzu Banda. Governance would be the important concept to grasp, not the visionless memorization of “facts”.  This is what leads to change.

Well, that’s a bit of what we are doing with the curriculum. I know school buildings are an absolute necessity and are more “sexy” to sell in Canada for fundraising, but I am counting on the excellent practitioners that put the QEP together to be our guiding model. There’s a lot riding on the QEP, and I have faith in her. The poor QEP.

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For a further look into the QEP and its impact in Quebec, you can read a blog entitled A Reminder That Life is Good: the QEP, Professional Autonomy and Paulo Freire