Tag Archives: lessons

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.)

The Start of the Start

By Kirsten Dobler (Bishop’s)

They love cameras

They love cameras

June 9, 2015

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.

What to Do in Case of a Break Down

By Corinne Marcoux

Bus break down!

Bus break down!

Today was definitely a very interesting day. I am writing in the shade of a very big tree, next to the road: bus break down. Fuel pump problem, it seems. Everyone is busy doing what they do when they are waiting; we have three hours in front of us before two mechanics and another bus come to rescue us. Let’s take our Malawian time then.

It all started two days ago when we departed from Makupo in the direction of Cape Maclear, Lake Malawi. We all took place in our good old Toyota white van and enjoyed the five hour or so drive. It was fascinating to see the landscape change as we were heading south. Naomi (my wonderful roommate) and I were overly excited about the baobab trees that were suddenly taking part of the scenery—they are baobab trees after all! We arrived at the Fat Monkeys Lodge, Cape Maclear, in the middle of the afternoon. Beach. Blue water. Toilets that flush. I must admit that I had a little shock at first, trying to cope with the lack of transition from one physical and social environment to the other. I found the concept of Club Med-style vacations absurd, but I guess that the temptation of putting my swimsuit on was greater because this is just what I did. Wouldn’t we have done the same back home? So I spent an amazing two days watching breathtaking sunsets, swimming among tropical endemic fish of all colours, and feeling the pulse of Malawi to the rhythm of the drums.

Let’s get back on track: bus break down. I woke up this morning to the sound of the waves stretching on the shore. We went for an educational walk nearby the lodge and, most importantly, we had the privilege to experience the Rain Rock. It is a historical monument of Malawi, hidden in the dense vegetation as a mysterious part of the past forgotten and left behind in the present. The rock is carved with rock art and no one knows exactly who did it, or even if it is man made. Malawians used to gather near the rock and pray for rain. Today, touching the rock is supposed to bring you luck. So we all did, some twice rather than once.

Only over an hour after we hit the road to return to Makupo, we pulled over. Our bus had broken down.  At 2:15 pm, Arshad officially announced to us that another bus and two mechanics were on their way and should be there… in three hours. This is when things started to be interesting. The first reactions were humourous. The blame was first put on those who had touched the Rain Rock twice. It made sense. Once the blame was put on someone, we started making plans. The idea was to build a village in the nearby field and to create a new religion of worship to the Rain Rock. It made sense. Some other reactions from the group were:

“If the bus blew out, it would have ruined my day.” (Rebecca)

“Zzzzzz…” (Louisa)

“Toyotas are overrated.” (Dr. Stonebanks)

“I made a broom. I’m selling it if anyone is interested.” (Amy)

“We have a plan B now!” (Barbara)

We were commenting about the perfect location of the break down—next to a well—when we learned that the rescue team would arrive a little later than planned, because it was Sunday and everything was closed.

I decided to go outside and started writing by the tree. We all knew that this break down would be an adventure on its own, and we were not disappointed! I feel that I really got to appreciate the African life-style during the wait. People here seem to take their time; some kids actually have been watching the immobile bus and us waiting for many hours. I did take the time too. I reflected on what I can learn from a bus break down in the middle of Malawi. I realized my dream of climbing and playing into a tree. I played the a game of bowa (traditional Malawian board game) with Rebecca and Amy. I watched the sunset and the gorgeous colours following it. I admired the stars while lying on the road. When the replacement bus finally reached us, it was 8 pm…

These six hours of waiting were part of the journey. Barbara, compared the work of a fuel pump to the work of curriculum development: the fuel pump makes the fuel circulate just as curriculum development makes the curriculum circulate. I would add that you need the passion before circulating curriculum just as you need to look for a journey before taking the bus and make the fuel circulate. I now understand that these six hours were part of my journey, and that curriculum happens even when you are not physically developing it. When there is a break down, you just have to live the journey and make the passion alive.

Advance Work and Assumptions

By Amy Simpson

Chilanga Standard 1 Expressive Arts lesson

Chilanga Standard 1 Expressive Arts lesson

Before beginning our work on the curriculum development we did a week of advance work. We walked to the surrounding villages to interview the people and visited several elementary schools. We interviewed people in the neighboring villages about their thoughts on having a new school in the area. Everyone told us that they welcome the project but some also voiced their concern about the land on which the new school will be built. Some women also expressed concerns of sending their children to the Chilanga School. Besides the long walking distance to the school, they also worry about the dangers their children may encounter on the walk there, which include crossing a busy road and in the rainy season sometimes a river. It was the majority opinion that the project was welcome because they feel that education is important, especially if it allows their children to go on to higher education. Here it is not the family who chooses which high school their child will attend but the government who chooses based on their level of achievement.

At the end of each interview with the women, they would give us a large bag of groundnuts (peanuts) to bring back with us to Makupo. I learned that raw groundnuts taste like peas and they only taste like peanuts once they have been roasted. It was a kind gesture on their part and they gave very generous quantities. I think that it is safe to say that everyone here enjoyed them.

During our days of advance work we also visited four elementary schools. We sat in and observed both standard one and standard two classrooms for a total of four lessons. The standard one classroom at the Chilanga School was particularly interesting because of the lesson and the location in which it took place which was rather odd. In the small classroom you could see remnants of what I thought might have been desks at one point but were actually remnants of toilet bowls. The classroom used to be the school’s restroom but because of the growing number of students and the limited amount of space the restrooms were gutted to make room for the standard one class. During the lesson students were crowded together sitting directly on the ground. It was an expressive arts lesson and their task was to create whatever they wanted using corn stalks for material. Students made a variety of things such as small chairs, glasses and the most popular creation among the boys was guns. The lesson gave us an example of how local and free resources can be used in the classroom.

Another interesting lesson was in the standard two classroom at the Kapiri Elementary School. The students were learning English and the teacher was teaching them words using a whole word approach. Many people with whom we spoke with told us that they did not agree with this method of teaching students English. They say that before the government changed the curriculum students were taught English words using the phonetic breakdown which was much more successful.

The students in this classroom were also sitting directly on the floor, but what I noticed was that there was a pile of old dusty desks in the back corner of the room. I wondered why they were not being used but I figure that they must be broken and in need of repair or that there are not enough for all the students to use. However I also thought that there must be a better use for them rather than having them stacked up collecting dust.

As we walked to the villages and schools, as well as on our walk to Kasungu, a few of us kept asking our cooperative learners what the different types of trees were called. It was rather funny because we expected them to know (they knew some but not all) but if they were to come to Canada and take a walk with me and they started asking me what the names of all the tress were I think I would only be able to name two or three. It was just an assumption that we made thinking that because they are from here they must know all the names of the vegetation around.

Thinking of assumptions, it reminds me of another silly question that I asked one of the night guards. One night the security had made some fires around the village, which I had not noticed before. Out of curiosity I went up to one of them to ask them why they had made fires. I was expecting some elaborate answer, which would include some cultural tradition about who knows what and this is why I did not expect the answer that followed. Now brace yourselves for the answer. He told me that they made fires because … it was cold. I laughed and told him of course, that makes complete sense; we do the same at home.