Tag Archives: Linden

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.

Tranquil Travels

By Linden Parker

Sunrise serenity

Sunrise serenity

When I wrote about our weekend excursion to Lake Malawi, I focused on how overwhelmed I was by the touristy nature of the location, even though I loved the beauty and adventure of the trip. Now, after spending the past weekend at Lukwe Lodge in the mountains near Livingstonia, I finally found the peace and relaxation I had unwittingly been seeking. At the beginning of the month and after being in Malawi for only a week, Corinne wrote a blog titled, “Busy Senses.” She explained that this turn of phrase encompasses the constant stimuli that we encounter on a daily bases and I feel it very aptly describes my experience in Malawi up to this point.

The weekend spent in the mountains presented my first true moment of pure serenity. Waking up in the morning and watching the sun rise over the misty hills allowed me to feel truly relaxed. It was a long, winding and bumpy road up to the lodge and we were the only ones staying there, so the isolation helped lend itself to the tranquility of the location. Also, the Belgian owners and the people helping them were very friendly, but not at all imposing. There were a few mini chalets overlooking the valley that were a bit like treehouses, but most of us stayed in little tents in the forested area. I had a tent to myself and since this was the first time that I had slept alone since leaving Canada, I’m sure this is part of why I found the weekend so calming. I don’t have any problem sharing a room, but when there are people around at all moments of the day, either Malawian or Canadian, I find it hard to completely relax and just be in my surroundings. As Corinne puts it, my senses have been very busy, and I just needed time to sit in silence.

Units for a year

Units for a year

This came at a particularly perfect moment in the program, too, because we had just completed a very intense and rewarding week of curriculum development work. Before we left for Livingstonia, we managed to outline units of study for the entire grade one school year. When we finished laying out the general framework for the twelfth and final unit, it was an incredible moment. We still had many details to sort out, but being able to leave for the weekend without being mid-task was such a relieving feeling. I still thought about the units we had just been working on during the six hour drive out to the mountains, but after a delicious dinner that included our first fresh garden vegetables, I was able to completely relax and enjoy the new surroundings.

Fresh veggies

Fresh veggies

The weekend was very much in line with my needs at the time. I had ample opportunity to read the Leonard Cohen book I brought for my book club back home, we were fed incredible food that included mozzarella, basil and tomato sandwiches with ingredients from the local garden, and the view was stunning. We even went on a hike that took us into a cave behind a waterfall! All in all, the weekend left me relaxed, satiated and ready for my last two days of concentrated curriculum development work in Makupo. I am so excited about the work to come and yet apprehensive about concluding my time here in the village. At least I still have the lions to look forward to in Zambia, rounding out the lions, learning and travels part of my expectations as written in my bio. Oh my!

Curriculum Development Progress Report

By Linden Parker

Brainstorming about farming

Brainstorming about farming

Last week we completed the advance work, began to brainstorm teachable themes and concepts, and established a process for organizing our ideas into comprehensive curriculum units. This felt like a solid foundation for the first stages of curriculum development for the alternative experimental school being introduced to the local community. These steps were necessary for us to ensure that the curriculum we establish is well developed and made culturally relevant. While we intend to use the competencies of the QEP to direct the features and outcomes of our units, we need to ensure that the topics are specific to the community and the local environment. While we continue to have many questions for our local co-learners, after the interviews and field trips from last week, we feel better suited to proceed with the next phase of our curriculum work.

This week Dr. Stonebanks has joined us to shed light on both the current status of the school construction and the big picture of the curriculum development process. The school construction is intended to be a collaborative community effort and yet the process of establishing this sustainable ideal appears to be challenging. This is interesting to hear considering the verbal support voiced by the villagers for this development project during our interviews with them. It is not unduly surprising; however, it is still disappointing to discover that while they support the idea of a new education initiative in the area they do not fully grasp the role they could play in its development. Where does dependency end and initiative and accountability begin for this community? Dr. Stonebanks made the very interesting and relevant connection between this dilemma and the curriculum development work that we are conducting. He emphasized the significant need for a curriculum designed according to pedagogy of empowerment and pedagogy of hope. Having these concepts drive our vision for the school will hopefully help to stimulate a new and more actively sustainable culture in the community.

Curriculum progress

Curriculum progress

Spurred on by this vision, we dove straight into our curriculum development work. With renewed commitment after the weekend at Lake Malawi, we once again broke into small groups to develop units. However, now that we felt that we had a solid grasp of the process and the local culture, we decided to officially begin constructing unit ideas from the beginning to the end of the school year. This is an exciting progression of work because it provides a solid sense of achievement as we complete the framework for each unit and move further and further into the year. At the end of day two of this process, I can proudly say that we have strong ideas for the first six months of school in this grade one class (see the progress picture). On a side note about cultural relevancy, we constantly have to remember that in the Malawian school system, many students enter grade one with no previous schooling or organized social experiences. This means that we need to ensure that we address a combination of competencies from the QEP for kindergarten and grade one.

I honestly cannot wait to see a whole year worth of ideas displayed on the wall and am so optimistic that this can be accomplished before I leave on June 24th. Because of our final trip to Zambia, next Tuesday will be my final day of curriculum work here in Malawi, so we have a lot of work to do to meet this goal. Fortunately, I am working with some very talented people who all share this same dedication. Now that we have some concrete ideas to present to the LEARN community, I also look forward to receiving input and ideas from even more knowledgeable minds. Let the hard work begin and, as my husband tells me, don’t sweat the small stuff.

Lake Malawi Malarkey

By Linden Parker

Lake Malawi relaxation

Lake Malawi relaxation

We spent a relaxing and reflective weekend at Cape Maclear on Lake Malawi. We arrived at Fat Monkey Lodge on Friday evening just in time to enjoy a gorgeous sunset over the lake. It felt so odd to be at a resort on a beach in Africa. While the beauty of sandy beaches, blue waters, sunsets and hollowed out canoes blew me away, I also longed for the tranquility and comforts of Makupo village. There is a very prevalent tourism industry at the lake that comes off as harsh and aggressive, especially in comparison to interactions in the village and surrounding communities. I also began to miss the comforts to which I had become accustomed; especially the heated water for baths and the delicious home cooked meals of rice, beans, greens and meat. Honestly, we’re pretty spoiled in the village. I vaguely remember Dr. Stonebanks once explaining that the village started implementing ecotourism practices. The current Praxis Malawi program is more focused on collaborative learning and community development than ecotourism, but we may still be unwittingly reaping the benefits of this initiative.

Hollow canoe and blue water of Lake Malawi

Hollow canoe and blue water of Lake Malawi

All that being said, I love traveling and exploring and so I did enjoy seeing the amazingly beautiful sights at Lake Malawi, especially witnessing the frenzy of tropical cichlids in this fresh water lake. These cichlids are so incredible because there are currently over 1000 varieties indigenous to Lake Malawi, a lake that has no significant rivers that feed into it. This unique ecosystem was a wonder to behold and I was so happy that even though I was apprehensive about dealing with the potential parasites and the subsequent pill, I was still able to enjoy the experience. I didn’t end up swimming because of these concerns, but I could still see all of the brightly coloured fish from the rocks and the side of the boat and with a little bit of bread I could attract them to swim closer. The tour guides supplied the bread and also introduced us to the Fish Eagles that are prevalent on the lake. They are so similar to Bald Eagles that it was eerie to see them. Just like the sunset on the beach in front of the resort, this moment made it hard for me to remember that I was indeed in Africa. We had delicious pizza for dinner that night, completing this discombobulating day.

Bringing us all back to the reality of the course and the challenges of group travel, an impromptu meeting was held before going to bed that same night. Concerns and doubts were voiced at this meeting and our commitment to the project was discussed. While this was a difficult conversation, it also helped to bring us together as a group. We had conducted a very productive work session the day before leaving on the trip to Lake Malawi and many of us were very happy with the curriculum development work that had begun, but that doesn’t mean that we couldn’t further examine our commitment and our goals. After the meeting, a few of us were able to stay up late further discussing our thoughts, concerns and hopes for the coming weeks, both concerning the course work and our downtime. This was an incredible bonding moment that made me happy to be working with such strong and passionate people. I was excited about the curriculum project before the weekend and by the end of the trip I was even more interested in immersing myself in the collaborative work to be done.

Focused dancing in Makupo

Focused dancing in Makupo

I enjoy the little excursions for the new experiences they present, but the work that we do during the week is where my true enthusiasm lies. I also continue to love the personal interactions in Makupo with local co-learners and other villagers, young and old– my friendly greetings in Chichewa are becoming much more natural! In my next blog I’ll describe the curriculum development process in more detail. Until then, tionana (see you later)!

Distractions During the First Days of Curriculum Development

By Linden Parker

Piglets on the volleyball court

Piglets on the volleyball court

It is pretty hilarious how many questions I ask about trees and plants and how many pictures I take of baby farm animals in the village. These two most frequent pastimes are definitely because of a combination of many factors. Firstly, I have always had a passion for nature and living things in different environments. The interest in plants likely stems from my mother who is an avid gardener and my father who always points out different trees on canoe trips. However, it is too funny how half the time when I ask what kind of trees we are walking by in Malawi, the responses are that they are just trees. It is becoming increasingly clear that the average person only knows the names of plants that they commonly use – not shocking. Yet, I am looking forward to walking with Grace at some point. She is the local agriculture expert in the village and is probably more knowledgeable about the local flora. She will be working on the farming project with Frank and since he has only just arrived, I am hoping we will begin to see more of her.

This is also the perfect time of year when there are chicks, kids, and piglets in the villages, and this makes me so happy! The piglets are especially adorable when they run, but they are equally as cute when they eat the corn flour that was laid down as the lines for our volleyball court. I love being so close to such a wide variety of animals that are not very commonly encountered in downtown Montreal. I could see them near my mother’s house in Nova Scotia, but I do not get out there often and even so, they are not running around as freely as they do here in Makupo. For some reason the animals do not wander too far from the village. The chickens are absolutely everywhere and yet somehow they stay nearby, the goats are only tied up when the fields have not yet been harvested (before May), and the piglets are let out of the pigpen because they always return through a hole to their mother. I feel a bit ridiculous always stopping to ooh and ahh over the little animals, but I can’t help it as a city person and animal lover.

The more serious reason why I think I spend so much time focusing on the natural environment is because it is an easy escape from the more challenging aspects of the difficult work and cultural experiences I am encountering. I absolutely love these challenges, but they take time to sort through and I am easily distracted by these simple pleasures. Playing volleyball, interacting with the children, being taught dances and learning how to play netball with the villagers also bring moments of relief to our more demanding curriculum and interview activities.

Grade one expressive arts activity

Grade one expressive arts activity

Most of our advance work so far has involved interviewing and observing teachers and principals from the closest primary schools and nearby farms. Seeing the tiny room that had been converted from a bathroom into a grade one classroom was the most challenging and yet it was still inspiring. There were around 75 students with one teacher and they were working on an Expressive Arts activity. In Chichewa, the children were asked to be creative and design something using a piece of corn stalk. They used their teeth to break the stalk into smaller bits and to get to the soft center. They then used the pieces to construct common items of their choosing, such as chairs, glasses, windows, guns and people. The six to eight year old students were so focused while they were working individually on their creations, but transitions were pure chaos and group recitals were at a deafening pitch. Even when they were focused, there was always background noise because the walls are open at the top. It is easy to understand why the education system is seen as decreasing in quality when they have to teach under increasingly cramped conditions and with limited materials and resources. It will be a struggle for us to find ways to address these issues in our alternative experimental classroom while still maintaining a highly creative, critical and collaborative environment. The more work we begin to do on the actual curriculum the more excited I am becoming. We still have another busy day of advance work and curriculum brainstorming ahead of us before we leave for a weekend at Lake Malawi, but first I’ll just take another break to enjoy the piglets…