By Linden Parker
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.
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.
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.