Tag Archives: culture

School Life in Malawi: A Brief Overview of Their Education System

by Sophie Bass and Melanie Stonebanks

Welcome back to the Warm Heart of Africa!  This second posting in the series was greatly assisted by Mr. Henry Lemani who not only provided the necessary background information on which this posting has been based but also worked alongside Sophie to edit the writing as well.  It is an interesting look into a system that will leave you with much to think about.  As well, it is another step forward on our journey of discovery to understand what school life is like for students and teachers in not only the poorest country in Africa but one of the twenty poorest countries in the world.

Here is Sophie’s post:

I arrived in Malawi on June 1st only to find out that Mr. Saka was not around this summer. I was extremely sad by this news, but luckily, on June 5th, I met Mr. Lemani, a teacher who teaches at a nearby secondary school (Chilanga Community Day Secondary School). After discussing my project with him, he decided that he would like to participate in the blog and assist me along the reflective journey. Together we decided the topics of each blog post, but in fear of spoiling the surprise, I shall only reveal the topic of discussion for this blog: an overview of the education system in Malawi.

First off, I would like to point out that there are many similarities between the Quebec (or more generally the Canadian) education system and the Malawi education system. In Quebec, four year old children are often enrolled in pre-kindergarten classrooms and then move on to kindergarten the following year. Similarly, in Malawi, children aged 3 to 5 often attend nursery schools if they are available in the region. Nursery schools are more common in urban areas as opposed to rural areas.  Nursery school programs mirror the pre-kindergarten and kindergarten curriculum in Quebec. At six years old, children in Malawi begin primary school, which extends from standard 1 to standard 8. These standards represent grades 1 to 8 in Canada. Once students reach standard 8, they must write and pass national exams before they can be admitted into secondary school. If they pass, they move on to secondary school, which is made up of 4 forms (or grades as we would say in Canada): form 1 (grade 9), form 2 (grade 10), form 3 (grade 11), and form 4 (which would be grade 12 in most Canadian provinces except Quebec). The secondary school in which students are admitted depends upon their performance on the national exams that they must write at the end of the school year in standard 8.

The subjects taught in elementary schools throughout Malawi also share similarities to those outlined in the Quebec Education Program. Students learn subjects such as English, Mathematics, Science and Technology, Expressive Arts, and Social and Environmental Sciences, which parallel the majority of the subjects taught in Quebec primary schools. Subjects in Malawian schools that differ from those in Quebec would be Agriculture, Bible Knowledge, Chichewa (the national language of Malawi), and Life Skills. The syllabus for Malawian primary schools is the same throughout the country. The same surely cannot be said about Canada. In addition, from standard 1 to 4, all subjects are taught in Chichewa, whereas from standard 5 to 8 and all throughout secondary school, all subjects except Chichewa are taught in English.

Of interest is also the fact that primary schools in Malawi are free, but students must pay to attend secondary school. The fees that students pay vary according to the quality of the school that they attend. At Chilanga Community Day Secondary School, for instance, students must pay 3000 kwachas per term, which translates into approximately 12 Canadian dollars. This may not seem expensive in Canadian terms, but to parents in Malawi, these fees can be quite costly. Many parents are unable to send their children to secondary school due to the high cost of the fees.

Finally, as mentioned in my previous blog, class sizes in Malawi are generally very large. At Mponda Primary School, for example, located in the Kasungu region of Malawi, there is an average of approximately 40 students per classroom. In another school that I had the opportunity to observe, class sizes averaged 80 students per classroom; a lack of both teachers and space cause student-teacher ratios to soar.

To conclude, I could go on and on about the Malawi education system, but the purpose of this blog was simply to provide you with an overview of how things in Malawi elementary schools function and give you a bit of context before I delve deeper into other topics that relate to and affect the education system in Malawi. Until then, I wish you all the best.

Sophie Bass


Memories From the Field Part II: “Dear Prime Minister”

(c) Todd Berman 2012

By Melanie Stonebanks
The unexamined life isn’t worth living. – Socrates, 450 BC

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my early teaching experiences in inner-city Montreal. This entry builds on that previous post and will hopefully contribute to the current day understanding of the role of critical literacy in the classroom or the lack there of.  It will lay bare my attempts, fraught with many mistakes and omissions, to bring into the classroom a critical pedagogy lived out through the day to day circumstances of a teacher and her students struggling with the turmoil and perplexity of a newly implemented curriculum.  Due to countless discussions with my husband, whom you may have met here, I was well aware of the underpinnings of what critical pedagogy was and what it was supposed to look like in a classroom setting.  But like so many others in the teaching profession, it was one thing to know what it was but to have the courage to enact it was a whole other matter.

The Context

            In order to be able to visualize the upcoming narratives more accurately, it is important that a setting of time and place in history be offered for the reader.  The two stories (one in this post and one in a subsequent post) unfold at one point or another in the decade spanning from 1993-2003 at one of the four public urban/inner-city schools where I worked in Montreal, Québec.  All my former schools were comprised mainly of children whose parents were considered to be recent immigrants to Canada and due to their economic situation most were situated below the poverty line.

It was not always easy but for certain it was always worth it.  I would not trade in my years teaching in these schools for anything.  It is due to my time engaged with my young students that have brought me farther along in my understanding of what it truly means to be a teacher.  It is a journey that is only still just beginning.  As I write, reflect and reflect some more on the narratives you are about to read, I along with you gain a deeper and more profound understanding of the awesome effect critical pedagogy and critical literacy can have on those that become woven into its fabric.  I add my piece to the quilt and encourage those that read along with me, to add their stories and pieces as well.

“Dear Prime Minister”

March 2003 marked the beginning of Gulf War 2.  We sat at home around the television and I wept.  As I watched the “Shock and Awe” of a city bombed and blasted into oblivion, I cried for the children, for the injustice, and I have to admit for the power bloc to which I was a member of for life.  I felt as though we were living in a world gone mad, where a life didn’t equal a life, where the slaughter of innocent people was brushed off as unfortunate but necessary in order to take control of a country and the oil fields that permeated its land.  Where family members expressed that it all wasn’t too bad as American technology would improve oil extraction efficiency.

I wondered how I would deal with this tomorrow in class.  How could I ever be as strong as someone like Jane Elliot, who in the aftermath of the Martin Luther King assassination, had taught her class what it felt like to be discriminated against simply due to something as out of your control as the colour of your eyes or skin.  Her controversial risk taking, and I believe an example of true critical pedagogy in action, “blue-eyed/brown-eyed exercise” was now a staple lesson in university education classes but at the time in the 1960s, her progressive and unconventional teaching brought her negative reactions from co-workers, community members and people across the United States.

I have heard time and again people say that if they had been there, they would have stood beside Ghandi, Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks.  I say “No way!”   It is much easier to ease one’s conscience and say in hindsight that you would have been there but in reality, it takes a very special person who can stand up to the pressures of a system so much larger than you and one that is pushing so ardently and relentlessly against you (Stonebanks, 2004).  Needless to say, I was not this type of person and was at a loss to know what I would do the next day in class with my students.  So I took the easy way out and waited to see what would happen.

The following morning, the classroom was a buzz.  It was clear that most had spent a great deal of time watching the same images and news reports that I had in my home.  As they entered the classroom and found their seats, I sat back and simply let them talk.  They shared conversations that had most likely begun in their homes and their variations of what their parents thought and felt about the invasion.  I continued to wait, to give them space, part of me knew that they needed time to unload all that they had inside them, the other part of me waited because I still didn’t know what I would do next.

And then it happened, one of my students put up her hand and called out to me “Mrs. Stonebanks, I’m afraid.  What if they come and bomb my house?  What do I do?”  It wasn’t a question that I was expecting but it made sense that children would be worried about the same horror potentially affecting them especially considering that the vast majority did not come from power bloc backgrounds and have probably heard more nuanced and factual comprehensions of Western foreign policy.  So as the class quieted down, we took it from there.  In the safety of the classroom family, open and honest discussions could be held about what we were thinking, feeling, fearing, what we understood and what we didn’t.  I was careful not to promote my own personal agenda or forward my beliefs of what the invasion was based on but what I did was allow them a space to deliberate and offer multiple perspectives to broaden their understanding of each other and the crazy world they were living in.

Part way through the conversation, one of the students asked which countries made up the invading forces, “The coalition of the willing”.  When asked whether Canada was going to join in on the invasion, I told them that we were not.  That our Prime Minister, Jean Chrétien, had been reported saying, “that forcing a regime change is not desirable. Many leaders in the world are not his friends, but, he adds, only the local people have the right to change government. “If we change every government we don’t like in the world where do we start? Who is next?”

The students decided that they would like to express what they were feeling about the invasion and Canada’s role.  Many of them were still fearful that Canada and they themselves would be implicated and hurt in some way or another.  Then an idea came to me.  One that would give them a voice, a sense of security and a feeling that there was an audience who would be willing to listen to what they were thinking and dealing with at this moment in history.  And one that stood in sharp contrast to the direction that my colleagues were taking in having their students write letters of support to soldiers already serving in Afghanistan.  They would write a letter to the Prime Minister, the right honourable Jean Chrétien.  I put forward my quick thinking idea and they loved it.

Constructivism?  Probably not.  But I was reminded of the fact that Joe Kincheloe, noted critical pedagogue, would often repeat to teachers in graduate classes when they felt overwhelmed by an anti banking model of teaching that being a critical pedagogue didn’t mean that you stopped being a teacher; that you stopped forwarding ideas.  It seemed to fit exactly what was needed at the time.  And by week’s end, twenty-eight letters, including one of my own explaining the impetus for the writing campaign, were mailed away to Ottawa.

Reflections on “Dear Prime Minister”

            In no way do I feel that this incident is to be viewed as revolutionary, ground breaking or even an act of passive resistance.  There was no risk involved in a Canadian class writing letters to a government who was opposed to the invasion of Iraq.  I skimmed all the pieces of writing quickly before sealing them in the large brown envelope.  They had been peer edited for fluency, clarity and basic grammar and spelling but the content of each letter was left up to the person who had penned it.  They were free to express whatever an eleven or twelve year old wanted to share.  Out of the twenty-eight letters that my class sent, twenty-seven of them were in support of Canada’s position of not joining the invasion in Iraq.

Had I been teaching in the United States at the time, would I have taken the risk to let my students write these types of letters to the President, free from my interference of what position to take on the matter or even still, did I have them send copies of their opinions to the United States government?  No, I would not and no, I did not.  Again, bound and gagged by fear of a system that seemed to call all the shots in one’s economic and career advancement, I spent most of the time keeping under the radar.  I was not brave. I was not a radical leader.  But when a large package from the Prime Minister’s office arrived for my class which included a letter of response to our campaign, thanking us for our words and thoughts and with it was a signed photograph of Jean Chrétien, the excitement and smiles on the faces of my students assured me that it was alright.  I hadn’t started a revolution but I had given these children a forum for others to hear their voice and people had indeed listened.

End note

This fall, as my husband and I were hustling through the Toronto airport to catch a connecting flight home, we walked past a gate and there standing waiting for his own flight was Jean Chrétien.  My husband immediately dropped his bag and went over to shake his hand.  What followed was a lengthy and highly animated conversation between a former Prime Minister and two delighted supporters.  Between photographs and many laughs, I was able to recount the story of our letter writing campaign to his office.  It seemed that being able to share this classroom experience with the man to whom the letters were addressed allowed me to understand yet again, the importance of engaging and supporting your students in authentic literacy lessons that come to us from the teachable moments that life brings our way whether we are ready for them or not.

A Critical Conversation About Literacy, Part II: Critical Literacy Defined

(c) Ricardo Romanoff

by Melanie Stonebanks

My husband and I have spent years discussing and debating our perspectives and understanding of every aspect of the field of education.  We met when we were in high school, and went our separate ways for a time being, reconnecting in our mid twenties. Our debates have ranged from which method of unit design is most effective to the covert predominance of white privilege that permeates the school system.  We recently found ourselves revisiting one such discussion about my awakening to critical literacy, the result of it being the following post about the topic.

Lying around late one lazy Saturday morning in the Fall of 1998, a conversation on the topic of memories of elementary school and favourite childhood storybooks was featured.  We had both attended elementary school at the same time and only a short two-minute drive between our respective institutions. We both spoke fondly of a visiting storyteller who captured our imaginations with his lively rendition of Robert Service’s poem “The Cremation of Sam McGee”.  As our recollections meandered along to discussing our love of Roald Dahl’s classic “James and the Giant Peach”, I threw out how much C.S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia” had me completely obsessed with the adventures of four British children in this fanciful land.  Christopher gave me a sideways look, sighed and tightened his mouth (which I knew signalled that a serious discussion was about to take place).

What followed was an eye-opening shattering of my favourite childhood past-time; a dawning realization that I fought against that morning and many mornings after until emotion was set aside and thoughtful contemplation of this alternative perspective was allowed to be considered.

Christopher took no time in recounting an episode he had shared with a former girlfriend.  She, an artist, had been hired to design a store window display based on C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”.  She had been sitting reading the novel (my favourite of the series) when she had asked Christopher if he had ever read the book.  Christopher replied that he hadn’t but recalled it often lovingly described by many people as simply an endearing children’s tale.  She then began to read passages from the book; all of which contained blatant and unmistakable Islamophobic language and imagery that depicted a whole race of villainous characters “The Calormene” simply born evil.  Christopher recalled criticism of the depiction of Fagan from Dicken’s “Oliver Twist” denouncing the anti-Semitic overtones but was completely surprised that with such  transparent and obvious demonization of people from the Middle East, that no one had ever spoken of it in these terms.

Looking back, I am embarrassed that it took so long for me to engage in a critical literacy discussion; and one that I did not initiate myself but was forced into kicking and screaming the whole way.  It does make me wonder, that if not for my intimate relationship with this person from a background so distinctly different from my own, would I ever have contemplated the validity of an opposing “reading” of my cherished texts?  Most probably not.  I strongly believe that this form of personal connection is the catalyst to the majority of critical literacy awakenings in teachers coming from a White Christian upper-middle class upbringing like my own.  It is not that we are evil people or bad teachers, it’s just that being constantly surrounded and reaffirmed by a homogeneous majority viewpoint does not promote the average person to question what has always been presented as the one way to see the world.

Critical Literacy Defined

For many, it is sometimes easier to understand what something is not before grappling with what it is.  I have used this pedagogical approach in my classroom when teaching my students about how to phrase an ethical question or the use of acceptable email and internet etiquette.  This method can therefore be applied to one’s understanding of Critical Literacy.   Comber (2001) assists us in our fluency by offering what reads as almost a heeding warning to professionals in the field

…it is not being negative and cynical about everything.  It is not political correctedness.  It is not about censoring the bad books and only reading the good books.  It is not indoctrination.  It is not developmental.  It is not about identifying racism, sexism, prejudice, and homophobia somewhere else or in texts that have little relevance for readers.  It is not whole language with social justice themes. (pp 271-272)

Margaret Meek (1987) writes about the importance of not simply teaching children to decode the words but to actually engage in dialogue about what the text means to them.  It is much more than the technical acquisition of reading skills. It is through this active process of thinking critically and taking part in rich discussion with others that a deep and powerful comprehension of the reading unfolds.  What stands out is the need for the readings to “have significance”, not only in the eyes of the teacher but in those of the student as well.  They are equal players here; joint partners in the game where no one has the upper hand and each learns from the other.

Luke, (1997) describes Critical Literacy as a “commitment to reshape literacy education in the interests of marginalized groups of learners, who on the basis of gender, cultural and socioeconomic background have been excluded from access to the discourses and texts of dominant economics and cultures” (p.143).  Critical literacy can be more simply defined as well as “the ability to read texts in an active, reflective manner in order to better understand power, inequality, and injustice in human relationships” (Coffey, 2008). In the elementary classroom setting, illustrated picture books, novels, conversations, songs, pictures, movies and the like are all considered texts. Central to critical literacy is the notion of dialogue around the texts, or in Freire’s terms, “reading the word” and “reading the world” (Freire and Macedo, 1987).



The development of critical literacy skills enables people to interpret messages in the modern world through a critical lens and to challenge the power relations within those messages.  Teachers who facilitate the development of critical literacy encourage students to interrogate societal issues and institutions like family, poverty, education, equity, and equality in order to critique the structures that serve as norms as well as to demonstrate how these norms are not experienced by all members of society (Coffey, 2008).

Critical literacy is a way to use texts to help children better understand themselves, others, and the world around them.  Using children’s literature, teachers can help their class through difficult situations, enable individual students to transcend their own challenges, and teach students to consider all viewpoints, respect differences, and become more self-aware.

There are many activities that are already going on in our classrooms that build critical literacy.  Reading novels written from the point of view of a child from another culture or set in another country; sharing stories about families and their religious traditions or considering the lives of young people like them who lived through war, persecution or poverty; as well, when we ask our students to write from the point of view of someone else; all of these classroom experiences are ways of developing critical literacy. As Melissa Thibault (2004) reminds us, these activities all serve the same purpose: they help the student to see the world through someone else’s eyes, to learn to understand other people’s circumstances and perspectives and to empathize with them.

My next post in the series about Critical Literacy will forward many examples of how to actively weave this type of literacy approach into your classroom.

Melanie Stonebanks


References for further reading can be found here:

Coffey, H. “Critical literacy.” LEARN North Carolina, 2008. Retrieved from http://www.learnnc.org/articles/article?id=maples0601

Comber, B. (2001). Critical Literacies and Local Action: Teacher Knowledge and a “New” Research Agenda in B. Comber & A. Simpson (Eds.), Negotiating Critical Literacies in Classrooms. (pp.271-282). NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc.

Freire, P. & Macedo, D. (1987).  Literacy: Reading the Word and the World. London: Routledge.

Luke, A. (1997).  Critical approaches to literacy. In V. Edwards & D. Corson (Eds), Encyclopedia of language and education, Vol. 2: Literacy (pp. 143-151). The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Meek, M.  (1987).  How Texts Teach What Readers Learn. Gloucestershire:Thimble Press.

Thibault, M. Children’s literature promotes understanding. LEARN North Carolina, 2004. Retrieved from http://www.learnnc.org/articles/article?id=maples0601



Projet: culture à l’écoute !

Je cherchais une activité intéressante à faire avec mes élèves en français, langue seconde. J’avais en tête un projet qui développerait la compétence à produire un texte oral, qui serait significatif pour eux, qui serait authentique. Je voulais également essayer d’intégrer la technologie… un peu, étant donné la rareté des ressources technologiques à ma disposition en salle de classe (voir mon billet précédent Technologie 101). Je désirais également inclure un aspect culturel, introduire les repères culturels du contenu de formation du PFEQ du MELS (p. 178-179).


J’avais entendu parler de ce projet :

Culture à l’écoute! Des audioguides pour tout le Québec!

J’ai décidé d’en savoir plus.


J’ai donc contacté Sandra Laine, conseillère au Service national du RÉCIT, Domaine des langues qui est responsable du site Baladoweb.




Les élèves sont invités à réaliser des balados, sous forme d’audioguides, pour faire connaitre leur environnement culturel immédiat. L’épicerie du quartier, le nom d’une rue, un plan d’eau, une sculpture, une architecture, un point géodésique gravé sur un trottoir, tout s’avère digne d’intérêt.

Ils enregistrent leur production, à l’aide d’un logiciel d’enregistrement audio, d’une durée variant entre une et quatre minutes en portant attention à la diction, au niveau de langue, au rythme, etc.

Avec l’aide de l’enseignant, ils déposent leur enregistrement (MP3), qui peut contenir des images fixes (MP4, FLV, WMV, M4A), sur le site Baladoweb.

Tous les balados enregistrés seront géoréférencés, ce qui permettra de les écouter, de les visionner in situ par le biais d’une triangulation satellite (GPS) offerte sur la plupart des technologies mobiles.

En fin de parcours, il leur sera possible de produire un circuit touristique afin d’inviter les touristes à venir visiter le Québec (leur région)!



Vous trouverez toutes les informations pour mener à bien ce projet sur le site Baladoweb, dans la section Audioguides. Vous y trouverez :



Pour déposer les capsules produites par vos élèves sur le site web, vous devez vous inscrire auprès du conseiller RÉCIT de votre région.



Un clip promotionnel du projet Culture à l’écoute!
Un exemple de réinvestissement possible du projet.


Oui, je vais participer à ce projet avec mes élèves de FLS. Et vous?
Julie Paré