Learning on the other side of the globeby kenya on Jun. 22, 2011, under Life
June 22, 2011
Dispatch from Kenya
By Elizabeth Berndt
Miramonte High School, Orinda, Calif.
When I came to Kenya I had no idea what to expect, especially when it came to teaching and the public school system. Unlike the St. Gregory and Atlanta Girls’ School group, I arrived a little more than a week ago and have had to quickly settle in.
One thing that I noticed very quickly is the sense of time. Time in Kenya is treated differently than time in the United States. In the U.S., everything is on a schedule, appointments must be kept, people work for a designated period of time and relax for a designated period of time. People are relatively punctual, and Americans tend to become impatient quickly when someone is late. More often than not, people are on time and try to get what is assigned completed in a timely manner.
In Kenya that isn’t always the case. People seem to show up when they show up and things end when they are finished. The time table at school is very flexible and sometimes classes are left completely unsupervised, a very foreign concept to me. This could be for a few reasons that have to do with the school system. Each class is assigned a teacher, and often there is only one teacher for that particular class. If a teacher is not in school due to illness or something else, there is no substitute to fill in. There are no free blocks or study halls where a teacher who is not teaching can step in. All the other teachers are taking care of their own classes.
Something else I have learned is that the schools here are squeezed by the budget and there are simply no funds to have more teachers than what is absolutely necessary for any one school to function. Another surprise for me was that when there is a class without a teacher, students stay in their class, are relatively quiet and work on their own. At home, if this were the case, I can’t imagine what would happen!
There are also more breaks in the day than at home. There are two classes in the morning then a 15-minute break. Then two more classes of 35 minutes followed by a 30-minute break. Then two more classes before the lunch break of one hour and twenty minutes. The day ends at 3 p.m. after two more classes. The morning breaks, during which time the teachers gather in the staff room for a cup of chai, can sometimes go over into class time, meaning less time for teaching. In talking with my fellow Americans I have found that each school is a bit different in how promptly the teachers get to class. At some, they are always on time, usually due to a strict head teacher. At others, not only is the head teacher late to class but the others, as well.
Another component to the school system here is that the teachers teach strictly to the test, so the kids will be able to pass their annual exams and move onto secondary school (high school). The tests, given in the middle and at end of each term, allow the teachers to measure how their students are doing. For me, someone who has never taught a formal class before, teaching to the test has made things easier. There are set lesson plans and questions that can be assigned. All I have to do is make sure the kids are doing their work and help them if the instructions are confusing. One thing Mr. Roberts has encouraged us to do is to introduce the material in a creative and fun way that will make the learning experience more enjoyable, both for the students and the teacher. I can play with the lesson plan but I don’t have to begin from scratch, which I have found comforting.
The other thing that surprised me is that the only teaching resources available are the lesson books (a student copy and teacher copy), a black board and whatever I can bring to make the learning process more meaningful. Compared to what we have at home, this is a real challenge. At my school, Miramonte High School in Orinda, Calif., a teacher has a multitude of resources available to help students understand a lesson. There is the Internet, SMART Boards, whiteboards, projectors, DVDs, and often a teacher who has earned a master’s degree or Ph.D in the subject he or she is teaching. I now realize that I have benefited greatly from this multi-perspective approach to teaching, compared to simply teaching to the test. In my five short days of teaching, I am doing my best to create the same experience here, but with much less at my disposal. I am truly impressed that the kids here are so enthusiastic to learn, but the schools simply do not have the resources and enough teachers to diversify their learning experience.
Today I worked with the Standard 7 (seventh grade) on writing a formal letter. Instead of following the book and giving a lecture about headings, introductions and the point of the letter, I brought card stock and asked the students to write six sentences in English to a person they wanted to thank for a gift they had recently received. It was a simple assignment and when the students were done they shared their work with the class. I think they really enjoyed it, and I was thrilled that it went over so well.
I hope to continue to diversify their learning experience in my few remaining days. I have found that that is what my peers and I can bring to these children; allowing them more freedom with how they learn and how they express themselves. Hopefully in a small way we are making a difference, and the students will realize that even with the constraints in the school system, there are more ways to learn than from a book or lecture.