As I surveyed my overweight luggage before snapping the locks shut, I congratulated myself for my eleventh-hour stroke of forethought and subsequent Amazon purchase of a Coleman solar shower. I was leaving for an extended visit to the Kimuka Primary School in the Rift Valley of Kenya at the request of the Village Chief. We met through a mutual friend and he was eager for me to share my many years of experience as a literacy specialist with his Kindergarten, first, second and third-grade teachers.
When we began our work together in their small rural school, the teachers explained their frustration – their young students were not learning to read. The challenges they detailed typified the experiences of teachers in schools all over the developing world where it is estimated a staggering 300 million children sit in classrooms every day, many unable to read a sentence by the end of third grade. With no chance for advancement, most of these children, living in poverty, will spend their lives in the margins – untapped treasures.
The preparation for this visit began one year earlier when I worked with teachers in a variety of Ethiopian schools. As an educator and a board member of a small non-profit working in Hosanna (6 hours south of Addis Ababa), there were many opportunities for me to learn about the challenges these early-grade teachers were facing. The daunting list frequently included the teachers’ limited exposure to books in their early and sometimes higher education; a 2-year-teacher-preparatory program dominated by theory and absent practices for teaching reading and writing explicitly; minimal skills in English, the language required for academic advancement beyond 5th grade; classrooms lacking in basic materials and amenities; insufficient and inadequate reading materials for their students; large or very large classes made up of children who often did not speak the teacher’s language (Ethiopia has 82 languages); poverty-level wages and low status.
Those visits to government and private schools in rural and city districts (woredas) were explorations
– brief stays during which I hoped to learn whether this American educator would be welcomed by the teachers. Would my well-honed teaching instincts, together with our common purpose, result in small but worthwhile contributions to the potential literacy learning of the students? If so, which practices would teachers warm to and value using in their classrooms? Would my approach as a practitioner who grounds her work, with children and teachers, in the explicit teaching of thinking and self-direction, bring a fresh perspective to the notion of basic literacy in low-resource schools; could I demonstrate that higher-order thinking can be embedded in classrooms where rote learning is the norm.
It’s hard to say who was more elated and edified because of the time we had to work together but I do know the lessons learned were invaluable for informing the work I developed going forward. This was just the beginning of my learning curve. Here are some of the practices that will be elaborated on in the coming posts:
- Small-scale in-service projects provide valuable information about teachers’ different learning needs: Working with the teachers one-to-one and day-to-day enabled me to see what I could easily have missed if I was a contractor working on a grand scale. I had a front-row seat to the teachers’ processing of such things as the questions that arise, the clarification that was needed, the feedback that was helpful and the energy and motivation the teachers derived from the students’ snapping fingers as they strained to be called on.
- An informal exchange between guest teachers and school staff, at the beginning of a project, was invaluable for removing barriers to communication: The official kick-off to the work we would be doing was arranged by the head teacher. In the presence of the guests and officials, the teachers were virtually mute. However, the informal gathering of the teachers and my team around the traditional coffee service gave us the opportunity to hear about the teachers’ challenges and perceptions.
- Think about what paradigms are being disrupted. Be prepared to demonstrate why the change is going to bring joy/success to teachers and students: Teach those concepts explicitly using concrete materials. Fundamental new concepts of teaching can easily be lost in translation. One example is the concept of teaching reading explicitly. As always with concept formation, we want to move from the concrete to the abstract. Using context-appropriate realia is an attention-getting way to give teachers the opportunity to connect the known with the new. I used a cooking pot and ingredients for a traditional chicken stew(DoroWat). The message – when we teach reading it is like making DoroWat. There are six important parts that we combine just like you combine these ingredients, to make a rich, balanced stew; all the ingredients are important.
- Reading picture books aloud and thinking aloud engages young students and brings them into a discussion at the level being modeled: Whereas I thought it was reasonable to expect teachers to be resistant to change, as most of us are, what I found instead was their agreement that making meaning is critical to their students’ growth. When the teachers set the stage for reading aloud and shared their thinking, the children were eager to share their thoughts too. The teachers' predictions about what will happen next, for example, prompted the children to offer their predictions.
- Modeling new teaching practices instead of front-loading them with theory and instructions, is highly effective: Anticipating the steep learning curve I was asking teachers to step onto, I had trepidation about stressing them out but that was not the case. Most often, teachers, even an assistant Kindergarten teacher with an eighth-grade education, when provided with demonstrations of new teaching practices, were quick-studies, inventive and eager to try the new methods. Because the time we had carved out was limited, I opted for on-the-spot classroom demonstrations related to what the teacher was teaching at the time I was in her classroom. The teachers adapted and replicated what they observed with very little mediation. (e.g., leading a morning message, using think-pair-share, finding context clues for word identification, visualizing text and doing formative assessments of understanding).
- Co-teaching provides an excellent opportunity to recast rote lessons and demonstrate how to teach for meaning: When a guest teacher is welcomed by the classroom teacher and given a place at the front of the room to share in the work at hand, there is an excellent opportunity to mesh methods. As for example taking a call and repeat lesson on words that start with the /m/ sound and adding a simple picture to represent each word on the board. The lesson was further extended by asking students to match the words with pictures in random order. Students for the first time had to use the letter sounds from left to right to read the words so that they could connect them to their picture.
- One-to-one coaching: While coaching a teacher to build a reflective practice has become commonplace in American schools, providing that type of close and personalized dialogue for marginalized teachers in low-resource schools, is crucial. The coaching sessions I had with the Ethiopian teachers were held the same day they taught their new lesson. Going forward, I recommend job-embedded coaches so that coaching does not devolve into a monthly check off list of objectives by a visitor. You can read more about the Ethiopia visits on my website.
Moving on to Kenya
One year after returning from the Ethiopia visits and developing the teacher education model and resource binder for in-service teachers, I turned my attention to identifying the ideal location for conducting a pilot project. There were several candidates. I was part of a small consortium of non-profits working in Africa. The founders were more than happy to provide in-service education for the teachers in the communities they served. The Maasai Chief, however, appeared to offer the potential for being the person on the ground who would keep the project on track, maintain communication with me (he was internet savvy) for the long-distance phase of our work and most important, he was a teacher himself, who was very motivated to improve the education prospects of his people, not the least of whom were his two young sons.
Stay tuned for reading aloud and thinking aloud with the teachers of Kimuka Village.