Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Literacy Training in Zimbabwe

One of my job responsibilities includes traveling to various locations to train teachers in literacy strategies. My objective is to empower teachers with additional tools for their teaching strategies toolbox. I’ve traveled to urban middle schools and high schools, community colleges and universities, literacy centers and libraries, and a myriad of other sites to train teachers, paraprofessionals, and tutors. I’ve met hundreds of teachers and students, and in the process, I’ve witnessed a variety of different backgrounds and needs. Once in a while, I have experiences while training that teach me life lessons, whether it be a lesson learned about how literacy strategies unlock a struggling student’s world of learning, or feeling inspired by a teacher’s passion.

This year I had a unique training opportunity. I traveled to Zimbabwe to provide literacy training for people in various remote villages where such services had never been provided. During this experience, I learned life lessons about individual dignity and the hierarchy of needs—physical, social, and educational. We drove on long, bumpy, dusty roads without air conditioning and proper suspension, and we traveled with little water and food. We traveled through and camped in wild game parks, witnessing rare sightings of wild animals and waking up to the sounds of the competing roars of lion prides. Although the conditions were not ideal, I felt privileged to have had the opportunity to interact with teachers and students that few people will ever get to meet.

I conducted a training at a school in a village where the local community has taken on the responsibility to educate their children, many of whom are orphans and cannot afford the required school fees. In fact, some of the children live in the community that populates the nearby dump. The teachers volunteer their time to teach at the school, and they conduct small businesses on the side to pay for the children’s education. At this school, pencils and paper are scarce. Desks are not available in every classroom. The school has a “home-made” look with its corrugated iron roof, slats of wood and scraps of iron for the walls, and red dirt floors. But the teachers are happy with what they have. As I began the training, I thanked the teachers for their service at the school. The teachers were eager to learn, exemplifying a teachable and grateful attitude for teacher training and professional development—a foreign luxury at their school. The teachers caught on
quickly; they’re very intelligent. At the end of the training, I noticed the teachers were whispering to each other. Then finally, one of the teachers spoke up and said that they were hungry. They rarely have lunch as food is scarce. They asked if there was anything I could do to help them. I admit that the first thought that passed through my mind was, “I just 'fed' you some amazing strategies that will help your students become life-long learners. And now you’re asking me for food? Aren’t you grateful for what I have already provided you?” It was at this moment that I caught myself and felt ashamed as I realized at that moment that I was learning a powerful lesson regarding the important connection between the requirements of physical needs being satisfied before educational needs can be met. If a teacher or student does not have food in their stomachs or clothing on their backs, teaching and learning cannot take place effectively, if at all. While education is certainly important, first and foremost, physical needs need to be met prior to engaging them in effective teaching and learning.

I conducted another training in a small village at an elementary school for Kindergarten through sixth-grade students of the local community. One class of each grade attends the school. Class sizes are large, and trained teachers are difficult to come by. I conducted the training in a small office. I left the door open to allow a breeze to cool the hot temperature inside the uninsulated, unventilated room. Throughout the training, goats were nipping at my heels and cow bells were clanking as cattle grazed on the school grounds. The teachers participating in the training were unaffected by these distractions as they were accustomed to such things. At this school,
the headmistress serves as both an administrator and a teacher. She is one of the few trained teachers at the school, so she chooses to teach the first graders each year as she recognizes this grade to be critical in a child’s development. The school has only two school rooms reserved for the upper elementary grades—fifth and sixth grades. The other classes meet under trees on the property. The headmistress hopes to construct school rooms for all of the children someday as she says that the children are easily distracted sitting on the dirt exposed to the elements. The previous season brought strong winds, for example, which made it difficult for the students to concentrate. There are two thatched-roof structures under construction that are being used by a
couple of the classes to protect them from the heat and wind. A need has arisen to put the construction of these edifices on hold, however, until more volunteer help from the community is provided. The headmistress expressed disappointment in the community’s rejection of the invitation to assist with the building of these school rooms for their children who attend the school. I admire this headmistress’s dignity and perseverance as she runs the school and manages her own first-grade class, while tempering her desires for bettering the school as she patiently waits for the help that she petitions for.

A third school where I conducted a training was a small, one-room school with dirt floors. There were no walls to separate the classes within the room. A wooden, external frame with white tarps draped over the tops of the frames form the walls. The tarps serve as fragile protection against the elements. The teacher training took place outside the school so as not to take up any precious real estate in the school room and to avoid disrupting the students. (They were not accustomed to seeing foreigners, so being in the same room as them would likely distract.) The teachers moved chairs and desks outside and moved a large piece of thin plywood to the outside training site for me to use
as a chalkboard. I could see that the sun was in their eyes. When I asked if they’d like to move, they responded with, “We can manage.” The teachers were very teachable. They giggled when they answered questions correctly. Since this school was the last training site, I left with them several of my training materials and classroom supplies. They felt like it was a holiday; they weren’t used to getting “things”. They were so grateful for pencils, stickers, and paper—simple items that are plentiful in other parts of the world. I was reminded by these teachers to be grateful for even the small and simple things that are often taken for granted.

From these training experiences, I was reminded of the needs that exist in the world—namely, physical and educational. These needs are intertwined—the fulfillment of one need impacts the other. Effective education assumes that the physical needs are in order first. In our classrooms, the needs may be less physical. Perhaps the need is more of a social or emotional one. For example, a student may need to feel a social or emotional connection with his or her teachers or peers before effective learning can take place. Perhaps the need includes some remedial instruction to provide the framework for subsequent learning to take place. For example, I always preach the need to ensure that foundational reading skills are in place for emerging and struggling readers before we can expect them to read more complicated, connected text with fluency. Developing an awareness in—and the habit of—evaluating student needs, and then working toward filling the hierarchy of those needs, can increase the efficacy of teaching and learning.

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