Geography in full colour

August 21, 2010

I have come to know and really like the junior geography teacher at Himarwa.  His name is Lasco Sachuma.  He has been teaching for only a few years but it was obvious to me that he had a real desire for his learners to succeed and for his already successful teaching practice to progress.  He had risen against all odds as a child – having never met his father and losing his mother in grade 10.  He was then in charge of his two younger siblings with the help of an uncle.  They squeaked out a very difficult and  basic living but all worked VERY hard, and each succeeded in their grade 12 years.  Lasco went on to become a teacher; the next sibling won a scholarship to Cuba, and the youngest is off next year on a full scholarship to Russia.

I asked him what the next unit was that he’d be teaching in his grade 10 class.  Grade 10 is a very important year, because the national exams must be passed in order to continue to grade 11.  He was about to launch into the Regional Geography of Namibia, which included physiographic regions, mountains, rivers, vegetation, tourism and resources.  When I looked at the text book the learners had, I was so disappointed – the STUNNINGLY beautiful country had been reduced to small black and white photos.  It’s no wonder this is the most poorly done unit on the exam.  I suggested we try a different approach – use powerpoint to bring the maps and places to life, and get the learners outside using their hands.  Lasco quietly agreed to this, with his understated enthusiasm.  And things just took off from there.

I started working on the powerpoint – created a base map from google earth, and mapped out the physiographic regions.  Fortunatel,y our family adventures had taken us clear across the country and back so I had lots of good images to pull representative samples from.  I then worked up interactive pages to cover the mountains and rivers.  Namibia has only a few perennial rivers – the rest are ephemeral.  While I was in Rundu for a few days fixing computers, I arrived back to find a fabulous 3-D Namibia outside Lasco’s classroom.  As per our earlier discussions, he had assigned his learners to collect clay from the valley and use the plentiful sand around to model the mountains, rivers and physiographic regions.  The map was about 5m x 4m in size.  All mountains and been labelled with sticks and paper.  It was phenomenal.  What I most appreciated was that he hadn’t waited around for me to help – he just dove in with his learners.  He gave them a surprise quiz the next day and was thrilled with the results.

At about the same time we started creating base maps of Namibia on his classroom walls.  I was the map/projector consultant, Lasco was the content consultant, and Kaia and Jake were the chief painters.  Many other learners would come to watch, then join in.  But they were blown away when they realized how much Kaia and Jake knew about Namibian Geography.  These two clearly had been paying close attention on all our journeys!  The point of the maps was to allow the learners to test their knowledge by pasting laminated labels on to the correct positions (regions, tourism/cities, vegetation, resources and physiographic regions with mountains and rivers).

One day as we worked on this, the regional-level geography advisory teacher happened upon our school and became quite excited about what we were doing.  And that gave birth to a region-wide geography workshop that I was to lead with Lasco’s help.  With only 2 weeks lead time, I clearly had my work cut out in terms of completing the powerpoint.  I would not want to guess how many hours were spent on the approximately 200 slides – full of photos, text and animations.  The tourism section took the longest – it highlighted 28 sites the learners had to know – their significance, location, and appearance.  While at a friend’s in Rundu, I put the very final touches to the presentation at about 3:00 AM the night before the workshop (those who know me will be SO surprised to hear it ended up getting completed like this 🙂 )  The workshop was at a high school in Rundu, and 18 geography teachers from all surrounding areas showed up.  Thankfully for me I’d asked my good friend and computer consultant Alex (a Peace Corps volunteer) to check out the lab to make sure computers would run my programs – he had worked all afternoon and had arrived early in the morning to complete the set-up – literally moments before I wanted to start. Thanks Alex!

We started the workshop by having fun with a geo map quiz game that I showed them.  It’s called “Seterra” and is a free download – check on google – its great fun!  It was clear that most of these teachers had not really had time on computer or reason to explore world, European or even wider African geography before.  I then introduced them to my favourite learning resource here – it’s called Learnthings Africa – and has hundreds of excellent and comprehensive lesson plans in math, physics, chemistry, biology, English and geography.  But it’s best feature is its fantastic colour animations for things like volcanoes, earthquakes, magnetic fields, glaciers etc etc.  So I demoed this and became an instant hero – they were thrilled.  They had never had anything more than a piece of chalk or a black and white text book, and now a possibility for colourful animated explanations.  That of course led to a discussion about computer availability, but many of them as it turns out had this program in their lab but just didn’t know about it.  But that said, some of them worked in the bush with no computers in the school.  Sadly they will have to wait until technology and electricity catches up to them.  I had prepared a sheet that mapped their units in the syllabus to specific sections in Learnthings, because that resource was developed for the UK syllabus (OK, then why is it called Learnthings Africa???).  Lasco then took them through the work he’d done with his 3D modelled Namibia and his wall maps.  They were keen.  And then I “unveiled” my powerpoint resource that met with much enthusiasm – they LOVED looking at pictures of their country, and quickly were calling out that their learners now had no reason to fail that unit, which as you can imagine, made me feel much better about my many late nights preparing it.  I finished the workshop demoing the many geography documentaries that I either brought with me or received from a past volunteer.  Many had never seen a geo documentary so were enthralled to see real life earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis.  I left the library of videos at the Teachers Resource Center in Rundu, and put all the powerpoint, Seterra game and Learnthings on CD to distribute to them.  All of this has transpired in the past 5 weeks, and has been one of the most rewarding activities I’ve done here.  Kaia was especially helpful throughout the powerpoint creation, because she knew the material inside and out and would often correct my content or spelling.  My presentation is now making its way through schools in the Caprivi Strip thanks to another VSO, and will now be given to all new VSOs as they enter the country.  And I can’t go into our computer lab at Himarwa without finding at least one learner working through the slides.  I assumed that only the grade 10 learners would be interested but have found grades 8 to 12 enjoying it.  Upon reflection though, this is understandable – these learners have NEVER seen their country!  For most of them, the big trip is to Rundu 2 hrs away.  Only one of my learners in grades 11 and 12 had ever been to Etosha National Park.

I never felt like I was doing “work” as I created that powerpoint – because it allowed me to reflect on all aspects of Namibian geography – which has completely captured my imagination through the year.  About 90% of the photos were our own – the rest I shamelessly stole from the internet – not much of an example to set for these teachers – but I think they are a few years away from seriously considering intellectual property issues!

The geo map mural initiatve spawned some other similar projects.  The four of us finally finished a Namibian Map mural in our house that had been sketched in pencil by previous volunteers.  Kaia, Jake & Yvonne helped grade 6 social studies teacher Mr Shenyangana create large unlabelled maps of Africa and Namibia to quiz his learners.  They did a similar map and a labelled human body mural for their teacher Mr Handiba.  And I got my grade 11s to create a large periodic table in our classroom.  They said they would create another one in the other science classroom.  Whether they do or not will likely provide a good idea of how “sustainable” our efforts have been.

English workshop? More like a “play”-shop!

July 25, 2010

The idea had been brewing for quite some time:  Get primary teachers together and talk about ways to teach English as a second language…  From what I have seen in Kaia and Jake’s class, and other primary schools in the area, and judging by the level of English proficiency of the children who come to our door (as well as that of the grade 8 learners at the secondary school); there is a problem.  Or shall I say; a very big challenge!

Timing was good;

  • we have a new circuit inspector (superintendent) who is keen to address challenges,
  • there was a fund specifically earmarked for professional development that needed to be spent by August, and
  • I was at a point where I really felt I had something to offer in terms of ideas for ESL, since I had been applying them in classrooms for several months. 

So I submitted a proposal for a workshop at the end of June, and, as policy dictates, got 3 quotes from caterers to provide food for the participants.  This is a huge expense, partly because the closest registered caterers are located in Rundu, 180km away!  However, the women I spoke to were eager to get their quotes in since these government contracts are very lucrative and it would be well worth the drive.  A week goes by and I start advertising the workshop to any primary teachers I meet.  Another week goes by and I learn that yes, the submission was approved.  I start handing out flyers and post an invitation at the circuit office for all principals to see. The secretary puts an announcement on the radio inviting all grade 3, 4, and 5 teachers to this 2-day workshop.  Another week goes by and I still don’t know who was chosen as the caterer, so I start trying to track down some information, only to discover that the quotations had been sent down to Windhoek, and no selection had been made!!  Apparently, they always choose the lowest bid, so I don’t know how that can take so long (or why it needs to be done 1000km away!)  Luckily, our new inspector is into creative problem-solving, but by the time I was having this conversation with him, it was 2 days before the workshop was to begin.  Cam was in Rundu (on a marathon computer-maintenance mission), so I figured he could bring back some food and we’d figure it out from there.  The inspector said he’d look into reimbursement.  Unfortunately, the cell phone network was out of order for about 6 hours the following day, so I couldn’t contact Cam until the afternoon!  (Landline phones have been out for several weeks, now, after being knocked down by a truck!)  For the first time, I was really feeling that Mpungu was remote, isolated, and cut off from the rest of the world.  In the end, food was bought, a local woman was hired (she owns some large pots and a variety of plates and utensils), and we were definitely going ahead with the workshop!

Several participants arrived on Wednesday evening and I had arranged for them to stay at the Himarwa Iithete hostel.  An extra obstacle was that a recently-changed door handle on one of the girls’ dormitory blocks was locked and could not be opened.  Effectively, the girls were locked in, and the female teachers who had come for the workshop were locked out!  But luckily, Cam had bought a new drill and drill-bits on our last trip to Rundu, so I was able to offer that.  The door handle was removed, and the teachers could go in (one had come with her 7-month-old baby and a baby-sitter to look after him during the day).

Cam arrived home at 10:30pm with a truckload of fixed computers and many bags of food.

Twenty-one teachers came to the workshop on Thursday morning.  Some were first-year teachers from little bush schools with no electricity, and others were acting principals.  Some have 17 learners in their class; others, 48.  Day one was focused on using the “gesture approach” and stories/drama to teach a second language.  It’s a program that I have used in Canada to teach French, and have adapted and tested it intensively in 2 classrooms here.  After introductions, I started speaking to the group in French, asking questions and acting irritated when they couldn’t respond.  I wanted them to experience how their students feel when faced with English — a language they don’t understand!  I then started speaking French with gestures, and immediately the group responded, saying “Bonjour” and “Ca va bien.” 

That morning, I also introduced the idea of setting up literacy centers in the classroom, and the teachers cycled through 12 different ones (4 minutes each – they were speed centers this time!)  A highlight for me was the presentation by Kaia and Jake’s classmates who did their play of “The 3 Little Pigs”.  I was so proud of those kids!  They spoke their lines clearly and with confidence.  One girl even switched roles at the last minute from a 1st little pig to a 3rd little pig because someone else was absent!  If that doesn’t show comprehension of the story, I don’t know what does.

We played games – bingo, Simon says, the chair game (one of my personal favourites – an adaptation of musical chairs in which nobody gets “out”, but if you are left without a chair, you have to say the next sentence in English), and another one that I call the “ladder game” (see photo of teachers lined up London-Bridge style).  We also did some ‘crafts’ – making mini-books out of a single piece of paper.  One of the big challenges here is lack of reading materials, so my suggestion was to make some simple books that kids can illustrate and then read over and over.

I found that Namibian teachers are very similar to Namibian learners (shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, I guess):  they are quiet and well-behaved, but they don’t ask questions or offer ideas.  It was virtually impossible to get a discussion going.  Lunch and dinner were simple, but good, and after dinner, Cam invited them all up to the computer lab where he screened “Over Canada”, a film that shows highlights of Canadian geography and historical monuments shot from a helicopter.  The next morning when I asked how everyone had slept, one man said, “We dreamed of Canada all night.” 

On Friday, we reviewed the songs I had taught the previous day, played a couple more language-based games, and then headed over to the computer lab where I naïvely thought we’d make a bunch of teaching aids to be printed out and used in the classroom.  I asked if this was anyone’s very first time on the computer, and was a bit surprised when I saw 7 hands go up.  Was I ever glad to have my computer assistants: Kaia, Jake, Cam, and our friend, Fanuel!  It is quite a privilege and a thrill to be the one to show someone how to use a computer for the first time (especially someone who lives in a grass hut with no electricity or running water and who walks 20km each month to pick up his pay cheque).  We spent about 2.5 hours in the lab (don’t worry – I gave them a tea break!) and I was impressed with their progress.  Everyone managed to print something out by the end, and several wrote on their feedback forms that they need and would like more computer training.  I really wanted to get the feedback sheets in, so I had announced that as soon as I received it, they would get a ticket for a lottery in which I’d be giving away many of my books and teaching materials.  It worked!  I got all the feedback sheets and everyone walked away with something new for their classroom.  I was actually very surprised at the order in which things were chosen.  I thought for sure that the books were the best prizes and that they’d be snatched up right away.  So, I was reminded once again that my assumptions are usually wrong – the first people to have their names drawn came to the prize table and chose things like rubber stamps, stickers, and puzzle books!  The easy readers were left to the end.  There really is not a culture of reading here.  But story-telling works.  That’s why I think this gesture approach using stories and drama can be successful in Kavango classes. 

It was a rewarding 2 days for me, and my only regret is that I won’t be around to support these teachers if they choose to implement some of the new ideas.  I’ll get out to a few schools over the next 3 weeks, but that’s it – we are beginning our “race to the finish”.  Yes, I do believe we will be racing until our departure!

Team teaching

March 29, 2010

Kaia, Jake, their teacher Mr Handiba, my mom, and I worked as a team today in the grade 4 English class.  Over the weekend, we had prepared 5 literacy activities to be done by small groups.  Jake lead the “flashcard centre” and helped his classmates read some new and familiar words.  Mom had collected multiple copies of animal pictures from the South African Airways in-flight magazine.  We wrote simple sentences on them, which she read and discussed with the learners.  Kaia lead the reading centre where each group read and gestured the words in some simple readers (thanks to Shona and Tanya who sent them from Canada!)  I had the sentence construction centre where each student built sentences from words we have learned over the past month (written on cut-up cereal boxes).  We had a few laughs when they came up with sentences like “The pencil is on the tree,” and I could see some real learning when they realized the difference between “like” and “live”.  I hadn’t predicted that confusion.  In written form, the two words look so similar, but thanks to the gesture approach, the difference can easily be demonstrated.  Then there was an “independent work” station where the learners kept themselves totally engaged drawing pictures and writing.  I was impressed to notice afterwards that two girls had used new words that they had picked up either at Kaia’s or Jake’s centre!  And Mr Handiba supervised the centre where they had to match sentences with illustrations.  We had six groups with 5 or 6 learners in each, and they got to 4 of the 6 centres.  We will continue on Wednesday morning.  I was really pleased with the way it went – of course it was crucial at this stage to have English-speaking leaders at each centre (Kaia and Jake did great!)  Mr Handiba commented that in the small groups, the kids who are usually too shy to speak up were really participating.  Tomorrow, we’ll be ‘taking the show on the road’ as we will be visiting the grade 3/4 class at Tuguva!

REALLY off the beaten track

March 28, 2010

Since arriving last September we’ve been talking about and looking forward to visiting some of local schools that were until now just dots far away from roads on our map.  This past Wednesday we used Betty’s short visit as a catalyst to finally make the trip.  The teachers at Tuguva had been telling us about one of their main feeder schools that kept sending them learners who spoke barely a word of English.  So we began by driving the 45km to Tuguva Combined School where we picked up a learner “Ntjamba” who had himself had attended Kandumbu Senior Primary School which was to be our 1st stop.  We took him along as a guide, and realized later that that was an excellent decision.  He found the tiny road (wide path) that left the gravel road near Tuguva – we never would have found this.  A couple of 90° turns later we were heading east on this sand path through the bush that for most of the way was overgrown with branches.  20km later we began seeing some fields of mahungu, then eventually 2 farmers, and finally at 25km after many junctions in the path, Kaundumbu School.  He and the other Kandumbu alumni walked this trip in and out to home every 4th weekend or so. We felt awkward arriving without notice – we did not know any way to inform them ahead of time.

The building itself is fairly new and in good shape.  Grades 1 to 3 are in one class room.  12 learners from grade 5 are in another large classroom, and the (only) 6 grade 7s are in the other large and virtually empty room.  Grade 4 and 6 have about 15 students each and are housed in the African equivalent of a “portable” – stick walls with thatch roof.  Desks and chairs are in the sand, and these 2 huts had very wonky/curvy blackboards.  The school has 3 teachers.  The grade 1 to 3 teacher  began teaching in Kandumbu 13 years ago when the “school” was nothing more than a gathering of pupils and teacher around a big tree.  His classroom seemed well organized and engaged.  A second teacher made his way between the other 4 classrooms as he taught his 3 subjects.  The 3rd teacher (the principal) had left for Rundu the week earlier (read “walked 25km out of the bush and hitched a ride 220km”) to try to find a part to fix the community’s one broken bore hole (well).  Since several weeks earlier, the entire community and school and teachers who lived there had to walk 7km to the next community and haul water back – on their heads, shoulders and cattle-drawn sledges.  The principal being away, and the setup of 4 grades in 4 separate structures meant that learners had a teacher for ¼ of the day, and were otherwise left to pretend to be busy studying.   We asked the teacher why he hadn’t put grade 4 with 5 and 6 with 7 in the nice school, and he answered that the ministry of Ed.  said this was not allowed.  We confirmed later this was not the case.  I also asked him when the school had last been visited by the inspector (superintendent) and he thought for a while and estimated 2008.

We lament every day how inappropriate much of the national curriculum is for the rural kids.  Evidence of this surfaced in one grade 6’s notebook where she was memorizing the sequence of instructions on how to use a pay phone.  A PAY PHONE!!  For a kid who had almost certainly never seen one and would likely never have the money or occasion to use one.

This school was REALLY out in the stix, with no water, electricity, teaching aids, or support.  Or soccer ball, for that matter. When they’d gone to the regional office looking for help, they were told they were too far away, so had to solve their own problems.  Wow.  We noted some of their more immediate needs and left the two teachers with 2 new solar calculators that Betty had brought over.  The teacher of older grades commented that whenever they got to the part of curriculum that involved calculators, he had to skip over it.  Yvonne did a quick lesson “teaching with her two hands” (see previous blog entry) and the kids helped her teach “head and shoulders knees and toes to the little kids”.  I had begun the day with the legs zipped off my long pants so I could be comfortable in the heat.  I decided just before arriving at Kandumbu that I should zip them back on again in case the teachers there were dressed up.  That was a good decision, because 25km in the bush, both teachers had dress pants, perfectly shined dress shoes, one with tie, and one with a suit jacket !!

 I noted that the one teacher had a cell phone, but I couldn’t imagine that there was coverage at this school.  But he told me that if you stand in this one EXACT spot between the two classrooms, you could get “one bar” of network strength on a good day – just enough to send an SMS.  I was so pleased for them when I heard this.  Their only other way of communicating was to leave the village at 7:00 AM and walk through the bush to Mpungu – arriving at 3:00 PM !!  They made this trip once a month – to pick up their pay cheque – otherwise stayed in their little village.

Their school day was just ending so we asked the teachers to recommend a learner to guide us to the next village 7km away.  We also packed 9 younger learners in for a ride home – they normally walked the 7km back and forth, with the return trip in the height of the high 30 degree heat.  The “road” in this stretch was very poor, with branches scratching the sides of car the whole way.  We finally came to a clearing with some logs  – and were told this was the church (see photo below), and next clearing had “Tare Junior Primary School” (grades 1&2).  This school was depressing and disturbing (see photo) – the stick structure was full of strewn paper, and the only place to sit down were a few logs on the ground (photo).   Unless the teacher was teaching outside under the tree, there was no serious learning happening here.  We couldn’t ask because the school day had already ended. The learners did not get out of the car, and our guide motioned for us to continue, so we assumed he would tell us when we reached their homesteads.  We drove and drove, with the path getting smaller and smaller, and actually disappearing at times. We were so puzzled why all these learners lived so far past the little school.  After about another 5km or so, we reached a fence and gate.  This seemed to surprise our guide, and I had to ask him to open it.  It donned on me that he had never been to this gate before, so I got out, stopped him in his tracks and asked “Where are we going?”.  He thought for a while, looked at the ground, then responded “I don’t know sir”. !!  We apparently had driven past his farm (and the farms of the 9 kids in the back) and they were either too polite and submissive to say anything, or more likely, did not know how to say “stop!” in English.  I had my GPS tracking our journey, and when later looked at the GPS map realized that we were heading to nowhere, and were only 1km from crossing into Angola!  Jake came up with a good idea – he said “Kupiko Kembo” (where is your house in Rukwangali) to the kids and they all pointed back the way we’d come.  So we backtracked and this time the kids told us where they wanted out, and pointed to a road that would take us to our next village.  I asked them if there any turns or only one path, and they seemed to agree that there was only “one path” so after some deliberation we decided to plunge onwards. 

20km of slightly improved track later the thick bush gave away to some fields and a little clearing where we found “Usivi Junior Primary School” – also a stick hut with grades 1-2.  Our vehicle was noticed and we were approached by a man who really wanted us to meet the teacher.  We met teacher Felix at his home compound who turned out to be a lovely man who seemed to really enjoy teaching and had a well organized “classroom” with a lesson on the blackboard (see photo).  His son attended Mpungu Primary with Kaia and Jake so we recorded a video greeting from him and his wife for their son.  He was really thrilled to receive one of the solar calculators, but lamented that he was not able to walk the 14km to Mpungu on Thursday afternoons to attend my computer class that he’d heard about (from the teacher at the next school 7km away from Mpungu who DOES walk to/from my class each week!).  I noted they had bountiful quantities of cassava leaves growing in the homestead, so we asked to purchase and were given a huge armload.  Cassava leaves are the staple “green” in Sierra Leone where I spent a year in 1994, so I was thrilled to have a the chance to make some Sierra Leone food – which I did last night – yum!

We pressed on 7km to Runda JP School (where Yvonne and kids visited several weeks ago), then another 7km back to Mpungu, just in time for our “club” activity afternoon at 4:00 PM (my Boys’ Club and Yvonne & kids Games Club).  That was 76km of driving these tiny sand road/paths.  It was an exhilarating day, for so many reasons, and we were left in awe of these teachers and learners who persevere in these conditions.  We hope to visit again with more support (teaching aids, soccer balls, calculators …) and vowed to speak to/confront the inspector to get him to pay more attention to these schools.

In case you are wondering what happened to our 1st guide Ntjamba … we offered to take him with us from Kandumbu out to the main road.  But he said he’d prefer to spend the afternoon visiting his family and assured us he would walk the 25km back to Tuguva for classes the next morning.  Turns out I had to return to Tuguva the following day for a circuit-wide teachers’ meeting, and a teacher there confirmed that he was indeed at class 7:00AM the next morning!

The Ripple Effect of Teacher Training

March 18, 2010

[Yvonne’s mom Betty is now safely on Namibian soil – arrived tired but happy late this morning 900km from us in Windhoek. She will travel overnight by bus to arrive in Rundu 4:00 AM Saturday morning where we will pick her up and travel east to Ngepi Camp and Mahango Game Park – we were there earlier in October (see Kaia turned 9 today and her favorite place in Namibia is Ngepi Camp, so she is trilled to celebrate her birthday there.  Betty will be with us until after Easter weekend.  This is her 1st trip to Africa.  I believe you can look forward to some blog entries from her!]

You might recall in an earlier blog entry that I spent the better part of a weekend in February working with physical science teacher Ms Homateni to clean out the science cupboard.  The physics, chemistry and biology lab equipment had not been used for years, and the cupboard was in a state of disarray, including an inundation of wasps nests.  To follow-up on this project I convened last week a full day workshop for all secondary science teachers in our “circuit” (3 schools with secondary level). The purpose was for all teachers to see what equipment we have, to learn how to conduct the labs, and identify essential equipment we were missing.  I also invited the subject advisory teachers (known in my home school board as “subject consultants”) who work out of the regional education office in Rundu.  One of these advisory teachers is a fellow VSO volunteer – Nico, a biology teacher from Holland has been here with his wife for 3.5 years and heads back home this coming weekend.

Nico and the physics/chemistry advisory teacher Mr Muyeghu drove 1.5 hrs to Simanya Combined school to get their 4 teachers, then another 30 minutes  to Tuguva to observe the Biology teacher in a lesson, then added the 3 Tuguva teachers to the back of the pickup and drove the 30 minutes to Mpungu to join me and our 4 science teachers.  We jumped into our program as soon as they arrived – they were genuinely looking forward to the day.  Nico led his group through a number of experiments that I could not see – they seemed very engaged and busy.  I started our group out on the “ripple tank” (OK, so now the title of the blog is more clear?) which we’d discovered unopened at the bottom of a shelf weeks ago.  It took us a while to collectively sort out the parts and optimize the lighting etc to see the waves that are made in a thin layer of water.  But once we got it fine tuned  we were all very pleased by the results if could produce.  The device is used to demonstrate different types of waves, and wave phenomena (reflection, refraction, diffraction, interference).  Incidentally I had my grade 12 class in the computer lab this past Sunday to demo the tank.  The room can be made dark, and I hooked my camera up to the computer projector so that all could see what was happening at the tank.  It is so rewarding when students get excited about these sorts of things.  Turns out, we are the only school in our huge region that has such a tank!

We teachers then moved to the optics kit and sorted out how to quantitatively demonstrate reflection and refraction and played with breaking white light apart with a  prism.  That led us to lunch which itself is a story.  If you are hosting teachers for a workshop you can apply to the regional ed. Office to have it catered.  This means filling out the application and sending to Rundu, where it will be reviewed, then put out to tender.  At least 3 bids must come in and they choose the cheapest one.  This all sounds reasonable, until you consider where we are from Rundu.  I had quite an eye opening discussion with our inspector several weeks back when I tried to arrange to have things catered.  Turns out, they don’t bother posting the contract in Mpungu.  Because nobody from here has been certified to bid.  I asked him if he’d tried to get some women to Rundu for the course/paperwork, and he had not.  So … if I asked for catering, someone would drive 2 hrs from Rundu to put lunch on our table, and 2 hrs home again (actually, this happens regularly – we know because the circuit office is directly across the street from our house).  I couldn’t bring myself to accept this – for the cost, for the carbon, and because it is wealthy individuals in Rundu who get the contracts.  So upon aggressive pressing on my part, the Inspector revealed that another fund exists for this purpose that could be used to pay somebody local to make lunch.  But the fund was dry b/c it was the start of the year, and the chair of the committee was on leave, and he didn’t have the phone # for the other principal who was acting chair and … and … and … I made a spaghetti lunch for everyone (15) for about Cdn $15.  It would have likely cost about Cdn$250 if it had been catered out of Rundu.  And they LOVED my lunch.  For some, it was the highlight of the day. I’m not sure that’s a good thing though …

After lunch saw us looking at our thermal physics equipment, our electrical circuit equipment, our magnetism kit (remember shaking metal filings onto paper that was atop magnets?) and some other stuff.    We had a very animated discussion/debate about light refraction in water.   They told me that local spear fishermen know to aim below where they see the fish in the water, though they very likely had no science explanation for their strategy.   I then took them to our computer lab to show them the brilliant educational material that came installed on our server in October.  Simulations, full lessons, diagrams, quizzes – fantastic stuff that my learners love to use.  The other schools have it on their servers too but had not really delved into it yet.

We agreed to a sign-out procedure for the other schools to access out lab equipment, and this process is nicely facilitated for this year anyway because Yvonne and I and kids visit both these other schools each week.

The day was an unqualified success – and when I waved goodbye to the full pickup truck I felt like I had just had my most rewarding day so far in Namibia.  This is what VSO is supposed to be all about, in my mind.  The VSO motto is “Sharing Skills, Changing Lives”.  We certainly shared skills.  Not sure we changed any lives that much … but you never know with the ripple effect.

The lunch fiasco left me committed to get our local women (subsistence farmers) some business from these lucrative contracts.  The circuit secretary filled me in on the details and I am now putting a plan together to get some women to Rundu to get certified, and hopefully a little start up money.  These women would not have the money to pay for their groceries in advance, so could not bid on a contract.  But they should win every contract because they don’t have to travel from Rundu.   I’m hoping a little micro finance will get them going.  I’ll report back on that later.

Teaching English with my own 2 hands

March 14, 2010

We are here in Namibia as math teachers and teacher trainers, and have ended up putting a lot of our efforts into computer training.  But, we’ve come to realize (actually, it’s a well-known fact, but it has taken us a while to understand the scope of it) that the real challenge is English.  Twenty years ago this month, Namibia gained its independence from South Africa, and adopted English as its official language, officially rejecting the languages of oppression.  Until then, most education (beyond primary) had been in Afrikaans or German.  It takes a long time to develop a workforce of English-speaking teachers, though.  And even longer to get to a point where learners can be expected to perform like native-speakers.  The system is having some growing pains here.    

English instruction in much of the Kavango Region appears to be quite pitiful.  From what I can tell, learners come from families where no one speaks English, start attending school at age 6 or 7, are taught in Rukwangali for the first 3 years (with some token English instruction and songs thrown in), and then arrive in grade 4 where the “medium of instruction” is English!  Suddenly, every subject except Rukwangali is (supposed to be) taught in English!  Just like that!  Kaia and Jake’s teacher has admitted to me that he generally feels like he is talking to a bunch of trees because no one (except K&J) understands a word he is saying!  However, the Ministry of Education guidelines state that all subjects must be taught in English, and most people here are nothing if not diligent about following guidelines!  Any material teachers may have is in English (using language that is WAY too difficult for the students).  Kaia and Jake have come home from school with long paragraphs copied from the blackboard about various topics including historical buildings in Namibia, the transportation infrastructure of the country, and how agriculture contributes to the economy.  You can’t accuse the teacher of not ‘covering’ the syllabus!  The other 34 kids in the class are copying down what would appear to be gibberish to them, and are supposedly going home and “studying” it!!  On test days, the questions are written on the board, often followed by the correct answers.  The students dutifully copy them down and then get some nice red check marks and “10/10”s in their exercise books!  I know K & J’s classmates — they are kids who, after months of coaching from us on the words “May I please have a game,” are still coming to our door, standing there wide-eyed, and blurting out “I am game!”  I don’t think they have much understanding of “transportation infrastructure”! 

Anyway, after witnessing this for some time, my inner second-language teacher needed to come out!  Actually, the clincher was when I walked into a class of grade 8 learners at Himarwa during the first week of school, and approached a group of girls to ask for some help carrying text books.  Namibian learners are always willing to help with tasks like that, but I was met with blank stares.  They didn’t understand a simple request for help.  And yet, they had all made it to high school, completely unprepared to be studying math, science, history, geography, entrepreneurship, computer science etc. in English.  No wonder they don’t perform well on national exams!  They don’t understand the questions.  English problems persist year after year, because after repeating a grade once, learners are automatically transferred to the next grade where they continue to be bombarded with piles of incomprehensible information.

I was dying to adapt the ‘gesture approach’ that I’ve been using to teach French at home, to teaching English here.  It is based on really sound ideas like: “keep it simple” and “lots of repetition”.  In fact, it is based on how 2-year-olds learn their first language.  Words are introduced in the context of phrases that actually allow for communication, and each word is associated with a gesture.  It’s sort of a mixture of sign language and baby talk (well, not quite).  Kaia and Jake’s teacher, Mr. Handiba, gave me the green light to come in and teach this type of BASIC English as much as I can/want.  I now have them scheduled in 3x per week.  Mr Handiba stays and observes.  After 2 weeks, I can definitely say that there has been some progress, but it is slow!  When asked “What do you like to do?” most learners can at least tell me something (I like to draw; play soccer, sing…) but even after 3 lessons on “where is the book?” (under the chair, behind the door, beside the cupboard, on Ms Yvonne’s head…) there are many who would be hard-pressed to come up with a response like:  “the book is on the table”.  We will keep working at it!  

I’ve had the chance to demonstrate this style of teaching to teachers/classes at two other schools:  Tuguva Combined and Runda Junior Primary.  Kaia and Jake and I went to visit this little school in the bush last Tuesday.  Luckily, our friend Fanuel came along as guide and interpreter because we never would have found it on our own!  It was many km down bush roads that didn’t seem like roads at all.  Until last week, there was only one teacher at the school, with about 60 learners from grades 1 to 4, but now there are two. 

One of the goals of my English lessons is to have the learners put on a little performance of the 3 little pigs.  How does “the 3 little wart-hogs and the big bad hyena” sound?

A Week in the Life …

February 15, 2010

It has been quite a while since last update. We’ve really ramped up our work here and have found very little time to write or process photos. With the new school year well underway we now have a well-established schedule and a clear idea of what we’re trying to accomplish. Best to way to explain what we’re doing here is to share a typical week with you. We’ll fill you in on our non teaching lives and our kids’ activities in coming entries. But rest assured we’re all doing very very well.  We do miss watching the Olympics, that can be quite a distraction too.  Speaking of (good) distractions, Yvonne’s mom Betty has confirmed that she will be visiting for 2.5 weeks starting March 20th – we’re anxiously awaiting our chance to show her our village life as well as the game parks.  Yvonne’s dad Flemming would love to join her but fears his irregular heart may not be terribly happy with the stress of our heat here, especially with good hospital care not in abundant supply.

Our Week
Monday has Yvonne at 6:30 AM staff meeting, and me getting kids out the door for their one full day of school (they do part days Tues/Thurs/Fri and travel with us Wednesday). She teaches grade 12 math, then teaches/trains grade 11 math with Ms Jeorge. Ms Jeorge has really dug in this year it seems and is quite conscientious about improving her approach and results. This did not seem the case last year – we were told that she made some very serious New Years (but religiously-inspired) resolutions. She is taking her computer training very seriously and is now using the computer projector in class and typing all her lesson plans up on computer. After 1st break I teach double blocks of grade 11 then grade 12 physics/chemistry with Ms Homateni. Ms Homateni was doing the younger grades’ physics before, but showed great promise and interest so we convinced her to become trained for the senior grades where expertise has been lacking. I have done most teaching so far but she is in class every day and we discuss our plans/approaches. The aim is to work through the entire curriculum (between gr 11 & 12) by the time I leave in August – so she can carry on herself. I teach a double block of IT (computer) at 3:00 to grade 11. And am back in computer lab at 7:00 PM for IT training with the slightly more advanced of two groups of our teachers. They are VERY keen to develop their computer skills, and were quite thrilled to uncover the potential of MS Excel last week. We’ve also been working on word processing, practice typing, and several educational resources that are available on our server. They know how to set up and use the projector in class now, and many have already done this to our delight. The projector was bought by our predecessors John & Dinah and has proved invaluable for IT training and classroom learning.
Tuesday morning has both Yvonne and me with our grade 11/12 math and physics classes before packing up to head out to the other 2 schools we support. Last week we drove the 45km to Tuguva Combined School (gr1-10) in time to do our 1st IT session with their 10 teachers & principal. Two had never sat in front of a computer – it is remarkable to watch them a) have no idea what to do with the mouse and b) delight at changing the colour or size of the text  Their lab is made from 10 recycled computers that I am supporting (and presently removing viruses from). That session went very well, and we wandered down to the flooding Kavango River afterwards. Yvonne made dinner on our camp stove under a huge tree beside the school, and we slept in the tent. Or at least tried – there is much new highway building happening in the area and a very large rock crushing facility operates 24 hrs/day about 1km away – very noisy! We were ready for classes by 7:00 Wednesday morning, with Yvonne focussing on English instruction with grades 4-7 and upper grade math, and me troubleshooting tech problems in the lab and lesson planning with geography and physical science teachers. I also taught the grade 7 IT class which was quite an experience. Imagine 30 students, 7 working computers, and for most, the 1st time they’d touched a computer. The ones not typing were grouped 3-deep behind the typer, peering over shoulders at every move. Who got to type? The ones who had paid their Cdn$2 lab access fee! (not my creation!) It was great fun, and I was training their volunteer 20yr old IT teacher. I had to step in quickly when he started shouting at them for being so slow to do what I was asking. He didn’t seem to realize that being yelled at during your 1st go at a very intimidating computer does not actually speed up learning. He did quickly change his approach though. I will make a point of teaching this class each week, so he knows what to do with the other classes. This non-teacher 20 yrs old volunteer is also expected to teach all other grades, including 25 grade ones on his own!! Who have NEVER seen a computer. I said “but the classroom teacher is there, right?” He said “no, because that teacher is not allowed into lab because he hasn’t paid the staff lab access fee” !!!! This grade 1 teacher was one in our session the day before who’d never set hands on a computer. I hope now he’s more inclined to pay up (they CAN afford this). Kaia and Jake are my lab assistants during this class, and are great at showing their older peers what to do – it is slow going trying to show 1st time users how to select text! And I think the learners are thrilled to work with little blond white kids.
After lunch we drive the 35km to Simanya Combined School where I 1st work with their lab “go to” person Kosmos in resolving issues in lab operation/setup, and installing/configuring new programs. He is a delightful bright young guy who learns quickly and gladly soaks up anything I push his way. Then at 2:00PM we have 10 of their teachers and principal in for 2 hours of training. They too are VERY keen and are moving quite quickly. Three of them had also never set hands on computer, while a couple are pretty quick studies, so it really takes the two of us to keep track of everyone’s needs. We’re very thirsty (long pants, 35degrees …) and tired by 5:30 when we’re packed up, so head the 15km to small town of Nkurenkuru where we gas up, buy some food basics, and get two small bags of really yummy French fries to hold us over for the 45km drive back to Mpungu. Depending upon how recently it has rained, our route to/from these schools is either a pleasant drive through the bush on decent gravel roads, or a crazy 4×4 adventure through mud ponds.

Thursday morning we’re back at Himarwa with our teaching and teacher training. Thursday PM I work with Mpungu Primary School teachers at the Teacher Resource Center which, like everything else we do in Mpungu, is not more than 100m from our house. I installed the 10-computer network about 3 weeks ago, though the computers had been sitting locked up there since last April – awaiting a security door and National approval to have them installed. Like the rest of our teachers, the primary teachers are thrilled to have computers close by and someone to train them. The Circuit Superintendent (called “Inspector” here) has also joined this class, which provides me with a chance to develop rapport with him in advance of the work we would like to be doing with him to strengthen school management. I also get to work with Kaia and Jake’s two teachers which provides an opportunity to discuss how things are going in their classroom. While I teach this session, Yvonne is doing a concurrent IT session at our school with the grade 12s. She also does IT class with both grade 10 classes during the week. Thursday evening I do another 2 hr IT training for the less experienced Himarwa teachers. These teachers are SOOOO busy meeting the demands of teaching here, but happily give up 2 hrs in the evening for this training. Probably doesn’t hurt that our school computer lab is the only air conditioned room within 50km or more, I suspect.
Friday Yvonne does the 6:30 AM staff meeting and is done teaching by 11:30. I start later and am done by 1:00 PM for the week.
There is a huge push (at least in writing/talking) to improve results in our region, and our principal I think was mandated to force weekend classes. These are a bit hit and miss though, as he is seldom around on weekends himself. Yvonne ran her class in the computer lab today. This weekend I spent 7 hours from Friday to Sunday working with Ms Jeorge and Ms Homateni (and some learners) to clear out the science lab storage room, clean it and all the equipment, reorganize things, put them back and label everything. It was a huge task but very rewarding. The last time this was done I’m told was 2005, and since then wasp nests had accumulated EVERYWHERE, and dust, grime prevailed. I guess it was so bad that all but Ms Homateni stopped using the equipment, so for past 4 years virtually no practical (experiment) had taken place in physics, chemistry and biology, and this work accounted for 30% of their all-important end of grade12 exam. It was a disorganized mess. And sadly, about 1/3 of what was in the lab was brand new and unopened. Nobody knew it was there and with much of it, didn’t know what it was used for. I will be getting the science teachers from our 3 schools together for 1 or 2 days to run though the experiments (along with advisory teachers from the regional office), and to get a system in place for the other 2 schools to borrow from our apparently decently-equipped lab. “Decently equipped” is a relative term – our entire lab equipment fits into a large closet, and represents about 1/10th of what my school back in Canada has.
Tomorrow, Yvonne is taking 8 learners to the next closest senior secondary school (65km east) to compete with their learners in a math competition. This contest was established last year by a VSO teacher there (Hannah) and Dinah, and this year is a follow up. Our learners have been anticipating this for weeks. There are no field trips here, so a school trip for a contest is a very big deal.
So, that’s a week in our life. Not sure if we’ll camp out at our schools every Tuesday night (it was a lot of work to get food, camping/cooking equip, clothes, computers/books ready), but hopefully every 2nd week. Otherwise it means driving 2 days and burning more gas/money.
You can see that computer training has become a central part of our role here. It is a recent government decision to really push computer literacy at schools, so these nice labs are part of that move. And in most cases, the schools that previously had computers had very old ones that were not capable of too much more than games, and most teachers did not make use of them for themselves or their learners. Our 1st objective is to develop basic proficiency in word processing and spreadsheeting, then to show teachers how to use computers to strengthen their teaching. Although there is no internet in these labs, we have several quite good locally-installed encyclopaedias so research projects are now possible. And we’re working on some internet possibilities.

I think we’ve found our stride here in northern Namibia. We feel very appreciated by teachers and learners, and also feel that we have much to offer outside of the classroom. We’ll fill you in more on that later. Thanks for indulging a long, photo-sparse entry!-