29 June 2010

Preliminary Thoughts On Teaching

I’ve said in my previous post that I’ve experience soo much already as a Peace Corps trainee that now, all of my posts are just exercises in recall. Just be patient and bear with me, I will eventually get caught up with everything in due time.

So we’ve finally started practicing what it is we came here to do as PCVs…Teach. We had our first micro-teach here in Bo this past Thursday at Milton Comprehensive School. The students weren’t actually supposed to attend class that particular day but the principal of the school had the students come under false pretenses. If she hadn’t have done so, none of the students would’ve showed up! We each taught our respective subjects for two 40-minute sessions to a class of students at the lower Junior Secondary school levels. It was a little soon to begin teaching in front of foreign faces for most of us, especially considering there are some PCTs here who have never thought a class before. Before our micro-teach we did about two peer teaching practice sessions, one 15-minute session on one day and a 35-40 minute session the next. The overall purpose of those practice sessions, presumably, was to help prepare us for our micro-teach. For my 15 minute peer teach, I taught about the structure of a bean seed, and for my 40-minute peer teach, I lectured my colleagues on a somewhat advanced ecology subject, species/species interactions and how they alter fitness through evolutionary changes. Both of my lectures were good (although I ran out of time), unfortunately I had to drastically lower the difficulty level of my lecture and completely change my method of delivery, lest my Sierra Leonean pupils students fail to comprehend any aspect of the lecture (An all too common reality given the nature of teaching styles and the levels of comprehension in this country).  I taught two classes with three PCTs total in each class (Hannah and Michael were in my first class, and Bryan and Chris were in my second). Here are some quick thoughts on how both teaching sessions went for me:

Class 1: I went after Hannah, but later felt guilty because it started pouring rain and the tin roofs made it almost impossible to hear anything, let alone a lecture. Hannah has a soft voice, so she basically had to stop speaking during the rain. I could have gone first and probably should have, because I can talk loud if need be. All in all my first class went remarkably well. I spoke SLOWLY and LOUDLY, something that is very important to do for students who have a hard time understanding our American accents. I also spoke with a Sierra Leonean English accent, which helped TREMENDOUSLY. I spoke using local colloquialisms and body gestures (West Africans speak in a manner that seems like loud, belligerent shouting to westerns and gesticulate wildly as well) and made references to local foods, plants and animals. All of the examples and terms I introduced were reinforced with class exercises which I believe helped my students understand arcane ecological topics like commensalism, competition, mutualism, fitness and the like.

Class 2: The only difference between this class and the first was the actual size. There were a lot more kids in my second class, and it was difficult to keep my students focused on the lesson. However to be frank, that scenario more closely approximates the reality we are likely to face once we are placed in our work-sites where the class sizes can be as high as 100 students with 60 students considered the low end! So we’ve been told. Fortunately all of the methods I used above worked for this particular class as well, and I left Amadiaye feeling pretty confident in my teaching abilities.

I think an observation that all of the PCTs had was how far below the students are in the comprehension of material they are supposed to know. We are all going to have to lower our standards as teachers; otherwise in trying to do too much we risk accomplishing nothing. I was surprised just how exhausted I was after teaching those two classes! I remember telling Michael later that day at the PCT training site just how hard I felt it would be for me to teach with that energy level day in and day out, all year long, through all the frustrations I will experience as a PCV teacher. I guess I just have a work at finding a teaching style I’m comfortable enough with to be able to implement on a consistent basis.

We start our summer school pretty soon, next week I believe. It is going to be pretty intense, but necessary for us to practice our own unique teaching methods in front of a class of eager students. I think on the whole, the students that will be attending this summer school are the over-achievers, so in that sense, it may or may not be realistic, but it is close. The summer school is one of three teaching practice ums we will be utilizing as PCTs: peer teach, micro-teach, and summer school.  I think it’s the opinion of a majority of the PCTs here that summer school is going to be the most useful in gauging our progress as teachers in the Sierra Leonean system, although peer teach is very useful because we get critiques from our training staff and fellow PCTs on areas of improvement.

On an unrelated note, Richard and Catherine Frazier arrived in Bo yesterday, along with one other RPCV and a few other teachers. They were PCVs back in the day (70s or 80s?) They were a great resource for me in the months preceding my departure for Sierra Leone and I’m glad that they are here. Unfortunately they are here for only a few days I believe before moving to New Dehli. India to teach at one of the American Embassy School there (Not sure if there is more than one in Dubai). They are going to be running a teacher training workshop for us PCTs to participate in and it is going to be great for us to hear from RPCVs who know what it is like to teach in Sierra Leone, especially since not much has changed. I’m also glad because Richard brought with him a Mende Natural History book he mentioned to me sometime ago. If I get my sight preference, which is to be placed near a protected wildlife or forest area, chances are I will be in a Mende speaking region. Richard and Catherine both were visibly excited to see us sitting there, especially Catherine (OH MY GOODNESS). They have been working hard for a long time, in conjunction with friends of Sierra Leone, advocating for the Peace Corps to return to this country. I believe one thing they can help us PCTs with is how to teach effectively using innovative methods despite the limited teaching materials.

The lack of resources is a palpable fear among a lot of the PCTs, me included, so I’ve been practicing incorporating local resources in my practice teaching lessons. I’m really glad I brought my 10+ lbs general biology textbook with me, although you can never have enough materials to mine from. Our training staff has been reiterating the persistent problem of the lack of resources during our cultural sensitization sessions (things work very differently here in Sierra Leone than they do In the U.S. as you have probably guessed…more on that another time). In fact, Richard mentioned to us on Friday how during past teacher training workshops, host-country national teachers have complained over and over again about the lack of resources. But I think, and I’m not alone in believing this, that the belief in a lack of resources comes with the assumption that all the knowledge you will ever need to learn can only come from two sources: 1) the text-book and 2) the all-knowing teacher who cannot be questioned under any circumstances. To me its pretty clear, especially with teaching subjects in biology and environmental sciences, limiting myself to these two methods would not be my best interest as a teacher and would not be in the best interest of my students. There is a wealth of resources here in this country to use for teaching the sciences. One just has to think outside the box. As a science teacher at the Secondary school level, I’m going to have a Sierra Leonean curriculum to abide by, but how I go about teaching the material is my decision. I definitely plan on being a dynamic interactive lecturer; the rigid, British based system of the unassailable lecturer and rote-memorization is simply not going to work in my classroom.


Letters from Sierra Leone said...

Good stuff, I. Glad the Fraziers showed up... I've been keeping track of their progress since I handle their project money.

You, and everybody else, will find your way with your teaching. When you find yourself catering to the lowest common denominator, remember there are some students in the class who are ready and willing to do more.

david said...

Thanks for the update! It is very exciting to follow your progress. Keep up the great work!