Friday, November 20, 2009

I now understand why people become teachers.  I get it.  I finally see the gratifying side of education.  As I mentioned before, I am teaching Class 3, which is made up of 9 children from the village.  I would estimate their age to be somewhere between 8 and 10 or 11.  It’s hard to judge kids age because so many African children are petite as it is, and the poor, malnourished ones are even smaller.  For at least for the 16 orphans at our center, we don’t have original birth certificates, so when we formally took on the children and needed documentation, we estimated an age, and they got to choose their own birthday.  Really cute, but also, pretty damn depressing that they don’t even know when they were born.  However, as my mom points out, not knowing your birthday is actually a pretty common occurrence. When immigrants come to the states and are registering for residency, they tend to choose the first of any month, and approximate the year….

But I digress…. I would say that these children are in the equivalent to the 3rd or 4th grade, with approximately a 1st or 2nd grade education.  Prior to coming to FKKCC for school this year, these children had no formal education whatsoever to speak of. They began the school year in January, and are wrapping it up now.  The parents of the 9 children in my class have already asked that their children repeat class 3, as they are so far behind their peers as far as their level of education goes. It reassures me that these children are okay with repeating the year together, and that they’re not concerned with moving up in school as much as they are concerned with actually learning the material before they advance. 

Earlier this week, there were Kenya-wide exams for all school children in English, Kiswahili (the other official language of Kenya), Science, Social Studies and CRE (Christian Religious Education – another requirement in public schools); even though FKKCC is privately run, our school took parallel exams so that we can benchmark our students against those in public schools throughout Kenya.  It would be generous to say that the village children struggled across the board.  It would be more accurate to say that they pretty much outright failed. There are a couple students who stood out from the pack, but for the most part, the children are just not at the same level as their peers (and why should they be, they only just started their proper education 10 months ago – their progress is really quite astonishing when you look at the numbers). 

Once the exams had been graded, we spent time going over each subject, correcting the mistakes.  We started with math.  At one point, our teacher stepped out of the room, so I stepped up to the board and went over a question with them. Enter: the snowball effect. The children were ecstatic that I had stepped up and taken over, and the teacher was just as happy to sit back and watch me sink or swim.  But really…math? You’d think that me, an American History major, could have landed the Social Studies or English subject, but no…math. Honestly, I don’t know how my teachers did it in elementary school. Trying to teach something new to children is literally like running into a brick wall, over and over and over.  I keep racking my brains for the clever tricks my teachers used to teach long division and double multiplication (I.e., 33X54), but keep coming up blank.  I ended up making it through the day, and assigned homework (which they received quite eagerly – I’m not sure if it was the novelty of “Auntie Hannah” assigning it, or that they don’t get it on a regular basis), which they copied into their notebooks.  There is no copier up here, nor is there any sort of stockroom of dittos, so they make due by copying into their books.  The following morning, I graded their math homework while Teacher Francis went over their other subjects.  Oh. My. God, can you say abysmal? There were two children out of the 9 that got more than 4 out of 8 questions correct, and at least 4 of them didn’t get any right.  I felt as if everything I had laboriously taught the day before had gone in one ear and out the other.  It was frustrating, to say the least.  Remember those little gold, silver, blue and red stars that our teachers used to use on charts and homework? Well I brought a batch of those over, and put a star on anyone’s paper who got at least ONE question right.  They were in awe, just like with the chocolate, that I had put a star on their notebook. I felt bad for the children who didn’t get one, but come on, I can’t positively reinforce failure!! I spent the next couple hours going over the problems from their homework and giving them new ones to do while I looked over their shoulder and monitored their progress.  I kept emphasizing that it was not the answer I was interested in seeing, rather, it was the work they did to get that answer (honestly, it’s like after you scold a child and realize you have turned into your mother without even realizing it – that’s the reaction I had when I did a double take and noticed I sounded like those teachers I used to despise so much).  This was just as much to deter the children whose eyes were wandering to their neighbors and writing only the answer, with no work, as it was to teach the children that the work was just as important as the answer.

I finished off the day and prepared questions for homework. I decided to take a different approach this time; I noticed when I was grading the homework they had copied down from the board, that half of them had some of the numbers and symbols (-, +, X, /) written incorrectly, setting themselves up to fail.  I used some printer paper and handwrote 9 dittos with 10 questions each and handed them out to the children.  Again, utter awe and gratitude. They were so excited that they didn’t have to copy down the homework, I swear it had something to do with the transformation. That, and the stars.

I had to run errands today, so was going to miss most of the school day, but I stopped in in the morning to grab their homework and grade it.  I sat down outside, certain that the only positive thing about that task was that I got to bask in the beautiful morning sun while marking 9/10 questions wrong on each ditto.  The first child got all 10 questions right, the second got 8 out of 10, and so on, until I had graded all 9 papers, none of which got lower than a 50%. I know it doesn’t sound like a big deal, but I sat there with tears in my eyes, putting multiple stars on every paper, realizing that not only did I, ME, Hannah the math dunce, impart my pearls of wisdom on these children, but they RETAINED the information, and were able to do it again without my support.  It also helped that I gave partial credit when the answer was wrong but the work was right, so that they weren’t punished for a simple addition error if the rest of the process was there.

I jumped up out of my chair, ran into the classroom, interrupted Teacher Francis, and literally, with tears threatening to spill over at any moment, congratulated the children on a job well done. I couldn’t keep the huge grin off my face as I handed back their star-studded (literally) homework and repeated over and over how proud I was.  It was probably inappropriate and uncalled for, but I don‘t care – they earned the right to see their teacher jumping around like a blithering idiot.  Since I couldn’t’ sit around with them for the day and go over work, I can only hope that when they turn in their homework on Monday (20 questions, since it’s the weekend and they have more time…their request, not mine), that there are even more correct answers. But like I said, I finally get it. I had one tiny little victory, but that little victory gives me the reassurance I need to know that, it’s works, I just have to hammer away little by little, but eventually, I’ll crack even the blankest of stares.

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