I Still Go To School

on teaching, learning, travelling


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You Shall Not Pass! (on first try)

We just finished the second of three terms at school, and I handed out the report cards showing the grades. Everyone passed. But the reason is, simply put, because there is no possibility to fail.

Our school works with the homeschooling system. The student can study at his/her preferred speed. Some of my students finished two grades within one year, or two within three years. It sounded amazing to me, as it seemingly only depended on your level of motivation, when you finish your grade.

But there are some hurdles which are quite tough to pass:

Dilemma 1: Haste

Frequently, my students tell me: “Mr teacher, I cannot do this, I am too stupid.”

And I ask them, “What do you have to do, and what is the problem?”

“I don’t know what I have to do.”

“Did you read the instructions for the task?”

“No, I just want to do it. I want to do the tests and finish my grade!”

The problem is simple: the pressure is on finishing tests and grades, not on learning a language properly and doing your work well. They end up leaving out tasks which they don’t understand or feel like doing. They get angry with the teacher when he/she tells them that they cannot skip tasks: “Teacher, you are blocking me from advancing, I want to finish my book!” or “Ah, teacher, you don’t like me!”, as if working well and studying was a punishment.

Dilemma 2: Buddy system

The setting would be perfect for a buddy system, where students help each other out: older students, or those who are more advanced already, could help out those who are struggeling. I’d love to utilize that system. Problem: “buddy” too often means they hand over their books and copy-paste the results, including errors. Learning progress: zero.

Another problem: conflict. Maybe that’s just my class, but there are verbal and manual (to the face) fights nearly every day. Buddy system means communication, and communication means noise, that is unavoidable. I’d be fine with that, but sadly whenever I gave it a try – the noise happened, but the work didn’t. Furthermore, instead of helping the other person, the older buddies make fun of the younger students, resulting in a fight.

Dilemma 3: Multiple-choice tests

It’s no news that our educational system is seldomly testing knowledge, abilities or intelligence, but rather only the ability to regurgitate temporally stored information.

We study, not to learn, but to pass exams.

This contradiction reaches a new level when using multiple-choice tests. Now you don’t even have to just learn how to remember things, you can basically stop understanding them at all. In fact, you can pass tests without even having read the questions.

For grade 6-8, which I teach, there are 20 questions on the test. There are three possible answers for each question.

The lowest you could score is 35%, a clear fail. Now the real problem is that students can redo the test without the first try being counted, and being allowed to inspect the former (identic) test sheet. The theoretical score is 70%. Voilà, you passed!

Cheating slips used to be hard work to create, and enhanced the learning process of the author. With multiple choice, a slip that will get you 100% may look like this:
“11323213311123123323”.

Easy to forge, easy to hide, and no enhancement whatsoever.

Resumé:

The homeschooling system does not give freedom. It just switches positions of teacher and student.

In the classical school system, the teacher is literally and also figuratively in the front of class. He is deciding the speed of learning. If you can’t keep up, you’re left behind and fail. But not matter how fast you think you’re going, you can never really catch up with the Achillean tortoise.

Homeschooling puts the teacher behind the student – again both literally and figuratively. The student decides the speed of learning; The teacher stands behind him, looking over his shoulder and helping him solving problems. But it does not end there. The teacher also has to be like a bulldozer, pushing the student to advance.

So even though it seems that homeschooling is meant to be students doing work in their books on their own, and the teacher just passively in the background in a supportive role, it really is MUCH tougher for the teacher than being in front. He has to rely on the student’s motivation and will to study, and their maturity. Now… how much maturity and eagerness to study can you expect of an average 11-year-old? How about a 6-year-old?

 

On the bright side:

It’s mango season 🙂 There are around 4-5 different types of mangoes at the local market, with different origin, taste and colour.

I got this beauty (they say it’s a Nigerian Mango) for FCFA 150 (€ 0,23) from across the street of my home.

When a mangoes to Africa he'll go bananas for some fresh fruit. (I apologize)

When a mangoes to Africa, he’ll go bananas for some fresh fruit. (I do apologize)

Otherwise, I’m fine, and recovered well from the Malaria. The kids suspected I had Ebola and recommended I took milk with honey, because that’s what their doctors always tell them.

As I will be enjoying a week of holiday until May 4th, I have some travelling planned. This weekend I will be going to a UPF conference in Gagnoa,  northwest of Abidjan. It’s a smaller place, and I usually enjoy the peace and quiet of such places. I’ll keep you updated!

 

 

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“Here in Africa, we beat our children!”

Classroom discipline is one of the most important, daily responsibilities of a teacher. Yet there are barely any courses on how to achieve it, neither is the problem really recognized by the public. As a young teacher, you are thrown into the lions’ den, and then God help you.

This was also my feeling when I started teaching at Jina school in Abidjan. I had no real concept for keeping the class quiet and neat, or what kind of punishments apply when rules were broken. I just handed out the school rules, which included good behavior and respect towards the teachers, and thought that this should do the trick. I even went as far as most websites and books on discipline suggest:

  • have a classroom discussion about rules
  • create rules together and discuss what kind of punishment is fair and just
  • print them and put them up in class
  • apply the rules with great consistency and hold students accountable

As you might guess, that’s by FAR not all that is needed to create a classroom atmosphere where students behave and feel motivated to study and treat each other respectfully. The classroom continued to be loud and there were no 5 minutes of focussed studying. I am not even exaggerating. The punishments for misbehavior were in order of graveness (after a warning):

  1. copying the rule you broke 10-50 times into your book
  2. kneeling at your desk
  3. being sent out of class for the remainder of the lesson
  4. being reported to the headmistress
  5. being reported and your parents get a phonecall

The students know these and have seen all of them carried out. Still, no change.

Then one day, student Timmy (name changed by author) goes too far. He is on his knees already, copying the rule he has broken, and just starts insulting a student behind him until that one gets upset and they start an open fight in the middle of class. I have to interrupt my lesson, go inbetween the two students who had started strangling each other, and bring them to the headmistress’ office. Together, we decide to give the parents a call. Having had teaching experience in Austria, I thought, “Anyways, what’s the point of telling parents, they don’t really care.” I was so wrong. We got the mum of Timmy on the phone. After a few sentences of explanation, she just answers, “Ok, I’m coming.” and hangs up. 20 minutes later she is with us in the office. I explain to her what happened in class, and why we had given her a call. And she looks at me, not without anger, and said,

I know that in Europe, things are different. But here in Africa, we beat our children”

And she did. In front of the headmistress, the secretary, and myself. On the head, the back and shoulders, while talking to him angrily why he was humiliating his family. When she was done, I took my leave to continue teaching in class, with TImmy being left behind in the office. Besides the anger I felt for him disobeying and fighting in class, seeing him getting beaten in front of everyone I actually felt pity for him.

The incident made me realize a few things:

First, African kids fear their mothers more than anything else. Nothing will scare them, no extra work, kneeling, being sent out of class. But you mention their mothers, and they will budge.

Second, despite having followed and carried out the disciplinary measures, less than half the class followed them and went through a week without being punished.

Third, I want to find a way how to manage my classroom without beating kids, obviously. But is that my arrogant Western-European attitude, my inability to adapt to the culture? If I want the kids to succeed in studies, they need to be disciplined. I just have to find a way how. So I created a behavior scale with different measures. Every student starts with 100 points, and when they break a rule, I deduct 2 to 6 points. When their points reach below 80, the office will call their parents. At the start of a new trimester, the points are reset to 100. There is also a reward system, if they do really well or when they hand in extra work.

The system is working quite well, except for some kids. I wondered why, and saw that it’s connected to the punishment. If at home, they get beaten, but at school they can “get away” with easier punishment, they will take advantage of it. Some students behave like angels at home, they are calm and respectful; but once they enter school, hell breaks loose. They become bossy tyrants, and disrespectful towards any authority.

Just beat them!

Is what the behaved kids in class say.

I’m waiting for the day you will beat one of us!

Is what they say themselves.

So for now I can say that discipline is still a great issue in my classroom. I fight with it every day, and it’s making me tired. Now two students are permanently outside class, and another joined a different classroom. There is only one single teacher in the entire school, where the students are (almost) quiet and respectful. And you can guess, why…


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It’s half-time, not break-time!

March 2nd marked the completion of my 27th year of life, and 6 months of living and teaching in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, – a perfect occasion to reflect a bit and update you on what I’ve been up to.

1. I went to visit the big Universite de Cocody (which is – guess what – named after Felix Houphouet Boigny) together with my colleague and friend Armand. It’s a huge campus, with nice gardens, lots of nature and places to relax. Having studied at a site that’s somewhat tiny and has no outsides to relax, I could really envy the students passing by. But that feeling changed quickly when hearing of all the troubles students are facing here on a daily basis.

abandoned student accomodation

abandoned student accomodation

student apartments left empty

student apartments left empty

student appartments -  "Access prohibited for students" hmmm

student apartments – “Access prohibited for students” hmmm

The spacious gardens of the campus

The spacious gardens of the campus

Lecture room for economics

Lecture room for economics

University tract for middle- and highschool teachers. They earn quite well (CFA 250.000) and are needed everywhere!

University tract for middle- and highschool teachers. They earn quite well (CFA 250.000) and are needed everywhere!

So what might be the problem? Basically since the new presidency, students cannot use the university grounds for accomodation anymore. Nobody could tell me why, but anyways the new president said so. So half the campus is actually empty and it feels like a ghosttown.

2. How’s school?
It’s been seriously intense. But let me show you a bit of the work, that my students are doing. All books are to be done by the students on their own, with teachers supporting when needed. It’s the homeschooling system, and directed towards native speakers… which most of the class actually aren’t. Some don’t even have A1 proficiency, honestly speaking.

Grammar books grade 7 (age 12-13)

they are not shy to use the proper terms. Around 5% of the kids actually understand what they mean.

The authors are not shy to use the proper terms. Around 5% of the kids actually understand what they mean.

Go on, fill out the exercise! Mind the antecedent!

Go on, fill out the exercise! Mind the antecedent!

Civics, Grade 8 (age 14)

Amercia, the land of opportunity... the ONLY one, and BEST

America, the land of opportunity… “There is more ambition in America than in any other country in the world. That is because every boy and girl has a better chance in America than in any other country in the world.”

Spelling grade 8 (age 14)

I honestly haven't seen most of these words until after highschool. Plus they serve them without any kind of context or hint.

I honestly haven’t seen most of these words until after highschool. Plus they present them without any kind of context or hint.

To sum up, it’s an understatement to say the books are bad. They seem like they aren’t even made for kids! There is nothing on actual writing of coherent texts, no reading exercises connected with the new vocab, no examples. There are barely any illustrations either. The only mark counting on the final grade is a multiple choice test in the end of each unit, or in the case of spelling it is to spell all 20 words of the unit correctly. Many pass the grammar test with 100%, but have not a clue what an action verb is.

So much for the academic side of the school. I will be writing more about student behavior and local teaching culture in my next post.

3. How’s Africa? Are you African yet?
So I’ve been here half a year. I can truly say it’s been a very good decision to come here, and that both professionally as a teacher as well as personally I have learned a lot and now see things from a different angle as well.

Some examples…

  • Colonialism has ended in the 60s, but the phantom continues within people’s mentality. Whites are seen as superior. Even among blacks there is racism against those with a darker skin.
  • There is such a great diversity between the countries and tribes in Africa. By now I can differentiate between some of the tribes, like the Malenke and Baoulé. Abidjan is so different from Accra, and probably other cities have a different feeling as well.
  • Everything is about relationships and being social. Strangers call each other “older brother/sister”, “mama”, “friend”.
  • Kids imitate their peers and elder, in the good and bad ways. In a way a classroom is a miniature of society, reflecting cultures and norms, but without the adult ability of adequacy. They speak out freely what their parents think and do at home. If they get beaten at home, they often beat their schoolmates in class. This is how they think respect works, by physical superiority.
  • Teaching takes your entire self. If you are distracted by other things in your personal life, or overwhelmed by how different things are, or distracted by the heat –  you will fail miserably.
  • Teaching is a FULL TIME JOB, even in my free time, everything focusses on how to improve my teaching and on preparing lessons, revising my policies for classroom behavior, classroom English, and so on. I sometimes don’t even feel I am living in Africa, but I am living at school. I leave the house every day at 6am and come back at 6pm.

I will be staying in Abidjan until the beginning of July, so there’s still much to learn and to see. I will keep you updated 🙂


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And I’m back to school!

I’m sorry I couldn’t post on Friday, as the internet broke down when I started working on the blog after the last lesson on Friday. Also, adding pictures only works sporadically, so I hope this time it will be ok.

So, I have completed my first week of teaching in Africa! African kids are naturally good students, they don’t complain, but work very hard and disciplined and have a strong thirst for knowledge. I’m kidding of course. Kids be kids.

First, let me say a bit about the school. “Jin-a school” is an American Satellite school founded in 1992 in Abidjan. They provide a home-schooling curriculum. Home-schooling means that theoretically the kids could use the material at home and, given the circumstances of the country, the parents or teacher takes care of them there and supports their progress. When the parents, for one reason or the other, cannot make time to take care of their kid, they can send it to a school. Here, the teachers, complementing the parents’ efforts, group the kids into grades, according to their experience and fulfilled workload. So for the kid it means that they have to work on their own. Each subject has a book, wherein each chapter concludes with an exam. We, as teachers, mark the exams and send the results to the US, where they get graded. We support them in the process of knowledge and language acquisition and, of course, take care of their personal needs of love, affection, and discipline.

rules
First lesson, after introduction, we talked about rules. They receive school-rules, but you have to create your own ones as well, how you want your classroom to run. And keep on reminding the kids about the rules all the time, especially at the beginning. I’ve been told they get used to it after a while, I certainly hope so!

grades 6-8
I am taking care of grades 6-8 (the kids are 10-15), all in one classroom. Hereis a picture of my first class with their name-signs and their favourite item. They are very lively and talkative, and come from all sorts of backgrounds. One is from China, few others from surrounding countries. Furthermore, there are many kids who moved here from the US with their parents. The school provides American-Christian curriculum, but the enrollment is inter-religious and inter-confessional. Actually, within the first week, three new students arrived in my class, who are not on the picture. The classroom is packed!
I am the main English teacher for grades 6-8, meaning I teach: Grammar, Spelling, Bible (it was a surprise to me as well), History, Geography, Civics, English Language and Literature. Additionally I do 1on1 tutoring for two students whose English is too weak to follow the regular books. It is a mystery to me, why the parents choose to put their kids into an English-speaking school, when the kids can’t even understand the most simple commands and conversations. So we went back to the Alphabet and spelling the parts of the body, colours, and numbers.

books
School books! They are printed out and glued together here in Abidjan. I will write more about the books and schooling a different time.
On the weekend I participated in a beautiful wedding at the Golf Hotel, the place President Oatarra was based at as the recent civil war had been taken into Abidjan.

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How I get around…

Welcome back!
So I’ve had a good time so far, studied French like a maniac, just to reach the level of “Le cheval court”. Anyways, I am making progress, but to follow the local accent is a bit much still 😉
After four days I was finally able to find my own way home by public transport. It was scary at first, but I managed well (*pats himself on the back*). So in the morning I am usually brought to school by mama, Madame Aka, of the homestay family. From next week on that won’t work though, as I have to leave early and traffic is wacky in this town.

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at rush hours, there is barely any moving forward

So first I have to take the woro-woro. That’s a taxi-car, but they circle on fixed routes. You will constantly hear the honking, and the drivers put out their hands indicating how many passengers they can take. Before you enter, you ask if it goes to your desired destination and you suggest a price. At peak times, the woro-woros are packed. Their colour varies depending on the district.

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sry, crappy picture, but the yellow car is a woro-woro

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Bakás at the station

Same goes for the Bakás, mini-busses, which also frequent on fixed routes, and hold up to 18 passengers. What surprised me here, in contrast to Ghana, they are really strict with the seats. In Ghana there was no such thing as “Sorry, we are full”, but capacity depends on demand. Each of the Bakás has an “Apprentice”, usually a young boy who is there to fill up the Baká and sort out the money. They do the kissing sound with their lips to get your attention, and, as on a market, loudly advertise their destination. Most of the times they are just hanging by the sliding door of the Baká, and acrobatically jumping in and out to get customers. Cars passing them by at high speed, missing their heads by centimetres sometimes…

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the “apprentice” leaning out of the driving van

Supposedly they split the money with the driver in the end of the day, but often they don’t receive their share. They live from the hand to the mouth. And as a whiteyboy, you will get ripped off at times, unless you keep staring at them, telling with your eyes “I know the real price, mon frére!”

Today we almost got crashed by a Baká driver who had lost control over the vehicle. Our car got away with a few scratches, some pedestrians just saved themselves by leaping into the bushes. That happened at the Carrefour “la vie”, which is called this way because so many people died there already. Mon Dieu…

And then of course there are the taxis, which I was adviced not to use, as they are overpriced.

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orange taxis at “apré barrage”

My total costs for travelling each day are round 1000 CFA Francs (it’s a Currency-Union in Westafrica). That is 1.50 €. The income of some friends I’ve met here is between 50.000 and 100.000 per month, which means already almost a third of their money will go into transport to their job.

There are also bigger Busses round, but I haven’t discovered their routes yet.

Meanwhile, preparations for the beginning of the year are going well, parents are coming in and out all the time. My Maths colleague Oatta and I have been preparing this library/IT-room. There is still a problem with water leaking into the place, we hope it can get fixed soon. This room will also be used for 1on1 tutoring.

Library and IT-room

Library and IT-room

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Oatta et moi

So, school starts on Monday! Am I prepared enough? noooo… but am I ready? YES! I’ll keep you posted. And if you have any questions, just post them wherever or message me!
Have a good weekend!