Kirundo, Burundi, July 30

a typical classroom -- generally 3 students sit at each desk

a typical classroom — generally 3 students sit at each desk

We’ve organized our workshops into sets of four or five sessions per workshop. There are four main workshops, and the participants will rotate through all four by the end of the three-week process. In addition, we’re offering free choice workshops for an hour before lunch on smaller topics. Today was session three and four of my workshop, and let’s just say: it’s been challenging.

Our mandate is to improve teaching of speaking skills in English language classrooms in Kirundo province. The question is: how do you improve the speaking skills of the students if the teachers’ speaking skills are so poor? I expected a strong accent, but some of them can’t put together a simple sentence correctly! Some of them have only completed one year of teacher training after secondary school, so I suppose it’s not surprising.

Fifty-six teachers from about 22 schools are here to take part. Fourteen of those teach at the four schools that have electricity – which, by the way, doesn’t mean they’re entirely electrified; it means they have one block of classrooms or one administrative block with electricity. Those four schools now have computer rooms with 6 to 8 computers each – some old ones were there already, but mostly broken-down, and we’ve brought more donated computers that are more up-to-date. A small team from Edukans came here three weeks before us to train two teachers per school to maintain the computers. Now that we’re here, the teachers from those four schools are also receiving an introduction to the computer so they can use the ones at their schools.

The problem these teachers all have is that their classes range from 60 to 100 students and they generally don’t do any speaking practice at all because of that. Instead, it’s very traditional teaching: the teacher reads the text from their textbook out loud. A student or two read it out loud as well. The teacher writes questions on the board which the students write answers to in their notebooks. Then they go over the answers. Etcetera. So here we are, a group of Dutch teachers, who never have classes bigger than about 30, telling them how to teach!

But we’re doing it anyway. The idea is to give them other sorts of activities they can do with their kids to get them talking, like debates and small group work. In such a big classroom, small group work seems to me a very useful strategy.

While we’re finding it a challenge to contribute useful strategies, they’re finding it a challenge to get their heads around our very different methods. We keep, for example, asking them to make suggestions about how to deal with particular issues. What we get is total silence. They sit there, clearly thinking, but they’re terribly reluctant to raise a hand and contribute an idea. They want us to write everything on the board, and they dutifully copy it down. While they’re copying, we can’t say anything, so there are long periods of silence. They also apologize every time they want to ask a question, like it’s a problem to ask a question.

In my workshop, there are eleven teachers, all men. I’m endeavoring to show them the advantages of using rubrics to assess students’ speaking skills. The idea is that while the kids are working in groups, the teacher has a quick and easy way to assess as many of them as possible at one time. I think they were quite uncomfortable with the idea that they wouldn’t have to assess them all; they could wait until the next time that they do a similar exercise and assess the rest.

My biggest problem, though, is my English, which they have great trouble understanding. They understand the Dutch much better, probably because they speak slower and use simpler vocabulary. I’m trying my best to talk as slowly as I can, but they still seem to have trouble. It’s sometimes hard to see whether they don’t understand the English, or don’t understand the concept I’m talking about.

In any case, this morning’s session was particularly interesting for me: they debated the topic of whether paying a dowry should be forbidden. Here the tradition is for the parents of the groom to pay a dowry to the parents of the bride. I was surprised that the majority of the men in the workshop support paying a dowry, even though it’s their parents who lose from it. It’s obviously a hot topic with them, with very polarized views.

in one of my workshops, teachers practicing assessing

in one of my workshops, teachers practicing assessing

These men are also very fastidious. When we entered the classroom the first time on Wednesday morning, I went right in and settled into what passes for the teacher’s desk. They, on the other hand, tore pages out of the notebooks we’d given them and used them to carefully dust off their seats, the tables in front of them, and the backs of the tables behind them in case they leaned against them. I also noticed this morning that their shoes were all polished to a shine. No flip-flops or tee-shirts here: they’re all wearing button-up shirts tucked into neat trousers (not jeans), socks and closed shoes, either black or brown and well-polished.

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