by Abdul Kanu and Johanna Kuyvenhoven
One of the highlights from Revitalising Education Development in Sierra Leone (REDiSL) happens when a dozen children come to learn with us. For 45 minutes or more, they take up a cluster of desks at the front and make our learning “real”. During the session, three or four teacher participants lead children through a teaching of reading lessons. The children aren’t the only ones learning. We all are!
The children come earlier than most teacher-participants. They fill the playground and school veranda with talk, play, and laughter. When the bell rings they watch the 376 teachers-in-training make their ways into the 12 classrooms. They are left sitting in a long, longing row; waiting for 9:30. Then, they’ll eat breakfast with us and then join us in the classroom.
Teacher-participants take turns, in small groups, conducting a lesson with the children. Every session is centered around an apt story or poem. Teachers introduce the lesson with a snappy-chant and then go to prepare for comprehension with questions, a storytelling, some drawings or objects to talk about. Having gained children’s interest and established a context for thinking about the reading, the next participant steps up to work with the reading. Again, using children’s L1 or, as it is called here: children’s Mother Tongue, a participant introduces the (English) text and reads slowly, translating, explaining line by line. After reading and talking together, the next participant follows up the reading with talking, drawing; directing a dramatic replay or other comprehension activities. Finally, the lesson moves to working with words we learned in the text. We do an onset and rime or vocabulary activity with the word wall. When the children leave we discuss what we’ve learned. Inevitably, it’s a lot.
This practice has been extraordinarily educative. Participants learned about, and then practiced or watched the rhythm of a reading activity that ensures children’s interest and comprehension. The observe and learn about children’s reading activity and independent literacy practices afterward. Participants saw for themselves that children can read a new text with the teacher, instead of repeating line by line. They discovered that children, given the opportunity, have “very clever ideas”! Children are quite able to draw and try to write without copying. Given gentle, persistent guidance, children do catch on to onset and rime patterns and more.
Perhaps best of all, they have experienced the ways in which children’s own languages are critical to learning activity and comprehension. In our classrooms, the arguments were passionately for only English use. Faced with the children faces, and experiencing strong evidence of the ways genuine comprehension of a text or task crushed the argument. Participants saw reading come to new life and energy; children’s responses eager and informed. They found themselves making more extensive and authentic use of Mother Tongue to teach reading; to learn about sounds and letters, and gather up richer meanings for the words in their stories.
There is another reason for the success of the Fishbowl. The activity is consistent with oral cultural learning pedagogies. In our workshop, we have realized how Kono District participants come, rich with oral culture. Participants use speech and personal interactions in complex ways, with confidence and power.
In the classroom when we ask for volunteers to give an oral summary, a story or lead the discussion, almost the entire class clamors for the honor. Participants memorize a song or reading after hearing it twice. We find participants to be skillful listeners and orators. Classrooms ring with conversations, songs, chants, vigorous discussions and more. As we enlarge the potentials of language with print practices, we are learning to use this rich scaffolding ‘space.’
We won’t pretend this was easy to pull together. Gathering and organizing 86 lively children; coaxing teachers who don’t usually interact with children in these ways; working through the awkwardness of new methods ... these are just some of the challenges we all faced. But, gentle persistence led to the thrill of clear learning achievements.
At the conclusion, the Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MEST) office gave every child a notebook, pencil, and sharpener. An apt reward, one that recognizes a possible new beginning: Children who read and write.
Abdul Kanu and Johanna Kuyvenhoven are trainers working with CODE in Sierra Leone to deliver professional development to upgrade teachers skills through the REDiSL initiative.