Tuesday, February 24, 2009

I Introduce to You...Mr. Burns!

I know I haven't written anything about life at the Care Center yet, but I still need some time to consolidate my thoughts. For now I have my first adventure with the Kenyan education system:

While planning out this trip, I was a little worried about having enough to do while I'm here, so Friends of Kakamega Treasurer Sukie Rice mentioned that I could always teach English in one of the local schools. It turns out that I do have a fair amount of free time on my hands, so on Monday, I went with the Care Centre pastor, Ida Nelson, to visit the nearby primary and secondary schools. We had a short meeting with the portly, jovial headmaster in which I did little more than introduce myself and explain that I wanted to volunteer, taking pains to emphasize my lack of experience or qualification and my consequent willingness to perform whatever functions might be helpful. He told me to come back in the morning once he had had a chance to think about the schedule.

I returned as the students arrived, expecting to be told to come back on Saturdays to do tutoring or something similar, and took a seat in his empty office. After an hour and a half of waiting, I began inwardly cursing the slow pace here, at which point the head master returned, shook my hand, and before I could ask if he had decided what I would be doing, he escorted me out of the office and stuck a textbook in my hand, informing that I would be teaching is eighth grade English class.

Incredulous, I stammered, "What, now?" and only had time to ask if students use first or last names with their teachers before we reached the classroom, and I became "Mr. Burns". The topic of that day's class was the order of adjectives, something I had never thought about as a native English speaker, and the rules of which were completely new to me.
I had the students complete the exercises in the book, reviewing them on the chalkboard and then playing a game of improvised madlibs when these were finished. I did my best to appear confident and personable, downplaying the usefulness of the rules (which were completely bogus) and attempting to joke with them, but was met with mostly silent stares. Nevertheless, the class was not a complete disaster and I think one reason for the lack of response was my thick, American accent.

One of the other reasons, as I later discovered, is a markedly different approach to education. In order to get a sense of how other teachers handled their classes, I attended eighth grade social studies later in the day. The topic was 'The Evolution of Early Man", and the material was pulled directly from two sparse pages in the students' textbook. Class consisted of a series of fill-in-the-blanks with the teacher starting, "Evolution is____" and a student responding "developing gradually"--a phrase that the class had clearly memorized, as all the students repeated it in stereo when prompted, "Evolution is dev...". The rest of the class followed the form, with the teacher following every echoed statement with the rhetorical, "Isn't it?", which the class affirmed in unison.

This extreme focus on rote memorization of a simplified version of the facts resulted in only the most narrow learning, leaving students to learn things like "Were there women during the evolution period" in the question and answer period afterward; and unfortunately, this was not the only disservice being done to the students by the Kenyan educational system. Sitting in the staff lounge in between classes, I examined the class schedule with with one of the teachers, and was surprised that he was supposed to be teaching during the period that was coming to a close, as well as the upcoming one. When I asked him about this, he told me that he had given the students something to read, and he had a lot of grading to do, so he wasn't attending. A number of the other teachers in the lounge had similar explanations.

Yet, despite this, the children seem to be model students. At the Care Centre, every child works on homework for two hours per night, Friday and Saturday included (I even found some working on Sunday morning before church) and the students in both classes I attended were attentive and respectful. For me, it's a unique opportunity to get to teach, as I have always wanted, and hopefully to expand the minds of children whose education is restricted to a textbook and a few square kilometers.


  1. that's so great! i bet the kids will learn so much from your different, westernized teaching style... even if they don't realize it right at this moment.

    i'm so proud of you! that's scary to be handed a book and then pushed in front of a full classroom of kids you don't know. i can't even imagine.

    miss you!

  2. ditto to Leelu's comment! Eep and well done!