Now that I have finished my 5 weeks of volunteering, boy did it go fast, and have left Zambia, I will share many of the thoughts I had over those weeks about what I was doing and the state of education in Zambia.

I mentioned before that the school where I was assigned was Nekacheya (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Nekacheya-School/240718149402486).

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As I was working on there I kept thinking about how my mom always said that if she hadn’t been a nurse she would have been an English teacher, so I guess in a way it may have been my destiny to take on this type of a role.

I am pretty sure that I had some hesitations when I first found out that I was assigned to a private school, but it turns out that even though the kids going there come from families who can afford the tuition of I believe 900 kwacha per year (currently the exchange rate is about 10 kwacha per US dollar), it doesn’t mean that the school has the resources that come to mind when we think of private schools in first world countries.

You can see this the moment you step through the gates and see that the school, like many others in Zambia, is being run out of a converted house (and the houses there are not large) with extra rooms built along the fence out of particle board.

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And you continue to see it as you step into the classrooms where 3 students share a very small desk and there are close to 30 kids in each class. Here is one big difference between Nechachaya and the public schools, in the public schools there can be 80 in a classroom.

You also notice it as you try to write something on the chalkboard, as it is covered in so many layers of old chalk that it takes great skill to write dark enough for the students to see what you are writing while not breaking a price of chalk with every other word you write.

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And you need to use the board, since there do not seem to be enough books for the kids nor is there an easy way to create materials to hand out to the kids as worksheets. I got creative with this during my time there, having them work in groups so that I could make one copy of 3 worksheets and have them copy them into their books as the first step do doing the work.

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I also made multiple copies by hand on more than one occasion, but did resort to walking into town to get copies made for a few exercises that were just too hard to write out by hand. The staff at the volunteer house was able to print one copy for me to make this work.

In addition, I did a lot of searching the internet to find ideas of activities that could be done without handouts. The favorite of these was adjective bingo, where they each made a 5×5 grid in their workbooks and out either a noun or an adjective in each square (always using either all nouns or all adjectives). Then I would call out the other type of word, and hey would look for places where the word worked with something in the grid, and when they cot 5 across or 5 down they could shout out bingo and read their matches out to the rest of the class.

Another thing that worked well was noun, verb and adjective jeopardy (I didn’t make them answer in question form, but the questions got harder as the point value increased). It was interested to see the two classes use different strategies. The seventh graders tried to jump on the 500 point questions right away, and struggled a bit. The fifth and sixth grades decided to pit the girls against the boys and started out with easier questions. Well, at least the girls agreed that they were easier as the racked up point after point leaving he buys in the dust, eventually skunking them.

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I also used a relay race the last week where they had to tag team writing sentences on the board with adjectives pulled out of a bag.

The reason I go into so much detail on this is that I don’t think they get to experience things like this when the regular teachers are in charge. Instead, they learn (well at least memorize things) by repeating them numerous times after the teacher, louder with each repetition. It is likely that this at least partially comes back to not having resources, but I think it is also due to a lack of the teachers getting exposed to more modern teaching methods.

This manifested itself in other ways as well. Every day at the start of class they all go through a ritual greeting of the teacher where they have to stand up when they are greater and recite “Good morning teacher _____.” And upon being asked how they are, continue the recitation with “Fine. And how are you?”

And, I doubt that any of the teachers, at least at the 5th-7th grade levels I was teaching, would sit at a students desk with them when helping them understand some of the mistakes they made. Plus, I don’t think the kids get much credit for trying, or getting part of what they are working on right. I would always try to find something that they did well to try to build up there confidence to keep trying to figure out the things that they still needed to learn.

This brings me to one of the major points that I want to make. As much as it is helpful to come in as a volunteer and work with these kids for a few weeks here and there, what is really needed is some sort of train the teachers program to up skill the permanent residents so as to provide these kinds of learning opportunities all of the time. Please don’t take this the wrong way, it’s not that the teachers are bad or that they don’t mean well, they just haven’t been exposed to modern teaching techniques and are only doing what thy know.

It also goes beyond teaching techniques. I don’t know how much education is needed to be a teacher in Zambia, but my guess is that it isn’t much based on what I saw. I don’t want to give specifics, because I don’t want to call any single individuals out publicly, but on multiple occasions I witnessed some teachers exhibiting skills at a lesser level that what one would think they should have. Again, I don’t want this to come off the wrong way, it’s not that I don’t think they could do better, it’s just that they have not had the opportunities themselves to learn at the levels needed to bring change to the system.

Add to this the fact that some of the books that I was given to use as references to figure out what I should be teaching had mistakes in them. If the books are wrong, how can we expect the teachers to teach the right things?

So, you might be curious what exactly I was teaching at this level. These pictures show the list I compiled based on the books I mentioned above.

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From this, I focused mostly on
– nouns, verbs, adjectives
– conjunctions
– prepositions
– sentences structure and punctuation
– creative writing
– reading comprehension

For all of the areas, there we’re wide ranges of comprehension in my classes. But I think the two areas where I noticed this the most were the last two. When writing essays, some kids would have an entire page written before others were able to pen a single sentence. For reading a few in each class had read “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” on their own before we read it out loud to them in class for listening comprehension, while others had a hard time pulling the meaning out of some fairly simple picture books.

Essentially, there were many Tim Gunn “make it work” moments, and every time it did work, you felt amazing. You also felt great whenever there was an aha moment, the best one that I remember was when I asked about Veruca Salt from “Charlie” and a very quiet student observed that she was addicted. Quite pleasantly surprised by this response, as I hadn’t thought of being spoiled as an addiction, but it definitely is a great way to look at it, I complemented her on her answer and was very touched as she began grinning from ear to ear.

Somehow, if Zambia wants to be able to compete in the world, these discrepancies will need to be addressed. Hopefully in some other way than not letting kids continue in school after grade 7 if they don’t pass a standard exam. This years exams are from October 12-16, so if you think of it. Send good vibes to the 7th graders in Zambia that week.

Sadly, given Zambia’s economic struggles as the (x) poorest nation in the world. And the fact that this is probably going to get worse given the recent rapid decrease in the value of the kwacha. It was 7.8 per US dollar when I arrived at the beginning of August and there are predictions that it will move to 12 or maybe even 15 per US dollar in the near future. I don’t see any major changes from within being possible any time soon

In then end, the whole thing just breaks my heart. These kids are amazing and super sweet, that I hope there is a way for them to have a brighter future. I just don’t know exactly what that looks like right now.

But for now, this is what we have, many opportunities for folks to go to places like this and become international teachers, helping in what ever way possible, and most likely changing (for the better) as a person during the process.

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And for those of you that I will come into contact with upon my return home, don’t be surprised
if I reach out to you to help this tiny, yet amazing place in even a small way.

Wendy

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