Thursday, October 8, 2015

October Groove

The long holiday is over, and the school year is marching on. Wasn't it just yesterday the students arrived at the beginning of September? How is it October already?

As long as I can remember, October has always had a feel of getting in the groove. Families are settling into the rhythms of school, the weather is crisp and usually pleasant, and things just seem to move along. Here, it is no different. For some reason, the late rainy season weather here is uncannily Autumn-esque. Walking up to class with clear skies and a cool breeze, I almost feel like I'm back in the States.

School is progressing well, the kinks in our schedules are all sorted out, and we are enthusiastically tackling the challenges of teaching. There are the usual obstacles: recalcitrant students, lack of basic skills necessary for learning, lack of basic materials necessary for learning, maddeningly erroneous textbooks, and unexpected disruptions to the routine. It certainly is a struggle! “It is not easy,” is a common saying here, and it's true that life and work and learning are not easy.

One of our biggest challenges is the problem of our students' vastly different levels of ability. In Form 1, the youngest is 9 and the oldest is 14. Some have repeated multiple years. Some can complete multiplication and division with ease, some can barely write their numbers (don't even ask them to spell them out!). Some are Francophones with English as their third language; some are from the village and their English really just amounts to a few phrases in Pidgin; some have English as their second or even first language, but can't express themselves in a clear manner. The best students are satisfied with an 85% average, and that kills me! Low academic expectations lead to low academic performance.

It's all very frustrating, but for some reason (familiarity with the system and situation? wearing down? grinding down?) I'm usually generally okay with everything. I accept things as they are, not because they are good, but because there's nothing else I can do. I can't go back and change the way these children were taught in primary school! I can't, from my position right now, change the education policies and/or philosophies of a school, a region, a country.

But we can work for the good where we are with what we have. Now in my third year I have a better handle on how to present lectures and give notes and explanations that satisfy both my need to teach dynamically (or try, at least) and my students' need to be able to process everything according to their learning paradigm. Then, slowly through the year, we try to do a mini paradigm shift. We want these students to be proficient at math, and voracious readers. First, some need to learn the alphabet and how to carry the 1 when adding.

The frustrating thing is that all of this basic and remedial work is not in the set curriculum. There is so much I am supposed to cover that I haven't and can't and won't, simply because the students aren't ready for it. Yet, how do I spur the advanced learners and keep their interest, when I'm teaching the bottom of the class to borrow and carry? My returning students in Form II gave me a little glimpse of hope. They all know their times table! I was surprised, and then maybe a little smug, when even the students at the bottom of the class were able to recall their multiplication facts from memory.

We're a long way off from understanding hexadecimal numbers, algebraic expressions, and multiple-step word problems; for some, we're getting there.

Baby steps.