Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Exit Report

Lately I've been spending time talking to people and reflecting on my time in Africa. I was thinking that I should put some of these thoughts on for you guys to read :)
Here is a report I wrote to one of my sending organizations.

Hope Africa University

Teaching Assignment: Rachel Jacobs
Special Education Department rej85@spu.edu

One thing I love about being back in the states is being able to share the story. I have had great talks with family and friends about my time at Hope Africa University. When asked, "What's your favorite part about your year?" I tell people, "grading papers". They laugh but it's true. That was a time when I got to read my students' thoughts. Once I figured out that their definition of plagiarism wasn’t mine. (I took care of that with some extra teaching on what it is to steal other’s work. Also I put a very specific policy and “how to avoid it” section in my syllabus). Reading through their papers I found out what my students were thinking and processing through. I got to see the change in my students from the first semester with me to the last. I taught the same students all year long so I got to see what a difference my presence and teaching had on them. During my first day of class I asked them to define a disability. They couldn't do it. They had no idea. It wasn't a cultural thing of them not wanting to talk in class, they just didn't know. But with class discussions, lectures and many homework assignments they learned; they really learned. At the end they were coming up with their own ideas that would work specifically for East Africa.
It wasn't easy teaching classes. I had to learn how to teach them. In the old Belgium style of teaching, the professor knows best and students will never know as much as teacher and shouldn't even try. I informed the class early on that I did not know everything but knew how and where to find the information. We also made a deal that I would teach them about the special education field if they would teach me about special education and people who have disabilities in East Africa. I had to enter with the truth that I’m only trained in my subject matter in an American setting. I needed to learn what my subject meant in an African setting so that I could make the learning relevant to them. It was a great exchange. We learned from each other. Research shows that someone who teaches actually learns more from the topic. I took the topics they needed to learn and made them not only learn how they were done but how to translate that to an East African context. I continued to ask, “What would that look like in East Africa?” or, “How can that be done successfully here?” The students were making the topics practical and relevant to their lives right away.
It was also difficult to have students in my class who didn't know English enough to follow my lectures. Again my students and I worked out a system that best fit both of our needs, mine to be understood and their need to understand the material. It worked out that I would lecture for about 10 min on a topic and then break them into groups and give discussion questions along the topic just lectured on. This is good teaching according to brain research because adults can only productively focus on a subject for about 10 min anyways. I then allowed each group to discuss in whatever language they desired. Some groups were discussing in English, others French and a few in Kirundi and Kiswahili. This way the students that were lost by my English only were lost for 10 min and then they were brought up to speed and we could go deeper in the next 10 min of class time. Once the students got used to the system of group discussion the discussion time could take 1min to 20min depending on how discussion was going and how much learning was happening, most of the time the discussion lead right into the next topic.
Another thing that was helpful about discussion time was that students felt more comfortable asking questions. Culturally I learned that a student that asked questions is seen as someone who is interrupting the teacher and the learning process. However when the students were in small discussion groups they would ask questions freely. It was funny to me because I would start to answer a question of one group and the whole class would quiet down because that was their question too. These small group discussion times allowed the students to ask a much needed question in a culturally appropriate way.
Most of these students only had teachers lecture and write on the black board to teach them. This is how they learned and so most likely this is how they will end up teaching. Every opportunity to model special education best practice in my classroom was used. Schedules are very important for students with disabilities so that they can anticipate what is happening next. Lecture time began with a schedule of the day’s topics and activities written on the board. During my lecture time I included games, drawing, writing, team building activities, critical thinking activities, and drama to name a few. Students were not only expected to sit, listen and take notes but to participate in their education. I not only taught the students about the importance of engaging the five senses when teaching but I showed them how. We made up songs to remember concepts and did some dancing too. The students got to see how effective learning can be when it’s put into a fun activity.
People also ask me why I want to go back to Hope Africa University. I love my job there. I love taking students from where they are to where they can contribute to their country through their new, found knowledge of special education. I like the challenge that teaching in a different culture offers. I want to make sure that not only my subject matter is taught in a way that is culturally relevant but also that the way in which I teach is culturally appropriate. As I live and interact with the people there I’m learning how to be a better Hope Africa University lecturer. And I love it.

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