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Teaching the teachers, and learning too

By Matthew Pearson, Citizen Special

Sunday, August 08, 2010

In a bleak Kenyan refugee camp, five Ottawa teachers rediscover the passion that called them to their profession, writes Matthew Pearson.

The ink on the report cards was barely dry back in June when five Ottawa teachers packed their bags for Kenya.

There, they spent two weeks working inside a massive refugee camp. They slept on beds shrouded by mosquito nets, ate more rice and beans than they care to remember and learned to live with the constant, sometimes oppressive, level of security.

They were there to teach the teachers, to share tools and tips for running a classroom effectively. But, as with any great adventure, they couldn't help but learn a thing or two along the way.

School For All is a humanitarian organization started by Ottawa teachers Denis Monnin and France Thibault. Working with several larger non-governmental organizations, including Care Canada and Save The Children Canada, School For All relies on the expertise of volunteer teachers to improve the quality of education in parts of the world where the school system has been disrupted by conflict and natural disasters.

Since 2004, teacher volunteers have worked in Haiti, Mali and Tanzania, as well as at refugee camps located near the town of Dadaab, Kenya -- where the Ottawa teachers spent the first half of July.

Located about 100 kilometres from the border between Kenya and Somalia, Dadaab is home to a cluster of refugee camps filled with about 300,000 people, mostly from Somalia. Teachers with little training and few resources lead classes inside packed schools within the camps.

Nora McKnight worked closely with six high-school teachers. Her goal was to get them to move beyond lecturing and instead ask students questions to ensure

they understood the material they were being taught. That may sound fairly rudimentary to people here, but McKnight says it's not common practice there.

"(The teachers are) used to lecturing," the retired teacher says. "They stand up and they speak very quickly and they don't check for understanding with the students except to say, 'Are we together?' and then continue on."

McKnight also offered tips for designing tests that would determine levels of comprehension, as opposed to getting the students to simply repeat what they've been told.

It was likely the first training the teachers had ever had, and McKnight says it left some hungry for more. Several have since e-mailed her with requests to send additional resources.

The remaining four teachers -- Joan Belanger-Gauvin, Vivian Bright, Marjory Hammond and Jodi Sabourin -- worked with 15 elementary-level teachers.

Like McKnight, they led workshops designed to encourage the teachers to get away from repetition and foster active learning and creative thinking. They also visited classrooms and divided into small groups in order to work more closely with the teachers.

"We made more progress when there was a smaller group," says Sabourin, who teaches at Avalon Public School in Orléans.

In fact, Sabourin says the one-on-one mentoring was the highlight of the trip for her. Working closely with the teachers and spending time with them in their classrooms gave the Ottawa teachers a real appreciation for the challenges of teaching at the packed refugee camp, where many students have spent their entire lives.

In Ottawa, a class with more than 30 students would be considered large, but in Kenya, most of the classes had around 50 students. That's despite the fact that fewer than half the children in Dadaab go to school.

Teachers there also have meagre resources. A classroom could be anything from a tent or cinder-block building with rough-hewn, pioneer-style desks and a well-used chalkboard to a collection of benches under a tree.

Teachers here sometimes put up with whispering and students passing notes back and forth; teachers there compete with noisy donkeys, goats and the odd sandstorm.

Bright, who's the principal at Alta Vista Public School, says she's humbled by what the teachers do with little training and few resources. But, she adds, it shows that resources don't make a teacher. Passion does.

"The heart of a teacher is the same whether it's in Canada or Africa. It's a calling, it's a passion and that same passion is there in the refugee camp," she says.

Despite some challenges along the way -- be it the constant heat, the confinement within the camp's barbed-wire fences or the hunger for something other than a plate full of rice, beans, potatoes and cabbage -- the five teachers agree the experience was worth the expense. They each paid for their own airfare and for hotels in Kenya, while the organization paid for their stay inside the camp.

When they get together for tea at McKnight's house, the teachers hug, laugh and recall some fond memories: eating french fries at the United Nations pub inside the camp, watching the World Cup final projected onto the side of a building until the power failed with two minutes left in the match, being welcomed at a school with a song in Kiswahili.

Sabourin, who had never left North America before, says she is always telling her students to help others and have a global perspective. The trip to Kenya was a chance for her to do just that.

"I'll be a better teacher because I've practiced a bit of what I'm preaching," she says.

For Hammond, the experience goes beyond teaching. "I didn't know how little I knew," she says of life in a refugee camp.

"I don't think it affects the way I teach. But maybe I'll be more knowledgeable about what it means to be a refugee. We have students in our school who are refugees. Now I have at least an inkling of what that word entails. It's real."

A Teacher's Summer School's out for the summer, but that doesn't stop some teachers from learning a few new tricks. Many take courses or obtain additional qualifications, while others do volunteer work or embark on interesting trips that enrich their knowledge in certain places or subjects. All of it is expected to rub off on what they do in the classroom. This summer, the Citizen's Matthew Pearson has been asking some teachers how they're spending their summer vacations.

Souce : The Ottawa Citizen