Thursday, November 15, 2007

A Day at Goderich Waldorf School

The children begin arriving a little before 8 a.m. Many of them rush to school to be with their friends and to have a respite from the crowded conditions in the shacks and shanties where they live. Despite the cost, every child now has a uniform and comes to school wearing shoes, although before main lesson is over most of the little ones have kicked off their shoes and run around barefoot for the rest of the day. The teachers tell me that the uniforms and shoes are a point of pride for the children's families. When the school first opened, some children would arrive barely clothed, and only a small minority wore shoes. As the school established expectations for the children's attendance and behavior, without ever actually requiring uniforms or shoes, however, the parents seemed to take pride in the school and their children and insisted on providing them. Some of the uniforms are pressed weekly, many are obvious hand-me-downs, some are barely holding together, especially those of a few rambunctious boys in Classes 2 and 3.

As the teachers unlock the padlocks to the wooden doors, really the only security measure possible on the tarpaulin-covered structures, the children enter and begin sweeping the packed-earth or sand floors and pouring buckets of water over them to help settle the dust for a little while. As 8:30 approaches, more and more children arrive in the play area bordered on two sides by the school buildings. Three or four women are already set up to sell bags of cold water, dried fish, peanuts, buns, and fruit to the children, and they will remain there until after the last child has left the school for the day. They take in about 11,000 leones on a good day, which is about $3.50.

A Class 4 boy or girl is sent out to sound the signal for main lesson to begin, and he or she hits an abandoned soap-making barrel with a short piece of rebar, most likely picked up at some local construction site. Classrooms fill quickly and deep-throated, profoundly rhythmic singing and recitation fills the school. I have never heard the Lord's Prayer, which all classes recite, said with such fervor. I didn't actually recognize it until about half-way through the first time I heard it, probably because it had such a slightly different rhythm from what I am used to hearing. The younger children approximate the sounds of the prayer and the morning verse, both of which must be complete nonsense to them. Although, come to think of it, the Lord's Prayer was probably not much more than nonsense to me at their age. They do seem to have some sense of reverence, however, judging from the way they hold themselves during the prayer. The older children, however, recite with care and much better pronunciation.

Main lesson proceeds, with all teachers having opted to teach the same subject at the same time. In November all classes are studying mathematics. It is almost as if someone gave them a brief outline of what a Waldorf school program is, and they ran with it. Much of what I see in the classes would be recognizable to any Waldorf teacher: the singing, the recitation, the main lesson, the storytelling... The teachers are working mostly on their own, though, and have had to be extremely creative to fill entire days for their students. There is far more rote learning than most Americans these days would be comfortable with. Some of the teachers use switches on the children - the switches are sold from bundles in the local markets that were emphatically pointed out to me by a group of the children one morning. Singing often develops into energetic dances in which all the children jump into the middle of the classroom and bump their pelvises in ways I have seen teachers intervene to stop on the grounds that it is too sexual. Here the teachers tie grass skirts on the girls and encourage the children to stand around and chant and clap. The children have been positively joyous when I have witnessed this and the dancing is very good.

After main lesson there is a ten-minute break, during which there is a new tradition of going to Auntie Suzanne to see if she will give you a plaster (Band-Aid). I didn't expect to be delivering first-aid to the children, but have been doing so almost since I arrived with the help of Mohammed Conteh, the Class 4 teacher. The school director's wife is a nurse, and before she gave birth to her latest child about a month ago, she would come weekly to check on the children. In her absence Mohammed and I are doing our best to fill in, but there is little I can do for the ones complaining of diarrhea and body aches except ask their teachers to send them home and check to make sure the parents take them to the clinic. Most likely these children are coming down with malaria. We already have a suspected case of tuberculosis and a boy with both malaria and typhoid. The school pays whatever medical fees it can since most of the parents cannot afford any medicine whatsoever.

The first morning class after main lesson runs from 10:30 to 11:30 and can include anything from French (only in Class 5), to English, preparation for the national secondary school entrance exam (Class 6), storytelling, religious and moral education, physical and health education, creative practical arts, and music. Most of the actual classes are not what you would expect them to be given their titles. For instance, creative and practical arts seems to consist of students reciting definitions of such terms as "art" and "visual", this because teachers feel they cannot do art themselves and therefore feel uncomfortable teaching it. They also feel very unsure about how to use all of the block crayons that have been donated to the school. As a result, the days can often be filled with repetition of texts written on boards, but there is a good degree of variety on many days, and honestly the children don't seem to mind much if there isn't.

Lunch is another chance to see about the plasters or to buy a snack or to beg a snack off a friend. General running around and a few small soccer (football to these kids) games start up when there are inflated balls around. The girls make good use of a new jumping rope that looks as if it was sneaked off of one of the local fishing boats.

With donations from the Waldorf High School of Massachusetts Bay, students and faculty enjoyed a full lunch during my first week here. The female teachers (who seem to be assigned this task whenever it arises) prepared huge basins of rice as well as what is called fish sauce, which includes large chunks of dried fish.

The soap barrel is sounded again at noon, and afternoon classes resume. School is over at 1:30 for students in Classes 1 and 2, 2 p.m. for the older students. Loads of them hang around buying snacks, chatting and playing for at least another 30 minutes and then there is quiet. Everyone has headed back home, some to help out at at family stalls in the market, some to help with the fishing down at the beach, some to help break up rock at construction sites. Class 6 students head to another primary school in Goderich, where they take part in classes to prepare for the national secondary school entrance exam. They will head home around 5:30. Despite the heat and the dust and the lack of materials and whatever else might presumably trouble all of us at the school, it will have been a long, hot day with everyone still full of the delight of being together. Remarkable.


Annabel Clark said...

I love reading your impressions of the school, having been there just over a year ago. Your descriptions bring it all right back to me. The noise, the heat, the obsession with getting band-aids! I look forward to keeping up with your journey.

The Sanguine Gryphon said...

Where do you fit into all this? Do you have a class of your own that you're teaching or are you helping the other teachers put together better programs?

Lucy said...

Greetings to you Auntie Suzanne. It's Thanksgving Day, and NYC, downtown, is quiet. We are enjoying balmy, almost 60 degree, weather.

Thank you for your wonderful descriptions of a day at the school. The obsession with bandaids sounds pretty universal. I will look forward to hearing how they integrate you into their program and what you can bring them. I wonder how you might help the teachers to incorporate the visual arts into their lessons; sounds like they've got the music more than in place.

Anna said...

Please post again and keep your blog active! It would be great for us to continue to be a part of your work.
Thank you.

sunshadow slippers said...

I came upon your blog quite by chance while doing some research for my own business. Having spent much time in Freetown as a child and now having my 3 children in Waldorf education i was positively grinning from ear to ear with thoughts of all these fabulous children being nurtured and educated with such love.

I am very much hoping to return to Freetown soon and introduce my family to our friends there. I hope to visit the school and maybe in the meantime there would be some way we can help ???