Saturday, June 21, 2008

Winding Down and Winding Up

After several weeks flitting about from one continent to another, I have finally returned to the U.S. Difficulties accessing the Internet just before I left Freetown and then in London and again in Shanghai make up the reason I have abandoned this blog for over a month. Since returning to the U.S. I have simply felt as if I were getting over a bad hangover (so much for any idea any of you may have had that I was becoming a sophisticated jet-setter) and I am only in the past few days feeling like myself again and willing to risk writing something that will be posted for all to read.

My excuses made, I will do my best to summarize how I left the Goderich Waldorf School at the beginning of June and its prospects for the future.

For the last several weeks of my stay, I spent a considerable amount of time on a handful of projects. The biggest one involved mapping out a five-year plan with the school's director, Shannoh Kandoh, and working up a possible budget that would enable him to run two campuses with well-trained teachers. This all means fairly big changes for the school, but the biggest change is really in the staff's vision for themselves. It means that Shannoh will become a full-time administrator and that regular professional development will take place for existing and new faculty. It means that the school will take up fundraising with clear intentions on which projects it wants to fund and how much money is needed. Up to now, the staff have not been proactive, but have simply accepted whatever money has come their way. Now they are beginning to plan, and I am doing what I can figure out to do to help them identify suitable grants and apply for them. It's pretty exciting that now the staff is taking itself and its needs very seriously and daring to make plans for innovations and improvements.

The other projects included compiling a literacy assessment and teaching resource book for the teachers. It is sorely needed as literacy education at the school (and to be honest most other schools in Sierra Leone) is very poor. I am not sure what really counts as basic literacy in that country, but judging from the very poor quality of writing in newspapers and language on radio newscasts and the extreme paucity of literature in the country, not to mention the rampant errors in government-produced education materials that I saw, I cannot say it is very high. This is one area I missed until nearly two-thirds through my project. I just assumed that when teachers said children were reading it meant they could read. What it turns out to have meant for most children is that they can recite texts that they have read chorally countless times in the classroom. So I trained Amara Suaray, the Class VI teacher, in how to carry out the assessment and have suggested that several weeks of professional development over the summer be devoted to teaching teachers how to teach literacy. It will need a good deal of attention into the future.

Finally, I observed each of the teachers in a lesson and met with them to share with them my thoughts and to suggest ways to improve their work. It was something I left to the end of my stay because I wanted to have covered childhood development and the curriculum of grades one through six and given the teachers ample time to develop lesson plans from their new understanding before I observed them. I am not sure that this was the best approach as I argued with myself that had I been in their classrooms more often I might have been able to help them improve more. My reluctance to do so developed from my very first days at the school, however, and remained strong until the end. It stemmed from seeing the teachers mimic visiting teachers, including myself, when they went in to teach their own lessons. I was determined to introduce them to a way of understanding childhood and to a framework of educating children from which they could work as creative individuals to teach their particular students in their own school. As many times as I might have said this to the teachers, I think most of them have not yet accepted that responsibility, the responsibility to create a class, a school of their own. Perhaps, I tell myself, perhaps I am too impatient with this approach and need to give the teachers more time to integrate what I presented to them into their own understanding and work. It is certainly not easy for me after twelve years of teaching and a far better education than any of the Goderich teachers has had to teach artistically and in a manner that is formed by my individual understanding of childhood development. Just the fact of having to be at school every day to fill the hours with activity for the children can overwhelm me at times, and so I can sympathize with the teachers at the Goderich Waldorf School. It is this, however, that the Shannoh and I are hoping will come out of the plans for the school's future.

And so I left Goderich... Ground was being broken on a toilet block for the new campus in Rokel. Teachers were planning for the end of the school year - they will close for vacation in mid-July. Shannoh was busy compiling figures for a new budget. Before I left, the school hosted a farewell gathering for me, attended by students, parents and community leaders. Many speeches were made, including one by me while I was wearing an elephant dress given me by the three school cooks. Students danced and recited and performed an hilarious skit about child labor they had written themselves. Shannoh took many photographs, which I saved on a thumb drive riddled with viruses, so I won't be able to post them until I take care of the viruses.

It was a lovely way to end my stay.

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