Saturday, July 5, 2008

Goderich Waldorf School in the News

I am very happy finally to be able to post a link to a television news story that was done on the school while I was there. Two journalists, a local cameraman named Abu Bakar Jalloh and a Canadian reporter working for Journalists for Human Rights named Nina DeVries, visited the school and coproduced this piece that is now posted on Alternative Channel TV, a website that carries video pertaining to sustainable development.

The quality of the video is not great, but there are good images of the school, the students and the community that might make it easier to understand the situation there.

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.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Good News

I know it has been a while since I have written about what is going on at the school. I have fallen victim to daydreaming about going home, it is true, but I do have a somewhat more responsible reason for not writing, namely that there have been several meetings held to try to sort out the school's future, and nothing has seemed certain until the last few days. Oh, but certainty is a fleeting feeling around here, so I am going to claim the right to future amendment to today's statements right from the start and then just do my best to explain what the plan is at the moment.

The big problem since I arrived here at the school has not been the teaching or the teachers' lack of training or the school's lack of materials or even the health of the students. These were all problems, but they were issues to be addressed on a daily basis, and some progress has been made on all of them. The impact of the school feeding program alone has been tremendous, resulting in regular attendance, better classroom behavior, better health, and a reduction in stress for everyone from the the smallest Class I student to the cooks themselves who can count on taking home leftovers to feed their families five days a week. Malarial children are regularly treated at the local clinic. The director's wife is a nurse who volunteers once a week to do first-aid at the school. Teachers now have some idea of what the Waldorf curriculum and approach to teaching are. There has been plenty of progress.

No, the big problem has been what happens to the 190 current students of the school when it moves well over an hour away to its new campus in September. The faculty were quite clear that only a handful of their current students would be able to continue at other schools in Goderich, and it seemed that most of the students were just going to end up very literally back on the street, on the beach or in the gravel mines. Now, finally, the school has what seems to be a viable plan.

In fact, I spoke to the director about starting up a strategic planning process (Lucy and Irene will be so proud of my putting my experience on the Rudolf Steiner School board to good use), and two weeks ago we did just that. The guiding principle is that the Goderich campus will be phased out over five years so as to ensure that all current students have the opportunity to complete Class VI while the new campus at Rokel will be slowly built up over the same period. It is a beautiful plan, evident in the fact that everyone involved with the school who has heard about it is now sleeping better at night. Now it is just a matter of finding the money to make everything work.

There is also a great desire to improve the quality of the school, and that is where the really difficult work and need for commitment will come in, just as I am getting ready to leave! I have been very busy typing up lists of questions to answer, suggesting budgetary planning processes, dreaming up ways to fund the whole business. There is a good deal of work to keep me busy (and away from daydreams of hot showers and well-stocked bookstores)until I leave and well afterwards, but I am definitely sleeping better these days.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

How I Became a Waldorf Teacher by Susan Taylor

A few months ago I asked my students, the six teachers of the Goderich Waldorf Schol to write about how they came to teach at the school. I had heard bits of each of their biographies and was intrigued by their demonstrated commitment to the school and its students despite the long period each had served as a volunteer upon first being hired. This is the first of six such essays, this one by the current Class III teacher, Susan Taylor.

My name is Susan Taylor, aged forty-six years. I live in Goderich Village in Freetown, Sierra Leone. I am a teacher at the Goderich Waldorf School. I was first teaching at a government school, but due to the poor conditions of service and an unhealthy environment for the children, I decided to leave in 2005. At that time, I heard about the Action for Child Protection Educational Centre for Disadvantaged Children, a centre at the wharf in Goderich Village. When I made my first visit to the centre, I met one of the teachers, Mr. Mohamed Conteh, whom I had known for a long time. Mohamed was so happy when he saw me, and he welcomed me inside a big place like a hall where he was teaching different colours and shapes to the children. I asked about the other teachers. He took me to meet Mr. Robert Bendu and Mr. Amara Suaray. Looking around the classes and the compound, to my surprise, I noticed that most of the children were without uniforms or shoes, they had no place to sit down, and some children were sleeping in class. Their condition was so terrible and sympathetic, and I was so unhappy that I inquired about these children. Mohamed told me that these children were from the beach and the street. He said they included children without parents and children who helped the drivers to call passengers into their taxis and poda-podas or local buses at the car park. They were children whose parents could not afford to send them to school. When I heard about the children, my mind was so full with unhappiness. The teachers went on telling me that it was a voluntary job and that they moved around the community in search of vulnerable children. They wanted to take the children out from beach and the street and to introduce them to society.

When I returned home I was thinking about the children’s future. It was humanitarian feeling and emotion that prompted me to teach at this school. I felt so bad and I even asked myself, “Can these children make it in life, with all that I have seen and heard about them?” But when I sat down and reasoned well like a parent, I realized that there were many ways to upkeep them. Through this thinking, I counted myself as a fit person to help these children through caring and protection, proper counseling, good education, and generating a good feeling of the world. I decided to apply for employment so that I could help to refine them. And so I made my second visit to Mohamed at the school.

There I told them that I would like to help at the school. One morning in the fall of 2006 I was sitting at the back of my compound, when I saw Mohamed coming into my compound. He told me that they needed me in the school. At once I left for the school, where I met Mr. Abu Mansaray, the teacher of Class One. Mr. Mansaray asked me many questions about my experience in teaching. He was pleased with the answers that I gave, and so I started teaching class two in September, 2006. Two weeks after I began teaching, I was introduced to Mr. Shannoh Kandoh, the school director. He told me that the school was vulnerable and that the teaching position was unpaid and he asked me if I was willing to teach without compensation. I said yes because there were no other jobs available at the time, I liked the job, and I wanted to bring the children out of the street.

Some of the street children in the Goderich Village community lost their parents during the rebel war in Sierra Leone and some lost their parents to illnesses. Some of these children live in the street doing small jobs to earn their food; some are even fighting in the streets. Some do heavy jobs to earn their living, but have no good clothing, go barefoot, and have no place to sleep. Some sleep in the marketplace on top of tables, in abandoned cars and even in huts at the beach.

Some of these children come to school hungry, very sickly, thin and unhappy. Some come to school without lunch, and sometimes we the teachers give them something to eat if we have it. These hungry children always sleep in class, begging and even crying for something to eat if they see some of their friends eating. They sometimes don’t come to school. If you go and find them and ask why they did not come to school, they will say that they have not eaten. And if they are sleeping in class or sitting down looking at you, if you ask what is wrong, they will say that they are not well. Some of these street children found in the Goderich community during the war cannot find their families and have no one to take care of them. You can find them at the car park, on the beach and washing cars and poda-podas at the car park so that people will give them food or money. They carry loads such as rice, palm oil, and vegetable oil for shoppers in the market and they carry fish for the fishmongers. They deliver these loads for small money. Children working on the beach help fishermen to carry their tool bags, sell fish, and carry chains. They sometimes are beaten by the big boys on the beach who take their money from them. There are some huts on the beach made of chain and rice bags, where some of the boys sleep. Most of these children are boys between the ages of seven and ten. You also can find some girls who have been sexually abused by some men for small money. Some even go and find wood or plums to sell for food. Some go and sell from morning to night.

The first two months I found it difficult to teach these children, but later I was in place with them. There were many difficult children in the school, coming to school without lunch or books, and sometimes without having eaten. We teachers did not have some of the right materials to do some of the work. Sometimes the children did not come to school every day. Children were sleeping in class because of the overburdening work at home.

The love we continue to give these children has kept them coming to school. Some of these children cannot read or write. For the smaller ones aged five to seven, it is not too difficult, but for children aged ten and upward who have never attended school before, it can be embarrassing for them to be learning what the small children are learning, though some learn quickly. It is never easy for these children to focus on their school work because they are thinking about food, money and where they will they sleep.

My experience in this Waldorf school as a teacher is very different from my experience in any other school. I have learned that children should not be punished by beating. When presenting a new topic to the children, the teacher should do so in story form, so that the children can get the right feeling and understanding for the topic. We teach how to draw with crayons without using pencils, we play different games. A Waldorf teacher should give the children the right feeling and to let them think for themselves. I have learned a new way of teaching and doing things with the children and I hope to learn more and more.

Monday, May 5, 2008


Well, the initial enthusiasm among the parents for approaching the community leaders to provide land for the school in Goderich next year has utterly disappeared, and not surprisingly. Here is the version of the story behind the disillusionment told to me:

When the parents met with the MP a few weeks ago and he offered them a parcel of state-owned land in a section of Goderich called Oba Funkia, feelings were very positive. He told the parents that they simply needed to claim the site by clearing it of any structures and all the bush. Well, word of this spread around the village so that the next morning a small delegation of parents sent to the parcel met a group of young men ready to defend the shanty someone had built there in order to lay claim to it himself. The parents wisely avoided a fight and returned to the MP, who refused to help them further since they had not done what he had told them to do.

When I heard this, I could have thrown up my hands in disgust, but not the parents, who were outwardly very calm. They seemed to be used to this kind of absurdity and they agreed to approach the local community leaders as soon as possible. The problem was that only one parent showed up for the appointment with those leaders. Somewhere between the last encounter with the MP and the appointment, the entire parent body appeared to have lost interest in securing a school for their children.

Now I am hearing the frustration in the voices of the handful of parents who still come around school to talk about what might be done for their children: "The children have more integrity than their parents! At least they show up for school every day," is a typical comment.

With the school year waning and no land or building on offer to the school for September, it is seeming increasingly likely that only a very few of the 190 Goderich Waldorf School pupils will be able to attend school next year, and those only because their parents are teachers at the school who will take them to the new campus. It is difficult to accept, but alternatives have not arisen. It certainly would be possible to buy land somewhere in the community, but the only offers we have received are incredibly expensive by local standards, and there is simply no money to pay such prices. In addition to the land, the school would need to hire new teachers, at least five, build a new building, and buy new school materials. It's all quite daunting, but not impossible.

There has been one nice development at the school: the school was able to fund the construction of an addition to the tiny kitchen where lunch is cooked, just in time for rainy season. It is built of poles and corrugated zinc, is large enough for three cooking fires, and has two windows for ventilation. The cooks are delighted, and lunch, once again, seems to be guaranteed through the end of the school year.

Old and New Kitchens

Mohamed, Cook's Husband and Kitchen Architect/Project Manager

Happy Cooks, Neighbors, Children

In the classes interesting things have been happening as well. As part of a main lesson unit on various trades, Susan Taylor, the Class III teacher, planted a patch of crin-crin, a nutritious green vegetable, with her class. The children prepared the bed, sowed the seeds, now water and weed it, and soon will transplant the seedlings. They have also been busy making piles of clay bricks, which last Friday they began laying onto a poured concrete foundation for a small house. While building, the children are learning the vocabulary of the brickmaker, the carpenter and the mason and clearly are enjoying the change in venue for their main lessons. They are very proud of their emerging building and very anxious to see it completed.

Auntie Taylor levels the first bricks

Watching the Progress

First layers of a wall

Finally, this past Saturday all but two students in Class VI sat the National Primary School Examination in order to qualify for entrance to junior secondary school next September. The students and their teacher, Amara Suaray, have been preparing all year for this test, attending test preparation courses six days a week and organizing mock tests and the borrowing of uniforms for the day of the real test. This is the first time students from the Goderich Waldorf School have sat this examination, so they were hosted by a local school run by the Forum of African Women Educationalists (FAWE). All of the preparation classes took place on the FAWE campus, and our students had to wear the FAWE uniform (borrowed from FAWE's Class V students) during the examination. The night before the test, all the students slept inside the FAWE school building (apparently this was replicated in primary schools throughout Sierra Leone that night), and there was something of a festive feeling about the whole event despite the anxiety about taking the test. In the end the children reported that they felt well-prepared for all sections of the test except the math section, but we will not know their results until the end of August at the earliest. I have pledged to pay the school fees for all those Goderich Waldorf School students who are accepted to junior secondary school and would welcome any help in continuing that support throughout their secondary school years.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Sneaking Through Town on a Poda Poda and a Little News

When making my way out to the other side of Freetown to meet with my weaving teacher, I have experienced on several occasions now the fascinating mess of traffic in the capital that I described in an earlier post. My last such trip, however, was genuinely amusing.

After I had been directed to the poda poda headed to Grafton where my teacher lives, the man who guides the passengers to their poda podas (I have no idea what one would call his position) poked his head in to address all the passengers. In Krio he told us that the poda poda would be taking back streets (meaning away from the official route) to avoid traffic. If the police stopped us, we were to say we were on a school outing. He ducked out again, missing the giggles among us all as we looked around noting the wide range of our ages from teenaged to elderly, the huge baskets of goods that would be sold at the Grafton market, the two babies in their mothers laps, and me, the lone white lady. The driver started the engine just as the giggles had settled into grins and we were off, up and down the crazy back streets of eastern Freetown. From my seat some appeared no wider than the poda poda itself, but we managed to squeeze past oncoming and parked cars, all the while the driver was deftly avoiding a shocking plunge into the deep drainage ditches on either side. Most of the streets are not paved any longer, and many lead straight up the side of one of the mountains that rise up out of the city's harbor. I had learned by then to trust the drivers of these rusty buses to miraculously coax the engines up very steep inclines, but I nevertheless held my breath until we started the long descent back down to the main road out of town.

Then one of the passengers spotted the police officer, just before the driver himself. We all went silent as if the officer might hear us. The driver pulled over behind a parked truck, turned the engine off and stuck his head out of the window. No one said a word until the officer was seen riding off on his motorcycle. We all laughed as the driver started the engine again - he was entirely straight-faced about the whole business, clearly not at all amused by having to dodge the police officers who had begun patrolling the back streets now that they had figured out what the poda poda drivers were up to. He was apparently emotionally prepared for the challenge as well: We pulled out onto the main road just a few blocks from where three officers stood at a traffic circle. The driver pulled up to them, said something amiable to them that made them laugh and off we went.

Just a little update on the school today: Thanks to a substantial donation from the Rudolf Steiner School in New York City and my own frugal living (even splurging on restaurant dinners and imported chocolate bars it is possible to live on less than $500 a month) this week we will begin serving lunch on Fridays. A little further calculation revealed that I couldn't really stay through mid-July if the school lunch program were to continue through the end of the school year, so I have booked my return flights home for the beginning of June and arranged with the school director to take care of the lunch program. Really, I was also thinking about the warnings I had received that once the rainy season started up in May, there would be days when I wouldn't be able to get to the school because of flooded roads. I will have completed introducing the curriculum and childhood development by then and am planning to finally sit in on classes so as to evaluate the teachers and give them some feedback on how they are developing. It now seems as if there is no time left at all before I go and so much to do...

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Parent Meeting

Last Friday the school held its first parent meeting since my arrival last November. The faculty decided to call the meeting in order to inform the parents that a Canadian journalist would be visiting the school to film the students and teachers for a story about the school's mission and achievements educating vulnerable children in the community, but most of the meeting focused on a more pressing issue for the parents and teachers - the plan to move the school to a site on the other side of Freetown and out of reach of the current student body.

Although turnout was low at the start, students who arrived at school that morning sans parents were sent back home to retrieve whatever adult or even slightly older relative they could convince to follow them to the school so they could gain admittance to their classrooms. It worked pretty well, so that by the end of the meeting, we probably had well over a third of the parent body present along with a handful of obviously bored adolescent uncles.

The meeting was held in Krio, so I missed many of the details and subtleties of what transpired, but I was repeatedly impressed by the clarity and force with which many of the parents expressed themselves, standing up in the middle of the crowd to speak in a manner that seemed to have been picked up from their local pastors. Each one seemed to have mastered the art of presenting ideas in concise sentences punctuated by pauses long enough to allow the words to penetrate the listeners. Key phrases were formed and repeated with increasing power, rousing the energetic approval of the audience. By the end of the meeting, the parents had convinced each other that they would go to meet the local Minister of Parliament, the Honourable, to see what he would do to help them locate a site for the school in Goderich.

Late on Saturday morning I heard that the Honourable had been unable to receive the crowd of parents who had visited his house earlier that morning, but had asked them to return on Monday. Monday afternoon I heard the news that a huge crowd of parents had assembled to travel to Freetown to meet with not only the Honourable, but also a few cabinet ministers and that the result was an acre of land in the section of Goderich called Oba Funkia, not far from the present campus had been identified by the Minister of Lands (at least that's the title I was told) as land that the state owned and would hand over to the school as a freehold. Whew. My head was spinning and I was terribly suspicious of the whole thing.

As I had expected, Shannoh Kandoh, the school's director, was not convinced that the land would be permanently given to the school, and he identified for me the complicated land claims on that very acre that had bubbled up in just twenty-four hours after the land ministers' decree. Shannoh is waiting to see what will happen in the next few days and says he will need to go to speak to the community leader in Oba Funkia.

A lot of excitement, and really very good for the school that so many parents showed their interest in keeping a school in Goderich for their children, but the future remains uncertain.