3/7/12

Meeting the Challenge of Individual Differences: Namibia

Just like in the US, students all over the world may struggle with different aspects of school and learning. While not all districts and schools are equipped to handle the different challenges these learners may face, a caring teacher can certainly make a difference. Blair, a WorldTeach Namibia volunteer, recounts putting herself in these children's shoes and immediately knowing that she had to do something to help.


Good Morning! In this post, I would like to talk about the remedial English/Reading classes that I have started with students from my two grade 5 classes. I decided to set up these classes because there are a handful of learners in each class that cannot read AT ALL. The level of English proficiency that is expected of the kids based on the Namibian syllabus for English is beyond the level at which even the most advanced learners are currently performing, so needless to say, these handful of learners are getting left way, way behind. The teachers are forced to focus on what are called the “basic competencies” listed in the syllabus, so they really do not have the time or the training to be able to cater to those students who fall on the left side of the bell curve. They are left making up answers on questions for which the directions are completely unclear to them. I always try to imagine the worksheets/assignments I give being written in Spanish and then think how well I would do on them. I could pick out a few words of the directions like “Explain” or “circle”, but beyond that, I would be pretty lost—as are my learners who cannot read English well. Also, as they are regular members of the grade 5 classes, I cannot realistically give them easier work, for then their grades would show that they are improving and mastering concepts that they, in fact, have not. It wouldn’t be fair to the learners who are mastering the more difficult concepts and doing well on the assignments that are up to speed with the competencies of the syllabus.


My solution (or rather, small attempt) to this situation was to set up remedial classes. This is, of course, a common practice in schools in the states, so that is where the idea came from originally. Though the “small classes provide better academic results” theory has not been proven statistically for any given classroom, I believe most educators would agree that for learners who struggle, it is best to be in smaller classes, if for no other reason than the extra attention they are given. Not only have I found it enjoyable, but the learners really seem to love the classes! I have a few of the learners who come in smiling and get very excited about coming in the library for extra reading and writing practice. I believe that this excitement comes from getting to feel like they are really understanding and progressing in a way that they never get to in their regular classes. You know when you were in school and there were always those few kids who raised their hands all the time, for every question, and it seemed like they were the only ones who ever knew the answers because they were the most vocal and confident about their answers? (guilty) Well, in my remedial classes, there are several learners who have become those kids, which is quite opposite from their behavior in my regular English classes. They are suddenly excited about class and love to answer questions. This is a very fun phenomenon to be a part of. I have loved seeing the progress that has been made by these kids! And to think that I only get to have them ONE period a week for 40 minutes. Can you imagine how they could progress if I had them two or three times a week? This is something that I am really, really pushing to become standard at our school. I am hoping that I can convince the principal to help me find two or three teachers who would be willing to take on the responsibility of being the remedial reading and writing coach for English next year. I would spend the whole first trimester training them and helping them work out a manageable schedule so as not to overload them. I have heard rumors that every school is going to get a library/BIS/Life Skills teacher next year, which would be perfect, assuming, of course, that the teacher has a level of English proficiency conducive to teaching struggling learners, and the drive and willingness to do a bit of extra work. That way, I can work with her to keep the library functioning AND the remedial classes going. Those are the two main objectives that I have for next year. I want the library to continue functioning as it currently is, and I would like to see work with scheduling time for remedial classes (specifically for English, but also extra help for other subjects during school, for its not really fair to make after-school classes mandatory for only some of the learners, unless it is a punishment, which we definitely do not want extra reading and writing practice to be perceived as). 


Now, the way that I have set up the classes is I have chosen (with the help of the other grade 5 teachers), the six or seven learners from each grade 5 class who need the most extra help with reading and writing. I take them during their P.E. period (this is how you know they enjoy it, because they do not seem to mind missing their P.E. period…though it is reeeally hot outside these days, so…). They each have their own packet of lined paper (My hope is that next year I will give them each their own little notebook for remedial, though it may be a little portfolio make out of a cereal box…either way it will work). I began with typed out copies of the alphabet for each of them. I would hand them out and ask them questions such as “Which letter is between the ‘M’ and ‘O’?” and “Which letter comes after ‘D’?” These types of questions helped them learn not only the letter names, but also the order of the letters (because we were also doing alphabetical order in BIS and English). The problem with the teaching of the English alphabet in grade 2 and grade 3 is that they teach the letters by reciting them in order…over and over and over and over. This is okay, except that some of the kids never REALLY learn the letters or the sounds they make. They just learn how to say them in order. If you point to a letter and say “What letter is this?” …many will not be able to tell you. This is why I am currently standing by my philosophy of “repetition is not helpful unless you are repeating helpful things.” It’s kind of like “Practice does not make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.” If a student can recite every single country in the world but doesn’t know anything about any of the countries, then so what?? Recitation must be followed by more in-depth work or it is a waste of time and a useless grating of my nerves (listening to the alphabet spoken in order 32 times in a row ((YES, 32!!…In a ROW!!)) is just obnoxious.


After working with the alphabet, I decided to move on to a book. Using the same concept as with the regular English classes, I chose one book to focus on for at least two meetings (2 weeks). The best book that I could find also happens to be a Dr. Seuss book, and, coincidentally, the first book I ever learned to read—Hop on Pop. I chose it because of the short, rhyming words and nice pictures. They get very confused between p’s and b’s and d’s (understandably), and Hop on Pop is also very good for that. I made flash cards of words from the story, and other little activities. Every class we would have a little spelling quiz at the end. By the end of about three weeks, they could all pretty much read the book, with just a few mispronunciations. We have now moved on to One Fish, Two fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. The kids are showing remarkable improvement from the last book to this one. We are already doing flash cards with whole sentences on them, and instead of spelling tests where I say a word and they have to spell it, I am saying whole sentences and having them write them out, which is a big step for them. Some of them still struggle a lot with spelling, but they are getting better by the lesson! :)


Are you interested in making a difference in the lives of young learners? Consider becoming a WorldTeach Namibia volunteer! We are currently looking for dedicated summer and semester volunteers like Blair. Check out more info here!

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