Sunday, October 17, 2010


School started!!!! I was so excited! I was asking every kid I met if they were going to school. I have found out a few things that is extremely disheartening. In Nioro, only 16% of all students who took the DF, which is the high school entrance exam, actually passed. This means that 8th grade classes are going to be even more packed than usual and for a large number of these students, it was their second time attempting to get into high school, which means that unless they go to private schools they are officially out of the Malian school system and have to find jobs which are already almost non-existent. When I found this out, I had my first moment of shock and realization that I might really not be able to do anything substantial. I couldn't really believe that it could be so low. I heard this during a meeting with all the school directors and the CAP and had to mentally remind myself that this is why I was here and that if I joined the people that thought it was hopeless and wouldn't bother adding the drop of water, then the glass would never become full anyways. Unfortunately, it's so hot here, sometimes that drop of water just evaporates haha. It was rough to hear, but it just means that I have a lot to do, and I've already started by creating a sort of tutoring session with students in my neighborhood. One of the toughest parts of this was that I'm trying to gain their respect and show them how to properly behave when they're in my house so that they can learn effectively and efficiently. I've only been doing this for about 2 weeks, but there are some kids that are really motivated. Eventually I'm hoping to turn this over to actual teachers who will take on the role of supervising the students while the older students help the younger ones. This will allow a precedent where students come to reinforce their knowledge, help each other out and study outside of class. The thing is, is that the children here really are motivated. For the most part they want to learn. They are tired of their parents telling them they are good for nothing. They see education as a means to get out of their town and move on to a better life, and they see that reading and learning is fun. I remember when I first learned to read all I wanted to do was devour books. I also remember when my brother first learned how to read, and I hadn't yet, I was confused and frustrated with the fact that he was being boring and reading all the time instead of playing with me.
The teaching/tutoring has been entertaining and frustrating. From what I've been able to see, the way they learn is almost entirely about memorizing lines and phrases, without necessarily creating an association to what it means. Because there are 70+ students per class, the teacher can't focus on a single student or the meaning behind what they are instructing. So one thing I've been doing is asking "why" to everything I do. Also, my parents sent me some Sudoku books, so I've been using the easy puzzles to get them to think using logic and reason. This requires a lot of patience and having to explain things over and over again. I'm not sure how to explain that they don't have analytical skills or association from one subject to another, but I see it most often with regards to math problems and when I teach them English. Interestingly, even though their learning method has always been memorization, they have an extremely low retention rate. I think that might be because of the lack of reasoning. They don't seem to understand why things are the way they are. They just accept them. Similar to the way they accept things in the Islamic religion without understanding the true purpose behind it. There have been some fun parts, such as when, in the middle of talking, one of the students jumped up and said "You know what we want to do!! We want to sing the Malian national anthem!" This was when we were working on the pronunciation of "How are you?". So for the next 2 minutes they stood up with their hands over their hearts and sung the Malian national anthem. Very entertaining until they told me to sing the American national anthem.
Before school started I went to a few of the schools to find out what kind of issues they were having. For one, it was several things. This is in the very religious district so parents have very little interest in formal education and believe that it's just colonial brainwashing that will drive them away from a strict Islamic lifestyle. So the parents are not very involved in getting their kids to school and many of them are against their daughters going to school. The school director has been talking about how parents aren't motivated and don't really care and stated this as one of his major concerns and frustrations. Without parent involvement, kids don't go to school and the school board is financially static. Another problem was that the school wasn't surrounded by a wall. Now cloistering a school may not seem like a pressing concern, and I personally didn't think much about it. But, when you are trying to plant trees because the students don't have any shade when they go outside in 100+ degree weather and the saplings keep getting eaten by roaming sheep, goats, and donkeys, and also when motos fly through the school yard because they think it saves them time, and when the kids get distracted by things outside, surrounding the school becomes a relevant concern. The other thing is that there isn't a good water source near the school. The only source is a pump (which isn't very sanitary because it hasn't been treated) about 400ft away. While I was there I joined in with the kids to help surround the school with rocks we found in the area so that the motos wouldn't come in. I expect that if I went back today they would already be gone, or the drivers decided it wouldn't actually damage their bikes and now drive over the rocks. Fortunately the school director is very good and very motivated. He doesn't seem to give up and tries to plant trees annually, tries to get parents involved, and has a good relationship with his teachers.

With regards to informal education, this has been a challenge to watch and not react. Malian families are big. According to Shariah law, men can marry up to 4 women. Any children that your brothers or sisters have you refer to as your children and your friend's children are basically your children. Anybody is allowed to reprimand any child that they see doing something wrong. This can be anything from a verbal scolding to beating the child with stick. As a result of such big families, the children take care of themselves. They do whatever the parents tell them to do, they eat what the parents give them, but when it comes to general day to day things, the kids help each other out. Parents don't have time to explain things and properly discipline their children for something they've done wrong. So they resort to the quickest way of punishment they can think of, which is to either tell the kid he/she is stupid and good for nothing, or hit them and scream at them. Watching this is not fun. But of course I can't tell a parent that they are wrong and ruining their child or that this will mean their child will beat their children in the future. There are several reasons why I can't do this: 1) My language isn't good enough, 2) if I did I would be the crazy Toubab who thinks that he knows better would therefore alienate myself from the community, 3) they were beaten by their parents and this is all they know, plus they are angry with the fact that they were beaten before and take it out on their kids, and 4) "it isn't bad to beat your kid, it's necessary because things here aren't the way they are over there and just talking to these kids isn't enough, they only understand if they are hurt, and anyways, this will make them fear you and respect you so that they won't do it again" - Local Malian. Unfortunately for this local Malian, I had just been told by his son a few days before that one time he was hit by his dad and then immediately did the same thing a few hours later just out of spite.
I remember, before I left I had a conversation with my good friend, Denise Rowe about disciplining children. Denise was a Child Behavioral Psychology major a the University of Michigan. We had a mutual friend who said that as a kid, her parents had a track outside their house and the way they punished her was that they would make her either run or walk laps. I thought it was a pretty cool idea because it was a good way for the children to stay active and use up that pent up angry energy to vent. Even walking allowed the child to think about what had happened. She disagreed and said that any punishment had a backlash and consequences contrary to the intentions of the parents. She said instead, the parents should get their children to open up by talking to them, getting them to explain their feelings and really understand why it was that what they did was bad. She said that making them exercise as punishment would actually make them resent exercise and dislike it in the end. I've thought a lot about this and I think I agree, especially with the style of informal education I've seen here. I have never been against physical abuse towards kids, but this has really shown me that it is almost completely ineffective and only causes a perpetual cycle of pain, anger and frustration. More about informal education later.

One things that I found out, which I will expand on in the future, is that when a conservative culture such as Nioro crumbles, it collapses completely in an extremely shocking way.

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