Monday, January 25, 2010

School in Kenya

Short note first...I tried to attach a video of traffic in Mombasa but not sure if it is viewable. I did this especially for Jo & Rob as it will be reminiscient of their time in Bangalore, India! Crazy stuff. They call those little carts "tuk-tuks".

Many of you have asked about my school day. It really is hard to explain, but I will give you some information. First it's easier if you understand the national schooling system in Kenya (of course I really don't understand it either, but I can give you a glimpse). About 7 years ago or so the government instituted free primary education for all kenyans. Now of course, this seems like something we would all support and probably should, but what happened was that all these kids who previously couldn't or wouldn't pay a nominal fee to attend public school (we pay in the US too, through taxes) all of the sudden flooded into the schools. It doesn't take an economics genius or any other genius to figure out that basic supply and demand does have its consequences. So, for example the primary school here used to have about 300 students. Now it easily has about 1000 students attending the same school...but of course there is a severe shortage of teachers. You know how few politicians think ahead on these things because I mean who doesn't want to support free education for all? [Aside, remember this when free university ed for all americans is proposed] So, at the primary school here there is about the same number of teachers but about triple the number of students. It is not unusual to see a classroom with 80-100 students. The other evening I was sitting outside across "the street" from me talking to an old retired teacher (he's known as Mwalimu Kombo) and he agreed that it is almost impossible to actually teach anything in the primary school. Out of the almost 1000 students he said that maybe 10 will score high enough on the National Primary Exam (KCPE) to go to a National School (which almost ensures you a better education). So, as things go, the education is "free" but there are definitely huge disparities (I think much larger than in the US). Essentially there are schools at various levels (national, provincial, district, public, private) that all are competing to get kids. The students have to take the KCPE after grade 8 and that one score determines if you can even apply to some of the better schools (now that's high stakes). Plus, there are some kids who do manage to score high but then can't afford one of the better schools. Then, after Form 4 (grade 12) they take the second national exam (KCSE) and that score essentially follows them around the rest of their life here in Kenya. It determines whether you can enter college and even the level of job that you can get. Kind of crazy to me.

Anyway - I tell you all this to say that Peace Corps of course places volunteers in public schools that have great needs. So, we don't teach in any national or provincial schools. My school is even "lower on the totem pole". It is not even a registered school. Basically after these last years of free primary ed there was a wave of students in the area with nowhere to attend secondary school. Most of them have scored way below the average on the KCPE and could not afford even to go anywhere else, so the community got together and formed this secondary school only two years ago. So, the school is one building that consists of two classrooms and that is it. There is no office, no staff room, no anything else.

So, I go to school usually about 7am and go to the primary school where we have a small room that serves as our office/staff room. There are very little resources. Most of the students don't have books so you can teach something but if you want to assign problems from the book then you either have to write them all out by hand and post it up on the wall with masking tape and the students can all copy into their notebooks. Or you can just leave the book and the students will copy problems sometime during the day. The schedule is very loosely done. In Kenya the students stay in one room all day and the teachers move from room to room. Of course, in this case we don't even have a desk in the room in which we could maybe keep stuff there to use, so again you really don't have many resources. I don't teach at the same time every day so it is a little confusing. They just made a chart with available times and then starting kind of randomly filling in classes. For example, today I taught the Form 3 Math class twice (2 lessons in one day) and the Form 2 class once. I teach 6 lessons for each classs in a week. The other weird thing to me is that sometimes the teachers just decide to teach extra lessons whenever they feel like it and the schedule allows. So, for example, if a teacher isn't there that day or just doesn't show up for class (yes, that happens) then another teacher might just go to the class and say, okay, now we will do more physics or whatever. Also, the students are supposed to be "on campus" from 7am-5pm. Classes end at 4pm, but a teacher might just decide on the spur of the moment to have their class stay and attend another lecture from 4 - 5. So, I sometimes don't know who is teaching what or when. It's only been two weeks so I'm guessing I'll figure out the schedule soon. The actual teaching part for me is great. I'm glad that I have lots of experience. I don't know how a novice with no experience would fare in this particular situation, but that's probably one of the reasons they sent me here and not to another more well established school. So, I teach 2-3 lessons a day. Then, during the other times I get ready for class and/or answer student questions or sometimes do an extra lesson if the class is "free". I'm trying to involve the students in working together to solve problems, etc... and it's going okay but it is a little difficult when you can't make copies of papers, you don't have paper, you don't have chalk, the students don't have paper, or many other things that might occur on any given day.

But, as usual I figure that if I can get the students' thinking, then all of that other stuff doesn't matter (wishful thinking on my part??). I know that some of you would like to help out and I will let you know as time goes by. One thing the Peace Corps doesn't really want us to do is come for two years and supply the school with lots of stuff and then that stuff disappears when we leave. We are trying to come up with plans that are more sustainable for the school. So, give me some time to learn the school and students and I'll let you know what we can do. All in all, I love the teaching, but that's not unexpected. I hope I can report some inspiring stories someday of things happening here at Marereni Secondary. At the very least, I'll be able to help them think about math.

Okay - battery is down to 59% so better go. Blessings.