Model School

Up until the start of last week, I was been teaching a 12th grade physics class as a part of my Peace Corps teacher training.

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All 38 of us trainees were given a class and a subject in our “Peace Corps Model School”. Every day, we would teach a 45 minute period while being observed by someone on the Peace Corps staff (and also sometimes one of our peers). After school, we would debrief with our observers and plan our next lesson. We taught three whole weeks.

The “Peace Corps Model School” was heavily advertised throughout Kakata. It was free, and we advertised that we had prizes for the top two students in our school – a new school uniform and paid WAEC fees (West Africa Examination Council — it’s like their SAT).

Student demographics

During my first day of class, I had my students take a survey so I could learn a little bit more about my audience. I was lucky enough to have a small class of 21, a little less then half (9) of them girls. (For comparison, some of my fellow trainees in other grades had class sizes over 60 in classrooms not even designed for half that).

The age breakdown for my class was as follows:

– 1 was 16
– 13 were 17-18
– 4 were 19-23
– 1 was 28
– 1 was 38

The oldest two students had children / families of their own, but only one of the younger students had a child. (And he didn’t stick around for the full three weeks)

As for their dream jobs:

– 11 wanted to be engineers or scientists
– 5 wanted to be doctors
– 2 wanted to be business managers
– 1 wanted to be a lawyer
– 1 wanted to be a teacher (the oldest in my class at 38)
– 1 wanted to be the President of Liberia

I was surprised at first with these results, because I was expecting more students with children and an all-around older age group. All of the stories I had heard from currently serving volunteers and the local community pointed in that direction.

But then I remembered being told that the students that have the luxury to attend our Model School are a little bit more privileged than the average Liberian. Even though our model school was free, students that are supporting families of their own are less likely to show up for this sort of optional educational enrichment. Instead, for the most part, kids from families that really valued education were attending. In short, this was the “honors” crowd.

It’ll be interesting to compare these demographics to the students that I will be teaching at site.

In addition to the questions they answered, I had them draw a picture on the back of their paper. I got some great results here, too:

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My favorite one, by far, was this cat:

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The kid barely passed my class.

Classroom Management

Throughout model school I focused on developing effective procedures for Liberian classrooms. Since students in Liberia are used to just passively copying notes from the board, I found that there was little participation when I asked the class general questions. In our training, it was suggested to “cold call” students (call random students, even if they aren’t raising their hand), but I felt uncomfortable doing this because I feel like it is unfair to introverts.

I ended up borrowing a call and response technique I saw heavily used in the “occupy” movement, named after its catch phrase, “mic check”. Here’s how it works:

1) A leader yells “mic check!”
2) The audience now knows a mic check is happening, and call back “mic check!”
3) The leader continues to yell “mic check” (with the audience responding in turn), until there is sufficient participation in the audience
4) The leader now gives his or her message in chunks, with the audience repeating after each chunk.

In my classroom, I found I needed to add a fifth step to this procedure:

5) When the leader is finished with their message, they end with “mic check finish”, and allow the audience to repeat one last time. (Saying something “finish” is a common expression in Liberian English)

This allowed me to seamlessly get the entire class to participate in underscoring points that I wanted to make. I would use it while reading definitions off the board, outlining or reinforcing classroom procedures, even calling the students to class at the start of the period. The students loved it. They started calling me “mic check” and “mic check finish”.

I added to this a system that I call “123 Answer”. During my lecture, I would ask the class yes/no or categorical questions and then call “1, 2, 3”, point to class, and have them answer as a group. By the strength of the response and the content of the answers, I could effectively gauge how well the class was tracking.

Interleaved throughout my lectures I would also allow individual students to answer when I had questions that couldn’t be broken down into a series of yes/no or categorical questions.

As I practiced and developed these techniques, I began to be able to work with the class as a unit and employ all of the teaching and questioning strategies I use when I tutor someone one-on-one (which is my strength). In my next blog post, I’ll post an example interaction.

Lesson Content

Even though this was an “honors” classroom, they were still way behind in their math. And there was many missing pieces in their understandings. In a pretest that I gave during the first week, I found that of the 25 students that were in class that day:

– 5 knew how to add fractions with different denominators
– 10 knew how to multiply fractions
– 9 knew the order of operations (7+3*8=?)
– 14 knew basic algebraic manipulation skills (solve 3x+4=13 for x)
– 6 knew how to manipulate algebraic equations without numbers (solve ax+c=b for x)

There was a huge disparity between levels from student to student. I had only one student get a 100% on my pretest; the next closest score was 61%. Three quarters of my students had a score under 33%. Oddly enough, the student that aced my pretest was not in the group that got 100% on my final.

What most stood out to me among the students was the general absence of critical thinking and number sense. You get the same in American classrooms, but it’s definitely a more prevalent problem here. The best illustration of this actually comes from a 10th grade session that I substituted in when one of my fellow trainees got sick. Because the story is a little bit of a tangent, I’ll give it its own entry. I highly recommend reading it though if you want an insight into my teaching approach and how students here respond to it. There’s even a video.

Because of these weaknesses, I focused my physics lessons on definitions and general qualitative concepts rather than quantitative investigation. In short, this was “physics for poets”. The topic I was given to teach was optics – reflection and refraction.

Sometimes I would have them take turns explaining concepts to each other as if one was a teacher, and the other a pekin (pronounced “peeking”, which is Liberian English for a small child).

I explained to them that I believed that if you really understand something you should be able to explain it in terms that a child can understand. Also, I told them that teaching was an important responsibility for them in their communities (a theme that I emphasized in a speech at their graduation; see below). They were all very surprised to find how difficult teaching actually was, but enjoyed the exercise.

Teaching Resources

During model school, we had the equipment available to us to make copies and print tests. However, for most of us, that will not be available at our sites. Writing information on the board works to distribute a lot of information, but on tests it makes cheating easy. I’m hoping to develop some alternative testing procedures that might be able to mitigate this, but I didn’t have the time to try these ideas with my model school class.

What was the most frustrating resource-wise was having no materials for demonstrations or labs. I really wanted a laser pointer so I could demonstrate what a beam of light looks like so they had a physical idea of what they were drawing in their notes.

It took me a while, but I found one built into a flashlight in the market here. It was interesting because very few people knew what a laser was, and fewer still knew what it was called. Until I would describe it, many people thought I was looking for a lizard (Liberians say the word “lizard” the same way we say “laser”).

I used the laser pointer I found to do an in-class lab verifying the law of reflection using the scientific method.

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I drew a giant protractor on a piece of paper, taped it to the board, had a student hold a mirror at its base, and then shined the laser down the side of the protractor. We hit dusters together to create a cloud of chalk that illuminated the beam. For many of them, it was the first time they had done any sort of science lab.

It can be tempting for this reason to want to jump up and donate science materials to Liberian schools. Many administrators will beg for science labs. But unfortunately it’s not that easy. When a school is supplied with a bunch of fancy equipment but doesn’t have the training to use it or the procedures to care and protect it, it will be left unused and then fall into disrepair (or looted).

I think this example is really good to illustrate how important human capacity building is over material assistance when it comes to development (this is a big issue around the whole world, not just Liberia/Africa). I’m really happy to be a part of an organization like the Peace Corps that has this understanding explicitly written in their goals and policies.

I think the idea of human capacity / creativity over material resources can extended even further. When I was a kid, I remember reading that the average kitchen today has more chemicals than the premiere chemistry lab of 100 years ago. Why do we think we need all sorts of fancy materials and equipment to teach science and do labs? There’s all sorts of experiments and demos we could do with local materials. Even if I hadn’t found a laser, I could have illustrated the same concept of a light beam using a small hose and pressuring water through.

One of my goals during my two years here is to find ways of doing school with the fewest possible outside resources. What do we actually need in order to provide a good education? And, if I dare ask, what actually constitutes a “good education”?

The Final

By the time my final rolled around, I was at 22 students.

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Some students had left since the first day, but others joined and filled their place.

Before the final, I had them working on practice tests for three days in a row so they could get used to the format and material of my test. Additionally, I let them take the test twice: one try Thursday, one try Friday. Their final grade would be the highest of the two scores.

By giving two tries for the test, on my second test day I could excuse the top students from the room while everyone else took their second try. This meant I wouldn’t have to worry about struggling students cheating off them.

I implemented some other anti-cheating measures as well, but I’ll have to save that discussion for a future post when I’ve had more time to develop them.

The final results were pretty reasonable, in my opinion. Out of 22 students, 10 students failed, 7 students just passed, and 5 passed with 100%. Passing only a little more than half your class seemed to be a typical experience for Peace Corps Volunteers here.

Graduation

Before we knew it, our three weeks was up and we were all sitting in a graduation ceremony for our students.

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I had the honor of giving a little speech:

(Don’t forget that the word “pekin” is Liberian English for small child!)

As you can see, I’m really trying to make my messages connected to sources of community identity and rooted in the value systems here.

I didn’t have as much time to prepare as I really wanted (I worked late getting grades ready the day before), so my delivery wasn’t as polished as I’m really going for. I’d like to work up to being able to speak like a baptist preacher. I feel like that kind of stage presence will go a long way here.

But still, everyone seemed to receive my underlying point well: education something we all have a responsibility to participate in if we wish to enjoy the benefits of a strong, productive, and stable society.

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