Friday, September 13, 2019

Read All About It!

Young Voices, no. 7.1, is out! Click, and settle down for a good read.

You'll learn all about what students in SELI's Young Writers clubs have written in their twice-weekly writing workshops.

Our children are learning to express themselves in English, which is not easy for them. Your comments, or feedback, are welcome.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Democracy in Schools

Here's an entry from my SELI journal from twenty years ago—enjoy!

June 7, 1999  I’m teaching Second Language Methodology to ten teachers from five schools who are teaching, or have been assigned to teach, one of the indigenous languages in Sierra Leone. We start with a short dialog journal session (partners write in indigenous languages). The first session is theory, and then someone (either I or another participant or a video) teaches a lesson using one of the seven teaching methodologies we're focusing on for the 1st, 2nd or 3rd time, which we discuss.  I try to elicit an underlying concept the methodology illustrates and add it to my display board, heading for ten underlying concepts of effective second-language classrooms. We end with a writing workshop, writing our personal experiences in English.

I was nervous about today. Our topic was democracy in schools/classrooms. However, because it's important for this topic to be a discussion, drawing out the points was essential. I asked three participants to present what they thought about democracy in schools, and then asked for class reactions.  There was a great debate—more than once someone brought up that if a taxi driver drove badly in the street and you protested, he’d shout, “This is democracy!” at you. 

When it seemed everyone was agreeing that character education destroys African cultural values, and that democracy is too much freedom for overcrowded classrooms where order requires respect, I pointed out that we had already gained consensus on the concepts on the display board. And that they actually describe a democratic classroom. I reminded them that some types of learning can take place in autocratic classrooms, but not second language learning. I was delighted that someone mentioned that maybe democracy should not just be everybody-do-what-you-want, but consists of both rights and responsibilities. I presented the 7th grade class constitution in ASCD’s book, Democratic Schools[1], emphasizing that students and teachers drew it up together.  

Just last week Fourah Bay College students stormed and damaged the college principal's house in a protest over water and transport. The college closed and the principal is bringing charges against those he could identify.  One of our class participants was attacked similarly a few years ago as matron of one of the FBC hostels. She still lectures there and has been firmly against a student project underway to draw up a student rights document. She said that after our discussion today she sees the value in it but it should be a negotiated rights/responsibilities document, co-constructed by students, lecturers, and administration. Hooray!

I had a chance at the end to tie in a handout about the inequality inherent in ability grouping in schools—how it predestines one for success or failure. We take it for granted that all class six students whose mark in the public exit exam falls below a threshold, end up in the less-than-best secondary schools. And that in most secondary schools, the best students are put in JSS 1A and the worst in 1E. Can teachers do anything about that? We used another handout from Democratic Schoolsabout teachers not giving up when things are hard to fight against.

Then came a TTTV video demonstrating the problem posing method in an ESL classroom—a perfect sequel.  We evaluated the video lesson by sharing our ideas on how it was the same as, and different from, one of our class participants’ problem posing class last week. Excellent discussion. They were impressed at how the emotional impact of the "code" stimulated the students in the video to express personal opinions even though they struggled to come up with the language they needed to do it.  There was a good discussion about how and when the two teachers brought in the elements of the problem posing method.

Then in the writing workshop, we had time for two author sharings (members of the class reading aloud pieces of writing they had drafted). The first wrote about a childhood experience, how she had once told on some students who cheated in school, and although she was right, she lost all her friends.  Another told about a recent PTA meeting he attended as a parent which in his view was unusually successful because of the unifying of Sierra Leone cultures the invasion of Freetown in January had brought about.  The question was asked: did we really need a rebel invasion to teach Sierra Leoneans they need to unite?  

We ended by agreeing that both these pieces of writing were closely related to our lesson on democracy. What a class we had today!

[1]Apple, M. & Beane, J. (1955). Democratic Schools.  Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Graduation Day

It was Friday afternoon on June 7th, 2019, and it was testing day at Dankawalie Secondary School library in the Northern Province of Sierra Leone. Ten adult mother-tongue-literacy learners had come to demonstrate that they had mastered level 2 of the Institute of Sierra Leone Languages' (TISLL)'s book series in Kuranko literacy.

TISLL's evaluator, Rev. Frederick Jones, was present along with the class teachers, Alusine H. Kamara and Balla Musa Kargbo. The SELI director was also there because SELI initiated the teacher training, has supported the class with materials, and brought the evaluator to the village. This was a big day for all of us.

The certificates were given out by the Regent Paramount Chief by the massive cotton tree at the center of the village. Hawa Kargbo, the only woman in the group, appealed to the women in the audience to consider joining her in the class so they could give each other confidence. This was good evidence to everyone that the "graduates" have no intention of graduating. At TISLL's urging, using their new-found literacy, the class is putting together a book of proverbs and short personal accounts for publication as a reader. Some are interested in going on to learn English.

SELI has initiated and supported this program because languages without a firm literary population tend to die out as cultural change takes place, and people ought to, by right, be given the opportunity to learn to read and write their own languages. The program is going on (another dozen or so adult learners are now working at level 1), but it needs to be funded. If you have an interest in the continuation of the Kuranko literacy class at Dankawalie, please consider making a donation to SELI for that purpose. We need your help! Please contact me at .

The Institute for Sierra Leone Languages could also use your support. While we at SELI are very pleased with TISLL's willingness to help with the Dankawalie Kuranko class, Kuranko is not currently one of the languages TISLL works with. For a Kuranko literacy program to be started up at multiple places in the Northern Province that language needs to be funded at TISLL.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Career Writing I

Today was certificate day at SELI for the four students who made it to the end of our pilot  Career Writing I course for post-secondary students, which was held twice a week for a minimal fee at SELI's Tengbeh Town facility.

The participants had a good nine weeks from mid-March to mid-May, mostly learning to write persuasively in multiple drafts, discussing each draft and moving on to revise it. They were challenged to use genres and styles of
writing that students rarely meet until they join the working world. They submitted most pieces handwritten but one by email and one orally. One common thread in their evaluations was that SELI teaches writing differently than secondary schools do. They also found our insistence on driving wordiness out the window very difficult to get used to.

Going forward, our certificate holders are looking forward to signing up for the sequel, Career Writing II, in October. We'll have to plan our timetable more carefully, because this course had to forge headlong through college exams, school holidays, national holidays, and major religious events which resulted in altogether too much absenteeism. It took real dedication from these four to make it all the way through.

Congrats to all four, Kewulay, Kaprie, Foday and Yeabu!

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

My First Day at SELI

The staff and students in one of the rural junior secondary schools where we have an ESL Young Writers club, usually refer to it as "SELI." I am typing their final drafts today, and just had to share one that made me smile!

                       My First Day at SELI
                               by Alhaji K.

On Monday, 2nd October, 2018, my friend Yusufu and I were coming to our school. I heard him say, “Today is SELI. I have two final drafts.”
I said, “I, myself, will go to SELI today.” SELI is the writing club of the Sentinel English Language Institute. We went to the library. I sat down and I watched my schoolmates to know how they do it. 
My friend Yusufu came. He said, “Alhaji, go and take some A4 paper.” I went but when I was about to take it, I was afraid because I saw Mr K. and Mr B.M.K. I returned and sat down. I was confused at that time. My friend David was looking at me. He came to me and he said, “Don’t fear anything. Everything here belongs to us, the SELI students.”
I went and took the A4 paper. I first wrote my childhood story. 
At that time I was in JSS II, the first term. From that time I have become one of the regular students of SELI.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

All the Ways Children Learn

There is a library in a village community school two hours from Kabala in northern Sierra Leone where twice a week the Sentinel English Language Institute's Young Writers club meets. It is a setting where writing and reading happen throughout the week—a place where children learn—and it very much needed a new floor.

Just a few weeks ago, thanks to donations of money and time from friends and family, SELI made  half of this happen, and Dankawalie Secondary School's library now has a new floor. What astounded us was the other half of this effort: the perseverance and coordination of the community volunteers, who included both teachers and students. We were also delighted that some students took working with the tilers and masons as a learning project. DSS is trying to increase the variety of vocational opportunities it offers, and this was certainly one of them.

We witnessed another type of learning in Dankawalie when one evening after dark a group of much smaller children came to the house to ask our host, Kewulay Kamara, (who had come from NY to see how developments were going on at the school) if he would listen to them tell stories. He told them that it was too dark, but that they could do it the next night if during the day "tomorrow," or "sina," each one of them would bring firewood so there'd be a fire to see by.

 Here's how he told them, and as he improvised we all learned how poems can come to be.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Teachers Who Write

The Sentinel English Language Institute conducts professional development through its Leading Young Writers program, which trains teachers to be Young Writers club facilitators. Half our time together is spent writing in a workshop setting. The teachers enjoy sharing and perfecting their work as much as the students do.

We encourage teachers to continue writing after they return to their schools in our belief that doing so makes them better club facilitators. A few do continue. They share their work in club content conferencing groups and send it to me for teacher editing and/or typing along with the children's. I show them children's books I have published and we talk about ways available to us to publish in Sierra Leone. And how writing is a way of life for people who realize they are writers.

We were all saddened this week to hear of the death of Paul M. Conteh at UMC Heritage High School just outside Kabala in northern Sierra Leone. As one of these teacher/writers, he had been producing regularly since he began the Leading Young Writers program; I had just returned three pieces he had submitted to me. His colleagues, friends and family but especially the students who wrote with him will miss him greatly.

By way of contrast, today I received a text from a young urban police officer who was also for a number of years a Young Writers facilitator in the Northern Province. When I asked him how his new job was going, he replied, "I really thank you for encouraging me to write. It's just a continuation here." What a beautiful testimony to the view that by becoming an active writer one gains access to ongoing worldwide conversations, from anywhere.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Writing: Your Own Words, or Someone Else's?

I spent time in the Young Writers content conferencing group at the R.E.C. Primary School in Bassa Town yesterday with Class 4, 5 and 6 boys and girls. You see here one of the facilitators enthusiastically introducing me to the new students.

Halfway through I glanced up at the chalkboard. It laid out in detail one of their lessons that day on how to write a composition. The lesson included copying (to memorize) a sample essay on one of the descriptive topics likely to appear on their public exam at the end of Class 6. Is it ironic or illogical or disjointed or what, that we carried on as if the two writing activities were completely unrelated? The question is, what constitutes writing? Is it writing your own words, or someone else's?

The success of a Young Writers club can be attributed to the staff: the teachers and headmistress who encourage and guide the students—and in this school even sometimes hand out sweets—until they finish their first final drafts, earning "I Am an Author" buttons to wear on their uniforms. We find that often those accomplishments give students the confidence they need to continue writing until they build their My Life booklets all by themselves.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Keep Those Kids Talking!

We made contact with seven SELI Young Writers clubs on our trip following the Seli River to Koinadugu and Karene Districts last week. All the facilitators were present in our training in May, 2018 and three of the clubs (in Lunsar, Yiraia and Gbenikoro) are new this year.

One common thread wound through all our discussions: facilitators can't minimize content conferences. If we're going to make second language learning happen, we have to keep those kids negotiating issues orally! We checked first that the topics they are choosing to write from are their own true personal experiences. Once that was settled, we put all our gusto into widening the space and time given to reading work aloud to peers, into listening to those stories read aloud and asking good content questions about them, into listening to the reply and amending the question, and so on.

I am finding that facilitators in established clubs may not even be aware that content conferencing has been a make-or-break factor in their success. We found one club's formerly lively content conferences have devolved into one-on-ones with a teacher, and students now refer to them as "correcting" sessions. Small wonder that the meeting lacked the vibrancy and productivity we have seen there before.

Another place in the writing process where students MUST talk is during teacher editing. If they are not reading their work aloud as you point out errors, how can you distinguish between students who left out full stops or commas because they have no sentence sense, and those who expressively pause or drop their voices where the punctuation should be, and simply need to be reminded?  How can you make paragraphing come from their own instincts if they are not switching gears orally as they read?

We did see inspiring work being done, and we're glad now that WhatsApp helps us keep in contact even with schools located out of mobile coverage areas.

Monday, October 29, 2018

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