Sunday, March 26, 2017

Leading Young Writers Workshop Part Two

Just a year ago, with the support of funds from the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Midland, MI, SELI opened new SELI Young Writers clubs
in five rural primary schools in the Waterloo area, outside of Freetown.

Because we did this at a time when schools were trying to catch up after many months' being closed during the Ebola crisis, we were only able to provide a single day's training with the hope that our follow-up visits to the school could solve any problems they were having carrying out their workshops. We called it Leading Young Writers Workshop Part One, and we have great admiration for these teachers who forged ahead anyway.

Yesterday we held LYW Workshop Part Two, and it was a delightfully different group. They were no longer the slightly dazed but polite, brave learners from from last year but confident and outspoken process-writing teachers. Here they are doing self-editing on their own personal writing drafts we asked them to bring so we could carry out the editing process together—a stage that we had not had time to cover thoroughly in our first workshop.

We started the workshop asking for problems they were having in their clubs, and kept referring back to the list throughout the day, trying to work those through. When we asked whether they were seeing any benefit from the clubs, their enthusiasm nearly blew me away!
  • The children have gained great confidence and skills in both reading and writing from reading their work aloud during conferencing.
  • Any club facilitator who says a child who attends regularly is not improving, must not be taking them through all the stages. Every child who attends regularly, benefits.
  • The children see themselves as authors: some even write creative work on their own now, and bring it to school to show the teachers.
  • They have such self-confidence (boldness, it is called here)! When students are to conduct the morning assembly, it is the club members who always volunteer, and carry it out well.
  • They communicate more: rather than sending someone to tell a teacher something, they will now write a note. They are much more willing to write.
  • The club helps the teachers in their own writing tasks, with both skills and confidence.
  • The club has changed how the teachers teach writing in the classroom. Even teachers who are not facilitators but only observe what is going on, now teach writing in class by telling students to draw on their past experiences for topics and by giving students choices of what to write on.
  • The students in the club are more responsible in school, because of the club tasks that they perform and the understanding they have of management of the club.
  • The club members are more able to read or answer questions written on the board during their regular classes than other students.
We have heard this before, but not so clearly explained and not from so many different angles. Maybe it is because their clubs started so recently that they are able to see the differences more starkly than club facilitators in a school that has had a club for several years. Or maybe it's because these are primary schools; we've always worked with junior secondary schools before.

2017 Update

The new year has been a busy one at SELI, what with visiting SELI Young Writers club schools and  giving daily Business Writing mentoring classes, an in-servicing we offer to businesses and organizations in Freetown.

In mid-March, we traveled to the Koinadugu District in the northeast of Sierra Leone on a trip made possible by support from Edward Davies & Associates Consulting Engineers Ltd. One of the things we do there is to check up on the progress of the Kuranko Karan (shown here), a mother tongue adult literacy class in Dankawalie Village. We have nothing but praise for this group, that meets three times a week from 8-9:00 pm after a full day's work and was asking for Books II and III of their text. We have been able to send them thanks to the resources of The Institute of Sierra Leone Languages (TISLL) who also trained the teachers (in the back row in orange and white shirts) and are monitoring the program. On its own, the group hopes to revise the text, as well as compile a Kuranko reader: they will soon need Kuranko books to read, and they are very hard to find!

We also go to the Northern Province to visit our writing clubs.
We found most of the schools involved in their annual sports competitions, but we talked with the teachers and delivered supplies they'd fallen short of. Here you can see Dankawalie Secondary School's red house (and supporters) heading off for the competitions.

While they had been practicing, I had been working in the school library SELI helped to set up several years ago with a grant from the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives and continues to support, mentoring DSS's teacher-librarian in this very rural setting.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Join Our Writing Community

The Seli River Writing Project is growing an online writing community at the SRWP Workshop. It's free! Join us to share in the fun of trying different kinds of writing for the reward of gentle critique.

Our goals are
  • developing life-long habits of writing, 
  • building a writing community that believes everyone can learn to write, and 
  • improving our writing and communication skills in English.
You're welcome!

Friday, November 25, 2016

Back to Basics

While we are arming our ESL literacy class for adults with oral language and phonics skills, we also use other strategies to get them reading.

One strategy is using early-grade high-frequency word lists. Together the items on these lists make up a high percentage of the words found in early readers and words children use when they write. Being able to recognize them by sight gives a big boost to literacy learning.

Usually, the most basic list contains words whose pronunciation could be difficult to explain. For example, while the list contains go, no and so, it also includes to and do and you—three words where the sound of o is very different. Because all six words are so common, it helps just to teach them all as sight words.

You would think that this strategy would be a cinch in Sierra Leone; that learning to read by rote, or by sight, would not be a problem because it is the way reading has always been taught in Sierra Leone. However, sometimes even teaching sight words can get tough.

Here's an example: one of the words on the most basic list is the. The pronunciation of the in standard English is [ðə] before consonants and [ði] before vowels. However, by far the most prevalent pronunciation of the word in Sierra Leone English is [di]. The consonant is different from standard English, and most people do not alter the vowel according to the beginning sound of the following word. Evidence for this prevalence is the widespread use of the spelling di for the word the in texting language in Sierra Leone.

Therefore, as we alternate drilling twenty-five basic sight words with guided reading activities in our class, the word the continues to be a bone in our throats. Neither [ðə] nor [ði] sounds like a word to our learners. We have the option, of course, of saying that Sierra Leone English is our students' target language, so why not teach the word as [di], and continue substituting the [d] sound for [ð] and [t] for its voiceless counterpart, wherever th occurs?

Uh, I don't think so. It’s time to move back to oral language activities. Those early exercises with indefinite articles (“Is this a book? No, it's not a book. It's a chair.”) need to be made definite, even if we have to introduce adjective clauses in the process (“Is this the pen you gave him? No, that's the orange I gave him.”). 

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Workplace English with SELI

We've also been busy this term teaching ESL Workplace English to a selected group of employees in an organization.

The members of the class have in common that for personal, family reasons their schooling was interrupted—perhaps multiple times—in their early lives. Although all these men are skilled at their jobs, the organization, SELI and the participants all see a benefit in improving their ability to communicate with others in the organization and in enhancing their employability.

Using a variety of resources and teaching methods, we are therefore working with a group of preliterate and semiliterate English-as-an-additional-language learners. They are faced with two tasks—learning literacy and learning English—but they are quick and eager. In our latest class, our preliterate members began reading their first book, Here We Go. They're especially enjoying interpreting Claudius John's illustrations.

Much as I like teaching this class, I can't help repeating that it is a pity that in schools in Sierra Leone literacy is tied to the English language. It only means that any students who do not have the opportunity to continue their education beyond the primary or early junior secondary level, lose their literacy after a few years simply because they no longer have a reason to use English. We need to teach all students to write and read their first languages in early primary school so they will own their literacy for life.

Business English with SELI

We've been busy this term teaching an 18-session ESL course in Business English, and loving it!

It's being conducted during the working day on the organization's premises, to a group divided in two so that during our class time there is always someone in each department's office to take care of business.

Half of our course is devoted to business writing, and half to oral skills. It's a blended course, in that although we meet face-to-face twice a week, there is also an online requirement. Each member of the class is required to submit a number of assignments online at the SRWP Workshop. They post their assignments there (in a section of the page invisible to those not enrolled in the class) and also must respond online to two other pieces of writing posted by their colleagues, commenting on how well they have met the assignment's criteria.

The group is a pleasure to work with and I hope they're finding it as much of a learning experience as I am!

Monday, November 21, 2016

Along the Road there is a School

I was happy to return this week to the dependable and hard-working Young Writers club at the junior secondary United Methodist Heritage High School on Malaforia Road leading out of Kabala, in Sierra Leone's Northern Province.

The club is fortunate to be accommodated in a new classroom with ready-made furniture, but it takes more than that to build a group of persistent writers.  It takes a principal and club facilitators who see the value in each of the steps involved in the writing process, and who patiently keep encouraging the students forward until they benefit from the eventual rewards.

The principal in this school is Mrs. Daisy Sankoh, and the teachers (pictured here) are Mr. Paul M. Conteh and Mr. Sannah D. Samura. We appreciate their support and are glad to see the students' final drafts on the classroom wall for all to read!

And what are the eventual rewards that students gain from SELI Young Writers clubs?  They learn to read in English, because by the time they have finished a final draft they have read it 6 or 8 times. They learn to write in English, and learn as many of the skills associated with writing as they work on acquiring: paragraphing, punctuation, capitalization, avoiding repetition, moving from narrative to dialogue and back again, and so on. They learn to listen in English so they can respond to others' writing and learn to speak in English while they explain their meaning to others in their content conference groups.

We wish this Young Writers club well as they move through the 2016-2017 school year.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Encouraging Writing Teachers to Write

Have you been looking for a writing group to join that will understand your cultural references to Sierra Leone or West Africa? If so, please come to the Seli River Writing Project Workshop!

Over the years, SELI has found that most teachers in Sierra Leone were never taught the writing process—rehearsal, drafting, getting feedback, revising, editing, and then producing a final draft. This is the reason that our LYW participants work on their own personal writing during workshops. We always hope that after the training the participants will not only be more prepared to teach writing, but also continue to write, themselves.

But there is an obstacle to continuing to write: the difficulty of finding a writing group to share drafts with. This stage, which we call conferencing at SELI, is one of the most enjoyable parts of writing both for our club members and for their teachers.

We therefore are providing a forum, or a writing group, which you and the teachers can join and use from any part of the world—because it’s online! Since Sierra Leone is moving (yes, slowly, but) steadily in the direction of getting and staying online—if not so commonly yet by computer, at least by mobile phone—most of our LYW teachers will have access to this forum.

Come and join us online at the Seli River Writing Project Workshop if you are a writer and have been looking for a writing group to join that will understand your cultural references to Sierra Leone or West Africa, or will understand mixed-cultural settings in which you have lived, or live now. Register—it’s free! We welcome anyone who is willing to give other writers helpful, constructive feedback and post their own in-progress writing. Whether you are experienced and published or unsure how to begin, you are welcome. No one ever outgrows the need for feedback. We’ll help each other write.