Kaolack : diary of an African experience

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Kaolack : diary of an African experience

Caty Duykaerts, English teacher, I.E.P.S.C.F.-Uccle, Belgium

Email : m5julia@yahoo.com

Early 2001 / Kaolack, where is it ?

The language school where I work signs an agreement with a small NGO. They need a teacher for a six-month training course in Senegal, in a town called Kaolack. Here in Brussels, the whole staff of the school is briefly informed of the project. My colleague Anne and I show initial interest. What is this cooperation project about ? To bring together 21 Senegalese teachers - coming from 21 different official schools scattered in the vast area of Kaolack – in a practical training course in which they become students. The province of Kaolack has one of the poorest scores in terms of national education standards. Teachers try to do their best but, classes are overpopulated (between 40 and 70 students) and the material conditions are very difficult (not every student has a pen and notebook !) There are many dropouts and when students do finish school, many of them test badly at basic skills (reading, writing,…) - just to mention some of the problems.
So, what should be done ? It was not the ambition of the NGO to pump in huge sums of money, but rather, to try and help those teachers to do better with the same means. In other words, to let the trainees experience some teaching methods which have proved their efficiency in our countries.

Two approaches are chosen : “institutional pedagogy” as practised in some primary and secondary French schools, and the adult methodology used at Uccle school (Brussels) and largely inspired by the 70’s “All’s Well course” designed by Dickinson, Leveque and Sagot. ( For something more about this go to Multilingualism- its methoglical aspects) This is why of our school was selected, where the NGO members had been students themselves…

April 2001 : No news

Anne and I have had the first interviews, but we have no news from our would-be employers. In fact, they want to be sure they get the financial support of the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Cooperation) before letting us know. For us, it’s “wait and see”, the project may be postponed or even cancelled.

Late May 2001 : decision time

The project is going to be financed and will last from mid August to end of December 2001. (the initial six-month period is reduced to 5) Decisions must be taken ! Anne is still willing to go and I find myself trapped in a difficult choice : on the one hand, I’d like to challenge myself in something different, to test a methodology I believe in within a totally new context, to bring my modest contribution to a development project, to open my eyes to a different world, to go back to the continent where I was born and to which I had never returned since my adolescent years. On the other hand, I don’t know how I can possibly leave my 3 children (aged 10, 12 and 17) and dear husband in Brussels for such a long stretch of time. Of course, the family discussed the different aspects of the project and for several days I kept asking myself what to do. And suddenly (that’s the right word : a glimpse of a solution came to me all of a sudden) I understood that if I felt torn (and disappointed whatever decision I made) I had “to divide the time by two” and offer the following solution : I would go for two months and a half only, and my younger daughter would accompany me (first, she wanted to, second, my husband would feel less “overwhelmed” by the two older and more independent children). This proposal had the extra advantage that no selection process between Anne and me would need to take place. We would both go one after the other, Anne and I have been friends and colleagues for over twenty years. Everybody agreed. I really felt relieved….

June 2001 : preparation

To prepare a coherent link between the two methodologies selected by the NGO, a French trainer of “Institutional Pedagogy” is invited to come over to Brussels. We hold meetings and he stays in my class for two full days. He takes part in the different activities – he speaks a very good English, he’s also a teacher of Chinese. He seems enthusiastic, we understand each other…

Besides, Anne and I go through all the administrative and medical preparation : we need the approval of our Education Minister to obtain "special mission leave”, we have to apply to the overseas social security system, we need passports, vaccinations, I check the school arrangements for my daughter, etc. Life is much simpler when one doesn’t change one’s habits !

July 2001: French trainees and trainers

My future employers send me to France where I take part in a one-week course on “Institutional Pedagogy”. The other trainees are French primary teachers. Together, we form “a class” and experience different aspects of that pedagogy : “What's new?” (early morning contact with the class), “le texte libre” (free writing process), “l’album d’enquête” (sort of scrapbook of a group visit), “les métiers de la classe” (each pupil is given a specific responsibility in the group), “les ceintures de comportement” (behaviour belts – a carefully thought out system of encouraging pupils to become responsible) , “le conseil de classe” (class council where all the aspects of class life can be discussed and managed using certain rituals)…Although I can’t use all this directly in my adult classes, I find this training extremely interesting : the exchange with all the participants is rich and raises lots of questions “Individuals versus institutions ?” is one of them…

It is decided that Anne leaves Brussels on August 10 and starts teaching a few days after. I’ll join her around October 20th and go on till the end of December. In Senegal, the 21 trainees have been selected after a placement test (level in English) and an interview with the members of the NGO (motivation)

August 2001 : Bye bye Anne

It’s time for Anne to pack. I will have to wait until about a week after her arrival to get any news : she’s OK, the trainees are enthusiastic, eager to learn, friendly. She calls from public phone boxes, not like ours, of course. They are located in small rooms, sometimes equipped with a fan. Usually, this sort of business is run by a family. People soon get to know Anne so I can phone from Belgium and they go and fetch her.

September and early October 2001:

It’s back to school for everybody in Belgium. I’m pretty busy with all the arrangements to be made for my absence. I found out it was more practical to communicate with Anne via the internet. Kaolack has several cybercafés : in her Emails, she describes to me the content of the course so far, the reaction of the trainees and we discuss several aspects of the course. Anne has trained herself in NLP techniques and “Gestion Mentale or Mind Management”(de la Garanderie). She is also an amateur actress and theatre director. Among the Senegalese trainees, there’s “Peter” (everybody has picked up an English nickname for the class !), a French teacher, a teachers trainer, a poet, an actor and a theatre director ! So, it is no coincidence that, little by little, the project of creating a theatre play in English comes up. After all, from the very early stages of the lessons, much of “the whole person involvement” is required : mimes, body language, rhythm and stress pattern exercises, sketches, role plays are done every day in the class. A play would be a natural result of the learning process. Some trainees are reluctant “we’re teachers, not actors !” they protest. But soon, the enthusiasm and the cohesion of the group win out… Alongside the lessons, Anne and the group involve themselves in a bustling activity of creating the scenario, writing the dialogues, designing the setting and props, rehearsing…to be ready for the first night on my arrival. In fact, Anne and I have decided that the performance of the play would take place between my arrival and her departure. Several Senegalese officials are invited : the Inspector of the Academy (representing the Ministry of Education of the area of Kaolack), the President of the local association providing the project with facilities and logistic support, both of them associated with the NGO in the project, the headmasters of some schools, other Senegalese English teachers … What a challenge for the group !

October 24th : D day for me and my family

This morning we hugged and kissed our goodbyes. Alice, my young adventurer, was quiet and strong and optimistic – as usual! Once on board, I tried to sort out my mixed feelings and concentrate on what would be coming. The flight was perfect with splendid views on the desert dunes and the Atlantic African coast as we approached Dakar. Malick had been sent from Kaolack to welcome us at the airport and we left Dakar immediately. We took the road for Thiès and Diourbel as it is said to be in better condition, but we had a flat tyre anyway (which is extremely frequent on Senegalese roads) and we reached Kaolack later that night. There was no electricity, no water when we arrived, but a friendly welcome from Anne !

October 25th : Theatre Play and…introductions

In the morning, as I was waiting at the local phone box, a young man started a conversation (not saying hello and not talking to passers-by would be considered very rude) and told us he was a musician. A few minutes later, he came with his handmade “Kora” and sang some of his songs…A magical moment…

Later that day, Anne introduced each trainee (this is “Abdoulaye” alias “James”, this is “Babacar” alias “John”, etc) and then, the performance began : the story of a young Senegalese student who gets a grant to go and study in London. He lands at Heathrow, goes through the Customs, can’t bring in his “bissap” (one of his favourite beverages, made of infused hibiscus flowers), looks for a flat, enrols at a school, meets other students, writes a moving letter to his grandmother who stayed in their village and when he returns home, gives a big party and a lively report of his experience : Culture shock and funny situations ! Applause from the audience ! Congratulations !

The performance was followed by a Good-Bye Party in Anne’s honour. Her contribution was over and everyone was grateful.

Monday October 28th : First day of class

I had decided to write a collective letter to my new students and to start the session with it. (Thank you, Mario, for having taught me the power of letter writing in class situations). In this letter, I first described the positive feedback the former trainers had given me about the group, then gave a global view of the content of the course (focus on expressing oneself in a great variety of situations) and expressed my congratulations for their performance in “Tomorrow…London”, the theatre play. I also suggested they might want to answer my letter. I must confess only one person answered this first letter. But, the second one (which I wrote 4 weeks later) brought me eleven replies…

Mid November : how to meet their needs ?

The first days of class allowed us to get to know each other and gave me a clearer picture of the level and the needs of the group : beginner to lower-intermediate, most of them having had some English classes at secondary school. Aural as well as written comprehension was fairly good. Concerning speaking, I noticed that most of them speak slowly and it’s not a question of hesitation or searching the right word, it’s the rhythm of the whole speech which sounds unusual to my ears. It is as if they play with sudden accelerations and slow-downs. It’s clear they love speaking !

One of my concerns is also to find the right material (and the “right English”) to use in the class. Neighbouring Gambia is an English-speaking country, but the contacts with its inhabitants are not necessarily frequent. In Africa, people don’t travel as much as we do. In Kaolack, several British or American newspapers and magazines – as well as African press written in English – can be found, but this material is expensive. Connections on the Internet are available in the cybercafés, but it’s also expensive. Besides, linguistically speaking, that material doesn’t fit the actual level of English of the trainees.

I visited the only library of the city, called l’Alliance Franco-Sénégalaise. It is housed in a very original building which was awarded the Aga Khan Prize for architecture : bright colours cover the façade and the inside walls, a maze of small rooms welcome readers, an open-air stage offer opportunities for concerts and theatre performances. But, the English books section proposes half a shelf of old paperbacks… So, I resolved to use the audio and visual material of the course book I had brought as guidelines (Sometimes, the electricity cuts did not allow me to use any of it anyway !) and I got some good surprises :

for instance, the day I introduced “A Poem of Robert Burns” - I quote :
“The Golden Age we’ll then revive;

Each man will be a brother;

In harmony we shall live,

And share the earth together;

In Virtue train’d, enlighten’d

Youth Will love each fellow-creature;

And future years shall prove the truth

That Man is good by nature:

Then let us toast with three times three

The reign of Peace and Liberty! " –

I was wondering how they would react. Aren’t space, time and cultural gaps too wide ? Not at all ! First, they have a great love for literary texts (Nobody has forgotten here that Léopold Sédar Senghor, the President of Senegal from1960 to 1980, received a Nobel Prize for Poetry) and then, they got intensively involved in a debate which focused on the gap existing between the third world countries and developed countries, the necessity of dreams and utopias, the role of women in Senegalese society,…Everyone wanted to add something and the debate went on and on, in Wolof, French, during the break time…

Another example ? One activity is based on a few slides showing a very typical aspect of British life : Fish & Chips. The students are shown a silent film, they suggest lines of dialogue and improvise a little sketch. Those were absolutely hilarious ! Meeting a friend in the street (and inviting him to have a drink or a snack) IS definitely an important social event in Senegal !

A last example of cultural enrichment : in a well-known activity dealing with lexical development (words to name the different members of a family + descriptive vocabulary), I drew my own – simple -family tree on the blackboard and let them ask me some questions. When I asked them to draw their own family trees, I started to realise they were getting involved in a much more complex task. As a matter of fact, polygamy still exists in Senegal and the so-called trees looked like mutant octopuses with dozens of branches. Commenting them was even more complex !

Alice at school :

In the meantime, my daughter Alice had gone through strong feelings about her school. Before leaving home, I had checked the Belgian Education Ministry requirements and found out although education is compulsory (I already knew, of course), attending school is not. Practically, Alice had several options : register for an official correspondence course, bring files from her Brussels teacher, be my student or attend a local school. It was decided she would go to school in Kaolack, work on her teacher’s files and regularly report to her Belgian classmates. When I saw her after the first day at school, she was distressed and, in tears, explained to me the teacher had a little whip which he used to “make pupils understand”. She somehow felt that he wouldn’t use it on her, but was deeply shocked and didn’t want to go back to school. I tried to calm her down and the next day visited her teacher, Barthélémy, to inform him that she would not return because of him using a whip. He smiled at me and said with a gentle voice “Of course, I should have thought of that, the culture shock !” And he promised he wouldn’t use it as long as Alice would attend his classes, i.e. till the end of December ! . He added “If Alice still doesn’t want to come back, I’ll come and speak to her and explain why here, in Africa, …”. Alice and I talked a lot about it and she finally returned to Barthélémy’s class. He kept his promise for a while – using his hand instead of the whip – but the whip reappeared during the week of exams in late December…

The pupils were kind to her, teaching her some words of Wolof and steps of dance and games. When we left, Alice offered them a big illustrated map of Senegal she had drawn and coloured herself.

The “whip affair” was also much discussed among my trainees and they expressed a wide range of opinions : some teachers came up to me “Alice is right : corporal punishment is outlawed ! Teachers should use other methods !” Others tried to explain “Classes are overcrowded. It’s difficult to have authority, you know” … Although I strongly disapprove of it, I feel I have “no lesson to give”. After all, here in Europe, it has existed a long time. Corporal punishment was only abolished in the UK a few years ago, wasn’t

it ? And Alice proved to herself that she could be brave…

By the end of November, trainees and I know each other pretty well. This is also due to the “the interviews”. Anne had started them and I went on (everyday or one day out of two, a volunteer is interviewed by the whole group). This fluency activity is much appreciated : they listen carefully to the questions and answers, ask some tricky ones (“You are married, Charlie. How about having a second or a third wife ?” OR “What are the best and worst moments you’ve experienced as a teacher ?”).

Early December :

when every member of the group – me included – had been interviewed, we started a cycle of “speeches”. This time, the task was to prepare the narration of an event, or a tale, or a childhood memory,… and to give the speech (5 minutes). Inevitably it was followed by a “question time”. I realise that their interest for this activity is so strong that I have to re-consider the timing. The choice of their subjects reveals their personalities and interests in life. They give me an excellent opportunity to explore the customs and habits, beliefs and hopes, traditions and values of Senegal. Besides, it gives them an intensive drill on questions and past tenses.

There’s only one month left before the end of the training and an evaluation takes place. I tell them in a collective letter (as I said earlier, I’m convinced of the power of letter writing) : “../…So, we are about half-way through this course and, to use a metaphor, it’s time “we stopped the engine and looked back on the road we have travelled”. To do this, we’re going to use the “check-your-progress” (note : this is a 5-part test designed by the course book I use) and discuss its results. The CYP are not to be considered as a competition or an examination, they are occasions for you, the learner, to measure up against the objectivity of the language without the judgement of the teacher. At the end of the test, you are able to see clearly the progress you have made and what has yet to be accomplished. Then, I would like you to give me a personal account of your experience as a learner. Please do this in a letter addressed to me. …/…”. This is when I got more letters ! To come back to the evaluation itself, I let them correct their own tests, I answered their questions, but I remained discreet (I didn’t read and note down their scores) and it was obvious that they were not used to being given any responsibility in a correction process, neither room for discussion. So, they talked a lot about this sense of freedom and autonomy, this awareness and how much they could consider leaving their students some responsibility in that field…

Throughout the training sessions : Feedback activities

I kept in mind the trainees were above all teachers involved in an intensive five-month pedagogical training (English being a “pretext” to put them ‘in the shoes’ of a learner) and I used the following activities to get their feedback. Thank you Phil Dexter and Mario ( Pilgrims trainers) for having inspired me…

  1. Anonymous envelopes (from Ways of Doing,Davis et al., Cambridge, 1999, p71) in which I also noticed their extraordinary efficiency in reporting results

  2. "One thing I’ve learnt in this week's classes is that…"(no set order for speaking/ no one is obliged to speak)

  3. Student-centred/Teacher-centred activities scale (the trainees were paired and were asked to choose two class activities, to discuss and place them on the scale. To visualize the scale and make the discussion more kinaesthetic, two volunteers held a string to represent the scale and then, in turn, a representative of each pair stood along the string at a precise place and justified his position).

  4. Metaphors (from Five-minute activities, Wright and Ur, Cambridge) : in that group work: the trainees discussed the most appropriate metaphors for the words “student”, “teacher”, ”lesson”, “attending this training”. I remember that for Charlie, a student was “a soldier”, for he has to obey the teacher and the rules of the school; for Matthew, he was rather “a lump of clay”, being shaped by the teacher whereas Eric said a student was “a philosopher” because he needs to be critical and to think about what is good for him !

  5. the letters writing process, that gave me individual feedback

End of December : last days

We ended the course with a final evaluation test (in which self-assessment was particularly important) and a general feedback. M. Insa Camara, English teacher at Kaolack (see his contribution in Short Articles/Motivating students to writing and speaking English as a foreign language), was invited to the oral test. A goodbye party was organised to round off the course in festive mode.

My own feedback ?

Well, I can say that this experience has been extremely enriching on the professional and human points of view : beyond all the socio-cultural differences, the trainees and I developed a sense of belonging and the right climate for learning to take place. This is due to the trainees’ personal qualities (great respect, openness, enthusiasm, cooperation) and to the talent of the other trainers in building up a group and establishing working rules. I mentioned earlier that the trainees liked speaking; they proved to be excellent listeners too. They opened my eyes on a more respectful management of time (don’t we tend here up in the North to do everything at full speed and lose efficiency in the end ?). Moreover, the contact with all the Senegalese was extremely friendly and respectful : they made me feel at ease from the very first day as they welcomed this “toubab” (i.e. “white”) who came to work in their town with her daughter.

Finally, this experience was a personal and family challenge. A very supportive husband and open-minded children helped reinforce the love and unity of our family. Who could ask for more ?

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