Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Apologies for not updating my blog as regularly as I could have, no excuse just good old fashioned laziness really! Since my last post I have been slowly getting to know the way things work over here. I have managed to attend some workshops for teachers. The Jolly Phonics training was organised by GATE (Gambian Association of Teachers of English).  They are currently working in 5 out of the 8 clusters in my region. I finally met some teachers there and talked to them and found out about how they work and find teaching. The workshop was ok, but the vast majority of the day was spent by the teachers making resources for their classroom, with no apparent instructions from the trainers as to how to effectively use them. However, to be fair I only attended 1 day out of 5 so I may have missed that one.

The other 3 clusters in the region are being supported by a Swedish NGO called Future in our Hands (FIOH). They have adapted a phonic scheme especially for The Gambia called SEGRA (Serholt Early Grade Reading Ability). The various pictures and words they use to introduce sounds and rhymes are very familiar to Gambia children and have a relevance to them. I have attended a couple of workshops run by them and they are very good, a much better scheme than the Jolly Phonics one. The trainers are Gambians and also much better and more effective in their training methods. The two regional trainers for my region, Kebba and Cherno, come up every few weeks to run workshops and go out on observations, giving feedback to teachers then heading back down to the Kombos to report and to prepare for the next round of training. They invited me along on one of their trek’s, so I finally managed to see some teaching and to monitor some lessons. It was great to finally see some teaching but at the same time overwhelming to realise the amount of support these teachers actually need in terms of training. It is very chalk and talk, although FIOH are making in-roads to get the teachers to be more active with the children. The teachers can have up to 45 in their classes and have limited resources with which to work. The workshop I attended at the weekend was specifically for making resources for the teachers to use when introducing sounds with their class. The teachers had to bring their own cartons with them to facilitate in production of them, it was a sea of cardboard by the end! The teachers are also paid to attend training, to pay for transport and lunch. It was about D250 which is only about £5 but that would last a few days here.

As Sarah is predominantly working with the South Bank, I am going to be working with the North Bank so when I finally got my motorbike I went on my first trek with one of the cluster monitors for the Wuli West are in Region 6, Malick. I had to cross the River Gambia for the first time. No nice comfy ferry for me to cross on......instead I had to ride my bike down to the river bank, then get off and hop onto what can only be described as a metal tub while the men hauled my bike onto the back where it perched precariously over the side while another man rowed us across. I am glad to say my bike made it without getting wet! I finally met Malick who took me on a whirlwind visit round 9 out the 11 schools in his cluster, through the bush and past many tiny little villages that I have no hope of ever finding my way back to my own! I took my GPS watch with me in the vain hope I could use it to find my way back to some of them. Sadly all it recorded was a red loop as there are no towns or streets in this part of the world to use as landmarks! Anyway, it was really nice to visit so many schools, even though I barely spent any kind of time in any of them. I have at least introduced myself to a few headteachers and I hope to go back this week to some of the easier ones to find and see some teaching in them. The one thing common throughout the schools is the poor wall displays and ineffective use of the teaching aids they have, so this may be something that I can help with. There was one school where the HT wants a library to be set up in his school. He advised that he did have one but that all their books went to another school which was to be set up as a library centre for the cluster. Well, the library in this supposed ‘centre’, was thick with dust, books in no order and some not even age appropriate for the children in the school. Very depressing. There was one school in the cluster that has a fabulous library, although there is Peace Corps based there who set it all up and ensures it is well maintained. The HT was bemoaning the fact that she was leaving in June as her time will be up and they won’t get another one to replace her. He was worried about what would happen to it when she leaves and that there will be no-one to take care of it. I tried to tell him that each teacher could be responsible for it, but not sure he really took it on board.

Last week I also visited a local school to conduct some monitoring in an ECD class. Oh my goodness, what an immense job nursery teachers have here! Both classes I saw had over 50 children in them, with only 1 teacher, no other adult in the class. I was monitoring a listening walk for Sarah. She has written a manual for the ECD classes and had worked with the school to try and implement it. The children were to go on a walk round the school grounds and listen for different sounds. The children were all over the place, in one class the boys were running around and play fighting, whilst the teacher struggled to control them and get them to listen. There was no structure to these classes. I am still trying to get my head round what they actually do with them. I don’t think that they even know themselves and actually try and teach them the sounds that are taught in Grade 1.

Anyway, think I have bored you enough. This week I hope to find my way back to some of the schools in Wuli West, so this may be my last post if I don’t find my way home from the bush!

Monday, 5 March 2012

I have made it to Basse, eventually, after a mammoth 8½ hour road trip up-country! And that was without the involvement of any ferries.  Basse is only about 300km or so from the kombos (coastal area) but it may as well be in another world.  We took the south bank road, which as yet unfinished. Part of the time you are driving on lovely tarmac roads, other times on dirt tracks that pass for roads here. However, what is most upsetting was when we were driving on these aforementioned dirt tracks, beside tarmac roads covered with rocks to prevent vehicles from using them as the road was apparently not open yet! The south bank road is still under construction and I am reliably informed it was even worse before. Everyone is very excited about the finished road inching towards Basse and hopefully it will be only a few months before the road is finished. At the moment it is a long and for some arduous journey. At one point on our trip up-country we passed a gelli-gelli with 3 people hanging off the back as they did not have the fare to travel inside!

By the time I got to Basse, it was dark. In The Gambia darkness comes at about 7.30pm every night. One moment it’s light, the next it’s dark. So when I arrived I couldn’t quite appreciate my new house and there was no power either so no electricity. Our lovely VSO driver, Alieu, put up my mosquito net and then my bed collapsed! What a start, he fixed it for me and promised to be back with the carpenter in the morning. I was so knackered I crawled into bed and tried to sleep. I wasn’t very successful, kept thinking about what was crawling about outside! Alieu arrived with not only a carpenter in tow but also an electrician to fix some faulty wiring. They were there for a good couple of hours fixing things before he set back off on his mammoth trip back to the VSO office in the kombos.

I should tell you about my compound family. My compound mother is called Mariama Njie and she has named me after herself. She has 6 children, 4 of whom live in the Kombos. The 2 youngest boys, Lamin Ba and Alieu live at home. They are 14 and 15 years old and very nice and friendly. Lamin Ba is especially very sweet. I also have 2 other compound brothers, Seygo and Forday. They are not related to Mariama but are staying with her while they go to school here in Basse. They are 15 and 18. Forday (18) is in Grade 8 which is equivalent to 2nd year at high school. In The Gambia you have children in the same class of a variety of ages, it all depends on when they can start school. Although education is supposed to be free, in reality they pay for it and sometimes they cannot afford to send their children to school till later. Forday was unable to pay his school fees of 225 dalasi a term. That’s only about £5. I would have loved to have helped him out but it may have led to an expectation in future. Thankfully his older brother has sent him the money to enable him to attend school. My compound is lovely and very different to other ones I have seen. They have trees planted everywhere, so lots of shade. The boys are also planting a nursery garden out the back of my hut, so we will have lots of fresh vegetables I hope. Alieu and Forday took me to visit their school to show me their school’s vegetable patch. It is amazing. I have never seen anything as big back home. There were lots of children there, watering and tending to their patches. Carrots, aubergines, spring onions, tomatoes all growing in abundance. When they are ready they will see them for school funds so naturally I’ve put my name down for some!

I have had a couple of days at the Education Office and spent 7 hours in a cluster monitor meeting on Friday! That was a long day and I didn’t really say anything, which is very unlike me! Truth was I was unsure of what exactly was being discussed and decided at times, it all seemed to be quite vague and overwhelming. My VSO counterpart in Basse, Sarah, said that it is pretty much vague all the time. She was not given much help or guidance when she first arrived and had to find her own way and projects to implement. I am glad that she’s here to at least get me started. She is working on introducing a phonics scheme with a Swedish NGO in the area. Prior to my arrival, she sent emails and letters out to various charities asking for books and she got a huge delivery last week. We spent an entire morning sorting them and trying to classify them into 3 levels, as book banding is unlikely to work here as it would not be possible to book band the children’s reading levels properly.  Classes can have up to  45 children in them and 40 in composites. There are no classroom assistants and some primary schools can have up to 1000 children in them. If the school roll is below 760 then Headteachers must be class committed. Teachers will sometimes work double shifts, making their day in the classroom from 8am to 6pm. They are unlikely to get any time to assess the children on a one-to-one basis let alone spend time working with an individual child. I now realise just how lucky I was with my small classes and actually having time to work with individuals in my class. Over the next couple of weeks I hope to go out on trek with some of the cluster monitors to visit some schools. I will be primarily working with the schools on the north bank of the river. So once my motorbike arrives I’ll start visiting some schools. This week I hope to observe some training on Jolly Phonics in a local school and meet some teachers from the north bank clusters.