||Volume 21, Number 1, September 2008
By Yom Shamash
What can two well-intentioned Canadian teachers offer Mozambican teachers struggling with overcrowded classes ranging from 60 to 100 students, lack of resources, training, and student motivation, low salaries, poverty, malaria, HIV Aids, and hunger?
This question haunted me as I was preparing myself for a two-week teaching trip to Africa.
The request from the Mozambique Teachers' Union (ONP) was to aid teachers in Portuguese language methodology and math and science methodology. Because the request seemed vague, I decided to prepare two workshops: one dealing with teaching methodology in the elementary classroom and another focusing solely on teachers' needs.
A little historical background will put this into perspective. Mozambique is one of the poorest countries on the African continent. It has been devastated by two wars: the War of Independence from Portugal that ended in 1975 and the Civil War that followed and ended in 1992.
In 2004, the Mozambican Ministry of Education created a new national curriculum with the introduction of a bilingual curriculum in elementary grades. There are 21 local languages in Mozambique and Portuguese is the national language. Many children start in Grade 1 speaking only their local language while teachers do not necessarily speak the language of their students.
The farther one gets from the capital city of Maputo, the more precarious the conditions of the educational system are. One teacher in Lichinga (northwest of Mozambique) told me that he is afraid to walk in the classroom for fear of stepping on the children sitting on the floor. His class in an elementary school has about 100 students.
Neither my colleague in Alberta (Cindy Pereira) nor myself are math teachers. Cindy teaches French, socials, and sciences and I teach socials and ESL in adult education. So again, what could we offer? We knew so little about the education system in Mozambique and about the conditions under which the teachers worked. We learned that most teachers in elementary school had Grade 10 education and less. The new requirements to become a teacher are Grade 10 plus one year of education for elementary teachers and Grade 12 plus one year of education for secondary teachers. The moment the teachers complete the program, they are assigned to schools in the province in which they live, not necessarily in their city. Cindy and I did not have the chance to see the schools in operation because while we were there in January, the schools were closed for summer holidays.
So back to the question, What could we offer that they didn't already know?
I have taken drama classes and storytelling workshops and I use stories in my ESL classes. I thought that a country with a rich oral culture would be a good place to try storytelling precisely because of overcrowded classrooms and lack of resources. From oral stories, we could develop reading material with the help of the teachers, since they knew their students and their reality and would know if this could work. It was a shot in the dark and worth a try.
In our first week, we were to train 12 teachers, eight of whom would become trainers of 60 more teachers in the second week–30 in Pemba, province of Santo Delgado and 30 in Lichinga, province of Niassa in the north of Mozambique. The train-the-trainers model was designed by Larry Kuehn, who has experience designing educational programs in under-developed countries.
We started the workshops by asking the teachers what their challenges were. We were learning along with the Mozambican teachers and we allowed them to guide us in this path. We created three groups of four and each group created a character based on the lives of their students. After some refining of the character, the small groups gave life to the characters. Each character spoke in the first person about themselves, their family, school, neighbourhood, and likes and dislikes. The words of the characters were recorded in print, forming the basis of the books that were being created. Once the stories were written, I asked each teacher in the group to make up a story about the character using the plot diagram "introduction–conflict–crisis–resolution" and perform it orally.
I modelled storytelling by performing three stories I had prepared in advance. The results were encouraging. The teachers surprised us with their good humour, imagination, and willingness to take risks. The stories created were compelling, funny and powerful. They opened a window into the lives of Mozambican students.
By the end of the second week, we had 16 booklets (8 from each province) with comprehension exercises, activities, and over 70 oral stories. The written stories were photocopied and each teacher took home eight stories. The teachers left the seminar with the commitment to test these stories in the classrooms confident of their ability to create their own textbooks. Moreover, they told us that the seminar gave them a chance to talk to each other about their daily struggles and the challenges in the classrooms.
I was particularly impressed with the work of the provincial secretary of the ONP in Niassa. Not only did Natalia Anastasio organize the seminar (accommodation, transportation, food, and support from the provincial and city Ministry of Education), she also attended all the workshops and talked to the teachers about the importance of building a strong teachers' union in the province. In Mozambique, membeship in the teachers' union is voluntary.
The Mozambican project is a three-year project sponsored by the Canadian Teachers' Federation with participation from the BCTF and the Alberta Teachers' Association.
Yom Shamash teaches at Invergarry Learning Centre, Surrey. email@example.com