Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Bedtime Stories

Lately we've taken to the time-honored tradition of reading bedtime stories to our younger children every night. We have this great edition of Peter Pan that has illustrations on every page, and it's already a familiar story because they've seen the movie, so the kids absolutely love it and have taken to the time-honored tradition of pleading for just one more chapter every night.

Sunday night, after promising to come read to them, I went into the office where we keep the book and was unable to find it. Unable to face the kids with no story, I made a snap decision that we would make up our own stories together. I asked one child to pick an animal, another to give the animal a name, and a third to come up with a description of the animal. At various junctures in the story, I would pause and ask them, "what do you think happened next?" and whatever they said became what happened next.

Without further ado, I present to you the story of "Tima, the Zebra who Urinated Inside":

Once upon a time, there was a zebra named Tima, but Tima wasn't like other zebras: Tima had a magic tongue, and when her tongue touched water it would turn the water into milk. Tima was so lucky because she always got to drink lots of milk.

One day, Tima drank a big barrel full of milk, and drinking all the milk made her so tired at she went into her house and fell asleep. While Tima was asleep, the clever hare came and put a lock on her door so that she couldn't get out. When Tima woke, she found she was locked in...and what was worse, she had to urinate.

Tima called out, "help me please. I'm locked in my house, and I have to urinate!" But no one came, so she waited, but still she had to urinate so badly that she called for help again and again no one came. Now Tima was beginning to have a pain in her stomach from needing to urinate, and she knew that if she didn't urinate soon she might explode. She decided she would have to urinate inside.

So she did, but then she found she had a new problem: once she started urinating she couldn't stop. Soon the urine was up to her ankle, and she was still urinating! She called for help again, "will someone please come open the door?" but still no one came, and now the urine was reaching to her knee. She kept calling for help, and no one kept coming, and the urine kept rising higher and higher - to her waist, then to her shoulders, and soon she was swimming to keep her head above the urine.

And then Tima remembered her magic tongue. If she could turn water into milk, maybe she could do the same thing with urine. She thought, 'should I touch my tongue to the urine?' and because she was about to drown, she decided she had to. So she stuck out her tongue and touched it to the urine, but of course the urine didn't turn into milk, because only water turns into milk. But you know what the urine did turn into? Soda!

Tima remembered that she had a bunch of bottles in her house, so she dove into the soda, found the bottles, and began to fill them up. Then she took the bottles of soda and sold them.

And to this day, every time Tima urinates, she does it into a bottle and touches her tongue to the urine to turn it to soda. And now Tima is a very rich zebra.

The End

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Massive Failure: Who is Responsible?

(Sorry, loyal readers, I have been forbidden from posting video of the bull butchery for fear of crazy animal rights groups boycotting our site. Instead you're getting another post about education)

I know that nearly all of our posts are about the triumphs and travails of running a home for at-risk children, so I probably should remind you - as I often have to remind myself - we're not actually here to run a children's home.

My most recent, and one of the most forceful, reminders of why I am here came a few days ago as I was going through a filing cabinet trying to figure out which files I could move into storage to make room for some new files (I know, life in Africa is so thrilling). One of the files I came across was full of school results from last school year for our kids (the school year here mirrors the calendar year). Of course I was intrigued, and of course I pulled the file out and began going through it.

The first exam result was for a very clever boy here, kind of the Sudanese Charlie Brown. His aggregate score was 205/400. There at the bottom were the headmaster's comments: "a very good boy. Recommend to promote to p.4 [the next grade]."

The next files were for two more of our boys, one who I know can't read, the other who can not only read but is also a math whiz and recently schooled me in Connect 4 (badly... 2 out of 3 matches... My head was spinning when he finished with me). They finished, respectively, 38th & 39th out of 202 students in their class, one with an aggregate score of 105/400 and the other with 99/400.

Both students failed. At that point I asked one of my colleagues - a former teacher - what the cutoff was for passing. "Fourty percent," he replied. "But if enough students don't reach it, they may drop it as low as twenty." I can only imagine the look on my face, because he took one look at it and said, "You're beginning to understand how terrible things are here." 

Now, if I assume that everyone above the boy who finished 38th passed (which I don't know, but what I'm about to say would hold true even if it wasn't the case), that would still mean that over 80% of a fourth grade class failed.

In the case of failure that stunning, no matter where that failure takes place - whether in a school in Africa or America, for instance - I don't think anyone involved can avoid some of the responsibility. Clearly there's a problem with the system, because even Superman wouldn't be able to effectively teach a classroom of 200; clearly there's a problem with the parents, because no parents should tolerate paying to send their child into a classroom of 200; clearly there's a problem with the teachers, because even in a classroom of 200 kids 160 of them shouldn't score below 25% on their year end exams; clearly there's a problem with the curriculum, because any curriculum that yields such dismal results isn't effective for the population to which it's addressed. Seriously, spread the responsibility around - let no one avoid taking some share of it and doing something to change it the next time around... With one notable exception: the kids themselves. They're in school because they are learning how to learn. If they fail at such an early juncture, then I don't accept that they're failing.

As parents, the directors of this home accepted responsibility for their part and did something: they sent the kids to a different school this year, one that caps class sizes at 65 (yes, still a little high, but progress in the right direction), and already the results are showing. In the second term, my math whiz/Connect 4 General scored a 76/100 on math alone - over 75% of his aggregate score for four subjects in his previous school. He confirmed for me that the new school is better, and the other kids have echoed him. The discipline in their new school is stricter - if students arrive after 8:30 they're sent home - and the teaching is better ("the teachers come every day, and they always have a lesson ready!" a group of boys reported to me). I'm pleased with the improvement.

And I'm still troubled. I'm troubled because I have kids who I see study for hours a day to pass their fifth and sixth grade examinations, only to return with aggregate scores under 100/400. The former school pissed me off because students who were capable weren't learning; the new school doesn't piss me off, it just has a glaring flaw in it that students who have been poorly served in the earlier grades have no opportunity for remediation. I don't want to tell my kids, "don't bother studying - you can't read, so you're going to fail. You may as well go kick around the football."

All of this brings me back to the fact that I'm not here to run a children's home. When we first arrived, I was ready to dive in to educating the children and teaching literacy - I even diligently performed literacy tests with all 60 kids and used the results to break them into small single-gender groups based on ability level. And then the reality of running a children's home slapped me in the face and reminded me, "I'm a gargantuan task that you have to make some progress on first. Let me give you some 80 and 90 hour work weeks so that you don't forget it."

Sarah and I began digging in to the operations of the home. We streamlined the financial system, we hired someone to work as a full time parent, and we rewrote job descriptions for some of the other administrators to better take advantage of their abilities. Last week, we left for the entire week... And nothing fell apart. We realized, "hey, we don't have to solve every problem that comes up. We can and should let our colleagues feel the weight of responsibility for some things, and then they'll contribute to solving problems too."

So now I have overhauled my weekly schedule to include a few blocks of time every week for teaching literacy. I know exactly what I want to do, exactly how I want to do it, I've designed the structure to accommodate it...and I'm terrified to start. It's a lot like the nervous fear that I felt as I stood outside my classroom before going in to teach my first lesson on my first day as a teacher, that fear of the inevitable and the unknown. That, mixed with the fear that as soon as I start this some crisis will arise in the home and I'll be pulled away, leaving my dream abandoned again. Nonetheless, this morning I gathered my resources together to put the finishing touches on my first few lesson plans.