Refining lenses

Ellen Tutoring

Just as we go to an opthomologist to improve our vision, the experiences we have can give us a clearer picture of the world around us. Teaching in Africa has given us challenges that we would be less likely to face while teaching in the United States; these challenges refine our educator lenses and make us better teachers.

After assessing each student’s reading ability with comprehension, the Ball State team worked together to develop a tutoring plan. We noticed that we all had similar issues. The students tend to be able to decode words very well and speak fluently. They have difficulty, however, comprehending what they have read.

When I first assessed Tonnex, the 12-year-old student with whom I am working, his highest instructional level was at a second grade reading level. The others and I thought this seemed very low considering the other work he has done. As it turns out, Tonnex was having trouble comprehending the story because he had little schema about the topic. One story, for instance, was about the first snow fall, another story was all about a walk through the woods in Autumn. No wonder the story was difficult to comprehend! He had never seen snow or leaves changing color. When I asked what the people in the story might do with the snow, he answered that he would collect it for drinking water. When I asked what other animals we might see in the forest, he suggested an elephant. To solve this problem, we searched for stories without a cultural bias. Sure enough, when Tonnex read about a soccer game and airplanes, he found himself comprehending at a 5th grade reading level.

After determining the students reading levels, we worked out a tutoring plan. We decided that it would benefit all students to make predictions and look for who, what where, when, and why while reading. We team taught our lessons then worked with the children individually. Everything went well despite the challenges we faced.

In the United States, we take many things for granted. In Malawi, we have to work with limited resources. With limited paper and no copy machine, we had to find new ways to show the graphic organizer. Without an extensive library, it was difficult to find a book that fit our needs exactly. In a country where students are taught in classes of 120, we had to figure out how to motivate the students to participate. We learned to use student translators when the language barrier became a problem. And, we even found ways to work around the cultural differences when most of the books assume the students grew up in a Western culture.

The challenges that we face during this immersive program make us refine our teacher lenses. We have to view and approach everything in a new light. These challenges sharpen our skills and promote better teaching.

Jessica and Ruth Teaching


4 Responses

  1. I had not thought about
    the books not relating to the
    I see how that would be a problem.
    Keep up the good work

  2. Comprehension is an interesting thing. All of you are well educated people that had prepared for the trip by reading. But, do you think you comprehended the poverty, famine and life struggles that you where about to witness? Likewise, it must be very difficult for these young students to learn to read by using books with a western culture slant. Good catch in regards to Tonnex.

    I found it interesting that Tonnex reasoned that snow would melt and because, like rain, it comes from clouds that it would be safe to drink. Survival seems to take a priority.

  3. BK is such an essential component for comprehension. In a school with many ESL students, the students’ BK is a key deciding factor in their ability to comprehend and understand…not just in regards to academics, but in their experiences as well. We have students from countries that span the globe, but sometimes it is even our English language speakers from the US that have the most limited BK.

  4. Ah yes, cultural bias! It is everywhere Kevin and children’s books can be the worst even in North America.

    In my own experience my tenth grade German teacher read a story about an artichoke. Now in 1965 in Hamilton, Ontario kids in working class home usually did not eat artichokes! My teacher howled during the story and most of us never did understand the humour!

    When I first started teaching in the inner city the kids always said that vegetables came from “the Barn” and I tried to tell them it was “the farm” until another teacher told me that the kids there shopped at a local store called “the Barn” and that’s where their veggies came from!!! Another early lesson.

    When Ezra Jack Keats first starting writing books he was one of the first people to include children of colour who lived in rather poor surroundings. How clever it was of him to realish this new audience, yet how sad that we are often so unaware of others around us who are “different”.

    It sounds like a wonderful experience that will have a profound influence on you as a person as well as a teacher. Congratulations!

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