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Equity & Diversity Opinion

Famous in African Schools, But ‘Now What’ in America?

By Marilyn Rhames — April 11, 2012 3 min read
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When I went to Cameroon, I was famous. Or at least a really important person. An American teacher who has come to see how educators there can improve their practice. First I did a live radio interview. Then I traveled around to schools, observing classroom instruction, and meeting with teachers and administrators afterward.

They had hard questions:

*How can we teach students science without any science materials or equipment?

*How can we effectively lesson plan with virtually no teacher guides?

*How do we teach when none of the students have textbooks and only a few can afford to buy notebooks and pencils?

*How can we manage a class of 65 to 100 students everyday?

*How do we teach technology skills when all we have is a book about computers? Our school has no electricity, no computers, no Internet, and none of the staff are computer literate?

*How can we convince parents to bring their children in school instead of working them in the fields during planting season and harvest—which is how families make a living?

*How can we teach preschool children when we don’t have access to many learning toys?

*How will the students learn the mandated dual languages—English and French—in school when their families speak only in Pidgin language and native dialect at home?

Questions like these were not rhetorical. They were not poised as covert excuses. The teachers wanted real suggestions for their real problems. I commended them for getting out of the bed each morning and coming to work to face such overwhelming challenges. I told them that I observed some excellent teaching when considering the circumstances.

I offered a few suggestions that they thought were plausible. For example, there was too much direct instruction; they should slowly implement self-sustaining small groups to engage and reinforce learning. More independent work time was also needed to more clearly assess student learning. In addition, I suggested working out a teacher residency program with the local teaching colleges to increase practical, pre-service teacher training while also lessening the teacher-student ratios.

We would always run out of time. I promised to keep in touch.

Now I’m back in the states. I am definitely not famous, and I’m only “a really important person” to my small circle of family and friends. My status as an American teacher is not a big deal. When I came back home there was not a parade of children singing, dancing and drumming to welcome me the way it had been in a village in Belo. (My husband did make dinner and give me a dozen roses, and my daughters did jump around and do a little dance.)

Here’s the question that haunts me: Now what? Is it possible to mobilize a corps of American teachers who are interested in running workshops in the Northwest Region of Cameroon? The teachers there are hungry for help. They are not too proud to admit the educational situation in their country is desperate. They seemed to know very little about learning centers, integrated curriculum, or interactive read alouds. Would American teachers be willing to sacrifice their time, money, and energy during Spring Break or summer vacation to teach teachers on the other side of the globe?

One of the last things I did there was to read aloud Beatrice’s Goat to a group of 150 or more children from Belo. The book is about a village girl in Uganda whose gift of a goat allows her family to earn enough money to send her to school.

Only some of the kids spoke fluent English, so a pastor in the village translated each sentence from the book in their native dialect. When I finished reading, I asked the children what was their favorite part of the book. “Beatrice went to school"; “she loved her goat"; “she helped her mother,” were their answers. They LOVED the book.

I realized that my other book about an African American girl dressing up like a princess for her father wasn’t appropriate. Most of the children didn’t even have a single toy at home, let alone a fairy tale costume to twirl around in.

Then I passed out cards my students in Chicago had written to the Cameroonian children. I also passed out colorful pencils, erasers and pencil sharpeners. The children were so excited and appreciative! I was so moved that I had to walked away and cry.

I’ll just end the post right here.

Photo: Marilyn Rhames

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