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  • Dr. Brock Visits Africa

    In the story below, Dr. Steve Brock describes the first days of his visit to Africa. As Chief Education Officer at Opportunity Education, Brock visited schools in Uganda this summer before participating in the two weeks of Op Ed-sponsored teacher trainin

    Kampala buzzes with energy. Because there are no sidewalks, pedestrians must walk along the edge of the street. Many are waiting on street corners for pick-up by blue-and-white checked minivans or small motorcycles, which are onomatopoetically called "boda-bodas." Unaccustomed to the British habit of travelling on the left-hand side of the street, I'm forever surprised by these pesky, 100cc. mini-cylces (to call them "motorcycles" is an overstatement) weaving in-and-out of traffic from all directions. Most of these motorbike drivers also carry one passenger. A few women in florescent dresses sit side-saddle. Almost no one wears a helmet, though some young people do sport knitted caps. Kampala City Council Primary School Kamwokya (KCC) is a public elementary school in the slums of Kampala. The school is built on a square with an open plaza in the middle. As Joseph Kawuzi (OpEd's Uganda field manager) and I drive up to the school, the principal Jane Kansiime races out to welcome us next to our white Toyota. In her fifties, Jane is a stout African matriarch, wearing a long flowing skirt. Several times during my visit, Jane refers to herself as a "robber," but if she were, it is not for herself, but her impoverished students. When I inquire about the small Norwegian flag rising out of a pencil holder on her desk, I learn that Jane has worked diligently to leverage funds from around the world. In addition to the support from OpEd, she lists a group from Norway among her principal funders. She spoke of Ugandan government graft, which "stole millions" away from the construction of the school. She bemoans that she still does not have a school bathroom for her students. The only facility, a makeshift latrine, leans on a hill in front of the school, a holdover from the workers who constructed the school. Jane is a first-class salesperson who always stays on message: "These students have nothing and education is their only hope." When we visit a third-grade classroom, one student held up the following sign, "Home is a disaster. School gives life. I will do my best to succeed." In another classroom, students act out a skit about the role of "food as a right" as they hold up hand-drawn squares of fruits, vegetables and meat. In this class, students also pantomime rubbing their heads as they awake from a pretend slumber before patting their bellies because of the suffering induced by hunger. (Later I glimpse the lunch meal the student receive: a corn-based porridge supplemented with some large brown beans. The principal notes the meal only yields "sustenance"; still it is better than what the pupils might have had otherwise.) Also on the tour, students sing a number of songs, feting me. In one classroom, I am compared to a "movie star." In another, a student raises a poster inquiring, "Steve Brock, how do you do?" Students at KCC sport an attractive uniform of dark purple and light blue. After the tour, I am escorted to a room with two levels, with the lower level about a foot lower than the higher one. At the lower side, I was asked to sit in the middle chair on a large throne-like edifice behind a table. Jane sits on the right and Joseph the left. Before us lay a variety of Ugandan delicacies, including several platters of fruit with watermelon, pineapple, green oranges, papaya, and matooke (cooked banana, served liked mashed potatoes). Also spread in front of us are bottles of water, orange Fanta, and Crest, Joseph's favorite soft drink. As we sit, the students march forward in a variety of groups, ranging from a half-dozen to perhaps forty. In addition to playing several instrumental songs, they sing rousing version of the Ugandan national anthem. The skit about fruits and meats, and the "right to food" are repeated (in case I had forgotten the message in the last hour). Another song-the principal later told me-is intended to give pubescent boys courage before their upcoming circumcisions, surgeries to reduce the threat of HIV. In another skit, a drunken, ne'er-do-well father arrives home and promptly abuses his wife and family, thus proving "home a disaster." The wife moves quickly into action and begins cooking a meal of potatoes, and as I am watching, I receive with several potatoes in a purple-nut sauce to eat. The master of ceremonies notes that though the potato came late to Uganda, it is a delicacy and tastes better than our American potato. After sampling, I cannot disagree. After closing remarks, headmaster Jane chides my colleague Joseph because her school was not on the first government list to receive OpEd assistance. She contends that when she spoke to the minister of education for Kampala, he was unaware that KCC had the electrical power required to occasion OpEd's involvement. Jane chortled as she recounted the minister writing down the name of her school in pencil, only to erase it after she left. According to the principal, it was only through her persistent phone calls and visits that she was able to secure OpEd's involvement. She touts to her students and staff that I have visited her school first, "above the cream," meaning wealthier, private schools. I am last to talk. I thank the students and staff for their generosity. Speak briefly about my history as a teacher and my time with OpEd before remarking that as today was my first full day in Uganda, indeed Africa, it was a day I would never forget. But more than that, I spoke of the lesson I had learned from headmistress Jane and that was a lesson I hoped the students remembered everyday: That Jane labors daily to make the school better for students, growing cabbage where there had been only dust, creating a kitchen ("Every woman needs a kitchen"), and developing partnerships to aid student success. In turn, students should emulate her as a model and remember that despite the obstacles they face, growing up in very poor families in the slums of Kampala, they too could persevere. When I looked over at the principal, I saw her wipe away a tear. My comments built to a crescendo, and students and faculty alike were applauding for their headmistress and themselves. Over the past year, I read ten volumes of an oratorical primer Nebraskan William Jennings Bryan published almost one hundred years ago. That reading and a stint on the Metro Community College Board prepared me well. After the presentation, I expect to exit when Joseph informs me we are to stay for lunch. At this point, I am ushered back to the large student kitchen where students are leaving with their "sustenance" of maize and beans. In the principal's office, I sample matooke for the first of many times during my stay in Uganda. In Jane's office, I spy several students entering stealthily. As Robin Hood, Jane is at it again. These ten children, including a set of twins, are born from the same mother, whom Jane described as "mad." Their mother, I learn, would make her home under the mango tree. And though she lacked intellect, she made up for that deficit "in nature," birthing these children before dying of a drug overdose. Jane implores me to take photos of these students in the hopes that I might find an American sponsor for them upon my return. Like The Catcher in the Rye, I would have taken them all with me if I could. The following day, Joseph and I visit the private Christian school of the Ugandan Martyrs, just outside Kampala. Upon arriving, we are greeted again by the head teacher, this time Margaret Kijjambja. Though soft-spoken, Margaret strikes me as a great advocate for Opportunity Education. After moving to a large cabinet, she shares with me a book of formative assessments she keeps of her students. She notes many complimentary things about our program: that OpEd provides a different educational approach, that is, our program helps teachers move away from lectures to a more engrossing approach to students. A former English teacher herself, Margaret likes the emphasis of the OpEd curriculum. She comments that when the Bishop of Kampala visited her school the week previous, the Prelate had been very impressed with the students' comprehension on texts they had not read before. Not missing a beat, Margaret attributes their improved reading to their use of Opportunity Education materials. Not surprisingly, the bishop sought to learn more about our program in order to see it implemented in more Catholic schools in his diocese. Margaret also praises the emphasis OpEd has placed on writing. As a result, her students are improving daily in composition; in addition, she uses writing as a linchpin to her school improvement process. For instance, one sixth grader recently wrote about "feeling sick" to his stomach because of an unfriendly math teacher. Margaret then presented the exercise to the math teacher himself before they conferred about a possible solution. After the formal school day, the head teacher has established a writing club among others. Several students have already had their work published in the local "Daily Monitor." One boy, "full of ideas" according to Margaret, is now making progress in all of his classes because writing allows him to organize his thoughts, improving from a scattered student to a focused student. His teachers have remarked on his progress. After seeking my confidence, Mrs. Kijjambja speaks of the resistance some teachers had to the Opportunity Education materials, viewing our curriculum as "one more thing" interfering with their own teaching. In time, however, teacher see that our videos improve student learning and also help teachers themselves grow as experts within their disciplines. Margaret maintains our videos succeed in explaining the process behind an action. For instance, though one math teacher was aware that the circumference of circle was, she was unaware of why pi was 22/7 (note: Many elementary teachers are only a year out of high school themselves and few have developed the successful pedagogy of master teachers). Moreover, Margaret remarks on the help our videos have provided in making her teachers become friendlier, less standoffish. Before the introduction of OpEd, teachers assumed a stoic approach and regularly used corporal punishment to influence student behavior. After my lengthy discussion with the principal, I have the opportunity to visit a number of classrooms. There I present two simple questions: 1) What did students like best about the OpEd videos, and 2) What might we do to improve our program? Concerning which elements students enjoyed most, the responses were numerous: learning English pronunciation, reading books, seeing how students in another country learned, learning a method for learning, seeing a different approach-these were some of their answers. On the topic of improvement, one young man noted his discomfort with a particular 5th grade video, announcing "Teachers shouldn't wear trousers!" That comment provoked the principal, Joseph and me to double-over in laughter. (Note: I would learn later from Joseph that teachers there do not wear trousers, and I countered to him that some in the US have similar objection to Hillary Clinton's pantsuits, which make her appear "mannish." The same protesting student also rejoined that our OpEd students "should wear uniforms" as they do at his school. On the last day of my visitations in Uganda, Joseph and I visit a rural school in Mukona, sponsored by the Church of Uganda, affiliated with the Anglican Church. The principal at this school is named Alice Nakandi; that she shares a first name with my mother I take as an auspicious occasion. She thanks Joseph and me for the extra materials we brought as gifts and calls Joseph a very good friend of the school. Nonetheless, I sense in visiting her and the other teachers at the school that they lack confidence in speaking English (Not surprisingly, increasing the English proficiency is one of my principal duties at OpEd). The need in Africa is great and during the tour of the school, Alice provides an extensive list of needs: solid food for students, a dormitory for her teaching staff, and another water tower to catch water during the rainy season. Her OpEd Sister School, Fancher Elementary in Mt. Pleasant, MI has already donated a first water tower. As I leave Uganda, I find myself grateful for my visit and recommitted to working diligently to help the poor students, and teachers, Opportunity Education supports with curriculum and materials.