The Malawian teachers
This is the second in a series of stories about my recent trip to Malawi in Africa. You can read the first post by CLICKING HERE.
As part of the Go! Malawi program I traveled to the Ntchisi District of Malawi to provide teacher workshops on arts integration. I collaborated with Sweetland School (in Hope) founder and director Lindsay Pinchbeck to work with 12 teachers from Mpamila, Pondani and Katete Primary Schools. The teachers that we had the privilege to work with were AMAZING in more ways than one.
Teachers are paid $85.00 per month and are assigned schools when they finish their teacher training program. They can be moved to another school at any time without warning. The school has no power or running water, some classrooms have no chairs or desks.
The grades are called standards and the primary schools each have standards 1 through 8. At the Mpamila School in Jane’s class she had 116 students. On paper the class sizes ranged from 17 to 131. (Did I mention that the teachers we met were amazing?). The lower standards have the largest numbers. As the students grow many drop out for a variety of reasons. It was the last two weeks of the school year (and winter) while we were there and the students were taking their exams. How well they do on exams determines whether they move on to the next standard.
Each morning we had the opportunity to visit the Mpamila School and classrooms. As the students arrived they were outside playing – we saw some jumping rope with vines and others playing Chinese jump rope. The teachers were meeting to do the kinds of things we might find happening across America – collecting papers and preparing for their teaching day. They shared some of the exams with us and we were able to view the test questions that we used later on as part of the instruction in the teacher workshops. The school day officially starts at 8:30 but we found the classes didn’t necessarily start on time and students wandered in after the lesson started. Many children were looking in the windows or outside playing while lessons occurred.
The teacher training is based on the British educational system. We watched while the teachers instructed the learners to repeat after them in speaking voices and/or singing voices. They used their bodies to emphasize or demonstrate an idea and the students repeated. Clapping was frequently used to engage and celebrate the learners successes.
Two of the teachers had young babies that they carried on their backs or fronts. They taught with them, brought them to the workshops and periodically during the workshops would have a young girl watch after the child.
DAILY THEMES – learning through an art form
We found that using a theme each day launched the ideas and combined feelings with art making, thinking with creativity. And, it helped launch the environment to a place of trusting one another. I was surprised by the teachers willingness to take risks with us so quickly – strangers from America.
- Day 1 – Hopes and Dreams: Journal making, planing seeds, paint explorations
- Day 2 – Traditions: Sharing stories of customs and traditions
- Day 3 – Patterns and Rhythms: Song, box making and poetry
- Day 4 – Trust: Cyanotypes, Trust walk, Introduce Individual Action Plans
- Day 5 – Stories: Felting. Telling, sharing, applying stories to action plans and lessons
- Day 6 – Making mistakes and letting go: Drawing and printmaking
- Day 7 – Walls – What holds us back?: Talking Walls Book by Margy Burns Knight – Accordian books with Malawian sayings. Watercolor techniques
- Day 8 – Another way: Patterns and colors, kaleidocycles, folding books
- Day 9 – Support and reflection: Completing action plans, letter writing, pendulum
- Day 10 – Celebration and sharing
We tried to scaffold their learning from day to day and the daily themes assisted in that. Their willingness and desire to learn was powerful. More importantly, the arts were the vehicle for each of them no matter what their past experiences were with the arts.
- Opening Circle – sharing inspiration, checking in and sharing new ideas and questions through books and stories. Introducing the theme for the day.
- Experiential Learning – sharing new skills and materials. Drawing, painting, poetry bookmaking, drama and storytelling activities, printmaking, felting, photography, and more.
- Journaling/Share – Daily time for reflection to consider how activities can be applied to the classroom. Individual and group work.
- Projects – Quilt focus and individual action plans.
- Closing circle – Traditions of song, take aways, 3 happy moments and a question.
During the project time the teachers were learning different techniques that they made onto a 6″ X 6″ piece of fabric. The pieces were sewn together in banner or quilt-like form. For example, the day the teachers learned how to felt they actually felted a fabric square that became part of their quilts/banners. On the day they made cyanotypes they did an individual square with their hands and collaborated with secondary students to make a full size sheet one. What a great way to integrate science and visual art.
The teachers arrived at noon each day for lunch and at 1:00 we started the workshop. We were amazed at how quickly the teachers jumped in without hesitation. The art making was the vehicle to their comfort level. Some of the teachers didn’t know each other beforehand yet that was not evident as they sat side by side and created.
Five o’clock came quickly each day and before we knew it the end was near and each teacher was hanging their quilt for the critique. On the last day they set up a display of all of the artwork they created. We had a community celebration with the local chiefs, Go! Malawi community committee, students, and the teachers. Afterwards the participants were invited to visit the gazebo to see the art. It was a goose bump experience as I watched the teachers faces filled with pride as they shared their work with the community.
A couple days into the workshops one of the teachers pulled me aside and gently informed me of a Malawian custom and suggested that I adopt it. He said: “When someone is leaving you are to walk and talk with them.” At first I thought he was joking but I quickly learned that it was an important custom. Each day following, we made sure that we walked and talked with them and before we knew it the 10 day workshop was over and we were waving so long to our new friends!
How fortunate I was to have this unique opportunity. The Malawian people often use sayings. One of them is: Ulendo ungatalike bwanji umayamba ndi phawzi limodzi – Every journey starts with a step. I am so glad to have taken the step. I learned much more from the people with huge hearts than I was able to share. Each of them provides the hope for all children in their country.
We’re hoping that the work Lindsay and I started this summer will continue from a distance by sending packages of materials and supplies. If you’d like to contribute arts supplies, pencils, pens, books or other items please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And, Lindsay and I hope that some of you reading this blog post, who are teachers or teaching artists, will consider a trip next summer to continue the work. If not an educator there is other volunteer work you can engage in. Please email me if you might be interested.