#21 The Workshop and a Busy Sunday

Sunday, July 31,2011

#21 The Workshop and a Busy Sunday

Yesterday was my calculator workshop at SFG.  I don’t know whether to call it a success or not.  It was to begin at 10, but the first arrivals were at 10:30.  We didn’t really have an introduction, partly b/c at that point everyone knew me and partly b/c there was no one there to do it.  So I just began.  Becoming familiar with the keyboard of the calculator is crucial, so of course I had to begin with it.  Then at each new arrival I had to stop to orient that late-comer, lest he never figure it out.  I felt very frustrated, even though I know that this is common and expected.  I really experienced the differences in American behavior, in which we mostly begin events within 10-15 minutes of the advertised time and here where it might be more than an hour.

The teachers loved the calculators, as they always do, but were disappointed that I could not give them one.  Sometimes I wonder whether this is a futile venture.  The calculators I was given can’t be sold.  I need them for future workshops and if I give them, how will I do more.  On the other hand, what is the use of showing them something they can’t have.  It’s like taking a child to the candy store, but only permitting him to look.

Craig Noke is looking on eBay for some I can bring next year to sell, but only the public school teachers can afford them and even then they wanted one for free.  In fact, at the first workshop at Marymount I was introduced as a philanthropist.  I didn’t like it, but said nothing, not realizing what that misnomer would mean to the attendees.  Oh well, live and learn!

Just as we were really getting into it the transformer overheated.  ACH!  I taped large papers to the wall and switched to some other math things.  Finally we moved to the staff room where there is a blackboard—thanks to my insistence, over Fr Kiriti’s strong objection during the building of it.  The teachers loved the FOIL/factoring, as they always do, but again reminded me that steps need to be shown on the national exam.

At that point I did what I’ve wanted to do so badly—begin a discussion of modernizing the math curriculum.  It was a very lively discussion.  Every time they told me how stymied they were by the regulations I countered with “you have to begin somewhere and I think it needs to be a peaceful revolution from the ground up.  I know I opened some minds—I could see it on their faces.  How many teachers does it take for form a critical mass of revolutionaries?  ACH!  Getting a bunch of teachers to agree is like herding cats.  A group of 100 teachers will have 200 opinions, but it has to start.  On that point I think we had agreement.

I think it was a good day, but I didn’t have quite the exhilaration I’d felt from the first one.  I definitely felt the exhaustion, though.

Sunday was visiting day at Margo’s house.  I had Catherine’s son, who loves toast and Wheetabix at Margo’s, then Catherine came to claim him, Beverlynne  (form 2) arrived with her cousin, then several SFG graduates.  Next thing I know the children from Mji Wa Neema who had been on a inspirational overnight with some volunteers from Canada wanted to come report, one at a time.  It felt like there must have been a line up outside, like the old confessional!

I do love it and my Sundays would be pretty boring if no one came to visit, but this day was a bit much.

I didn’t take any pictures, so you’ll have to do without.  But one thing I did during a lull in the visitor parade was write a letter to the editor of The Nation, which I titled, “In Defense of Teachers”.  I was so saddened by the low esteem in which teachers are held here and by their own low self-esteem (some of them).  I had hoped it would be published, but so far nothing, so I’m including it [see below].


In Defense of Teachers

For the past 7 years I have come to Naivasha from the US for several months to volunteer in the local Catholic Parish high schools.  Over this time I have met many hard working, caring and effective teachers—particularly in my own field of mathematics.  I’d like to share some of my observations and thoughts.  This is occasioned by a remark a teacher made in a discussion I moderated.  “Teachers are not respected in our society.  We are poorly paid and none of our students aspire to teach.”  Another said to me one day, “I have a brother who lives in the US.”  What does he do?” I asked.  “He’s only a teacher.”  Only a teacher!  How sad.  I have always been proud to be a teacher, to carry the responsibility of introducing the joy (yes, joy!) of learning to think in the context of mathematics and to be given the charge of leading young people along the road to responsible adulthood.  Anyone who thinks this is easy should just try it for a few days!

I’ve pondered this dilemma for some days wondering how it has come to pass that those to whom mothers and fathers give the privilege and responsibility of educating their children, not just academically but also morally, ethically and humanely, are held in such low regard.  Is it true and if so, why?  If you think teachers are not hard workers, please drop by the classroom of 50-100 children and see what the teachers are facing.  When do you think they plan their lessons and mark the work of all those children.  Many do it on their own time, having too little during the school day to complete that huge task.

Instead of criticizing teachers, think of all you are asking them to do.  Take the time to show them the appreciation they deserve—even take them a small (or large!) token of that appreciation.  Think about whether you, yourselves work better under criticism or praise.

As an outsider, I see things with other eyes, hear with other ears.  Sometimes I see and hear in ignorance and sometimes with a clarity, things that others ignore from familiarity.  As I have taught the Kenyan math curriculum I have often wondered why it is full of tedious questions with numbers that are hard to work with.  Why is the emphasis on a lock-step process rather than on concepts.  The concepts, the reasons often get lost in the arithmetic.  By the time students get to high school, they should know the arithmetic.  Get rid of some of the outdated content and move the math curriculum forward.  For example, those ubiquitous logarithm problems that always show up on the KCSE.  When I ask math teachers whether they would ever solve such a problem using logs they answer “No, I’d use a calculator!”  Me too.  I love math, but grinding out log problems isn’t math, it’s just tedium.  It drowns any interest a student might have in math.  There are many interesting and challenging questions about logs, but no one uses them to find numerical answers anymore.  So I ask myself, “Why are they bothering students with such stuff?”  Another issue is that of multiplying 2 binomials.  It is taught with 3-4 steps, when in fact virtually every other country teaches students how to look at the problem and write down the answer.  It’s an easy process that I’ve taught to hundreds of students and teachers here in Kenya.  They all agree it’s easy, but…”we can’t use this on the national exam.  They want us to use all those steps”.  Why? I wonder.  And when students/teachers have mastered the multiplying technique, I’ve taught them to factorize by looking at a trinomial and write down the factors.  Again, they love the ease but are forced to write down steps.  What a waste of time and of their ability to think.  I’ve asked teachers this question, “Do you want to turn out robots or students who can think and reason?”  Their answer is a resounding “students who can think and reason.”  Math is not about memorizing steps in a specific question.  It’s about learning how to take information and reason out an answer to something they’ve never been taught.

So before you revile your teachers, look at the hide-bound curriculum they are forced to teach and thank them for their patience in an often thankless, poorly paid position where any creativity they might have is squelched.  Look at the conditions under which they try to do their jobs, look at how difficult it is for them to live on such a low salary.  Remember they have worked very hard to get where they are.  Think about the teachers you have had who inspired you.  I know I have had many.  I am so grateful to them.  Are you?

Those who are in charge of modernizing the curriculum should include those who teach.  They should look outside to see what other countries are doing.  Kenyan students are every bit as bright as students elsewhere, but are being held back to the detriment of all.

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