Saturday, September 19, 2015

Going to School

Grade 4 students work on a decision making scenario.
The school year in Lesotho begins in late January or early February. In addition to a short break for Easter, students get around six weeks off between the end of June and early August. Then, the second second semester runs from early August until exams are completed in late November with a week off just before Independence Day, which is October 4.

Beginning in February, I have been going to the local primary school on a weekly basis to co-teach Life Skills with the teachers. We are teaching grades 4, 5, 6, and 7 life skills in 40 minute blocks. Every time I visit, I see a over 150 students in the four sessions. While the classes for grades 4 and 7 are relatively small, with 27-31 students; grades 5 and 6 are more than double those numbers. This makes planning their lessons a bit trickier.

Young students say goodbye after
I complete my classes.
One of my favorite things about visiting the school each week is the excitement with which the students and even the faculty greet me. They are always thrilled when I arrive, even those that I do not teach! As I approach the school, my arrival is heralded by calls of “Ausi Thato! Buh-bye, Ausi Thato!” as most children do not realize there are different words for hello and goodbye in English. Similarly, every time I pass between classes or begin my departure, I hear a chorus of voices calling my name and waving. It is a good thing the teachers also like me or they would begin to resent the exciting distraction that is me!

It has been truly eye opening to interact with students in the classroom. Schools here in Lesotho have a much different methodology than what is touted in American classrooms. Corporal punishment is acceptable and used when students commit any number of infractions including refusing to answer or answering even answering incorrectly, because students are used to this, it can be harder to use the usual engagement methods I adopted during my decade of experiential education in America. It also makes students more reticent to speak up if they are uncertain their answer is correct. Students who arrive at my school late are expected to remain standing at their desks for duration of school that day. I have even been offered a stick by a teacher, just in case I needed it.

After speaking with the principal and teachers to determine how I could be of use at the school, I was mentally prepared to teach in mostly English with occasional Sesotho for harder concepts. By the end of primary school, students are expected to be able to learn in English only. Unfortunately, my English accent can be hard for students to understand and many simply do not try. As a result, I often find myself teaching in both English and Sesotho. This is great for improving my Sesotho, although I worry I am doing the students a disservice as they will learn in only English if they go on to high school or secondary school.

We have adapted to each other well over the course of the school year and now I eagerly prepare my lesson plans in things like communication, decision making, creativity, and sexual and reproductive health. I was particularly excited when I recently spoke with the principal and grade 7 teacher about covering sexual and reproductive health. The school is Catholic and I worried they would frown on the idea of teaching the subject. The principal, however, agreed it was a vital topic as the students would soon be going to school with children from other villages and “they might be bad children.”


Grade 7 playing Condom Time Bomb to the
 tune of "Let's Talk About Sex."
As a result, my last few lessons of the year focused on the importance of the ABCs: abstinence, being faithful to one partner, and using condoms as well as the science of HIV and how to prevent infection. We discussed questions the students asked anonymously via a question box left in the classroom and debunked misconceptions about HIV. These were definitely some of my favorite life skills classes thus far, especially since they are so vital to the students' safety in the next two decades of their life. Here in Lesotho, most people contract HIV between 15 and 35 through unprotected sex. The HIV positive rate actually doubles in under two decades!  
With the grade 7 students.

Condom "balloons" filled with questions for Condom
Time Bomb!

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You should choose as your life's work whatever feels the most like play.
-Harvey Oxenhorn