Saturday, January 19, 2008

Health Class

Now that school is back in swing after the holiday season (Tabaski, Christmas, New Year’s Eve etc.) I have started teaching regularly at the elementary school. It is the most fun I think I’ve had at site to date. Much less stressful than the Jr. High level health class I taught last month for sure. Still, it was totally exhausting and I can’t imagine doing it as a full-time job (Katy Byrns/all you teachers out there, you are all my own personal heroes), but it was so fun and rewarding at the same time.

Here is some background about the school system.

The elementary school closest to my house (there is another one about a 20 minute walk away) has roughly 13 classrooms, with anywhere from 50-20 students per class. Classes meet Mon. Wed. and Fri. from 8ish-1ish and Tues and Fri from 8-1 and then 4-6. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they spend all that time learning or in class for that matter. Teachers are always late, leave their cell phones on to take calls, stop class to greet passerbys, cancel class to go get their paychecks or have meetings, and so forth. Also, there are always random strikes, holidays, and illnesses. Since school doesn’t really get going until November and ends pretty much at the end of May and closes for long holidays, I’d say that the kids probably have about ½-2/3 the amount of classroom learning time that we do in the states. It’s no wonder that most of the students at Jr. High level are already 15, 16 and older.

The Senegalese education system is based on the French system. This means that most lessons are taught using dictation. Basically, the teacher reads lessons aloud or writes them on the board while the children copy and memorize the information for the annual exams. There is little discussion, group participation, or room for individual creativity. I’ve gone over my niece’s workbooks and am always surprised at how little they’ve done thus far this year. (About 8 pages worth of lessons for what’s theoretically about 2 1/2 months of school).

To their credit the teachers do have it rough. They are sent wherever the state tells them to go. My good English teacher friend at the Jr. High for example is from a beautiful town on the coast near Dakar and has been stationed in my town for 6 years now! Every year he counts down the days until each vacation and every year he applies for a transfer. (I secretly hope he doesn’t get it though because he is a great colleague and fun to have around). So they are usually far from their families, sometimes in a tiny village or a region where they don’t speak the language. They make very little money and often pay out of pocket for students who can’t afford school supplies and fees.

Also, the conditions under which they teach can be pretty miserable. Huge classes, no electricity, no air conditioning, no screens on the windows or doors, no textbooks (at the elementary school level. There are some at the junior high but the students have to buy them), three or more students to a desk, and almost zero supplies. All things considered they should be commended for persevering and even choosing this noble and desperately needed profession.

So when I approached the Headmaster and said I was interested in teaching health classes, he and the rest of the teachers of course jumped at the chance. They all told me that it doesn’t matter when I come teach that anytime I can just stop by and they’ll drop everything and give me the floor! It’s totally different than the Jr. High, which is much more structured. The way I have it organized now is that I prepare a health related lesson and then teach it in each class until I’ve hit all 13 of them. This will probably take about 2-3 weeks between my and the school’s schedule. I started this week with a health lesson on Germs-how they are transferred from person-to-person, and the importance of handwashing with soap before eating, after using the toilet etc. Really very basic hygiene information. It seems redundant and commonsense based, but as the former Peace Corps Senegal Director told us during pre-service training, “You must apply the rule of 50 to everything you do. Until you have told someone, and showed someone some piece of information 50 times, you can’t get frustrated that you have not yet seen behavior change.” While discouraging and depressing at first, it really is true. My hope is that my celebrity/novelty status will drive the information home a little harder. Also my approach to teaching is totally different than what the kids are used to so I’m hoping that they really take it to heart and listen up.

I taught the two oldest classes back-to-back in the afternoon. As you can imagine the first class was a bit more chaotic than the second because I knew what to expect and settled into a rhythm. Also, in the second class the teacher wasn’t in the room so I relaxed a bit more and felt more comfortable taking charge.

I started off the Germ lesson by having a few volunteers come up and draw what they thought a germ looked like. When we had 4 different versions I explained that they were spot-on, that there were many different kinds of germs that bring all different kinds of diseases. Then I asked if they had all heard of germs. They all raised their hands. Then I asked them to define them.
One skinny impish kid with huge thick glasses in the front row timidly raised his hand and whispered that they bring diseases.
“Great!” I said. “That’s exactly right!”
Then I defined germs for them and we played a true false game using facts about germs that got the whole class participating, giggling, and totally focusing! It’s an incredible high really.

Then I did do a short dictation lesson so they could write some concrete information in their notebooks to “memorize” for later, and to demonstrate to the teachers that I was not just some nutty toubak who waltzes in and plays games under the guise of health education and Western-style teaching.

Then I called up 3 volunteers to help me with a demonstration. I used hot pepper powder (easily accessible at every market stand/boutique everywhere in Senegal) to represent germs. I asked the kids what happens if you rub hot pepper on your hands and don’t wash your hands and then touch your eyes. Of course they all cringed in fear and said “No! Don’t do that! It will hurt!” I explained to them that germs are like hot peppers. You can’t see them, and you might think that your hands are clean, but they’re not, and the only way to avoid transmitting germs is to wash your hands with soap and water, just like you would if you had hot pepper on your hands.

I could tell that that idea really clicked with some of them. I also brought up some of the hand-washing habits I’ve seen before: dipping hands into already dirty soapy water and claiming they’re clean, rubbing their hands on their pants, or just claiming that “Look! My hands are clean!” They all looked sheepish and laughed.
I mean, the information was not hard. They understood. They’ve all heard it before. But maybe this time it will actually stick? I can only hope.

Monday I’ll be teaching the same lesson to the next three lowest classes. Then again on Thursday to a few more. I’ll continue the week after until each class has gotten a chance to experience Madame Lam’s guest lecture on Germs. Then I’ll begin with a lesson on dehydration and diarrhea.
Sometimes I can’t help but giggle to myself and think how totally pointless my MSc is to some of the work that I’m doing here. Other times it comes in handy, but not so much when I’m talking about the Oral Fecal Cycle with 9-year-olds.

I guess part of me feels conflicted about teaching at the schools. I mean, there already are teachers. And they WERE just given a health education curriculum (by USAID) and they do do some “Education Sanitaire” lessons. But since actually living and working here, my notion of sustainability has changed. Perhaps the best thing to do would be to change the system and train teachers or a teacher to do health education? But that does happen at the Jr. High level and the elementary school teachers simply do not have the time. So I’ve decided that transferring knowledge (aka. education) IS sustainable. And that maybe the teachers will learn from me and incorporate more health-related activities into their curriculums.

Even if not one single child changes his or her behavior, maybe one day, even just being exposed to me and my classes, or just the idea of a bigger world out there that needs health workers, maybe one kid will become a nurse or a doctor?
I don’t know.
I guess you never really can.
I just have to plug away.
I have to have faith that what I’m doing makes a difference somehow, at some point, to someone.

And I do.

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