One of my favorite things about HOPAC is our service learning program. Once a week, all the sixth, seventh, and eight grade students are broken up into groups and sent out into the neighboring public elementary schools to serve.
At the beginning of the year, the students were asked to give their preference for the subject they would like to teach. Some groups go and teach P.E., some do drama, and others do art instruction. I, being the English teacher, was given responsibility for the group teaching English literacy. The first couple of weeks the students were given broad instruction into global poverty through several mini lessons designed by World Vision, and challenged to think through their personal responsibility to underprivileged groups, especially here in Tanzania.
My group spent the first part of the term preparing flashcards to teach English vocabulary, translating songs into Swahili, creating worksheets, and planning games that would help reinforce the words taught in the lessons. It was a lot of work. It was a lot like developing curriculum in real life. I didn’t create a single worksheet, choose a single game or song, or produce a single vocabulary card. My role was to facilitate. I loved watching them work, struggle through problems, and brainstorm about the best possible way to teach these kids. This was their baby.
When we arrived for our first week at Benaco, the elementary school we were assigned to serve, we were met with the reality of Tanzanian public education. The students are crammed into rooms, about 80-100 students in one room with one teacher. (To my utter amazement, the teacher smiles and jokes with his students.) The rooms are clean, neat, and very bare. The windows are open to let in any blessed breeze. There is a chalkboard and desks, but very little else. About half the students have pencils. Paper is a treasured commodity. The students are in charge of bringing water to drink during the day, and of cleaning the school and tending the small but meticulous plot of land that boasts a few flowers and bushes. They have ownership of this modest set of buildings and its grounds, and it is well cared for. Tanzanians are lucky: they have public education. Most countries in Africa do not.
I knew a lot of my students were nervous and unsure. Many had done this in previous years, but the 6th graders were new, and the group itself was different than it had been in years past. A hundred or so kids rushed out to meet our bus, chattering excitedly in Swahili. The fact that I’m a non-Swahili speaker made it impossible for me to take charge of the group of 50-90 Tanzanian children even if I’d wanted to. I looked at John, our best Swahili-speaking 8th grader, and asked him to take charge of the rowdy class. He did, in a very quiet voice that only about half the group heard, but the class started to gradually settle down and listen.
The rest of our time at Benaco did not flow very smoothly, and included a lot of kids looking at me for direction. I had to squelch the take-charge teacher in me about a hundred times (sometimes unsuccessfully), and stick to an encouraging smile and vague suggestions. They already knew the outline of the lesson and all the activities they had planned to do. I wanted them to learn by doing. I wanted them to learn by making mistakes, the same way I had learned to teach.
It was fun and painful to watch them teach the songs, divide children into small groups and teach the English words, and help the kids fill out their worksheets. I saw a lot of perplexed and frustrated faces when my students saw that their students didn’t learn the words the first time.
By the end of the day, we returned to the bus, hot, tired, humbled, and just a little bit different than when we came. We all learned that day, some more than others. I heard the students discussing the conditions of the school, the positive attitude of the kids, the little interactions with different kids that made their time worthwhile. We all wanted to do more. I closed my eyes and offered a prayer of thanks, because I knew this day was worth more than a thousand lectures.