Sometimes, I have moments in class where I am simply astounded by what my students do not know. It is by no means a fault of theirs, living in a country where the majority of children are “left behind”. With overcrowded classrooms, only a pen and paper to learn with, and many times with parents who have an even lower education than my eighth grade students, it’s really a wonder they’ve even made it this far.
I always prepare my English lesson in Swahili and English, in the event the students don’t understand me, I can revert to Swahili to clarify points. Since my Swahili is horrible, I like to prepare the lessons before class so I don’t waste time in class fumbling over my words. If there’s a teacher around, I will ask them to double check my Swahili to make sure I’ve got it right.
The lesson I had to teach this week is syllabus point “Using a Dictionary”. Well, as mentioned, the students have pen and paper. It’s a real interesting experience trying to teach about how to use a dictionary…without dictionaries. So, I gathered as many dictionary-like books that we own and came up with about ten dictionaries. Of course, they aren’t the traditional dictionary – where you look up the English word and find an English meaning, but the English into Swahili or vice versa type of dictionary. My thoughts on this is that hey, it’s better than nothing.
I asked my neighbor teacher if the word for “spelling” was correct in Swahili, since whenever I ask my students “how do you spell ‘cat’”?, whether in English or in Swahili, I get blank stares. The teacher explained that my students are too young to understand the Swahili word which means “spelling”. She said, they’ll know it as “alphabet” (in Swahili). I was dumbfounded. My students are 14. They don’t know the word for spelling in their own language? Really? Swahili is a pretty phonetic language – what you read is what you hear. But, technically – these students should have started learning English in grade 3 (emphasize – technically). How can you learn English without knowing the word “spelling”?
Today, I presented the topic. Sure enough, students did not know the Swahili word for spelling. So, at age 14, my students learned that spelling means to organize letters of an alphabet to create a word on paper. They seemed to get it. Quickly. But, we’ll see about that.
The students were ecstatic to rifle through my dictionaries to do classwork. Sadly enough, they had to be in groups of 8 students per one dictionary. I mean, maybe three students benefit from this. But, they were all happy. It was also a little disheartening because the students work so well independently. I think about how much lost opportunity these kids have simply because they can only rely on a teacher to come and teach them (which often doesn’t happen or can’t due to shortage of teachers). These students showed me todaywhile using those dictionaries than more in the last five months how eager they are to learn, if given an opportunity.
Can you imagine learning a foreign language without a dictionary? I can’t.
this is what 80 kids in a class looks like
9 students huddled around a dictionary