Saturday June 9, 2007
Maybe I’m feeling a little homesick for DRA (for those who don’t know, in many North American schools DRA is a reading assessment for Kindergarten to grade 3 students, usually conducted at the beginning and end of the school year). At any rate, I spent last week having grade 4 and grade 2 students at Adwa Town schools read to me (or try to) in English. The point was to find out how effectively the students are learning what the teachers are trying to teach.
The result was, there’s a lot of variation from school to school. Many of the students in grade 4 can decode at the level of the Grade 4 textbook, but don’t have a clue what they’ve read. Many grade 2s and a quite a few grade 4s can not decode and don’t know the alphabet. Many of the students who struggled the most also have difficulty in other subjects besides English.
The most striking thing about doing this assessment was the attitudes of the teachers. With inclusive education the new buzzword here (well, my new buzzword anyway – most of the teachers have never heard of such a thing), I’m very aware of how teachers attitudes towards all students affects students with and without special needs, and can either close or open the door to education for many students. Well, there are some closed doors in Adwa.
One grade 4 boy, Solomon, couldn’t write his name in English, struggled to read a passage from the Grade 1 textbook, and managed to identify barely a handful of letters. His teacher described him as lazy, not putting in the effort to improve. (The teacher referred to Solomon as the “weakest student” about ten times in front of him, and I’m willing to bet that if Solomon understands any English, it’s this.) This teacher, like many, provides extra support for struggling students on Saturdays. He told me that Solomon looks after the sheep after school and on Saturdays, and therefore won’t come to school on Saturdays, no matter how many times the teacher has asked him to or spoken to his family… I was going nuts but I stayed polite and just added this to my mental list of things to address at next year’s workshops. It’s extremely common that teachers perceive extra support as an extra, something that should happen on Saturdays, rather than incorporating accommodations and support into all their teaching, every day.
At another school, Desinet, a grade 2 girl, was another student who couldn’t write her name or read, although she put in a very good effort at letter identification, identifying more than half the capitals and lower cases. I went to this school with my friend and colleague Hailemichael, who was exempted from conducting the census with the other college staff because he is blind. It’s good to go to schools with someone who speaks Tigrigna, because things are caught which I would otherwise miss. What Hailemichael caught was the teacher calling Desinet “the weak one” and asking another student “what’s the name of ‘the weak one’?”
Of course there are many reasons why these students are struggling, and poor teaching all by itself is definitely a possibility, but family instability, poverty, malnutrition and special educational needs are definitely up there. While children with the most obvious special needs are rarely at school, many students with high incidence minor disabilities such as mild developmental delays, learning disabilities, hearing and vision impairments are in the regular classrooms. Often neither their teacher nor their parents recognize the disability, or if they do, the teacher rarely has the skills or the capacity or motivation to provide the necessary support. Like everywhere, I guess, ability is valued and disability is not. The way that so-called continuous assessment is used in Adwa schools is one example of this: rather than being used to improve teaching and track and support all students, it’s basically used to identify and reward the top three students each month or week, often the same students over and over.
So the children who most need support don’t get it and suffer through school, learning very little, like Desinet, or drop out all together, especially in the rural areas, where getting to school is so difficult, and the child is needed to help at home, that if it doesn’t seem worth it, the family and the child easily give up.
I reread the story of the starfish a few weeks ago, and it’s been on my mind. Hailemichael is one of the best people I know for picking up starfish and throwing them back in the ocean, maybe because he’s been thrown back in himself a few times (I guess we all have if we’ve made it to adulthood). He’s very keen to try to provide support to Desinet next year. But it’s also been part of my thinking lately, as I try to be a person who picks up starfish, about how to make a difference in inclusive education, within and beyond the work of the cluster programme. I’m still thinking.
In Adwa, there are three orphanages. You’d think that would be enough, but my colleagues who were conducting the census found many children sleeping on the street, in all parts of the town (not just the bus station and the market area, where you’d expect to find many homeless people). They went out in the middle of the night to find them. Being a bit naïve, I was somewhat surprised by the numbers: homeless adults are fairly easy to spot day or night, but children tend to blend in easily. Many of them are shoecleaners, mostly eight years old and up. Many of them have come from the rural areas around Adwa; often if the mother dies and the father remarries, the children of the first marriage are no longer wanted in the home. Sometimes girls will go to a relative to work as a servant, so there are somewhat more boys on the street than girls.
The Story of the Starfish
An old man was walking along the beach, and he encountered a young man who was picking up starfish, one by one and tossing them back into the ocean, so that they wouldn’t dry out when the tide went out. The old man said to the young man “What’s the point? The beach is too long and the tide will be coming out soon. You’ll never be able to make a difference.” The young man bent down to pick up a starfish, and tossed it back in, saying “Made a difference to that one.”