Follow the Malawians in the
Lakeland College M.Ed. Program
Recently, Karon Harden, a consultant from RTI International (a major global consulting firm with headquarters in North Carolina and Washington DC), came to Lakeland to meet with the graduate students for a two-day exploration into the Early Grade Reading Assessment and the Early Grade Reading Activity (EGRA). The assessment program has been instituted in other African countries to measure literacy levels, and the collected data show that improvements are taking place due to follow-up interventions through the subsequent Early Grade Reading Activity. All of the M.Ed. students came away impressed with Karon’s knowledge about reading programs and her experience in Africa. One thing Karon shared with the students was a rubric called The Five Ts, which is described below. I’m also happy to pass along some of what the graduate students came away with from the workshop, expressed in their own words.
The following summary was submitted by Ndamyo Mwanyongo: “One of the significant things that I learned at the RTI workshop is “The 5 Ts”. These are Time, Teaching, Text, Tongue, and Testing.
- Learners are supposed to be given more time to read so that they have a good foundation.
- Teachers should use good teaching techniques that will help learners learn to read. Activities done by teachers and learners should be well distributed so that learners practice more. Teachers succeed in this by considering some clues like: “I do,” “we do,” and “you do.” Thus, the teacher demonstrates, then does it together with the learners, then finally lets learners practice on their own.
- Learners should be given more chance to use the text for reading. They should be encouraged to read even outside the classroom.
- Learners should be allowed to express themselves, and to be assisted in their mother tongue. This helps them to understand the concept easily.
- Learners’ progress should be monitored by testing them regularly.”
Building on Ndamyo’s explanation, Michael Simawo pointed out that:
“We looked at each of [The Five Ts] in detail and related them to the situation in Malawi. We discussed how we can make sure that these five factors are considered in our literacy curriculum. It was felt Malawi needs to do more on the factors, and that we should lead the efforts to implement the factors in our respective Teacher Training Colleges, and in Malawi, in general.”
Michael and others reported that much of the discussion focused on essential early literacy components, such as phonemic awareness, alphabetic principles, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. The M.Ed. students were also shown video clips of teachers implementing these techniques. Bertha Singini told me that she learned a lot from watching and discussing the video clips. Their task was to identify and talk about each “real” lesson and to think about what was working for the teacher and why. What was the teacher in the clip doing that led to success?
From Elias Lyson: “On the second day, we worked in groups listing challenges affecting education in Malawi. What interested me and is really a good lesson to me is how we can work with the Malawian government…to change some of its education policies that are impeding education per se. I really feel that this is indeed our responsibility to lobby with [our government officials] to have at least good political will towards improvement of our education [system]…[Karon] inspired us to keep on learning.”
From Elymas Tembwe: “We also discussed the challenges that we face in Malawi with early grade reading which include large classes; lack of teaching, learning and assessment resources; lack of monitoring and evaluation systems; and insufficient time to train teachers. We [discussed] how we can put our Lakeland College expertise to use when we go back to Malawi. Some of these actions are: to stay abreast of best practices, to use critical thinking, [and to employ] research and data-based decision making, to mention just a few. [The two-days with Karon Harden were] REALLY WONDERFUL”
Benjamin David, when looking at the challenges ahead, created a list of things he would like to do when he returns home. He wrote:
1. Consider what to do in the curriculum, like giving reading more time in the early grades.
2. Emphasize the best practices of teaching reading in Teacher Training Colleges, such as full courses in phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension.
3. Give the teachers efficient knowledge and enough practice on the way reading should be taught in early grades.
4. Guide the Ministry to initiate effective monitoring and evaluation systems that will reinforce trainers' efforts in improving teachers' work in the schools.
5. Find mechanisms and strategies of dealing with teaching and learning problems that arise due to large classes.
6. Find research-based methods that can help to improve teaching in elementary grades.
Through their Lakeland classes, their interactions with Wisconsin teachers, and workshops like this one with Karon Harden, the Malawian graduate students continue to build on the knowledge and skills they will use as reading specialists in Malawi.
Not long ago in September, the Malawian graduate students joined an online workshop sponsored by USAID. The title of the webinar was “Incentives and Accountability in Education.” Participants were able to connect via the Internet from across the globe and listen to presentations taking place in Washington D.C.
The presenters shared information on using incentives to improve both student and teacher performance with early grade reading. One exercise during the workshop dealt with a hypothetical situation in Malawi, and the students found this to be a very useful learning activity. In fact, the exercise may be expanded as part of a visit to campus by an early grade reading consultant in spring 2015.
In the coming months, the Malawians hope to learn more about technology and the possibilities it affords as far as creating inter-connectivity with knowledgeable experts in early grade reading around the world.
Meanwhile, the students continue to work with Tim Hurson’s book Think Better in Professor Elder’s class, “Means for Mastery of Reading Pedagogy.” I sat in on a recent discussion in which Elder asked the students to list what this text can help them accomplish in addressing literacy issues once they return to Malawi. Their lists boiled down to three main goals, stated in various ways:
- To have a stronger and clearer voice in the planning of new curricula;
- To develop innovative strategies for helping young students learn to read; and
- To introduce problem-solving skills that will help colleagues think better and work better
This week, on October 9 and 10, the college will host a visiting consultant from RTI International in Washington DC. Karon Harden brings considerable experience working with early grade reading initiatives in Africa. I know the graduate students are looking forward to her visit as they continue to seek solutions to the challenges of teaching reading to young learners in Malawi.
With today’s post, we have finally met all of the graduate students from Malawi. It has been more than three months since the group arrived on campus. The students are keeping up with their reading and writing assignments, and also managing to fit in some occasional off-campus activities like attending a poetry event in Sheboygan this past weekend. Let’s meet Elymas Tembwe and learn about his plans for forging a productive future back home.
Meet Elymas Tembwe
Elymas is from the capital city of Lilongwe, and he received his bachelor’s degree from Domasi College of Education in 2010. Upon graduation, he went to work at the Teacher Training College (
For his master’s thesis, Elymas is planning to explore the impact of graphic organizers as a strategy to enhance reading comprehension. He explained to me that a typical graphic organizer would be a Venn diagram, two overlapping circles. Using such a tool, learners can explore a text by organizing the relationships between things in a visual manner, which increases overall comprehension.
This past summer, when Elymas first arrived in Wisconsin, I asked him what had surprised him most about his new home. At the time, he said he was surprised to find that people are extremely helpful and friendly here. He felt very welcomed, and he greatly appreciated all the kindness shown to him and his fellow students.
When I recently asked him again what things have surprised him, he became energized and told me about a book he is reading in Karl Elder’s class, The book is called Think Better, and in it author Tim Hurson outlines a step-by-step method that groups of people can use in order to work toward solutions to complex problems. The steps involve what Hurson calls “productive thinking,” as opposed to “reproductive thinking,” which is what we generally engage in when trying to move past challenges or difficulties.
I recently read this book myself and found it to be helpful and inspiring. “Reproductive thinking just follows old patterns, and old patterns cannot take us anywhere new,” Elymas said. “Productive thinking does not ignore the past, but learns from the past in order to manage the present, in order to forge the future.”
It would seem to me that productive thinking is going to be put to very good use by Elymas and the others when they return home. He added, “When thinking productively, one must always ask, ‘What else? What more can we do?’ We should have a lot of questions. Those questions will help us think better [about early grade reading instruction in Malawi, for example.]”
When the graduate students go home, they are going to have many new ideas, new teaching methods and new classroom strategies at their fingertips. There may be many challenges, but as Elymas said, “I need to be a really good role model [for other teachers].” Together, Elymas and the others will lead many discussions with their peers and with teachers-in-training, finding more and more ways to “think better” (and do better) in the furtherance of early grade reading instruction. One key, as Elymas emphasized to me, will be to always ask, “What else can we do?”
From left to right, Benjamin David, Ndamyo Mwanyongo, Elymas Tembwe, Bertha Singini and Margaret Mulaga
attended the global event “100 Thousand Poets for Change” at Glas Coffee House along Sheboygan's riverfront on Saturday, September 27.
Michael Simawo took the photograph. Ndamyo shared a poem written by the writer of this blog, translated into Chichewa.
I had the opportunity to drive three of the graduate students into Sheboygan last Friday evening to attend a concert of the African Children’s Choir at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church. The choir was from Uganda and was on a grand tour of the United States. The children, most of them orphans, were wonderful singers and dancers, full of talent, vitality, and smiles. The whole experience was very uplifting, and it was good to do something away from campus with Ndamyo Mwanyongo, Margaret Mulaga, and Bertha Singini, the subject of today’s profile. I think the three graduate students had a good time listening to familiar music from Africa, as I occasionally heard quiet singing coming from Bertha, who was sitting next to me in the pew.
Meet Bertha Singini
Bertha was born in Mzuzu, in northern Malawi and lives now in Blantyre, in the south, where she has worked at the Teacher Training College (TTC) there for five years. Before that, she taught for eleven years at the TTC in Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe. Prior to Lilongwe she was working on her bachelor’s degree at the University of Malawi, Chancellor College.
Bertha is married and has two teenage daughters, ages 19 and 14. She misses them enormously and tries to speak to them every day. When she first told her family that she wanted to apply to Lakeland to pursue her master’s degree in early grade reading instruction, her husband (who works for a tobacco company) said, “This is your chance, Bertha. Don’t miss it!”
Bertha has traveled some in her life already and besides the three students who attended Lakeland as undergraduates, she is the only other person in the cohort who previously visited the United States. In 2011, she was an attendee at a “Women Aglow” Christian conference held in Houston,Texas. Before that, she traveled to Freiburg, Germany (along with fellow graduate student Ndamyo Mwanyongo and many other teachers representing all the public Teacher Training Colleges in Malawi) to attend a conference on "Learner Centered Education" sponsored by GIZ, or Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (Society for International Cooperation.)
Bertha, along with several of her fellow M.Ed. students, would like to see discussions opened up with the Ministry of Education back home to create an office strictly dedicated to issues related to teaching reading. She also has a vision that more books could be made available for children to take home with them to read during their free time. Her graduate thesis will examine how literacy skills can be used in other content areas in the primary school curriculum, for example, in social studies.
Bertha still thinks about her visit to Bookworm Gardens that took place during the first two weeks that the Malawians were here, and it remains one of her favorite experiences in Wisconsin to date. Although she knows that resources would be an issue in building a similar activity center in Malawi, and that a Bookworm Gardens there would be very different from the one here in Sheboygan, she can imagine something like it back home. “We just need to identify a place,” she said.
One of the most striking things to me about Bertha is that she is full of laughter. While she can be quite serious when talking about the important things that matter to her, her words are often prefaced by laughter, which seems to burst out at times in a cascade of joy. Being able to laugh easily no doubt serves her well, when days become stressful and there is so much important work to be done.
I continue to think about what it means to be an effective teacher. Last week, I wrote about the need for passion. As I continue getting to know the graduate students, I think that every effective teacher is also a determined, life-long learner. A teacher must continue to expand his or her own knowledge in order to be effective at expanding the minds of others. There is constantly new information and skills to learn and new ways to learn those things. Even when teaching the basic skills--such as reading and writing--a teacher must be prepared to try new methods and bring in new examples in order to reach his or her students. Overton Simbeye is determined to use these sorts of strategies in order to engage young learners in Malawi, and he emphasized this fact when we spoke recently.
Meet Overton C.D.R. Simbeye
Overton Simbeye works at the Teaching Training College in Karonga. His wife is a primary school teacher, and they are raising seven children, three from a first marriage. Overton tried to come to Lakeland in 2003. This was during the eleven-year period when the college was admitting Malawians in cohorts of five students each year to obtain bachelor's degrees in education. He was not selected that first time, but he was determined to get a college education. So instead of Lakeland, he pursued his bachelor's degree at Domasi College of Education in Malawi. When the opportunity arose to participate in an M.Ed. degree program in early grade reading instruction at Lakeland, he was extra determined to be accepted into the program. This time he was accepted, and he says he is very glad to be here.
Overton told me that his thesis project for the degree will examine the effects of scaffolding techniques on young learners. I was not familiar with the concept of "scaffolding," so he explained it: "Scaffolding activities make teachers and learners focus on reading by placing it into a context." For example, before students read a new text in class, the teacher might first set the stage by walking the students through some guided imagery to help them visualize what they already know and think about the subject described in the text. By preparing them to read in this way, the teacher shows the students how the reading itself becomes more meaningful. Consequently, there is better comprehension and more retention of the text. Overton further explained that another good strategy is to read in "chunks," and to stop periodically and talk about or reflect on what has been read along the way. He is looking forward to trying out various techniques like these in Malawi and observing what works best for young learners there.
One thing that has impressed Overton since he came to study at Lakeland is how generous people are in Wisconsin. "We have had a lot of invitations from churches and the Rotary Club to visit them," he said. Like Phillip Nachonie, Overton remembered fondly a recent afternoon at the home of Pastor Brian De Jong, when all the graduate students got to ride the horse. Overton has been touched by the openness and generosity he has seen here. He has also noticed that people here are good with time management, and he is eager to impart that concept to his student teachers back home.
Overton also shared with me the meaning of his full name, Overton Chitukula Daniel Reuben Simbeye. "Overton" was a name that his father heard a British man in Zambia use, and he was told the name meant "chief." "Chitukula" is a clan name. The next two names are Biblical, "Daniel" (God is my judge) and "Reuben" (Behold my son). Overton’s grandfather’s name was Daniel, and his father’s, Reuben. Finally, the surname Simbeye is a tribal name. Overton said, "When I see all my names, I feel I must try and try and try."
Overton looks forward to returning to Malawi and getting to work on making adjustments to the TTC curriculum and improving teacher training. He is determined to see this happen. When I asked him if he thinks the system will change, he said, "I have no doubt. The content we are learning here will help us make a change. We are starting to learn good early grade reading strategies. There are ten of us. We will have the weight [to make improvements in the system]. The people back home are eager for change."
Riding the horse at the home of Pastor Brian De Jong, Sheboygan Falls
Like all skills, teaching is one we can learn. But, it helps if we have a lot of energy, because teaching also requires considerable patience and a large dose of ingenuity. Sometimes, students are not focused on learning. Sometimes, the conditions in which the learning is supposed to happen are not ideal. Either way, a teacher needs a lot of resourcefulness to do the job at all. But to do a great job, there must be energy combined with imagination. This is passion. Without passion, teachers will not be role models for their students. I’m sure this is what most of us remember about our favorite teachers over the years; they were passionate about their subject and passionate about imparting it to us. I hear this idea about passion come up often when I talk to the graduate students from Malawi.
Meet Michael Simawo
Michael was born in Blantyre in the southern part of Malawi. He has taught in Blantyre, in Lunzu, and now teaches at the Teacher Training College in Machinga, alongside two other Lakeland graduate students, Phillip Nachonie (who we met last week) and Elymas Tembwe, whose profile on this blog is yet to come. Michael is married; his wife does part-time data collection work for various non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and also helps care for Michael’s nieces and nephews. They are not the parents of any children of their own.
When we talked recently, one of the first things Michael told me is that he felt that there is still much to be done to better train teachers in Malawi. He hopes that a passion for teaching becomes one of the reasons young people choose teaching for their profession, not simply because there are many job openings for teachers in Malawi. He hopes that the training of teachers becomes more rigorous and of higher quality and that teachers are regularly monitored and assessed. He hopes that teachers will be dedicated to their students and work fervently to see these learners succeed.
The graduate classes are underway again, and Michael feels refreshed after a few days off and ready to dig into some new ideas with his cohort. The courses this term are Contemporary Philosophies of Education, Organization and Operation of American Education, a tutorial in reading called, Means for Mastery of Reading Pedagogy, and Educational Research and Evaluation.
As the term begins, Michael is looking forward to start reviewing the literature for his thesis project. He plans to research the effects of incorporating various teaching resources into the curriculum, for example, name cards, flash cards, and other print resources. He wants to determine what kinds of resources are most effective and then work to get more of them in use in classrooms in Malawi. He said, “Keep in mind, this topic is grounded in the fact that in Malawi, teaching resources are very scarce.”
Michael explained to me that all of the M.Ed. students are proposing thesis topics now and will read the existing literature. Then back home, they will undertake what is called “action research.” This means that they will all be working at their regular jobs in the TTCs, teaching future primary school teachers, and simultaneously collecting and analyzing their thesis data. They have a lot of work ahead of them.
Michael envisions that someday he might be part of a team of literacy consultants for Malawi, people who could recommend solutions to schools and teachers who are having difficulties getting their kids to read. He wants children in Malawi, he says with great energy, “to learn to read so that later, on their own, they can read to learn.”
Regarding this, Michael is quite passionate.
Part of the fun of being in Wisconsin is trying new things. During the recent break from classes, the graduate students had the opportunity to visit the home of Rev. Brian De Jong in Sheboygan Falls. Pastor De Jong serves at Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Sheboygan. He hosted a backyard party for the students, and the festivities included a special twist. The Malawians got the opportunity to ride a horse. Phillip Nachonie, like most of the others, had never done this before. His reaction: “It was an experience, I tell you.” I sat with Phillip outside the Campus Center on a beautiful summer day and heard about his first horseback ride, as well as his determination to work with his colleagues to help young learners back home in Malawi.
Meet Phillip Nachonie ‘06
Phillip Nachonie’s first experience at Lakeland began over ten years ago, when he arrived as an undergraduate student. During his three years here, Phillip attended Grace Presbyterian and as Pastor De Jong describes him, "Phillip was a faithful attendee and got quite involved in activities of the church." When Phillip graduated with his bachelor’s degree in general education in 2006, he returned home and went to work immediately at the Teacher Training College (TTC) in Lilongwe. Then in 2010, he was hired to work at a new TTC that opened in Machinga, about 160 miles southwest of the capital. He lives there with his wife and their four children: three girls, ages 17, 15 and 7, and one boy, age 11.
Recently, Phillip was invited to be a researcher for a project that was undertaken by USAID to collect data on the reading progress of young learners in Malawi. The assessment study found that learners in Grade 2 were failing to read, for the most part, at the most basic level. To Phillip and his colleagues, this finding was both distressing and alarming. When he saw that there was an opportunity to come back to Lakeland to obtain his master’s degree with a focus on early grade reading instruction, he felt it imperative that he apply. He hopes to do everything in his power to help young Malawians become better educated. “I am fully aware,” he said, “that reading forms the basis of all other learning.”
For Phillip, like the other graduate students in the Malawi program, the short break between classes has combined a mixture of relaxation, shopping, and fun, with formulating a topic for his master’s thesis. He told me how he had narrowed his thoughts down to two possible projects, and will now pursue the second of the two.
The first topic he was pondering had to do with how new teachers are monitored and assessed and what could be done to ensure that they are truly reaching their students. The challenge for Phillip in pursing this topic would be logistical: “This project would involve a lot of movement around the country to collect the data.” He soon realized that it would be more than he could cover.
The second project has to do with time allocation and management. “There is not enough time allocated strictly to reading in the early grades,” Phillip observed. He would like to study the impact of devoting more time on reading instruction in an early grade classroom. Phillip envisions that there would be great value in “shedding off” some topics from the curriculum in the early years, and giving more focus to reading. “I will be happy if we are successful in this. I think we will be.”
Phillip has been very pleased with the coursework at Lakeland, and describes the experience here as “eye-opening.” He said that the idea about the amount of time spent on reading came to him from the discussions that took place a couple weeks back in the course, Second Language Acquisition. “In this place, I am getting many new ideas. I’m sure that what I have learned and what I will learn this semester will help to shape my project.”
He also spoke very highly of his nine colleagues. Echoing a theme we have heard before on this blog, Phillip said of them, “They are open to discussion. It is not a one-man show. We cannot succeed on an individual basis.”
Phillip on horseback, with Grace De Jong assisting.
The graduate students are on a short break right now. Classes ended last week and will begin again right after Labor Day. When I informally polled the group about what they are doing during their time off, I learned that they have been relaxing, making trips into Sheboygan to look for winter clothes (yes, it will be winter again one day), watching soccer on television, listening to music, and also reading the education literature on literacy to look for “gaps in the knowledge” that might lead to fruitful thesis topics. Even when on break, these graduate students are never far from their studies, are they? In fact, in an eighteen-month graduate program, there really are few breaks. One of the teachers, a self-described “strong and determined woman,” is a 2008 graduate of Lakeland. She spoke with me about out how happy she is to be back.
Meet Ndamyo Mwanyongo ‘08
Ndamyo Mwanyongo graduated with her bachelor’s degree from Lakeland in 2008, but her connection to the school goes back earlier than that. Her husband, Andy Blessings Mwanyongo ’02 was in the first cohort of five students who came to Lakeland from Malawi in 1999 to earn bachelor's degrees. She fondly remembers visiting the campus when he was a student here, to hear him sing in the choir. “Lakeland is like family to me,” she said.
Several years later, Andy encouraged Ndamyo to apply to Lakeland herself. She still feels deep appreciation for the support her husband gave her. He took care of their home and family during her three-year absence. Their two sons were 16 and 11 when she first left. She said the youngest one, especially, missed his mom.
Now she is back for a second degree and couldn’t be happier to be here. Ndamyo said her youngest son, now 19, assured her, “It’s only one year this time. We’ll manage.”
Ndamyo told me she is pleased to know that her example of being selected to leave Malawi twice to study has inspired many of the younger teachers back home. “It’s an opportunity that I don’t take for granted. I feel like I can make a difference. I think the student teachers respect me and look up to me.”
I have no doubt that Ndamyo is right about this.
Ndaymo teaches at the Teacher Training College in Kasunga, a town 60 miles north of the capital city of Lilongwe. She would like to see reading taught in a broad manner. “I do not want to see it narrowed,” she said. “I teach very widely, using all the expressive arts.” Ndamyo, like her husband Andy, is very interested in music. “We play music as a family a lot.” She has used music, drama, and drawing as a tool in teaching not only young learners, but student-teachers, too.
“In Malawi, we must start with better training for teachers. We need to incorporate other subject areas. And, we need a means for engaging parents. In Malawi, parents are not so involved with children’s education. We need to help them see their role.”
Ndamyo knows first-hand the value of parents’ involvement in a child’s education. She was the fifth of nine children. Her dad was a secondary school teacher and her mom was a primary school teacher. There were books at home and she watched her parents read and her siblings study. She had models for reading at an early age and in-home tutors to help her when she needed help. In sixth grade, she went off to a boarding school that encouraged library use and then, in secondary school, her teacher was a Peace Corps volunteer who strengthened Ndamyo’s developing English with phonetic reading skills.
On a different note, I asked Ndamyo about the interesting middle names that people have in Malawi. Remember, last week, we learned that Elias gave himself the middle name, Ambitious. The parents of her husband, Andy, gave him the middle name Blessings. Ndamyo has a middle name, Kettie, which is the name of her mother’s sister. I asked her the meaning of Ndamyo. Her name means “troubles, challenges.” She said her mom had some troubles when she was pregnant with Ndamyo, hence the given name.
The way I see it, Ndamyo may have been born in challenge, but being strong and determined, as well as open-minded, she has been the recipient of many blessings. She is here now to put all that to good use for the children of Malawi.
Ndamyo (left) with students at the Viyere Primary School in Mzuzu, Malawi,
where she did her student teaching after graduating from Lakeland in 2008.
Last week the Malawi graduate students were struggling in class with the question, “what do we need to do in Malawi to improve the acquisition of reading skills for our youngest learners?” In a vigorous class discussion, they talked about how teaching has changed in the many years since they were student teachers themselves. For one thing, when they were learning to be teachers, tests involved essay questions that required written answers. Now, too much testing is left to multiple choice questioning, which as one person said, “is not really a test of true knowledge.” In an effort to move more people more quickly into the profession of teaching, according to the M.Ed. students, standards in Malawi have been lowered. But, as recent reading assessments reveal, less-skilled teachers don’t do children much good. And so, we come back to the question: what can be done?
Meet Elias Ambitious Jonas Lyson
Elias was born in Zomba in the southern part of Malawi, and he lives now in the capital, Lilongwe, where he is in his fifth year of employ at the Teaching Training College (TTC) there. His wife teaches primary school and they have four children: three girls ages eighteen, fourteen, and twelve and a boy, nine.
In his first weeks in the graduate program at Lakeland, what Elias has found most surprising is the emphasis on time management. He shared, “Teachers here are serious with time. That is the first thing I want to emulate when I go home. If class starts at eight, it starts at eight.” He was also delighted to see classrooms at Valders elementary school that were rich with print materials everywhere he looked. “The environment is very conducive to learning,” he said. “Classroom set-up, desk set-up...all these things are so important.” He also found it amazing that even kindergarten-age children are able to use technology as part of a normal school day.
Like his colleagues in the Lakeland Master’s program, when Elias saw the advertisement to come to Wisconsin, it was the focus on “early grade reading instruction” that particularly caught his eye. His first thought at the time was, “If I can go for this opportunity at Lakeland, I can assist the learners in Malawi.”
Elias wanted to make clear to me that the strategies being discussed in class are often known to teachers in Malawi, but sometimes it is a matter of resources or the teacher’s individual creative energy that impacts the ability to follow through on them. The best strategies do nothing if they are not implemented. With 100 students in an average classroom, there are many challenges a teacher faces.
When I spoke to Elias and Margaret Mulaga (his colleague at the TTC in Lilongwe) together one afternoon recently, they echoed something that Elias had first shared with me on his own: Classrooms need to be made secure and lockable so that teachers can put up educational materials—making a “print-rich” learning environment—and leave the materials there, knowing the resources will be safe until the next class. As it is right now, teachers have to carry their materials to class, put them up and take them down each time they teach. This is inconvenient and exhausting in a situation that is already stressful with so many children to teach at one time.
Elias also taught me the acronym, TALULAR, which stands for “Teaching and Learning Using Locally Available Resources.” So, if the teacher doesn’t even have a classroom, what can the teacher do to put up print resources? Can they be hung on a rope? Can they be tacked to a tree? Yes and yes. But, all these things require ingenuity, creativity and physical energy. Elias hopes to instill these qualities in his student teachers when he goes home.
You will notice that Elias has two middle names. One is Jonas, the name of his grandfather. The other is Ambitious. This is a name that Elias gave himself after high school, because he felt it represented his desire to be a better teacher. It strikes me that by making the commitment to gain his M.Ed. degree from Lakeland College, Elias is on the path to fulfilling his destiny.
Earlier this week I got to be a student again when I visited the “Second Language Acquisition” class and listened to several presentations by the Malawi students. I learned different strategies for teaching English as a second language, for this is essentially what the teachers must do in Malawi. In the early grades English is a subject but by fifth grade, all classes are in English. The native tongue, Chichewa, must make room for this. The challenge is that many teachers back home are not proficient in English themselves, which causes a downward spiral in learning. The Malawian graduate students here at Lakeland are determined to find ways to turn things around. They would like to see the standards raised for teachers. They would like to see teacher training be more intensive, and longer. They would like to see reading taught across the curriculum, not just in the language classes. And they said over and over that the best teachers need to stay focused on the early grades, not moved up to high school. I left class this morning so impressed by their knowledge and dedication. They have many challenges ahead.
Meet Margaret Mulaga
Upon arriving at Lakeland, Margaret Mulaga was surprised to find that the college is in a farming area. She was also surprised by the ubiquity of cheese. “I don’t like cheese,” she admitted. Also, she was very surprised by how much the weather can change in a day. And, to that I said, “Margaret, so are we!”
She was greatly inspired by the visit about a month ago now to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. She was especially struck by the displays and demonstrations that talked about how the earth moves (earthquakes, tornadoes, tsunamis). She mentioned that these were things she had recently been teaching about back home and it was very interesting to see how the museum explained these things.
Last spring, when Margaret’s husband showed her an advertisement in the newspaper announcing the opportunity to come to Lakeland for a Master’s degree in early grade reading instruction, her first thought was, “Let me be one of those people who can teach our children to read, so the country can develop.”
Margaret and her family (three girls ages seventeen, fifteen and thirteen, and one boy age four and a half) live in Malawi’s capital city, Lilongwe, where she teaches at the Teacher Training College (TTC) there. She began her teaching career at age 21 working in the primary grades and later taught secondary school. She received her BA four years ago at Domasi College of Education (part of the University of Malawi) and began to work at the TTC as a teacher trainer. She is now thinking long and hard about what can be done in order to improve early grade reading instruction back home.
She explained to me that in Malawi, you are very lucky to have only eighty students in your classroom. More consistently, a typical class size is 200 children. For us here in the U.S., who find it untenable to have forty, these numbers give us pause. How can anything at all be accomplished with that many children at once?
Margaret feels that strategies can be developed to work with these large groups and that teachers must help each other to be creative and innovative. One thing that is needed is the “print-rich” classroom. Students need to come into their classroom and see words and letters everywhere. And, if school happens to be under a tree, the teacher needs to be creative and still provide visuals of words and letters to inspire young minds.
Perhaps it is a tall order, but when I talk to Margaret, I feel that if anyone can help create a change, she can.