The graduate students are coming into the final stretch of their time at Lakeland. They anticipate one last May Term class and several workshops designed to sharpen various skills in topics such as persuasive writing, grant writing for early grade reading programs, and reading assessment. On May 3, they will participate in the 153rd Lakeland Commencement ceremony, even though their degrees will not be conferred until they defend their thesis projects in Malawi this coming December. The next several weeks will be filled with an array of experiences designed to help them prepare for the work that awaits them at home.
At the last bi-weekly group meeting, Phillip Nachonie shared that the graduate students had witnessed something powerful during a recent visit to Parkview and Horizon elementary schools in Plymouth. There, the Malawians observed young children being taught reading and writing. As Phillip described, it was impressive to see how the teachers allowed the students free reign to express themselves in a non-judgmental environment, even if their written texts exhibited errors of spelling and grammar. “This was eye-opening,” said Phillip, “to let young learners express themselves fully and make corrections later.” This is completely different from how reading and writing are taught in Malawi, where a first focus is always put on correcting the student’s errors.
This experience led the graduate students to request copies of Wisconsin’s Common Core Standards for Writing. They had a chance to review and discuss this document in the ED 792 tutorial, “Reading: Instructional Strategies” with their instructors Lori Ann Roelse and Geralyn Leannah. Many questions ensued about the early stages of learning to write. One key takeaway for the students seemed to be that more time is needed in the curriculum for writing. Reading and writing really do go together in any discussion about literacy.
While this distinction may seem elementary, the desire to make changes at the curricular level can be daunting. Lori Ann encouraged the students to “think big, start small.” She reminded them that they are doing all the right work to identify challenges and solutions. Ndamyo Mwanyongo shared a piece of Malawian wisdom: “Kalowa kayanza,” which roughly translates to: “Whatever goes into the ear will stay there.” Meaning, if people hear something, it will stick with them.
As their time at Lakeland draws to a close, the graduate students are deeply engaged in planning. They are discussing the new teaching methods in early grade reading instruction that they will advocate for in Malawi. They look forward to briefing their principals, sharing with colleagues, and conducting their research. The graduate students are determined to stay in close communication with each other and support each other once they return. They plan to create a new reading association in Malawi, an online network they will use to share information with each other and with their other colleagues at the Teacher Training Colleges. Along with some periodic meetings that are supported by the grant project, the graduate students know they will have to find opportunities to meet after they graduate, even if that means paying for travel themselves. As Benjamin David so aptly put it, “We can hardly make lasting change if we work in isolation.”