On Sunday, January 11, Bertha Singini and Benjamin David answered an invitation from First Congregational Church in Sheboygan to speak at an Adult Forum educational session prior to the 10 a.m. worship service. These sessions are offered by the church every Sunday morning on a variety of topics in order to raise church members’ awareness about issues of both local and global importance. At a recent session, Pastor Jim Hollister shared information about his trip to The Holy Land, where he gained new insights about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On January 11, the topic for the session was “Early Grade Reading in Malawi: A Way Forward.” Eighteen church members attended, and afterwards, commented that they were moved by what Benjamin and Bertha shared about the challenges facing young learners in Malawi.
Benjamin began by presenting basic information about the size and population of Malawi. He shared that there are 17 different ethnic groups within the country, each one speaking its own local language. While Chichewa is the national language, and English is the official language, there are many other languages spoken amongst the nation’s 16 million inhabitants. For some children, English is not just a second language, but sometimes it is the child’s third language.
Benjamin and Bertha described the various difficulties faced by Malawi’s educational system: large class sizes, lack of indoor classroom space, lack of book resources and other educational aids, lack of assessment, and in many cases, a lack of well-trained teachers. They explained that soon after the government changed in 1994 from a single-party to a multi-party system, education became free to all children, and many more girls started attending classes. One repercussion of this sudden increase in school populations was a decrease in the quality of teaching available to students because there were not enough trained teachers to go around. Malawi’s education sector has been trying to catch up ever since.
During the church presentation, the LC graduate students did not focus only on their country’s challenges, of course. They shared a list of initiatives they hope to champion when they return home. At the top of their list is developing new ways to involve parents in their children’s learning process, including teaching parents to read themselves, when that is necessary. Also on their list were ideas about raising the bar for teacher training and bringing to their colleagues and students at the Teacher Training Colleges the best practices for teaching reading across the entire curriculum.
Bertha and Benjamin also mentioned that the Lakeland graduate students have a vision for creating a “model school” in Malawi that could become a center for promoting and disseminating the best practices in early grade reading instruction. They imagine, as part of this model school, a resource something along the lines of Sheboygan’s Bookworm Gardens. They see a Malawi Bookworm Gardens as an enriching and engaging environment in which children and their parents can learn together.
The Sheboygan church members had many questions for the presenters and praised them for their courage and perseverance in addressing the needs of Malawi’s youngest students.