Monday, 23 March 2009

Prudence and the wild little hordes of Nyarusange

March 18th

Today is my final chance to visit a school this term – I’m off to meetings in Kigali Thursday and Friday; next week all the schools will be doing exams and into their end of term routines, so there is no point in going to them to observe lessons.

No matter – I’m off to Nyarusange tronc commun today. I decide to spend an hour in the Office first because Nyarusange is a doddle to get to and is close to Gitarama. Unfortunately the thing I really need to do – check emails etc – I can’t because someone else has the modem.

In complete contrast to yesterday, the taxi bus is raring to go; I almost get hauled on board and we set off with only about eight passengers. This bus is going through to Kibuye and I discover the reason for all the haste. There’s a second bus making the same run at the same time and the two drivers are insanely jealous that each will take the other’s passengers. This leads to stupid overtaking and reckless driving for the whole 12 kilometre dash to Nyarusange. Talk about an accident waiting to happen!

The head at Nyarusange is called Prudence, and I assume it’s a woman. So I’m surprised to find a very male Prudence coming out to greet me. The second big surprise is that in his office is the best ICT system I’ve seen here outside of the District Office. Prudence has a new flat screen display and a powerful computer with windows vista etc on it. True, he hasn’t got a modem (yet), but when he does he’ll be easily the best “connected” of all the new heads. Everyone here smiles at the Christian name “Prudence”, because it just happens to be the brand name of the most popular condom in Rwanda, and is heavily promoted as part of our AIDS prevention strategy. Poor guy – if I were him I’d use another name!

What I like about Prudence is that he’s another of these heads with initiative and ideas. His problem is that there are so many things he wants to do that he can’t prioritise them. Well, which would you blog readers put as more important – to build new toilets that aren’t an insult to your older teenage pupils, or to put glazing in the classroom windows so that lessons can continue during rainstorms?

He has managed to acquire a big screen from somewhere, and top of his hit list is a computer projector so that he can show films to his pupils in the evenings to create more of a social atmosphere and raise their aspirations. Just imagine – movie night for these village kids at the local school. I tell him it’s a brilliant idea, and that when he gets the projector I have loads and loads of DVDs he can choose from. (Better check the age ratings – there’s plenty of sex and violence in every day Rwandan life without me encouraging it through cinema….)

Nyarusange is a giant primary school (1800+ children), and the tronc commun I’ve come to see is also big with four classes and nigh on 170 children. Compare that with little Cyicaro yesterday with just 43 in one class!

The buildings are adequate, but only the head’s office has electricity at present. There’s no water, no glass in the windows (so, for example, lessons came to a halt for the entire afternoon yesterday during that big storm). There are all the usual problems with books – lack of. At least I can make sure Prudence has all the schemes of work on his computer. That’s one box ticked!

I visit two lessons, but both are revision sessions ready for next week’s exams. The school has five teachers, of whom four are probationers and, as usual, without any formal training in how to teach. The first person I observe is teaching maths, and he’s the experienced teacher. We’re covering prime numbers, sets and Venn diagrams. It’s all incredibly theoretical but the rapport with his class is excellent and this guy is a good teacher. He even makes a rare mistake of fact (we’re doing sets about east African cities and which are capital cities and which are just big cities, and he gets it wrong for Tanzania). Instead of standing on his dignity, which is what most teachers here would do, he asks me for help and we all have a laugh about it in the lesson. I give him a massively positive write up to Prudence and suggest that all the other teachers ought to watch this guy in practise. I notice that Nyarusange has written a timetable so that each of the five teachers has a complete day off – i.e. they work four days a week, but on those four days they rarely have any free periods. This is the traditional way of organising secondary school timetables and the staff seem to like it. (You may remember me writing last year about how the VSO volunteers all tried to arrange to have Friday off so that they could come to Kigali and do VSO business ready for a weekend of shameless hedonism).

Between maths and the next lesson is break time. I’m surrounded by tronc commun pupils, but unlike at Gasovu they just gawp at me. I tell them to try their English, and I try to get them talking, but they don’t seem to want to. It’s a painful process where we really don’t get beyond “good morning”; “how are you?” and “what is your name?”

The next lesson I see is Biology with a probationer teacher, and straightaway you can see the different in teaching style. This young scientist is knowledgeable, he is patient and his vocabulary and pronunciation are adequate. But his blackboard technique is all over the place. He doesn’t know the pupils’ names – in a small school and by the end of the first term we ought to be beyond “you, boy” when addressing pupils.

I debrief with Prudence, and as I write this blog I’m looking at my notes from the session. They just summarise what all the new secondary schools need to take on board:
· Learn the names of your pupils to build up more of a team atmosphere
· Get your classroom walls decorated with charts, or with lists of key words, or diagrams or maps etc
· Remember that all of you are teachers of English. Even if you are teaching Maths you are also a teacher of English; be patient with your pupils’ English and help them without criticising them
· Make your blackboard technique clear and logical so that your pupils’ exercise books also become clear and easy to learn from
· It’s OK to use Kinya or French to check understanding of key facts or ideas, or to give commands, provided you have previously done it all in English
· Be aware of pupils who aren’t answering questions and trying to doze through your particular lesson
· Get them to shut their exercise books when you’re revising so that you have a better idea of who knows the answers as opposed to who is just reading from their notes
And so on. It’s not rocket science and most of you reading this blog could do it as well as me.

As I leave the school I realise that I’ve timed things badly and I have the entire primary school morning shift – 900+ - leaving with me. Most of them tag along with the muzungu to see where he goes. So we’re walking along the main road towards Gitarama with quite literally hundreds of little children all crowding round me, asking for money, trying to use their English. It’s terrifying – if an ONATRACOM bus comes hurtling round a bend at its usual suicidal speed there will be carnage. I try to make the children keep off the road, but they won’t listen. The only solution is to try to walk beyond the range of where they live, so that they drop away to go home. That’s easier said than done. These children come from quite a distance; it’s really hot in the sun and I’m walking continually uphill. There’s almost no traffic on the road – fortunately – except for bikes. Every so often one child gets tripped up and goes flying onto the tarmac or into the gutter.

Eventually a taxi bus appears and I flag it down. It’s already grossly overloaded, but the crew is determined to squeeze in as many bodies as possible. I count twenty three plus two babies. It’s sweaty and stinky inside, but at least I’ve escaped the children.

Back at Gitarama I do a quick shop up. Delphine has phoned me; we’re arranged another English lesson on the assumption that I’m going to be away next week. On the spur of the moment I tell her to come straight to the flat. We cook up one of my soups together and the lesson focuses on the vocabulary of food. Well, why not?

Late in the afternoon I dodge another storm which is approaching and go up to the Office. I manage to find the internet modem which means I can at long last get down to a week’s worth of emails, blogs etc. I’m seriously behind on all that side of life.

When Tom comes home we both feel too tired to cook. We give the guard some left over soup and the left overs from Tuesday night’s pasta and sauce (it looks a right mess but it’s exactly the sort of food he’ll love), and we go out for special omelettes at Nectar.

The rest of the evening, until late, is spent making the most of having the modem and getting pictures posted on my blog. I’m nearly a week behind with the text, but it needs quiet time to sit and write and at the moment I don’t have it!

Best thing about today – visiting another school, finding yet another new young head teacher who’s organised, ambitious, innovative. Rock on Rwanda; these are the people you need to cherish.

Worst thing about today – while the teachers in the schools are being paid, the budget situation at District is so dire and chaotic that none of the new headteachers has yet received any salary. And that’s after two full months in the job. How many English heads would be organising extra curricular activities etc if they hadn’t been paid for two months?!

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