I taught my very first class today: natural sciences. That’s hilarious if you know me at all. The class was about 15 kids, all with close cropped hair to avoid distractions, and in well worn and well used uniforms that went from wiggling in desks and bending over exercise books to swatting at each other in the dusty grass and clapping games.
Cinderella dressed in yella, went upstairs to kiss a fella, by mistake she kissed a snake, how many doctors did she take?
I stand in the middle of a multi building campus. There are three visible from where I am, long row houses, like the photos of the Iroquois’ long houses from history textbooks. There are four or five classrooms in each, separated by boards that don’t fit neatly together. While I teach, kids from the adjacent classes speak through the boards. “Madame! Madame! Come hea!” I ask my class (how quickly they felt like “my” class) if they can hear and two jump up to tell the other class “Class Four, be quiet, be quiet!” I find Mr. Sniper, my headmaster, who doesn’t remember meeting me a few days ago, and who didn’t know I was coming. Suddenly I am uncomfortable and feel more like a burden than any help. I am just a visitor, coming for four class days and watching Ghanaian teachers and students. After 15 minutes, Mr. Sniper walks me to Class Four (there are two Class Fours from what I can tell) and introduces me to the teacher. He mumbles quietly as is the tone in Ghana for those older than 14 or 15 and asks me to sit, that I will teach the kids science. He points out the page in the textbook… it is one table: The Differences Between Metals and Non-Metals. In the states, I could get through this is an hour no problem regardless of what the kids had learned about metals and non-metals before; there we share the same language, the same cultural base even if there are differences in what is built on top of that. Here, I don’t know if they have covered “density” and “malleability” or “luster” or “melting” and “boiling.” And you don’t realize how much you take these meanings for granted until you try to teach them to kids quickly to get to the main point (the differences between metals and non-metals) and you know the kids aren’t understanding your accent and that your mere presence as the New Person Around adds distracting excitement and an inability to use the scaffolds that I don’t know.
Scaffolds: A teaching tool that creates a structure for engagement that allows the teacher to emphasize content. Think of Sesame Street’s songs that signal Letter of the Day; kids know to focus on the letter because they’ve learned the signals.
“Yessah,” the kids chorus back to their teacher whenever he says exactly after teaching material.
In response to any question there are raised hands and a chorus of “say me say me” and when called upon, the kids stand up and recite the answer.
Something is written on the board? Kids copy it immediately.
The teacher makes a mistake on the board? Only one girl corrects him, and only corrects on mistake.
These children know their place and their role in this room and this space. They have learned scaffolds to such an extent that I wonder if anyone checks their understanding of the content.
I write on the board the goal of today’s lesson—exactly the ways Common Core teachers write the objective on the board. The kids know what their goal is for the day, what they should learn and they copy it dutifully in the margins at the top of the page in a thin and floppy exercise book adorned with various soccer footballers. Then they copy my table I’ve copied from their textbook (which looks more like a picture book than a textbook—small and soft cover with maybe 50 pages). Metals and non-metals in a T-Chart. The brightest and most engaged girl in the back corner starts filling out examples of each and I tell her that we’re doing something different today. She looks simultaneously skeptical and disappointed.
I look at the first point on the list: Metals have high density; non-metals have low density. “Who can tell me about density?” A room full of big eyes blink back. I try saying it a little slower, adopting a poor facsimile of the Ghana English accent that the German teacher in the classroom to the other side of me has mastered, but they still don’t respond.
I try saying it… describing dense as small and compact. I use food as examples—the fufu is dense, jollof is not dense. They nod at me, respond “Yas Madame” when I ask if they understand so I ask, what is dense? “FUFU!” they shout confidently. It’s true in a sense, and here is a more insidious example of scaffolding. I expect the kids to know how to answer my question “what is dense” and they answer with another just as valid response. The surface level thinking (due in large part to accent difficulties I am sure) indicates to me the ways they are expected to show they’ve learned: repeat back what I told them immediately prior, not contextualizing it in the way I’m trying to engender. Next I try kinetic learning. “Everyone up!” I sound chipper and the so the kids pop out like pop rocks and swarm the dusty space in front of their desks. I corral them into a tight group, squishing them closely. They giggle and I “tsssss” them (instead of “shhhh”) explaining that how they feel is dense: I can’t break through the group, they are squished together in a small space. Then I pull them apart and we wiggle it out—“this is NOT dense” I say, “you have room to move.” They sit. I ask them what is dense and I pull my arms to my chest closely and squeeze to remind them. So are metals dense or not dense? I get a mix of responses. I write on the board which is which.
It’s time to move on to “boiling.” I go back to food, the only mutual cultural cue I feel confident enough in at this point. They kind of get it. “It takes heat Madame” is the response when I ask about boiling so I change “high boiling point” to “takes a lot of heat” as I speak. They seem to pick this one up, and I feel the time pressure now, moving forward in that very American way: we MUST get through the lesson so they can show they’ve learned it. I look at the next one hoping for an easy one.
“Metals are malleable.” Seriously?! I don’t think I can explain malleable easily to my own brother, but here we go. It’s easier than I expect to get across that malleable means it can change shape, but getting them to tell me if it is metals or non-metals that are malleable is tricky. They are not used to guessing. They are not used to telling me the answer before it has been supplied. They want to recite it. Unlike math, where they were more confident in providing answers, they are quieter now, with no base to work from and I’m guessing a lot of wondering about what I want and expect from them.
The next one is that metals are “shiny.” I ignore the word “luster” and just go with shiny, holding a 50 peswa coin up and asking if it is shiny. We get through the rest of the list relatively easily, but I am unsure if they just know what to say to make me happy or if they know what they were supposed to have just learned. So I have them come and show me their books with the notes I’ve been watching them right. It’s my first sneaky teacher trick, as they come to show me the pages, I ask them one thing they learned. The first five are able to tell me something somewhat coherent about which is malleable or which has a high boiling point, the middle ones can guess at what I want to hear and stumble just a bit more in the verbalization of the lesson. The last five to come up crowd around me simultaneously and we work something out together and then I ask them each to tell me. A small boy struggles, but looks at the board and his eyes move like they’re reading for the answer, I accept his half-sentence and prompt the rest of his words. The last three do the same thing and I take comfort in the fact that every kid at least knows where to look to find the answer. I’ve created my first scaffold.
Break 1: 10:55-11:35
The kids have a lot of breaks throughout their day and break time is a frenzied rush to get rice or nuts, singing and clapping games, and not-so-gentle smacking around. The older girls hang out with me, proud that I am teaching their class. Others from different classes are shyer, and siblings of “my” kids are the first to come up to hang around. I learn their games, a clapping one that takes me a long time to pick up, a jump/clap one that I will never be able to learn, and when I show them Duck, Duck Grey Duck they yell excitedly, “Madame! Madame! Please sit, yes like this, like this” and proceed to switch into Fante and sing a different song. We play a clapping game called multiples of two, where you have to count up by two and if you miss you are out… it’s harder than it might appear. We move into another circle clap game and it reminds me of bobo skee watlin totlin so I teach them that and they make sure I sing with a “Madame! Sing for us!”
The last class of the day is cancelled for rehearsal for the tenth anniversary celebration, which is why I’m going to be there for four days, so after an hour and some of playing games, I tromp with Joshua out of the dusty hill and to a dusty road to catch a shared ride. Wondering how I’m going to do this without a Ghanaian interpreter and guide and friend and company, I settle into the back wondering how to be better for the kids on Wednesday and how I can see if they really are LEARNING. It’s in my blood to question authority in a very American way and I try to understand that’s not how it works in Ghana, but my independent, anti-authoritarian streak shines here like it doesn’t when I face teachers and professors back home, and I hate the thought of contributing to the socialization of these kids as cogs in some machine, knowing exactly how to behave and when to avoid punishment.
The child pulls her hand away from her friend in the circle, avoiding the slap that would mean she was out. Giggling with joy and pride she closes the circle; her friend is out and pouts dramatically watching her friends continue to play. Each knows their role, how to perform it, and it appears they know how to integrate that into their consistently present selves.