The last reading we had for our travel writing class was entitled Test Day by Frank Bures. Bures spent a year as a secondary school teacher in a village in northern Tanzania. The three-page piece focuses on the first English exam that he administered to his students. While this may sound easy for a group of 15-17 year olds, the test scores were awful and couldn’t even be saved by being graded on a curve. Bures explains the reasoning and circumstances behind the difficulties that both he faces as a teacher and his students face, “they try so hard, in spite of everything working against them. At primary school everything is taught in Swahili. Then they hit secondary school and suddenly all their classes are taught in English. In this kind of immersion, most students drown. The school provides no life rafts either, such as dictionaries or grammar books or workbooks. Never mind school supplies. Some days there aren’t even teachers.” It is a testament to the students that they even show up to school.
While reading this piece, it made me think of our group’s work teaching English at the Health Center and Covaga Innovation Center. Starting about four years ago, Rwanda made the switch from teaching French to teaching English in the primary and secondary school system. We work with people who were not in the school system when English was implemented. Most of them have no formal education in English. There are limited resources to learn English, as there is a lack of English books and few if any have a personal computer. I started to grapple with this question- given the one-month time frame. Are we helping them significantly improve their English skills or is the mere fact of us being here, fully present, and attentive where the importance lies? I have come to the conclusion that there is truth and validity in both. For the women at Covaga, this is one of their few exposures to American English. We taught them how to have a conversation about how to sell baskets, as foreigners provide a substantial amount of business. The Health Center workers have more formal education which includes some knowledge of English, yet they are very to eager to learn more because the health care system is beginning to be only administered in English, thus if they don’t have a high enough comprehension of the language, they will be phased out in time.
I don’t know how much English these men and women will retain from our one hour long classes that are two-three times a week. Regardless of intelligence, it is quite difficult to retain a language when one cannot practice it with native speakers and in a variety of situations. What I think that they will take from our lessons is that we gave them our undivided attention. We are not looking at the clock and counting down the minutes. We sit, we listen, and we support.