Monday, June 28, 2010

Leaving Malawi, Changed Forever

The day we have been dreading for two life-changing weeks is here; it is our last day at Mtendere. Although we have been learning about these resilient and charismatic children throughout our stay, today we created a learning environment that exceeded a traditional classroom setting. We were thrilled to spend this final day teaching games we played as students in the United States including, Red Light-Green Light, Red Rover, and Little Sally Walker.

As we dispersed among the children and staff of Mtendere, Hanna Miller, a senior full of life and thrilled to begin student teaching in the fall, engaged in a lively conversation with one of the house mothers. A quote from their conversation that Hanna found to be very touching was, “On the first day, you were visitors, after the second day, you belonged here.” After Hanna shared this quote with our group, we realized the strong feelings were mutual and we found it very difficult to part ways with the people we have grown to love.

Our journey, including tutoring sessions, implementing unit plans, and learning from the teachers at Mtendere Village, is over as we climbed the dirt path for the last time. We could feel the children’s reluctance to see us go as they followed us to our buses. Tears fell as we hugged the children and said dapita (good-bye) one final time.

As we traveled back to the Korea Garden Lodge, we each reflected in our individual way about our time spent at Mtendere. We cried, we laughed, we hugged, and we talked. Megan Walsh, an intelligent and well respected senior, was able to take this opportunity to evaluate and compare her previous immersive learning experiences. She stated, “Traveling to Malawi, and everything it includes, was the most beneficial decision I have made during my Ball State career.”

As a whole group, we have decided this is one of the most influential opportunities of our lives. We are torn between our excitement to return home and see our families and our heartbreak at leaving our Malawian family.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Revealing Another Layer of Malawi

Revealing another significant piece to our Malawian puzzle, we traveled a long, treacherous road to Mvuu (hippopotamus) Camp. The adventure to Mvuu Camp left us thinking we would be staying in a traditional Malawian village. Much to our surprise, we arrived at a dock where two boats were waiting to take us across a river to the island where we would be staying the next two days. The breathtaking view and lodging left us in awe. We quickly ate a delicious lunch and headed to the first of four safaris.

We could feel the anticipation of everyone’s energy as we jumped into our safari Land Rover and took off into the bush (jungle). As any authentic safari, we were not guaranteed to see all the animals that the park had to offer. The previous schemas many of us had were that of the animals from television and movies. The scenery was so vivid, many of us had to constantly remind ourselves that it was not a backdrop from a movie. We were told that the likelihood of seeing an elephant was slim. As we proceeded to go off-roading, we spotted an elephant eating from a tree. The safari guide inched closer and we swiftly pulled out our cameras to capture the priceless moment. Luckily, Carrie Harvey, with her adventurous spirit, was able to capture what was to come. Our presence began to make the elephant feel uneasy. Loud stomping, flapping of the ears, and outrageous noises were clues to his foul mood. Our excited but frightened reactions were followed by the safari guide’s laughter. After the close call, we were fortunate enough to encounter unfamiliar animals such as impalas, kudu, warthogs, water bucks, hippos, crocodiles, and several species of birds. For some, the experience was an opportunity of a lifetime, and others were able to face their fear of the wild.

Upon departure from Mvuu Camp, we boated to the mainland where bikes were awaiting us for our next journey. The original plan was to use Malawian bike taxis, which are simple bicycles where the passengers sit directly behind the cyclist. Unbeknownst to us, we accessed our flexibility once again and changed our plans at the last minute. Therefore, we had the opportunity to ride the bikes ourselves. We traveled about 2 km to a cultural village. As we rode down the winding dirt path, the local villagers greeted us with smiles, high-fives, and thumbs-up. Approaching the village, they guided us to an enlightening presentation of their village customs. It was interesting to learn how they accommodate overnight visitors and experience their lifestyle. We were privileged enough to take a tour around their community. We were captivated by their medicine man, local grocery store, soccer field, and homes.

Contrary to our preconceived notions, the houses they lived in had more than one room designated to serve a different purpose including a bedroom, storage room, food storage, and sitting room. Their pride was evident as we were introduced to their customs. After the tour we were embraced with song, dance, and various activities.

Through all of the experiences we have been able to take advantage the layers present in the Malawian way of life. While our major focus was working in the orphanage, we have also spent time investigating and understanding the Malawian health care, school systems outside of the orphanage, nature, markets, and the daily life in traditional villages. It is important to be exposed to these dimensions to better grasp the culture just as these aspects would be vital to understanding each child in the classroom.

Creative Minds At Work...Priceless

Our last day of teaching became bittersweet for all the students and teachers. As we took the role of both learner and educator on this journey, we found that a short time teaching can impact someone’s life forever. Those who tutored children of Mtendere were able to include two lesson plans for our final day. With the limited time given to us, we created four planned sessions to challenge our students to reach a higher literacy level using best practice strategies, reading inventories, and simplistic materials gathered from the village and each other. With many orphans making large improvements, we found success in our short trip as we used our time effectively.

Before leaving Mtendere, we had the opportunity to experience some of the students’ artwork. One of the buildings named the “skills center,” was designated specifically to showcase work created by the students. The word unique does not do justice for the creativity seen in their pieces of art. The children gathered as we entered and remained curious to see what attracted our eyes.

It was obvious from the first piece of artwork that both creativity and dedication contributed to the shop. As the eyes of the children remained focused on our intrigued interests, purchases began to take place. Artwork that should have been labeled “priceless” was bought and carried to our bus by the respective artist, who created and received the profit from the purchase. As we are eager to share with you all the items we now have, we remain more impressed by the polite and creative minds that put these detailed pieces together. We have also been struck by the creativity present within our own group, including the talented photographer/world traveler Molly Habich, who has been relentless in capturing the faces and moments that will be engrained when reflecting on this experience together. We are so grateful for her art, photography, that she contributes to this dynamic group.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Impact of Cross Cultural Education

It was obvious by the sense of accomplishment in the eyes of the teachers, both from Muncie and Malawi, that our three day workshop exceeded the professional and cultural expectations. The English 311 class brought Bloom’s Taxonomy, a lesson plan format, and unit plan ideas to the teachers of Mtendere Village. We were surprised by the enthusiasm of the teachers and their willingness to soak in all we had to share.

From the experiences of last year's BSU students, they found that the children at the orphanage inconsistently challenged by high level questioning during their time at school. By introducing Bloom’s Taxonomy and all of its implications, we felt that the teachers would begin to understand the different levels of questioning and the benefits of challenging their students. After spending weeks studying this theory, many of us thought that the concept would be too difficult to understand in three days. However, to our surprise, the teachers were very receptive and grasped the concept quickly. Even after challenging the teachers to apply the six levels of thinking to the phrase, “Malawi is the Warm Heart of Africa,” they did not lose confidence. Not only did the teaching of this theory benefit the teachers of Malawi, it allowed us to take part in our first professional development.

We were also given the opportunity to reinforce our understanding of the engagement, exploration, explanation, and evaluation lesson plan format. It was interesting to find the cross cultural similarities found between most Malawian lesson plans. We sensed that the teachers at Mtendere were surprised at the lack of differences across the lesson plan formats. Along with the layout we were able to model and practice activities that could be applied to each aspect of the plan.

From here we were able to introduce one of our thirty day unit plans. These were designed to meet the educational needs of the children at Mtendere Village. Due to the shortage of time, we chose to implement the language arts unit focusing on story elements. In order to reinforce the six elements, we applied them to the story, “Anansi the Spider.” At first, the teachers were very hesitant to engage in the activity. After a little encouragement, they were making connections to several different aspects of the lesson. After traveling to Malawi last year, the BSU groups noticed that the Malawian culture was not well represented in their own library. The teachers collaborated to use the story elements to write a book that would educate their students on cultural relevant topics. It was incredible to see how excited the teachers were to write a book that reflected their own culture. Although time was short, we were able to brainstorm, write a draft, edit, and complete a final product. The teachers were unbelievably proud of the work they completed. Knowing that we added a significant piece of their culture to their educational resources reassured us that we are making a positive impact on Mtendere.

One of the vital components of immersive learning is sustainability. An amazing feeling of accomplishment was felt by all parties after finishing the professional development workshop knowing that this BSU-created unit would impact future minds of Mtendere. It is hard to describe the fusion of educational ideas being shared in this partnership, though the pride all of us felt during this cultural exchange was immense.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Sequencing, Inferencing, and Predicting...Oh My!!!

Day six of our Malawian adventure continued to enlighten our educational understanding of children. We went to Mtendere Village early Sunday morning for the church service which was held in the multi-purpose room. The children were singing and listening attentively during the two and a half hour service. It seemed as though church was an option for the children because some were not attending. However, the multi-purpose room, which resembles a dining hall, was full of singing children and house mothers. The service was recited in both Chichewa and English. Though lengthy, it was beautiful to see the children and house mothers so devoted to their faith.

For some of the children and us as well, the language barrier presented somewhat of an unexpected challenge; however we found great techniques to communicate to the children. One of these techniques included the use of culturally relevant books in the EDRDG 430 tutoring sessions. The students have difficulty relating to the American culture found within the majority of the books found in their library. Some of us had them draw pictures and answer open ended questions in order to help break the ice. This was also a useful strategy to overcome the language barrier.

While at times the children of Mtendere seem to have difficulty speaking English, decoding seems to come more naturally. However, when checking reading comprehension levels using an Informal Reading Inventory, many of the orphans had comprehension levels two to three grade levels below their word recall assessment. We have noticed that many of the children learn English through rote memorization and believe this to be the cause of their lack of comprehension. We all planned hands-on activities to help them to understand a variety of areas including sequencing, inferencing, main idea, and predictions on a deeper level. These activities we created attracted children not involved in the tutoring sessions—what a great feeling it was to see the motivation they all have for learning!

Many of us as Ball State students realized that even with limited teaching materials, our lessons could still be taught effectively. We found that creativity can go a long way and we tried to utilize it as much as possible while working with the children.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Universal Language of Dance

We woke up excited to celebrate a birthday, Malawian style. Mother Dana, the founder of Mtendere Village, was turning thirty-one years old. The house mothers, staff members, and children wanted to honor her on this special day! We arrived at the village, not knowing what to expect, but anxiously awaiting the festivities to come. As we walked down the path to the village, we heard thunderous music playing underneath a large party tent. Our faces lit up with excitement to learn more about the importance of song and dance within the Malawian culture. The love that the children and house mothers have for Mother Dana was shown through many signs and banners displayed throughout the multi-purpose room. We immersed ourselves within the groups of children while taking in all the decorations the children created. At the front of the room sat the head table where Mother Dana and her special guests were seated. The children welcomed her with a traditional song. We were asked to serve the guests Fanta or Coke and cookies. Before eating, Dana received presents in the form of cards, songs, and dances. The people of Mtendere Village were split into different groups to present these gifts to her, which made it more meaningful.

The children were especially excited for the meal they were about to eat. The special occasion called for a meal of rice, chicken, and cabbage. Including meat adds to the special feast for the people of Mtendere Village. While we didn’t expect to see people eating with their hands, it is a common practice in Malawi. We were shocked to see how much food the children could eat. Even the preschoolers had cleaned plates that were originally heaping with food.

After the formal ceremony had ended, we were all invited to celebrate Dana’s birthday by participating in one of Malawi’s favorite activities, dancing. Underneath the party tent was a disc jockey playing American music. This was exciting to us because of the familiar tunes. After that song, the D.J. played only Malawian music, all of which was unknown to us. Initially as a group, we found ourselves wanting to hear a few songs that we knew. Though after reflecting, we thought the experience was much more significant to us because we did not come to Malawi to find our American culture.

Not only were people of Mtendere welcoming to our group, but also to the surrounding villages. Usually the perimeters of the village are gated off, but they opened the gates and their hearts to welcome visitors. Although the outsiders ventured into the party, they felt apprehensive to join the festivities. Noticing their hesitance, we invited them to dance with us. Rhea Ervin, being the caring educator that she is, saw that several children were longing for companionship. Making herself vulnerable, she took a chance and invited them to boogie down with her! We all found ourselves stepping out of our comfort zones and being rewarded with a day filled with laughter, dance, and love.

As educators, we realize that incorporating the community into everyday classroom practices is important. We have become more aware of this idea while being in Malawi. Each child at Mtendere Village has a specific role to help the whole community grow. It is imperative that we embrace the community into our own classrooms to ensure each individual can develop to the best of his/her potential. Just as our peer Rhea modeled, sometimes reaching out to the community can leave you feeling vulnerable. However, it is these challenging lessons that we are learning here in Africa, which continue to impact our educational perspective.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

An Introduction to the Lives of Mtendere

We woke up bright and early on Friday morning at the Korean Garden Lodge, excited to spend the day at Mtendere Village. The village is set up with groups of children relatively close in age, each with a house mother to oversee their specific house. These caretakers range in age from twenty-five to fifty-five and are completely devoted to their children. These mothers are so thankful to have loving volunteers assist them at Mtendere Village. They are eager to learn, but we think in the end we will learn so much more from them.

We spent the day at Mtendere observing different aspects of the house mothers and staff members’ lives. The English 311 students were given the opportunity to observe how the caretakers learn in the classroom environment. The house mothers were learning about prepositions, which is about a 6th grade level in the United States. After class had ended, Brittney Troutner and Carrie Harvey were able to speak with the village’s lead teacher, Victor, about his teaching experience. He had taught 22 years in a government school and 9 years in a private school. We are impressed by his knowledge and passion for teaching. We have found that in any educational setting it is important to have strong relationships with colleagues because they could be a vital resource in your classroom. We will continue to reach out to Victor and the other teachers to meet the needs of this village. The students in English 311 will implement an after school Language Arts program created by Ruth Moll, our dependable graduate student that brings so much life to the group. This program was uniquely crafted to meet the Malawian educational standards and specific needs of the village based on Victor’s feedback given to last year’s BSU group. It is imperative to understand the community needs in order to conduct a successful classroom in which all children the opportunity to learn.

Another group of BSU students, along Dr. John Ambrosio, our wise and always curious professor, worked in the kitchen to help prepare lunch for the children. There are approximately 140 children living in Mtendere Village, so preparing meals is quite a task. Some of us chopped cabbage and tomatoes while others peeled onions. The kitchen did not work electrically and the cooking materials were run by a wood fire. There were pots as tall as a child in which cabbage and other foods were cooked. We were also taught how to make the traditional food of Malawi which is nsima (pronounced see-ma). Nsima is maize (corn) mixed with flour and is then boiled into a thick porage. It was stirred by one of the men working in the kitchen and it took an immense amount of strength. The children of Mtendere Village eat nsima for three meals a day and it is the most common food found throughout all of Malawi.