Keeping Pace . . . Abroad
The West African country of Sierra Leone may not be the first place that comes to mind as a summer destination. Decades of economic decline and years of armed conflict have had dramatic consequences on the economy. This country ranks near the bottom of most global lists of adult literacy performance and its schools, particularly in the rural regions, have one of the poorest enrollment rates in Africa. But for Peter McDermott, PhD, Professor at Pace’s School of Education and NYC Department Chair, spending time in Sierra Leone is on the top of his priority list.
“It’s an incredibly challenging place with extremely warm, friendly, and enthusiastic people,” McDermott said. “My time here has been some of the most difficult yet rewarding work I’ve ever done.”
McDermott first traveled to Sierra Leone in 2013 and has now completed five teaching visits to this country, most recently this past summer. He first volunteered on a literacy education project with the International Literacy Association (ILA). This project, Literacy for Learning (L4L), is part of a Food for Education grant, which is funded by the US Department of Agriculture.
“For many children it’s the only food they get all day.”
The Food for Education program aims at increasing children’s school attendance by providing free breakfast and lunch to those who attend. If children achieve good school attendance during a marking period, their families are given cooking oil. Since the project’s inception three years ago, the daily food allowance for school attendance has made a significant impact on children attendance in Sierra Leone.
Sierra Leone’s rural schools typically rely on unpaid volunteer teachers, whose classrooms lack books, paper and writing utensils. Prior to ILA’s involvement, a typical classroom lesson in Sierra Leone might contain these characteristics: The class would be large with forty or more children (sometimes as many as 100!) in attendance in a 20’X30’ classroom. Children would sit in groups of two to four on long wooden benches. Lessons were typically teacher-centered with the teachers often beginning their lessons with songs or chants (e.g., “I kick, I kick, I kick” and “I move, I move, I move”) that were chorally repeated by the children and accompanied with body movement.
Because there were few or no books, reading activities were completed through choral reading of texts that teachers had written on the classroom chalkboard. Teachers typically integrated their presentations with questions requiring children to answer chorally or individually when called upon. When a child answered correctly, the teacher might say, “Clap for her,” and then all the other children would applaud in unison with either single or multiple claps.
Lessons such as this were typically teacher-centered with little interaction or discussion among children. McDermott felt strongly that Sierra Leone’s classrooms should run differently.
“If Sierra Leone’s children are to ever have the opportunity to successfully compete in a globalized world, they must learn to effectively and critically read and write.”
“Basing literacy reform on teachers’ professional knowledge, as this project is attempting to do, is a practical first step for developing educational and economic opportunities for the children in Sierra Leone,” he said.
McDermott helps support the ILA model, which is based on the belief that the more active the learner, the more likely literacy learning will take place.
“Active learning involves having children make connections with new information being presented, learning to ask their own high-level questions, and participating in many classroom opportunities to talk and interact with others about texts,” McDermott said.
“The teachers I work with in Sierra Leone are eager to learn, very friendly, and highly receptive to ideas and strategies for improving literacy education in their schools,” McDermott said.
“My hope is that we can truly improve the quality of literacy instruction here in Sierra Leone.”
This past summer, the project took a new turn. McDermott taught groups of educators how to coach classroom teachers in ways to effectively teach reading and writing. Over time, these literacy coaches will work with their rural teachers by demonstrating, modeling, and guiding them on how to teach literacy in their elementary and secondary classrooms.
“My hope is that we can truly improve the quality of literacy instruction here in Sierra Leone,” McDermott said, “That is, to develop literacy coaches so they will go on to teach and that their schools will improve and ultimately, maybe 10 years down the road, Sierra Leone will be a well-educated country.”