Keeping Pace . . . Abroad
By Rachel Klein Khalil
The West African country of Sierra Leone might 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 some of the lowest enrollment rates in Africa. But for School of Education Professor Peter McDermott, 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, where he volunteered on a literacy education project with the International Literacy Association. The project, Literacy for Learning, is part of a Food for Education grant aimed at increasing school attendance by providing a free school breakfast and lunch to students each day. If children achieve satisfactory school attendance, their families are given cooking oil. Since the project’s inception four years ago, the daily food allowance has boosted school attendance by nearly 200 percent.
"For many students here, it's the only food they eat all day," McDermott said.
Sierra Leone’s rural schools typically rely on unpaid volunteer teachers, whose classrooms lack books, paper, and pencils. Lessons were typically teacher-centered with little interaction or discussion among children. McDermott felt strongly that Sierra Leone’s classrooms should run differently—that if students become more active in their learning, the more likely 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,” McDermott said. “The teachers I work with here are eager to learn and highly receptive to ideas and strategies for improving literacy education in their schools."
Since his initial trip to Sierra Leone in 2013, McDermott has since completed five teaching visits there. This summer, the project is taking a new turn. McDermott is teaching groups of educators how to coach classroom teachers on effective ways to 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.”