Reflections from Leslie
Every trip to Ghana is special and unique in its own way. The exchange theme, artwork from American kids, composition of the team, their collective experiences, fulfilled or unfilled expectations, and cohesiveness greatly impact the overall experience. Oh, and the heat! We are very fortunate this trip to have Kathee and Leslie, in addition to Chief Kelvin. Kathee volunteered in 2010, and has returned to lead this trip. She will soon share some of the changes she has observed. Leslie has been one of our partner art teachers from Cashiers, NC for that last 4 years, and been on the receiving end of Ghana artwork. She is our first partner teacher, of many we are sure, to walk with us in Ghana. I just spoke with her, and she wishes they were staying longer! Here are some of her reflections, after her first week in Ghana.
In Her Own Words
Another hot day in Ghana! As we arrive, in our taxi, in the dirt schoolyard of EP Sokode the students cheer and gather round the car. As always they are eager to carry our bags, say hello and you are welcome, hold our hands and otherwise make us feel privileged to be here. We are returning to the combined 4A and 4B classrooms to complete the projects for Red Sandstone Elementary and CT Walker Magnet School. These students, at the prompting of a student sent by the Headmistress, excitedly leave the playground before their break is up to join us in the classroom. Four B students carry the heavy wooden desks from their classroom to 4A’s to work. Some of the students work together to do this but one young girl eagerly carries a desk all by herself. Once they are settled we start with the letter to CT Walker students. Students wave their hands with anticipation, wanting to be called on to offer a line for the letter. Leslie takes dictation at the board. The students have chosen one from each class to copy this onto posterboard. After the letter is complete on the blackboard we hand out materials for return projects to RSE. Leslie gives a quick watercolor lesson as most of these students have not used this medium before. Meanwhile, two students bend over the posterboard at the front of the classroom, carefully copying the letter.
We put out the watercolors, poster paints, markers, crayons, and colored pencils with a variety of paper to choose from. The students come, row by row, at Kelvin’s direction, to pick the materials for their projects. We are surprised by how few initially take watercolors. There is much talking as they begin work. However the work is happening and the heads at desks, are bent over a variety of colors. We have noticed that these students often choose the colors of the Ghana flag; red, yellow, green and black, but not today. Today a multitude of colors are being put to paper to express the things they love about the environment. We see animals: hen, goat, fish, and trees: mango in particular (which is in season now), as well as the sun and stars, flowers, butterflies, rainbows, rocks and water. Some of the students enjoy coloring the mandala templates and one makes his own mandala. We are grateful for the breeze that comes through the open windows even though it continually means we are chasing after papers or propping windows back open. The students work while chatting and soon some are finished and asking to more. As our time is allowing, and we have more students at RSE than here we encourage this. Soon more begin to try the watercolors, struggling at first to control the paint on the paper but with a little help soon figure it out. Then all too soon for the students who are enjoying this creative opportunity, our time is up. We ask about the match before leaving. They inform us with big smiles that they won. We all give a big cheer! Having worked as a teacher in the U.S. for 5+ years it is an eye-opening experience to come to Ghana and see what classrooms on the other side of the world look like. At first glance, it is different – the classrooms are open – there are no screens in the windows, only wooden shutters. There are no lights either. There is something so lovely about the light in these classrooms. It’s natural and even though our pictures come out dark sometimes, the feeling from this light is warm and calming. In the U.S. we often turn the harsh fluorescent lights off when there is reading time or quiet time, or when we want everyone to calm down. Often times the U.S. students request this because the fluorescent lights are so blaring. The children in Ghana sit two or three to a wooden desk, the likes of which we have seen maybe 100 years ago in our country. As teachers, we always talk about the significance of group work and collaboration. Well, proximity is one way to do it. The walls are brightly colored, but mostly bare, which surprised me. In classrooms in the U.S. one can find an overwhelming amount of information on the walls. Posters, pictures, diagrams, spelling words, directions. It is not uncommon for teachers to complain about a lack of wall space! It’s no wonder we have such a widespread lack of focus in our country. We have been bringing in a brightly colored poster of Adrinka symbols for a reference for the children’s art. One student asked if they could keep it in their room. I thought, “visual aids really do come in handy, don’t they?”, but had to decline. In another class, I drew a few portraits of the students. After examining them with great care, they directly stuck the papers up on the wall with a kind of glue. There was nothing else in the room. It was clear that posters and supplies for posters are scarce. It seems that we are such a visual culture in that way. Likewise, there is a lot of repeating and rote learning happening in the classes. I wonder if the students in Ghana are used to learning by listening and doing rather than seeing. This seems to be the case when I see the kids drumming, singing, and dancing with such natural ease and talent.
Recess is the same- crazy and hectic! But kids of different ages intermingle more. Adults don’t pay too much attention to the rowdiness going on in the courtyard. These kids are given some freedom for their free time and if someone gets hurt, they work it out, they don’t usually go crying to a teacher for help. It’s not like the playground is super safe either. There is some re-bar here and a pile of bricks there, where a building is to be constructed. I can see we are definitely more uptight in this matter, always checking in on students and making sure they are being nice and safe and polite. There’s a kind of self-policing happening here and a sense of responsibility for themselves and each other. On two campuses we have seen students doing service work by carrying rocks or large branches to an area where they are putting up a new building. Again, there is no teacher with them, just a sense of cooperation for the good of the school. Is there more joy here in Ghana than in the U.S.? Sometimes it feels that way. The children are so open and sweet and beautiful. I wonder, “what if we stayed for a few months, I bet we would see a different side of them.” And then a sharp word from a teacher confirms my suspicion. The children are not perfect, of course, but there is a lack of angst or jadedness here. In the U.S., when a visitor arrives, students are on their best behavior and excited for what’s to come. But sometimes we hold back our emotions. We have more of a sense of “the watcher” in our culture. The voice inside that asks “do I look cool?”, “what would my friends think?”, “how should I be responding?”. Here, there is shyness to be certain, but students are not “checking” themselves for the “right thing to do”. They are open and curious and unbridled. I want to take this quality back to the U.S with me.
When we are in the classes, it feels like home. Students settle into their seats the same way students in the U.S. do – they need some encouragement and prodding. The same is true when we end a lesson. Students hurry to finish up and are loathe to put their materials away. There are different dynamics to each class – some are loud and boisterous, others shy and quiet. When students are engaged in their work, they are silent and captivated- just the way we teachers want a good lesson to go. When I am in the classroom with these students, the classroom itself melts away. It doesn’t feel like we’re in Ghana, West Africa. We are in a school anywhere in the world where students are excited to learn new things, get their hands dirty, share their experiences, and express themselves from their hearts.