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The Ota Initiative Blog

First Program Completed

Students plant beans and discuss which they think will grow the best.

I can’t believe I am saying this, but we are done with our first program here in Kayanga! Time has gone by so quickly. So what have we been up to these past few weeks? We’ve spun a nice story about forging kids into leaders by teaching them creative and critical thinking skills through the use of arts and science, but what have we actually been doing?

First, the scientific learning goal for this program was to teach students about how humans depend on all other living and nonliving things in their environment. Each day we focused on a different science topic related to this theme, such as living vs. nonliving things, the roles of different plant parts and the different types of animals, just to name a few. At the end of the program we read a story about Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her environmental work and then went on a nature walk.

Not only was Maathai’s story a capstone lesson about the importance of protecting the environment because we humans depend on it, but students also discussed why she was an excellent leader. Along with talking about science subjects, every day we had a leadership lesson focusing on various topics like believing in oneself, being a good communicator and the meaning of democracy. The capstone of our leadership lessons was an election. We announced the election and had people sign up for which position they wanted to run for. All the students who were running had to give a short speech in front of the class asking for votes the next day.

This may not sound like much, but the first day of class we had to almost force some children to stand up and introduce themselves, and some refused to say anything at all. Every morning afterward we made a point of having each student stand up and answer some simple question, and the change over just two weeks was incredible. By the end of the program everyone jumped up to answer without hesitation, and some of those very students who were afraid to speak the first day were among our election candidates, meaning they volunteered to get up and give a short speech in front of 30 people. I was so proud! I was even more excited to see how prepared some of the candidates were. One person even had a prepared speech written and memorized. Keep in mind, these are 5-7 year olds! Even better, in the end I think the three best candidates won, showing that the class as a whole had paid attention to our lessons and can recognize good leadership.

We taught about our scientific and leadership themes through small experiments, arts and games. Our biggest science experiment was planting beans. After learning about what things living beings need to survive, students planted beans in a variety of conditions. We then asked students to predict which plants would grow best. I was thrilled that most students correctly explained which beans would grow best and why. Each day of class we observed the beans, talked about the roles of new plant parts we saw and drew pictures of each plant to track their progress. The students drew pictures as an elementary version of lab notes for this experiment, but we drew A LOT during the program. Drawing, singing and doing small skits were great tools to help the children learn to build self confidence, express themselves and remember the material they were learning.

We also played a lot of games, the favorite being musical chairs. The students loved dancing around to the music and scrambling for chairs when it is cut. However, as a form of review we then asked the students who otherwise would be “out” a question from the day’s material. If they answered correctly, they could continue playing. Another favorite game was telephone, which we first played after our leadership lesson on communication. The game’s goal was to show the students the importance of speaking clearly and listening well, but afterward the students just liked to play if they have a free minute or two.

Another key part of our program was small group work. While we did many activities together as a class, we did most of our substantive work in small groups of five that are each headed by one of the youths we hired and trained. These groups were excellent because the group leaders know the ability of the students and how to help them, plus the students have really bonded and are helping each other. One friendship in particular between two students was amazing to watch.

Every day we had certain activities that require students to write and draw pictures in the personal notebooks we have given them. The first student in this friendship already knew how to read and write at the start of the program, and she seemed to have made it her mission to help another student in her group learn to write. We noticed this relationship the first day when the one girl explained to the other how to hold a pencil properly. Afterward, whenever we wrote, the one girl would write something first, then explain what each word was to the other girl and watch her as she copied the sentence to make sure she did it correctly. After two weeks of our program, this second girl has by no means mastered the art of writing, but she is writing.

We saw this throughout our short program. The first few days children told us things like, “I can’t write,” “I can’t draw,” or “I’m scared of talking in front of people.” In response, all we told them was to try, and they have not disappointed us. Activities that took 30 minutes the first few days because we had to cajole students to participate took half that time at the end of the program because students were eager to write, draw and learn. It is amazing how much progress children can make in a few days with just some positive reinforcement. I cannot wait until we have the resources to expand this program and do it for four weeks instead of two.

I could write about our program forever, but I’ll save a few more stories for later. Before ending, I must thank LeAnne Edgar and Cathy Jo Edgar. They are the amazing teachers who contributed most to the creation of our syllabus, and any success of this program is a reflection of what wonderful educators they are.

I will post more information about the end of our program and our accomplishments later, but for now, best wishes, and good night from Tanzania,

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