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Embracing Culture in the Classroom
Redeemer University College students are developing methods and materials for schools in Sierra Leone.

"You can't use 'A is for apple, B is for bear … ' when the children you're teaching have never seen an apple and don't know what a bear is."

Katie McBride (kneeling, bottom left) and Loreen Deelstra (standing, far right) pose with the staff of Alakalai School where 11 staff members serve more than 1000 students in grades 1 to 6.

Photos courtesy Loreen Deelstra and Katie McBride

That was the challenge facing Loreen Deelstra as she developed reading and writing materials for use in schools in Sierra Leone.

Deelstra, a third-year French major in the Education program from Wyoming, Ontario and Katie McBride, an Honours English and French major from Toronto, were in the West African country this past fall as part of a Canada Corps University Partnership Program internship sponsored the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) and CIDA, the Canadian International Development Agency.

"For classroom materials to be effective," Deelstra remarks, "they need to have some connection to the children's lives. My work focused on developing resources and strategies that are applicable to the specific needs of the children and teachers of Sierra Leone." Beyond the cultural differences, Deelstra also needed to be mindful of the limitations of a school system that has been ravaged by civil war and poverty. Pedagogical methodology can be restricted when 20 children need to share one writing slate and some chalk, or there is only one dictionary for an entire school.

Sierra Leone's effort to raise national literacy levels from about 30 percent was dramatically affected by the war. However, as villages and towns work to rebuild their communities today they urgently work to institute schools. People hold great hope for the country's future through education. Thus, in spite of rudimentary facilities, large classes, and often untrained teachers, parents send their children to school. They know what UNICEF confirms: one's quality of life, career choice and a climate of good governance depend very much on literacy abilities.

Katie McBride's work focused on addressing the challenge of large classes with few materials. Incorporating the culture's more communal outlook and tendencies, she developed collaborative learning strategies that are applicable to teachers who typically have classes of 60-90 students and very few resources or supplies with which to work. She developed ways of reusing a storybook in fresh ways and developed strategies for pairs of children to help each other learn to read and write.

Some of the students of Alakalai School get ready to start another school day.

The internship is one part of an on-going project. Both Deelstra and McBride have created manuals that are being developed and evaluated or used by teachers and schools across Sierra Leone, and during summer 2006 Dr. Jo Kuyvenhoven will return to Sierra Leone (she spent a number of years there before coming to Redeemer) to supervise the printing of the manuals. Kuyvenhoven, an assistant professor of education at Redeemer and one of the organizers of the internship, has worked and lived in Sierra Leone for several years. She spends more than a month every year studying and working toward raising the literacy level. During the summer of 2006 she will oversee the production of the books written by Loreen and Katie. After a workshop with elementary school teachers, class sets will be distributed to all the children at 22 schools in northern Sierra Leone.

This project is sponsored by CIDA, which recognizes the important role that literacy has in advancing good government in developing countries. Redeemer University College is grateful for their support of this project.

Tim Wolfert is the assistant director of alumni and community relations at Redeemer University College.

Originally published in Images, Winter 2006.




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