Awka: A Nigerian journey

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anambra-journeyThe author works with a small study group on a math lesson in Nigeria. Other study groups are in the background.

Deep in southeastern Nigeria, Anambra state was once a place where education was vibrant and thriving. This was before the Biafran War of the 1960s left it devastated by the genocide of the Ibo people, who are the predominant inhabitants of the region. The infrastructure and education system were left in disarray.

With the help of people like Dr. Chukuemeka Onukaogu, all that is changing, and the outlook for education in Anambra is brighter. He is a professor of literacy at Obafemi Awolowu University and past president of the Reading Association of Nigeria (RAN), which is a sub-group of the International Reading Association whose headquarters are in Newark, Del.

Today, Awka, in Anambra state, is a large and thriving place. It is a mix of the traditional and modern. Old roads are being replaced by new highways. Traditional language and dress are changing to standardized English and Western styles. New vehicles from Toyota and Honda drive alongside huge lorries. To make up for the lack of privately owned vehicles, mini-buses, small three-wheeled vehicles, called keke na pepes, and motocycles are a major form of transportation for most people. Awka is a safe city, far from the worrisome presence of Boko Haram, and day-to-day activities run smoothly.

My husband and I traveled to Awka at the beginning of September to participate in a three-week leadership workshop for 57 master teachers from 32 junior secondary schools (middle school through grade nine) and for educators from the Ministry of Education. I was the lead academic presenter, and Gerry provided guidance on behavioral issues. We worked with a team that included Dr. Onukaogu and a linguist, Dr. Gabriel Egbe from Ventas University in Abuja.

In Anambra Junior Secondary school, teachers have classes of 45 to 50 students per 40-minute period. With six periods a day, that means they see about 300 students per day.

Often the only texts available are those that parents purchase from the government. Teachers report that their classrooms have very limited libraries or none at all. Computers are few. Internet connection is basically achieved on the cell phones that teachers carry with them at all times. Schools are concrete buildings that house rows of rough wooden desks and benches. The modern white boards in some classrooms are promising.

The focus of my workshop was to create child-based learning based on whole language principles. Whole language is a philosophy that states that when language is kept intact, reading and writing are facilitated. Lessons using discrete skills such as grammar and phonics should be isolated from the practice of reading or writing full-length texts. The goal of this workshop was to improve the reading and writing of whole pieces of text.

Teachers were introduced to strategies to help develop sustained silent reading with a variety of texts that could be provided from the community and the overseas shipments of books from the United States that were being arranged by Dr. Onukaogu. Classroom libraries would receive these books while teachers were encouraged to have students creating their own texts from journal entries summarizing lessons, from stories that the students themselves would write or collect using oral histories from members of their communities.

Every school in the project will have at least two periods a week for 20 minutes when everyone, including the teachers, will be reading. Every student in all of the 32 schools will receive a journal in order to maintain reflections on what they are learning in English, mathematics, science or technology. The teachers themselves participated in activities like sustained silent reading, and they kept journals to write reflections on what they learned in the workshop.

Perhaps one of the biggest changes experienced by the teachers was to participate in study circles. These groups discussed shared texts as well as information that was provided in lectures. Frequent use of the study circle model helped build a sense of friendship and community with the participants in the workshop. Teachers were grouped according to subject so that they could share teaching ideas with each other as they reflected on the lectures and activities provided by the team.

During our stay we met with the governor of Anambra, Chief Dr. Willie Maduabuchukwu Obiano, and the commissioner of education, Dr. Kate Omenugha, who were fully in support of the workshop because it offered the promise of transforming and improving educational practices. The governor, who is fully behind the project, helped to get it funded and provided security during our stay. The commissioner promised full support of the teachers and promised that their supervision during the year would be based on the practices outlined in the course.

It is humbling to think that two citizens from Rutland, Vt., could participate in a project that could eventually impact a much greater portion of Nigeria and perhaps even Africa.

Dr. Alis Headlam of Rutland is owner of One World Consulting. (Source: Rutland Herald)

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