I originally drafted this post with the intention of reminding some of my audience that the things we take for granted aren’t necessarily universal or even necessary. Unfortunately, a large storm seems to have beat me to that point. That being said, I wanted to share an observation one of my colleagues made one night during our East Africa trip. Knowing that she was going to be talking to classrooms full of teachers on her return, she was looking for ways to explain what we were seeing; “If I had seen pictures of these classrooms before I came, I would have thought they were terrible, but I don’t feel that way about them here.”
East African classrooms (at least in the publicly-funded schools with which we work) are more often than not bare of the posters, illustrations, notices and other adornments that are de rigueur in our U.S. classrooms. You are very unlikely to find anything resembling technical equipment outside of the often make-shift computer labs; blackboards dominate. You also won’t see carpeting, specialized desk/chair hybrids or in most cases, bookshelves. The paint tends to be worn, and the windows are simple metal-framed panes that are generally left cast open to catch the breezes that stand in for air conditioning.
But my colleague is right, these classrooms are strangely appealing. And I don’t think it’s simply the effect of being visitors who get to waltz through for the day without having to do the hard work of teaching and learning in them. No, I think what makes these classrooms work is what they don’t promise. Specifically, they don’t promise to have technology, posters, learning materials, specially designed chairs or anything else make learning any easier. Instead, these classrooms declare their bare inability to be anything but what they are– simply a place for a big group (sometimes a very big group) of young women who need to find the best way they can to learn.
In my role as administrator, I took photos like this:
It shows the science lab at Sangiti High School in Tanzania, and it’s sort of beautiful in its own way, right? But the more telling pictures were these:
This is a group of Sega students during their usual Sunday afternoon study group sessions.
A student took this picture of her friends at St. Kizito’s in Uganda during one of their study group sessions.
Notice the difference? It seems as if it doesn’t matter if the chairs are in a row, or in a circle, or even inside at all. In fact, we found that chairs were considered a highly mobile property–if you need one, duck into the nearest classroom and take it to where you will work next.
The schools we work with in these countries definitely have needs. They all need books, most need more dormitory space, a working school bus, better access to water, even another cow (more on cows in a later post). But they don’t seem to need some of the things that we tend to think are essential. If you look in the center of all the pictures that the students took, you won’t find lab equipment or molded plastic desk technology–you’ll find a student.