Earlier this week I got to be a student again when I visited the “Second Language Acquisition” class and listened to several presentations by the Malawi students. I learned different strategies for teaching English as a second language, for this is essentially what the teachers must do in Malawi. In the early grades English is a subject but by fifth grade, all classes are in English. The native tongue, Chichewa, must make room for this. The challenge is that many teachers back home are not proficient in English themselves, which causes a downward spiral in learning. The Malawian graduate students here at Lakeland are determined to find ways to turn things around. They would like to see the standards raised for teachers. They would like to see teacher training be more intensive, and longer. They would like to see reading taught across the curriculum, not just in the language classes. And they said over and over that the best teachers need to stay focused on the early grades, not moved up to high school. I left class this morning so impressed by their knowledge and dedication. They have many challenges ahead.
Meet Margaret Mulaga
Upon arriving at Lakeland, Margaret Mulaga was surprised to find that the college is in a farming area. She was also surprised by the ubiquity of cheese. “I don’t like cheese,” she admitted. Also, she was very surprised by how much the weather can change in a day. And, to that I said, “Margaret, so are we!”
She was greatly inspired by the visit about a month ago now to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. She was especially struck by the displays and demonstrations that talked about how the earth moves (earthquakes, tornadoes, tsunamis). She mentioned that these were things she had recently been teaching about back home and it was very interesting to see how the museum explained these things.
Last spring, when Margaret’s husband showed her an advertisement in the newspaper announcing the opportunity to come to Lakeland for a Master’s degree in early grade reading instruction, her first thought was, “Let me be one of those people who can teach our children to read, so the country can develop.”
Margaret and her family (three girls ages seventeen, fifteen and thirteen, and one boy age four and a half) live in Malawi’s capital city, Lilongwe, where she teaches at the Teacher Training College (TTC) there. She began her teaching career at age 21 working in the primary grades and later taught secondary school. She received her BA four years ago at Domasi College of Education (part of the University of Malawi) and began to work at the TTC as a teacher trainer. She is now thinking long and hard about what can be done in order to improve early grade reading instruction back home.
She explained to me that in Malawi, you are very lucky to have only eighty students in your classroom. More consistently, a typical class size is 200 children. For us here in the U.S., who find it untenable to have forty, these numbers give us pause. How can anything at all be accomplished with that many children at once?
Margaret feels that strategies can be developed to work with these large groups and that teachers must help each other to be creative and innovative. One thing that is needed is the “print-rich” classroom. Students need to come into their classroom and see words and letters everywhere. And, if school happens to be under a tree, the teacher needs to be creative and still provide visuals of words and letters to inspire young minds.
Perhaps it is a tall order, but when I talk to Margaret, I feel that if anyone can help create a change, she can.