Follow the Malawians in the
Lakeland College M.Ed. Program
Thank You for Teaching Us
Winter in Wisconsin this year can’t decide if it will go or stay, so from past experience we know this is a sure sign of spring. It is March, and as our graduate students enjoy slightly warmer days, they remain focused on their coursework and preparations to return to Malawi. Their time in Wisconsin will be over in just three short months.This post highlights a variety of news from the past three weeks.
Professors Elzinga and Frink journeyed to Malawi over Lakeland’s spring break (March 9-15) to attend to administrative details related to the program. While there, they secured office space for the program, hired a research mentor to work with the graduate students when they collect data for their theses, researched sources for school supplies, and met with USAID and other officials
On Thursday, March 19, the grade school students at Longfellow Elementary School held a going away party for their Malawian teachers. As described in the most recent blog post, the graduate students had worked with the children at Longfellow for nine weeks, using a variety of reading strategies that they will incorporate into their teaching practices at the Teacher Training Colleges when they return home.
As part of the festivities, the Longfellow children created special folders and bookmarks for each teacher, and the Malawians brought traditional foods to share with the children: nsima (corn meal), rice, beef stew, and cabbage.
I asked the children as they sat with their Malawian teachers at the party to tell me some of the favorite things they had experienced in their reading groups. Their answers included: “I liked the animal cards,” “I liked the guessing games,” and “I will never forget Bertha’s hugs!”
I then asked what they had learned from their African teachers, and the students said, “Every sentence has words in it,” “Words are made from letters,” and “Elephants don’t sweat.”
One little girl said she used to read slowly, but now she can read faster. When I asked the class, “What is one thing you would like to share with your teacher from Malawi?” a boy said, “Thank you for teaching us.”
Geralyn Leannah, one of the cooperating reading specialists at Longfellow School and an instructor for the course, “Instructional Strategies,” wrote a lovely summation of her observations of the Malawian graduate students:
As long as I live I will never forget the teachers from Malawi who came to study at Lakeland College this past year. These 9 individuals have become masters at the craft of teaching reading, and have shown remarkable courage, integrity and determination.
First, they left their homes and families, committing to 12 months away in a foreign place. Then, they threw themselves into intense study and research with very few breaks, reading and writing well into each and every night. Next, they endured harsh weather, alien to their experience: the snow, endlessly overcast skies and bitter cold of Wisconsin winters. Then, as part of their studies, the Malawian teachers took on 30 elementary school students, practicing reading strategies together for nine weeks. Tight bonding ensued.
Through it all, they demonstrated humor, wisdom and wit in the face of change and unfamiliar circumstances. Clearly, the Lakeland College students from Malawi are extraordinary human beings and their country's greatest asset.
On Tuesday, February 24, I visited Longfellow Elementary School in Sheboygan to observe the Lakeland graduate students working with elementary school students to improve reading skills. Today's post is a photo essay that describes what I saw taking place.
The graduate students have been visiting Longfellow School every Tuesday and Thursday for the last several weeks as a practicum experience, putting into practice the theories and skills they are learning in the classroom. Their cooperating reading specialists in the elementary school are Geralyn Leannah and Lori Ann Roelse. Ms. Leannah and Ms. Roelse are also the professors in the Instructional Strategies course the graduate students are taking this term. Several of the Lakeland students expressed how gratifying and helpful it was to be able to see the various strategies they have learned come to life in a classroom with young learners. These are skills the M.Ed. students will have perfected while they are here. In the future, they will be able to pass these tested strategies to teachers in the Teacher Training Colleges in Malawi.
The Lakeland students will continue with their same groups of children for the rest of the semester. These photos clearly show the engagement in the learning process that is happening and the friendships that have been made.
The week starting on February 2 was especially important for the Lakeland College-USAID Educational Partnership. Florence G. Sepula, Participant Training Specialist at USAID/Malawi, visited campus as part of a longer visit of hers to the U.S. that included training workshops in Washington, D.C.
Ms. Sepula arrived in Wisconsin from Washington just in time for the big snow storm that hit the state on February 1, but she came well-prepared for winter weather with new gloves and a thick scarf. While she was here, she observed classes and met with key faculty members (such as Jeff Elzinga, Mehraban Khodavandi, and Joshua Kutney) and key administrators (such as President Dan Eck, Academic Dean Meg Albrinck, CFO Carole Robertson, and Controller Sharon Roob).
Perhaps most importantly, Ms. Sepula met individually with each student, as well as with the whole group, to learn about everyone's progress in the program and about the adjustment to campus, Wisconsin, and the U.S. Ndamyo Mwanyongo said, “Florence Sepula’s visit made me feel a greater impact of the M.Ed. program which I am pursuing…This feeling has made me want to work harder…to finish well.” Bertha Singini was heartened by Ms. Sepula’s “good direction on our plans,” and Michael Simawo was appreciative that Ms. Sepula clarified the “…areas we need to work on, which I intend to share with stakeholders in education when I go back.”
Part of Ms. Sepula’s responsibility is to provide USAID/Malawi with a report on how things are going here. I had the pleasure of driving Ms. Sepula to and from campus each day, so we had many opportunities to talk and get to know one another. From our conversations I learned that by the end of her visit she was impressed with the progress being made. “From my observation,” she said, “I’ve noted that Lakeland College has demonstrated high standards in the training of these teachers. The faculty and administration at Lakeland College seem very dedicated to student success.”
All the students had met Ms. Sepula previously, at the time of their application interviews, in April 2014. She had been involved in their selection, and she will serve in this capacity again as the next cohort of graduate students is selected in the coming weeks. Advertisements have already been placed in Malawi’s newspapers, at the Teacher Training Colleges, and with other community venues throughout the country. The application process may be even more competitive this year, she said, as it is expected that there will be far more than the 300 applications that were received the first time around.
I joined Ms. Sepula and several of the students for dinner in Bossard Hall on Wednesday evening and then we went together to the class ED 706, “Differentiating Instruction.” It is taught by Plymouth School District Superintendent, Dr. Carrie Dassow. Discussion that night focused on a group of articles that the students had read. Dr. Dassow asked the class to share insights, surprises, or anything that struck them as they read about the theory and practical application of differentiated learning. A great discussion ensued as everyone shared his or her thoughts. One notion in particular that struck me while listening was the idea of “starting small.” This seems especially relevant as I continue to think about the large task ahead for the graduate students. How will they implement the many good ideas that they have developed here when they go home to Malawi? Ms. Sepula shed some light on the future when she said, “The students have made tremendous progress in their studies, such that I’m confident that they will make a difference in the teaching of reading in Malawi.”
The students will continue in the coming months to refine their individual thesis projects and their combined strategies for implementing systemic improvements to early grade reading in Malawi. I sensed that Ms. Sepula’s visit brought “home” into clear focus for each of them. She answered their questions, gave feedback on their plans, and encouraged them “to hang on” and continue to work hard. She assured them that their efforts are going to make a difference. Phillip Nachonie summed up the sentiments of the graduate students well: “Florence’s coming was a blessing as she gave us an update of what is going on back home in relation to reading. Now we have an idea of who our partners are, what they are doing, and what it is we can do to put Malawi on the map as far as literacy is concerned.”
Lisa and Florence at the end of the day.
This post is written by Lisa Vihos, the Director of Sponsored Programs and Research at Lakeland College. The program is made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents of this blog are the responsibility of Lakeland College and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.
On Sunday, January 11, Bertha Singini and Benjamin David answered an invitation from First Congregational Church in Sheboygan to speak at an Adult Forum educational session prior to the 10 a.m. worship service. These sessions are offered by the church every Sunday morning on a variety of topics in order to raise church members’ awareness about issues of both local and global importance. At a recent session, Pastor Jim Hollister shared information about his trip to The Holy Land, where he gained new insights about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On January 11, the topic for the session was “Early Grade Reading in Malawi: A Way Forward.” Eighteen church members attended, and afterwards, commented that they were moved by what Benjamin and Bertha shared about the challenges facing young learners in Malawi.
Benjamin began by presenting basic information about the size and population of Malawi. He shared that there are 17 different ethnic groups within the country, each one speaking its own local language. While Chichewa is the national language, and English is the official language, there are many other languages spoken amongst the nation’s 16 million inhabitants. For some children, English is not just a second language, but sometimes it is the child’s third language.
Benjamin and Bertha described the various difficulties faced by Malawi’s educational system: large class sizes, lack of indoor classroom space, lack of book resources and other educational aids, lack of assessment, and in many cases, a lack of well-trained teachers. They explained that soon after the government changed in 1994 from a single-party to a multi-party system, education became free to all children, and many more girls started attending classes. One repercussion of this sudden increase in school populations was a decrease in the quality of teaching available to students because there were not enough trained teachers to go around. Malawi’s education sector has been trying to catch up ever since.
During the church presentation, the LC graduate students did not focus only on their country’s challenges, of course. They shared a list of initiatives they hope to champion when they return home. At the top of their list is developing new ways to involve parents in their children’s learning process, including teaching parents to read themselves, when that is necessary. Also on their list were ideas about raising the bar for teacher training and bringing to their colleagues and students at the Teacher Training Colleges the best practices for teaching reading across the entire curriculum.
Bertha and Benjamin also mentioned that the Lakeland graduate students have a vision for creating a “model school” in Malawi that could become a center for promoting and disseminating the best practices in early grade reading instruction. They imagine, as part of this model school, a resource something along the lines of Sheboygan’s Bookworm Gardens. They see a Malawi Bookworm Gardens as an enriching and engaging environment in which children and their parents can learn together.
The Sheboygan church members had many questions for the presenters and praised them for their courage and perseverance in addressing the needs of Malawi’s youngest students.
I had the pleasure of accompanying the graduate students on Friday, December 19, to Cleveland Elementary School for a music program, “An Eclectic Collection of Holiday Songs.” We were the guests of the school’s principal, Dr. Bill Klein, who is also one of the adjunct instructors in the Lakeland graduate program. He was very happy to welcome the Malawians to his school, and the Lakeland students were very happy to be there.
Dr. Bill Klein, far left, with the Malawi students and front office staff at Cleveland Elementary School.
Upon arrival, we toured the school building and visited the front office, the library/computer lab, the art room, and two classrooms, one for kindergarteners and one for second graders. In each classroom, Dr. Klein introduced the Malawians to the children and explained that these visitors were his students at Lakeland College and that they had come to study in the United States from a place very far away. He explained that the country of Malawi was on the continent of Africa, and he asked the children if they could tell him how one would get to Malawi. “Could you use a car?” he asked. The children were quite sure a person would need either a boat or a plane.
The Malawians had front row seats for the concert, where about 250 parents had gathered in the gymnasium to listen to their children sing. The music director at Cleveland is Lisa (Landwehr) Whelton, who is a 1988 alumna of Lakeland’s music education program. She led the children, from kindergarteners through fifth graders, in a lively program that featured many fun and energetic holiday songs. The children added percussion, hand gestures, and body movements that created an uplifting and entertaining show. You didn’t need to be related to these children to enjoy their performance. That’s how good it was.
I asked the graduate students afterward about music in schools in Malawi, and I learned that children do sing in school, as part of the “expressive arts” curriculum. What the Malawians found most impressive about the activity we had just witnessed at Cleveland Elementary was the involvement of parents. It really struck the Malawians how great it was that parents would take time to be present for their children in this way.
In addition, they were curious about the fact that public school students do not wear uniforms (as they generally do in Malawi). Phillip Nachonie pointed out how important it is to teach children things and then give them the opportunity to show off what they have learned. Everyone agreed that this opportunity to “show off” would be something to take home to Malawi with them.
One final highlight of the day was at the end of the concert when we met with Lisa Whelton and a fourth grade teacher, Dawn Wood, who is a 2009 alumna of Lakeland’s M.Ed. program. It was a lovely moment to have these two LC alumnae exchanging stories with the Malawian students about favorite professors: Khodavandi, Elder, Homstad, and Schilcutt to name a few. There was much laughter, a sense of camaraderie, and the invitation from Dr. Klein to return to the school in the future.
It was such a wonderful afternoon. What better way to celebrate the Christmas season? Songs were sung, cookies were shared, friends were made.
The graduate students with Lisa (Landwehr) Whelton '88 at far left and Dawn Wood '09 at far right.
Bertha Singini with two new friends, Christopher and Jacob.
The Malawi graduate students have come to the end of their second term at Lakeland. The last few weeks have been a time of continued study, exams, papers, and planning ahead. What the students are most focused on now is how to leverage their knowledge to implement systemic changes in the way reading is taught to young learners in Malawi. They have identified who their different audiences will be when they return home, including everyone from officials in the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology, to staff at the Teacher Training Colleges; from current teachers and parents to the learners themselves. In each instance, the students will need to craft persuasive arguments for change that are tailored to each audience. This is not an easy task, but the Lakeland students seem as passionate as ever and ready for the challenges ahead. Recently, I had a chance to speak with Bertha Singini and Phillip Nachonie about how the group’s thinking is evolving. Today’s post summarizes some of their latest strategizing.
The strategizing began in Professor Karl Elder’s fall course, “Means for Mastery of Reading Pedagogy.” Based on critical thinking methods presented by Tim Hurson in his book Think Better, the group created a list of 28 problems that need solving:
- How might we help learners who are not efficient in reading?
- Some things that cause inefficiency?
- How much time allocated to reading?
- How might we influence [government] to employ competent teachers?
- How to get rid of inefficient reading practices?
- Disadvantages of inefficient readers?
- How to get enough reading materials?
- How to make learners communicate in English effectively?
- How to use skills gained at LC?
- How to teach reading effectively in the TTCs and reach out to those in the field?
- How to know ineffective methods?
- How to develop better reading methods?
- Handling large classes for reading?
- How to change curriculum?
- How to motivate learners?
- How to motivate teachers to teach effectively?
- How to use effectively the resources?
- How to invest more to improve reading?
- How to use time effectively?
- How to help teachers accept change?
- How to come up with adequate classrooms?
- How to influence political will and stakeholders?
- How to use reading assessment methods?
- How to involve learners in reading activities?
- How to involve other teachers to help improve reading?
- How to increase reading time without going beyond the school hours?
- How to help learners have print-rich homes?
- How to reduce teacher-learner ratio (1:40)
Bertha and Phillip explained that the group took the 28 problems and organized them into five categories: Learners, Time, Stakeholder Involvement, Effective Methods, and Resources. The students then examined which things can be implemented through their direct sharing of information and skills with TTC teachers and teacher candidates individually and which things are larger in scope and will require the assistance of administrators and policy-makers in order to be implemented throughout the education sector.
Informed by Hurson’s methodology for using innovation and problem solving as presented in his book, the students continue to identify “assisters” and “resisters” within the current system, in order to create the new outcomes they seek. By anticipating what the road to innovation and subsequent improvement in literacy levels in Malawi will look like for these agents of change, the students believe they will be able to assist in improving early grade reading instruction in Malawi for many years to come.
Theirs is a great undertaking. But, as Bertha remarked, “I can’t wait to go home and get started!”
The weather is turning much colder here, and it appears we’ll be having an early winter in this part of the world. So far, we've escaped the snow that has hit other parts of the region, but we know it is coming soon. When I run into the Malawians on campus these days, most are wearing their winter coats and wool hats, and when I ask the students how they’re faring, they tell me they are doing well. “Reading and writing,” they say, “more reading, more writing.” The students of Cohort 1 are just about halfway through their time at Lakeland.
Recently, one of our Malawian graduate students, Bertha Singini, shared with me some photographs showing one of her former students teaching a class.
Miriam Nyasulu was a student at Lilongwe Teacher Training College and is now a teacher at Tsabango Primary School in Lilongwe. In Miriam’s Standard One class (the equivalent of the first grade in the U.S.) she has 137 students. There are twelve other teachers in Standard One at Tsabango Primary School, and each teacher has over 100 children to teach. Bertha reports that in the entire school (grades 1-8) there are 11,000 children and 160 teachers.
The school’s population is enormous and space is limited, so 48 of the classes at Tsabango have to meet outside, as in Miriam’s case. For many classes, students learn while sitting under a tree or beside the wall of one of the classroom buildings. When it rains (which happens frequently from December to March), those students taking their classes outdoors have no choice but to go home.
Bertha tells me that most learners in Malawi are in the earlier grades, and the number of students per grade decreases as the children get older.
Going to school must be a rather frustrating experience for most learners, so I wonder if children end up “dropping out” at an early age because it is so difficult to make progress in such a trying learning environment. Already, there are few books per class and virtually no supplementary educational materials, so overcrowding in their classes only makes the students less able to learn and therefore less interested in learning.
The photos Miriam shared with us tell a great deal about the current state of affairs for teachers and students in Malawi. They also remind us of the enormous challenges that the Lakeland graduate students will face and are preparing to address when they return home.
Recently, Karon Harden, a consultant from RTI International (a major global consulting firm with headquarters in North Carolina and Washington DC), came to Lakeland to meet with the graduate students for a two-day exploration into the Early Grade Reading Assessment and the Early Grade Reading Activity (EGRA). The assessment program has been instituted in other African countries to measure literacy levels, and the collected data show that improvements are taking place due to follow-up interventions through the subsequent Early Grade Reading Activity. All of the M.Ed. students came away impressed with Karon’s knowledge about reading programs and her experience in Africa. One thing Karon shared with the students was a rubric called The Five Ts, which is described below. I’m also happy to pass along some of what the graduate students came away with from the workshop, expressed in their own words.
The following summary was submitted by Ndamyo Mwanyongo: “One of the significant things that I learned at the RTI workshop is “The 5 Ts”. These are Time, Teaching, Text, Tongue, and Testing.
- Learners are supposed to be given more time to read so that they have a good foundation.
- Teachers should use good teaching techniques that will help learners learn to read. Activities done by teachers and learners should be well distributed so that learners practice more. Teachers succeed in this by considering some clues like: “I do,” “we do,” and “you do.” Thus, the teacher demonstrates, then does it together with the learners, then finally lets learners practice on their own.
- Learners should be given more chance to use the text for reading. They should be encouraged to read even outside the classroom.
- Learners should be allowed to express themselves, and to be assisted in their mother tongue. This helps them to understand the concept easily.
- Learners’ progress should be monitored by testing them regularly.”
Building on Ndamyo’s explanation, Michael Simawo pointed out that:
“We looked at each of [The Five Ts] in detail and related them to the situation in Malawi. We discussed how we can make sure that these five factors are considered in our literacy curriculum. It was felt Malawi needs to do more on the factors, and that we should lead the efforts to implement the factors in our respective Teacher Training Colleges, and in Malawi, in general.”
Michael and others reported that much of the discussion focused on essential early literacy components, such as phonemic awareness, alphabetic principles, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. The M.Ed. students were also shown video clips of teachers implementing these techniques. Bertha Singini told me that she learned a lot from watching and discussing the video clips. Their task was to identify and talk about each “real” lesson and to think about what was working for the teacher and why. What was the teacher in the clip doing that led to success?
From Elias Lyson: “On the second day, we worked in groups listing challenges affecting education in Malawi. What interested me and is really a good lesson to me is how we can work with the Malawian government…to change some of its education policies that are impeding education per se. I really feel that this is indeed our responsibility to lobby with [our government officials] to have at least good political will towards improvement of our education [system]…[Karon] inspired us to keep on learning.”
From Elymas Tembwe: “We also discussed the challenges that we face in Malawi with early grade reading which include large classes; lack of teaching, learning and assessment resources; lack of monitoring and evaluation systems; and insufficient time to train teachers. We [discussed] how we can put our Lakeland College expertise to use when we go back to Malawi. Some of these actions are: to stay abreast of best practices, to use critical thinking, [and to employ] research and data-based decision making, to mention just a few. [The two-days with Karon Harden were] REALLY WONDERFUL”
Benjamin David, when looking at the challenges ahead, created a list of things he would like to do when he returns home. He wrote:
1. Consider what to do in the curriculum, like giving reading more time in the early grades.
2. Emphasize the best practices of teaching reading in Teacher Training Colleges, such as full courses in phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension.
3. Give the teachers efficient knowledge and enough practice on the way reading should be taught in early grades.
4. Guide the Ministry to initiate effective monitoring and evaluation systems that will reinforce trainers' efforts in improving teachers' work in the schools.
5. Find mechanisms and strategies of dealing with teaching and learning problems that arise due to large classes.
6. Find research-based methods that can help to improve teaching in elementary grades.
Through their Lakeland classes, their interactions with Wisconsin teachers, and workshops like this one with Karon Harden, the Malawian graduate students continue to build on the knowledge and skills they will use as reading specialists in Malawi.
Not long ago in September, the Malawian graduate students joined an online workshop sponsored by USAID. The title of the webinar was “Incentives and Accountability in Education.” Participants were able to connect via the Internet from across the globe and listen to presentations taking place in Washington D.C.
The presenters shared information on using incentives to improve both student and teacher performance with early grade reading. One exercise during the workshop dealt with a hypothetical situation in Malawi, and the students found this to be a very useful learning activity. In fact, the exercise may be expanded as part of a visit to campus by an early grade reading consultant in spring 2015.
In the coming months, the Malawians hope to learn more about technology and the possibilities it affords as far as creating inter-connectivity with knowledgeable experts in early grade reading around the world.
Meanwhile, the students continue to work with Tim Hurson’s book Think Better in Professor Elder’s class, “Means for Mastery of Reading Pedagogy.” I sat in on a recent discussion in which Elder asked the students to list what this text can help them accomplish in addressing literacy issues once they return to Malawi. Their lists boiled down to three main goals, stated in various ways:
- To have a stronger and clearer voice in the planning of new curricula;
- To develop innovative strategies for helping young students learn to read; and
- To introduce problem-solving skills that will help colleagues think better and work better
This week, on October 9 and 10, the college will host a visiting consultant from RTI International in Washington DC. Karon Harden brings considerable experience working with early grade reading initiatives in Africa. I know the graduate students are looking forward to her visit as they continue to seek solutions to the challenges of teaching reading to young learners in Malawi.
With today’s post, we have finally met all of the graduate students from Malawi. It has been more than three months since the group arrived on campus. The students are keeping up with their reading and writing assignments, and also managing to fit in some occasional off-campus activities like attending a poetry event in Sheboygan this past weekend. Let’s meet Elymas Tembwe and learn about his plans for forging a productive future back home.
Meet Elymas Tembwe
Elymas is from the capital city of Lilongwe, and he received his bachelor’s degree from Domasi College of Education in 2010. Upon graduation, he went to work at the Teacher Training College (
For his master’s thesis, Elymas is planning to explore the impact of graphic organizers as a strategy to enhance reading comprehension. He explained to me that a typical graphic organizer would be a Venn diagram, two overlapping circles. Using such a tool, learners can explore a text by organizing the relationships between things in a visual manner, which increases overall comprehension.
This past summer, when Elymas first arrived in Wisconsin, I asked him what had surprised him most about his new home. At the time, he said he was surprised to find that people are extremely helpful and friendly here. He felt very welcomed, and he greatly appreciated all the kindness shown to him and his fellow students.
When I recently asked him again what things have surprised him, he became energized and told me about a book he is reading in Karl Elder’s class, The book is called Think Better, and in it author Tim Hurson outlines a step-by-step method that groups of people can use in order to work toward solutions to complex problems. The steps involve what Hurson calls “productive thinking,” as opposed to “reproductive thinking,” which is what we generally engage in when trying to move past challenges or difficulties.
I recently read this book myself and found it to be helpful and inspiring. “Reproductive thinking just follows old patterns, and old patterns cannot take us anywhere new,” Elymas said. “Productive thinking does not ignore the past, but learns from the past in order to manage the present, in order to forge the future.”
It would seem to me that productive thinking is going to be put to very good use by Elymas and the others when they return home. He added, “When thinking productively, one must always ask, ‘What else? What more can we do?’ We should have a lot of questions. Those questions will help us think better [about early grade reading instruction in Malawi, for example.]”
When the graduate students go home, they are going to have many new ideas, new teaching methods and new classroom strategies at their fingertips. There may be many challenges, but as Elymas said, “I need to be a really good role model [for other teachers].” Together, Elymas and the others will lead many discussions with their peers and with teachers-in-training, finding more and more ways to “think better” (and do better) in the furtherance of early grade reading instruction. One key, as Elymas emphasized to me, will be to always ask, “What else can we do?”
From left to right, Benjamin David, Ndamyo Mwanyongo, Elymas Tembwe, Bertha Singini and Margaret Mulaga
attended the global event “100 Thousand Poets for Change” at Glas Coffee House along Sheboygan's riverfront on Saturday, September 27.
Michael Simawo took the photograph. Ndamyo shared a poem written by the writer of this blog, translated into Chichewa.