Thursday, January 26, 2012

An Afternoon with Brown in ECL

Brown and his students in ECL2
“Tell me the words you see on this page.”  Small hands go up instantly. “Fish!” yells out one child when called on. “Night…” whispers another. “Shoop” says another, a little too quickly. Samuel Godfried Brown, the teacher for this ECL class, smiles, and says, “No, it’s pronounced SHOP. Say it with me.” All the children do.

Brown, as he is commonly known, grew up in Humjibre, and was one of the first students that GHEI sponsored for Senior High School though the scholarship program.  He went on and completed Senior High School at Kumasi, and then returned to Humjibre, hoping to continue on to University shortly, but decided to work for a bit first.  Slowly, Brown became more involved in GHEI, first volunteering with the tutoring centre, and then YEP classes, and finally Early Childhood Literacy, or ECL.  He was the first teacher to volunteer to teach to the ECL class.  
The YEP program exists to push older students towards greater excellence, and ECL is for those younger students in the first year of school that are already falling behind.  While the education system functions fairly ably out here, there is no capacity for those quiet kids in the back, who quickly slip through the cracks.  And if you don’t have a handle on literacy at an early age, the chance that you will catch up later is slim. 

Brown teaches ECL2.  These are the kids who have completed a year of ECL, and still benefit from the intensive, supportive learning environment.  By now, these kids can read, albeit with some stumbling here and there, but it’s a good thing Brown’s such a laid back guy.  

The book that they were reading was Frank The Fish Gets His Wish.  It’s a cute story about a fish in a pet shop feeling lonely in his tank, till a new a fish named Trish is put in his tank with him.  It’s a good story for beginner readers, all the words are a few syllables long, and the alliteration and rhyming scheme is good to get a grasp on proper pronunciation.

However, I could not image how this book would be relatable to these kids.  What does a kid in Humjibre know about a pet store?  What’s a pet? Why isn’t anyone eating this fish?

As I sat in the corner and the kids painstakingly followed the words with their slightly dirty fingers, I wondered how we were supposed to bring kids to a western level of English literacy when the majority of children’s books are so clearly biased towards kids in wealthy western societies. 

The chapter ended and Brown deposited a large box of books on the table.  The kids hungrily grabbed one each, and I cornered Brown as he was cleaning.  How do you translate foreign concepts like pet stores and fish tanks and, for that matter, fish that are kept as pets.  For some of the words, Brown said, we translate them into our own language.  I had seen him do this for some of the more complex words like “swim” and “gills”.  Yes, but how do you say ‘Pet Store’ in Sefwi?

He smiled, “Teaching ECL is interesting because there are some words that can help you the teacher learn by explaining them in your own language. It helps with your own understanding by slowing down and explaining the words and the ideas.  It is like you are learning by teaching.”

Besides, he said, the ECL students know what a fish is.  They know what loneliness is.  They know what it is like to have a new friend. 

“And that is also why we also have these books,” he said, gesturing to the table, where the kids were engaged in their own books. 
A page from "My Yellow Book" by Kathy Knowles

These books were the Osu Children’s Library Fund books written by Kathy Knowles.  They are simple, and great for early readers, and firmly planted in Ghana.  One sentence in “My Green Book” has the line “The Shea Fruits are green” and above the text is a picture of Shea Fruit, a fruit most in Ghana would recognize.  The students read these books aloud, confidently, even the boy who was whispering earlier.
I wondered if people in the west would better understand the enormous challenge of encouraging literacy in Africa, if six and seven year olds in America were forced to sit down and read “My Green Book”.  Clearly, we need more books like this here in Ghana, and we need more dedicated teachers like Brown.

“When I completed SHS, I wanted to get into business.  I imagined myself as someone like that.  But due to some things at home, I couldn’t continue to University right then. So I started to teach with GHEI because they needed volunteer teachers, and then I started to teach in Anglican Primary school as part of the government’s Youth Employment Program.”

“Since I’ve been teaching my mind has changed. It keeps my mind active always and boosts my morale to teach like this,” he said, gesturing again to the kids now putting away their Ghana themed storybooks.  “I think it is because of working here at GHEI I want to continue being a teacher.”

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