Tuesday, January 11, 2011


Since the last time I wrote, I traveled to Meru for New Years and met up with eight other PCVs for a much-needed weekend of relaxation, dancing, American food, decent wine (try finding that in Kenya), hot showers and an incredible hike to a really fantastic waterfall. After returning to Sipili, there was just enough time for a full day of laundry, some cooking and cleaning and then the first term of my teaching career in Kenya officially began! It's now been about a week and a half since the official start of the school year, but I’m already feeling at home in my school. Before I go further, it may help to give some context and provide specifics about my school – Sipili School for the Deaf used to be a unit within Lariak Day Primary School (located right next door to our compound). A few years ago, the Ministry of Education determined that there was a need for a separate school for Deaf students, so our school was constructed and the unit was upgraded. Since then the school has added classrooms, dormitories (allowing for more students to attend since they can lodge at school and don’t have to commute), a couple of cows, a borehole for water, and other accessories that help the school run smoothly. The school is sponsored by the St. Martin’s Catholic Church located in Nyahururu, and the small projects around the school have been funded by Italian or American donors who have come into contact with the headmaster of the school through the Church. There is still a need for better facilities, but as far as I can tell, the school is functioning relatively well, and there are quite a few projects in progress – the school is definitely growing. There are eight of us teachers total, five men and three women (myself included) and about 50 pupils here so far. On the first day of school we had a 5-hour staff meeting (it was a real marathon) where we discussed the year ahead, responsibilities each teacher would assume and the classes we would take on. I was assigned to 25 lessons a week (each lesson is 35 minutes long). I’ll be teaching class 5 mathematics (7 lessons/week), class 7 science, KSL (each 5 lessons/week) and Life Skills (1 lesson/week), and class 8 English (7 lessons/week). The Peace Corps staff members encouraged us to accept about 20 lessons per week during our first term, but that’s an impossibly low amount due to the number of teachers we have at the school. Two of the teachers are assigned to lower primary students all day, so the remaining five of us have to split up the rest of the lessons belonging to the other classes, and I ended up taking on a load similar to other teachers. In addition to classes, all of us teachers have additional responsibilities. I’m the co-director of “games” which just means after-school sports (football, netball, handball, cross-country running, etc.) and I’ll also be helping to teach a Tuesday afternoon KSL class to the other teachers, most of whom have no KSL training.

Many of the pupils have now arrived since we started planning and teaching. Last week consisted largely of splitting up classes, and constructing the timetable of who is teaching which lesson at what time (which took a lot longer than it should have, and had to be continually revised… but I’m the proud author of the final, official edition, which I crafted out of exasperation due to wasted time and eagerness to begin teaching) and this week has actually included some lesson time. Planning lessons is exhausting and teaching is already frustrating sometimes, but I really care about the students and want to see them improve. Teaching class 5 mathematics will probably be my real test, due to the variability of the students' abilities in that class. At this point they’re supposed to be able to write and name numbers up to tens of thousands, but in reality they aren’t able to consistently identify and spell the names of numbers one through ten. But I’ve been persistent with them, and I think some of them are improving – one girl loves to come up to me during break times and spell the number “seven” over and over. I just pray she is actually grasping the concept of what she’s spelling. The other classes will be tough too, but I think I can get concepts across if I focus on offering stimulating visual learning aides (THANK YOU Mom and Dad for sending markers!!) and remain patient with the pupils. Of course, that’s easier said than done.

Now, for those of you who are curious, I’ll explain a little bit about the Kenyan education system. The school year begins in January, and there are three one-month breaks in April, August and December that divide the year into three terms. School starts in “nursery” class, which is essentially kindergarten, and is followed by Primary School which consists of classes 1-8. For lower Primary (1-3), the students are in the classroom with one teacher the whole day (similar to our Elementary School system). Then, from class 4-8, students stay in the same class the whole day while the teachers travel from class to class, depending on the class and subject they are teaching. After Primary School, pupils go to Secondary School and attend form 1-4. This is essentially the same as our High School system. However, the most notable difference between the Kenyan system of education and the US system is the presence of compulsory national examinations at the end of class 8 and form 4 in Kenya. In Primary School, this exam is called the KCPE (Kenyan Certificate of Primary Education) and in Secondary School it’s called the KCSE (Kenyan Certificate of Secondary Education). Acquisition of these certificates proves that students have completed Primary and Secondary School at a satisfactory level. After Primary School, the pupils are tested in six subjects: English, Math, Science, Kiswahili (or KSL in the case of Deaf students), Social Studies, and C.R.E. (Christian Religious Education). I’m not sure about the specifics of Secondary School subjects, but I know they’re more specific and dependent on which track the student has chosen to study. Aside from providing proof of education, the KCPE and KCSE exam results are incredibly important. In both cases, the score of the exam is the sole parameter that future schools consider when accepting applicants. There are fewer Secondary Schools than Primary Schools, and fewer Secondary Schools than Universities in Kenya, so not every student can continue their education all the way through University level of study. This puts a lot of pressure on young students to perform well on the exams in order to get into a good Secondary School/University, or even continue their education at all. This also inevitably results in a lack of concern for any subject that is not on the exam (like creative arts, physical education, life skills, etc.) and ridiculously long school hours for students who are about to take the exams. My host sister in Machakos took her KCPE exam while I was there, and in the weeks leading up until the test, she was reviewing the material at school from 6:30 AM until dark.

It’s a bit frustrating to be constrained by such a rigid syllabus that follows the test, especially in Deaf Education. Even though many of the pupils at schools for the Deaf have little to no language comprehension in KSL (let alone English) because their parents don’t know KSL, these kids are subjected to the same exams as children in hearing schools. Additionally, many Deaf learners don’t go to school right when they’re eligible. There is still a lot of stigma surrounding Deafness in Kenya, so many parents hide their children away and keep them as workers in the kitchen or the farm once it’s discovered that they’re Deaf. When (or if) these kids eventually do end up at school, they have very limited language, social and critical thinking skills, so there is a constant effort to get them caught up (as I mentioned with my class 5 math class). Finally, KSL is a very young language. British, American and Belgian sign languages were brought to Kenya by missionaries and were used in different regions of the country until, recently, the Kenyan Deaf Community decided that it was more appropriate to have their own uniquely Kenyan sign language. This was followed by research efforts to determine what signs are used by Kenyans (aside from the European/American impositions) and now a decent compilation of signs has emerged. However, many signs still have regional variations (we have three KSL dictionaries in our staff room at school that vary in many cases) and the vocabulary is quite limited. That being said, it’s difficult to teach abstract concepts like “human rights” or “social values” to students who are Deaf when much of the pertinent vocabulary is not yet defined in KSL.

Despite these roadblocks and seemingly insurmountable challenges that these kids face, I am amazed on a daily basis by just how bright the students are and how eager they are to learn. They love to “story” (carry on long, animated conversations with signs), play games and create jewelery, toys and hats out of grass. They are good-natured and smile almost all the time, are compassionate with one another, can communicate on a level that I’ve yet to master, and behave like one big family. They have responded well to having a new, young, strangely pale teacher around, and continue to patiently help me learn their regional dialect of KSL. I am humbled whenever I realize how much more these kids will teach me than I ever could teach them. But not for lack of trying - tomorrow is another day, and I have lessons to plan. Maybe I can get class 5 to count to ten, and maybe not - but at least I can show up, struggle with them, and hopefully communicate how awesome I think they are. I think I know the sign for that.