Monday, November 7, 2011
November at home means crisp leaves, cold air, football games, and upcoming holidays! We’re still in the heart of the rainy season these days in Uganda, but we’re also heading into two other exciting Ugandan seasons - exam season and grasshopper season!
First - the lighter of the two - it’s grasshopper season in Uganda! Just to be perfectly clear, grasshopper season means the season for eating grasshoppers! It’s a time of year literally everyone looks forward to! In certain parts of the country grasshoppers are jumping around everywhere in plague-like proportions and people have set up lights to attract the grasshoppers and enormous bins underneath the lights to collect them. The collected grasshoppers are then delegged, salted, and deep fried. They are sold in markets and on the bus for about 20 cents per bag. This weekend while traveling back from Kampala, the bus merchants usually selling meat on a stick, grilled bananas, and sodas had bags and bags of deep fried grasshoppers as well! Ryan was brave enough to try them, but I was not (I prefer grasshopper mint cookies!!). He ate the whole bag (probably more than 50 of the little guys!) like it was no big deal while I watched, totally grossed out!!! When I asked him if he’d get them again his response was short and sweet - “definitely!” So, with another exciting food under his belt, my dear husband can say he has tried a Ugandan favorite snack food! I am, however, still blissfully ignorant of the crunch of the grasshopper! :-)
The other big season that everyone is obsessing about right now is the big exam season. Exams are HUGE in Uganda, and the entire country takes the same standardized exams at the same time. The Ugandan school year runs from February to December, so exams are all beginning now that we are in the final month! The exams started in the last couple weeks and everyone, including our students, are all abuzz about them!
Ugandan students take a number of exams throughout their schooling years. At the end of each year of school there is a big promotional exam that determines their ability to pass to the next level of schooling. Beyond the promotional exams, students also take a number of really large exams that to a certain degree determine their future possibilities and thus have a lot of importance! Those “biggies” are the PLE, the UCE, and the UACE.
At the end of primary school in P. 7 (like our 6th grade) they take their PLE (primary leaving exam) to assess their primary learning and determine their further schooling options. If they go on to secondary school, they take another big exam (the Ugandan Certificate of Education exam) after completing their first four years (O level). (Most of our PTC students come to us after completing this level). But, if that goes well and they have the funds to continue with secondary school they move on to A level and finish their two years there with the Ugandan Advanced Certificate of Education exam. With a population of 32 million people and half under the age of 15, you can imagine just how many Ugandan kiddos are stressing about exams as we move into November.
As you move around the villages and towns, signs posted everywhere ask for silence because exams are in progress. Radios are talking about the exams. Strangers in taxis are all talking about them - it really is a phenomenon!
And, the exam frenzy has not passed by the Bushenyi PTC students. The last few weeks have been a time for a great deal of studying (or revising, as they call it!) and much talk about what the exams will hold. Our first year students are gearing up for the promotional exams that will determine if they can return to school in February, and our second years are working on the big ones - their final Grade III Teacher Certification Exams. From what we can figure out, the exams will start in about two weeks, and by the first weekend in December everything should be completed. Results come out in late January or early February, after which those passing students can begin work as primary teachers, or return to school for their second year of PTC studies.
The whole exam craziness is a bit of a stressor for us to. It’s hard to know how to help our students be prepared, but still work to develop critical thinking skills in the midst of it. Many of our students only want us to tell them past exam questions and answers, and absolutely refuse to do any higher level review. (i.e. the discussion groups I tried to facilitate today were an absolute disaster!!) It’s also hard because many tutors aren’t going to classes, and the ones that are seem to be teaching a quicker version of everything they have taught over the entire year. Even considering “cultural sensitivity,” I simply can’t bring myself to do this! I’ve had a lot of time thinking about this working in Title One schools in the states, and my philosophy is that the time before a test should be more of a spruce up on things that should already be known, and not a mad blitz to reteach everything in a shallow and test-focused manner. I know it’s the same debate that goes on in America - should we teach to the test or trust that the good teaching we’ve been doing all year will by its very nature prepare our students. Add to it the “only one right answer” mentality of so many Ugandans and its a bit of a mess.
Then, there’s the discouragement I know every teacher faces at one point or another in realizing that all the work they have done appears to be a complete loss and nobody seems to have gotten anything from it! An example - today I went to teach my Special Needs Education classes and tried to foster some reflection on what they had learned about SNE and what they thought about the current status of SNE in Uganda. I got very few people to give me any sort of inkling that they had learned a thing from me all term, and the most enthusiastic students could only come up with this: they think teachers who teach children with disabilities should be paid extra salary and should not have to work with them if they do not want to. (Thus, completely going against everything have tried to help them understand over the past six months!) So...it’s a bit of a challenge.
Then, there’s the aspect of the scores. According to the university that regulates the exams, a student can pass and become a primary teacher by achieving a minimum score of 50% in each of the examinable subjects. This means that we are passing students who may know exactly HALF of what they should know! It’s especially alarming because every bit of content on these exams is covered through teaching the national syllabus, so in theory it would be possible and even reasonable for students to get very high scores! It’s hard to see a lot of hope for a struggling educational system when we begin to understand the cycle of poor teaching and unprepared teachers.
But, in all of it, we’re doing what we can. I keep trying to remember “We Are Marshall” and trusting that more got through to the students than they are letting me see on the surface. There’s a wonderful sustainability in teaching in that even if few people actually learned, more than just cramming for exams, those few people could actually reach hundreds, or thousands of kids during their time as a teacher. So, it’s good to keep that in mind as the exam craziness threatens to make us feel a little down about our work here so far.
So, that’s what’s on our minds these days - salty grasshoppers and stressed out students! Hope you are all well and enjoying the final days of fall! We love and miss you all!