Thursday, October 9, 2014

Bright Spots

I love to stop by the various classrooms so I can listen and see what is happening.  This wall poster really made me smile today. Why does something as simple as "Ask Questions" make me smile? Well, in general, asking questions in school is frowned upon--but not in our school. In fact, we even encourage children to ask questions. 

Our teachers have learned that it's ok to say, "I don't know"  when they can't answer a child's question. Or they might say, "I don't know, but let's find out!"

The other sign says, "Be Creative in a Positive Way." I like this too because it encourages creative thinking and originality. 

Here is Mr. Albert teaching in the Foundations class. He is working with some of our older students who have not yet mastered basic reading and basic math. Once they become proficient in these two areas, they will be placed in a regular class. 

What factors caused these students to be in Foundations class? Well, there are many possibilities. Some of the children have been in school most of their lives, but they may have been in an overcrowded school that couldn't give them the attention they needed. Others have missed some years of school due to family crises, etc. The important thing is to give them the foundational instruction that they have been missing so they can move on with their education. 

The 4-year-olds were in the Library when I stopped by their classroom. To my great delight, I saw some beautiful pictures on the wall. What made them so beautiful? Well, about a month ago during staff training, we had a discussion about *not* prescribing the exact colors that children should use when coloring a picture. Many teachers felt it was best to always tell children exactly which colors to put in certain places. The end result would be that all of the pictures look exactly the same. This method greatly stifles current creativity--and most likely future creativity. I briefly gave some examples of "group think" in Nigeria that I have encountered. This was eye-opening for the staff because when you are inside of "group think" you usually aren't aware of it!

And here is the 6th grade class reading an abridged version of Oliver Twist which is a mainstay of education in Nigeria. I'm pleased with this class for so many reasons.

Number 1: I'm pleased that we actually have a 6th grade! What does that mean? Well, most schools don't have 6th grade any more. Students simply move from 5th grade to JS1 (7th grade equivalent). Schools will justify this by saying that 6th grade work is taught in 5th grade (and so on down the line). However, I really feel that many students go to secondary school unprepared. I'm proud of the parents of these children for allowing their children to attend 6th grade. Every year we lose a lot of our would-be-6th graders because their parents pull them out of our school and take them to JS1 (7th grade) in a different school.

Number 2: I'm pleased that all of the children have a copy of the book!

Number 3: I'm pleased that the teacher is reading outloud along with the class. She is modeling correct pronunciation and expression, and she is gently correcting the students as they stumble over words. She is also taking time to discuss the story with the students as they are reading.

Number 4: The classroom is bright and cheery--and it has maps on the walls! That's a world map on the left and a Nigeria map on the right.

I'm so proud of our teachers for pouring their lives into our students.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014


I'm just coming off of four days of rest (the weekend plus two public holidays). Wow. That was incredible. I deliberately didn't do any work. I even got to sleep in til 8 a.m. most of the mornings. That was a real treat as the sun usually wakes me up around 6 a.m.

I took time to read to the kids, play a board game, and make fudge. I also cleaned up a few areas around the house. It was so good to de-compress a bit. When did life get so overwhelmingly busy?

I also enjoyed the very definite shift in seasons that I felt today. The dry season has come--and it has made me very happy. The dry season has a lot more sunshine and heat--at least for a month or two before the cold harmattan winds will blow in. I can't say that I enjoy one season more than another; I think it is simply the change that is so important to me.

Rest is good because of the perspective it gives on the work that needs to be done. And so, I now approach tomorrow with a readiness that comes from deliberate rest.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Nigeria & Ebola

On July 20, 2014, a Liberian-American man with Ebola flew into the Lagos, Nigeria airport, collapsed and was rushed to a hospital. He was incredibly infectious at that point, but did not let anyone know that he had been exposed to Ebola in Liberia. About 10-11 Nigerians contracted Ebola from their direct contact with him. At this point about 5 have died and about 5 have survived. Patrick Sawyer died in Lagos on July 25.

Nigeria is now reporting just one confirmed case of Ebola although more than 100 people (secondary contacts) are currently under a 21-day surveillance. Nigeria has really taken the issue of Ebola seriously.

Well, we just have to take a look at Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone and know that we don't want to go down that road. From my reading on the internet, it appears that Patient Zero died in early Dec 2013 in Guinea. Then three more members of that family died over the next two months. Various health workers then died, and people who attended the burials unknowingly carried the virus to their areas. Patient Zero's location in Guinea was very close to the Liberian and Sierra Leonean borders and the virus quickly spread to those countries. However, it wasn't until March 2014 that the dots were connected and Ebola was named as the culprit. That gave the virus a real headstart into many areas of the three countries. It really is a raging outbreak at this time.

By the way, Ebola has been springing up in various countries in Africa since 1976; prior to this outbreak nearly all cases had been in Central Africa. This time in appeared in countries where it had never been before. Local residents had no idea what they were dealing with. People in Central Africa probably have an eye for the disease as well as a much greater awareness of how it spreads.

When Patrick Sawyer flew into Lagos and collapsed, it was not immediately clear that he had Ebola, but within about 24 hours, the authorities did know and quickly put Sawyer into isolation and started following up with his contacts. Nigeria had the benefit of seeing what has already happened in the other countries. Just compare three months to one day and you can imagine the difference in containment.

Yesterday the Federal Government demanded that all public and private schools close (or extend the summer holiday they are currently on). This is a bit of a shock to the system when things seem to be getting so much better in Nigeria. I'm hoping that once all of the people under surveillance have come out of the 21-day potential incubation period that this ban will be lifted. Meanwhile, we are going ahead with staff training and sending homework packets home with the students.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Math Woes

On Saturday, we conducted our Common Entrance Exam for students who are hoping to gain entrance to our secondary school in September. Seven students sat for the Junior Secondary 1 (7th grade) exam. All of them are currently in 5th grade at various schools in Jos. (For a number of years it has been a growing trend for students to skip 6th grade altogether. Personally, I am not in favor of this at all.)

Our exam consisted of three basic tests:
1) our baseline math exam--25 questions each on basic addition, subtraction, multiplication and division to be done in 6 minutes or less.

2) a 20 question math test based on a Nigerian 5th grade math book.

3) Fluency reading--how many words per minute can the student read.

Since I've been doing this for a number of years, I could predict the results even before I marked the tests. Even though I was pretty sure I knew the outcome, I still came away with an incredible sense of sadness.

1) Baseline results ranged from 34 - 75% with the average score being 45%. I watched these 10-12 year olds counting on their fingers or drawing tally marks to add 7+3 or 11 - 4. They have not been drilled to the level where this is just something that they know. In fact, a lot of teachers even encourage counting on fingers and drawing tally marks.

By the way, a student who knows their basic math facts should be able to finish our baseline test in about 3 - 4 minutes with 90% accuracy. We know because we have lots of students who can do just that. But we had to make a deliberate plan to teach the students to know their basic math facts.

A byproduct of knowing your math facts lickety-split is that you feel smart! We have really been seeing the lightbulbs going on with our students--what a joy to behold!

2) The math test results were the most sobering of all with a range of 0- 40% with the average score being 15%. There was not one single trick question among the 20 questions, but most of the questions did have words.

For example:
What is 50% of 500?
Write 63/100 as a decimal.
What is the square root of 25?
If one side of a square is 4 meters long, then what is the area of the square?
What is 4 x 1/2?

3) For the fluency reading, I would expect a student entering JS1 (Grade 7) to be able to read a new passage (5th grade level) at a rate of at least 100 words per minute. Our candidates ranged from 50-150 words per minute with an average score of 87 words per minute.

Here's the really hard part: At the end of this next week we will have to share this information with the parents of these children. These parents have worked so hard to pay school fees for these children for the past 7-9 years (most started school when they were 3). As they have been paying these school fees, they believe that their children are learning what they are supposed to.  They know how much they have sacrificed to be sure their children get an education. These are very difficult discussions to have with parents. And then we will have to tell them that we can't put their child in JS1 (7th grade). We will be offering these children positions in either 5th or 6th grade. Many parents will not be able to accept that. They will simply take their child to another school and get admission into JS1 at that school. We have become known as the school that takes students back a grade or two. A few parents will understand our rationale and our desire to re-build that broken foundation, but many will not, and they will relentlessly push their child through the next 6 years of secondary school, whether the child understands or not. And the child will be no better off for that push.

I am a very firm believer in the foundational learning that takes place during the primary years. There is a common belief here that "anybody can teach primary school." Actually I try to put some of the very best teachers I can find at the primary level because the foundation is crucial to all future learning.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Bombing in Jos

Three bombs were detonated in a crowded downtown area in Jos between about 3:00-3:30 pm today. We are all fine. We are getting most of our news from the internet right now. Please pray for the injured and pray for Nigeria. Thank you.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Completed Bridge

As I looked back through my old blog posts, I realized I never posted a picture of the finished bridge! This photo was taken at the end of May 2013 with some of the school children posing on the bridge. The bridge has been a blessing not only to our school children, but to the entire community.

In July 2013 a great mass of water twisted and wrenched the steps on the other side away. Even though we haven't fixed it yet, the bridge is still usable; now it just requires some fancy footwork to get up or down on the other side.

A big thank you to those who helped to make this bridge a reality. The families of these children are very grateful.

Study to Show Thyself Approved

About 10 days prior to our conference, Mr. David Onotu, Foundations Academy staff member, showed me some samples of children performing Spoken Word poetry from the internet. He was planning to introduce this art form to our students. I was very impressed with a South African girl who performed a powerful Spoken Word poem about Nelson Mandela. An idea dropped into my mind: "David, I want to you write a poem and perform it at our Teachers' Conference. I want it to be about education and about reading in particular."

And this is what he came up with:

Study to Show Thyself Approved

Some say
the map of Africa is a gun,
Nigeria is the trigger
and terrorism is the future...

I say
the map of Africa is a question mark,
Nigeria is the answer
and at Foundations Academy
we are bursting forth with solutions.

My older brother
grew up in a house where everything
he ever learnt, he learnt sitting in front of a TV screen.
Nollywood, Bollywood, Hollywood
atheism, pornography, violence.
And boastfully he would say he is on his way to become
king of street disciples, thieves, murderers, and outlaws.
I presume not a single book to turn a new page in his darkened heart.

I, on the other hand, grew up
surrounded with shelves holding more books than I could possibly read
or even flip through; through seven lifetimes:
Long Walk to Freedom--Nelson Mandela
My Experiment with Truth--Mahatma Gandhi
Life and Times of Martin Luther King Jr.
The Burden of Memory, The Muse of Forgiveness--Wole Soyinka
Things Fall Apart--Chinua Achebe
Americanah--Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Get a Life--Nadine Gordimer

Names like
Langston Hughes, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln,
Haile Salasie, Ojukwu, Gowon, Kwameh Nkrumah,
CheGuevera, Chairman Mao, Barrack Obama, Plato, Aristotle
and every other name here listed in the registry
rushing through my mind like a whirlpool
my heart panting, fingers scribbling, feet racing
replying those who insist that there is no God.
The new age crusaders, those who would steal
the tongue from our children before they even learn to speak.
Father, mother, each one, teach one, for a wise man once said:
A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops. (Henry Brook Adams)
Whatever the cost of libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation. (Walter Cronkite)
Every student can learn, just not on the same day or in the same way. (George Evans)
The beautiful thing about learning is that no one can take it away from you. (B.B. King)
Education is a better safeguard of liberty than a standing army. (Edward Everett)
Live as if you will die tomorrow; learn as if you were to live forever. Mahatma Gandhi
You can never be overdressed or overeducated. (Oscar Wilde)
The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page. Augustine of Hippo
When you know better, you do better. Maya Angelou
It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it. (Aristotle)
The things I want to know are in books. My best friend is the man who will get me a book I ain't read. (Abraham Lincoln)
The root of education is bitter but the fruit is sweet. (Aristotle)
He who opens a school door closes a prison. (Victor Hugo)

Let me leave you with a little piece from Mrs. Juliet and Dr. Korb, plus or minus Anna Ovonlen equal to Dr. Danny McCain:

In bringing stories to life all summed up in this question
a pupil once asked me. He said,
"Teacher, if I read books 24 hours of every day for 30 days = 12 months
Give or take summed up as 365 days
How great will I become?"

Greatness will come, and if greatness in itself is the endpoint
then indeed greater things than these shall we do.
Thus I urge you
read a book, read a book, read a book.
For in the world of books and much reading
we may pave righteous futures
for our children and their children yet to come.
Again I urge you
Study to show thyself approved.

David Onotu
1 February 2014
Foundations Academy Teachers' Conference

I read David's poem a day before the conference and liked it, but when I saw the live performance, it gave me goosebumps. As David called out the educational quotes, one of our students at the back of the hall shouted out the name of the person who said it. David coached the same student to slowly walk from the back of the hall, directly towards him, while earnestly asking the question, "Teacher, if I read books 24 hours of every day for 30 days = 12 months give or take summed up as 365 days, how great will I become?" And then David answered him. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised at the delivery considering that David has a degree in Theatre Arts. Well done, David!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

"Inspiring Teachers; Impacting Students"

 Our school, Foundations Academy, hosted a teachers' conference for 300 teachers from the Jos area on Saturday, February 1. What a great day it was! We originally planned for 250, but due to intense pleading, we had to find a way to squeeze 50 more seats into our hall!


We kicked off the morning with a powerful keynote address by Mrs. Juliet Okafor on "Read Aloud." She exhorted us to read aloud to our children--both those at home and those in our classrooms. This is a fairly new concept to many people. In fact one man wrote in his evaluation: "I consider myself an educated man, but I have never sat down to read to my children for even 15 minutes."

Mr. David Onotu, Foundations Academy teacher, rendered a powerful Spoken Word original poem on the value of education and reading. (Check tomorrow for the text of his poem.) I had read his poem before the conference (and I thought it was great), but the dramatized reading gave me chills and brought tears to a few eyes. A number of conference participants said David's poem was one of the best parts of the entire day. 

Dr. Danny McCain, professor at the University of Jos, delivered a fine keynote address entitled "For the Love of Learning." He challenged us as educators to help students to learn just for the love of discovering something new. He made one of his points based on Proverbs 25:2--
It is the glory of God to conceal a matter;
to search out a matter is the glory of kings.

God knows everything. It brings him delight to see his children discovering what he has hidden, and we in turn are delighted as we discover his hidden secrets.

We are grateful to Dr. McCain for his powerful challenge to us as teachers.

After a brief snack time, we delved into our workshop sessions. We had enough resource people on hand from Foundations Academy as well as other schools, that we were able to offer 25 different workshops! The worst part for our participants was the agony of choosing just 4! We had to offer that many workshops because our rooms are quite small and we needed enough space for everyone to spread out. It was hard to predict which workshops would attract the most people; consequently, we often had scenes like this:

Miss Happy Jonah even gave her workshop under a canopy because we ran out of classrooms!

Math is Fun was a popular workshop. Miss Jess explained ways that learning math can actually be fun and exciting.
 Mrs. Ann Williams of Westwood Park School taught the teachers about different learning styles of students.

Mr. Palai Ubanmutane, Foundations Academy Primary 2 teacher and principal, demonstrated how to use charts and drill methods to help children learn their basic math facts.

I led a workshop called "Teacher Training." I shared my strong conviction that every school needs to develop their own teacher training program. Yes, most of our teachers have degrees, but teacher training still needs to be ongoing. With our Foundations Academy teachers, I train in teaching methodology as well as content areas twice a week.  A number of principals said they are renewing their commitment to really work on training their teachers. As we invest in our teachers, our students will reap the benefits.

Our principal of Foundations Academy, Mrs. Titilayo Adetula, gave a workshop on how we are handling older students who can't read or do basic math. We have created a special class for them called "Foundations." After they are able to read and handle basic math, we put them into a regular class. 

Mr. Beka of Foundations Academy led a workshop on how to incorporate games when learning some math concepts.

Mrs. Mary Onuminya led a very popular workshop called "Better English." The participants just loved it!
Mrs. Rosie Egena presented a workshop on teaching methods for nursery/preschool aged children. During our final closing session a few people were given the opportunity to share what they had gained from the conference. One woman rose from her seat, took the microphone, and said she was astounded to learn that play can be considered a teaching method for young children. (This is why events like this conference are so important.)

Mr. Hosea Danjuma of Firm Foundations is absolutely passionate about using phonics to teach reading. In fact, he almost radiates when he starts speaking about phonics. He and Mrs. Marlene Wiebe have developed a phonics manual which they are field testing now.  Many schools teach reading with a 'see-and-say' method--not phonics.

Mrs. Rachel Harley demonstrated how to bring Bible stories to life in the classroom. She is a bundle of energy--I saw heads nearly exploding as people tried to explain all the ideas she imparted.

Miss Anna Ovonlen of Foundations Academy gave a workshop on teaching methods for the upper level math classes.
 Mrs. Blessing Phillips, Bezer Home houseparent (foreground) cooked a wonderful rice meal for more than 300 people that day. She had a lot of helping hands, but she was the mastermind behind it all.

We are so proud of our prefects (older students in the school who have been given responsibility). They worked very hard that day and really made us proud. 

 Bayo was there too. He was trying to get the media to come and cover the event. He was successful!

A committee of nine Foundations Academy teachers worked hard to make the conference a success. We have discovered there is a sense of excitement and encouragement whenever we host a conference. We love seeing teachers develop a passion for teaching. We will do what we can to further the cause of education in Nigeria.