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Nipissing in Africa

Imagine a practicum placement in a kindergarten where sticks, pebbles and a few pieces of construction paper are your only resources.

Now think large class, really large – 107 students – and they don't speak either of the two languages of instruction. Top that with the harsh reality that school lunch – a cup of boiled maize and legumes – is the only meal most of your students will eat all day.

by Leanne Miller


The soon-to-be-teachers who took this practicum with the Kipsigi people of Kenya, and the faculty instructors who accompanied them from Nipissing University, use words like devastating and frustrating, as well as incredible, awesome, fantastic and powerful.


For three weeks this February, 18 pre-service students – accompanied by three members of Nipissing's Faculty of Education – completed a practicum at the Motony Primary School in the Maasai Mara region of southwest Kenya.

Nipissing's Faculty of Education dean, Ron Common, is proud of the alternate practicum program, which has been in place since 2003 and offers students and faculty experience in Cameroon, China and England, in addition to outdoor education and First Nations placements in northern Ontario.

“We want to offer our students experiences that are culturally and linguistically different,” says Common, “to help them become more experienced and well-rounded human beings and teachers.”

“We are committed to providing students with a variety of alternate practice-teaching experiences,” says associate professor Lorraine Frost, who accompanied Common and the students to Kenya. “It helps them be more confident, creative and resourceful in their own classrooms.”

For the past several years this part of Kenya, like Uganda and Ethiopia, has been ravaged by severe drought. Local riverbeds are nearly dry and many of the Kipsigi people, traditionally herders and pastoralists, are verging on starvation. The Kenyan government only funds schooling up to Standard 8, and for most, the $500 fee for high school is out of reach. In any case, by Standard 8 (equivalent to Grade 8), only a small percentage of the students who started in Kindergarten remain in school, as the vast majority leave to help their families survive.

“The kids want to be there. They are extremely motivated to learn and they value education.”

Still, the students of Motony Primary School shared a lesson of strength and joy with their Canadian visitors.

“Although they didn't have much food, they appreciated our presence and loved being in school,” says Melissa Grech, who taught 38 Standard-6 students during her practicum. “They were always happy – for every minute of the day.”

The logistics and accommodation for the teacher-candidates' trip were provided by Free the Children (FTC). Food and living conditions were rudimentary: they slept in tents, there was no running water and electricity was sporadic. In the school, black-painted wood served as blackboards, and goats and chickens occasionally wandered across the mud-packed classroom floors. Teaching resources were scarce.

Lessons learned

The aspiring teachers quickly learned to make do with found and invented resources. Sticks and pebbles were used for counting exercises. They made up songs and rhymes to help children learn important mathematical procedures, like subtraction that uses borrowing: “I can't subtract 9 from 2. So what do I do? I borrow 1 from 2.” You get the picture.

“What a thrill it was for our teachers,” recalls Frost, “to hear the children singing their songs in the schoolyard at recess.”

Sarah Nelles and her partner taught 53 Standard-5 students. “Classroom management is not an issue. The kids want to be there. They are extremely motivated to learn and they value education.”

But there were other issues for Nelles – like having to compensate for lack of classroom materials and the fact that students only begin learning English in Standard 4. In teaching about mammals, she and her teaching partner acted out their characteristics. Though challenging, the lesson was a success.


Nipissing volunteers work on the construction of new buildings to replace older stick and mud structures

“Acting is universal,” Nelles explains. “That and a whole lot of repetition helped them understand.”

Teaching large numbers of students with nearly no supplies forced these teacher-candidates to rely on ingenuity and communication skills. A few key phrases in Kipsigis helped.

“It was back to basics,” says Glyn Madill, who taught 15 Standard-8 students. “There was no razzle-dazzle – no computers or VCRs. I couldn't let things teach for me. It was just me and my students and it was fantastic.” He hopes that next year, ideally teaching in a Rainbow District secondary school, he can remain just as unencumbered.

Because the language of instruction was English – a second language for the students – teacher-candidates also had to look for ways to teach those with stronger and those with weaker language skills. For students with stronger language skills, teachers could engage the children in the whole story and its themes. For those with less English, the same story was used as a vocabulary and basic comprehension exercise.

Sweat equity

The Canadians taught every day for three weeks. After school hours they worked with FTC staff to help build a new school.

“There's sweat equity in this program,” Common laughs. Nipissing students helped finish the Motony school and helped clean and decorate classrooms to prepare for the new school's opening.

“It was fantastic to be part of the celebration,” says Madill. “The villagers take such pride in education and truly respect and appreciate what a gift it is for their children.”

“There's a profound ripple effect from the three-week experience that lasts a lifetime and spreads to many thousands of young people.”

Although he plans to teach in northern Ontario, Madill says he “can't let it go.” Once he secures a job, he plans to spend one month a year working in Kenyan schools and hopes to return to the same region.

Krista Thompson is keen to continue helping the Kenyans she met at the school. “It's that much more meaningful – knowing the people you are helping,” she says. As one of 18 faculty-of-education students, she calculates: “We will have 18 classrooms with 30 or more students in each, and we can accomplish a great deal.”

Ripple effect

Dean Common notes that a significant benefit of this experience for pre-service students is a heightened social conscience and an understanding of their roles as teachers and as global citizens.

“They realize and appreciate how privileged we are in Canada,” says Common. “There's a profound ripple effect from the three-week experience that lasts a lifetime and spreads to many thousands of young people.”

In their own classrooms next year, many of these new teachers will build awareness of global issues among their students.


Nipissing visitors with teachers of Motony Primary School in front of new school buildings

Melissa Grech hopes to teach in a Durham or Peterborough elementary classroom next year and is strongly committed to fundraising for FTC.

Other participants in the international practicums will continue to teach abroad after graduation. Frost mentions one former student who travelled to Cameroon for his practicum two years ago and now teaches in Bangladesh – at a posh International Baccalaureate school during the day and then helping and educating street kids at night.

“His day job supports his passion,” she explains.

After her experience in Kenya, Nelles is also keen to do more international teaching – perhaps in Africa or Asia. She loved working in an environment where education was deeply valued by students and parents.

“I will never again take things for granted,” she vows. “Those children have it right. They value the basics: love, friendships, food and education. That's what it's all about, not consumerism or fashion. We all need to learn that.”

Free the Children

Toronto-born Craig Kielburger founded FTC in 1995 when he was 12 years old. He later gained international attention when he crusaded against child labour – exposing the exploitation of children in the developing world. Today, Craig and his brother Marc run this organization.

Motony Primary School, where part of the Nipissing group worked, is one of over 400 schools built by FTC in 23 countries to serve over 35,000 children who would not otherwise have access to education. More recently, FTC has expanded its work to include building health clinics and clean-water projects.

In Kenya, the school year runs to the end of July. So even those who teach full time here in Ontario can book themselves to volunteer in schools or contribute to the humanitarian work of Free the Children.

In June 2005 Nipissing University awarded honorary doctorates to the Kielburgers for their inspirational work helping children.

In April 2006 Queen Silvia of Sweden presented Craig Kielburger with the World's Children's Prize for the Rights of the Child. The prize – founded by Children's World with support from the Swedish government and several humanitarian organizations – is decided by a jury of children from all over the world.


Lesson plans

The Toronto Star collaborates with Nipissing and FTC to engage young people in global issues and current news events. Every second Thursday the Star publishes an article by the Kielburgers on a current news topic and its impact. They also look at how young people here can make a difference in others' lives by getting involved.

Using Ontario's Grade 6 social studies curriculum, Nipissing's pre-service students have developed lesson plans related to the Kielburgers' articles. Background information, links to the lesson plans and online forums are found on the newspaper's web site.


International experience

Nipissing is not alone in offering supplementary practicums outside of publicly funded schools. Among the other Ontario faculties of education are OISE/UT and Queen's.

At Queen's, students must complete a three-week alternative practicum outside of the regular school system in addition to their 13 weeks of in-school placements. “This past spring we covered all parts of the world except Antarctica,” says Brian McAndrews, who is Queen's practicum co-ordinator. “About 100 of our 700 students chose international placements.”

At OISE/UT students must complete a five-week field-based internship that complements their program. Although locations may be self-selected, students must demonstrate that their placement connects explicitly with the College's Standards of Practice for the Teaching Profession. Internships are usually completed in Ontario schools, but have also taken place at other education sites, such as TVOntario, the Art Gallery of Ontario and at schools around the world. This spring about 100 of OISE/UT's approximately 1,300 pre-service students chose the international option – working in schools in Mexico, the Caribbean, Spain, France, Kenya, Swaziland, Vietnam, Australia and the UAE.

World Food Programme

School lunches at Motony Primary School are provided by the United Nations' World Food Programme (WFP).

The goal of WFP is to eradicate global hunger and poverty. The program promotes policies and operations that directly benefit the poor and hungry. As the food-aid arm of the UN, the WFP provides logistics support for food aid, meets emergency needs and supports economic and social development.