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A guest blog by our visiting English teacher, Lisa

 

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that it really takes two weeks to settle into a place and feel that you begin to know it in some way. And now that I have been at MfA in Ndola for two weeks, I am beginning to absorb all that it is about.

Because it is about the students, first and foremost and the lives that they will lead in the future when they move on from MfA, equipped with skills for employment and happiness. What a joy it has been to be involved in some small way with the courses they are taking as they make their final preparations now for examinations. And I have found them to be just gorgeous! Cheerful, friendly, well mannered, totally respectful and good humoured. They are committed to their studies, hardworking and really appreciative of what they are receiving here at MfA. They are also funny, kind and very good at singing and dancing – full of praise and thanks to God for all they have been given.

And why wouldn’t they be? The college is a remarkable achievement already – it is hard to believe that the beautifully landscaped campus only began its existence 12 years ago. I am amazed by what goes on here – the busy workshop, now dealing with three times the number of cars than it used to and with a strong local reputation for good workmanship – the excellent standard of teaching from highly skilled experts – the genuinely caring pastoral support built into the curriculum.

But what I like most is the buzzing sense of energy for future development. There is no sense of standing still here, although the college is already very very good. Plans for expansion are well underway with the building of the new study area, and ideas about additional classroom and workshop space in discussion. It would be brilliant to see the college moving towards two classes in each year group and that is very much the desire of the directors. Which would, of course, mean lots more students and staff around the site. At the same time, there is a sense that this will happen within God’s plans and that the timing is good and right. There is no sense of impatience. MfA is a peaceful place. There is learning and commitment and drive – but there is also a sense of God and a desire to wait on him. A pretty good combination, I think!

So – what on earth have I been doing at MfA?

Good question! Let me tell you…

The thinking behind my visit was to try to help the MfA students improve their use of English language in these 4 weeks leading up to their examinations. So – how did I go about it?

I had an idea of the kinds of skills which are needed for success in the City and Guilds examinations but wasn’t really sure about the level of competency of the students ahead of arrival. So, the first thing I did was to find out through a thorough reading and writing test. After assessing the students’ work, it seemed to me that there were three areas for me to target. The 3 R’s – Reading, (W)riting and Revision!

So the 3 R’s!

Reading skills

The students’ reading skills did not seem to be all that high. It seems to be the case that much teaching at secondary level in Zambia involves imparting information which the students very diligently write down and copy. “Understanding” is then about repeating answers to questions in a rote like manner, lifting the words which have been transcribed. The “skill” which is therefore being acquired is memory rather than true understanding. Students can repeat what they have been told or learned but can’t really put ideas into their own words.

So – I focused on teaching some reading strategies – so that students could really understand the revision material they had to absorb – so that they can really know clearly what a question is asking and requiring of them – so that they will be able to apply their knowledge in exam situations and in the future when fixing cars!

We looked at different techniques to improve reading skills – how to concentrate – how to skim read, scan and focus in on close reading. We studied the definitions of the kinds of words they need to be sure of – explain, describe, diagnose etc. We looked at how to find information from a body of text and techniques to improve skills of analysis.

Sound like fun? Of course it is!

The second R - Revision

Well – we all know that Revision is hard at the best of times and even more so for MfA students.

Life is very different here in Zambia for students. Many of them have to walk a long way to get to the college and when they get home, their living conditions may not be helpful in terms of enabling them to study effectively. For some, there will be no quiet place at home – there may be many people in a small house and they will probably be sharing a bedroom with others. There may be no electricity – even if they have it connected in their homes, it cuts off here for half the day so that without a generator, there will be no useful light in the dark evenings. We spent time thinking about where they can find a place where they can really learn.

We also looked at how to organise and plan time for study outside their contact time at college. This was interesting for a couple of reasons. For many, there is substantial responsibility at home during weekends or part-time jobs. Chores also take a long time – two hours to wash clothes by hand, for example. This is a very Christian culture and so most will go to church on a Sunday morning and services are about four hours long, with perhaps further activities later in the day in which many of the students are involved. In addition to this is the more important point that it is not really part of the culture to make plans and allocate definite time slots and calculate how long something will take. So – talking this through with the students was a bit of a new thing for them to consider, but I think it was helpful.

Then we looked at how to revise – various way of approaching learning, remembering and reading. How to study in groups and alone. How to make use of visual, aural and kinesthetic techniques.

Ok – so revision isn’t really fun! But there are ways of making it work!

And finally…W..riting

I made quite a long list of the language issues that appeared to be most prevalent amongst the students and then set about planning lessons which would help them to grasp the techniques of writing better. As is always the case with improving writing, however – you get better at writing by writing! So – guess what – we did quite a lot of writing! And even within the four weeks there was a marked improvement in the way they were expressing themselves as the lessons tied in with what I fed back individually. The weakest students also had one to one lessons with me – which is the most effective of all.

If you are really really interested in technical stuff…this is what we did: clarifying verb tenses, prepositions, paragraphing, sentence structure, connectives, use of passive tense, sequencing etc, etc. And I tried to focus in on skills they need such as how to plan an answer; the techniques of writing to explain clearly; how to write an email and a formal letter.

Phew! Probably all far too much detail for anyone to know! Sorry about that! You don’t have to read it. But then – I guess you already have by now!

In all of it, I worked as closely as possible with Jason and Claire and with the head academic lecturer at the college – checking with all of them constantly that what I saw fit in with their assessment and that what I did was hitting the mark. I think and hope that it was! And in all of that, too, I was hugely impressed with the conscientiousness of the students; their respect and desire to learn. They are great and really deserve success. Lets hope some of this will help them to achieve it!