We enter the room. "Good morning teacher" sings a chorus of young voices as their small undernourished frames rise from the desks in respect. "Good morning" we reply, and off on a fun filled journey of education. The presence of two foreigners in class is a chance to learn about geography. I am from Canada, Gayle from the US (America as it is known here), most Bangladeshis think Canada is in Europe (this includes college students and many well educated people). So we tell the students about Canada and America. Questions fill the room. What are your names? Where are you from? How many brothers and sisters do you have? The students all smiling and laughing at our many Bengali slip-ups. Smiles graced the faces of those children, and as they buckled down to study, English, Bengali and Math, we walked around the room helping the children (2 times 2 is 4, can you say 4 in English?). After a few minutes, it is time to move on, to meet more students and greet more smiling, inquisitive faces.
This was my visit with Gayle to Bolajpur School. I have mentioned Bolajpur before, I visit monthly with our peace team for programming, but it is not often that I get out there for a class visit. Our visit was an empowering visit. Something positive is happening at Bolajpur school, and it has the ability to flower into something even more amazing. Watching the teachers at work is a blessing at Bolajpur. The morning classes are mostly Kingergarten, Class 1 and Class 2, and at that young age it is so important for the children to gain an appreciation for learning. To learn because reading stories can be fun, because singing English songs can be a new pastime, because there is benefit in learning to read, write and do math.
Walking into a Kindergarten classroom at Bolajpur is nothing spectacular on the surface, children sitting in circles working, the setting looks like school anywhere. But in Bangladesh this is a radical teaching style. Children, from the moment they enter a public school, are sat down in lecture rows, facing the teacher, and are told to repeat after the teacher. That is learning. At Bolajpur, groups of children work independently or with the teacher. Each day there is a focus, a group of students the teacher focuses their time on. That day it was Bengali, teaching spelling and alphabet to the students, the other children copied English words or learned to add. The children are not lined up in lecture-style like a regiment of soldiers, they are allowed to help each other, to learn independently, in a more comfortable environment. The rooms at Bolajpur are hot, and classes are larger than ideal, but these children have a smile on their faces, and a joy of life that gives a classroom life. Children, sitting and standing, repeating the teacher's every word like little trained robots is an all too common sight in Bangladeshi schools, at Bolajpur they are trying to change this.
What makes Bolajpur different from government schools? First of all the schools were started and are monitored by the Taize Brothers and by Ronni and Jyotti. But the exciting part is that the teachers are excited to teach. Now using college students to teach primary school was a novel and experimental idea. Virtually all of the teachers at the Taize started schools are merely students themselves, most not striving to teach for a living and not in teacher's college. The teachers work either the morning shift or the afternoon shift, and attend school when they are not teaching. But these teachers make up for any lack of training on how to teach, with the desire to teach these children to the best of their ability. They are not paid extremely well, but the teachers are more than satisfied with their jobs. To my surprise and delight, while drinking tea after the morning shift had finished we were asked, "How could we teach better?" followed by "What could we improve?" Taken off-guard, I was not prepared to critique their teaching, but I was quick to note the benefits of the style they were trying, and looked for little ways for them to make classes more interactive and creative. The teachers at Bolajpur are giving this project their all, and it shows.
There are many good things going at Bolajpur, and all of the schools run by Taize, but they also have their limitations. The school buildings are deteriorating, two of the three primary schools flood during the rainy season and classes must be cancelled, and the lighting is often poor. When funds are short, upgrading buildings is a rather difficult prospect, but at brother house in Mymensingh they have decided that the time is right. The goal is to creative not just an effective school, but a creative learning environment, one of those places education specialists talk about where children are free to learn and grow and teachers are aids in the process of learning. Searching for grants, the Brothers are looking for funding to start this process of creating creative spaces.
The vision of a creative space is a place where children can learn through all their senses. Where children have desks and chairs that are appropriate for children and are not designed for lecturing. Chairs and desks that can be moved easily to change class formations and allow for creative teaching styles and group creation. There is the building itself, clean walls, raised ground to avoid flooding and spaces for teaching as well as community gatherings. It should be a place where children are excited to come to school because it is a welcoming building, a welcoming classroom and a welcoming environment. Then there are teaching aids, props if you will, maps, posters, blocks, and so on, tools for children to explore topics such as Math, English and Bengali on their own. These are all part of a creative space, a space designed more for exploration and creativity than rote memorization, a space for growth and problem-solving. And a creative space will provide more than creativity for the students, it will provide a creative teaching environment as well. Teachers with props and pictures to use, will figure out new and creative ways to use them. Children being able to use blocks for Math, and children sitting in small groups will encourage the teachers to think of new ways to teach Math and new formations in which to teach a class. This is the goal of creative spaces.
"When a teacher walks into a room that looks the same as their primary classroom, they are going to teach like they were taught." This is what we are trying to avoid. Brother Erik's comment points to a reality of the system here, if the environment is not conducive to creativity, the students and teachers won't be either.
Therefore, the goal is to create creative spaces in our schools.