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Living and Learning on the Serengeti

By Patricia M. Thornton | Published: February 27, 2018

Karibu is Kiswahili for “welcome,” and it may as well be the national word of Tanzania. I learned a lot about Tanzania’s welcoming spirit during my two weeks of teaching language methodologies on the Serengeti plain.

Patricia Thornton teaching Tanzanian teachers
Talking about teaching with activities and a
focus on student language production. 

In Tanzania, secondary and university level education is taught in English, whereas primary schools use Swahili for instruction and introduce English as a subject. Children who do not become fluent in English generally do not go on to further education after primary grades. Without English fluency, employment options on the Serengeti are very limited, and illegal poaching of wildlife can become a default economic choice. So English opens the door to a better future.

With this in mind, the Singita Grumeti Fund approached Concordia Language Villages to bring a more communicative approach to teaching English to primary school children. In 2017, the Villages offered its first summer day camps together with the Fund. And that’s how I ended up in Tanzania … to expand the project to two one-week professional development sessions for English teachers in the communities that border the Grumeti Reserve.

I knew from the start that this would not be a workshop like any I had conducted before. I didn’t know much about the teaching styles or conditions there.

After observing three different classrooms in local villages and coming to understand the educational style of the teachers’ own experience, the training style they had received as educators, the circumstances under which they teach, and the teaching materials they do not have, it became very clear to me that my original workshop approach was a bridge too far.

I decided to focus on activities that promote student language production, rather than student responses to direct questioning on memorized material, and to incorporate activities through backward design.

Using a template I had developed for Language Villages staff, I honed in on two questions:

  • What’s my goal? (what do I want my students to know and be able to do at the end of my class period?), and
  • How will I know? (what student performances/activities will show me that students learned what I taught?)

These two simple questions gave the Tanzanian teachers a solid rationale and foundational explanation for why teaching with activities helps learners internalize language.

A group of teachers work together on a project.
Teachers preparing for the workshop
capstone: micro-teaching with
classroom activities.

I emphasized the idea of teaching in the language and not about the language. To model how a completely unknown language could be successfully learned using no English (or Swahili), I simulated the teaching of the first day of a beginning class in Japanese, with the teachers as students. The teachers loved it and learned a lot of Japanese in 30 minutes using a variety of activities and games. They were happily speaking Japanese as they concluded the day.

Despite the teachers’ joy and enthusiasm for learning Japanese this way, it was still a slog to move the needle away from the notion of rote learning. The teachers were earnest, hard-working and engaged. Yet they have been schooled in a system that values the right answer more than the process. I had to laugh to avoid tears when one of the teachers in the first micro-teaching opportunity announced to his simulated class, “Today pupils, I will teach you the durative aspect of actions using the present perfect with ‘since’,” and then proceeded to give examples where “for” was actually necessary.  

And, yet, vestiges and traditions of the teachers’ own education and training were the least of it. Back in 1987 with no Japanese textbooks, I still had a copy machine. I had paper. I had markers, scissors, chalk and an overhead projector. I had electricity. I had all the physical tools of a classroom. And I never had more than 38 students. Some of my workshop attendees are teaching in classrooms with 100 students and no space for movement in the room, in addition to a complete lack of supplies. I addressed the realities of those issues head-on. We talked openly about activities that might not work at all, or might work only if adapted.

In the end, we moved the needle, and we had fun doing so. The weeklong session had been very productive for the teachers and each left with a renewed attitude toward teaching and a willingness to try some new approaches.

Patty poses with Tanzanian teachers.
Friendships forged during the workshop
made it difficult to say goodbye. 

While on the Grumeti Reserve, I went to sleep hearing the low whines of insects and animals, and awoke to the thrilling sights of bull elephants and giraffes grazing outside my room. But nothing I experienced there topped the warmth, the genuineness, and the hearts of the Tanzanian people. I am grateful to all the amazing people I met who made me feel so at home, so karibu, in a place so very unlike home.

About the Author

Patricia Thornton is the former director of the Language Villages’ Summer Programs. She has delivered workshops on the topics of language and culture education nationally and internationally, including for the American Schools in the Middle East, the University of Oregon, Indiana University, and the SHAPE School in Belgium. Thornton has also worked for years as a public school teacher and with collaborative teacher education at the University of Minnesota-College of Education and Human Development. The Language Villages has been a central part of her life from her first year on staff at Mori no Ike in 1988.

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