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We Are Jumping!

By Dr. Tove I. Dahl | Published: February 4, 2020

It was midafternoon by the time we finally stepped out of our dust-covered vehicle. Our bumpy ride had taken us past one small farm after the next with their one-room, thatch-roofed brick homes dotting the hills. Farmers were preparing for the impending rains that would signal the start of the planting season for crops like maize and tobacco. We shared the narrow road with children in green uniforms and crocs in every color strolling home from school, women in colorful chitenjes carrying goods in large baskets balanced on their heads and babies on their backs, and men pushing bicycles loaded with large bags of charcoal up the long, winding hills.

We were deep in the Mwanza district of southern Malawi, and the children had been waiting for us.

“Muli bwanji,” we said in our limited Chichewa when greeting the first-through-fourth-graders at their after-school numeracy/literacy camp. They smiled back, but they were too busy to pay us much attention.

Some were jumping rope, counting in English “One (skip)-two (skip) …” all the way to ten if they could.

Others tossed a masking-tape ring onto one of the numbers drawn with chalk on a flattened cardboard box. They then jumped as many times as the number signaled before the next person’s turn to toss the ring.

In another activity, one child called out a number they had written in the sand. Another then jumped back and forth over a stick as many times as the number called: “One (hop)-two (hop)…”

Counselors in rice-sack clothes covered in numbers and symbols

Walking around encouraging them were their costumed counselors—one in a long dress and the other in slacks and a jacket, all made of shiny white rice sacks. Their garments were covered with large, colorful numbers and symbols that they would skillfully use in their teaching.

“I am jumping! I am jumping!” the kids chanted as they were shepherded into their lesson space, hands on the shoulders of the person before them, bobbing along like a silly snake.   Their squared-off learning space was created with the outside wall of a preschool building and three ropes. All over the wall and hanging from the ropes were even more colorful numbers and math symbols that the mother helpers had made for the teachers.

“Find number nine!” the young woman in the numbered dress called out in a catchy rhyme as the young people scrambled to find and touch the number on the wall, the ropes or the teachers’ costumes. “Find number three!”—the giggling youngsters scrambling to find the next new number.

In one hour, the talented teachers got the kids to count all the way to 38 in English, write numbers in the sand and in the air, do some addition on cardboard blackboards and make graphs. The teachers worked methodically, with lots of fun, lots of safe “trial and error” learning, and plenty of creative breather breaks for rhymes, song and movement. There was never a dull moment. 

Students in their roped-off learning space surrounded by adults
A vibrant learning space in rural Malawi where 
students practice English and math in a safe, 
play-saturated community. 

Far, far away from my homes in the mountains of northern Norway and the North Woods of Minnesota, I found myself so in my element. The teachers could just as well have been counselors at Concordia Language Villages. Truly, I would have hired them in a heartbeat if they spoke Norwegian.

These teachers, though, were volunteers for Save the Children Malawi. They were working on a project to help these kids develop solid English and math skills. Meanwhile, I could see that the fun the teachers infused in the learning was turning kids on to learning in general, too.  The kids were eager to participate—even when they made mistakes—and the older ones offered great support for the beginners.

This snapshot of child-centered, content-based language learning in the remote hills of Mwanza erased thousands of miles of distance between them and me. In a heartbeat, these teacher volunteers and their learners transported me to a universal learning space that educators around the world work hard to create—one where knowledgeable teachers care about kids, kids learn, kids thrive, and supportive parents look on with bated breath from the sidelines.

I promised the kids that I would tell you about them.  That I would fly all the way back to Norway at the top of the globe and tell of the 19 (count them!) smart young Mwanza girls and 19 (count again!) smart young Mwanza boys—yes, tell about all 38 of them (count them all one more time!) who were doing such good work learning English and learning math. I promised them that I would sing their praises, and those of their teachers and families, for you to hear.

Between each accolade in my closing words to them, I chanted “I am jumping! I am jumping!”—leaping with joy on their behalf.  The children laughed, the teachers blushed, and the mothers and grandmothers clapped and ululated joyfully for their children.  As the kids wrapped up their day and I returned with my colleagues to our dusty vehicles, it was so eminently clear to me, once again: excellent teaching is golden, mastery can be great fun, and happy kids rule!

I am jumping!

About the Author

Tove I. Dahl (right, seen here with colleague Ellen of Save the Children Malawi) is dean of Skogfjorden, the Norwegian program of Concordia Language Villages. She is also on the board of Save the Children Norway and Professor of educational psychology in the Department of Psychology at UiT The Arctic University of Norway. Curious to learn more about Malawi? Check out book/film The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.

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