Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Teaching the head teachers, or how I spent (part of) my Christmas break

Given that next week I’m leading a second ICT workshop for the head teachers at the fifteen participating schools, I thought it would be good timing to share this long-overdue post on my first head teacher workshop experience. 

Instead of taking it easy as we headed into the holidays, the week before Christmas ended up being a great time (well, the only time) to lead a 4-day workshop to help the head teachers (the closest US equivalent is a principal) learn some basic ICT skills.  Originally we had considered the first week of January, immediately before class comes back into session, but that conflicted with my chance to see LJ over the holidays.  But the week of December 20th has turned out to be fantastic timing for a workshop.  The head teachers have been relieved of their daily duties, allowing them to relax into the slow pace of the workshop.  Some of the teachers have even shown up early for the workshop each day, which tell me that they’re interested, because many people seem to show up late for almost everything, including their own wedding (true story and one that I may get around to sharing).

During the week of December 13th, we struggled to get 14 computers up and running in time for this workshop.  While the host school had 14 computers that would boot, it took a huge investment of time to get Microsoft Office 2007 installed on all of them and make sure that the network cards were functioning.  Luckily they contract with someone to handle their ICT problems, and even more luckily (forgiving my poor grammar), he was available all that week and the Monday of the workshop to get the PCs working.  Installing MS Office is a simple process… if the power will stay on.  But I must bring bad luck, for there were power outages on three consecutive days that impacted the installation process—and by impacted, what I really mean is made the installation process impossible  The most difficult to comprehend was probably the power outage on Wednesday.  Apparently it was announced on the radio that morning that the power for the entire Ashanti region—the central part of Ghana—could be off for up to eight hours that day as they did repairs.  While I appreciate that they have to do work to upgrade the system, they could have announced it more than two hours in advance.  It also would have been good if it had actually fixed the problems.  Unfortunately, there were power outages on Thursday and Friday, meaning that it was sometime on Friday before the PCs were ready for the workshop.

I had no expectations going into the workshop.  Some of the head teachers are very comfortable with computers, especially Eugene, who is on the Steering Committee for the project.  (He is helping me with this workshop, rather than taking it.)  But others have very little experience with computers.

On the first day, I was ready to start teaching when I was gently reminded that we should start with a prayer.  We are fortunate enough to have someone who is both a head teacher and a priest, so he was tapped to lead us in our prayer.  Then we started with the most basic of topics: turning a PC on and off, which took us a good half-hour to cover in detail.  If there was anything in particular that I needed to cover for this workshop, I might have felt stressed about the time we spent on this task.  But this workshop is purely to help them become more comfortable with computers, so this is time well-spent.

Since I figured that typing would be a major issue, the first practice with Microsoft Word used a half-written letter.  I typed most of the letter but put the phrases in the wrong places, meaning they needed to practice using cut/paste to put the letter together in the right way.  In discussing text manipulations (like making text bold), Eugene asked if he could explain it in the local language of Twi.  Even though I speak only a few words of Twi, I still understood what he was trying to explain by his gestures and the occasional English word.  While it took longer than expected to work through the letter, we still accomplished everything I expected for the day.

After watching the typing of the teachers, I quickly changed the presentation Monday night to put more focus on typing skills on Tuesday.  Little did I realize that typing would become the only topic we covered that day.  I was fortunate that one of the ICT teachers, William*, showed up to help out as scheduled, as his explanations in Twi were often much more helpful than my American English ones.  While he showed the proper typing position using the home keys, I demonstrated how not to type by showing with hunt-and-peck typing method using large, sweeping gestures to the laughter of the attendees.    At the request of one of the teachers, I asked him to return for the following days of the workshop. 

Due to the schedule shifts, Eugene said that I would be there at 8 am Wednesday morning (yikes!) and that we would start at 8:30.  Contrary to all expectations, we had more than half the class there at 8:30 and got started by 8:45, which is more than reasonable by the Ghanaian relaxed views towards timekeeping.  We started the day off with a hands-on display of the inner workings of a computer, which was where Eugene really showed how much he knows about PCs with his explanations of the integrated circuit board and SATA cables.  We spent the rest of the morning working on a Microsoft Word document to request donations of used PCs from local businesses, an activity inspired by the initiative that Paul* took in writing these letters himself.  I gave them an example I wrote but warned them, “Be sure to use your own words.  Don’t copy exactly what I wrote, because I know that none of you would use the same language.”

This freeform activity yielded surprising, mostly positive results.  Lewis*, who had been struggling to keep up with some of the lessons, composed an extremely well-written letter, full of key details about the program.  His letter would make me want to sift through my pile of PC parts at home in North Carolina to put together a working PC for his students.  Perhaps that’s why his lab has more PCs than some of the others.  In other cases, teachers who had been keeping up very well with the lessons (like Connor*) were very sparing in their descriptions, lacking in the key details needed to encourage the businesses to help out.  But then again, who’s to say that a short, succinct letter wouldn’t get the desired results?  Surely not me, the one non-Ghanaian in the class.

Close to lunchtime, Gladys, the Metro Education Director, came to visit the workshop.  When she walked in, I greeted her but then continued on with my lessons.  While walking around to see how the teachers were doing, Lily* (who stood up when Gladys arrived and had not sat down) asked me “Do you know who that is?”
“Yes, that’s Gladys,” I responded.
“The Metro Education Director.”
“Yes, I know.”
I saw Lewis*, who was also standing, gesturing to her and somewhat speechless.  It was then that I realized that they expected her to say something to the group.  At that point I stopped my lectures and gave Gladys the floor.  In later reflections, I realized that I might have committed a major cultural faux pas by not giving her the floor as soon as she showed up.  My only defense is that I expected her to ask for the floor if she wanted to speak—not a great defense given that I have been living here for three months and should have known that it’s not the way it works.  Perhaps if I were Ghanaian I would have known that her position as Metro Education Director of Kumasi means that she doesn’t need to ask.

As with the other days, we did not finish the topics for that day.  I rearranged slides again for Thursday, slicing and dicing out large sections of what I originally planned to cover.  The newly adjusted expectations included a single activity of sending an email with an attachment.

Thursday we got started more or less on time with eight teachers again. I went through key parts of the Internet Explorer browser window.  However, I left out the most important part—the address bar—as I realized when I had them log into their email.  While all but one of the teachers had an email address, logging into it was a struggle.  Having them list their email addresses on the sign sheet on Monday meant that I was able to help them remember the address but I was no help for the password.  I found it fascinating that they could write the address correctly on the sign-in sheet but then couldn’t remember it when it came time to type it to log in.

The ICT teachers were invaluable again.  Their patience and ability to walk the head teachers through the tedious process of opening an email account or attaching a file was a real treat to watch and gave me hope about the skills that the students are learning at the schools.  Things were rolling along rather smoothly, lulling me into a false sense of security.

Then the power cut out.  For the first time all week, I externally expressed my frustration at Ghana’s problems.  Sitting at a desk, I thumped my fist once while dropping my head down on my other arm lying on the desk.  I just knew that we would not complete the pared-down training course if the power wouldn’t cooperate.  Elaine* and Eugene both tried to console me.  I looked up at Eugene. 
“I think it’s time for our snack break.” 
Eugene laughed at this comment but we did take our break.

After only a few minutes, the power came back on.  Teachers trickled back in from the break and picked up where they left off.  This time around, I showed them how to “save draft” in their email, knowing that if I did that then Murphy’s Law would make sure that the power wouldn’t go off again.  I was proven right in this thinking, as we had no more power issues that day.

While they were working on sending an email with their letter attached to it, they were also discussing the need to levy a small fee on each student to cover the cost of the computer labs.  They came to the conclusion that they needed to write the Metro Education Director a letter to ask for permission to collect the fees.  They went from discussing it to Eugene writing the letter to all of them signing it in less than two hours.  I was astonished at the breakneck speed with which this was accomplished.  I almost wish I hadn’t seen it.  Until that, I could console myself with the thought that there was no sense of urgency about anything here in Ghana, but this experience made it clear that it’s not a lack of awareness that keeps things from moving at a faster clip, just a lack of urgency.

Somehow we got the emails sent and completed discussion of the few remaining topics on the agenda.  To wrap up the workshop, Eugene said a few words on the workshop and thanked me again, asking the teachers to give me a round of applause for my hard work.  He called me a real Ghanaian, which prompted someone to ask what my Ghanaian name is.  Eugene started to answer for me, but I interrupted him.
“It’s Ama.  I was born on a Saturday.”
Cheers and applause erupted at that small statement.  After a closing prayer, we adjourned for the well-deserved Christmas break.

*Names changed for privacy.  Eugene is really Eugene because there’s no good way to avoid identifying him.  But since I didn’t say anything bad about him, he shouldn’t mind.

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