Ruhango District, Southern Province
Term 2 of the school year has (finally) come to an end. The last few days have been spent frantically marking papers and exams, calculating grades, and sitting in teacher meetings. I’m ready for the break. I have grand plans for the next two weeks – visiting other PCVs, reading some books, baking a chocolate cake, cleaning my jerry cans. But I also have started to and will continue to think critically about how to improve my teaching and my students’ learning during term 3.
One of the largest challenges I want to tackle next term is the reticence of the girls in my classroom. I teach Senior 4, 5, and 6. In Senior 6, the second in the class is a girl, in Senior 4, the first. However, these two incredibly intelligent young women are totally silent during my lessons, as are most of their female peers. Why? Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely quiet boys too, even ones who I know are following along and could answer my questions. But it's not to the extent that my girls remain silent. In Senior 4, my top student will sometimes whisper the answer but when I ask her to repeat her answer more loudly, she withdraws into herself. Of what is she really afraid?
Reflecting on this dilemma, I remember the fact that in high school, I was pretty quiet myself. I earned good grades but getting me to participate in class was like pulling teeth. Part of this had to do with the fact that I’m not an especially talkative person. But the other part, and the far more serious one, was that I didn’t want to risk making a mistake. Even in America, I felt that my reputation as being intelligent was more fragile because I was a girl. The best I could do was to protect that reputation by never taking chances in the classroom.
Now, as a teacher, I want my students to take the chances I didn't. Especially when studying a foreign language, refusing to participate is incredibly detrimental to your learning. I want my students to speak up! Some PCVs don't like to speak ikinyarwanda around their students, because, after all, we’re here in order to bring our native English speaking to the villages. This strategy is a good one and I understand its benefits. But I use another one- I regularly speak ikinyarwanda to my colleagues, headmaster, and students (outside of the classroom) with the hope that by allowing people to see me trying my best at their language (read: making a fool of myself), they’ll let their guard down and try speaking English.
I don’t know if this actually works but I do know that I REALLY try to make my students comfortable with making mistakes in front of me. But that won’t help the students who don’t have the courage to take risks. Because being a girl in a classroom does take courage, both in Rwanda and in the U.S. It’s not just about knowing the answer, it’s also about believing that people care about what you have to say, and that when you inevitably make a mistake, that you will still be respected by the people around you. Development workers, teachers, and society as a whole must support the voices and opinions of the girls and women in our world. We have to teach them that not only their “good” ideas are important to hear, but also their mistakes. That’s an awful lot for me to think about – I might not get around to cleaning my jerry cans after all.