First graders master the triangle

I am sitting in a CI (first grade) class right now, behind the teacher’s desk as an observer. This is usually where I end up in the mornings when I am at a loss of what to do. Today these six to eight-year-olds are learning how to draw shapes on their little personal chalkboards. These fifty little first graders start the day by marching into class in three equal lines like little soldiers. Then they usually sit at their desks restlessly for at least ten minutes, many still knawing on their identical breakfasts of white bread spread with chocolate, beans or mushy spagetti, while Madame Diatta prepares. She has to consult the charts she is required to write out to plan every lesson, following a government timetable. One of the harder parts of her job is to somehow translate the government instructions into lessons that actually make sense. This morning for example, 8 to 9 am on Thursday, the timetable calls for ‘art plastique’ (plastic art). I’m not sure exactly what that means, but there certainly aren’t any art materials to be had around here, so the teacher resorts to drawing shapes on the board. The goal today is to have the kids be able to identify the different shapes – a simple concept it might seem for kids of their age – but not such a simple task in this case.

The second most difficult challenge Mme Diatta must face is the sheer number of wiggly, wandering minds into which she must somehow plant the first seeds of knowledge. Fifty-two is the exact number, sitting shoulder to shoulder on benches behind four rows of desks squished so close together that the teacher sometimes has to walk sideways to move in between them. Actual physical space is the only limit, the school director tells me, by which he can ever justify turning kids away each year – and he does have to do this every year. At a certain point he has to say to some child, sorry, you can’t come to school this year. Its not his fault obviously, being given only a certain number of classrooms and being at the mercy of the government for all his funding, but it still weighs heavily on his conscience to have to be the one to refuse children their right to an education. And every year more children come.

I think back to my kindergarten classroom with its ample space and colorful furnishing– there was a nap area and a reading area with a loft that looked like a treehouse. There were cubbies and coat hangers with our nametags above them and we sat around separate tables on chairs with tennis balls on the legs. Every day two students would take the little red wagon down the halls to the cafeteria to pick up the milk cartons for lunch….

Here what they have is basically a shell: an empty dusty room with desks and a chalkboard. Besides a bucket of water, a sponge and some brooms, the only classroom materials are on the teacher’s desk: her ruler, the strip of ribbed rubber that is a whip, a box of chalk, her stack of folders and government literature. To hand out to the students she has bags of pens and pencils and stacks of notebooks. Each child should theoretically come to school with a backpack containing an ‘ ardoise’ (a mini chalkboard), a sponge and chalk, but not everybody has one.

Another challenge for Madame Diatta is that the majority of these six, seven and eight year-olds have never been to school before. Only a select few were fortunate enough to attend preschool, and they stand out clearly in their ability to pay attention and absorb information. Most of the kids have been to koranic school, however – religious school. There are many koranic school here in Sebikotane because of the well established religious community, and they are all free. So basically the majority of these kids have gone through the first six years of their lives without ever speaking a word of French (they all speak the local language, Wolof), without ever holding a book or a writing utensil, and without ever sitting behind a desk, or a table for that matter. And they didn’t really grow up with toys – things like puzzles, doll houses, or little button pushing noise-makers that in our world certainly play a role in early child development. So you can imagine how difficult this first year is for both the students and the teacher. When I first arrived in Sebikotane I was surprised to meet little eight-year-old girls who still couldn’t write their names, but now I understand why. Getting these little kids to read and write (in a foreign language!) is a task that will take several years.

So how does she do it? How does Madame Diatta succeed in sending these first graders home at the end of the day with an extra drop of knowledge in their brains? It certainly in an incredible feat for which she will forever have my respect, however harsh her methods and gruff her attitude. She has to shout a lot for one. Well actually she shouts all the time, saying everything at least twice, in both Wolof and French, and then she makes the kids repeat. Repeat, repeat, repeat. A never ending chorus of mushed up French words. By now I think these kids must have chanted the word ‘triangle’ at least fifty times. And she yeilds the rubber whip fearlessly. The use of corporal punishment is a subject which I will elaborate on further in a different blog, because this one is already getting way to long. Teachers here are called maitres and maitresses, which means masters and mistresses, which illustrates a fundamental difference between the Senegalese perception of education and child-rearing in general and the Western one. Teachers here aren’t kind and caring, nurturing and encouraging; they are more like tyrants, forced to adopt fearsome demeanors in order to have authority in their classrooms.

And yet aside from the frustration and exhaustion that surfaces most in Madame Diatta’s daily attitude, there are moments in which I can glimpse the bit of satisfaction that her job does give her. All of a sudden a student will call out an unexpectedly correct answer and the corners of her iron-straight mouth will twitch and she’ll kind of nod her head. She’ll catch my eye briefly, I’ll smile back eagerly, and in this way, at 9 am on a Thursday morning at l’Ecole Sebiroute, despite the dust, the poor light, the shortage of chalk and the lack of space, we’ll both acknowledge the wonders, however rare, of little kids who begin to learn.