Teaching in Rwanda comes with many challenges. Teachers are given a curriculum for their subject, which is an outline of what must be taught throughout the year. These curricula are usually unintelligible, contain outdated or non-existent terms and phrases, or ask the teacher to teach about things that are not at all pertinent to the subject being taught. Teachers have few resources to draw information from and they often resort to copying sections of text from a book and giving that as notes to the students. The time in the classroom is split between copying notes and giving explanation of the notes to the students. The students are then given quizzes to test how well they have memorized the information given to them. No creative thought. Just minds being treated as photo copiers.
As much as I am frustrated by the Rwandan education system, I sympathize with the teachers. No, even more than that, I empathize with them. These teachers usually teach several subjects with little or no resources to use for creating lesson plans. The information in the curricula is sometimes so unintelligible that they often have to study the topic they are teaching just before teaching it. I'm certain that they really want to do more learner-centered teaching, but they are expected to get through so much information throughout the term that it is difficult to do anything besides hand over a bunch of notes and then give an explanation. I find myself often taking on the same teaching strategy and only throwing in a fun activity when I think of a good idea to try or I deem that I have enough time to have the students put their notebooks away and actually do something besides copy off of the blackboard.
Even though the education system in Rwanda needs a lot of help, I see no shortage of intelligent young people in this country. I am so proud of my students for the work that they put out when I push them to think their own original thoughts. Take my Senior 5 class as an example. Yesterday they had a debate during class. Rwandan students love doing debates. One of the students told me after class that we should hold a debate in class every week. I was happy to see that the students tried to involve everyone in the debate and they gave very reasoned arguments for their ideas.
After the debate I asked the students to hand in their homework. I had asked them to write five questions that they would ask their president, Paul Kagame, in an interview. I was surprised to see that very few of the questions were about personal things, such as hobbies and favorite things. Most of the questions were about current issues like: the conflict in DRC involving a group that the Rwandan government was accused of supporting; the recent creation of the Agaciro Development Fund, and how the government plans to spend that money - and why some people were told that contributions are mandatory when the government described it as voluntary; and how the president plans to utilize his final five years in office and who he thinks will run during the next election.
I get the feeling that I had an impact on the questions that were written. This term I gave this Senior 5 class very few notes. I assigned them one large project to work on throughout the term, which was to write and to give a speech. The speech is to be about what their dream is for Rwanda (after watching clips of MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech). Throughout the term I helped them shape their ideas by asking them questions like "What problems does your country face right now and how can you fix them?" or "What is important to you? What issue do you care about most?" It was very rewarding to see these minds open up, beginning with only giving a history of what they know about Rwanda, progressing to what their own creative ideas are for solutions to the issues the world currently faces. I am very excited as the end of the term draws near and I get to hear all of the wonderful speeches that these students worked so hard to put together.
At the beginning of the term, when I assigned the speech project, some of my students told me that it is so difficult. I explained to them that challenges are important for personal progress. After seeing some of the excellent work that these students have put together, I can't wait to ask those students after they give their speeches if it was worth it that I challenged them. Sometimes I feel somewhat useless here in Rwanda because I don't have several secondary projects under my belt like some volunteers. But then I realize the impact that I am having on these young minds by helping them to think critically. The next step is to share some of these teaching strategies to the other teachers so that the impact is sustainable. It is going to be challenging, but I know it will be worth it.