Tuesday, April 1, 2014

What The Lizard Taught My Students


I think classroom teaching at a Junior Secondary School in Botswana is the hardest work I have ever done.  Youngsters at a JSS typically range in age from 12 to 16 – what Americans would call 8th to 10th graders and which Batswana designate as Form 1 to 3 students.  Each class consists of about 40 students, relatively equally consisting of males and females.
What makes the job difficult is that most of the students do not respond interactively with the teacher.  This is not only true for me, the strange old lady from America with a difficult-to-understand accent, but for their Batswana teachers, too.  On a good day, maybe four or five students will carry the burden of answering questions and participating in class.  On a not so good day, nobody will talk back to me.  I often leave classrooms feeling disappointed and dissatisfied with both the students’ performances and mine.
Although the government mandates that all subjects at secondary schools be taught in English, it is doubtful that the majority of the JSS students in any given class fully comprehend lessons that are taught entirely in English.  Consequently, class teachers use both English and Setswana to get the material taught.  I don’t have that option.  Most of the time I end up wondering if what I have presented in a class, no matter how creatively, has been comprehended by anyone at all.  It’s very disheartening.  

And then…….I have an experience like the one on Friday March 21.

I was with a Form 1 class that meets in what is called The Pavilion, which is a big, windy hall divided in half by a temporary wall, on the other side of which meets another Form 1 class.  I was endeavoring to teach a topic that has generated good responses in other classes; how a person’s emotional brain, cognitive brain, and judgment center are involved in making decisions.  I especially focused on how our emotional brain compels us to impulsive decisions and behavior (saying, “I want what I want, and I want it NOW”) but that as humans (as compared to dogs, for example) we have the ability to overrule our emotional brain impulses by using our cognitive brains, particularly our judgment centers.
Just about the time I had completed the diagrams and explanations, there arose a loud commotion from the other side of the wall, a boy from the other class ran through our classroom knocking over a desk, and people started screaming as the ruckus increased.  I stepped to the doorless entryway between the classrooms and saw the class teacher calmly seated on a desk with her legs extended in front of her as the students either pursued or fled from a big lizard that was desperately trying to find a way out.  When the lizard headed my way it was preceded by a dozen panicked girls trying to squeeze through the doorway where I stood.  To avoid getting crushed I backed out of the way and the uproar flooded into my classroom along with the lizard.  My students hopped up on top of their desks, or fled the classroom, or joined the mortal attack on the poor lizard who finally met its demise, bludgeoned by his frantic attackers.  
When things were back to almost normal, I told my students that what had just occurred was a perfect illustration of emotional brain impulsive behavior that took over their brains and dictated their behaviors.  We then explored the information stored in their cognitive brains about the lizard (not poisonous, more afraid of us than we are of it, doesn't attack humans) that they could have used to make a wise decision with their judgment centers about the lizard, as the teacher in the other class had done, instead of joining the mass hysteria of the students.
It was lunchtime, class time was over, and they were all so electrified that I thought to myself, “Oh well, let them go.  They are in no state to comprehend anything you are saying.”  I dismissed them, wondering at all the obstacles one has to get past to teach a class here.  
Fast forward to the next morning.  I am sitting outside with a group of students while I wait for members of a study group to show up.  A Form 3 boy stops to ask me a question or two, and when he runs off he flips a girl on the arm and keeps running.  The girl is remonstrating loudly about the pain when the youngster next to me pipes up, “ That was emotional brain behavior,” and the boy standing in front of her says, “Yeah, he wasn't using his comic brain.”

WHOA! What did I just hear?

The youngster next to me continued, “Just like yesterday when we chased and were afraid of that poor lizard that wasn't poisonous and didn't even want to hurt us.”  Then several of the group joined in a brief conversation about emotional brain/cognitive brain behavior.
Well, I don’t have to tell you that a moment like that can re-energize a tired teacher for another effort to keep painfully climbing over the hurdles and running (maybe walking) toward the goal.  At that moment I felt as if I’d been given a great big paycheck.

It doesn't stop there!  

The following week I was in charge of the library during afternoon study time.  Since in the last few months we have placed in the library nearly 1500 books donated by people in the States, students have been thronging in during study time.  A “mob” of about 50 was already pushing at the door when it was time to open that afternoon.  I insisted that people get self-control and prepare to enter in an orderly fashion before I would open the doors.  It took a while but some of the bigger boys directed people to get in line and get quiet, and as I kept urging “self-control” one boy exhorted his classmates, “Don’t use your dog brains, use your judgment centers.”  I had to laugh.
So I’m encouraged to forge ahead and try to build a case with these impulsive early-to-mid teens for making considered, wise choices.  
Just maybe they are absorbing more than their behavior reflects during classes.  Just maybe they are not only hearing me, but understanding what I want them to learn. 
Is it too much to hope for? 

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