Volunteering with Ethiopia Reads: Experiences and Perspectives [Part 3]

This is one part of an ongoing series chronicling the volunteering experiences of Nick Thayer, who recently returned from a 2 month visit to Ethiopia Reads schools and libraries in Addis Ababa.

By Nicholas Thayer

[Continued from Part 2...]

So I did. At first, while I was still getting my bearings in my new life and trying to get acquainted with some of the kids, that meant that the kids did a lot of artwork. (I don’t have to do very much when the kids spend two hours copying and coloring pictures out of various children’s books.) Some of them are genuinely excellent at this; when I first arrived and saw some of their previous work posted up on the wall, I was certain that they had put their paper on the book and traced over it (instead of copying the picture with the paper next to the book). So the best of the artists kind of blew my mind when I saw them drawing in real time. Of course, there was a bit of a spectrum in terms of talent in art - some kids (not unlike myself) are incapable of drawing a leaf that is recognizable as such, not to mention of then adding a smiling butterfly on top of it. And as for the mediocre, middle-of-the-spectrum ones: I surreptitiously snapped a picture of one drawing of Mufasa and Nala looking at Rafiki holding Simba in which the two adult lions look like Scar just fought them using a sledgehammer and a massive dose of whatever steroids Barry Bonds was on, and won - their faces are squished and their snouts shortened so that their bodies, while themselves probably faithfully reproduced, look inflated, more like masses of pillows than masses of lion muscle.

At the same time, I knew that I should be doing my best to get the kids better at reading in English, and at English in general, so I spent a lot of time having them read and correcting them where necessary. But that was hard because I didn’t know how much to stress any given point (“Do I really need to correct the 17th mispronunciation of ‘up’ as ‘yoop’??”). My own comfortable upbringing, as well as my ongoing experience at language school, have taught me that tough love and demand of perfection are to be used sparingly and targetedly, while as far as I can tell, hitting kids with rulers is almost part of the national curriculum here. And since I myself am in no way a trained teacher, I didn’t quite feel comfortable coming in and imposing my own rules on everything. Most of the kids did, though; at almost every pause or mispronunciation, hesitation or mistake, or just whenever a certain kid felt like it, someone would interject and try to correct whatever mistakes had or had not been made. Properly-pronounced words were ‘corrected’, readers were interrupted after stopping for a mere half-second on a difficult word, and sentences were restarted constantly because a kid forgot that it wasn’t their turn to be reading. Boredom was prone to overcome kids one by one so that they just had to express themselves with a sudden comment or very loud sigh...or even an entire sentence read out of turn. (If only kids everywhere would have an urge to read whenever they got bored.) So teaching them through reading was slow going.

Teaching them through games, however, was a different story. At language school, we were taught early on that laughter and relaxation are essential elements of the learning process. If you spend your whole time in school being stressed and feeling defeated, there’s little chance that your brain’s going to be letting very much new information in. So it’s no wonder the Gebeta kids know my favorite Simon Says commands so well - the room was constantly erupting into laughter for one reason or another. After a few weeks of such “training”, even though many of them may not yet be able to tell someone about their weekend or understand a book’s storyline in English, they can sure understand if anyone (especially Simon) tells them to run in one place and spin in circles while clapping their hands over their head!

Visit again soon to read Part 4!