May 6 K. Kuehn- Teaching and learning in Kenya.

Teaching and learning in Kenya

Kari Kuehn

May 6, 2008


It’s a very hard thing to explain Kenyan history to Kenyans, especially if those said Kenyans don’t speak any English.  Similarly, it must be a totally foreign to a Kenyan child to have a white person with blonde hair coming into their classroom of 60 students and for them to comprehend what the new teacher is saying. The language barrier only adds another of challenge to this situation, but that is where I find myself, teaching 4th graders Kenyan Social Studies, their own history.  I’m in Kenya thousands of miles from home teaching kids, kids I’ve never met, kids who speak very little English, and best of all I’m teaching those kids about the history of their country, history I have very little knowledge about myself.


Today was my second day of teaching. The first day I was at my new school a class of 5th grade English was sprung on me. I was totally un-prepared and completely petrified. To say the least the class was a disaster. It was only at the end of the class that I realized the kids didn’t know that much English, and also they couldn’t understand the way I spoke the very little English that they did know. So for the second day I was determined to start over and do as best I could. This meant I had to completely change my whole way of teaching. For the second class, I brought in paper and markers and had the kids make nametags for themselves. This brought smiles right to their faces, and because they were happy the rest of class was a breeze. I found that teaching becomes so much easier when the kids are happy. They were all smiling and wanting to absorb everything you say to them, they also want to play with your hair for hours and hours.  The second class turned out to be so much better then the first, and I can only hope that this trend continues.


For my second class of the day I had social studies with the 4th grade. The class I feared the most. If English hadn’t gone well the first time, I dreaded going into a class of younger children who speak even less English. I tried to define the word history to these kids to start off the class. History is a difficult thing to put into words, so I was stumbling to do that. But I also had to wisely choose the words I did used because the kids knew only so much English. The whole class was like pulling teeth, but mostly mine. Finally, we reach a definition that both parties could work with; history is like a story. Now I had something to run with, but being from the other side of the world I didn’t know all of their stories.  The ones I did know were translated over and over through textbooks, and even worse it always wasn’t the whole story. So I found myself in a very ironic situation to say the least. I was a foreign white person trying to teach the class about their history and culture, from outside sources and in a language not native to them. It’s a very complex situation to deal with, but I had to because I’m a teacher and this is the subject I’m teaching.  Teachers have to teach what is in the curriculum, but in a way that makes it their own and in a way the students understand and enjoy. I realized this today and now have to face it when teaching all my other classes for the remaining time I’m here.  Bring it on!

Later tonight, back at Batian’s View, a woman named Mama Waweru came to talk to us about the Mau Mau movement. It was a movement that greatly influenced the Kenya’s quest for independence in the 1950’s. So, here before us was a 74-year-old woman telling us stories in Kiswahili about the movement; it was really interesting to say the least. She was a primary source that only very people will ever witness. When listening to her talk I realized that she is a part of Kenyan history, and that she should be the one in front of the kids telling them stories. There are so few people still with us who were there in those situations, who really know happened, and are willing to tell you their stories unfiltered.  This evening was a very special experience. Each of us should, if one has a chance, to talk with a person who experienced a special event or lived through an interesting time.  This is much better than reading about it in a book or learning it from a classroom teacher.  So for myself, I have to continue on teaching my 4th grade social studies class about their history, and hopefully I can learn a lot about their history but also about the culture I am living with right now.