Lessons in Learning

Monday, July 15, 2019


What is it like to be a learner in a classroom when the content is complex or unfamiliar? What connects a student, engages them, and sparks their passion to learn more? Why are a sense of belonging and feeling known important ingredients in learning?  I think about these questions more frequently as an educator than a learner, so when Teacher Florien asked me to participate in his Kiswahili class at APACOPE School in Kigali, Rwanda, I slid into a wooden desk seat next to a very welcoming fifth grader to see what I might discover firsthand. My desk-mate immediately smiled and asked, “You know Kiswahili?!” “Absolutely not,” I shook my head, a little sheepishly.

She put her hand on my shoulder and said, “I’m Lena, I’ll help. Today’s easy!” The other students around the table nodded and smiled—feeling of belonging? Check! I let out a sigh, and turned my attention to Teacher Florien. The class got rolling right away as he welcomed two children to the front and began speaking about himself and them to us, gesturing and smiling. “Mimi ni mwalibu! I am the teacher.” Stretching his hands out to the students, he added, “Wewe ni wanafunzi- you are students!” Then waving wildly to the class, he said to the boys in front, “Wao ni wanafunzi!” (Can you guess the last pronoun?)

After a few rounds of animated pointing, Florien’s students gave it a try. I empathized as the first student garbled the lines. The teacher turned to the boy’s classmate, Paul, and said, “I think you can help! Let’s slow it down; just the first part, please!” Paul recited the first few phrases slowly and comfortably, breaking the content into small bites. His friend jumped in with the last phrase. “Yes!” Teacher Florian smiled, and then encouraged the class to give the boys “flowers.” Thirty pairs of hands sprung in the air, fingers wiggling—sign language applause for their classmates. Accepting approximations, valuing risk-taking. We were ready to roll.

The rest of the students seemed eager to give their Kiswahili a try, quickly setting up the visual cards Teacher Florien distributed. I turned again to Lena, who seemed to have kept her eye on me throughout the large group lesson. “I know English and Kiswahili,” she said confidently. Pointing to the first picture of a child reading and then to herself, she said, “Mimi umasoma kitabu!” Pointing to me, “Wewe unasoma kitabu!” Then, circling her finger to the table, “Sisi unasoma kitabu!” Everyone at the table nodded as Teacher Florian asked for a group to share what they’ve learned. Rather than standing herself, Lena encouraged the second shyest speaker at the table (wisely passing me by) to go to the front of the room. She gave him some tips for pronunciation as he scrambled from his seat, and he trotted to the front, reciting, “I read a book! You read a book! We read a book!” in Kiswahili and English. The giant smile on his face answered my third question: what engages kids and sparks learning? More often than not, a supportive friend who is a wonderful teacher, like Lena.

I couldn’t wait to tell my seatmate on the plane ride home, as I cracked open my mystery novel, “Mimi unasoma kitabu!”