Workshops and Meetings and Trainings, Oh My! Part 3: Phonics Workshop

To give you a perfect example of how the culture works here and how work gets done, I wanted to document these next couple of months of workshops and meetings and trainings.

I have mentioned it once and I will mention it a thousand times: that we, as PCVs, cannot just come and make a change. We need to fulfill the needs. We are here to make slow change, over time. We don't burst in the door and say "HERE IS HOW TO MAKE IT ALL DIFFERENT."

I will start things off by saying that my school is an excellent school. I'm not just saying continually wins awards, and it has a reputation of being a very organized, well-off school with lots of resources. We have staff meetings and school councils. Once, when I spoke to Frances, who is on Erromango, about one of our staff meetings, she said, "ooh, I'm writing that idea down: 'have staff meetings.'" I assume that our school's leg up has to do with being close to a provincial center, therefore getting lots of exposure to the western world as well as resources.

But we have flaws, as any school does. And the teachers here are well aware of them, and willing to make changes, which makes it a great site for a PCV.

Lately, there have been so many workshops and meetings and trainings that I wanted to give you an inside look at what is discussed at these meetings, who attends them, and how they run.

June 5th, 2018
G30 Briefing 

Before I get into the workshop itself, let me provide a little background.

On June 2nd, six days before the workshop, the headmaster approached me at home to ask if I'd help with a phonics workshop. He explained how he's a chairman of a northern Efate principal's association, which is organizing a dual workshop (phonics and assessments) for all northern Efate schools to attend on June 8th.

I was a bit confused at first...was he asking me to attend with him? Because I knew I didn't need the training, and I knew other teachers at our school would greatly benefit from this program. He clarified: could  do the workshop. Not attend...but host the workshop.

I kept probing and the details were as follows: He wanted me to host this phonics workshop, because the association sought out others who were fluent in phonics, and they came up blank. He has a PCV at his school so he suggested me for the job. I would not be co-hosting or doing a segment of the workshop...I would be organizing an entire workshop for the entire northern Efate school community (all teachers had the school day off, and all were required to attend), which may include about 100 people. He also wondered if I could do the assessment portion of the workshop. I asked him what kind of assessments he was referring to. He had no idea, but he asked if I could do that as well. I said I'd work on the phonics part.

This was with six days of notice.

I told my headmaster that I would get back to him, because it was a lot to ask with such short notice, and I had absolutely nothing prepared.  Of course I'd love the opportunity to do something so big and important, but I also didn't want to set myself up for failure. I reached out to my project manager (PM), and alas, she had the perfect solution: involve G30 trainees, who were still in training.

The reason she suggested this was because as part of their training, education trainees from G30 were split into three groups. One group worked on creating a computer manual for PCVs and their schools. One group worked on co-teaching. The third group worked on creating phonics workshops. All trainees rotated through these three groups so they had a chance at each activity, all getting real world experience of things they would be doing at site.

My PM informed the group, and on Tuesday, June 5th, the headmaster and I went to Pele to fill in the trainees on the workshop. I thought this was crazy, giving them a mere three days to prepare, but I later learned that it was all complete, they just needed to cater their workshop to the audience.

The headmaster was a bit confused as to why we were meeting the trainees. I told him they would probably have questions. How long was it? Who was attending? Do they know English? What's the format? Etc. Etc. You can't just show up for a workshop and toss it at whatever audience appears!

The headmaster clarified that all teachers from northern Efate were invited, which includes at least 12 schools. Teachers from classes 1-8 were attending, as well as kindergarten teachers. Some teachers never got formal education training, so some are very new to different teaching methods, and there will be a lot who do not know English, so G30 will need to do the presentations in Bislama.

The training is part of an "Ademap" (Add-Em-Up) English program that the Ministry of Education is spearheading. Prior to my group's arrival in Vanuatu, the Ministry of Education drastically changed the English program, starting at class 1. When they saw literacy rates drop (students jumped from local language to full-on English right after kindergarten), they changed it to its current program, which teaches Bislama from classes 1-3, introduces English in the final term of class 3, and full immersion in class 4 and beyond. This soft introduction has been good, but to improve it even more, they are rolling out the Ademap program, which has about 30-60 minutes a week of English language learning in classes 1-3, to make the transition even easier when the student reaches class 4.

A lot of teachers, even those who teach English, don't know phonics basics (teaching sounds of letters, breaking up words by sounds, etc), which is what this workshop will cover.

The group of G30 trainees were excited and ready, and they had a full presentation already in place, as they'd been preparing it as a mock presentation. Now, they will be using it to show to an audience of Ni-Van teachers.

The G30 trainees didn't need any additional help from me, but I would help just a bit on the day of the event.

June 8th, 2018
Phonics Workshop at Manua School

The event started at 8am with an opening prayer and some speeches outlining the events for the day. There were about 100 teachers who showed up, and the association organizing the event split up the teachers, so kindergarten through 4th grade teachers would learn phonics while 5th through 8th grade teachers would go to the assessment workshop. My headmaster ended up hosting the assessment workshop.

The G30 trainees set up an additional classroom, as originally they were only granted one, so they could have better "classroom control." By splitting up the teachers, they could have the teachers switch classrooms halfway through and get all the activities and information from all the mini presentations. Overall, G30 would be training about 60 teachers.

Before splitting up all the teachers, the trainees simply ran through the entire alphabet and asked teachers to list English words that start with each letter. It was a long activity, because the trainees wanted to ensure the teachers pronounced each letter well. It's common here in Vanuatu that letter mispronunciations lead to misspellings, and since Bislama is an unregulated language (many spellings are possible for different words), it is important to emphasize English letter rules and sounds.

After that, they split up the teachers in the two classrooms. I made sure to visit both so I could help any way that I could, however, the trainees were killing it and my assistance was less than 1% of the overall presentation.

Jesse and Sadie did a presentation on emphasizing commonly switched letters in Bislama and English: T and D, C and K, P and B. They informed teachers to emphasize the sound, and show the students how the placement of the tongue and lips can make a major difference in correct pronunciation. At one point, I stood up to tell the teachers that I often make a gesture with my hands to show students where their tongue should be in their mouth and lips, since they can't see inside my mouth and can't hear a difference between similar sounds

Jesse and Sadie also introduced a game to the teachers with pieces of paper and letters written on them, that would be easy to re-create for any teacher at their school.

Jessie and Sadie give their presentation

Next, Coleman presented on vowels. He explained short and long vowel sounds, and asked teachers to provide examples of each. He explained how some vowel sounds overlap, but short vowel sounds are often difficult to replicate in Bislama. Recently, while working on a language video, I learned that the local Tanna language does, in fact, have a short vowel "i" sound, written as "+." Despite this not applying to most teachers in the classroom, it was helpful for them to know that this sound does exist in at least 1 of the 116 languages of Vanuatu.

Coleman writes down words for each vowel

Coleman also did a bingo activity with the teachers, again showing them that a fun learning game could easily be made with materials found in a classroom.

Megan and David did a presentation of SH, CH, and TH words. In Bislama, SH is often replaced with a "s" like the word "ship" becomes sip.  CH is often represented with a J, like "church" becomes "jej." Finally, TH is replaced with a T or a D, such as "thunder" becoming tanda. 

These digraphs are often confused by younger students, and in the classroom I am constantly focusing on the correct pronunciation. I told the teachers that while it is definitely silly, I force my students to hold their lips between pinched fingers while making the TH sound, because students often try to replicate the sound with an F, biting their bottom lip in the process.

In all of these mini sessions the G30 trainees held, I injected some insight I had from first-hand classroom experience. One main thing I stressed was that classrooms are large, often with 30 or more students, so it's hard to give individualized focus, and it's difficult to know which students are repeatedly making mispronounced sounds. However, to combat this, I told teachers they must focus on looking at the mouths. For the TH sound, I mentioned what I just wrote above: simply seeing a kid bite their lip, I know I need to go up closer to them to help them hear the difference between the sound I am making and the sound they are making.

Megan and David focus on digraphs

Finally, Somchai and Corley focused on WH, GH and PH, going through their sounds and some examples. 

Somchai and Corley explain the WH, GH, and PH sounds

After running through the digraphs, Somchai and Corley led a game by splitting up the teachers into tables with dry erase boards and markers. Corley would read a word aloud, and the teams would race to correctly spell the word first. The teachers got really into it, even getting frustrated when their markers would run out of ink, giving them a disadvantage.

Teachers in the audience raise up their correctly-spelled words

I don't know how the assessment portion of the workshop went, but the phonics end of things (I thought) was a complete success. G30 totally killed it, and I definitely didn't need to be there for them to be a success. Teachers were fully engaged throughout, unafraid to ask questions, and impressed with G30's presentations.

The phonics workshop ended at lunchtime. At the end, the G30 trainees passed out photocopies explaining the games they played, as well as other possible game options to use in the classroom. They also donated their posters from the presentation to Manua school for teachers to use in their lessons.


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