13 hr school day – from physics and math to extracting bull semen

Blog entry created by: Teresa

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Today we woke up at 5:30am so we could experience the marathon 13 hour Kenyan school day.

The school day begins...

The second rooster crow

Class starts at 6am, but the children here have no clocks to tell the time. Some say they go by the rooster crows. Apparently, by the second set of crowing, you’d better get moving…though it is still dark outside. We left a few minutes late today and the roosters seemed to be calling us in a frenzy to hurry up and get to class. The principal, Sister Francis, said that you can tell when it’s 6am because the sun is just about to come up and so it’s a bit light out, so the children have no excuse if they are late. I wondered how such a rule would go over in Groton, MA where we are from, if the children had no clocks.

We are the lucky ones – the kids who ride these bikes get up at 4am to make the two hour journey to the Nyumbani school. They used to walk, until the village helped them get the bikes.

6am – 6:30am The day begins with a study period

The kids finish up classwork they did not complete in class the day before, or homework. I know my kids would be procrastinating and saving all of their homework for that time. The kids here have a pretty good excuse, once they leave school its 7pm, and they have no lighting in their homes, except for maybe one lamp (with limited fuel) that ten kids and their grandmother share.

6:30am – 6:50 Getting sticks from the bush to clean

You make a broom out of sticks and brush and sweep the dirt ground until you have cleaned it of any debris – mostly leaves. The courtyard actually looked really good after we did this. Jennifer said after about a week of that job, she’d be recommending they rid the courtyard of any leaf bearing trees :-) They also clean the classes and the “dining hall”.

6:50am – 8am A few more minutes to study and then mass

I think this was unusual and that mass is not usually done at this time, so it might normally be just a study period, or another class period. Only a handful of kids went to mass as it was in a small room.

8am – 8:40am Math (reviewing for the standardized high school exams)

The math seemed at a similar level to what we have in the US. I was impressed that the word problems related to everyday life in Kenya; hiring people to plant fields, buying fruit, etc. I explained what I thought was an easier way to do one of the problems. I told them that I wasn’t that smart, so I needed to find the easiest way possible to do the problems. I think they felt less intimidated to ask questions, then, because throughout the days study times and between classes, the kids seemed happy to be able to come up to me and ask for more help. It was a lot of fun for me, too.

8:40am – 9:20am African Culture is what it seemed like to me, but apparently it was Christian Religious Education

This was very interesting because in this part of Kenya, the elderly grandparents seem to represent the end of the old ways. The adult who taught the class explained that the rites of passage she was reviewing should be learned for the standard school exams, but were not done anymore. She and the kids chuckled at the old beliefs. Some of them were pretty funny – like how a pregnant woman should not pick up anything made of iron, lest she and the baby be stuck by lightning. But it was surprising to see that beliefs have changed so much and so suddenly that the teacher was mumbling that she couldn’t understand why anyone would believe THAT, while the grandmothers in the village may well belong to the generation that does believe it. I couldn’t quite think of an American equivalent.

9:20am – 10am another math class (reviewing for the high school exams)

10am – 10:15am Breakfast – how much mush can you swallow in ten minutes?

The students took cups and spoons out of their desks and headed to the middle school kitchen (the high school doesn’t have a kitchen) to a large pot of maize porridge sitting outside, which was like cream of wheat, but with more liquid. The kitchen staff scooped porridge into each mug and we carried it back to the high school. We suddenly realized that we were not headed to class to eat it, but were meant to be just about done eating it, so we could wash out our mugs in wash bins. The “dining hall” is for now, just a large empty room with a couple of benches no one had time to sit on and two wash bins. A student waited for us to finish so she could empty them. The porridge was fine, but there was A LOT of it. There was nowhere to dump what you didn’t want (why would there be when food is at such a premium?), so we choked down the last spoonfuls as quickly as we could and washed out our mugs. Have you ever tried to swallow way too many spoonfuls of mush in a very short amount of time – it was a challenge!

10:15am – 10:45am Physics lab

I was impressed! The lab room was nothing short of awesome and Sister Rose is a wonderful teacher! She and her assistant demonstrated circuits, loads, an ammeters, a voltmeter, etc and then drew complex diagrams on the board that the kids memorized in a flash. Alexandrina sat next to me and her science notebook was a work of art.

10:45am – 11:30am Business class– are you getting the idea that this is a LONG day? 71/2 hrs to go!

This class seemed to fly by. We only checked homework and then did three problems. They didn’t seem to be explained as well as the other math work we had done. They were pretty simple, but the kids were confused. I think it was because they didn’t understand the business terms being used. The teacher slipped out of class quickly at the end – they sometimes just exit quietly and the kids study on their own until the next class begins. Several kids asked me to explain the problems to them and I think we made progress.

11:30am – 12 noon Biology – racing through a 30 minute lab

We were back in the science lab – this time to learn how to prepare slides and view them under a microscope. It’s amazing that they have all of the necessary equipment. The kids have nothing at home, but at school, which was just built by the village with donated funds last year, they seem to have all they need to learn.

12 noon – 12:40pm English – prepositions

Bella sung them the preposition song that goes to the tune of Yankee Doodle, and they ask her to write it down for them, but they don’t know Yankee Doodle. How to teach it to them? I can’t write down the notes. We will have to visit homes at night and sing it so they can memorize the tune.

12:40 pm – 1:20pm lunch – What else? beans and rice.

It’s what we eat in three or four different ways every lunch and dinner. Occasionally, the guests get meat. The kids only get it four times a year! (Later we found out that they had goat stew for lunch today at the guest house, and we missed it – NOOOO!) The beans and rice were fine, but we were given way too much again. This time we knew better and went off the to edge of the woods to dump the excess. Horrors – dumping food in Kenya – but I just can’t eat that much at lunch.

Six more hours!

Meagan asks if we should go back to the guest house. We are surprised because we meant to spend the whole day. “But there are still 6 more hours!”, she says.

1:20pm – 2pm Study

The kids really study during these times – and with no teacher anywhere near the room!

2pm – 2:40 Time for a bit of chemistry and physics…a lab on batteries…I am exhausted just typing all of this!

Again Sister Rose and her assistant do not disappoint. They explain batteries in a lively manner and create one from sulfuric acid, copper and zinc plates, and wires. The kids seem to take it all in and learn a lot.

2:40pm – 3:20pm History – Rights and responsibilities on Kenyan citizenship

The history teacher was lively and the kids really took to him and participated. One kids asked a particularly insightful question: when the teacher explained that one of the rights was freedom of religion, one student asked if that applied within the Nyumbani Village (Nyumbani is a Catholic organization). The teacher said that was a good question and he would have to check with the other teachers and get back to him. You have to understand that part of the Kenyan culture is to do as one is told and not to question, so I was impressed that some of the students spoke up with such questions. The school not only tolerates it, but seems to encourage it.

3:20pm – 4pm Agriculture – By far the most interesting class

The teacher started out with 5 minutes of at-your-desk exercises, jumping up and down and looking left and right, which got the kids laughing…especially when some didn;t seem to know which was left and which right.

Did he just ask, “What tool do you use to castrate and grown bull?”

Then we went through an amazing series of review questions: What tool do you use to castrate a grown bull? Sometimes I have a hard time with the Kenyan accent, and particularly with this teacher. Did he say castrate? Yes, I could see that was it as he wrote it on the board. The kids seemed to know the answer. How about a pig? Calf? What do you use to make parallel lines next to the wood? What about to capture semen for a bull for artificial insemination? Some of the class did not seem to know the meaning of “artificial insemination”. He asked if they knew whether it was being done in the livestock area of the village. He was shocked to find out that they didn’t know how their own cows were impregnated.

Clearly this called for an extremely detailed explanation of the artificial insemination process – mainly how you get the semen from the bull

Bella and I were very mature about it until he got to the part about the artificial vagina, and sticking one hand into the bulls anus. Still we were holding it together, wondering if this was all on the standard exam, when he said in a matter-of-fact tone, “I assume you are wearing gloves”, which was just too much for us. I hope you get to wear gloves when you are holding an artificial vagina in one hand and massaging the inside of the bull’s anus with your other!!

4pm – 4:10pm A whole ten minutes for break!

What to do with a whole ten minutes of free time?

4:10pm – 5pm sports and clubs

To tell you the truth, we skipped out just before this. I know they have a science club and a book club, but I am not sure what else. I think many of the kids choose to play sports during this time as they have very little time to play outside. We will have to go back to experience clubs, but 10 hours seemed like enough on our first day.

5pm – 7pm study time

Remember, the school has lights, and the homes don’t.

Yes, we skipped out a few hours early and it was still quite a LONG day.

I enjoyed it though, and would like to spend more time in the school. With so many subjects, it kept interest levels high, but it is hard to get much done in 30 or 40 minutes. It seemed that we just got into something and then it was time to move onto the next subject.

Why a 13 hour day, and why 12 subjects a year? To have a small shot at attending university

Part of this is a function of the Kenyan standard exam system. They have 12 subjects each year and they have to know them all well to pass the exam to get to the next year in high school and to go to university. Only 10% of students in Kenya qualify for the public universities, and it is even more difficult for the children here as many of them missed years of school before coming to the village.

We’ll post video of the school day soon – right now we don’t have internet that will allow us to upload video

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Posted on: November 11, 2010 | Categories: Blog, Education, Kenya, Snacks and Food, Well for HIV+ Village- Kenya



  • Jeremy says:

    An intensive day, to say the least. Did you get the sense that the students were absorbing the materials? Were they engaged?

  • Teresa Teresa says:

    Hi Jeremy. The children were paying attention and participating and many were absorbing the material. The only problem I saw was that the ones who didn’t understand were not really encouraged to ask questions, so I could see many of them quietly pretending that they understood. When I offered friendly help, they gratefully accepted it. They would benefit from access to a volunteer or teacher to answer questions during their study periods…so I am going to pass that info along to the administrators.

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