Story by Lilliane Pitters
“I used to stand glued in front of the classroom and I wasn’t free to move around,” says Serkelem Gezemu, a Kindergarten teacher at the Birhane Hilina Primary School in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. “The children were always sitting down and they fussed continuously because they were bored. Back then, I thought teaching was such a difficult job!”
In Ethiopia, it’s common for teachers like Serkelem to use an institutional teaching pedagogy where they instruct and the children are expected to listen and learn in silence. And yet, this conservative practice leaves students uninterested, disengaged and at a disadvantage as they’re not retaining the information they needed to proceed to the next grade.
Serkelem could see this happening in her classroom, so when her school adopted Right To Play’s child-centric, active-learning, play-based approach to teaching, she agreed to became one of 610 teachers trained in her region.
“The training was a revelation for me and the other teachers,” says Serkelem. “For the first time in my career, I was excited about teaching, because I felt I could offer the children something different, which they would enjoy. I have become better at teaching.”
Two years later, Serkelem’s classroom looks and sounds very different.
Her students are keen and attentive and no longer restricted to sitting at their desks while their teacher stands at the front of the room pointing at lessons written on the chalkboard. “I use songs, puzzles and games to make learning more fun for the children, now,” says Serkelem, who’s class of 30 students forming a circle around her. The children are about to begin a literacy lesson and on their teacher’s cue they begin singing while waving their hands and wiggling from side to side as they use their bodies to form the shapes of the letters of the alphabet.
“The children like to play this game,” says Serkelem. “They sing loudly and move their arms and when we finish the alphabet, they ask to do it again and again. This tells me that they are having fun as they learn and that makes me love my job.”
Now, Serkelem’s classroom time comes easily.
By engaging her Kindergarten students in specially chosen games, songs, puzzles and activities, she is making school an inclusive and safe learning environment that the children want to come back to every day. Her hand-drawn shapes, pictures and numbers cover the walls of her classroom, promoting the sounds, letters, numbers and words the children learn each day. As the students finish the alphabet game, they crowd around their teacher, eager to start their next game; the mathematics portion of Serkelem’s lesson plan.
At the end of each activity, Serkelem and her class squat together on the cobblestones to discuss the game they’ve just played.
By asking the children to “reflect” on the game and what they got out of it, “connect” this information to their own experiences, inside and outside of school and “apply” what they’ve learned to their lives helps them process their lessons and reinforces what they have learned. It’s
the moment where the game and the learning come together.
Apart from cementing the learning objectives in the students’ minds, Serkelem describes these group sessions as an opportunity to encourage even the shyest children to speak up, so that all of the children learn to listen respectfully to one another and to appreciate one another’s opinions.
“They benefit from a fun-filled classroom,” says Serkelem. “They are innocent, eager to please and can be guided gently with flexibility. I enjoy teaching now, because I play with children; they are friendly and love to learn. When I am with them, I forget everything else and focus on how much fun we are having.”