The 'teaching' stopped...the children sang! My failed attempt(s) at responsive teaching

I sat near the back of the junior high school mathematics classroom in Gomoa Fetteh, Ghana as the teacher started his lesson. At times the teacher would sing out in a mixture of English and spectacular Twi drawl,” are you okayyyyy?" to which the students in unison would reply yesssss! For the most part though, it was like many mathematics lessons I've seen. ​ His approach was somewhat traditional for the most part - teacher writes, talks, and does problems on board as students watch, listen and take notes. At times students are called to the board but only to reveal a solution strategy identical to the instructor.

After hours of classroom observation, teaching, talking with instructors, I will admit I only saw glimpses of 'special' teaching. I even took over a few lessons in the class and in the afterschool program. I was a veteran of 25 years teaching but even my best efforts did not engender the kind of participation I was seeking. It was hard 'breaking' in. As I sat in classes, I wondered how students in these classes were going to be challenged to draw their own conclusions, strategize, ask more questions - all the reform goodies. Better yet, I was looking for evidence of cultural connections and relevance I had come to know as culturally relevant/responsive teaching for mathematics.

Interestingly enough, every week my host invites the older students (grade 8/M3) to his house where they play a series of board games and chess. I was tired, but I came out to join the youth on the porch. We played scrabble. As they were figuring out words they began to debate certain words and contexts all in their native language. One of the young ladies came over to me and asked, "please, I need you for some help". I was floored. In all the lessons either observing and teaching, the students were typically hesitant to respond. And even when they responded, it was in unison, and simply to the teacher, and sometimes just repeating what was said or written. I wondered then, as did my host. Where was the critical thinking, problem solving, reasoning? They gathered around me and began to sing - songs from the neighbourhood, and the radio.

Somebody say Ko-ko Koliko – Ko-ko Koliko Moho y3 me sre, Moho y3 me sre Moho y3 me sre, Moho y3 me sre

In some of my conversation, some voiced to me a concern that students needed to learn how to think critically. This is a common refrain in classroom I've seen elsewhere - a sort of belief that students are incapable of the kind of rigor and challenge that teachers envision themselves teaching. Teachers who voice these frustrations see students (even more so students of colour) as lack the internal motivation or capacity needed. By default, students of colour (and others) become the 'reason ‘This is the direct product of 'stand and deliver' traditional teaching in which the teacher is the sole authority and children are the blank slates that must humbly be ready to be poured into. This is what I saw in classrooms, and this is what was supported in the textbooks and materials I saw. To be clear, I see this in too many classrooms.

​ So, the young lady came to me. So, I joined the group and began to help -- they were discussing issues in Twi, or Ashanti Twi, the most prominent dialect of the region. I was immediately engaged in trying to find contexts to help them understand certain words. I also suggested certain words and they wrestled with the English sound versus what it sounds like in native language versus its meaning. I remember thinking how chaotic English can be at times. It dawned on me! As I sat back, I realized they were having critical conversations, reasoning and problem solving in a way I had wanted them to in the classroom. As I sat and engaged more, they offered me food - maize, rice. It was a very sharing culture and just like in the classroom they sat close to each other. Collaboration was not only possible it was a natural part of what they do -- outside of the classroom. As the night went on, they began to sing -- songs of the neighbourhood and the radio. They introduced me to some songs and soon there was a moment where they surrounded me and began to sing. I had found the music. When the children began to express themselves and speak in their own voice with power and identity. They lived in two worlds -- I began to see both. In one world they were polite, passive learners of a carefully organized lesson structure with traditional texts, English language and teacher-directed approach. In this world there were questions of expectations and ability, of challenge and relevance.

They think say dey know me I swear my father kanto They know nothing about me (Heey!) So, you think say you know me (Heey!) I swear you know nothing about me

In the 'real' world - theirs - they were engaged, active, critical agents inquiring round about themselves and the teacher. It was communal, safe and empowering. The lyrics of the song never spoke truer words. My search for a space of relevance from which to engage the children in mathematics was not realized in the classroom, the task, the teacher nor the text. I only heard them sing when the teaching stopped.

See more from our InspireMath Ghana Project here.

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