Friday, 21 June 2013

school in Benin

We had the privilege of visiting 3 elementary schools in Benin. We visited 2 schools that were just outside of Cotonou. We just stopped in for very short visits. The third school was one we got to know much better. It was called École Les Leaders and was on the La Casa Grande children's home property. I spent some time at that school observing the classrooms and helping out a bit, and then presenting a lesson about Canada to each class.
during recess
Only the classroom on the left was used this year for the oldest class.
Next year, the middle one will be used for the oldest class.
Each year, they add at least one new class as the students move up the grades.
They hope to build another level on top of this one to house even more classrooms.
This first level was built with this in mind.

This is the building that holds the 3 younger classes.
We also had the honour of attending their last day of school party on June 7th. All 140 students and some parents gathered in the dining hall to watch a program that included songs, dances, skits, and speeches. I was asked to give a speech in that program to give "counsel" to the students - to encourage them over the holidays. So that too was an honour. The program was wonderful - even the principal got up and danced! Very celebratory and a fun way to end the school year.

saying something wise and inspiring, I'm sure. HA!
Paulin, the director of La Casa Grande, is beside me here.
sitting with the principal in the seats of honour
Zoe, Eden and I taught a song to the kids that Eden had learned in her French immersion class in Canada. It's sung to the tune of "Swimming, swimming, in the swimming pool" and describes hockey. This was new French vocabulary for the children there: hockey, rink, puck, skates, skating - even the word "sweater" was a foreign one. To my delight and surprise, a group of kids presented this song at the fête. But they added a distinct Beninese flavour to the song, complete with actions - I doubt I'll ever hear it sung like that in Canada! It was a real treat (it's on the video below).

Derek and I also had the privilege of handing out some awards to the top students. This is a difference from Canadian schools to Benin ones, and one that Zoe really appreciated. In Benin, students don't automatically move on to the next grade like they do now in Canada. They have to work hard to pass. So at the end-of-year fête, the "passers" were announced for each class, with cheers around the room. Then each teacher gave gifts to the top 3 students from each class. Zoe really liked this idea too, and thought we should do this in Canada. She thought it would make students try harder.

the principal giving an award to Gildas

giving an award to Eugenie
This felt a bit odd, and I felt sorry for the ones who hadn't passed. But as an educator, I have mixed feelings about the "pass everyone no matter what" policy we have in Canada. I'm not sure that the "everyone wins" philosophy really makes for better students in the end. While it's great to reward students for their hard work, I know that some of the non-passers were children who had tried very hard that year too. Maybe even harder than some of the "passers." School, both in Benin and Canada, is not set up to make every child successful - it clearly benefits those who can communicate easily through reading and writing. Some children are clearly intelligent, but their marks at school do not show that.

I came away wondering: how could we have the best mix of this "everyone wins" philosophy + healthy competition? How can we have schools and teachers that impact children and motivate them to work hard to learn? 

The principal at L'École Les Leaders asked me to comment on ways that their school could improve. He wondered what they could learn from Canadian schools. I blathered on a bit about multiple intelligences, and active learning, and the various learning styles and bla bla bla, but in the back of my mind, I kept thinking of the question the other way around: what can we learn from schools in Benin? 

This year the parent committee at our local school in Canada was fundraising to provide a Smart board (interactive white boards) in every classroom. I compared this with the items that are on the teachers' wish list at this school in Benin: a library of French books, a paved terrace for playing games, and more classrooms to expand the school.

Do we really need a Smart board in every classroom? Are iPads in each room really improving the level of learning? Or do they just make us think we're smarter because we have these cool tools? Are students more motivated, more inspired to learn? Learning more? Understanding how to better access information?

It strikes me that these things are a bit hard to measure, and I'm not saying these tools are bad - I love to use them! But just because we have the tools, doesn't necessarily mean we know how to best use them to maximize the learning in the classroom. I think that sometimes they can be a distraction rather than a help.

I left this school in Benin feeling in awe of teachers who can use basic materials like a chalkboard, slates, and chalk to teach their students for an entire day. And inspired to do what I can to help them realize their dreams. 

Zoe and Eden created a video for you to see what school is like in Benin:

ecole les leaders from Rebecca Seiling on Vimeo.


  1. Thanks for more fantastic writing you guys! And the video was AMAZING! We loved watching it!!

  2. Thanks, Daniel! From Zoe and Eden