Saturday, September 14, 2013

History, Racism, White Privilege, Culture, Everything

My experiences in Ghana, more than any other experience in my life, have led me to intense reflections on the history of racism and on my experience of white privilege.  Certainly, I have read and thought about these things a great deal and have made them the focus of my studies and my teaching.  But this trip brought me experiences that confirmed and deepened my understanding.

I have wanted to write about this for many months, but I have hesitated, partly because my experience there was, in some ways, so bound up with Bonnee's that I am afraid I might misrepresent or seem to be speaking for her.

I will try my best not to do that.

I was blessed to be paired with Bonnee, and we have many things in common--both high school teachers in urban schools, both active in our teachers unions, both feminist, many shared ideas about the role of race and racism in the U.S., both with a history of working with people in prison, both with a particular sort of openness to the experiences we had in Ghana.

And there are big differences, as well--differences in religion, sexuality, and, most visibly to all those we met, race.  Our racial difference means that, despite our similarities in education and politics, our experiences vary widely.  The history of racism in the U.S. has constructed my life as one of privilege, and one of those privileges is that, unless I remain vigilant and work at it, I don't even have to be aware of my privilege.

Bonnee spoke eloquently to the students we met about how racism continues to shape her own experiences in the U.S.  At one point she told students that she often finds herself the only person of color in the room at conferences or other educational meetings.  Later, a student said something to me about how my experience in Ghana must be like the experiences Bonnee described, since I was the only white person at APGGS while we were there, and only saw other white people two or three times during our week in Takoradi.

No, I said, and thought, and have been thinking over and over ever since.  It is not the same.  My experience in my brief time in Ghana was filled with feelings of warmth and welcome and hospitality and respect.  And those are not the experiences Bonnee was describing to the students when she talked about being the only person of color in the room.

Even at times among TGC fellows, I heard this over-simplified parallel drawn; white people going to countries populated mainly by people of color is compared to the experiences of people of color in the U.S. But my experience in Ghana confirmed at a visceral level what I have known intellectually for so long: Racism is not about majority and minority. Racism is complex and insidious and systemic.  My white privilege is tenacious and portable; it crosses oceans and borders.

The institutional racism that leads to things like only one person of color being part of our 12-person TGC group in Ghana also shapes the experiences of that group and of those it encounters. TGC, and other programs dedicated to fostering global education among teachers, need to begin to include critical race theory and a basic understanding of white privilege in their core curriculum.

Language as Culture in Ghana, Part 2

I was not surprised, of course, when we arrived in Accra, to see that almost all media was in English:

But this was the case in all the parts of Ghana I visited, including areas where people speak almost exclusively in local languages:

In fact, I think that the only place I ever saw words printed in a language other than English (aside from names) was in my Fante language workbook.

Almost everywhere, however, Ghanaians spoke to one another in indigenous languages, unless the speech was part of a conversation that included us visitors.  And I did meet at least one person in Accra, the mother of a student Bonnee and I befriended in Takoradi, who did not speak English.

While we were in Takoradi, Bonnee and I received lessons in Fante, the dominant local language, almost every day.
Here we are with our Fante teacher, Mama Albs.  Alberta is one of the assistant headmistresses at APGSS, and she has taught Fante and other Ghanaian languages to Peace Corps volunteers and others.  She's a talented, warm and patient teacher!
Bonnee and I both worked hard to improve our Fante and to use it to greet people and ask basic questions while we were at APGSS.  Students and others were almost always surprised to hear us attempting the language.  I could produce peals of laughter by saying "mema wo ace" (good morning) to folks I encountered on campus or in town.  But there was appreciation there, too, and no derision. From conversations I had about this, I learned that the surprise and appreciation was partly because they didn't expect Americans to put effort into learning and speaking the language.  

But I also noticed that most of the students at APGSS spoke English to one another.  I imagine that some of this comes from the fact that these students grew up in different parts of the country and speak different local languages, but they all at least know some Twi and/or Fante.

Of course, I asked some students about their use of English versus local languages.  During the meeting we had with the editors of the school magazine, one student said, "my local language is my identity."  But another admitted that she didn't know any Ghanaian languages.  She grew up in Accra in a home where English was spoken, so English was her first language.  Her parents are Ewe and Twi and she can understand some things in those languages, but not speak, read, or write them.  There seemed to be some embarrassment on her part as she told us this; and there was some laughter among the other girls.  Even in this generation who went to primary school under the English-only educational policy, this lack of Ghanaian language seems to be seen as unusual and even a bit shameful.

Language as Culture in Ghana, Part 1

One of the most obvious ways that the indigenous cultures are preserved or expressed in Ghana is through the many, many languages that are spoken.  I found various numbers of languages listed in different sources.  Ekem told us more than 50, but in other sources I've seen 70 or even 80 listed.

The history of the state's treatment of these languages in education is fascinating.  Of course, the first schools in Ghana, begun by colonial powers and missionaries mainly to educate children of Europeans, delivered instruction in European languages.  Once England became the sole colonial power, the language of education became English.

This changed with Ghanaian independence in 1959.  Unlike the United States, where states and even local school districts have a lot of control over curriculum and educational policy, Ghanaian schools are governed by the national Ghanaian Educational Services (GES).  This centralized system has lots of implications that seem extraordinary to those of us teaching in the U.S.  For instance, teachers are assigned to their jobs by the GES at the federal level, so a new teacher may be assigned to a school at the other side of the country from where she lives.  Another reality of the centralized system is that new presidential administrations can bring about sweeping policy changes.  We saw that played out during our time in Ghana, when two classes of students--the third- and fourth-years--were preparing for the end of high school, because the new government of John Mahama had decided that secondary school should be three years and not four.

The status of indigenous languages in the schools has been determined by this federal control as well.
For many years after independence in 1959, Ghanaian schools educated the very young--Kindergarten through third graders--in their indigenous languages.  Children who had access to schools became literate in their home languages or in some related indigenous language before instruction was exclusively delivered in English beginning in the 4th grade.  This multi-lingual approach created a population of educated adults who were at least somewhat literate in two languages and who could speak multiple languages: their own indigenous language; Twi or Fante, two of the dominant indigenous languages; and English.

Then, in 2001, the government adopted an English-only policy for education and indigenous languages disappeared as languages of instruction in schools, officially at least. Ekem told us that there was already a generation gap appearing between older folks who were literate in local languages and younger folks who were only developing literacy in English.

Another switch occurred in 2007-08, when the federal pendulum swung back toward multi-lingualism.  Once again, the GES policy is that Kindergarteners through 3rd-graders learn in their local language and have English as one subject, then shift to English exclusively in the 4th grade.  Local languages continue to be a required subject through junior secondary school and an elective subject in high school. Study of an indigenous language is required of university students.

BUT the GES only recognizes 11 local languages when there are many more in Ghana, so this still means that there's some homogenization of language going on through schooling.  In addition, there are problems finding enough teachers in some local languages.  Theoretically, though, the GES has returned to the research-supported policy of establishing literacy in a student's indigenous language before introducing instruction in English.

These are the policies and some of the history.  In my next post, I'll share some of my admittedly limited observations about how this linguistic diversity plays out in Ghana.
In this school timetable from Katapor Junior High School in the Central Region, you can see both local languages ("Ghan. Lang") and English ("Eng Lang") as subjects the students study each week. French is also on the schedule as a third language--there's a push to learn French since almost all of the countries bordering Ghana are French-speaking.
 All the other courses--science, social studies, etc., are taught in English.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Return and No Return

Over the weekend that we were in Takoradi, our host Christian took us on two outings to see some wonderful and important sites.  We wanted to take the entire magazine editorial board of students with us on Saturday, but because of the vehicle available to us, we were only able to take one, the editor-in-chief, Irene.  Together, we visited Kakum National Park and took a canopy walk in the rainforest.

 Here, Irene and Bonnee embark on another leg of the canopy walk.  They're stepping off a platform that surrounds one of the trees from which the walk is suspended.

I'd never been on a canopy walk before--this is the first one built anywhere in Africa.  It feels a lot like crossing a swinging bridge.

Ms. Bonnee Breese making it to the end of the walk!

The park was beautiful, but the highlight of the day for me was our visit to Cape Coast Castle.  First built by the Swedes in the mid-1600s, the site was used by various European merchants as a site for buying and selling West African resources.  The castle came under the control of the British in the late 17th century, and the most important period of its history involves its use as a place to house, sell, and ultimately ship human beings from all over West Africa to Europe and the Americas as slaves.  For me, visiting the castle was an important step in understanding the global nature of the history of racism in the U.S.
 Here's a view of the sea from the castle.
 Our excellent guide, Sebastian, stands here at the entrance to one of the dungeons where slaves were kept.  Merchants bought slaves as they were brought into the castle from various parts of West Africa.  Since all the slaves were being housed together, they had to be branded with the initials of the merchants who owned them.  The slaves were packed into five rooms that are perhaps 20' x 20' with up to 250 people in each room.  They slept and defecated on the floor and were led out twice a day to eat.
 Many African Americans who visit the castle leave notes, flowers or wreaths in the dungeons to honor ancestors.  Here, Sebastian holds up the remains of an arrangement left by Michelle Obama when she and her family visited the castle in 2009.
With Irene, Bonnee and Christian at Cape Coast Castle.
 This is one of the portals through which soldiers could look down to the tunnel used to transport slaves from the dungeons to the sea.

Here is the "Door of No Return," the last place that slaves were on African soil before being loaded on small boats to row out to the slave ships.
On the day we visited, fishermen mended their nets and children played on the spot where Africans boarded slave ships.
Sometime in the 1990's a group of African Americans came to the castle and mounted this plaque  on the other side of the door of no return, as a symbol of their freedom to return to the lands of their ancestors.

Sebastian told us that this plaque at the castle was installed by Ashanti chiefs as an acknowledgement and apology for their tribe's role in the slave trade.

You Think Our Tests are High Stakes?

Right after the Easter break, the students in Form 3 and 4 at Archbishop Porter Girls Secondary School, along with all the other Form 3 and 4 students across Ghana, will begin taking the West African Senior School Certificate Examinations.  All students at APGSS take exams in 8 different subjects, including their specialty subject, which is sort of like a college major, but in high school.  The results on these exams will determine whether the students can go to college or university and which school they can attend.  Tension is high because twice as many students as usual are taking the exams, since the government decided that senior secondary school should change from four years to three years.

The four pictures below show the exam schedule, which is the same across Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and the Gambia.  In contrast to standardized exams in the U.S., these exams test in almost every conceivable subject.  And they are not only multiple choice, but also essay exams.  In a way, they are most similar to our AP testing system, except with a much broader range of subjects.

 You can see on this list that students can take exams in many subjects that we would consider vocational, like auto mechanics, typewriting and electronics.  I also love that there are multiple tests on the local languages, like Dagaare, Dagbani, Ewe, Fante, Ga, Gonja, etc.  Students can focus on local languages as a specialty in secondary school, if they're available at their school. Ultimately, Ghana wants all instruction in Kindergarten through third grade to be in students' local languages, so they need teachers who are experts in these languages.
 Not all the subjects listed on this schedule are taught at every school.  For instance, crop husbandry and horticulture is not available at APGSS.  Gender is definitely a factor in what subjects are offered.  We were told that home economics used to be offered everywhere, but is no longer offered at boys' schools.

You'll also see that students may focus on three different religious studies--Christianity, Islam or West African Traditional Religion.  At least on the surface, the Ghanaian education system seems to value the diversity of its students more than the U.S. system does, especially in terms of the languages of instruction that are available.  At the same time, though, here's a quote from a study guide for one of the social studies exams: "Factors that hinder the development of national identity include...the presence of different languages.  In Ghana, every ethnic group has its own language or local dialects.  The danger is that people tend to show more interest in...people they speak the same dialect/language with and neglect people who speak different languages...This will obviously hinder the development of national identity in Ghana."

 One big difference from U.S. standardized testing is that there are practical exams as part of the WASSCE.  The students at right and below are practicing for their home economics exams with the help of their teachers (who were on strike, by the way--not technically teaching classes, but around to support students).

 There are also visual arts practicals in ceramics, sculpture, painting, mosaic art, and wood carving.  The students get specific assignments from examiners, like, "create a set of salad bowls," or, "sculpt a woman's torso." And then they have a certain number of days to complete the project.

This student wood carver was being watched by an external examiner when I took this picture.  For visual arts, the examiners look at process, examining the students' technique, as well as evaluating the final product.

The picture below shows Forms 1 and 2 taking internal school exams, but many of the paper and pencil WASSCE will be given in huge rooms like this.

While in general I'm not in favor of high-stakes testing, I do appreciate the fact that these exams give students a chance to exhibit skills in a broad range of areas and that students have some degree of choice about which exams to take.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

End of strike and end of term

Today, the national teachers strike in Ghana was suspended. Even though the government has not met the demands of the union regarding salary and allowances, the union says they're suspending the strike so that negotiations can take place. They cite a federal regulation that bars negotiation during a strike.

So for the first time during our trip, all the teachers were back at Archbishop Porter Girls Secondary School. And it was the last day of the term. Forms one and two have finished their exams and will be going home for vacation in the morning. Forms three and four are still on campus awaiting the start of their external, West African exams, which will go from April7th through May 13th and will determine students' futures at universities and technical schools.

Bonnee and I got to be part of the final school assembly and the first post-strike staff meeting today. A few things about the assembly surprised me. All 1600 girls were packed into the assembly hall to hear from the headmistress. One of her topics was the non-payment of school fees, which are normal here even for government-supported schools like this one. She went so far as to call out the names of the most serious debtors and have them walk to the front of the room. Yesterday, I noticed a posted list of all the students' names and how much they owe. Our data privacy laws in the US would never allow either of those ways of publicizing financial information.

The other, more pleasant surprise was the way the headmistress recognized the hard work of the teachers and their right to strike. All the teachers were there and the students gave them long and load applause at the urging of the headmistress. She even went so far as urging the students who have parents in government to speak to their parents on the teachers' behalf.

The faculty meeting in the staff room was a little more discordant. There were conflicts about money. Because the government decided that both 3rd and 4th form students would be taking their final exams this year, extra teaching was needed to catch the 3rd form students up. So all teachers were asked to take on 2-3 classes on top of their usual load. The school's PTA agreed to collect an extra fee from students in order to pay teachers for these additional hours, but many students--more than half--haven't paid. So the teachers have been working harder with no extra pay up to this point, and there was a lot of discussion in the meeting about how to collect the extra fees.

Another point of contention in the meeting involved the headmistress' information that overseeing exams over the next few weeks will be compulsory for teachers. In the past, it was voluntary, and the teachers who oversaw exams didn't see their pay for it until up to 12 months later, if at all. The teachers were frustrated about the requirement to work during the exams without a guarantee of payment.

After the meeting, one of the English teachers told me that there's a saying in Ghana that teachers will receive their reward in heaven. She followed it up by saying, "Of course, we're not sure we'll be in heaven to get the rewards, so we would like them now."

Below are the faculty meeting in the staff room, me with Lydia, an English teacher, and the headmistress addressing the assembly.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

First Meeting with Students

As I said before, there are no regular classes going on right now, but on Friday, Bonnee and I got to meet with the editorial board of the school's magazine, which comes out once per year and is sort of like our yearbooks. Both Bonnee and I are advisers of student publications--I advise the newspaper and Bonnee advises the yearbook at Overbrook High School in Philadelphia.

We started by sharing my students' newspapers and Bonnee's yearbook with the students and getting some reaction. Students were impressed with the depth of coverage in the Southerner and its focus on school-based issues.

Our conversation then turned to broader topics, such as comparisons between Ghanaian and US schools. The most obvious difference those of you looking at these photos will notice involves school uniforms and even mandated haircuts. The students at APGSS, and at most Ghanaian high schools, are not allowed to wear makeup or jewelry, nor can they have cell phones or their own computers on campus. The philosophy is that these rules keep them focused on their studies, and most of the students were pretty positive about the rules.

One question the students had for us right away was whether racism still exists in the US. I think this subject came up both because of the content of the Southerners the students were looking at and because Bonnee and I are African American and white, respectively. While we both have a similar analysis of race and racism in the US, our experiences are obviously quite different, and the students were interested in those differences.

I think the meeting with the editorial board challenged some of my preconceptions about the kind of student that the Ghanaian education system might create. I have read and heard a lot about rote learning and memorization, but these young women asked lots of thoughtful, critical questions.