Advice from a student…

Madam, the deputy head teacher came up to me and asked me how we have been trained from here in managing children. He wants to know how I have been handling children in the classroom and what I am doing apart from beating the children. He wanted to know some ideas and to ask advice.

From one of our student teachers. The day after ‘zero day’ it was encouraging to hear that school leaders are going to our students for advice!

It’s a zero day

Screen Shot 2019-10-18 at 5.04.16 pmWe are on the fifth day of our annual Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) among Gulu municipal primary schools. This year there are 98 schools we are testing – every primary school in town – but this number grows every year!

We weren’t sure how we could physically do it, but thankfully this year we have joined hands with some organisations and individuals who believe in what we do and wanted to lighten our load and do it with us. We even had five government school head teachers and representatives travel 10 hours from western Ugandan to learn how to conduct the assessment (and help us out whilst learning), so they can return to their own schools and assess reading. These ‘helpers’ have made a huge difference and on day five we have clocked 49 primary schools.

For the first four days this week we focused on private schools, which finish early for holidays. Two days ago I was floored with confident readers in one particular private school. The reading teacher had memorised their school position from last year (19) and had clearly worked hard this year on teaching reading. I was not only impressed with being served two bottles of water, two sodas and two cakes, but also with how fluently children could read and comprehend what they read (even in the first year of primary school). I quickly ran the numbers last night and that particular school has reading levels better than our best school last year! So encouraging!

But oh how the tables turned today. Our western Ugandan visitors are returning tomorrow so we wanted them to test reading in some government schools to see the difference before they leave. I was with a head teacher from Budibugyo this morning in one of our neighbouring government schools. It can take a while to complete the assessment with just two people testing, however today we went at a super fast pace. Unfortunately our speed wasn’t a reflection of how smooth we were at our testing skills, it was because children were scoring so many zeros that we couldn’t complete the whole assessment on them. Some children in their third year of primary school were not able to read any two-letter words! And many children in their first and second year of primary school could not say letter names or simple sounds correctly.

The even more depressing part is this school has been trained in effective methods of teaching reading! And has had many opportunities to receive further training since. They don’t even need to get transport to our office or training room, it’s a short stroll away. But there is a difference between being trained and implementing what you have learnt. Something we have learnt very well!

We were the first to return to our office, no surprises there. But unfortunately our colleagues soon followed, also with deflated faces and showing us their scoresheets plastered with ‘zeros’.

Some of the schools we visited today had received a quick surge in children’s reading improvements after training, some two years ago, others three years ago. However now these schools’ results are on the decline – and at a rapid rate! I quickly crunched the numbers from this morning when returning and P3 (grade 3) was reading at a rate of 39 words per minute last year, this year they dropped to 25 words per minute.

Our team leader was not surprised. Many of these government schools had stopped implementing phonics. There’s multiple reasons and it’s hard to pin-point exactly why in a concise manner. Some government teachers say they want extra money to teach, others say they teach too much already and don’t want to teach anything new, others just lie and say they are when they aren’t. Possibly many government schools are after a ‘quick fix’ to improve education. However there are no quick fixes and overnight miracles to transform and teach children how to read.

On the contrary our private schools are improving even more and I am confident the gap between government and private schools is going to be bigger this year, possibly bigger than ever before. They flock to training, beg us to observe them and demand for more and more professional development – they just can’t get enough!

At least there are some victories. If you can afford to send your children to a private school, then there is hope. If you can’t, then I’m not sure what the answer is. We are a little over half way through our reading tests, but we will wait to see what the numbers tell us. But I know we need to sit down early next year and work out a plan for helping our resistant government schools.

Permission to discipline my son :)

When your son appears on your supervision sheets for your student teachers on School Practice: permission to discipline Myron a little more…


Workshop blues…

Workshop CI recently attended a waste-of-time-workshop. Nothing out of the ordinary. It’s funny, one could say we run ‘workshops’ all the time as an organisation, but we like to call them ‘trainings’ – to distinguish from the connotations and paraphernalia that comes with a ‘workshop’. workshop A

On the Friday afternoon we were hand-delivered an invitation for the workshop the following Tuesday morning – a calling of one representative from all education charities in the area for an important meeting. I enquired what it was about, no further details, just instructed to read the 4-page letter of invitation. Local education NGOs already have an ‘education working group’ which meets together on a monthly basis. We collaborate, we network, we try to share ideas and work together as much as possible. I asked how this meeting was different to the working group, no answer.

My colleague strongly urged me to attend. Under duress, I obliged. Thankfully I took along my laptop so I could ‘work’ for the one-and-a-half-hour waiting period before the meeting began. But breakfast was lunch workshopprovided, so I should have been grateful. Instead… hearing that breakfast is provided just makes me start to boil on the inside.
Soon enough the ‘workshop’ began. We were presented with our program for the day as well as a slightly critical introduction speech about why it is important to meet together (suggesting that we don’t) and to discuss what the local ‘education scope’ was like, as well as our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats as individual organisations and also as a ‘consortium’. I looked around the room and, surprisingly, the main ambassadors for our working group were not present (they weren’t invited), sitting at the table were representatives from possibly the largest and most funded education NGOs in the region.

Throughout the four-hours that I endured most of the discussion was irrelevant and what we all knew and had discussed many times. Repetitions of introductions, what we all do and what we see in the field. It later transpired that this meeting had been planned for about two years and the host organisation was waiting for funding to make it happen. Funding for what? Obviously for the breakfast, the lunch comprising two different meats, three carbs, fruit and a soda, notepad, pen and maybe the beautifully shaped and coloured oval cardboard for the presentations.

There was only enough budget to invite 11 education NGOs – not even half the number working in the local area. And unfortunately, some of the groups which are the most active and at a grassroots level were not given the chance to be present.

I tried my hardest to be polite (sometimes hard, trust me!) and shared that I think the best gatherings for our consortium are ones that are not attached to budgets where you limit who can be there because of what you are offering for lunch. But for some reason I don’t think things will change, maybe only our attendance.


Mother hen clucks on…

Like a mother hen this morning I was clucking after my little chicks (student teachers) and this evening I am so proud of them, I’m looking at a photo I took of a story basket one of them made out of banana fibres filled with story telling stick puppets and a borrowed copy of The Gruffalo’s Child – THIS!


Today was the day for a visiting invigilator from Makerere University to arrive at our college and mark our student teachers’ learning resources, displays and charts. There’s no walking into a classroom, opening up your resource cupboards and then planning how to use them here. Classrooms and schools don’t come with resources – you make them! No buying dice for maths work – you make the dice! No buying storage containers – you make them! No buying number lines, flashcards, big books, teaching clocks, counters, trophies, phonics and reading resources – you make it all!

Today was also the day where we woke up to a typical wet season morning greeting – roads that are almost impassable and a slushy, muddy mess outside the gate. It was inevitable that our students would be late to college – rain always delays things, that’s just how life works.

But today was also the day that the invigilator arrives at our college at 8.15am. 8.15am! Who arrives for an exam before 9am! Certainly our students didn’t! Whilst I was preparing for a morning meeting elsewhere, my colleague rang me to alert me of our ‘display emergency’. All I could do was cluck remotely like a mother hen, whilst my colleague did her best to ‘mother hen’ the situation from her side. The invigilator was insistent: he had two other districts to cover today and tomorrow and had to move!

Thankfully, our students trudged in and three hours later the marking finished! I think he liked our displays and resources so much, that’s why he took his time and allowed for the rest of our students to arrive.

Thankful the day is over, and oh so proud of our students! I can’t wait to see these resources displayed and used during school practice this term.

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Not just a book fair!

Yesterday we had our first ever Book Fair in Gulu attended by about 80 people!
And it went smashingly! Librarian/author Cathy Kreutter was our key note speaker and challenged many directors and head teachers present! Her presentations were more than challenging to the many present and the language of school leaders soon changed. I heard remarks like: “we don’t have a functioning library, we have just a library, in fact we don’t even have a library we have a store room.” The self reflection and inspiration amongst local school leaders was so encouraging!

And what was even more encouraging was books were flying off the shelves! Two vendors who travelled up from Kampala with a range of books for sale sold out on the day. Ye of little faith in Gulu I said. It was an incredible sight to see local schools buying books.

Yesterday a small seed was sown to change the reading culture in our community. But we pray that we can continue to water that seed so it can grow.

Thank you again to all of those who donated to help bring this event to life! Many are requesting it should be an annual event… we are pondering that one 🙂


School participants and vendors at the book launch of Cathy Kreutter’s new counting book 1, 2, 3 Good Morning!


Participants browsing and buying books! 


Cathy Kreutter’s storytelling aids for Tendo’s Wish. 


Explaining the difference between a beginning reader and a storybook. 


More browsing and buying at one of the stalls – a range of books from a book shop in Kampala. 


Education NGO Pangea Education with their range of books and discussing with a local school director. 


Connect Education Centre co-ordinator Sam Lukwiya announcing the new mobile library project – more on that one later 🙂 


Education NGO Enjuba with a range of their locally produced storybooks on sale. 


Jody’s first book signing 🙂 The local speech and language therapist Ojok Isaac asked me to sign his phonics reader. 


A local 7-year-old reading ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’ during our Book Fair. 


Cathy Kreutter delivering the most active read aloud I have ever heard! And the rolex flew…… during her reading of Rock ‘n’ Roll Rolex. 


School leaders participating in a role play during a reading activity led by Oasis Book Project. 


More Read Aloud fun with Cathy Kreutter! 


Gulu and northern Uganda’s only speech and language therapist Ojok Isaac discussing the benefits of reading to language development during the Book Fair. 

Book Fair day!

I will sleep well after tomorrow night!

Tomorrow is our Book Fair! The first ever Book Fair in Gulu which we are hosting.
Quite a few months ago we ran a little ‘gofundme’ fundraiser to raise money to put an event like this together. You (or several people like you) were extremely generous and we quickly raised enough money to host the event. Since then we have put in quite a lot of preparation to bring this event to fruition and it’s finally here! We are as ready as we can be!

We are expecting around 75 directors, principals and head teachers from about 40 primary schools and local organisations. We have only invited what we call the ‘serious’ schools; schools which we are working well with, head teachers who seem quite interested in improving their school and schools which have dedicated teachers who are  trying hard with their teaching of reading and literacy.

It’s actually more than a Book Fair – it’s an event! Our keynote speaker is author and illustrator Cathy Kreutter who will also be launching her new book 1, 2, 3 Good Morning on the day! It’s the first board book to be published in Uganda! Cathy will be speaking about the importance of a picture book as well as how to establish a school library. There’s also going to be presentations on the importance of children reading (or being read to), demonstration of a reading activity, explaining our new mobile library (details on that one later), and a local speech and language therapist discussing the importance of reading for speech and language development.

We are hoping that the Book Fair will ignite a little spark in schools, small fires where libraries will be open, expanded or possibly even used for the first time!

Please pray that this is the beginning of something quite incredible in our local schools – the beginning of a reading revolution!

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350 teachers: 7 days

We have just completed a LONG seven days of training 350 ‘Speed School’ teachers, along with their supervisors, mentors and community volunteers. The Speed School programme is funded by Geneva Global and organised as remedial/catch-up lessons for children out of school – the idea is to teach three years of education in one year so children can quickly catch-up and enter grade 4 (P4) after one year.

The most challenging part of the experience was teaching group work using resources to 100 teachers in the dining room (not the best environment for explaining and modelling group work, but we managed!). The second biggest challenge was packing all our resources into two bags to fit on one boda back to the office – and we also managed that!

Now we rest: a week-long break for us and all our staff!


Glasses for classes

Today I was deeply humbled by this incredibly generous gift from one of our student teachers. She’s a hard-working and dedicated student: I gave her a little helping hand to get a job in one of our local schools and this was a surprise thank you gift! This was certainly my ‘rose’ for the day.



Coming to life…

Tree growI took a photo of the tree to the right a few months back in our local national park. There was something so striking about this tree, and I have often pondered about it since. There is certainly a lot of life in this tree, and it seems to just appear out of hard stone walls – ruins that have been left untouched.

You wouldn’t think the conditions are perfect for the tree, yet it is thriving and the roots just keep growing and reaching down.

These past two weeks we have conducted two lots of teacher trainings with 65 nursery (preschool) teachers. Currently – I’m exhausted, but it was well worth it! We thought many of our local schools were ready for the next big step: teaching them how to teach with children working in groups, using resources and being actively engaged in their lessons. Although we had taught all of these schools teaching methodology about early reading skills, most of it was still being taught from the chalkboard, the old ‘chalk and talk’ method. However, this was the first step. We are on a long, slow journey and it was important to improve the teaching of reading first, before we can then move into taking these teaching principles and then making them more active and engaging to learners. But – we are there!

And just like the tree in this photograph, our local classrooms are beginning to burst forth with life and energy!

Over three afternoons (over two weeks) we demonstrated how to use resources practically in the classroom, how to manage ‘stations’ and rotate children through using different resources and then dedicated an afternoon to making resources with local teachers. Clearly one afternoon for resource making wasn’t enough – we virtually had to kick them out of our training room before it got dark!

The last step in making resources with teachers is quite important, since resources here are scarce and oftenest unattainable. Making something is the only option. So out came the cardboard, paper, scissors and markers.

We have already started to follow up some of these teachers in their schools and it is so exciting to see children practically making letters with bottle tops and play dough and to see learning come to life! To see that tree start growing out of its hard brick foundation.

Below are some photos from the past two weeks: