Friday, 14 March 2014

Creative Writing Workshop exposes challenges of teaching English, Literature in schools

By Anote Ajeluorou

It’s not in dispute that the quality of written and spoken English among Nigerian school students has fallen in recent years. But to what exact extent this fall is may be in dispute. Even examination bodies like WAEC, NECO and SSCE may not readily be yardsticks of measurement, as ‘Miracle Centres’, where ridiculous results are churned out make a mockery of these examinations’ outputs.
  But direct contact with students from an impartial source outside of the school system, as Associate Professor of Literature at Texas State University, U.S., Dr. Ogaga Ifowodo did a few weeks ago, shows the level of rot in the poor usage of the received, colonial language and Nigeria’s lingua franca. At the Empowerment Creative Writing Workshop he organised for secondary schools students in Warri, Delta State, Ifowodo, who attended Federal Government College, Warri, saw firsthand how bad things have become.
  While Warri might have been a test case for the exercise, it mirrored a nationwide malaise in the educational system, where students’ apathy to learning is in decline. On the last day of the workshop, Ifowodo sat down in a roundtable conversation with five teachers from some of the participating schools - Oghior Secondary School, Ekete Secondary School, Ogbe-Udu Secondary School, Urhobo College, Army Day Secondary School, Federal Government College, Hussey Boys Model College, Nana Girls Model College and Delta Secondary School.
  In his remarks, Ifowodo noted that if there were no English teachers in a school (as some students attending the workshop admitted), there was no reason for the school to exist. Although he commended Delta State Government and a few other states for the rehabilitation and renovation of schools, he lamented the lack of human capital (teachers) needed to make the first class infrastructure meaningful. He also noted that spoken English by most of the students was poor, adding that schools were fast becoming breeding grounds for illiteracy. He then stressed the need for training and retraining of teachers for effectiveness.
  If Ifowodo’s comments about schools in Delta State were anything, they represented what was obtainable in virtually all public schools in the country. For example, some Youth Corps members posted to teach in Ogun State said they had to teach with a Yoruba interpreter in tow for the students to understand what was being said, as they could not understand basic English, the language of instruction.
  One after the other, the teachers took time to explain the delicate and impossible situation they found themselves as teachers of English and Literature. Rita (not her real name) said students and their parents were not interested in buying school texts in much the same way that they were not interested in reading notes given to them, “so their response to questions is poor. They can’t write properly; they have general apathy to studying. Giving them three marks out of 10 is even being generous”.
  Another teacher, Adesua (not real name) also echoed Rita. She said she encountered the same problem with her students, adding, “Our students speak too much pidgin. As a result, they cannot speak English. They can’t express themselves beyond three sentences as answers to questions. They see Literature as a waste of time; they don’t want to read. They are more interested in watching home videos.
  “So, I’m trying to form a drama club; they tend to learn more through practicals, as our efforts to help stimulate their interest. The habit of reading is not there; they are not interested in studying”.
  A recent mass transfer of teachers in the state might have caused more damage and instability than good, so said Marry (not real name). “I enjoyed Literature as a young person. I could forfeit a meal just to read. But it took me desperate efforts to get my students interested in Literature. I want to see a difference; I’ve been battling to get them interested. I even award five marks for getting a recommended text, which isn’t enough incentive for them. Literature is a subject to enjoy but it’s hard getting them to read.
  “But when I introduced Unseen Literature to them through practical usage, they began to pick up gradually. The short pieces I used aroused them. Another problem is that students in my area don’t like coming to school”.
  At this point, Rita interjected, “The foundation is mostly bad; most of the students in secondary schools don’t even know alphabets. I had to ask them to get the Queen Primer meant for nursery pupils!”
  Another teacher, Gladys (not real name) also agreed. She personally bought Queen Primer to teach her students. She urged government to review the scheme of primary schools to assist pupils better. Gladys also complained about students’ poor attitude to school attendance. Her school asked some older youths in the community to forcibly bring to school any student they saw playing truant during school hours. Perhaps, her school’s initiative foretold Delta State Government’s planned introduction of School Marshalls scheduled to take off next month. They would enforce compulsory enrolment of persons of school age among other things.
  “We preach to them to come to school,” Gladys continued, “and point out to them the benefits of education. But some always counter us to say, ‘our ‘chairman’ (usually the political godfather in the area), did he go to school yet he is rich!’ They know that most of those in politics, who also have money, did not go to school, so why should they bother? That is the terrible mindset.”
  Benedict (not real name, who teachers in a heavily populated girls’ school) said it took him time to come to terms with the reality of teaching about 1000 students Literature, as there was no other teacher before he was posted there back in the 1990s. But since then, he said, “I make my students realise the importance of Literature and reading, as ways of motivating them. I started with background to Literature, and that Literature is life. I encourage them to see Literature as a means of building a proper society. I also make them realise the importance of being voracious readers. Attitude of buying books among students is zero; but a few come to me for counseling. Only 10 out of 80 students bought The Last Good Man recommended!
  “Parents compound problems for teachers. They are too money-conscious. Most parents don’t know the classes their children are in. They just throw money at these children thinking that’s all is required of them for their children to excel. They don’t care how the money is being utilised. Most libraries in schools are not functional. Most of the books are outdated.
  “Another problem is that some parents take their children to these ‘Miracle Centres’, where they make 12 As, where examination malpractice is the game. It’s affecting standards of education. Criteria for admitting students into JSS1 must be standardised. Although schools’ supervisors still visit schools, but they only supervise teachers; they don’t bother to see what the students are doing. Private schools are also killing education, as government is not supervising them properly”.
  Benedict also insisted that government needed to thoroughly screen teachers before giving them employment, as most of them were ill-equipped to teach due to poor training and so couldn’t impact knowledge on others.
  Close interaction with a principal of one of the schools, whose students at the workshop complained of not have had an English or Literature for over a year, stated how difficult it was to secure the services of good teachers in key subjects like English, Mathematics, Literature among others. She stated that with the recent redistribution of teachers in the state, more than 80 per cent were transferred away, adding, “I don’t have enough teachers. I have made several representations to Asaba, implored my community leaders to intervene, but it’s all promises we get.
  “I have impressed the urgency of the situation on my employers. I’ve had to draft other teachers to cover up so there will be no vacuum. It exacts a strain on my teachers”.
  Ifowodo, who could hide his dismay at the level of disenchantment in public schools in Delta State, one of the states reputed for academic excellence in years gone by, wondered what other states in the country with less endowments and facilities would be grappling with.
  While commenting on the overall performance of the students after the workshop, Ifowodo lamented, “My observation is that our students are being so poorly served. They are very eager, very keen to learn. But they haven’t had the best preparation. If back in their schools they have resources, they will do far better. But I’m encouraged. If they don’t let the spirit of the workshop die, they will go far.
  “We all know that things are bad, and some governments like Delta State’s are trying to do something. Having good infrastructure, the atmosphere should give a sense of seriousness. But the software – books, teachers, revised curriculum that help solve 21st century problem – are lacking. Some students who came for creative writing workshop said they haven’t had English teacher for two years. Some in secondary schools don’t know the alphabets; it’s so shocking you are agape. You don’t know where to start.
  “But sporadic interventions like this alone cannot solve all the problems. Education is number one priority of any nation looking to advance. We’re in dire straits in the use of English language in Nigeria. Students literally transliterate from poorly understood spoken English or mother tongue to English. They don’t have a grasp of the basic elements of English language; it’s a sorry situation. We all have to be advocates in our communities to make things work!”

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