Since opening, attendance at the learning center has steadily hovered around 300 – 350 youth. Schools are preparing to reopen in September, and they have just opened their doors to offer students remedial attention in the form of “ tuition.” This week many of the kids from the learning center returned to school for tuition, leaving us with about 145 kids per day at the center. Based on our interactions, we have found these kids to be among the most vulnerable. They are the ones whose parents cannot afford the minimal fee for tuition and are often in and out of school depending on the demand for school fees or exam fees. As a result, their literacy levels are very low in both KiSwahili and English.

In this group, we have found many 9 – 10 year olds who are unable to tell you the sound that goes with a certain letter. They have trouble reading 3 letter words and seriously struggle with reading comprehension. To address the severity of these issues, the team has emphasized phonics in concert with experiential learning and writing workshops. Reinforcing concepts using these different approaches has proven effective so far and we are working with the Monitoring and Evaluation team to schedule a baseline of literacy at the learning center so we can track the change made over time.

Experiential learning has been a great tool to engage youth in active learning. The team members have conducted several activities that have inspired new curiosity among the students and have clearly helped with retention, while accelerating learning for those youth who seldom or never go to school.

This the past week, Sabora led an activity centered on plants and flowers. He read a book about leaves and flowers with the students and then took them for a walk down the path outside the learning center and asked them to find their own interesting flowers. When each child had a flower in hand, they returned to the center and learned about the different parts – leaves, stem, petals, etc. They learned the various words and talked about the sounds that the letters in each word make. This exercise was really focused on learning vowel sounds, but when done in such a creative way, became a much more dynamic activity.

Munsi also tried his hand at this type of experiential learning. He was using a chart to teach the kids about insects and mammals. He had them focus on the grasshopper and each catch one in the bushes surrounding the center. I was surprised how quickly and effortlessly the grasshoppers were found and caught. With a grasshopper in each small hand, the kids embarked on learning to identify and spell the parts of the grasshopper – legs, eyes, etc. After releasing the panicked but intact grasshoppers, the kids went to the chalkboards and drew their own grasshoppers and identified the different parts of their drawing using their new words.

The team joined forces on Wednesday and surprised the kids with paper planes as they returned from lunch. As kids crowded around to learn how to fold their own planes, others launched a chaotic dogfight that raged outside the learning center until the lunch period came to an end. The facilitators immediately moved the kids into writing workshops focused on airplanes and the sky. The kids wrote new words on their planes and left at the end of the day with their planes in hand and beaming smiles on their faces.

The power of these activities lies not just in connecting an experience with a concept or learning opportunity. Equally powerful is the engaging these kids in the learning process – making learning fun. For many, the repetitive teaching style employed here deadens their interest and loses their attention. Overcrowded classrooms, poor student/teacher ratios and a lack of resources compound that problem, enabling the students to easily fall through the cracks.

The vulnerable kids we’re seeing at the learning center right now – those not attending tuition and those who are likely to miss many days throughout the term – are responding especially well to this experiential and creative learning style. Their curiosity and energy is being harnessed and we’re already seeing them shed their shy, inhibited and self-conscious layers in favor of confidence, inquisitiveness and willingness to contribute. Their trust for the team is also enabling this shift.

The other day it rained heavily right at the end of the day. The kids all took shelter in the learning center and as they waited in the hall for the rain to subside, Vicky and I listened as they pointed to the pictures of the team members on the wall and went from one to the other commenting on their strengths. Sabora smiles as he teachers, they said. The teachers never cane us. George reads with you and helps you learn new words using the dictionary. Pamela, Vicky, Munsi, Moses, Naomi, Esther… they went through the facilitators one by one pointing and adding their own thoughts about the strengths of each.

Watching the kids bridge the gap between learner and teacher was pretty amazing. There is such a divide between those two groups in the schools and it often prevents students from feeling comfortable asking questions, expressing new or creative ideas, or admitting that a concept is not clear or fully understood. Our ability to bridge that gap will help us be a true resource for these kids, during our outreach programs and at the learning center. Hopefully we will be able to demonstrate the impact of this approach to the teachers here and help them as they make the shift to be more accessible to their students. In the meantime, we will continue to work on inspiring a passion for learning, reading and writing by infusing our lessons with creativity and supportive attention.