Zoo-phonics Workshop in Kenya Delights Teachers from Multiple African Countries

A two-day Zoo-phonics presentation was given in Eldoret (the fourth-largest city in Kenya) by Dr. Charlene Wrighton, author, CEO of the Zoo-phonics Mnemonic and Multisensory Language Arts Program.

Wrighton stood before 35 teachers and school administers/pastors, from six different African nations: Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Kenya, and South Sudan. With three of these countries speaking Swahili, and the rest speaking their own proprietary languages, she anticipated having to slow her presentation and wait for translators to convey the message.

“I had been told the teachers spoke little English with most only having a 10th grade education, but that little bit went a long way.” Wrighton gave her workshops like normal, dedicating two long but very playful and fun-filled days to train teachers and school administrators (pastors), doing everything as she would here in the U.S. She spoke of movement and memory, neurological processes in terms of learning, putting the signature Zoo-phonics mnemonics into action, and much more. “We tossed beach balls with the Zoo-phonics Animal Letters on them. We played the Fly Swatter Game with the Animal Letters. We played old, traditional games, such as, Red Light, Green Light, Zoophonia, May I? and Zoophonia Says adapted to Zoo-phonics, all while practicing the English alphabet!” stated Wrighton.  “If they didn’t understand me, I never saw it. They were very bright and very fast learners. They just got it.”

During the workshop, there were hilarious (according to Wrighton) competitions of who could do all the Signals the fastest; they read and Signaled (the gestures) wonderful literature books, and played all sorts of alphabet, spelling, and reading games. When Wrighton learned that half the instructors taught older students, she worked with them the second day and taught more advanced phonics concepts to them, still using the Zoo-phonics mnemonic and playful way, strengthening them with the skills and ability to take phonics to the next level in their classrooms.

“They’re listening through the audio-lens of a different language,” says Wrighton, “but there was no language barrier. They picked up everything so quickly, and with such great participation!”

After dedicated training, these teachers will take the information back to their own classrooms, where instruction is given to the children in Swahili, or their own country’s language, and English.

Minimal Resources, Maximum Utility

While English was assumed to be a limited resource, many other issues accompanied it, as expected in poverty situations. There are no kitchens, sinks, or visible refrigeration in these schools, so the late morning snack of simple porridge is cooked in a large pot over a small propane cook stove or over coals in the corner of a tiny adobe brick and corrugated metal room with dirt floors. A lunch of rice, maize, sweet potatoes, and some meat was served (and was delicious, according to Wrighton) to the staff and visitors.

The restroom facilities are outhouses that have no running water and consist of a hole in the ground. There is no toilet paper, and the door half-hung from its hinges. Handwashing, dishwashing, and other water needs are provided via a water purification system that sits outside, provided by Watchman International, a Christian-based organization.

But the schools use what they have to make up for what they don’t. These schools have very few posters on the walls, and the ones they do have are old, tattered, and holding onto whatever the color they have left. There are also old, sliced open grain sacks hung on the wall, with vowels or letter blends or educational information written on the rough fibers that lines the insides of the sacks. They resourcefully use anything they can find. And it works.

Outside on the corrugated metal walls are brightly painted and labeled illustrations of the cardiovascular system, teeth, seasons, maps, and more. These displays are large enough to help educate any child who can see it, and make up for the fact that there are no materials for each student, considering that interior adobe walls can’t be utilized easily, if at all.

Children and the Love of Play

Children are children everywhere— they love to play, need to be loved, and do have a squabble every now and again. And while they are all the same across the globe, there are some stark differences between those of the U.S., where Wrighton and Zoo-phonics are most familiar, and those of the poorest schools in Africa.

“The children are extremely well-behaved and respectful. There might be thirty of them sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on a bench together, and maybe they’ll start bickering because there is no space, but a simple request from the teacher to stop is all it takes for them to again sit peacefully,” says Wrighton. “It was amazing. I’m not sure you’d see this orderly behavior in America, especially with the lack of facilities and comfort. And, the teachers have to rely on their own creativity and verbal teaching as there is little to nothing in the way of school materials, books or supplies. We saw our Zoo-phonics materials precariously hung on the walls. The Large Animal Letter Cards were well-used, each with the color of the dirt floor on them, loved by many little hands.”

Even with minimal resources, the children and teachers are happy, and don’t focus on what they don’t have. Another drastic comparison is the playground. While tens of thousands of dollars— and more— is often spent on playgrounds in U.S. schools, those of Kenya are just dirt, mud during the rain, with two old tires that children used to play. And yet, the children laughed a lot, sang, interacted happily with each other, their teachers, and sometimes, with a special visit from the pastor/principal of the schools!

It’s a testament to the power of imagination, and a child’s pure enthusiasm for play no matter the available resources. Play time was taken to the next level when Wrighton’s husband brought frisbees, Nerf® balls, jump ropes and kites  — toys that most students had not played with before.

The Sacrifices, the Courage, the Impact

In order to get to the Zoo-phonics training, a woman from South Sudan carried a sack of her belongings while she walked for two hours to the bus stop, where she boarded for a three-day ride to Eldoret. Those from Zambia had to ride the bus for a solid four days. “These people came at great sacrifice,” Wrighton says, which made the trip even more important to her.

But the effects of literary success continued beyond the schools of Eldoret. In Katali, Wrighton attended a very special event involving the Minister of Education and the Education Commissioner of Kenya. Surrounded by popup tents, live music, television cameras (connected to a generator), Swahili translators, and some pomp and circumstance, one of Watchman International’s pastors, Pastor Anthony— received much-earned recognition for the successful educational improvements in his K – 12 schools, crediting his amazing team of teachers and the tools they use. Fighting against a strong 70% illiteracy rate is no easy task, and Pastor Anthony was able to do so, along with Zoo-phonics, to drastically drop the illiteracy rate to an impressive 30%.

Intrigued by the results of Kenyan students, the Minister of Education and the Education Commissioner of Kenya personally asked Wrighton for more information about Zoo-phonics and what they could do to make it more widely available.

As an extension of tremendous gratitude for the work the teachers do, Wrighton put together extensive gift bags full of school supplies, Zoo-phonics materials, and tea and candy. “Their tolerance, their love, and their perspectives are just so different. Their work ethic is tremendous,” says Wrighton. The pastors received the same, only with the added luxury of coffee— a rare, expensive, and much-appreciated treat.

Their return home to the U.S. has already sparked initiatives to continue to improve educational situations in Africa, and correspondence with officials and educators in Africa is helping to ensure that they can be put underway. “I’m very confident that I’ve left Zoo-phonics in very good hands,” says Wrighton.

Wrighton knows that Zoo-phonics has done a lot to change and improve the literacy for children in many schools around the world, but the magnitude of the work in Africa came as a bit of a surprise. “I’m not even sure we realized the scope and the commitment,” she says. “We often donate training and Zoo-phonics materials with an open heart and basically leave it to them without knowing of their successes. We’ve given to many church-based organizations in Africa and India, and other areas, and they’re just using it brilliantly. It will be exciting to see the impact in years to come. We want to continue to be a part of it!”

Watchman International was developed by John and Juliette Sherbourne, established in the 1990’s following the Rwandan civil war. Their focus is establishing churches, schools, water systems, and young adult mentoring. Other countries include the Congo, Ethiopia and Liberia. William Carver has worked with them since 2002.