Monday, November 10, 2008

100 + eager students in an unlit hall

Registration for the freshman human rights and democracy class kept growing. It quickly reached 50, then more than doubled by the time classes finally started. We meet in a large unlit hallway with no equipment, not even a blackboard. Students squeeze in five or six to a bench – wooden benches, no backs; narrow wooden desks. But students show every sign of being eager to learn. For them it’s a step toward a profession, a career.

I read before coming about a lecturer (as they call university-level teachers here) who had to practice speaking in a loud voice to be heard by a large class here. Speaking isn’t the problem; listening is. Even minimal conversation in low voices among 100 students creates a rumble that can quickly drown out a voice at one end of the class from being heard at the other. But so far, its not bad. My co-teacher, Ibrahim Bangura, insists on discipline and expelled one noisy student from class the first day. I’ve made an agreement with the students that is holding pretty well: whenever I raise my hand, the class should become quiet. I don’t do it very often, but when I do they are pretty respectful and quiet down.

In fact I’m proud of their behavior so far. We had a research workshop the other day. One class requirement is to do a 7-page research paper on a human rights topic of their choice. Another requirement is to do ten hours of community service: teaching human rights in a local school or other institution. They had many questions because they had not done either kind of assignment. But when I asked them to sit in groups of about ten and quietly (indoor voices; no shouts) discuss their planned topics, they were very quiet. And their proposals are sound.

But more than half flunked the first quiz. They’re not used to quizzes; I said one was coming, but the non-note takers apparently didn’t heed the warning. There will be more.

I’ve read their personal statements, including experiences in war and peace (more on that in a separate posting on this blog) and they have seen hell during the civil war which ended only a few years ago. They want to be peacemakers and human rights activists, lawyers, judges, etc. They also want to help promote peace. Community service in this class offers them a chance. And it reinforces what they learn in class and reflect on.

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