Our current project, the Burundi English School (BES) http://burundienglishschool.org/ located in Burundi’s capital, Bujumbura, is operated by a school board of committed local citizens and is partnered with TAAS. It was conceived as an alternative to the few, very expensive, English schools in Burundi, and as a means to broaden access to English language instruction. As a not-for-profit organization, every effort is made to keep the fees as low as possible. Funds raised in Canada provide bursaries for deserving but needy students. All instruction is in English and the curriculum comes from Alberta. With the help of two volunteers from Alberta (a principal and an elementary teacher) the school opened in September 2008 with three classes: a playschool (for ages 3-4), kindergarten (age 5), and grade 1 (age 6). Subsequent grades have been added yearly.

Partners in learning

Creating a Culture of Readers in Burundi

Article from Teachers Media International

In the populous, landlocked African country of Burundi, public libraries don’t exist. There are no bookstores. Government-funded schools don’t have libraries, and even many private schools have limited or poor-quality book collections. This impedes a major goal for the people of Burundi: the ability to speak, write, and read in English.

In 2008, a small contingent of Canadian representatives from the Tanbur African Aid Society (TAAS)—an organization with the mission to provide professional and financial resources to empower teachers to prepare students in Tanzania and Burundi to meet the challenges of the 21st Century—traveled to Burundi to open the country’s second English school.

Carol Bahry, a retired principal from the Edmonton Catholic School District in Alberta, Canada, is the past president of TAAS and Project Manager of the Burundi English School. Here, she provides background information on the project, and talks about how the efforts of one teacher are truly helping to build a culture of readers in Bujumbura, Burundi.

Building an English Speaking School

Building an English-speaking school in a country where the dominating language is Kirundi could be daunting on its own. But poverty, a lack of school and classroom space, as well as insufficient access to electricity, technology, textbooks, and other educational materials created significant barriers for the TAAS team.

The original school was “built” in an abandoned seminary that may have started out as something more reminiscent of a horror novel—dangling light bulbs hung from ceiling fixtures that were cracked and crumbling from recent earthquakes in the area.

“We repainted the classrooms and brought in beautiful posters, appropriate for Kindergarten and Grade 1 students,” Bahry says. “Electrical outlets were installed in every classroom. Furniture and educational supplies—all donated—were sent by shipping containers.”

A great start, but Bahry and her team of volunteers soon realized that the most effective way for students and teachers to learn English was through literature.

Since 2008, more than 10,000 books of excellent quality have been donated and sent to the Burundi English School via shipping containers, creating a literacy center that is far more advanced than any other “library” in the country.

Today, this library not only allows students an opportunity to learn about the world around them, but also provides the foundation for an inspiring literacy initiative that is flourishing under the guidance of Claudine Karerwa, a Grade 1 teacher at the Burundi English School with a true passion for teaching.

Strategies for Literacy

Retired principal Katherine Dekker visited the school in Burundi back in 2014, and says she was amazed by Karerwa’s outstanding teaching practices.

“Throughout the six weeks that I was at the school, I watched in awe as a teacher with so few resources and little outside support met the diverse needs of her students. Her program allowed two children without English skills to build their functional language while beginning the process of becoming a reader,” she says.

“Through guided reading, all other students were able to challenge themselves to reach higher levels. Her knowledge of how to teach reading through a Balanced Literacy approach was excellent.”

Guided reading is only one of the approaches Karerwa takes in fostering a love of reading. Based on the respected and well-recognized Alberta curriculum, Karerwa has adapted a number of activities for her Burundi students, such as Total Physical Response. For example, students are taught five commands at one time—sit, stand, turn around, etc—and learn them by doing the complementary physical activity while saying the words aloud.

In Animated Literacy, students learn English verses and jingles. And, a growing word wall helps students expand their vocabulary.

Bahry notes that even with the containers of supplies that have been sent to the school—with more en-route—resources remain limited.

“Claudine teaches in a classroom that is sparse with materials,” Dekker says. “Unlike Canadian teachers where classrooms are filled with a multitude of resources, posters, books, manipulatives, computers and iPads, Claudine’s classroom has desk, chairs, three posters, a blackboard and a few shelves of books.”

Markers of Success

From its humble beginnings in 2008, the Burundi English School has seen an increase of enrollment—up from thirteen students to more than a hundred—with a comprehensive program that takes students from Kindergarten to Grade 8, with plans to expand to Grade 9. To date, dedicated and highly skilled Canadian teachers have filled 35 volunteer assignments.

The heart of this success is deeply rooted in the school’s commitment to fostering a culture of readers.

“Children take the books home and read to their families,” Bahry says. “Incredible results have occurred. Grade 1 students are helping older siblings with homework—these students in high school are able to conjugate all English verbs, but cannot always pronounce them or place them in a sentence. As well, students teach basic English to their parents.”

Students who took the Grade 3 (Alberta) Provincial Achievement Test all met the acceptable standard in Mathematics and English.

“It was not only Claudine’s approach to teaching reading that supported her children into becoming fluent English readers, writers, and speakers. Her dedication, enthusiasm for learning and her love of the children helped Claudine ignite a learning passion in her students,” says Dekker.

“I left Burundi last fall with a humble heart, knowing that through my career I had achieved much. Yet, how much more Claudine was able to give her students with just her desire to help African children find a place in the English world. The children in her class might not have much—but they have what is needed—a talented teacher who cares to give the best that she has.”

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