What Africa taught a teacher

Kerrin Flanagan went to Ghana and came back with a wealth of ideas for her K-1 class.

Her students won't step into the classroom for another four weeks, but Kerrin Flanagan is here on a humid afternoon, padding around in flip-flops and contemplating how to make every corner welcoming. One moment she's on the floor filling bins with giant Legos; the next she's pawing through a box, thrilled to discover the small set of wind chimes she uses to get the children's attention.

Now in her ninth year as a teacher at the Patrick Lyndon School in Boston, Ms. Flanagan "loops" with her students – following them from kindergarten to first grade. This year she's starting with a new batch of 22 kindergartners.

"I like everything to be organized when the children come in ... and because I want the classroom to be their classroom, we will decorate it together," she says in a soft voice that matches her petite frame. The students will create alphabet art and self-portraits for the walls, giving her a chance to get to know each one along the way.

"Children need to feel safe and cared for and heard before they can start learning anything academic. We start out at the very beginning with learning how to be a group,... how to listen to each other,... how to wait our turn, how to use crayons.... I don't give them the rules when they come in. They figure out what they hope to learn during the school year, what they hope to do. In kindergarten it's usually very simple – it might be I want to make a friend or I hope to paint.... And from that we figure out what our classroom needs to be like in order to achieve those hopes and dreams."

The types of rules that evolve are simple, too: "We care about each other; we take care of the things in our class; we respect one another; we do our best work.... And then we practice them for a very long time," she says with a laugh.

Like many teachers, Flanagan didn't have much time for vacation this summer – but she did something even better: She traveled to Ghana through a grant from the Fund for Teachers, an education foundation in Houston. For three weeks, she volunteered with a Global Solutions group in the town of Hohoe.

Both Ghana and Japan are part of Boston's first-grade curriculum, as a way to teach children how to compare and contrast. But it's always been easier for teachers to find materials related to Japan, Flanagan says. Now she spreads out the treasure trove of objects from Ghana that she'll incorporate into a curriculum kit for her students and fellow K-1 teachers: wood carvings, musical instruments, colorful strips of kente cloth.

"We've had pictures of people weaving kente cloth ... but having the actual kente cloth itself is really important," she says. She tried weaving it when she was there.

In June, when her first-grade class knew she would be visiting Africa, they were "so much more excited about learning about Ghana than children had ever been in the past. They were drawing on everything else we had learned about, [saying,] 'Oh, Ghana's near the equator, you're going to need to bring lots of sunscreen!' "

She also brought back her experience of teaching mentally challenged students in a school in Ghana with hardly any resources. "I had to be really flexible. I was able to draw on a lot of strengths as a teacher that I didn't necessarily know I had.... It makes me feel very different about coming back to school," she says, gazing around at the shelves she's stocking with books and toys. "I realize how much I have here in this classroom."

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