Wednesday, 29 January 2014
Uniskript: Educational Challenges
Uniskript is an innovative approach to literacy which makes the connections between sound, mouth and symbol more explicit and therefore easier to learn to read. It has been developed through the University of the Nations in Hawai’i and although apocryphal reports have been favourable, it has not been thoroughly tested. During December and January I was able to be part of one of the first significant trials of Uniskript, as we established its use in the Koriki language, a dialect of Purari, in the Gulf Province.
In July last year, two Koriki women accompanied the local translation and literacy workers, Robbie and Debbie Petterson, to Hawai’i to work on Uniskript in their language. I call the Pettersons local, for although they are from NZ, they have also been working in the languages of the Gulf region since 1984 and are the sort of people that locals know as Auntie Debbie and Uncle Robbie. Two men from another local language also went, to get Uniskript started in Urama. Together they worked on alphabets unique to their language, using iconographs relevant to their culture. This means that each alphabet is unique to the group it belongs to.
Arriving in Gulf to help with Uniskript, I was jumping in the deep end…as usual. We spent half a day training eight volunteer teachers before classes started. Over 100 kids turned up, to a summer school literacy programme during the official school holidays. I challenge you to find that enthusiasm for school in Australia! We started with four classes, based on their current literacy skills in English and Koriki using the ‘normal’ (Roman) alphabet. I ended up with the class that had never been to school before.
My job was to mentor the two trainee teachers assigned to my class. I have not officially studied education principles, but having collected several university degrees and been in various educational settings before, have a surprisingly strong skill set when it comes to teacher training. At the same time, I was helping the children to learn. We were not only teaching them literacy through Uniskript, but as the absolute beginners class, we were also teaching class room behaviour and all those skills which Aussie kids learn through kindy or pre-school, such as how to hold a pencil and which direction a book goes (left to right, top to bottom, which end is the front).
The students in my class ranged from 20 (the day there was a funeral in the village) to over 40. Most days attendance was in the mid 30s. Calling the roll was one of my many challenges, as kids had multiple names. It took me a few weeks to be smart enough to dismiss students one by one as I called their names. In doing so, I found one student listed three times under different names. Another girl had two different first names and three surnames, presented in varying combinations. Ages in the class varied from four and a half to ten. None of them had been to school before.
Our class faced most of the common educational challenges for village schools in PNG. The class size was too big. The teacher was undertrained. The teacher who was well trained (myself) did not know the language. The students did not know English or Tok Pisin. The classrooms were suffering from tropical fatigue (The stairs to my classroom had rotted away, so we had to come up the other stairs and through another classroom and an office to reach our room. I had planned on including outdoor games, but these were cancelled when getting outdoors meant disrupting another class). We had minimal resources (It surprising how many flash cards you can create from one 2min noodle carton and a black marker, and we nearly ran out of chalk). The teachers were volunteers, so sometimes did not turn up, as they had to go fishing to feed their family. A village incidents, such as funeral or a fight, interrupted schooling. Class started late after a rainy night that meant that everyone slept in and the path to class was muddy… and so on. In this context, the work we did was a reasonable test of the effectiveness of Uniskript for teaching literacy. Any good results had few other sources to be credited to.
Now that I have set the scene for our Uniskript teaching, I’ll point you in the direction of some photos and get to writing about how Uniskript works and how the students and community responded.
For photos, please visit my photojournalist friend Erin’s blog: