013: A Steamy Pile

150 dark eyes stared at her standing at the front of the class room.  They were crammed four to a bench desk, with more standing in the back and sitting in the isles. The ones at the front where gripping their pencils ready to write down anything she said. At the back of the room students teased each other and stole each other’s pencils. 
She was at the Kimikolwe Secondary school to teach about composting.  After hearing that she had given some gardening lessons at the school in Mitukutuku, the guidance counselor approached her about giving the same lessons at her school.  Both schools were looking for a way to generate more income to improve school facilities and they considered vegetable gardening to be viable, lucrative options to that end.  They asked Chelsi for tips to improve production.
Students are the labor force for most school production and management efforts.  Each grade was assigned a day of the weeks to stay for an hour after school work and Chelsi had observed them doing anything form picking up trash around the school to burning brush piles; they would also become the main labors in the gardens.  She felt it was important for the student to understand why they were doing what they were being instructed to do in the gardens so they could take the knowledge home to their family farms.  So she designed her first ever lesson plan. 
The students in her class today where eighth graders, but their ages ranged from 12 to 18 years. When the noise level in the room had finally been reduced to a few giggling students in the back the lesson began.  Upon coming to Zambia Chelsi had zero experience teaching in classrooms but she pushed that out of her mind now focusing on the techniques she knew to be certain: do not talk towards the black board, speak slowly and clearly, and explain new vocabulary as you go. 
“Compost,” she started “is made up of four materials.” Breaking she turned towards the board and wrote GREENS. “Green material, fresh leaves, grasses, food scraps like potato peelings, provide nitrogen to the pile and the plants.” She add the new information to the black board and a few of the diligent students began taking notes. 
The lesson proceeded like this for another 15 minutes with questions being held to the end.  She covered brown, carbon rich materials, life’s need for water and microbes.  Up until this lesson the students were unfamiliar with life too small to see and was not a disease causing agent. 
When the lesson in the classroom was finished the students were supposed to file outside to practice building a pile that the school could then use in the garden to create beds.  By the time the class had moved down the hill to the stream where the garden would be it had thinned out by about half.  Ditching class was not endemic to the States, Chelsi thought. 
“Alright! All of you standing here,” she gestured to the students on the right, “Start collecting GREENS. And all of you here, start collecting BROWNS.  Who remembers the ratio of GREENS to BROWNS?”
Bueller? Bueller?
“One part GREENS, to two parts BROWN. Let’s pile the GREENS here and the BROWNS next to it here.”  The eighth graders continued to stand around staring,
“But Madam, where are we supposed to find this material?” a young looking boy standing with the GREENS group asked.
Chelsi sighed a little, “see all the green grass down by the stream be.” She pointed to a clump of tall grass not 15 meters away. “All of that can be used as green material.  And over there,” she pointed to the hillside of dry grass, “and this. These thin sticks.  All brown material.” Chelsi picked up some of the sticks at her feet and started braking them into smaller pieces. A few of the students followed suit but with still many standing idly by the guidance counselor, Madam Wapa, who was the sponsoring faculty member of the school garden, snapped at them in a local language Chelsi did not recognize to get to work and the students scattered across the hillside. 
While the students got to work, Chelsi continued breaking up sticks.  In Mitukutuku, when the students were making their pile, the teachers had chastised her for working to much alongside the students. ‘Don’t, put that grass down.  Let the students do it, you don’t have to do anything,’ but standing around doing nothing left her feeling awkward.  Madam Wapa, though not getting her hands dirty herself seemed too careless about Chelsi’s activities.  She smartly kept the students in line, encouraging them to gather more and more materials. 
“How about this? Is this enough?” Madam Wapa finally asked.  She was about Chelsi’s height, friendly looking with short hair and a little stocky in the middle.  When Chelsi interacted with her the past she had seemed quiet, passive.  But here on the hillside a fiercer, hardworking side was coming to the surface. Looking at the piles Chelsi could tell that it would not be enough material to reach the 1 x 1 x 1 meter dimensions, but the sun was getting hot and the number of students began to drop to about a quarter of the total.  More and more students started standing around, clearly losing interest in the activity.
“Yeah, I’d say that’s good enough to get started.  Who remembers how we build our pile?” She pointed at one of the boys who had spent more time making smart comment to the other students than doing his share of the work. “You, remind us how to construct the pile.” Now he was quiet.  “You were just doing a lot of talking, I figure you were helping remind your peer what to do.” She did not want to embarrass him too badly, but she want them to know that she was watching and getting to know them and that meant they should listen when she spoke. 
“Ahh,” he finally said, “but just now I don’t remember.”
“Madam,” the last remaining female student of the group, who had taken the initiative to begin mixing the manure and dirt together spoke up softly. 
“Go ahead, and speak loud enough for all of us to hear!” 
“We build it in layers, BROWNS, GREENS, manure and water.”
“Excellent! Very good, now do as she says.”  The student began putting the pile together with Chelsi saying to add a little more here or a little less there.  By the time all the material with used up, she was fairly certain they would be able to replicated by themselves. “And remember, what are we going to do every day?” rhetorical questions this time. “Check to make sure the pile is wet. And after two weeks, what are we going to do? Mix the pile. Alright good work today, you can all go now.” The remaining dozen or so students looked at Madam Wapa to concur the order, before sprinting back up the hill. 
Chelsi and Madam Wapa follow slowly up behind.  “You will stay for nshima,” Chelsi couldn’t tell if this was a question or statement. But she followed up,
“Sure.” Together they walked back up the hill to the school and Chelsi was lead into a small dark room with a few chairs, a desk and a ceiling at least 15 feet high.  The walls were covered in posters about student statistics: class sized, ages, sex ratio, etc. Taking a seat, Chelsi saw a Curriculum poster up on the wall with activities such as discussions on alcohol abuse, choosing a career, avoiding pregnancy.  The counseling office. Madam Wapa sat behind the desk and other woman brought in some bowls filled with nshima and relish no doubt.  Madam Wapa passed her a plate and a spoon and Chelsi fished out a few beef bones and boiled green for her plate and helped herself to an nshima lump. She could not remember whether it was rude to speak while you eat in Zambia but she was curious.
“What is it that most students go on to do after finish school here?” Kimikolwe Secondary school was different from Mitukutuke Primary school in that it could educate students up to the 12 grade level, while the later stopped at the 9th grade. 
“Many of them go back to the village.  They burn charcoal or become poor farmers.” Madam Wapa spoke with a little distance in her voice.
“Is that because there aren’t a lot of opportunities to continue their education, or get vocational training?”
“Sometimes that is part of it.  In the past a lot of the student where able to go on and get good jobs at the mines.  But for the last several years the price of copper has been dropping and mines have been cutting back.”
“So is part of your job to connect students with new opportunities? Or what else can a student who’s finished the 12th grade go on and do?”
“Many of the student here don’t do well enough to continue on or they just don’t have the motivation.”
Chelsi picked at her beef bone and thought about this, what a shame. She knew many of the parents poured most of their money into their children’s education.  They had to pay school fee to attend class, pay for uniforms which were also switched up every couple years which made hand me down impossible, they had to pay for materials for practicals and exams, they had to buy books for taking notes and on more than one occasion Chelsi had seen student writing between the line of religious magazines that were widely distributed free of charge.  To have all that investment go to waste, to just go back to making charcoal in the village. But still she was torn between compassion, because she knew school performance is a reflection of conditions at home were students live with tight resources, be it money or nutritious food and disappointment.  Just today, by the end of her lesson more than 75 percent of the class had disappeared, ditchedDon’t they understand how much is sacrificed so they can go to school? This was not an isolated incident.  It was not uncommon for her to see students walking around on the road two or three hours before school was officially over and later she would find them standing around chatting with their friend.  Perhaps in this way teenagers all over the world aren’t so different from each other. 

Categories: DIY, Gardening, Teaching | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “013: A Steamy Pile

  1. Sandy

    I love hearing your teaching adventures Chelsi. 🙂
    Keep up the good work. You are making a difference and helping to change the world for the better!


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