Saturday, April 25, 2015

BJM Bujumbura Report 3: Teaching in a Language You Don't Speak

Having taught 10 of 13 sessions for my first Biochemistry III class (not including the final exam), I'm finally feeling a little more comfortable. I'm still not entirely comfortable because 90% of the class are native French speakers (or native Kirundi speakers), and when I try to pronounce French I usually provoke laughter. (I will note that this does loosen up the students nicely.)

To solve this problem I turn to technology. I brought a second projector small enough to run on batteries with me. I wasn't sure it would be bright enough but yes it is! On this projector I put the French translation of the English on the slides I'm using. I've never been one to read slides aloud, but now I have to, because it's the only way some students can understand me. Sometimes I will point to the French word as I say the English word, which I hope helps a little. I also have to keep reminding myself: SLOW DOWN. ENUNCIATE. DON'T TALK LIKE SUCH AN AMERICAN.

I've found that Google translate is almost good enough to help me write quizzes, but what works best is to keep it simple: stick closely to the written slides. The students learn those assiduously, and given the language barriers, I can see why. The first quiz I had to let them work on it in groups since I ran out of copies. The second quiz the average was not passing ... but the third quiz the average was 75%, which is solidly passing. I think I'm adapting to them and they are adapting to me.

The topic that is one of my biggest challenges is "Molecular Genetics," which is broad and also covered by another class "Medical Genetics." I decided the biochemistry focus should be on how DNA is copied and sequenced. But to do even this small part I have to start way back away from medicine and the students are unclear on where this is going.

So in the middle of that I brought in something I often do in the states, where I talk about how DNA is a "line" and that is like a language. Then I talk about how in Psalm 19, one word for "language" is literally "line" (as in, "their LINE has gone out into all the Earth"). This shows that God speaks through even the molecules if we can learn how to listen. I wish I could tell you it was a breakthrough, but I really don't know. I still can't read their body language. But the following classes did seem to have a subset of students that were more engaged. (I also said "Thank you Lord for power" when the electricity came on, and they "got" that joke-not-joke.)

I was able to talk about sickle-cell anemia with a population that may actually carry the gene, and that helped show why this biochemistry could be relevant. DNA sequencing can reveal sickle-cell anemia, so that's a connection, and I found a simple test that can detect sickle cells in blood, and maybe someone will remember that someday and give it a try.

The bottom line is that the challenges continue but we solve them with flexibility. Please continue to pray for this endeavor, for power and student interest, and for peace. I'll let you know how the first final exam goes in a week.

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