Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Simple math for value in leading for literacy and numeracy Speech to UNESCO National Commission launch

Remarks at Leading for Literacy and Numeracy phase 2 launch by Dr Kris Rampersad   
 Chair of the Trinidad and Tobago National Commission for UNESCO,
Trinidad and Tobago Representative on UNESCO Executive Board

A recent IDB report that notes the sad fact ‘that too many Caribbean students finish primary school without acquiring levels of literacy and numeracy sufficient to equip them to succeed in secondary school or in an employment market that is increasingly complex and competitive.”
We who are inside the system have known that for a long time and that no country—not even one rich in natural resources, as that report notes —can flourish without a population so educated.
That report also notes UNESCO’s definition of literacy as the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute, and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. UNESCO recognises that literacy is both a right in itself and an instrument for achieving other rights and that it is impossible to separate the right to literacy from the right to education.
That IDB report on literacy and numeracy in the Caribbean takes its definition of numeracy from the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers: that to be numerate is to use mathematics effectively to meet the demands of life at home, in paid work, and for participation in community and civic life. Numeracy is to mathematics as literacy is to language. It states:
From these definitions emerge a picture of literacy and numeracy as the fundamentals of education and a means for social and human development. Such definitions are contextual and influenced by the practical necessities of life. In the area of literacy, for example, terms such as functional literacy, cultural literacy, quantitative literacy, and computer literacy, among others, have emerged in recent years, a direct result of attempts to articulate the higher demands of literacy imposed by contemporary society. Similarly, what sufficed for numeracy 20 years ago cannot be adequate today. The common calculator now includes keys for functions that were previously only understood by scientists and engineers. (IDB Regional Policy Dialogue on  Education: Literacy and Numeracy in  the Caribbean  Report )
When the Trinidad and Tobago National Commission of UNESCO met to consider this project, following the mandate of the Commission’s President, the Minister of Education,  Dr Tim Gopeesingh, in our general discussions there were numerous examples from commissioners about the various challenges they faced in learning mathematics – ‘math anxiety’ among them, which could itself fill a story book.
I had my story, too, about learning to read and learning mathematics.
As a child I read everything I lay my eyes on. Everything, no exaggeration. Reading materials were limited in the country districts, you know. My reading materials came from signboards passing by on a drive, to labels on cans, and of course books whether they were mine or of others, whether they were text book, story books, newspapers. One of my earliest memories as a preteen is jumping up and down in frustration for want of reading matter as I had read everything on the bookshelf which largely contained text books from agriscience, science to social studies etc of my elder siblings.  The nearest library was miles away in the nearest town and inaccessible until I started high school.
My story of mathematics is a different one. I could calculate almost any sum or measurements in my head – my father who was a part time market vendor loved taking me to the market because I calculated costs of his whole sale and retail goods and the special discounts he wanted to offer to special customers instantly in my head. Calculations of weights and measurements, distances, and the like in my head came easily.
And yet I struggled with text book maths and for exams it took extra effort to make the grades.
I - what we call crammed - for my O-Level mathematics exam with an intense focus in the few weeks before the exam. I gritted my teeth on the deadline crunch and made out a lesson plan of the different modules and mapped out a path to learning each and the formulas associated with them. That meant, actually having to write out in words, and create a story around each formula and their connected components - for real. I turned my maths text into a story book: and that’s how those remote and alien formulas jumped to life, and made sense to me so I would remember them in an exam room.
Mathematical formulas were not the English language, like my story books, so I needed to dedicate special time with lots of coffee at exam crunch to interpret formulas into the language that I knew. I came to that understanding that I needed to understand mathematics in the context of some correlation to reading. If I hadn’t, I could have easily fallen through the cracks too, because text book teaching did not provide that approach I needed, and which perhaps can also account for many of our so called failure at maths - that students’ approaches to learning mathematics, as with learning language can vary, so teaching methods and tools must incorporate the kind of variety we are trying to include in the teaching of literacy.
The problems and challenges we have uncovered in the pilot leading for literacy programme may be very applicable and relevant and similar to what is needed for numeracy.
My story of learning is just one such story and I’m sure is like one which as educators you might have heard several times over.
As we embark on this, the second part of the National Commission for UNESCO Leading for Literacy – and now Leading for Numeracy project
I have a few things I want to lay on the table for your consideration:
1.     That this project offers an ideal opportunity to explore the possible points of intersection between the challenges we face in teaching language, the English language included – which we erroneously consider our first language, but which educators are now discovering need to be taught as a foreign language and teaching the language of mathematics, which may also be considered a foreign language: that can help bring text book learning closer home to the applied, oral traditions approach that is more natural to our people.
My analogy of the need for literacy in numeracy is just a component of that general right to literacy recognised by UNESCO which precedes the right to information: about a decade ago some of us in the civil society movement fought to have that right to information recognised as a basic human right across the Commonwealth and UN systems.
All of these rights now converge in the computerized age in which we function: HTML/Computer language is an amalgam of competencies in numeracy, literacy and everything in between and has brought startlingly home to us the need for unification of the humanities and the sciences – the former represented in literacy – the latter in numeracy: a separation that has for long been perpetuated by our school system, in the creation of subject grouping that separate those in the arts from those in the sciences and which still persist in terms of the awards and scholarship systems.
O we must consider the areas of convergence in the teaching of literacy and numeracy: as not to be treated as separate competencies, but intertwined – and in treating here both numeracy and literacy together, we have in this room the beginnings of the formula to do so.

So now I want to leave with you a little bit of homework: some numerical calculations that came to me in reviewing the distance travelled with the leading for Literacy pilot exercise still in progress: 40 principals and 80 teachers trained in literacy and numeracy; and class loads of infant 1s and 2s receiving their badges ‘I am learning to read’ and their parents engaged also in the parenting for literacy initiative.
Some of the feedback from our trained educator leaders were: Students have been making great progress with Letter Recognition and Sounds of Letters. There are a few struggling along, mostly the ones who never attended preschool. They are still adjusting to school. Learning is taking place, some who were answering in one word sentences are now describing what is happening in pictures. Oral Language has improved. Students are enjoying the singing, actions and dancing …
The teacher did a concept lesson on the letter m. The objectives of the lesson were achieved. The children were able to give the sound of the letter m with the motion and gave words that begin with that letter sound. They were also able to identify pictures and words with that letter sound as their evaluation. The children were also able to trace and write the letter. The teacher also integrated maths in the lesson using the thematic approach. As a follow up,  the teacher was advised to build a wordwall with pictures and matching words of the letter m.  Another follow up will be using m words in sentence strips for reading.
The students are visibly having fun as they learn! Their laughter and sometimes giggles must make one smile.
Even those with whom we could not have gotten through last year are showing some progress. Unfortunately their progress is a bit slower than the younger children. All however are saying the sounds, doing the actions and completing the written assignments.
The teachers also continue to add resources to develop their model classrooms.
The teachers know what they are doing and are given autonomy in their classes since they also have had to struggle with slow learners, Curriculum Rewrite training and a multitude of other challenges.
But as I always tell them, challenges make us stronger and better!

There are challenges too. Another comment from among those trained:
We have two first year classes with a total of forty-eight students (25 and 23 boys). My teachers are working overtime with the students. The class with twenty-five students seems to be so cramped and the students are restless with the humidity. My heart goes out to these two committed teachers so I visit regularly and have discussions, and offer suggestions of encouragement. In both classes there are five year old students whose developmental levels are not ready for primary school. There are many individual differences within the classes and there are even cases where parents have already given up on their sons. Grandparents are forced to take the role of the biological parents and for various reasons. Some of them are unable to cope with these energetic grandsons. I have, however, taken the names of such parents and have been chatting with them on the phone appealing with them to assist their sons in the observed areas of weakness e.g., hand exercises to develop his motor skills, forming his letters with the hook, proper way to hold a pencil, correct way to hold his exercise book, revising the letter sounds etc. The teachers have even observed bullies within their classes so I have contacted those parents via phone and have asked them to visit for further discussions. Despite the various challenges, my teachers continue to be passionate, working extremely hard, and I am walking the journey with them for we want this experiment to be successful. The school disruptions are regular but we are trying to cope and at the same time encouraging our parents to work with us. With our sale of "milkies and freezies" for the month we have purchased a pack of laminating envelopes to laminate and preserve our letters and pictures, pretty expensive though but we are hoping to reap the benefits of our sacrifice in the future. God bless, hang in their colleagues and we all will be proud of our efforts!
The spin-off benefits are yet to come when these infant ones and twos impact on their parents and peers and siblings and communities.
Another comment:
The year-1 pupils showed the ability to correct their peers if any letter was sounded incorrectly. The Year 1 students were very eager to offer sentences when called upon.
That’s what we at the Trinidad and Tobago National Commission for UNESCO did with around half a million dollars, one quarter from UNESCO and the rest from the Ministry of Education and various sponsors: 40 principals, 80 teachers, loads and loads of infant ones and two and their parents learning to become leaders and readers.
For this, Leading for Literacy and Numeracy for Secondary Schools, the second component of the programme, our budget is just over one million dollars (TT). Your home work is to calculate what may be achieved with this million more; and then further on, what we could achieve with 34 million, or 36 million, for literacy and numeracy; and then with the additional permutations of all these infant one and twos passing on their learnings and their excitement and enthusiasm for reading to siblings, parents and peers in the communities, for not just 2250 boys but several communities and families and the permutations and spin off benefits ofthat.
That’s the multiplication we need to do: from an investment of just about half a million that’s what we got, and that is only in the preliminary stages, and within just about one year – using existing infrastructure, which, I note from your reports, are plagued with numerous problems and challenges of their own. On which note, might I add that it continues to puzzle me – and perhaps those from Chaguanas can help me understand the logic and calculations in this: when does a court house become more important than a library? To my mind, it seems if we had more libraries, we will need less court houses, not so? Isn’t that the simple arithmetic?
As curriculum officers, principals and teachers being taught to lead for literacy, take these learnings and take charge of your communities. That was the challenge I threw out to the first guinea pigs of our project when we launched around this time last year, August 2013. And now I challenge you to, too, take charge! Lead. Return us to the time when the school was the centre of the community and principals and teachers were indeed respected heads and leaders of our society.
With that, I leave you to your homework. Happy learnings, and I look forward to return at the end of this week to witness the results of this exercise then, and beyond,

I thank you.

August 18, 2014
Port of Spain, Trinidad