Derek Braun, TESOL/OFLA Liaison
Columbus City Schools, ELL Science Teacher
Aqoon l’aani waa iftiin la’aani. (Somali proverb: To be without knowledge is to be without light.)
Somalia is known as a nation of poets. The Somali language wasn’t given an official alphabet for the first time until 1972, but many Somalis can recite poetry that is centuries old. These poems and proverbs preserve the wisdom and values that construct the Somali culture. In the spring of 2016, I had the opportunity to visit Somalia and spend time observing and learning from some of the customs and values hidden within this nation of poets.
Surrounded by the warm desert breeze, abundant colors of the sunset, the sweet smell of Shaah (Somali tea), and the soothing sounds of the call to prayer, sits an oasis of hopes and dreams of a bright future through education. Abaarso School of Science and Technology is a boarding school located about 15 km outside of Hargeisa, Somaliland, in the northern part of Somalia. Within the last few years this small boarding school has attracted international attention and even a visit from Anderson Cooper of 60 Minutes. Graduates from Abaarso School have gone on to study at top U.S. universities, including Harvard, Yale, and MIT. How are many of these students starting in 7th grade as beginner English learners and graduating high school after a relatively short few years, while achieving high level of academic English? I had the great privilege of spending a week at Abaarso School observing classrooms, videotaping lessons, and interviewing administrators, teachers, and students. What I discovered were insightful lessons for those wishing to have success in language learning. The school was not equipped with the latest SMART boards and Chrome carts, nor were almost any of the teachers licensed or experienced. The language learning success seemed to stem more so from the psychological factors and discipline of the students, including motivation, hard work, high expectations and goal setting.
Nin aan shaqaysan, shaahi waa ka xaaraan. (If you don’t put in the work, you don’t get any tea.)
This Somali proverb highlights the cultural expectation of putting in hard work. Anyone who has studied another language knows it takes time, dedication, and discipline to be successful. Motivation becomes a key component in the process of language learning. The principal characteristic observed in the classrooms and around the school was dedication and hard work. The mission of the school is for students to receive a top-class university education abroad and apply those skills when they return to their home country of Somalia. All students bought into the mission statement and vision to work toward advancing their society and becoming the leaders of tomorrow. The goal was well defined: get accepted into a U.S. or international university. Accomplishing this goal becomes the source of the motivation that leads students into putting in the hard work and dedication of countless hours of studying. Within the school common grounds and classrooms there was an English Only policy. Although this contradicts effective instructional strategies that include the advantages of students’ utilizing their L1 as a resource for meaning making and critical thinking, students liked (or at least agreed with) the established policy and were fully committed to being immersed in the target language of English.
Another characteristic that defined the school atmosphere was high expectations. Students were continually held to the high expectation of quality work and growth through hard work. Teachers expected students to succeed, and they continually challenged students to meet and exceed expectations. It was observed that many of the students really enjoyed stepping up to the challenges with which they were presented. Teachers expected more out of students and modeled hard work and discipline, even with their own language learning. Several of the teachers were studying and learning the Somali language. They spent several nights a week with a tutor going over lessons and vocabulary. One teacher would post her own weekly vocabulary words on her classroom door and encourage students to practice her newly learned words with her.
Far keliya fool ma dhaqdo. (You cannot wash your face with just one finger.)
This proverb reveals the value of teamwork and unity. Abaarso School has developed an atmosphere of unity and teamwork. The students and staff members were all united and supportive of one another to achieve a common goal. Students were fully committed to having a growth mindset and to learning from mistakes. Teachers created an atmosphere of support and teamwork that enabled students to both support one another and work toward accomplishing a common goal. Students took ownership in their learning and had a vision for where they were going.
How does this apply to the language learning classroom? Often, the explicit planning and development of motivation in language learning gets overlooked. Students make progress in their learning when they are motivated and committed to language use and application. As language instructors, it is essential to take the time to consistently present authentic texts and media in the target language as well as to demonstrate language application. It is essential that students take ownership in their language learning and be given the opportunity to create their own language learning goals.