“Let’s shame him. 1-2-3 SHAME!”

Have you ever had that dream where you’re standing in front of a large class of peers trying to answer some ridiculous math equation when you realize you’re completely naked? Really, no one besides me? Be honest. I guess I have sort of a math-phobia, an algebra-induced illness you could say, that has plagued me for years. It all started in 6th grade when my family moved back to California from the backwoods of Missouri. The new school I was at was leaps and bounds ahead of Triway Elementary where I was previously an average student. I felt as if they were speaking the most elaborate french most of the time and I was still scratching stick figures into the dirt clad in a buckskin loincloth. And then there were the math homework sheets, a sheet of paper almost as long as I was tall, each row of questions having a “check up” question at the end of it to make sure your answers were all correct. Invariably one or more of my answers from each and every row were wrong, which meant my check up question at the end was also wrong, sending me into a relapse of hysteria trying to find out which question was to blame for my lost after school play time. Then the first symptom of my illness reared its menacing head. I began to get “coughs” the morning before a big test keeping me from school and keeping me from showing just how little of this new language I understood. Over the years the disorder has gone into remission, only flaring up the fall of 2008 during Stats 121, but it has left an indelible mark on my psyche. And an unusual event this week in Bolgatanga brought the haunting dreams back to me.

Isaac and I were way up north in the upper-eastern region of Ghana selecting some schools for EPI’s electricity-generating merry-go-rounds. Each school was different, some in large block buildings, others in mud shanty rooms, and one had four classrooms outside under large shade trees. At first I was dumbstruck by the sheer number of students who learned without any sort of accommodations, no desks, no books, just a chalkboard leaning against a tree and a mat on the floor for them to sit on.

One of the teachers, a young woman probably mid-twenties, was teaching them English. She had written phrases on the board and was reading them aloud as the kids parroted them back to her, never actually looking at what was written. Soon it was their turn to go to the board and read a phrase while pointing at each word with a stick, Ghana’s version of follow the bouncing ball. One boy was in front of the class “reading” the phrase “may I go out please?” which is very American, in Ghana the please always comes first, “please, may I go outside?” After several attempts and an equal number of failures the teacher said to the class “lets shame him, 1-2-3 SHAME!” all of the students pointed at the unlucky boy and shouted “SHAME, SHAME, SHAME!” and I was horrified. This was my worst fear as a student, and perhaps still is, lodged somewhere in the recesses of my squishy mind right behind the names of capitals and the difference between a noun and pronoun. As soon as we got back in the Tata I consulted with Isaac “is that normal?” He assured me that this wasn’t the standard form of teaching and that the woman was untrained, somewhat soothing to my sudden onset of nausea. Luckily this school will be one of the many getting one of EPI’s merry-go-rounds soon.

Besides just a toy that produces light, an EPI system provides the teachers with some training on more effective teaching styles. With each merry-go-round or swing we install we provide hands-on science kits that the teachers use to supplement the government provided curriculum which is rich in memorization but lacking in actual experience with concepts. The goal is larger than just cementing scientific tidbits into student’s brains; hopefully the teachers will learn how to teach all their subjects more effectively, enhancing each and every discipline taught in a classroom or under a shade tree. Then students will fall in love with learning and the terror that I had as a child will disappear.