“Un serpent dans l’herbe”; an unusual training in the Comoros Islands!
by Chris Jolly
The four little children sitting on tiny chairs in front of me looked surprised. They were at the front of the class whilst their teachers sat at the student desks behind them. Perhaps more strangely, I was stood in front of them, talking in broken French (which is their second language anyway) about snakes and sounds and Jolly!
I was training in the Comoros, which is based in the Indian Ocean east of Mozambique. With the locals speaking a mix of Comorian, French, Arabic and Kibushi to varying levels, the Comoros is an unique jumble of cultures – the last place you would think needs another language!
However, I was in the Comoros because I have been trying to reach widely with Jolly Phonics by providing the first year of the programme philanthropically to state schools in Africa. This has been made possible by working with excellent NGO partners, such as Universal Learning Solutions. These schools typically have the greatest need yet are the most difficult to access. The Comoros islands was part of my latest tour through Africa, and this was how I ended up in front of these four pupils.
Unfortunately I had not been able to make contact with the Ministry of Education before I arrived in the Comoros, but a quick Google led me to contact Nouzlat, who was from the islands but now runs a Comoros social centre in Manchester: she was just wonderful, and she put me in contact with multiple private schools in the state!
Through sporadic emails and phone calls, all in my static French, the arrangements were made. I managed to secure a headteacher of a local private school, Mr Moussa, who was there at the airport to meet me and who had agreed to let me train in his school.
True to his word, prior to my arrival Mr Moussa had sent around our flyer and invited teachers from 12 other private schools to his school. Because of the intense heat we began the training at 8am and finished at noon. The teachers were keen enough to teach English, and although they might reasonably have been sceptical of me turning up with an entirely new programme, the demand to learn English was there. These teachers, like my Mancunian acquaintance, told me how important the learning of English is for their pupils, and explained how they would need it in the future for work, and for engaging with the professional world in general. They said how the parents too want it for their children, even though there is little use of English in the country, allaying my previous concerns.
The four children in front of me had to be poked gently by the teachers to pay attention. I began telling them the story for sss. I told them how I was going for a walk, how I then discovered un serpent dans l’herbe, which hissed at me ‘sss…sss…sss’. I waved my arm across my body as I did so. I introduced two more letter sounds in the Jolly formula: story, sound and action. I then asked the teachers to have a go with other sounds in the first group. Before long I had the children waving their hands at the flash cards for these sounds, and drawing their chairs up closer to see the book. I was surprised by how quickly they became engaged with it, particularly with so little environmental English knowledge. By the end one boy had even progressed so far that he was able to blend the word ‘spoon’. It was just wonderful to see their progress, and of course it was inspiring to the teachers to see the immediate progress of the children.
After a shorter second morning of training, I moved on, leaving the teachers to take away teaching materials for their schools so they could get continue with the programme. I have since had email contact (and photos, see below) to say it is going really well, which is very encouraging! So it has been a good beginning, reaching further in Africa to help in the teaching of English.