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The Joy Factor in Teaching, in the Form of 41 Birds

As I write this, tears swirl my vision and burn paths down my cheeks, while Oliver and Bernice try to soothe me sweetly with hugs.

The reality is slowly setting in for our Ghanaian family: six days from now, I will be flying far away from these people I have grown to love so much over these past three months. Oh, my brothers and sisters!

An American doing Japanese paper folding in Ghana...
An American doing Japanese paper folding in Ghana…

The ten million jokes we’ve built together will lose their sense. Our handshakes can’t reach across the ocean… and there will be a heartbreaking absence each morning, noon, and night where we’ve grown used to greeting each other with “Efoa?” a grin, and warm conversation.

And so how shall I calm these first separation tears of many I’m sure will come before Tuesday? By sharing a revelation about joy, joy, JOY! The tale I am about to tell occurred last week at Total Child School, one of YCC’s five Reading Club sites at which I’ve been volunteering.

For three months, I had been teaching the forty lovely Total Child students reading strategies and ways to infer vocabulary through context. But who would have thought that what the kids would most remember learning from my American self would be the art of Japanese paper folding?

“A couple of weeks ago,” I announced to the class dramatically last Friday, “one of your Canadian penpals mentioned the word “Origami.” Do you remember that liiiiittle tiny bird I folded out of paper to explain what the word meant?”

The class in Ghana with their paper cranes.
The class in Ghana with their paper cranes.

Suddenly forty pairs of eyes lit up with an expectant fire. Oh, the excitement! As spicy as I had tried to make my previous half hour of teaching, I had not seen this level of sparkle during our preceding vocabulary lesson. The students leaned forward.

I continued: “Do you remember what I promised I would do on the last day of class?”

I hadn’t even finished my sentence before forty voices screamed in unison: “YOU SAID YOU MIGHT SHOW US HOW TO MAKE THE BIRD!”

Students love Japanese paper folding.
Students love Japanese paper folding.

“Since this is our last class together,” I continued, grinning, “would you like me to teach you how to fold that little bird riiiiight n–“

“YES!!!!!” the students all screamed, nearly falling out of their chairs with excitement.

Ok then! We launched into it. Paper was ripped out of Obama-emblazoned school notebooks and I raced around showing the students how to fold a triangle and rip off the excess flap to create a perfect square.

Next, I performed each fold of the crane on a big piece of paper at the front of class, then sprinted hither and thither ensuring each kid was on track to create a bird and not a sea monster. I’m pretty sure one boy was close to creating a saber-tooth tiger before I snatched the crumpled paper from his paws and fixed the impending disaster.

Joy with paper cranes!
Joy with paper cranes!

It took some sweat and a whole lot of re-folding with our grubby fingers, but by the end of the class, all forty kids and their beautiful teacher (pictured in the red shirt, above) clutched a soaring Japanese crane!

As I gazed out at the unbridled joy on the faces of every student (and perhaps every paper crane as well) in that cement block classroom, I realized: vocabulary and reading strategies had been fun, but folding this bird today was SUPER fun.

If I had not “sacrificed” this small chunk of academic time for some cross-cultural arts and crafts bonding, I would have tragically missed out on a whole facet of this class’s diamond-like personality!

Suddenly I recalled a point that education researcher Doug Lemov stated in the recent New York Times article, “Building a Better Teacher“: To be effective, we teachers must find creative and numerous ways to inject the “J-Factor”– JOY! — into our classrooms. Indeed, we must.

Lucky for my learning curve, Ghanaian schools are absolutely fabulous at balancing academics with this “joy” thing. Though Ghanaian teachers are the strictest instructors I have encountered in my entire life (rarely worrying about fragile student egos, and frequently wielding harsh voices and unbelievably arduous punishments), Ghanaian schools know how to have FUN!

For example, multiple times a week, most schools here have “Culture” class, replete with heavenly outdoor drumming and dancing.

Moreover, not only have I witnessed a large number of fun (yet academic) school competitions and ceremonies here in Sogakope, but every single one of these events has had a singing or dancing “intermission” every fifteen to twenty minutes.

Doing origami in Ghana.
Doing origami in Ghana.

I was asked recently (by a fancy Boston reporter!) how my future teaching will change as a result of this Around the World journey. After these glorious and enlightening three months here in West Africa, I can answer: Ghana has not only raised my expectations for student behavior sky-high, but it has also taught me that kids (and teachers, for that matter), need to have some dancing and singing and JOY in each of their days for their growing brains to be open and ready to learn!

So drink in that joy, dance that dance, and soar upward, oh expanding brains and happy hearts, like the graceful Japanese cranes in those forty hands last Friday!

“This is a complicated bird,” said Teacher Yvonne to the class after we’d finished. “Do you all think you will remember how to make it after Madam Lillie flies off?”

“YES!!!!” sang all of the students together. “We will remember!”

I, too, have learned a lesson I will never forget.


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Quanique F.

Wednesday 25th of February 2015

I think that it was really thoughtful of you to teach the Ghanaian students about a different culture. In my opinion learning about art in one culture can be boring, but the Japanese culture can be very interesting. Learning how to master the art of origami may be challenging, but is very fun to do. I like to learn about different cultures, and I would love to explore even more cultures from all around the world.


Saturday 4th of September 2010

You did something nice for those kids .This is a bitter sweet moment,but your a traveler and must journey on.Maybe you could stay in touch and it would be interesting to see how these kids fare in life 20 years from now...just a thought.

Oh,you did it again! Your number 5 for 'factor in teaching' on Google! Great!

Imported Blogger Comments

Thursday 27th of May 2010

FamilyDO'C said... I love this. What a good reminder--the J Factor is so important to all aspects of life.

March 27, 2010 9:18 PM said... JOY!

that is all.

March 28, 2010 12:51 AM

Luddy Sr. said... That dance intermission idea seemed really far fetched for an American school, but you know, maybe it's really not. If not dancing some kind of J anyway.

What a great last day!

March 28, 2010 9:39 AM

sEy said... I would love to do this kind of work....just waiting or rather looking for the opportunity....good job..keep it goin'!

April 2, 2010 9:08 PM

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