Students debate, in English, for the right to use cell phones in class


Have you ever felt lost in translation? You had an amazing idea but couldn’t string the words together? Or felt you didn’t fit in because you spoke a different language? These are some of the hurdles that many Tanzanian students face as they transition from primary to secondary school. It’s an abrupt language shift from instruction in Kiswahili to English. A student may be academically gifted but if he cannot master the English language, let alone comprehend it, he will fall behind in class and his grades will drop. To add to his plight, Tanzanian universities only accept students who have scored a passing grade ‘C’ or higher in the English national exams for secondary schools.

Students are not the only ones facing the language barrier; teachers too sail in the same boat. Teachers need additional tools to enhance their own English skills as well as inspiration to provide high impact lessons for their students. In 2011, we implemented an English-based debate-training workshop for teachers to better facilitate the transition of primary school students into secondary. We collaborated with the District Education Office of Tanzania, local school officials and Takako Mino, co-founder of Public Debate Foundation and former Debate Outreach Associate from Claremont McKenna College, to implement a district-wide English language debate competition for over 217 participants across two school districts.

Additionally, intramural debate competitions were held among different high schools. There’s nothing more engaging than watching young students battle with words in their debate teams to win the coveted debate champion title. Many Tanzanian students who don’t speak English are shy, but when they get on stage to challenge their opponents, their whole demeanor changes. They are confident and full of energy, despite the occasional mishap with words.

Having these debates not only builds on the students’ English diction, but also on their camaraderie and confidence. They provide meaningful application of English for students and teachers alike, empowering and motivating all participants.

In the summer of 2012, we had the opportunity to see the culmination of teacher training and student learning take place when we visited a local school where the subject of debate was the freedom to use cell phones at school! As you can imagine, it was a high energy debate… and all in English. Here’s the video of the debate

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