Penn helping rebuild schools in Banda Aceh

It’s been more than a year since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and earthquake leveled towns and communities in several countries, killing more than 280,000 people.

Katherine Schultz, associate professor in the Graduate School of Education, saw that something positive could come out of the tragedy—it could be an opportunity to help change the schools in Aceh, Indonesia, which had suffered due to years of internal conflict. “It was a very exciting moment,” says Schultz, who was approached by the nonprofit International Relief Committee to lead a team of three instructors from Penn, two doctoral students and one Swarthmore professor to Indonesia in the summer of 2005.

Schultz and her team led a two-week mentoring session for 100 teachers in the Aceh province, who would then instruct the 5,000 new educators hired to replace those who died in the tsunami.
Schultz and others decided to introduce some teaching methods that focused on child engagement in the classroom—a far cry from the rigid structure of Indonesian schools, where the teacher lectures, students take notes and classes are focused primarily on exam preparation. The Indonesian teachers, she found, were eager to learn methods that would benefit children who had experienced great tragedy and had many painful stories to tell.

To prepare for their trip to Banda Aceh, the capital of Aceh, Schultz and her colleagues spent time learning about the province’s school system and culture. Through translators, they taught classes in four subjects—literacy, science, mathematics and pedagogy, or methods of learning and teaching. Schultz, who led the class on literacy, says that she was able to put some of her ideas about teaching into practice—especially the notion that teachers should listen closely to what the students know and encourage them to tell their stories. “They were very engaged,” she says of the Indonesian educators. “Their faces were full of smiles. They just loved it.”

Schultz came up with the ingenious idea of showing the educators how to make their own books and use their personal stories and illustrations to fill the pages. Initially, the teachers made small eight-page books using just one piece of paper; as their final project, they made a book using Japanese binding techniques. Schultz hopes these teachers will show other educators and students how to write stories and create their own books, and even make some for the schools. In high schools, says Schultz, “there wasn’t much sense of people using books beyond textbooks.” In fact, many of the teachers worked in schools with few—if any—printed materials. Some were even teaching in tents or makeshift structures.

To help the teachers understand how to teach students writing and literacy through storytelling, Schultz and her colleagues brought with them about 40 children’s books from the States and talked about story structure and the relationship between the words and illustrations. Schultz says she was careful not to suggest writing about the tsunami. “I wanted to be careful to not say, ‘This is the kind of book you should write,’” she says. “It was really important for me that they see there are many ways to talk and write about [events].”

Some teachers did in fact write about the tsunami and most of their stories ended with descriptions of renewal and rebuilding. “They had this tremendous amount of hope … toward the future.”

Originally published on January 12, 2006