Like many in Liberia, I was out of school as a child, supporting my family with farm work while we navigated the 14-year civil war. But seeing my parents struggle with illiteracy made me want to learn and find a new way to live.
So, aged 16, I enrolled in the village kindergarten alongside children who were four and five years old. I spoke no English, only my local dialect. My classmates gave me the nickname “Grandpa ABC”.
But through years of hard work, I graduated high school at age 27. Before graduation, I remember telling my father, “I’m about to make you proud.” Sadly, my father passed away that week and never got to see what came of my education.
I wanted to use my education to help others. Therefore, despite originally thinking of becoming an engineer, I instead signed up to become a teacher with the Luminos Fund and its joyful, play-based learning approach and its focus on helping to get children who have fallen out of education back into school.
As such, it became my priority to help children learn through play. I wanted to find activities where children could be happy, which is key to learning.
Everything we learn in the classroom is useful in life, so learning should be creative and joyful and pave the way for students’ future.
Covid catch-up: Bringing joy to learning to boost pupil engagement
The key for engaged education is to prioritise children’s happiness, something that I believe should be at the forefront of all education systems the world over.
Research shows that three months out of school can lead to a whole year’s worth of lost learning – something that the whole world is now aware of and is grappling to fix.
What we see is that children learn in many ways – seeing, touching, hearing, singing, not just reading from a book or being talked at from the front of a classroom.
As such, we try to touch on each of these so that the process of learning is joyful and makes the overall learning process easier and more engaging for children. It removes the fear they may have of learning, coming to school or of unkind teachers.
Whenever children are happy with what they are learning, they’ll be engaged and encourage others to learn.
Offsetting the negative impact of Covid
Given the huge impact that the pandemic will have had on learners the world over, this message of joyful learning seems more important than ever, to ensure that the return to school and education is something that fills students with happiness, hope and joy.
This, of course, does not mean that dispensing with the key building blocks of learning. Within Luminos Fund schools, we focus chiefly on literacy and numeracy – essential skills that prepare our students for a lifetime of learning.
But we make sure that this focus is based around a hands-on introduction to letters and numbers, through creative materials that bring fun and laughter to the classroom.
Fun, games and engagement
For example, we administer weekly rapid reading and writing tests to gauge each child’s level, so instruction can be targeted accordingly. For the sentence game, you write 100 words (two-, three- and five-letter words) on flash cards, and put the flash cards in a big bag.
After putting children in groups of five, we encourage them to make a sentence by choosing some of the flashcards.
Every child knows their target and, when reached, is promoted to the next group and wins a prize. Each week, the class is told who has been promoted to the next group and any child who has been promoted is made to feel special. This is really motivating for students.
Another activity we use is a numeracy ball game, to help students with numbers and pattern recognition. Each child counts according to a pattern set by the teacher, by fives for instance. If and when a child misses, they step aside for their peer.
Or we use the game Blending Ladder, which is a phonics exercise for students to practise saying and hearing the individual sounds that make up short words.
As a class, we practise saying the consonant sound and the vowel sound separately and then together, making words.
There are five steps in this ladder, with a song that comes at the end - A, E, I, O, U. The song ensures that children are learning the sound of each vowel, while also having fun.
What all these activities show is that with joyful learning, children practise and learn by doing, which helps their longer-term learning.
Making time in school count
The pandemic has shown everyone how damaging time away from education can be – and that fixing these lost times is not easy. But we know that creative learning methods show happier children and more active engagement – so we should not overlook this.
Of course, it is not easy for time-pressed teachers to always bring "joy" to their classroom, when they have a curriculum to get through and assessments to worry about.
Yet wherever you are in the world, I’d encourage any teacher struggling to engage children to think about how to make their classroom fun, and most importantly, joyful. Perhaps right now, that’s more important than ever.
Emmanuel Massaley is a programme associate at the Luminos Fund and ex-Luminos teacher working in Liberia