Reshaping education, one textbook at a time

By Natalie Lovenburg and Boco Abdul

December 13, 2017

In northwestern Nigeria, Mu Karanta! curriculum taps into students’ desire to learn

SOKOTO–Sitting on a wooden bench in the front row of his grade 3 class and enthusiastically raising his hand to answer his teacher’s questions, 10-year-old Yazidu Sahabi demonstrates his passion for learning.

“You must study hard, and do it with all of your heart,” says Yazidu, who dreams of becoming a medical doctor.

The youngest of 17 children, Yazidu Sahabi is forging his own path in education to achieve his dreams. Photos by Erick Gibson.

Zaharau Abdullahi Yabo, Yazidu’s teacher, says he is the first to arrive to her classroom each morning and the reading and writing skills he is receiving at school will put him on a path to success.

“If a student doesn’t get a strong foundation in primary school, it is hard for him to achieve what he wants to become later in life,” explains Yabo.

Yazidu is one of nearly 200,000 young students in Sokoto improving reading and writing skills through an early grade reading program called Let’s Read! (Mu Karanta! in Hausa).

Funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Northern Education Initiative Plus project is being implemented in formal and non-formal schools in Nigeria’s Sokoto and Bauchi states, with the goal of improving reading skills for more than 2 million primary grade learners.

Zaharau Abdullahi Yabo, educator at Nizzamiyya Islamiyya Model Primary school, says the project’s training on new teaching methods is boosting teacher confidence and committment to educating young learners.

In partnership with more than 100 international and local curriculum developers, linguists, primary teachers and other educators, the project has developed student books and teacher guides for each of the three terms of the Nigerian school year.

The Mu Karanta! books equip grade 1 to 3 students to read in the local language of Hausa, and the Let’s Read! books prepare grade 2 to 3 students to transition from reading in Hausa to English.

Collectively, the books contain more than 750 lessons, each of them providing children with opportunities to practice reading, listening and writing. The illustrations and stories embedded in the books communicate local cultural norms and values. Additionally, the guiding questions that supplement each lesson encourage early grade readers to think critically.

Sparking excitement for learning

In Sokoto state, a hot and arid Savannah region in northwestern Nigeria that borders Niger, educating children in rural areas has been a challenge.

Farming families prioritize working in the fields over receiving an education, classrooms have suffered from insufficient textbooks and teachers are not adequately trained and mentored. With these education challenges, teachers and students are regularly absent from school.

Grade 3 teacher Yabo says despite these hurdles, perspectives are changing and a renewed excitement for learning is increasing in the remote communities. The Northern Education Initiative Plus has delivered more than 860,000 textbooks to students and teachers in nearly 900 primary schools in Sokoto state.

“Children are coming to school more than they did before because of the books distributed to them,” says Yabo, who has been teaching at Nizzamiyya Islamiyya Model Primary school for nine years and even attended the school as a child.

Before the Mu Karanta! books were delivered to school, Yabo says the teachers were using very old and outdated textbooks. However, the new learning and teaching materials are opening new avenues for students to receive a quality education.

“Even those that are not enrolled in school are drawn to these books and they ask their parents to bring them to school so they can get these books,” she explains.

“Children are coming to school more than they did before because of the books distributed to them. Even those that are not enrolled in school are drawn to these books and they ask their parents to bring them to school so they can get these books.”

Zaharau Abdullahi Yabo, teacher, Nizzamiyya Islamiyya Model Primary school

In the second year of a five-year project, Northern Education Initiative Plus has distributed more than 1.9 million reading textbooks to students and teachers in Bauchi and Sokoto states, opening new doors for children in northern Nigeria to improve their basic literacy and math skills.

For 10-year-old Yazidu, the Mu Karanta! lessons are enhancing his motivation to learn in the classroom.

“When we learn Mu Karanta! my teacher teaches us new songs, she shows us papers with drawings of different objects and their names. We identify them together. She reads a story, asks us questions and we look in our books together,” he says.

For Abubakar Sahabi, Yazidu’s father, receiving a quality education is essential for his youngest son to reach his goals.

“When I watched him read I realized that the many hours he spent in school were worth the while. My decision to educate him is a good investment,” says Abubakar, who is a retired teacher and has 18 children.

After witnessing his son’s motivation to learn Hausa and English, Abubakar installed a chalkboard in their home kitchen to practice the Mu Karanta! lessons together as a family.

“Yazidu is performing better than his older brother who is grade 4 because of the program materials and instruction,” explains Abubakar. “He has taught his brother and even other secondary students what he is learning at school.”

Addressing a state of emergency together

Faruk Shehu, Executive Secretary for Sokoto State Universal Basic Education Board, says the education sector in northern Nigeria has been in desperate need of improvement and the Sokoto government is taking the initiative to rapidly overcome challenges.

Faruk Shehu, Executive Secretary, Sokoto state Universal Basic Education Board, says the project is making a positive impact because the state government and project partners are fulfilling their responsibilities.

“The Sokoto government has declared an educational state of emergency after sitting down and realizing the major issues in education in northern Nigeria,” explains Shehu.

About 80 percent of children in grades 2 and 3 in Bauchi and Sokoto states were not able to read a single word in Hausa or English, according to a 2016 Early Grade Reading baseline assessment conducted by the Northern Education Initiative Plus project.

With outdated instructional methods and inadequate training of teachers, learners do not have the support needed to succeed in the classroom.

Shehu says two main groups—the Policy Council on Education and Technical Committees—have been established to fast-track education activities related to the state of emergency. The committees include principals, teachers, school administrators, unions and international nongovernmental organizations, among others involved in the sector.

To Shehu, the partnership is evolving and changing and “everybody is coming together” to solve the primary challenges to education in Sokoto.

“A society without education is not fit to be a society,” says Shehu, who has been part of the education sector during his entire career. “If you look at it morally, economically and socially, education shapes the life of every individual.”

The Northern Education Initiative Plus program builds ownership among federal, state and Local Government Education Authorities and works closely with them to ensure commitment to quality early grade reading instruction and increased access to education.

Yusuf Alhassan Muhammad, Local Government Reading Coordinator for Northern Education Initiative Plus, says the local government, communities and parents have accepted the early grade reading program and Mu Karanta! educational materials through ongoing advocacy and open communication.

Frequent meetings with traditional and religious leaders, as well as parents and school administrators, influenced the key decision makers and the community embraced the new reading program.

Yusuf Alhassan Mohammed, reading coordinator at Model Primary School in Sokoto says the ongoing teacher training, coaching and mentoring will ensure a strengthened educational system.

Muhammed says the local government has shown ownership in the project by continually engaging the entire community and by covering the compensation for 115 government staff who received teacher training and eventually were placed in a primary school.

With an eye toward sustainability, the government also provided a vehicle to deliver the learning and teaching materials to 77 hard-to-reach, rural communities, says Muhammed.

Through the project, more than 9,000 educators have been equipped with practical skills to teach the early grade reading curriculum.

“The education system cannot be taken care of by individuals independent of the parents,” says Muhammed, who is responsible for the project’s reading activities in formal schools in Sokoto’s Tangaza local government. “Teachers are the parents at school and equally the parents are the teachers at home.”

Creative teaching, active learning

Yabo has experienced firsthand the challenges of teaching young learners with inadequate literacy curriculum and limited support. In her career as a teacher in Sokoto, she had not received in-service training.

Yabo says she lacked quality teaching and learning materials and had limited guidance on planning lessons. For instance, she would enter a classroom and teach her students for several hours without inviting them to actively participate in lessons.

“The trainings changed my whole perspective to teaching. I have teacher guides with properly structured lessons. I engage my pupils throughout the lesson. I hear their voices as much as they hear mine. It is team work,” says Yabo.

Yabo says that since her school has embraced the Northern Education Initiative Plus interventions, the culture of reading at Nizzamiyya Islamiyya Model Primary has improved and the new approach to learning and teaching is creating a more positive environment.

“Trained teachers are excited about teaching in class because they are finding creative ways to express themselves,” she explains. “Children want to come to school more because it is fun and parents love the textbooks.”

“How do we know early grade students’ in Sokoto are improving their reading skills and enjoying learning new lessons? We see the accelerated student achievement in classrooms and a new excitement and embrace for education from parents and communities every single day.”

Joy du Plessis, Senior Reading Specialist, Northern Education Initiative Plus

She also says that the stories in the Mu Karanta! textbooks have changed the behavior of children.

“Children have listened to and read the stories that teach good hygiene so children now take their bath and wear neat uniforms to school. There are stories that teach good morals and the value of education so children now understand that daily attendance in school is important,” she says.

Joy du Plessis, Senior Reading Specialist for Northern Education Initiative Plus, recognizes the importance of mother tongue language and story illustrations in textbooks play to improve literacy education for all children–especially living in remote northern Nigeria.

“We’ve seen how the community is very happy with the illustrations and how they represent the culture,” she says. “Before the materials were printed, we tested them in communities to make sure they were socially and culturally relevant and acceptable.”

The reading expert says the illustrations were designed to reflect strong, curious, lively and active girls and boys, especially girls, and the images show the children as being equal.

The illustrations and the stories encourage students like Yazidu to become critical thinkers and to question, predict, infer and analyze–important skills needed to succeed in school and eventually a thriving career.

“How do we know early grade students’ in Sokoto are improving their reading skills and enjoying learning new lessons?” asks du Plessis. “We see the accelerated student achievement in classrooms and a new excitement and embrace for education from parents and communities every single day.”

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