Teaching adolescents life-skills through WhatsApp

by Victoria Mwema

In a more normal world, in a more normal school year, Tom, a form four candidate in a Nairobi school is up by 6am and off to school by 6.45 am. On his way to school he meets up with Betty and Diana, his classmates and they chat about life and the pressures of final year as they walk to school. The bell marking the start of the school day goes off at 7am. By home time, Tom goes home feeling happy about the time spent with his friends but also still a bit apprehensive that the fast approaching KCSE exams. But thanks to covid-19 2020 is not a normal school year. Schools are closed and over 18 million other learners in Kenya have had their schooling disrupted. Moreover, Tom is only one of 2 million learners who have been forced to reschedule their end of secondary school examinations to the year 2021.

Beyond formal learning schools provide learners with a platform to interact and connect socially and emotionally with their peers. The disruption to schooling and routine can have a serious influence on a student’s social, emotional and intellectual development. The Community Service Center (CSC) team at Strathmore University looked for a way to reach secondary school students to help them deal positively with this change.

The CSC team weren’t just stabbing in the dark. They have a long history of working with their students. Since 2012, the community service center has been running Macheo Achievement Program for secondary school students in informal settlements. 150 secondary school students from schools in Kibera, Mukuru and Kangemi attend the programme at Strathmore University every Saturday afternoon. The classes cover both character development and academic revision. So far Macheo has helped 190 students to complete Secondary school and over 90 have received scholarships to study a degree or diploma courses at Strathmore University.

Due to the school closures Macheo programme activities were suspended. This birthed Maadili Mema project where the CSC team wrote stories which are used in facilitated remote sessions to help secondary school students make sense of the current situation. Each story is accompanied by a teacher’s guide for the facilitator.

Given the challenges of accessing computers among the students they work with the team used WhatsApp to run their sessions. A relevant story is shared days before the session to allow students limited access to smartphones (for example if the smartphone to be used belongs to a parent) to find time to read it and plan to be present for the discussion.  8pm is the most preferred time for the sessions as parents are home and smartphones are more easily accessible.

Students are expected to read the story beforehand, work on the activity accompanying it and show up ready for the discussion. Prior to the discussion, the facilitator prepares short notes from the teachers’ guide that she can easily post during the discussion to enrich the lesson. The questions allow students to reflect on the story and share their understanding and personal experiences relating to it. Sessions take an hour. The exchange takes the form of a competition and all great responses get a star. By the end of the WhatsApp discussion, each student has received a star or two for answering questions. Each star earns the student data bundles!

These stories are a tool to help students reflect on their personal experiences, navigate through change, and think of ways to solve their challenges. The WhatsApp discussions provide a platform for adolescents to share these experiences with their peers, find a sense of connectedness, and together explore solutions to some of the challenging issues. The sessions have also been invaluable in nurturing attitudes of trust and generosity in the face of adversity as well as in building resilience and discipline among the students.

To use some of these stories with your own students write to cop@strathmore.edu.

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