The preparations leading up to the workshops at the Yom Institute began while back in New York. We were given a prompt and discussed ideas as a class about our individual partner projects. My partner Damola and I are both writers, and were paired together to lead a Research writing workshop for grad students at the Yom Institute of Economic Development, in the summer before they were completing their thesis’. After creating an outline and coming up with activities in New York, preparations got put to the side for a bit through the chaos of our busy schedules in Addis. The requirements shifted and more focus and importance was shifting from our other work to the one-day intensive workshop.
The schedule came out for the workshop weekend, and Damola and I were not on it. We were encouraged to attend the entire workshop, so we spent Saturday and Sunday assisting and participating in our colleague’s workshops covering topics spanning from food systems to the care economy. The weekend workshop concluded and we discussed how everything went despite not being completely done. Still with no scheduled time for the research writing workshop, and no announcements about it even existing, Damola and I felt pushed to the side and forgotten.
We worked hard on organizing activities and waited patiently to find a time during the week that would work for us to go back to Yom. Wednesday night following the workshops was finally set aside for us and hoped there would be at least five students who showed up despite no announcements.
We arrived at the Yom Institute incredibly early to be sure of no problems. An hour prior to our start time, we received an email informing students about the workshop which we felt was a little last minute for anyone to show up after a long day of school and work.
A pile of “writing toolkit” packets were stacked by the front door of the room (we eventually got unlocked) consisting of templates for creating proper citations, how to organize your sources, and how to write a proper and concise thesis. These we felt would be great for the students to reference throughout our presentation and to keep during their writing process. As we should have expected, we ran into a nearly detrimental technical difficulty, when the computer would not connect to the overhead projector with our entire slideshow presentation. We went through a few students’ laptops offered to us to use during the workshop.
More and more people filled the room as we frantically tried to get the slideshow to work. Unfortunately Mark and Yosef were unable to attend our workshop, so we tried the best we could on our own to organize. When Dani (a former IFP student who organized the workshops), arrived, she told us to just do it off of the screen on the computer. To let Damola and a student work on the computer a bit longer, I jumped into our first activity, which was a madlibs icebreaker. I called on each student, asking them to say their name out loud, followed by the word needed to fill in the blank. This was a way to try and start getting students out of their shells and comfortable in the room. It ended up being really funny and enjoyable for the whole group, yet not long enough to delay the work on the projector.
We were screaming on the inside, but just sweating on the outside as we attempted to present our thorough WRITING presentation on a 13” computer screen in front of a group of 26 students who despite persuasion an mild begging, wouldn’t move to the front of the room. It was going to be an entire hour and a half of damage control. We tried to speak as loud as we could an annunciate everything as there was no point of reference on a visible screen for the students to follow along. We covered the proper sentence structure of a thesis and how to make your argument strong, understood, and properly backed up with cited sources. The next activity this led into was a “thesis speed round.” We provided writing prompt to the class:
“Say hypothetically, the government wants to reallocate their funds for education and, instead, invest the money in road and sidewalk infrastructure projects. Argue which option would be more beneficial for citizens of Addis Ababa.”
With what we thought was a clear, culturally sensitive, and h y p o t h e t i c a l prompt, we asked the class to 1) take five minutes on their own to write a thesis statement for their argument 2) There will be two rows of chairs facing one another. Sit in a seat directly in front of a classmate, and exchange the sheet of paper with the thesis statement written at the top (with space below). Under your classmate’s thesis, write one constructive criticism or a sentence of feedback on the same sheet. If there is time left in the TWO minutes, discuss. When you hear “switch!” exchange back your paper, so that you have your thesis in your hand. One row will move one seat to their left. Repeat. 3) At the end, you will have a sheet with your peer’s feedback.
The intention of this exercise was to practice having to think critically when given a prompt, stick by their argument, write a proper thesis, and be able to get feedback on their thesis statement to learn how to work on others in the future. We put on some Ethiopian jazz on my phone, and began the activity. With just a few more hiccups, the students got the hang of the activity and were actually having fun. By the time their sheets were filled, we ended the activity. Rearranging the chairs back, we had everyone sit down, asking for any volunteers to share their thesis with the group which we initially intended to do anonymously.
Two students volunteered to discuss, a fellow IFP student, Amanda, and a Yom Student, Kirubel. We began with Amanda’s, writing it on the board and dissecting it with the class. We discussed all that she did well, and had some students challenge her ideas. We soon learned that the students took the prompt very literally, and thought deeper into the issue than we had intended. We wanted solely to get across the idea of the sentence structure, but the Yom students were more worried about what the reallocation of funds would do to the city. They were critical thinkers, and discussed with one another why it would or wouldn’t work and what would happen.
We moved on to Kirubel’s statement, which took a little longer. It was a little difficult as a grammar freak to be working on sentence structure with students whose second language is English. While the ideas are in depth, words are often left out or in a place we wouldn’t traditionally put it. Damola wrote it on the board, as we had to think quickly on our feet how to properly edit the sentence. We worked through it as a class and ended up restructuring the sentence with the help from volunteers.
One moment that stuck with me, and is probably my proudest moment of the day, was when one particular student, whom single-handedly challenged most everything we said, yet again tried to question what we were teaching. He asked, (in summary), “If this is the thesis statement, then where does the problem statement go?” Most everyone was quiet. He had mentioned the “problem statement” multiple times, but nobody knew what that was, including myself. After a 3 second pause, I jumped in with a broken down answer using hand gestures. What came out of my mouth was complete improvisation, but sounded incredibly convincing and completely accurate based off of what I would assume a “problem statement” would be. His face softened, now understanding the concept, and didn’t challenge us again. I felt Damola as her eyes widened, nodding in support of what I had just said.
What I learned through the workshop proved to be very valuable. We were constantly challenged on how we were teaching research writing as we know it. We were teaching what we had learned with regards to proper grammar and sentence structure, but it is not how they were taught. I understood that it must have been slightly confusing for some to be learning a new writing method, while having learned an alternate way up until that point. Despite some confusion, the session proved to be very valuable. The students, though late at night, were eager and enthusiastic to continue working. Many of them came up to us after thanking us yet again; telling us how valuable the session was, despite our insecurities or technical difficulties.
With certain obstacles in the way, we pulled off a pretty great session with incredible energy. The only thing I would have changed would have been the ability to have more time or repeat sessions because of the dense material we tried desperately to break down to be understandable and quick. It was an overall great experience getting to know the students at Yom, and working with them for a few days through the entire workshop.