Elsiemae Melanie Buckle
Elsiemae Melanie Buckle is a Curriculum Associate at the Rising Academy Network (Rising Academies), an innovative network of schools in West Africa. Melanie has worked tirelessly during the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure that students in Sierra Leone continue to have access to education despite the closure of schools due to lockdown measures. Working closely with the Teaching Service Commission in the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education of Sierra Leone on the planning and delivery of the country’s national distance learning response, Melanie personally recorded hundreds of hours of audio instruction and educational content to be broadcast over the radio, helping to enable more children across Sierra Leone to continue their education through distance learning. Melanie also recorded content for teachers’ professional development and hosted regular live call-in shows so that students could call in to have their questions answered directly.
The success of Melanie’s work with the Teaching Service Commission contributed to the creation of Rising Academies’ Rising On Air distance learning solution. Rising On Air is an initiative to provide open-source radio scripts, adapted from pre-existing curriculum content, making them available online for free so that people around the world can access and adapt lessons easily. Since its implementation, Rising On Air lessons have been adapted for use in over 25 countries in Africa and Asia and have reached more than 10 million students. The Rising On Air initiative has been recognized by HundrED as a 2021 Innovation.
We spoke with Melanie for our “Spotlight a COVID-19 Heroine” series, which highlights the exceptional efforts African women have made to lead and support their communities throughout COVID-19.
Read our interview with Melanie below.
Q: Could you talk a bit about your role as a Curriculum Associate and tell us about some of the work that Rising Academies does?
The Rising Academy Network is a network of schools operating in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Ghana. My role is to help develop high quality teaching and learning resources and support schools with their use in the classroom. We make sure that the lessons are aligned with the national curriculum, so that students are prepared for public exams at all levels of education.
Q: During the pandemic, you partnered with the Sierra Leone Teaching Service Commission, using the Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL) approach, a rigorously evaluated methodology which supports children’s learning, to organize Sierra Leone’s national distance learning response. This involved recording many hours of high-quality audio instruction and hosting live call-in shows during which children could call in and have their questions answered. Could you talk a bit more about your efforts to make learning more accessible to students during the pandemic? What were some of the successes that you saw as a result of your efforts, and what were some of the challenges you faced?
Prior to the pandemic, we had started developing an accelerated reading and maths program for our schools, inspired by TaRL, to ensure that learning content is meeting kids at the level they’re at so they’re able to get caught up. When the schools closed, we quickly converted the development of those lessons into scripts that could be delivered through radio channels.
The change was so quick. One day I was in my office doing regular work, then we were called into a meeting with the Teaching Service Commission to talk about how we could keep classes going, and before I knew it, I was in the studio recording lessons—I never expected my week to be like that!
We switched to radio broadcasts because not all students have access to the internet, but most of them have radios. It’s the best way we can get into students’ houses. And we already had a radio station in place to use, as it was set up by the Sierra Leone Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education during the Ebola outbreak, which also caused school closures.
It has been an amazing experience so far—just to know that we have children still learning makes me feel good. We have already lost so many years of education due to the Sierra Leone Civil War: for ten years education stood still, and our children lost out on so much. In 2014, schools were closed again during Ebola, once again creating big gaps in their education. Being able to keep children learning during the COVID-19 pandemic is a big achievement that we should be proud of.
In terms of challenges, there were a few. Even when you’re teaching in a classroom with children there, it can be hard to get them to focus. You can’t see them when you’re recording a script, so you have to picture the children learning and work to give them something dynamic that they can connect with, so they aren’t instead running outside to play. Another challenge during the lockdown period was not being allowed to move around. I was given a special government pass so I could travel to the studio to record and broadcast lessons. It was very strange moving through empty streets, but it was a reminder that what I was doing was really important. Finally, another challenge was that the Ministry of Education’s radio station didn’t reach the provinces, but we were able to overcome that by working with local radio stations to get them to broadcast our recordings.
As far as success goes, for me, it was great to talk to the children when they called into the live radio shows we did. I got to know them and their voices, and you could hear real excitement when I was able to remember them and use their names when I talked to them—building relationships means so much to me.
Q: Your success working with the Teaching Service Commission also led Rising Academies to open source all the radio lesson scripts in their Rising On Air distance learning initiative. Could you talk a bit about Rising On Air, including the scope of the program, what it has achieved so far, and what the future of Rising on Air looks like?
Rising On Air is Rising Academies’ free distance learning solution licensed under the Creative Commons, which delivers our structured curriculum content via radio and SMS. We’ve already made 800 recordings of math and English lessons for Rising on Air, and our latest data shows that we have reached over 10 million children in 25 countries across Africa and Asia. We hope to keep building the program now that schools have reopened, and we have been strategizing about how recorded lessons can be incorporated into the curriculum to support schools and teachers in the classroom.
We’ve also been working to have the lessons translated into French and Arabic, so that we can share them in even more countries around the world and more children can benefit. And beyond creating lessons for children, we’ve recorded and aired professional development sessions for teachers, to help them keep improving both while schools were closed and since they’ve reopened—we really want to sustain the whole program after the COVID-19 pandemic ends.
Q: How has COVID-19 impacted students differently, based on gender? Has the pandemic had different effects on girls, versus boys, in Sierra Leone?
When there are big issues like the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s often girls who suffer the most. We’ve seen an increase in teenage pregnancies while girls have been at home, and we’ve also seen more girls being sent out to work in the informal economy—for example, selling goods on the streets—which also puts them in a vulnerable position.
There have also been so many reports of gender-based violence cases during this time. I feel like we need to do a lot more to help our girls, but we must also teach our boys to be better, and to treat women respectfully.
Q: What work needs to be done in the education sector in order to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 in Sierra Leone going forward?
The COVID-19 pandemic has given us a moment to reflect on what we can do better. In our Rising On Air lessons, we begin each one with a message about good health, and a message about staying safe. These things are often not discussed in homes—people aren’t comfortable having those conversations—but it’s important that students learn how to keep themselves safe. Our distance learning lessons allow these conversations—which might otherwise take place in the classroom, or not at all—to happen.
Q: What have you learned from your experience, and is there any advice you would like to share?
I’ve learned a lot during my experience: I’ve learned that it’s important not to wait for a better time to act, that we should seize any opportunity to make things better. We started out on a pretty rough path, but we’re figuring things out along the way. If you keep pushing, if you keep going, in time things will fall into place.