Michelle Homp '91 brings math teacher training program to Africa
Dr. Michelle (Reeb) Homp ’91 spent three weeks in Africa this July where she helped teach a math program to bilingual teachers in Senegal.
Homp is an assistant professor of practice at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Center for Science, Mathematics and Computer Education. A big part of her role is to coordinate and teach graduate courses for K-12 teachers of mathematics continuing their education or working toward earning a master’s degree. One of UNL’s graduate programs is called Primarily Math, designed for elementary teachers who wish to earn UNL’s designation as a K-3 Mathematics Specialist. Previously, Homp was a faculty member at Concordia University, Nebraska from 1997-2004.
She was asked by one of her former students, Masake (Kane) Ly, to visit Senegal and introduce the Primarily Math program to seven teachers from the Senegalese-American Bilingual School (SABS) in Dakar, Senegal. This was one component of the 2018 Afrimath Summer Program, an initiative aimed at strengthening mathematics education in Senegal and all of Africa. Ly, a Senegalese native, is the founder and director of Afrimath.
“By strengthening the students’ math experience, you are opening doors for them in their future,” Homp said. “It wasn’t a mission trip, it was a work-related trip, but by strengthening the teachers, they in turn will be able to strengthen the experience of students.”
Upon their graduation from SABS, many students go on to attend high-profile universities such as University of Ottawa, Boston University, or Cambridge University, to name a few. After they graduate from their university, many of the students will move back to Senegal and help build up the infrastructure of Dakar or other communities in Senegal, Homp said.
“I’m working with the teachers to help make these opportunities possible for their students,” she said.
Within the Senegalese school system, nearly all instruction is provided in French, which is the official language of Senegal, Homp said. However, that is not the native language of the majority of the people. The language commonly spoken in Senegalese homes is Wolof, with more than 30 additional dialects spoken in other regions.
“This means that nearly every student attending school is a French-language-learner at the same time they are learning other subject matter,” Homp said. “This certainly adds a layer of complexity to mathematics education in the elementary schools in Senegal.”
During her time in Africa, Homp learned the people of Senegal are very welcoming and generous. They pride themselves on being known as “the country of teranga,” the Wolof term for hospitality.
“Everywhere I travelled, people went out of their way to offer assistance and show me kindness,” Homp said. “Even simple, cultural traditions emphasize the importance of hospitality, both to guests and fellow citizens.”
Each morning of the program, students and teachers would gather for an opening warm-up session in an outdoor courtyard, she said. Part of the daily routine was to clap and sing a traditional song that nearly everyone in Senegal would have learned as a child.
“The song was about having pride in your community,” Homp said, “whether that community is as small as your class, or as large as your country and how extending hospitality within your community brings success and happiness to everyone.”
Homp said she was surprised and encouraged by how important faith is to the people she worked with. Of the seven teachers in her class, five were Muslim and two were Christians. Islam is the most prevalent religion in Senegal, practiced by about 90 percent of the population. Christianity makes up roughly 7 percent of the population, and those are mostly Catholics, Homp said.
“They were very accepting of one another,” Homp said. “It was easy for me to talk about being a person of faith with that audience. It was completely accepted. It wasn’t a barrier. There was no animosity. Faith is an important part of my life, I had more freedom to talk about that in Africa than when I’m teaching courses on campus at UNL.”
Each day, there were calls to prayer over intercoms throughout Dakar, some would do prayers during breaks. Homp said she was surprised to have faith take such a prominent role in their classroom, but she enjoyed that.
While in Dakar, Homp stayed with Ly’s family. While there, the family hosted a multi-faith prayer breakfast on a Saturday morning. The group meets monthly in the members’ homes, and the host picks a theme and brings copies of several scriptures selected from various sources such as the Quran, written works of Abdu’l-Baha, the New Testament and the Old Testament. There isn’t a sermon or message, Homp said, but time to read each passage and then silently reflect on its meaning.
“The theme for this gathering happened to be about music and worship,” Homp said. “We would go around and read a scripture and say a few of words about it. No one was leading a prayer, that was something you did privately.”
Homp said she was honored to be able to attend the breakfast and see people from other religions intentionally gather in the same room.
“Even though I was gathering with people of different faiths, I didn’t feel compromised,” she said. “Knowing I was a Christian, they saved a passage from Colossians for me to read. I could then pray the way I knew how because everyone was praying silently on their own. ”
Homp said she feels lucky to have been asked to visit Senegal and help teachers there with this training program. Those teachers are now implementing the new teaching strategies in their classrooms and developing written case studies describing how their students respond. They also are collecting videos of students as they work to make sense of mathematical concepts. The goal is for this group to use these materials to eventually train other teachers in Senegal.
“We want to have a lasting impact on the community,” Homp said of her experience, “first by helping these teachers become leaders who can strengthen the mathematical achievement of their own students, then by sharing what they have learned with other teachers in Senegal to strengthen mathematics education for all students across the country.”
The most generous act she encountered during her time in Dakar was being given a Senegalese name. In Senegal, it is traditional for guests to be given the last name of their host family, Homp said. Homp’s Senegalese surname was already “Kane” (pronounced kahn). Students and teachers met privately to determine Homp’s first name. When the selection was made, she was ceremoniously led into the room and given the name “Maty” (pronounced mah’ tee).
“So now I answer to both Michelle and Maty Kane,” Homp said. “Nothing could have made me feel more welcome.”