Tuesday, February 5, 2013

School Days and Soccer Games

This past Friday, I got approved leave from school to go to Durban a day before me and some other volunteers had tickets to see the AFCON quarter final game at Moses Mabhida Stadium. It was great because I've been dreading my classes for at least a week now. The game was exciting because we bought tickets before we knew who would be playing, and South Africa's national team, Bafana Bafana, was one of the competitors. Unfortunately, they lost to Mali in penalty kicks, after two overtimes and a serious edge-of-your-seat game. I sang the South African national anthem with a sold out stadium (built especially for the 2010 World Cup), sat in the seventeenth row (and near-ish to South African President Jacob Zuma), and was slightly deafened by the competing sounds of Mali fans' drums, South Africa fans' vuvuzelas, and the handheld siren that the guy behind me thought it would be a good idea to bring to the game. It was a lovely weekend, and really nice to meet up with volunteers from other regions to talk about life and school thus far.

So back to school. We've had months of training, been given all the worst case scenario stories, and planned until we can't plan anymore. Every day since Wednesday January 16th has been a challenge in one way or another. In a period of seven days (including the weekend) I cried two or three of those days after school. Everyone told us our learners would be below their grade level, but I never imagined they'd be this behind.

The being behind is only one of the issues. My style of teaching is different than anything they've ever seen or dreamed. On the first day when I replicated the "getting to know you" game we played in Atlanta (where you have to go around the room and fill in people's names next to things that they have or have done) and tell them to walk around and talk with other learners, they stared at me: half in confusion and half in terror. Being told to talk to each other during class is foreign. "Chalk and talk" is how things work here: a teacher writes notes on the board, and learners copy without question or explanation. When they're given exams, the questions are word-for-word copied from the notes. It's a memorization game, not one of reflection and application.

Speaking of games, here's the favourite one of this system: presentation over content. All of us in SA26 are subject to follow the new curriculum CAPS. Under CAPS, my grade 6s are required to complete ten formal assessment tasks in Term 1. Term 1 began on January 16th and ends on March 28th. Some of those tasks include "performs a poem or song with oral comprehension," "reflects on stories/text read independently," and "writes three paragraphs based on the theme of the story." There are a few problems with these tasks, which are just three of the ten they are expected to have completed come 28 March. One: why are we worried about performing a poem when we can't even read it? Two: kids don't read independently here. There are no books available at school (we don't have a library, but hopefully by the time my two years are up, we will) and I'm sure an overwhelming majority of these kids have never had a book they can call their own. Three: a lot of my kids can't formulate a logical sentence about their favourite colour. How in the world are they supposed to decipher the theme of a story and then write three paragraphs about it?

Being behind: I've started doing journals twice a week with my grade 6 classes. It has so far proved to be the only thing that has gone successfully in these past weeks because it is so individualized. However, it has showed me that a handful in each class cannot write me a correct sentence telling me what colour they like most, or what their mother's name is, or what they like to do at home. In the same vein, they cannot ask me my brother's name, what I like to eat, or how old I am. Don't get me wrong, I can decipher what they're trying to say, but I shouldn't have to at this point in their education. These questions are basic and should have been covered a long time ago. This education system is a disaster, and I'm here trying to pick up the pieces for the 66 kids that I see everyday for an hour.

I have been feeling so demoralized lately. I am putting all of my heart and efforts into planning classes that I feel are far too basic for grade 6: what is a noun? What is the past tense of go? Write a sentence using "like" in third person. All of these were followed by blank stares. I have been going to school since January 16th and just looking at my learners as they stare back at me. It really makes me question what the hell I am doing here in the first place.

I was talking to a fellow volunteer about this recently, how we're both (how we're all) really struggling. How we stare at our notebooks as we try to plan lessons that someone will be able to understand and grasp. How it's hard to get up and face the day when everything is sucking so much. And how we need little glimpses of that lightbulb going off in somebody's head to keep us chugging along; we need something, anything, positive to happen to restore a sense of hope and purpose to our job.

That moment happened for me today. Both of my classes went well, but it was when I was reading "The Enormous Crocodile" by Roald Dahl to them that I really felt it. (No one has ever read to these kids, so at first, they stared at me confused, and then began to chat.) For those that haven't read it (I'm only halfway through it myself), the story is about a crocodile who wanders through the jungle on his way to town so he can eat some "juicy, little children." He meets different animals along the way, and he tells his plan to each of them. They are all horrified, and tell him how horrid he is for doing such a thing. The book I have is beautifully illustrated, which has been maybe the biggest contributor to my learners' comprehension.

Today I walked up and down each row holding the book out to show how the Enormous Crocodile chomped on the tree that a monkey was sitting in, but the monkey was quick and jumped to another tree before he was eaten himself. Uproarious laughter. They reached out to touch the crocodile's sharp teeth on the smooth page. When the crocodile disguised himself as a small coconut tree to fool the children, one learner goes "the crocodile is so clever!" At the end of class, half of them gathered around the book to read it on their own and touch the pictures. One asked me if he could borrow the book. I had to say no because I need it to plan tomorrow, but the fact that he wanted to take a book home to read or look at or share with his family both makes me smile and breaks my heart. It makes me happy that (slowly but surely) I'm getting through to some of them. But it chokes me up to think that I'm the first person exposing them to listening to a children's storybook, that they don't have access to reading and books at school or at home, and that this is such an easy fix if begun soon enough in their years of schooling.

The positive was saved for the end this time. And I'm glad today happened, because otherwise it would have been entirely negative. A lot of my days make me feel helpless and useless, and I really struggle sometimes. But as much as it sucks, knowing that I'm not alone in my uphill battle makes it feel slightly better. And days like today totally invalidate all my other doubts about my presence and my impact. They're small and often sporadic, but days like today keep me going.

Also, at the end of my second class, two girls that sit at one of the back corner desks gave me cards they made. They both had the same message: good day miss thandi/hi miss diana I love you I like you you are everything in my heart you are so pretty, kindness you are so perfect, so patient you are the kind ness women you are the best teacher you are so beautiful I so happy miss diana good bye miss. Day made x2

*** This is a plug for books. If you can send me little, illustrated books by Roald Dahl, or anyone similar/similar reading level, please do. Throw them in a bubble mailer and mail it here. I received one last week with two hardcover books. The postage cost $11.26. Can you swing $12 postage and a few bucks more for a couple books? Please and ngiyabonga (thank you). ***

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