Sunday, 27 October 2013

Thoughts on mother-tongue based education

I wrote the following synopsis of my own and others research for a friend who asked for some insight on the topic of mother-tongue based education. The topic has recently flared up (again!) in the South African media and, frankly, I'm a little fed up of people treating these insights like they are new. Educationists have known this for years. Policy makers just don't want to listen because the research is inconvenient and requires a political will and long term resource planning that the government is unwilling, or unable, to commit.

So here it is. The old stuff. That every one seems to have forgotten.

Thoughts on mother-tongue based education

There are strong feelings on both sides of the argument, pro-mother tongue and pro-English only. Very rarely are the contextual factors influencing the practicality of either option discussed in a nuanced, pragmatic way. The argument tends to be fueled a lot by ideology.

The first critical mistake people make is to talk about all our schools as if they are in the same situation, when they are clearly not. Setati and Adler very importantly pointed out the difference between schools in rural areas, which have relatively homogenous language settings, and urban schools with their diverse and very fluid langscapes (langscape--the word used by linguists to refer to the linguistic make up of a particular community, environment or place and purpose of language practice).

In the former, you'll find all the students and teachers share a mother tongue. Often non-academic texts are unavailable due to resource shortages and a lack of literacy practice in the home. Parents' own literacy levels are poor and a culture of reading is absent. Spoken language is almost exclusively the mother tongue, including the choice of radio, TV and music. The school is the only environment in which the child is exposed to the second language, and although the school's official policy might be 'English' as the LoLT (language of learning and teaching), this is not what happens on the ground. It does not make sense for a teacher, who themselves are not confident in English, to talk to students with whom they share a first language in a second language. In such environments, Setati and Adler quite rightly term English a FOREIGN language, as opposed to a second language. It is almost as foreign as French or Portuguese to most South Africans, and the opportunities to use English for any purposeful activity is very rare.

In the latter, you may find a class of 50 students in a township school who have 12 different mother tongues between them, especially in Gauteng. That's a VERY different situation to a rural school, and a lingua franca is required. That said, these children are still second language learners and the pedagogy in the classroom needs to be structured as such. Teachers in these environments have VERY different challenges to those in rural schools.

The mother-tongue as the bridge to second language acquisition

One phenomenon that is well understood is that of the primary language being the platform off which other languages are learned. This is almost always the case where a child has not been brought up bilingual from the cradle.

Cummins' research is seminal in this regard. Extensive vocabulary and knowledge of complex grammatical structures in the first language almost always predict better second language acquisition. In the context of rural South African schools, where children are not brought up truly bilingual from the cradle, this idea is very important, because it affects the decision on when students can or should transition from their mother tongue as the way they learn at school to a second language.

Many South African children reach school with limited academic language proficiency. This is due to many factors: lack of reading in the home, the limited vocabulary they are exposed to due to the lack of available adult attention (parents and caregivers often work very long hours and are unable to spend the dedicated time to stories, songs and reading that middle class parents can) and the educational level of the caregiver themselves. Reading is only first introduced at school in Grade 1, by which point our children are 7 years old. The correlation between English and class here becomes clear: English speakers are often also middle class income earners, with the literacy and language practices of middle class families (Shirley Brice Heath did some great research on what class means for acquiring the language practices that work well in schools--middle class families: how they talk to their children, how they play with their children and how they read to their children, apprentice their children into the language practices that are replicated in the schooling system). It is not surprising then, that children coming to school and only meeting text for the first time then are way behind their counterparts who have had far richer language experiences at home.

If this is the situation, then the school has to be the location where deep language practices are acquired. This has to happen in the mother tongue first, both verbally and written. The 3 years currently given to our children to learn both their home language formally and their second language is insufficient to prepare them for the demands of a curriculum at school when they transition to second language instruction in grade 4. Margie Probyn did some good research on how children only have a vocabulary of 800 or so words in grade 4 in English, and yet the textbook in grade 4 required a vocabulary of 3000 words upwards. The gap is huge and the children aren't ready. In this situation, further mother tongue-based education makes more sense, with excellent second-language instruction.

The written/verbal dichotomy

Language acquisition has two components: verbal and written. Often proficiency in the first is acquired where transactional conversations have been necessary to reach certain goals (getting what you want/need). The second (written) is acquired when what you want/need is only available in a text form. The two do not develop naturally together. People are often fluent conversationally and yet unable to write a language (most African languages in South Africa fall into this category). There are also languages which are almost exclusively written and yet people cannot speak them (e.g. Latin).

This distinction is extremely important in the South African educational context. Often students are not adequately taught literacy in their mother tongue. Texts are scarce in their home language. This makes mother-tongue based education extremely difficult: a point for English-only instruction as this is the language in which resources are available.

However, developing literacy in a second language does not mean a good grasp of the language per se. Students are often able to read texts without 100% understanding. Many South African students can read an English text out loud exceptionally well and not have a clue what they just read. Reading for meaning means an ability to attach written words to the real world. This occurs far more easily in the mother tongue. Some institutions are working hard to translate educational resources into mother tongue (e.g. Xolisa Guzula at NMMI in East London is working on the DBE's workbooks in mathematics, translating them into isiXhosa). Literacy in the mother-tongue is critical. Written word is often context independent so more words have to be used to describe a setting, a situation or emotion. The ratio of new vocabulary in writing is 3 times that which is used in spoken conversation. Exposure to more complex lexicons and grammar is through reading, not speaking. These complex language structures are often the difference between those who succeed in the schooling environment and those who don't. Another point for mother-tongue based literacy. PRAESA and other institutions have been working hard at encouraging mother-tongue based literacy practice in the home.

Other schooling models around the world

People often invoke other schooling models around the world as examples where students can become proficient in a second language by using it as their medium of learning. The most common one is that of French Canadian schools.

This is, however, not a good comparison for the South African situation. Firstly, most of the students attending such schools come from homes with good socio-economic backgrounds, where vocabulary and literacy practice in the mother-tongue has had a strong foundation from the home. Secondly, these schools are staffed with truly bilingual teachers who are well trained in the practice of second language acquisition, even if they are content teachers (e.g. mathematics, science etc.). Thirdly, these schools are true immersion programmes. Students are not allowed to use their language AT ALL: only French is allowed. The school day is extended with a rich variety of practices, both curricular and extra-curricular, which are supported via well planned language development resources.

A student can also be schooled in their mother tongue for their entire school career and still be proficient in a second language, provided the political will and resources are committed to that model. A good example of this is the acquisition of English by Afrikaans speakers and Afrikaans by English speakers pre 1994. Despite being taught exclusively in English, many South Africans are adequately equipped in Afrikaans and, when exposed post school to a study or work environment that requires Afrikaans, improve rapidly in their proficiency to the point of being perfectly functional. Their content knowledge, given to them in their home language, is already present. They need only attach new words to this pre-existing knowledge. This is another point for mother-tongue based schooling, with good second language teaching.

Other African countries succeed in using their colonial language as a lingua franca in their schools in a space where South Africa fails. In this instance, apartheid does have to take the blame. Parental mastery of the language of instruction in other African countries is relatively high. Even though the language of home might be Lingala or Kikuyu, the parents have full mastery of French and are able to bring their children up bilingual from birth. South African parents are often not in a position to do so, most especially those in the former homeland areas. Unsurprisingly, Pam Christie's latest research shows clearly that the geographical location of a school in a former homeland is the best predictor for educational failure.

In short: the only language acquisition model that works for developing a second language without using the first language is complete immersion. We DO NOT have the resources for this in South African schools. Only 8-9% of our population are first language English speakers. Many of these are NOT interested in becoming teachers as the vocation is one of the toughest jobs in the country (believe me) and other, more appealing and lucrative options are often available since English mother tongue correlates with class, income and educational level. We cannot create schooling environments in which our students are completely immersed in English with the resources we have. So mother tongue has to be the bridge to English acquisition. Which means the mother tongue must be properly and deeply developed first.

Parental resistance

It is completely understandable that many South African parents for whom English is not a first language want their children to acquire the best proficiency in English possible. Firstly, mother-tongue based education lives under the dark shadow of Bantu education. Parents still remember the use of their languages to educate them as a means of denying them access to the formal economy. Secondly, parents quite rightly identify proficiency in English as the means of access to formal tertiary education and jobs--this is not a figment of their imaginations. What is not well understood is the need for the development of the mother tongue as an important stepping stone to excellent English acquisition. People are often of the opinion that language acquisition is subtractive: this has been well debunked by linguistic scholars around the world. One does not have to sacrifice the development of one language in favour of the development of another. Education of parents in this regard is critical to schools adopting alternative models of language development and practice.

English and content subjects with specific discourses and registers

Subjects such as mathematics and science are not only English heavy (i.e. most of the resources available are only available in English), but they also use very specific language unique to their subject areas. So students are learning the language of mathematics through the language of English through the language of home. A bit of a mess. Even academics around the world find themselves having to write about these subjects in English as the words they need to describe mathematical and scientific phenomena have not been developed in their home language.

Such development is a matter of political will. Afrikaans is again an excellent example where vocabulary can be explicitly and purposefully developed if the desire is there that the language should be used in scientific spaces. Pam Maseko at Rhodes and others have done a lot of work on developing mathematical lexica in isiXhosa. Such programmes are incredibly resource intensive again, and it is understandable when people argue for students to simply learn English and acquire these words that already exist instead of creating new ones, as mathematical jargon in isiXhosa will have limited scope for use beyond school.

Teacher resourcing

All the theory about language acquisition must be read in the context of teacher resourcing. The following facts are salient:

1. Many South African teachers are not mother tongue English speakers and struggle with English themselves. This is not an indictment on them, but rather a simple fact of training and teacher education.

2. Many teachers are often the only exposure to English that students have.

3. Most textbooks are only available in English. Teachers depend heavily on textbooks in the South African context, particularly in content subjects, due to their lack of confidence in their subjects.

The reality on the ground...

But most importantly, certainly from my own experience, our teachers are in such tight spots at school due to staffing shortages that language is hardly on the top of their agendas. My own training was in the use of scaffolding and code-switching techniques to teach mathematics. I have a degree in pure mathematics and was taught isiXhosa by an EXCELLENT teacher at UCT. My research at the Masters level was about the interaction of language and mathematics instruction in deep rural isiXhosa speaking secondary schools and I started my job this year with the sole intention of putting the theory of scaffolding language in the mathematics classroom into practice.

The few opportunities I have had to do so have been very fruitful. Explaining to students in isiXhosa has made a huge difference. My own isiXhosa skills are still developing in the space of pedagogy, but it has already been quite clear how powerful this scaffolding tool can be. Not only have I been able to manage my classroom behaviour better (mother tongue is always best for this), but relationships with my students have been critical in my ability to be a teacher and my formal training in isiXhosa has enabled me to be a language teacher too (my students' isiXhosa is often very mixed and incomplete... they speak a strange township dialect which, while perfectly functional in their current context, holds no weight in an academic space at all!).

My deepest regret is how under-staffing and the trauma that schools are perpetually faced with constantly pushes language development to the back burner. Whether it is gang violence, student abuse or lack of basic resources such as the availability of enough textbooks, a reliable electricity connection, adequate security or acceptable levels of communication from the department about what is expected of us, language--while critically important--is not urgent compared to these other day-to-day demands. We are constantly in fire fighting mode.

What I really need to teach mathematics well and to use my language skills and training to do this, is 5 less lessons a week and a teaching assistant in my classroom: even a trainee teacher who is apprenticing me and able to spend extra time with those students who have obvious learning difficulties (Foetal Alcohol Syndrome, dyslexia, autism, etc. There are many! Up to 30% of my students have special education needs which I am physically unable to attend to). Most of my students live in high trauma environments and are either exposed to primary or secondary abuse. Their higher cognitive functions shut down until they feel safe, heard and wanted. Again, my ability to speak isiXhosa has been invaluable in creating relationships that have enabled me to bond with and support my students through their difficult lives. But the time I need to develop curriculum resources and lesson plans that speak specifically to language acquisition is simply not available. A 60 hour week is a good week.

We cannot talk about the lack of language acquisition or educational attainment without talking about these other issues: they all interact deeply. Most schools where students don't speak English are schools in poor areas. These schools are also wracked by gang violence, drug abuse problems, lack of teachers, lack of infrastructural resources, departmental apathy, poorly educated parent bodies and students who are regularly exposed to abuse and do not feel safe. Changing to mother-tongue or English-only education is not going to make a feather's difference to our schooling outcomes until those committed and skilled teachers who want to be in the system do not feel compelled to leave for their own or their families sakes due to the extreme pressure and workload. Two committed teachers in my school are either leaving or have been booked off by medical advisors for stress and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Teachers need more support to do their jobs, in the form of protected non contact time and/or teaching assistants and reasonable class sizes (under 40). Until these happen, any policy put in place regarding the language of teaching and learning will be nothing but another piece of paper.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Only birds born in cages...

One of the most important things I think this job is teaching me (nay, ramming down my throat!) is that I bloody accept that I can't do everything. End of. Including regular blog posts...

So much has happened since the last post. We have elected a governing body, that motley crew of teachers, parents, staff and students who reign supreme by South African law over schools. A good School Governing Body is a fundamental part of a functional, well-run school. I'm pleased to say that I think the parents we have found to serve on our SGB will play an important role in reaching the dream we have for our school. Already this week they have sat through disciplinary hearings for students who are repeatedly disruptive, and their proactive approach and pertinent questioning during the hearings was very encouraging. It is all too often that schools that serve middle-class families have a much easier time of the Governing Body. The parents come with all sorts of skills to offer and, usually, far more resources to put into the school. Our parents are struggling to string it all together generally, but kudos to them, they are not taking it lightly.  It is heart-warming to see them take the school seriously too.

The elections were held on Monday night. This was a tentative event because of what happened at school during the day on Monday. As my colleague and I herded the students up to assembly, we found a poster stuck to the pillar, hand-drawn on a page torn out of a student's notebook. The poster was a direct threat by one faction of boys against another, claiming that 'tears of blood will flow'. Not acceptable, by any means, but there's been so much hot air out of the boys that is preposterous that one doesn't know how much is real and how much is bravado anymore.

We're used to the factions the boys have drawn up amongst themselves; the Xaba Boys, the Bad Boys Club (BBC) and the Young Money Hunters (Y.M.H.). Unfortunately our desks and chairs are littered with inscriptions already, as are the kids themselves. Some fake their tattoos. Others don't need to.

So having found this poster, we took it off the wall (my colleague knew who had drawn it), and we cornered the boy in assembly with the head master and frog-marched him down to the office. This was at 13h30.

At about 13h35, a group of 6 gang members scaled the fence (we have a HUGE unpatrollable perimeter) armed with foot-long kitchen knives and an axe. The teacher on duty was unaware until these kids ran through the playground, looking for specific students, right on top of us.

Someone had tipped off the police because at the moment when we had just realised what the hell was happening, the men in blue were hot on their heels, chasing them up the hill.

They were obviously looking for a particular student/group of students. The teacher on duty found herself between one intruder and one of our boys armed with a rock. The policeman dashed past her, gun in hand, safety off, and the intruder fled. The students had followed the gang fight a la gladiators. Their bloodlust is quite disturbing. The teachers flocked up the hill to find out what the commotion was and herd students down to the classrooms and to safety. Break got terminated early (we have mentor period after second break) and I spent 10min frantically searching for my students and coralling them like a mother goose into my classroom.

Once I'd gotten them all in and locked the door, it was clear that some of them knew what was going on. Turns out that one of the girls in my class went to a birthday party on the weekend and 'kissed the wrong boy'. She's supposed to be 'with a BBC' and snogged a Xaba. BBC gatecrashed the Xaba party and there was a stabbing: a BBC stabbed a Xaba over the girl. The remainder of the weekend was spent invading each others turf and beating each other up.

Monday was full on retaliation. Obviously a BBC had heard that the Xabas were going to the school to hunt BBC boys (of which we have many) and called the police which is why they appeared so quickly.

At about 14h15, a bunch of older BBC boys from outside the school had heard about the attack and jumped over the wall behind the classrooms to retaliate. These guys had pangas. The BBC boys in my classroom were scratching at the turf to get out and 'sort it out'. I locked the door and told them that they were not going anywhere.

I have a soft spot for one of them: a bright boy who is actually kind, although tough as nails, and quite respectful. He wants to be an engineer. Perhaps I flatter myself but I'd like to think we have a good relationship. He would never admit the depth of his involvement but he is in deep: it breaks my heart.

Again, the parents response was encouraging: several came down to the school to find out what was happening. Last night there was a community meeting involving the local authorities, parents, church leaders, politicians and general community headmen, and these boys involved in these junior-gangs (I call them junior because at this point its violent turf assertion amongst laaities on booze and weed, not organised crime. Yet.) Apparently the response was one of 'no way, not in our area' with patrols set up between parents and police to terminate the boundaries of the various factions. We'll see what comes of it.

But to say it was scary is an understatement. One of the boys in my class asked me "Are you scared Miss?". I responded "well of course! There are crazy people running around outside with axes and knives. Who wouldn't be?" He thought it was very funny. I said it was natural. But it does go a long way to indicating how normalised this sort of exposure to violence is for our kids. Some expressed shock at it spilling into school, but outside school it was something they were used to.

At least it was only blades I suppose. Our container walls would not stop bullets.

Prior to said incident, it has felt a bit like the wheels are coming off this term. Something amongst the staff feels like the standards are slipping: getting to class on time, follow up on homework, expectations of behaviour. Mostly the promptness I think. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to be one of the few teachers who is insisting students arrive on time to class when others don't... you really are trying to hold back the tide. This takes a lot of energy which really could be used for other things. Like behaviour management.

The kids are also responding to the slackening... they smell it and respond immediately with pushing boundaries harder. Holding the line in the face of a larger wave takes more energy. I'm pretty sure my own steadfastness is waning rapidly. Being quite seriously sick twice this term has not helped. The cough is still persisting 3 weeks later. It may be time for a chest x-ray.

On other fronts: having been elected (reluctantly) to the SGB and serving on the SMT as well as trying to orchestrate (with mixed success) a maths intervention programme, I'm realising that I need to work on my leadership and management skills. For one, I still get too pissed off when it seems to me that people are not pulling their share--this will always be the case and there must be ways of changing the situation or working on it rather than just sitting and stewing. Not good for mental or physical health (speaking of which, I haven't been for a run in almost two months! This somehow needs to move up the priority list. Once the cough goes).

In summary: while we still have our ambitions and high standards, there have been some pretty cold reality checks that we are what we are: a township school. Complete with gangs and violence, persistent bad behaviour, vandalism, worn-out teachers and massive learning deficits. To forget that is folly. What happens in other schools is a complex product of teachers being slowly ground down by what are, in all honesty, completely unfair and ridiculous requirements of them, coupled with an uneven distribution of belief in the vision for the school, and effort applied to fulfill that goal. I am starting to understand far better what has created the dysfunctional schools in South Africa (not that we are one, yet). They are the natural outcome of a long process of unbelievably severe conditions which are not quite believable or understandable until you've seen it yourself.

To end off positively: relationships with individual students are starting to really blossom. On Saturday we spent 2 hours 'playing' with our maths, whereafter I got takeaways and the kids designed a mural on my classroom wall. Then we spent 3 hours painting together, listening to music off one student's phone [who knew that windows could be used as natural amplifiers? He wedged his cheap Nokia between the pane and the burglar bars and VOILA! The entire side of the classroom turned into a giant amplifier. Pretty neat). We sang and laughed (and made a mess) and overall had a good time. These are the moments that matter to me most. Not only do they make my job easier with the kids, but they also keep me sane and provide a different outlet while still getting work done. Otherwise I'd be home marking.

Painted on the wall of my classroom:
"Only birds born in cages think that flying is an illness."

Monday, 29 April 2013

The Power of Positive

Sorry for the long hiatus folks. As you probably correctly guessed, the quiet coincided with the return to school. Good to know I'm working instead of blogging huh? ;)

Term 2 has gone, from my perspective, a lot more smoothly than Term 1 (surprise surprise). I think I was more prepared from a planning side and the obvious bonus was having a much better idea of what lay in store!

Aside: there is NO SUCH THING AS OVERPLANNING in teaching. I don't care what anyone says. No such thing.

Only one challenge has arisen which has really knocked me sideways. I got sick.

It was inevitable I guess: all those hours and lack of sleep and inability to eat properly + the change in the season and the high-risk environment of a school. Understandable that the flu eventually arrived. What I did not anticipate was how much feeling rotten would diminish my capacity for patience and positivity with my students. And you never know quite what you've got until its gone.

My fuse got short. My words got snappy. My grumpiness grew and my frustrations were palpable. As I've mentioned before, our students do not respond well to the grumps. At all! Loads and loads of infusing of firm positivity is the way to do it with this lot, so naturally my shorter fuse resulted in more antagonism, conflict and further grumps. Since I fell sick (and missed a couple of days) I've felt an eerie and disturbing sense of "whatever" and I know my students can smell it.

As if by divine intervention, this same period coincided with our introduction of a merit system at the school. We tried the intrinsic-motivation-appeal-to-your-better-sense-of-self stuff. It does NOT work on 14 year olds. So we went blatant: merit awards for doing stuff that is above-and-beyond or remarkable (teachers discretion). We decided NOT to introduce 'demerits' straight away: we wanted to see if we could build a positive system that was around incentivising the right behaviour rather than punishing all the time. So far so good! Man, what a merit can't do to promote a change in behaviour! Students gather up books and help in hopes of a merit. The naughtiest of students will try and behave in case they get a merit. A system I introduced today got more work out of my kids in an hour than normal: something along the lines of 'difficulty level' for questions in maths class to hurry them up through the simple stuff and get them chewing on the tougher material.

Level 1: Rookie. Everyone should do this. Everyone CAN do this. Get off your lazy bum and work.
Level 2: Pro. All of you should try. Getting up to this level should get you to pass maths. Just.
Level 3: Boss. A merit to anyone who can get all but one Boss-level question right. [I love writing on their merit slip "Reason: Doing algebra like a Boss"].
Level 4: Legend. Peeps who get level "Legend" right are a-away for a 70% if they work.
Level 5: Master. Only for those who should be able to get 80-90 for maths.

So the idea is that kids can actually say 'Miss, today i'm doing Maths like a Pro!" and feel good about it. It also sets a clear and obtainable "minimum expectation". The kids loved it! They came up with "Legend" and "Master". And all of a sudden, maths class became a game. Let's see how long it lasts...

What all of this did remind me (sickness, merits, level-ups) is the power of positivity. Really, there is no other explanation for it: something about our kids is wired into shutting out the negative and craving the positive in ways that is almost pathological. The challenge to us as staff, then, remains in keeping up our energy to stay positive.

The kids have asked for extra classes on Saturdays. I'm thrilled (and devastated)... it's wonderful they want them but man, really? More? That said, I canned last weekend because the little blighters hadn't done their homework and were unapologetic about it. So I told them I wasn't bending backwards if they couldn't be asked. Deep down I know really I won't stop, even when they are being lazy buggers... experience tells me that they come around eventually.

Meanwhile, I'll just keep trucking like a Boss. No Legend. Wait... Master. Yes :)

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Play the game

This post is predicated by a fascinating discussion in the conference today about game playing.

The research presented was some really useful work being done in remote areas of Australia where staff turnover is high, student attendance is very low and every teacher who rocks up changes stuff in order to 'make a difference' (cue: note to self on this one...)

Those schools that are functioning relatively well in this environment have begun adopting a discourse of 'the game' whereby they make the most simple actions and behaviours of going to school explicit to their students and communities as the rules of the game "Going to School" and then are consistent about those rules. For further information, read the paper here. It's really good.

This notion of game playing really resonates with me, but not in the way intended in the paper. Here are 3 examples of games I've encountered that are worth sharing.

Game 1
My own offering to today's conversation involved the most strange and alarming phenomenon that I first encountered at the school regarding my students' books.

For my students, the main function and attribute of their book was form: it must be neat, it must be beautiful, it must not have scratchings or incorrect answers or messy work or mistakes in it.

Rough work was done on ANY other available surface: torn out papers from homework diaries, toilet paper, the wall, the desk, you name it. Anywhere else except in the book.

So when I insisted that they show me their working inline they were--initially--horrified. "But Miss, that will mess up my book!" Or, even worse (lord forbid) I came around to check how they are doing and wanted to do an example with them together in their books so that they could watch good mathematics being modelled and retain the example for future reference...

"NO MISS NOT IN MY BOOK! NOT WITH RED PEN!" <thrusts a pencil into my hand>

The only red allowed in the book is a tick. A nice red tick. And if I don't provide it as timeously as the students want, they put it in themselves, irrespective of whether the work is right or not.


I was boggled. Bemused. And disturbed at the same time. Because there is only one place that my students could've learnt this particular ritual, and that was in their previous classroom.

What on earth could possibly conduce the teachers to only ever tick, or the students to never show their working and scratch around thus for any surface (including, might I add, themselves) on which to perform their calculations?

To economists my answer will seem obvious: incentives. The Rules of the Game manifest in different ways. There are the 'official' rules of the game. And then there are the real rules, the ones that the rewards, penalties and pressures incentivize. The Rules of the Game might 'officially' state that teachers need to check all their students books regularly. But if a teacher is being told that books will be randomly inspected by the visiting authorities and each sum must be marked, well the incentive is to do as few questions as possible to alleviate the assessment burden (any sane mathematics teacher will tell you it is nigh on impossible to assess every question that every student ever does. That's where self-assessment comes in).

Also to alleviate the burden of marking, we go old-school: ticks and crosses against the final answer only. Working, misconceptions, the process of calculation count for nothing. Only the answer. *tick*.

The result is a charade: a dance of shadows where teachers act out something they call 'teaching' and students act out something they call 'learning'. Learner copies off the board and then waits. Teacher comes along and goes 'tick'. Inspector comes along and goes 'very good! Beautiful books'. Teacher smiles. Student smiles.

Nothing approximating the igniting of mathematical understanding has happened at all.

Game 2

Another interesting example of the Game. Who would've thought that a potential explanation for principals admitting students into their already over-full schools could be linked to salary scales?

Size of school -> Principal's payscale.

So here we have a payscale system that is trying to acknowledge those principals who are running schools of 1200 kids and that what they do is harder than running a school of, say, 300 kids. And that's fair enough. But the distorted behaviour that manifests is profound.

Game 3

The final interesting example comes down to advisor visits. I was really not very happy about my advisor visits (euphemism of the millenium). I was particularly not happy about being made to sign their report to acknowledge they had 'advised' me. They came on a day when I had no free time to chat with them, at a time when I was teaching all day, with no room for negotiation. They arrived late and then were frustrated when they had to leave late.

[It should be added that this rather rushed engagement was the result of a slightly tense interaction in which many emails over a period of about 5 weeks requesting an amicable visit went unanswered. I think they got upset when we contacted the powers-that-be and asked why we were not getting any responses to our requests for help.]

No effort was made to engage with what I have tried to do for remedial interventions with the students. The interventions were just 'me going off curriculum'. They poured over my files while I was in class and then I kind of got it with both barrels about 'not sticking to the pace-setter'. My protests of the students' weakness and knowledge gaps were met with the response "That doesn't matter. You must stick to the pace setter. These kids will keep you behind if you give them half a chance".

Give them half the chance? Perhaps them not getting half a chance might explain why they are in such a pickle in the first place? I'm not joking here: on the notes they gave to me they have literally written "do not let "don't understand" get in the way". I've been officially instructed to not worry if my students don't get it.

At this point in the hurried meeting I really was restraining my desperate urge to either pack up laughing hysterically or punch someone in the face.

But off we set on this game. They talked at me, s-l-o-w-l-y, showing me in monosyllabic terms the most unpedagogically sound mechanisms for teaching fractions I have ever seen, assuming that I didn't know how to teach this level of mathematics. I nodded, steam coming out of my ears, wishing they would go away or make an effort to get to know what I've done, what I can do and what I'm trying to do and actually advise me. No such luck. We just played the game. The Box-Ticking Game. Educator X has been 'corrected' and has been made to sign a document stating as much. School Y has been visited and can be ticked on the list. We've done our jobs here. This school is now 'right'.

I think it was John Maynard Keynes who said something about creating employment by paying people to dig holes and paying other people to fill them in again. This really sums up to me what our education system currently is. One very large, elaborate, expensive charade, a game to keep a few hundred thousand people employed. Which it does very well. But in the immortal words of Blackadder, there's only one teeny tiny problem....

It was bollocks.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

The difference between theory and practice is...

...that in theory there is no difference and in practice there is!

In about an hour I'm heading off to Seapoint to register for the 7th Mathematics Education in Society conference where I'll be presenting my Masters work and getting the opportunity to gather opinions and insights from people whose work I've been following for 5 years now. I'm rather excited!

More importantly, I've just reread the (very short! damn word count limits!) summary of my work I submitted ages ago as my conference application. I can't say I'm happy with it, but it was a furious click-send-at-23:59 submission so I shouldn't be surprised.

For those unaware, my Masters thesis is about teachers beliefs about mathematics teaching and language and how these things interact in the classroom. I'll do a follow up post about why very few South African children learn in their mother tongue and what implications research is showing from this (I'll delve into some of Neville Alexander's writing on language and political and educational emancipation to illustrate the point in said forth-coming blog. The topic deserves tomes of its own). Suffice to say for now, there is a very strong correlation between mathematics attainment and language of teaching and learning in SA. Of course, language of teaching and learning also proxies for many other variables that are known to have an effect on students' mathematical attainment, such as socio-economic circumstances, access to physical resources such as solid schools, textbooks and ICT equipment, access to human resources such as well-trained teachers etc. and this all comes saddled with the moribund gamut that is South African political and social history. But there's definitely something to the language variable on its own: across the world, students who learn in their home language learn better. It seems an obvious thing to say, but you'd be surprised at how controversial it is.

So I spent a month in a very rural school up in the Eastern Cape observing teachers and chatting to them about their thoughts about the role of language in their classrooms. Unsurprisingly, they didn't think it mattered much, and this is not an uncommon response. People think mathematics is symbols and numbers... the least language-dependent of the subjects. Not at all. Firstly mathematics is often described as a language itself. Choose a random textbook off the shelf and turn to the introduction. 10:1 says the first paragraph mentions something like "Mathematics is a language that... " or "Mathematics is the language which...". And like all languages, you learn what the NEW word/symbol/signifier means IN YOUR OWN LANGUAGE so that you can translate: attach meaning to the new squiggle on the page in terms you already know. What does "<" mean? What does "!" mean? How do we use the word "any" in mathematics and how is it different to the way we use it in the super market? Never mind overloaded terms such as "element" or "power". And then there's the discourse: how we talk mathematics. The way we rationalize our responses, structure logical arguments. A lovely example is Goldbach's conjecture (I had to look that one up because I always get it confused with Riemann's hypothesis. Oh well...). Goldbach's conjecture is still unsolved and is very easily stated. Something like this:

Every even integer greater than 2 can be expressed as the sum of two primes.

Simple huh? But every word is used in a mathematical way. The word "every". The word "expressed". The word "prime". Mastering such overloaded lexica AS WELL AS the style/register of mathematics is difficult enough in your own language, never mind a second language, and certainly not in a language that is--for all intensive purposes--foreign. 

So when our children are learning mathematics in English but they speak isiXhosa 90% of the time, well, making real meaning is very difficult. This combines with rote learning, teachers who are unconfident of their subject content knowledge and little linguistic resources to use to acquire English in order to acquire mathematics. The textbooks are in English. The exams are in English. And a kid who gets a question like "b) Hence, determine the roots of the new equation if p=0" ... well, you can guess what happens.

But I'm not happy with my conference submission for a couple of reasons:

In particular, the crappy word count doesn't give space to unpack and explore problematic terms such as "rural" or "poorly trained" teachers. When I describe the village as "homogenously isiXhosa speaking", well, it doesn't feel quite right: such a whopping big generalization is not au fait in academia. Grr... now I'll have to waste 5 of my 10 minutes of presentation time sounding defensive while I qualify what I meant when I wrote that near-midnight-rushed-submission. I promise the quality of the work is better than the submission! Promise!

Meantime, here's hoping I'll get to really chew the fat over some of the things troubling me about the research. Like validity issues around measuring and studying beliefs (ouch!).

One positive thing though. My work in my new school over the last 3 months has confirmed the major trajectory of the research. What teachers believe about their work is one of the core fundamental variables in determining what they are willing to try and how they are willing to change their practice. And effecting change in teacher practice is probably the single biggest thing we can do to improve our rather defunct education system. Connecting theory with practice! Here's hoping that comes through in the conference...

Friday, 29 March 2013

Revelations in layers of humanity

Over end-of-term drinks, our principal quite rightly related an anecdote all teachers can relate to. It's the response one gets from people when you answer their "so what do you do?" question. They always say:

"oh, that must be SO rewarding!"

We can tell you now, categorically, that many, many, many days it is not. When you are constantly fighting with rude obnoxious teenagers who don't care how much they ignore or upset you... "rewarding" is not the word that comes to mind. This ain't gardening you know, despite what all those cheesy motivational posters might say.

There are many reasons to dislike my job. I would, however, like to describe one big reason why I LOVE my job.

I ADORE my job because of the extra layers of humanity it has revealed to me in people so very different to me. Whether these revelations are indicative of an unhealthy mindset I have/had or what not, I have yet to figure out. But this much I know: I don't see car guards or wire-flower sellers any more. I don't see domestic workers or taxi drivers. I don't see security guards or Checkers bag packers or trolley pushers or garbage men.

I now can't help but see the fathers and mothers of my children. These are the parents of my students: the ones who I call to help me when their teen is being a brat. The ones who come to talk with me about their child and we smile and greet and share tea. The ones like Bongi who, on seeing a class being rude to me, stormed in as the angry matriarch she is and put the students in their place pronto quick. Like Clive, who always asks how I am before we start talking about how to make sure his son comes to school. Like Angel, who always supports my corrective measures towards either of her sons and calls me 'her child' and invites me into her home.

Thank you, my heart-breaking-exhausting-soul-dessicating job for these friends and these insights. My life is richer for the connection and the personhood I can now see and feel in these strangers I encounter every day.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

The trick is to keep breathing

Today was our last day at school for the first term. I have here a list of things to blog about which has been growing and growing for the last 3 weeks and never managed to get around to writing about any of it. It's a pity really: they are all good topics and, I think, quite interesting. Some included issues such as our contact and working with social workers and support NGOs to support our students with their issues at home, my first meeting with curriculum advisors, an incident with a student which got a bit physical, the interview process of finding new teachers to fill the vacancies left by those who have left us (and along with this, the loss of our second teacher), my first discussion about religion with my students, amongst others. I'll do my best to briefly touch on these and others in a summative blog post, otherwise I'll run the risk of putting you to sleep with a blog post longer than my arm.

But first, the end of term. The sense of profound relief is indescribable. I've lost count of the number of times this term I've thought I just can't go on. Honestly, I'm not sure how we all have. I'd be lying if I sort of nodded, smiled and said 'yeah, but that's how I roll: I'm tough like that'. Bulls@£t. I have wanted to run to my mummy and cry like a baby... and I have (except it was my husband). I have lost my cool with the kids, more than once (and paid the price for it). I have sworn and cursed and driven too fast and drunk too much in response to the stress. So no heroes here. I'm pleased to say I have not lashed out at my students--this is just not something I think I have in me. But boy oh boy, there are a few who I would secretly smile at if they tripped and fell. And I don't like this in myself. It doesn't last too long, I'm pleased to say: for the most part, I'm really starting to like my kids, even the naughty ones. But in the heat of the moment...

How have we done? On reflection, kind of ok I think. We have done some fun activities in the last few days to keep the kids engaged and in school: our attendance hasn't been great towards the end of term (maybe 70-75%?) but I suspect this is better than average at this time of year. We had the fight of maintaining the learning after the end-of-term assessments, an event that was another window into what our students considered 'normal'--the idea that we would teach after these assessments was met with much anger and confusion. Our students are truly used to their teachers marking in lessons while the students run amok. Some responded to the rational argument about lost lessons accumulating, others just had to be told straight. And of course, the other side of this struggle has been as teachers to not succumb to the temptation to utilize this expectation from the students to make our lives easier. Sure, we could've marked during lessons. I'd probably have gotten more than 6 hours of sleep a night if I had. Tempting? of course it is. Some of us held out better than others, but we were all tempted to do this. In this week we have had a day of 'sporty stuff', including obstacle courses, sack races, soccer, netball, tug-of-war (we broke a 2 inch thick rope! I truly wish I'd seen all the grade 8s fall to the floor simultaneously >:) ) and a treasure hunt. The kids loved it. They went bos!! (SA slang for crazy). Loud, fast, furious, and crazy! Their sense of being able to lose is non-existent: the rule of the day was if you won, it wasn't cheating, but if the other team won, it was. If you didn't help your class cheat, you were 'fixing it'. We all shook our heads in disbelief at the approach to competition that the children took. If you asked the teachers, we'd say the day was nuts. But if you asked the kids, they would say it was awesome. At the end of the day, they didn't want to leave. 'nuff said.

There's never a dull moment you know. If we're not liaising with social services about situations of potential abuse, we're reeling from the loss of another teacher, or watching our kids start a car wash business in the car park,  or wondering what to do about our students who eat the eugenia berries around the playground and sit in class farting intolerably as a result. Only just today, at our end-of-term awards ceremony, this small girl in my grade 8 class, a combination of shy and slightly chatty/cheeky, dressed up in her uxhentso traditional wear and transformed before our eyes into the most unbelievable 4 foot high umbongi (praise singer)!! She let forth in a huge voice--other-worldly in nature--a torrent of praise in isiXhosa to our headteacher, with her fly-switch of grass and her painted face, singing his praises for believing in them, for seeing a future for them, for coming to the community and building a school and how grateful the children were. The response from the staff and students alike was explosive: I have never jabbed my fist in the air as I did then. She was truly something else.

In the process she clapped him on the forehead with her fly switch. He only noticed as the trickle of blood dripped down his nose!! :D

Just when I think I know a student, I realise I don't. Just when I think I've got a class where I want them, they show me who is boss. Just when I think I'm getting enough sleep, something else crops up that needs doing: interviews, timetable, preparing for the curriculum advisors (this requires a separate blog entirely!) report entries and inter-colleague tensions that arise from this process. I won't lie: my alcohol intake has increased, in capacity and speed (as was evidenced by my boss's surprise at the rate I downed a 500ml cider at our post-school drink after school. Daily I'm horrified at a good student's capacity for lying and rudeness, at a troubled student's inability to empathize with his fellow students, only in the next hour to be over-awed at how happy 5 children are who got their reward of a KFC bucket and a coke each to share for lunch because they didn't miss a single day of their cleaning crew all term. In one day my class can raise me up from wanting to quit, and then another student puts me in an arm lock. Most of my students' marks are still terrible, and yet there are enough of them who have said in all honesty that they never knew they could like mathematics.

The next week brings loads of planning, a new school timetable as we welcome two new staff and a 5 day conference (MES7: where I will get to present my Master's research to an audience who represent an international body of experts on school's like mine. I'm really looking forward to taking what I have seen in the last 3 months and getting some alternative views on it. I could do with some ideas and inspiration for some of these issues. More posts about curriculum advisors and pedagogical stuff for those interested will follow shortly. In the mean time...


P.S. Props to any one who can post a comment naming the artist who sang the title song.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Creating spaces

Today warrants a special post about positionality, spurred by 2 contrasting events which just couldn't help but strike home.

Positionality is that schmancy academic word to refer to who you are relative to who others are... and how you negotiate your identities within the given context of the interaction, laden with history, power, appearance, income, language, race, accent, gender and anything else that might affect how you interact with people or they you.

SA is just a complete dogs breakfast when it comes to positionality. How you walk, how you talk, your accent, your dialect, your dress code, your gender, your car... and of course your language and your skin colour!!... are all used to pigeonhole you into a VERY specific, well defined and excessively laden identity within 5 seconds of meeting and greeting, an identity burdened with history and violence. Due to our geographical separation, for many people of many different identities, some physical spaces are so unfrequented by people of certain 'races' that you stick out like a sore thumb, branded by your melanin as an outsider.

For a 'white' person, a township is such a place. More importantly, South Africans walk around excessively conscientious of skin colour: their own and other peoples'. One of the first things that struck my students is the difference in our skin colours (I'll write another post soon about how my students see themselves due to their skin colour--that's a completely different can of worms).

So event 1 today.  I completely lost any cogniscence of my skin colour. In the moment of doing maths with my boys at the whiteboard after school, we were chatting away in isiXhosa and it just didn't feature. Not a blip on the radar. My hand pointed to the number next to theirs, the colours were so obviously not the same and yet our difference just melted away. It was the first time I haven't felt 'white'. It was awesome. I was told by a student over the weekend: "Ma'am, sometimes I forget that you are white. I speak isiXhosa to you and I forget." Forget please, sana, forget away. The more you forget my 'whiteness' the better. The more I forget my whiteness, the better.

Which brings me to Event 2. We went to the local township library today (myself and my colleague, who is learning isiXhosa). We got to chatting while we were in the library with a group of junior school age boys... ok, I admit: I got to chatting with them. In isiXhosa of course! My poor colleague following along as I showed off. One boy, quite a bright young fellow, was adamant!!! He kept repeating in isiXhosa "no, but you're an umlungu! (white person) you don't speak isiXhosa". Over and over. Incredulity maybe?

Then he asked me "so where did you learn isiXhosa? where? where?"... getting quite angry and adamant that this thing he was hearing/seeing didn't make sense and he was going to get to the bottom of this trick I was pulling on him.

Him: "where did you learn isiXhosa? where?"
Me: "where did you learn English?"
Him: "but WHERE did you learn isiXhosa?"
Me: "where did you learn English?"
Him: "at school! I learnt English at school!! Where did you learn isiXhosa?"
Me: "at school. Like you".

It was the cutest teasing ever. This poor thing was besides himself. Such things cannot be, umlungus who speak isiXhosa. For his 7 year old mind, this was a trick. A trick he was determined to discover.

Then I became another boy's party trick. His friend came into the library and he bounded up to his friend and said "I've found an umlungu who can speak isiXhosa! Like PEH-FEKT-LEE. Like perfect!" (very flattering-my Xhosa is NOT perfect).
Friend: "no way, you are lying".
Boy: "it's true, it's true! That one there! (point at me)".
Friend: "uh-uh... no way"
Boy: "yers, like perfectly!".

Eventually, when I continued my conversation with the first boy, the second one turned to his friend and said in the most precocious voice "Seeeeeee, I told you so!". I was his party trick, his frog-in-a-lunchbox :) it was awesome.

What do we do when we defy others' expectations of us? How many spaces and opportunities do we create for real connection when we buck the very rigid stereotypes created by a system of racial and economic engineering which are still so ubiquitous in our South African society? I'm hoping that this is a really valuable lesson for my students: to not judge someone by the colour of their skin. In SA, it's a lesson we all need to learn again and again.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Salvation in a teapot

It's been 3 weeks since the last blog post. Not that there hasn't been plenty plenty plenty to write about in the last 3 weeks, but this is rather an indictment on the time available in which to write about it.

The week after the last blog post felt like a genuine corner turned. Something clicked and for reason, for me, the kids were on side, on task and getting on with it. Despite trying to address the staff shortage issue, something worked for me in my classes...

I'm super pleased to say that since then, my relationship with my grade 9s has grown and grown. Despite grade 9 having such a bad rap as the really 'tough' year in high school, I think there is a difference for this cohort as the 'seniors' of the school. They ARE the big kids, and hence don't need to prove it. There is also a small advantage to the slightly older kids who have repeated a couple of years... they add that small core of maturity which you wouldn't get if the whole lot of them were 14. A few 16 year olds is actually working out well in this case.

But grade 8! Going into grade 8 feels like going into war. I drop my helmet, don my gas mask (in some cases, literally!! what are those kids eating?!?!) and venture forth ready for battle.

In the case of grade 8s, it feels like quite a few major factors are collaborating together. Our rooms are very long and narrow, and it feels like battling a dragon when you can only access the head. The classes are just that 3-kids too many too! Man, what a difference when a couple of them are absent! 33 I can manage. 36 is just over the tipping point. And you feel like a tennis ball between the back and the front of the classroom: you get the back to shush, and then the front starts up. The front is quiet, then the back starts. To be honest, on days when a troublemaker (and there's a critical mass of them!!!) is sleeping, I actually don't want to wake him/her up. I know I should. But can you blame me? It means the other 30 kids actually learn.

Also for me, grade 8s have somehow ended up later in the day. Man, you can set your watch by our kids' behaviour depending on the time of day. The first two lessons? Angelic, across the school (ok, almost angelic). After first break? Mmph, a bit rowdy, a couple of flare ups, but nothing a decent lesson plan and some routine can't sort out.

After second break? Good bloody luck to you. The Gizmos turn to Gremlins and it's just anarchy. And most of my grade 8 lessons are the last two of the day.

I thought it was just me. I thought I was missing something... but it turns out I'm not the only one who feels like this with Grade 8. I dread it. And of course, the kids detect this, the perceptive little $%£. I notice I find myself prioritising my Grade 9 planning, my grade 9 preparation. Which makes it worse of course.

The teacher voice in me says 'plan the crap out of them--blow them out the water with such an engaging lesson that they can't help but behave because they are too darn interested'. Easy to say unless you're on 5 hours sleep a night and working 80 hour weeks. Very easy to say. In situations like this, one can hardly be blamed for focusing on what works and picking the battles it feels like you might win.

The week before last was just hell. Something in the water? I don't know. Grade 8 were climbing the walls by 9am. What is it? Bad learning habits? Critical mass of students? Downward spiralling relationship? bad planning? Bad time of day? Combo? Probably. Either way, I need to find a way somehow of breaking out of this loop. It's like a really irritating record stuck on repeat and it's driving me mad.

My lousy grade 8 classes are enough to make me reflect on each day and dismiss it as a failure. My blood has boiled and I've had enough. Genoeg! KWANELE!

So here's the crux of today's post (I have so much else I could write about, specific or general, theoretical or practical: I'm just going with a brief update and one thought-for-the-blog)... focusing on positives. Small positives. Daily wins. Here are a few that are keeping me (and the others) ticking over:

-the students are starting to greet us in a genuine way instead of sarcastically. :)
-last week Thursday 6 students set up a couple of chairs in the courtyard and just started reading. They had borrowed some Roald Dahl from me, and some from the english teacher. Some had brought a book themselves to school. They sat in silence, propped up against each other, nose stuck in book, completely absorbed. It was awesome!!

-the choir did their first little song at assembly. They have improved so much in 4 weeks! 2 new very enthusiastic boys now want to sign up: they really enjoyed it that much.

-my grade 9s make me smile daily. I had the worst grade 8 lesson ever and then walking to my room next door to find they had, without being reminded, gone to fetch the brooms and cleaned my room.

-one grade 9 chased after me today to return a pencil I had lent him. Given how much of my stationery the grade 8s have been stealing, this melted my heart.

-one girl wrote in her journal that she 'is now no longer afraid of fractions and its so good'. :)

-we have books! Kind donations have started our library: we have 300+ books! It's great.

-one of my grade 9 boys who has such a naughty reputation got 70% in his maths test last week. Despite all the others' really bad marks, this really made me smile :)

--my grade 9s seem to genuinely enjoy maths. Like, really enjoy it. :) they are trying hard.

There are others. These are a few. Manna for my soul. Fuel for my tank. We're half way through term... let's see what the next 5 weeks bring. Right now my salvation is in small victories and my teapot or coffee thermos. Sterkte.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Reflections on chatting with some colleagues and friends about my job

It's been a while. Time for a blog post :)

About 2 weeks have passed since the last post. They have revealed that raw space where you really think you don't have anything more to give... that place when you find out if your convictions can take you forward or whether you'll cave in.

It's no one particular thing. In fact, overall, no one thing is particularly bad. It's rather the accumulation of many, many, many small things, unrelentless, crashing against you daily as the sea does rocks. We know that the sea wins eventually. Mostly it's the lack of sleep--that always makes everything feel much worse than it really is. You hear your own voice getting cross with kids who just won't shut up and realise how you're becoming that unpleasant shouty teacher because you're too tired to implement effective behaviour management. Bleh. The One Thing guaranteed to make you cave is sleep deprivation.

One teacher has decided to go--he has not come back.That's put the rest of us in a pickle as we have had to scramble for someone to take his classes. We had one unattended class when he was absent without notice; with that one chaotic unattended class the whole school environment felt like a 'typical township' school: loud and uncontrolled, kids running around yelling. That afternoon did not feel good... we felt like we were sliding backwards.

For some reason yesterday felt like a breakthrough point--that despite the tiredness and the daily battle to keep good order when the class next door erupts into a cacophony (in my last lesson there was a brawl in the classroom diagonally opposite with the usual chaos of a full on fight :P). It was a good breakthrough point: not the "I don't care" beaten point, but an "ah well, let's get on with it then" point.

Tonight I was kindly invited to share some thoughts and experiences of opening the school and was asked to provide a title for the evening. I chose the title "Doing things Differently"... and then during the entire discussion I didn't get to talking about exactly what it is we are trying to do differently! Although I felt like I only told the story as it was--honestly and factually--I realised by the end of the evening that everything had sounded hopelessly negative. What was a factual account of the status quo reflected the bleak landscape that our education system has become. As things currently stand, I am far too immersed in my daily local interactions to pick my head up over the parapet and see things at the system level. I won't apologise for that at this point: I think it's understandable to focus on the daily immediate stuff at this stage. Perhaps in a few months time when the school feels more established I'll look more holistically at a system level, but for now focusing on the daily bread and butter issues is understandable.

I think sounding negative is also justifiable, if not entirely healthy. So sorry to those folks who listened to me problematize the education system (or shoot down their suggestions), although I'll stand by my answers as accurate. After all, we can't start to find solutions that will work if we don't understand the inter-related complexity of the problem. Ignoring the reasons why solutions won't work doesn't make them work after all.

But let me lay out here why I chose to call the evening "doing things differently". I still believe that we are doing things differently at our new school. Here's a few ways how:

--we're still looking for the potential in the kids instead of the problems. We're still holding the perspective that punishment and sanctions are not to be implemented blindly.

--we're doing our best not to forget those quiet kids who get drowned out by the bad behaviour. For my own part, I know almost all the names now. It's made a huge difference. In fact, that is one way in which we are doing things differently to the norm (sadly, it is the norm-in most schools, the teachers don't know the kids by name).

--we home-visit. We go to the kids homes and see where they live, meet them  and their families in a different environment. Home-visits haven't stepped up proper yet but we do them. That's different.

--we're looking for the resources to create experiences and opportunities for our kids that they wouldn't normally access. This is important to us.

--we're not giving up.

yes, that's different. Very different. 90% of the dysfunctionality in public schools is when (understandably) people have given up. We're not giving up. Despite 2 laptops getting stolen, we're not giving up. Despite the kids who do not understand the idea of not hitting each other, we're not giving up. Despite how truly awful that lesson after second break feels when the sun is baking us all like sardines in our tin-can-classrooms...we're not giving up. Despite some of us still waiting for our paychecks, we're still not giving up.  Yes, the silly things like the fact that we still don't have rulers (! arbitrary to everyone except a maths teacher!!), or that we can't have a photocopier that does collation and double-sided (apparently we aren't a big enough school to warrant saving time or paper)... those little things feel big on top of everything else. We're still working with porta-loos, and we need to bolt everything to the floor to stop it going walking... we're one man short and I've got to mark an extra 200 tests over the weekend on top of the other 100 homeworks and 60 books and feel like crying...

but I'm not giving up.

At least not yet.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Now the real battle begins.

A brief update between piles of tests being marked...

Pushing the envelope: BIG time

Ah, the novelty has worn off. The whole 'ooh new school' feeling has been replaced by 'what?!? homework?!? f£$k th@£ sh!£" feeling and the kids are pushing back BIG time. It really does feel like sitting on a suitcase with the most obnoxious troll inside... we've just got to sit tight and make sure we don't let up the pressure. Which is rough. Especially when you're beyond tired. I've let a couple students slide already this week who I need to mop up tomorrow and Thursday--they think they've gotten away. Ha! Not so fast.


I love lists. Nay, ADORE lists. My life is just one big long list of lists which is constantly shifting and updating all the time. One day I might be able to make head or tail of them. But for now, at least, I know each student is on a list. Somewhere.

First home visit

Went to chat with a mum today... she came to see me at the school and she was on crutches! So I gave her a lift home and we chatted in her living room about her children who are both at the school. A great lady--keen to support, offered to take a phone call any time. So a positive. Especially after some of the other difficulties in contacting or meeting parents.

The picture swims into focus

I'm finally starting to see what I'm working with here after marking part of the avalanche of diagnostic tests last week. Bleak, dire, despair... um, no still not finding the right word. I don't know how these kids have been allowed to continue like this for so long without having their learning deficits addressed. And it's not like they couldn't do it--they are not stupid. A travesty. Yes, that's what it is. A travesty. Of the worst kind. I still haven't manned up to the task that lies ahead for the rest of the year. I'm still living by da river dey call DeNial. It's ok, for now my sanity lies there. But I'm going to have to take a deep breath and plunge soon into the seriously hectic remedial programs. Right after I have developed them.

That's it for now: the initial 'whoop whoop-new school' feeling has worn off rather quickly. We're now fighting against the slide into the 'look-the-other-way-because-I-can't-handle-this' approach that happens in most SA public schools: we're now fighting for the school we really want. We've got a helluva fight on our hands.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

10 days like no other

Apologies for such a long hiatus since the last post. To say the start of school has been crazy must be the understatement of the millenium. Here's a breakdown of what's happened since we opened the doors of the school 2 Wednesday's ago... it's about 3 blogs in one.


So, it's the eve of the opening of the school and finally the desk delivery rocks up... 40 desks short. Safe to say the idea of opening the school to a community, to whom we've been desperately selling the idea that this school is going to be different, without enough desks is NOT appealing. The only thing that's saved our goose is that no where near a full contingent of students actually rocked up on the first day. Despite a whacking long waiting list of students who want to get in, there's definitely an existing expectation for schools like ours that things only kinda start to get moving in the first few days of term (I've mentioned that having a timetable before the start of the school year was considered exceptional). In my own class of 30 I only had about 22 on Day 1. Good thing in hindsight, as we didn't have enough desks for all of them! Fortunately the remainder were delivered in the first day of term.

We finally got a photocopier this week Tuesday, 4 days into term. Working without a photocopier or printer was really hard, especially since I needed to administrate extensive diagnostic tests in the first full week of term (I have no idea what I'm working with!). Last Sunday involved R400 spent at UCT on photocopying (this after a trip to an internet cafe because UCT printers weren't working). On the Monday I still had to bolt down to the local postnet at lunch time and blow a further R400 to copy the last of the tests I needed for that afternoon since I'd maxed out my credit at UCT. The photocopier we finally got on Tuesday jams on every 3rd page--no fun when you need to make 300 copies of a 5 page document. It's time-consuming frustrations like this that have contributed to the absolute exhaustion in the first week for me and the other staff.

Candle at Both Ends

Within 5 days of actual school, the staff started comparing how much weight we'd all lost through sheer lack of opportunity to eat. The max came in at about 3.5kg in a week. Most staff were still sending emails flying at 1am in the morning for planning and coordinating activities and lessons, so the average sleep was pitching at around 5 hours a night for everyone. We'd meet up again at 7am the next morning to tackle the day. As for me, I'm struggling to find clothes that don't hang off me in a really unpleasant baggy way. I've worn out 2 pairs of shoes in 8 days in the dust and dirt of the school site, being on my feet all day.

But I've managed to squeeze in one run and a cycle in two weeks. By Wednesday I was feeling desperate and unable to continue--I parked the pile of work I had and put on my running shoes. All of a sudden, my head cleared and I could think straight. A solid run put me back on track again, getting rid of the stress and allowing me to sleep properly.

But I'd recommend starting a school as a sure-fire weightloss strategy.
Breaks have been spent running around doing photocopies, trying to shepherd students into staying in the school grounds when the gate wasn't closed (more on this later), keeping students in who wasted time settling down between lessons or didn't do their homework and generally enforcing the strict lines drawn in the school code-of-conduct. We've literally laid down the riot act. And it's been extensively time consuming and exhausting. Last Friday I drove past a good friend's place of work on the way home and popped in to say hi. She asked me how I was and I just burst into tears. I fell asleep at 8pm after a stiff drink. At the moment, a stiff drink seems to be the guarantee of sleeping peacefully without frequent interruption. A habit I do not intend to indulge.

The Riot Act

Ok, it really felt like I did nothing but read the riot act to my mentor group for the first day. I confess, despite my misgivings expressed in the previous blog post on punishment, I went in strong. Not punishing, but certainly drawing very firm lines. Again, it's become clear in the first week and a half of school that my students often (not all!!) lack any form of structure in their lives: things ebb and flow unpredictably and almost anything goes. So this is a new experience for them--coming to school on time, wearing uniform correctly, not sticking gum all over the floors, teachers starting lessons on time, homework being checked and consequences for not doing it... I've not felt I have any room to be anything but very firm on these things. Apparently I've gotten a bit of a reputation in the first 8 days of school. Can't say I'm too cracked up about it. It's maintaining my sanity.

Honey pot

We anticipated a lot of the problems and pre-empted them. We made the expectations clear from the front and, on the whole, the students responded well to them.

What we didn't anticipate was how quickly the school would become a honey pot to nefarious influences from outside our boundaries. On the first day of lessons at first break, the gate at the top was still unlocked and, despite a permanent security presence, a gang of rather unpleasant young men swarmed into the school and strutted around haranguing our students as they pleased. Even during lesson time, I came across a student waiting outside a class to speak to a teacher and he'd been found by 2 of these guys... one on each shoulder like the angel and devil scene so common in cartoons. This kid looked like he wanted the ground to swallow him whole with these 2 tsotsis pinning him between them like a sandwich. I told them to get off school property with threats of police and we have tightened up security big time, but even on Tuesday last week I still saw a guy hanging around the edge of the playground: having scaled the fence he was looking to push drugs to our students and bolted as soon as he saw me. He came back twice to see if I was gone (which I wasn't--I was on playground duty). But the threat is there.

We've also been picking up the tell-tale signs of our students being involved in gang activity: graffiti in the boys toilets between rival gangs proliferated within 3 days of school opening, resulting in us locking the boys toilets and making the boys use the porta-loos set up in the playground. I've also caught boys 'tattooing' their gang names and symbols on themselves in class with ballpoint pens, and drawings in their books which are truly disturbing. Again, the threat is there... it is going to take a long time to get these boys feeling safe and thinking that there are alternatives places for affirmation without being part of gangs. Keeping them in school for most of the day and keeping the tsotsis out will be key. But it's going to take a while.

Theft on campus

Unfortunately we've already had a teacher's laptop stolen on Tuesday. The police were called in but the bluff was called and the students stayed schtoom. The incident just reaffirmed my conviction that I was not bringing personal things of great value to school--it's very easy to forget where we are. So no handbag, no credit card, a cheap phone and a cheap watch. At worst I will lose my house keys which will piss me off. Otherwise, they can take the lot. I've nothing with me that I'm particularly attached to.


Another thing we anticipated but just weren't emotionally prepared for was how violent the students are towards each other. Kicking and hitting each other at the slightest dispute is standard--who knows what kind of behaviour they have witnessed and become immersed in that this level of violence is the order of the day. I have had to intervene in several incidents of minor violence and one student was extracted from class on Friday for pummelling another for a verbal sleight. The firm boundaries are going to be key to stamping this out, along with the constant drawing on the code of conduct which we are trying to ground in values--respect, care and honesty. Here's hoping that driving the message home calmly, firmly and consistently will work.

We've seen a massive improvement in behaviour in only 8 days of school in terms of punctuality, attendance, uniform, quick transition between classes, staying within school bounds and not disrupting class. Here's hoping we can get the message into student-to-student interactions too.


I have tested the crap out of these poor kids this last week. Most have not provided report cards from their prior schools, and for those who have, their maths scores are regularly below 40%. I've literally just finished marking the first set of tests for my grade 9s and the results are beyond depressing--some are struggling with the very basics. I feel angry and dismayed: what have their previous teachers been doing for the last 8 years of their education? How can they have been lied to like this for so long?

The test in question is a base-line grade 8 test intended to allow us to draw a base line for new arrivals to high school. The grade nines are not really scoring above 30% on a grade eight test. Issues such as place value, where decimal commas go, number bonds, multiplication tables and Cartesian coordinates are coming up frequently. I haven't even begun to try and assess where language is causing the problem. Oh well-- I suppose it will be difficult to go anywhere but up from here. But it really is truly, terribly disturbing.


I have always had a fantasy about organising and conducting a choir of kids for whom singing is as much of a joy and pleasure as it is for me: kids who burst into song spontaneously with gusto and vibrance. Well, that time has come. And it is beyond anything I could've imagined... I get slightly high when the kids sing.

At the first choir practice, the kids asked if they could sing an isiXhosa song. I told them I'd be very disappointed if they didn't!!! They launched into some fabulous songs--simple, repeated refrains with slightly asynchronic timing and loose harmonies... but always beautiful, even if rough and unpolished, it was raw and heartfelt. I taught them a 3 part song we created in reading club which is an appeal to parents to read to their children at home: the lyrics of the altos repeat over and over "Funda, sifuna ukufunda, sifuna ukufunda nani nonke" (Learn, we want to read, we want to read with you all).

The next day in assembly, this was the song the kids chose to sing at the principal's request that they sing a song (assembly will always involve singing). The choir turned around and indicated I should mouth the words to the rest of the school who didn't know it. I haven't been advertising too loudly that I speak some isiXhosa to the students so the shock on their faces was, I have to say, pretty cool. The hall roof lifted with the song from reading club--it was ethereal.

Speaking isiXhosa

As mentioned, I havent been shouting from the rooftops that I speak some isiXhosa, for a few reasons. Firstly, I'm rusty, and I don't want to embarrass myself. Secondly, as soon as students discover I speak isiXhosa, they only speak to me in isiXhosa and trying to 'charm me over' if you like "oh miss, please give me my phone" (I've confiscated at least 10 so far. Other tallies include about 13 pairs of earrings and 5 hats).. "oh miss, you look so pretty today"... conversations that are appropriate for peers, but not between students and teachers.

Thirdly, it's a bit underhanded, but it gives me a trump card that the students are not expecting. For example, one student started making comments to his friend about the shape of my backside. He did not expect to be pulled aside and blasted in isiXhosa about respecting his teachers and respecting women. It was very effective. He has been far better since, and yet has come to talk to me in a respectful but appreciative way. The relationship was set straight with that one conversation--I understand you and I insist that if you want me to respect you, you must respect me. End of.

That said, we've been trying to translate our code of conduct and letters to parents into isiXhosa. I'm still wrestling with how I will try to implement the multilingualism I believe in in my lessons and my school practice, and how I will find the time and resources to do this on top of all the demands that simply teaching requires in general. I do slip in a few phrases when trying to bring the kids round, or to lighten things up a bit. But I'm not claiming any kind of fluency and certainly am not wanting to give the impression of fluency either.

We had  our first parents' meeting yesterday morning. Due to start at 9am, we were all a little crestfallen at the start when we had maybe 20 parents at most. The principal showed his experience and tact in how he discussed the vision of the school and our expectations of the students, drawing the parents in as partners in this project most dexterously. But a low turn-out meant that for all his skill and diplomacy, his words would only reach the converted.

By 9:30, however, the hall was full. The teachers yielded their seats to make more space for the steady trickle of people coming through the doors to hear our message and give their thoughts on what we are trying to do with the school.

By 10, there was barely standing room.

Thrilled! We're just thrilled. We never anticipated such a turn-out!! And, if initially the parents were thinking 'mm, this all sounds a bit strict', a few vocal community members took the opportunity when it came for an open-floor conversation and really let rip into how if they didn't take this opportunity and didn't support the good work the school was doing, then the kids would be lost and how we must do it for the kids. Slowly the agreement started to build, until there was resounded unanimity behind the movement. We couldn't have hoped for better. All of a sudden, this feels more than possible. This feels probable.

So we stand on the cusp of our second full week of school. I know about 80% of the names of my kids which is proving immensely helpful, and am keeping notes in a slightly OCD way on each child's character, learning and behaviour: good and bad. I probably won't be able to keep up this level of attention but I'm hoping after a couple more weeks I won't need to: things will settle into a rhythm and I'll know the kids better as they will me. The classes of 36 are tough on this front but I think they are capped at that number (thank goodness! more on my feelings about recent debates in the newspapers about admissions policies and class sizes in another blog).

Here we go: week 2!! A plan is in place, the data is there to be analyzed and used to develop strategies (read that as "I have a shitload of marking to do"). I've been asked to join the school's senior management team, a duty which will start in earnest next week. More coming soon.

Friday, 11 January 2013

Bolt from the blue.

This sh!t just got real folks.

So we started 'unofficially' with staff yesterday. After about 100 hours doing the timetable and dispairing at the fact that we can only fit half the kids in half the classes (an interesting timetabling constraint!!) i finally made peace with the bits I didn't like and presented it to my colleagues today. To say it was a relief is a massive understatement! And, much to my comfort, they were very understanding about the nature of timetables. Some were quite complimentary actually. Apparently having a timetable in place before the kids arrive is rather unusual in SA public education. Now ain't that an indictment...

We are 9. 10 with the HT. 11 with the admin lady. We're in 7 classrooms of welded-together crates, painted in some nice bright colours, with a separate hall which is a bit of a schlep up the hill: 8 classes running in total all the time, 4 per grade. At least we get a little bit of downtime... at any one point, one member of staff is not teaching. I've learned in the last week that that too is a luxury in SA education where there is no such thing as protected planning/preparation time. Me? I'm teaching 25 hours a week.

There are 2 'sites': a site within a site if you like. The first is the small area where we'll all be working, fenced off and alarmed (!). The level of security makes me feel uneasy and relaxed at the same time. On the one hand one does not want to feel like you're in a prison. On the other, you need to be realistic about where you're working. Being naive or blase will not help anyone.

The hall is outside this, but otherwise it is access controlled and we park inside. The larger 'site' is the bigger stretch of land on the mountainside, including an old swimming pool, old zozo huts from the previous institution that owned the place and a LOT of Port Jackson weed. The larger site is the area on which the Department of Education will be building the proper final school structures over the next 18 months (here's hoping--who knows when it comes to building time scales). This site is accessed from 2 sides: one from the township where most of our students stay, and the other from a suburb which was an ex-apartheid 'whites only area'. The school effectively sits in what was previously termed the 'buffer zone' in apartheid parlance (although the local estate agent still seems to think this is an ok term to use. We told her we weren't interested in dealing with racists when she described the arrival of the local GP as "a relief: we thought he was only going to treat black people". She was a charming character indeed. Not at all unusual for the area I suspect).

We're still waiting on desks and loos (!) which we're hoping are going to arrive next week before kids arrive on Wednesday. With the timetable in place, the next task is designing diagnostic tests to find out what the kids do and don't know. Chances are that they are at least a year behind, probably more, so the year's planning will need to go back to the basics and fill in as much as is feasible. I'm grateful for another experienced maths teacher on site, even though he will be split between maths and science. A fellow maths teacher brain is a godsend at this point.

Also warming to the heart is how well my ideas and suggestions for working in bilingual additive maths learning have been received by my colleagues. The dictionaries provided by my friends at PRAESA (you know who you are!) are sources of joy and delight to all the staff and we're super excited about leveraging students' home language to understand maths better AND improve their English. I'll also be trying out some techniques used in California (See Khisty in Barwell 2009) for Spanish-speaking students simultaneously learning maths and English (letter writing to your teacher explaining your maths thinking behind your answer! How awesome is that?) and will keep you posted on how these go.

On a last note, yesterday was a major wake up call as to how embroiled (and not a little self-indulgent) I have become in academic communities and thinking. We ain't in Kansas any more Toto. You can take your theories of Bourdieurian cultural capital and shove them where the sun don't shine. And yet, there is no point to all that if there is not some way of reconciling the theory with the real. So I'll also reflect on that occasionally as I traverse this quagmired labyrinth with my colleagues and my students.

As our HT quite rightly said: fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy ride.