Friday, March 23, 2012

Observations at Dexter School

What a busy time in my life! I had to make time specifically just to write up this blog post. PGCE is a hectic, hectic time- when I was told how busy I'd be I didn't really believe it would be like this. This year, I'm in a class of about 25 Foundation Phase student teachers at Rhodes. There are about 25 more students in Intermediate Phase (Grades 4-7, ages 10-14) and 50-ish in FET (High School). Every day, I'm in lectures from 8:30 until 4pm with a tea break and lunch break. I feel like the assignments are piling up, but I'm satisfied with the few marks I've received so far. I only hope that the work does not overwhelm me, the assignments we have been given are not so much difficult as just time-consuming. The PGCE course is hard work but rewarding, and occasionally I still get the feeling of "Wow, I'm actually discussing topics that interest me during a lecture and on purpose!".

Last week, I did my first ever teaching observation at a local school, Dexter School (not it's real name). It was the first time I've ever been in a classroom ever since my final year of high school! I attended the school, which is in the Grahamstown township, for three days, and their language of instruction is isiXhosa. As part of my PGCE, I have to take a conversational isiXhosa credit, but my actual grasp on the language is non-existent. Here's a breakdown of my experience. 

I was in a Grade 1 class on Monday along with a fellow student teacher, where I observed their school day. It was difficult understanding what was going on at times, due to the language difference, but I managed. I did sharpen about 30 pencils and, rather shockingly, had blisters from doing this! I've been pampered by typing all of these years... On Tuesday and Wednesday, however, I was in a Grade 3 class. For large portions of both days, my host teacher was out of class, attending workshops and meetings. This left me having to be an impromptu teacher! During our briefing, they told us that we wouldn't be doing any actual teaching, but just observing with maybe a few 'small steps' towards teaching- such as reading to the class. Instead, I did the following:

On Tuesday morning, halfway through the numeracy lesson, I was suddenly left alone with the class- I was given no notice. I marked their numeracy work that was done and then, at a bit of a loss, lead a rhythm game of clapping hands and clicking fingers- the children took a while to understand what I wanted (for them to copy me) but they seemed to enjoy the game. I had desperately hoped that it would help me take control of the class, and in hindsight I think it did. I then managed to continue with a numeracy lesson on the board, writing up simple bonds and asking the children to come up and fill in the answer. When the energy seemed to go out of the room, I started rewarding correct answers (or guesses, as many children came up to the board and wrote wildly wrong attempts) with a blue sticker on their hand. That worked better than I expected, every child wanted a sticker, and when the lesson was over I gave the rest of the children a sticker as a reward for participating. I consider it an okay lesson, considering the learners spoke no English and I spoke no isiXhosa! Upon returning from break-time, the children automatically started rote-reading from an isiXhosa reader, clearly they had read it many times before and one child was even 'reading' with his eyes closed. During this activity, the teacher came back and I gratefully returned to only observing.

On Wednesday, the teacher asked me to take the English lesson- with no preparation time! It was the first English lesson that my class had experienced, 3 months after the start of the school year. The teacher's union in the Eastern Cape has declared a go-slow in protest over the government not renewing the contracts of many teachers. Due to this, my host teacher, part of the union, decided not to bother teaching English: she pointed out that she had labelled the door, wall, board and her table in English and she felt that was sufficient. From next year, these students are going to be expected to use English as their primary language in school, all the way until they graduate, and it made me sad to see that they were not being taught any English at all in this class. I feel that if I was not observing the class, no English would have been taught at all.

On to my last-minute English lesson. I attempted to be confident and took the class through a few renditions of Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes, and then quizzed the whole class on which body parts were which. After that, I hastily drew a bus on the board and performed a careful narrative of the Wheels on the Bus, complete with actions. The children did not understand my explanations in between verses ("Here is a mother and a little baby! *mimes rocking a baby* What noise does a baby make?" - Silence, then one brave boy puts up his hand and does a the noise and action of a bus swooshing past instead: he had thought I had asked about a bus, not a baby), but the whole class enjoyed reciting the song and doing the actions. Their teacher actually wrote down the different verses, really I hope that she will do the song again with them.

After break-time, I continued with the English lesson. During the break, I drew a head/shoulders/knees/toes and eyes/ears/mouth/nose on the board, clearly labelled. I asked the students to draw and label the drawings in their workbooks, but their teacher had to use code-switching- she repeated the instructions in isiXhosa in order for them to understand. I then marked their work, corrected their spelling, and gave each child a sticker in their books. This section was encouraging in a way, as some children had personalised their drawing, instead drawing wonderfully creative boy/girl figures. It was also very helpful to have the host teacher actually in the class (doing administrative work), as she could repeat the instructions in isiXhosa if a student did not understand. On the downside, some children could not understand the simple task of copying the words and drawings from the board. One particular boy came back to me three times, requesting I mark his work, when he had just drawn a boy and not put any labels on- despite being told to do so in his home language. By the third time, my host teacher just instructed me to "leave him, he is in Group 4". This meant that he was in the lowest academic group and she did not expect him to ever understand that basic task, so I mustn't waste time continuing to work with him. I worried greatly about the boy, but signed his work and gave him a sticker for effort- he gave me a big smile.

What I felt negative about at Dexter School:
  • The huge range of academic ability in an individual class
  • The fact that drastically lower-performing children were just left to their own devices, no attempt was made to give them individual help
  • A handful of children, often the low-performing ones, were also very underdeveloped physically for their age- presumably due to malnutrition
  • I found out after my observation that the children were physically beaten with a pipe as punishment when they misbehaved- I did not see this happen though each class had a length of pipe they were using as a 'pointer'
  • I did not like the way my host teacher shouted at children if they misunderstood or did not listen to her instructions
  • The class was not at all performing to the educational standards in numeracy or English
  • My host teacher did not use any lesson plan or even follow a timetable
What I found positive about this school:
  • The students are very eager to learn, they were jumping out of their seats (literally) to be called on to answer a question, even if they didn't not actually know the answer
  • The school is well-resourced by various educational projects, they have beautiful new textbooks provided to them
  • A nutrition programme is in place, nearly all of the children have lunch provided free by the government, a huge benefit due to the poverty of the area
  • Some effort is made at having a print-rich environment in the classroom
  • The staff and principal were very welcoming to me, and asked me to return there for my teaching practice if possible
The language barrier was the greatest challenge I had to face. On day 2, I had written out a 'cheat-sheet' with phrases such as "I am learning isiXhosa", "I speak English" and "I am pleased to meet you" on it in isiXhosa, and read them out to my Grade 3 class when I was left alone with them, but I don't know if it made any impact at all- none of the children reacted to my statements so I don't even know if I pronounced them correctly! I did not pick up any new words or phrases, but I could probably recognise the phrase the students used for "I'd like to leave the room", since they asked that one a lot. I did become more comfortable with using "Molweni/Molo" (Hello) and "Enkosi" (Thank you), but I was frustrated that I could not express myself in any other way. A lot of children in South Africa struggle with having to use a language in school which is not their own (such as my class having to transition into only speaking English in school from next year), and I really experienced the flip-side of that last week. I will continue to try with my isiXhosa lessons, but I feel that only having one lesson and one tutorial per week is not enough and I hope that I stay motivated: I do not have conversational proficiency in any language except English and it would be greatly beneficial to know enough isiXhosa to have a conversation.

Many schools that my fellow student teachers visited were also township schools. They all struggled with similar problems that I experienced. A handful of students were placed at far more privileged schools, either private schools or ex-Model C schools, and experienced far more positive observations. The vast difference between the schools with 16 in a class compared to those with 83 in a class were pretty shocking. One township school has not had running water since last year June, and so their students went to the toilet on the school field. One student teacher was not assigned a host teacher: instead she got a classroom full of rowdy children, with no curriculum, plan or worksheets, and was told to just deal with them.  One of the private schools has a remedial programme where the children who are struggling are given extra help, another has a pilates center and indoor swimming pool. All in all, it's hard to not feel discouraged because so many of the students in our town are in these failing schools while the students in the wealthier schools tend to have a much better, enriching experience.

I did manage to enjoy myself on my observation, despite all of the problems. If I hadn't been placed in such a disadvantaged school, I may not have had the teaching experience I now have. From a personal point of view, I've now been into the townships and seen one of their schools- growing up in the suburbs, I had previously no experience or reference point for the townships and now I do. I greatly underestimated what resources the school would have, and was quite pleased to see so many dedicated students and staff there. What teaching I did do, I really enjoyed- though the language problem was a real problem for me. I hope that I get placed in an English medium school for my actual teaching practices, a member of the Department indicated that would be the case.

There is so much more I can write, the course is so interesting and I'd love to spend time documenting each method and subject I have- but sadly, that will have to wait until another time: hopefully before my first teaching practice in June!