Saturday, May 29, 2010

Classrooms in SA

Recently I have been observing Grade 1 classes in Grahamstown schools in preparation for my Masters thesis. This has helped me get a feel for the reality in many classrooms and the thoughts of teachers in the impoverished schools in Grahamstown. The surrounding context of these schools is not the lush green lawn and playground safely bound in a security tight fencing. Some of the schools I have been to do not even have sporting facilities, no jungle gym or swings for the younger children. The view from the classrooms are the mudhouses and shacks some of these children walk from everyday, derelict “homes” that are at the mercy of any whim of the Grahamstown weather. I have made various observations from visiting these classrooms and interacting with teachers who are doing the most important job in South Africa with the least recognition.

Today I was with a teacher who has been in the profession for 41 years! And this is her final year in the classroom, she's retiring with another colleague of hers who has also been teaching for a similar period. Another teacher I spoke to earlier this year has been a teacher for over 30 years...both in Grade 1 classrooms consistently. What I'm beginning to realise is that most of the teachers in Foundation Phase are much older and starting to retire. What does this mean for the classrooms in South African schools? This is even more frightening as few young black people are not interested in becoming teachers to educate the masses of African language-speaking children in in their mother tongues. I wonder why we bother advocating a mother tongue education in the formative years if the numbers we have in people who are trained and qualified to do the job do not meet the demands.

Apart from talking to the teachers about their experiences I’m also learning about their practice and what it takes to teach children how to read and write-often many walk into these classrooms with little or no knowledge of these skills. Being able to read and write is something I think many of us take for granted. Something as simple as reading an sms needs the skills we learned way back in Grade one. I still remember feeling like a writer in Grade one when the entire school magazine was made up of our stories. Apart from the fact that I was not educated in my mother tongue (this only happened in my third year at varsity), I was still able to express my creativity and put a few sentences together to form a coherent story. I had the privilege of a school library that was made accessible to all learners everyday and a community library in walking distance that supplied me with the kind of books I need to get as much exposure to reading as possible. This is not the case for many of the learners I saw in these classrooms. School libraries and even a classroom library is non-existent, where there is a library in the community, the librarians face the problem of encouraging learners to read books purely for enjoyment and not just the functional purpose of school projects. Observing in classrooms I realise that this was not possible for all children. The classes are as big as 40, the teacher uses creative means of monitoring each child in the classroom regardless of the fact that legislation proposes a ratio less than this. Having 40 children in a class means that the teacher is not able to know if all the children in the class are able to read. In another classroom I observed how language becomes a barrier to learning in a classroom where English is used for teaching and learning especially if the teacher does not have any knowledge of the learner’s mother tongue. It’s a pity some parents cannot make the time to visit their children’s classes the way I have been able to as I think they would feel differently about having their children taught in almost a foreign language to their children, albeit it is the supposed global language (and this is very debatable), English.

It’s frustrating reading about the dismal failure rates in South African schools in mostly rural and township schools when the matric results are released. It’s even more frightening seeing how the calamity begins at a Grade 1 level as I’ve been witnessing this past week. The purpose of this insight is not to berate the teachers but share my experience of the conditions in South Africa’s classrooms. It is not a surprise that the results from an international reading study, PIRLS, in 2006 showed that South Africa was the worst performing country when our Grade 4 and 5 learners where included in the study. The test was administered in the languages that the children where exposed to in their classrooms and learners who were being taught in Afrikaans were the better performers, followed by those learning in English and learners taught in African languages were at the bottom. Not only were South African learners reaching below the mean set out in this study, we were worse off than countries who weren’t spending as much as we are in education.

I’m making many claims in this article: we need more teachers for education in the formative years, we need more teachers who can teach in the African languages in South Africa, we need smaller classrooms, we to make literacy an important part of our education by having communities that support literacy through mobile or community libraries, we need civic involvement in education where the results become everybody’s problems and not just the teachers. And I’m sure we all agree on these imperatives, but underlying them all is the need to address the inequalities we see in our communities because until this is done, our classrooms will be a reminder of how we are failing masses of the children in South Africa.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Beyond the mountain-more mountain*

I know the residues of apartheid in my own life: my father’s limited opportunities because of a lack of quality education, my mother’s precarious psyche that was affected by the traumas of living through apartheid and the lack of dignity that poverty can cause in ones life. Somehow because of my education (formal, informal and spiritual guidance) I find that I am a unique position where I have not been limited by my past, South Africa’s past. It wasn’t until I came to Grahamstown to study at Rhodes that the reality of what still needs to be done to address the inequalities in our society became clearer. The question of redress in South Africa is still a sensitive one.
The beauty of a small town like Grahamstown is that everything is in walking distance. Traversing from the lush suburb area in town into Joza and Tantyi is a simple 15 minute walk but the inequalities one sees are enormous and need an entire change of a system to address. 16 years later little has changed: some of the roads are tarred, there are new houses in Joza, new street lamps and pavements as well as new robots at a busy intersecction but one cannot ignore the derelict houses made of wattle and daub that can capsize at any moment.

This is not a sight unique to Grahamstown but across South Africa’s towns and cities. Apartheid is still evident and what is even more evident is the failure of municipalities since 1994 in addressing service delivery. Refuse and waste is not removed from many townships adding to the squalor in communities. The complexities in institutions that have been mandated to address the standard of living in South Africa have failed on so many levels. Beyond the mountain of apartheid that was overcome more than 15 years ago there is another mountain of transforming society and changing an entire culture of people’s thinking towards civic involvement and accountability from government.

But how does this really happen? How are cultures that were deeply entrenched by centuries of oppression and discrimination change into a culture where all people are treated with dignity and it is not simply lip service? How are minds changed from a place of apathy into action? How do we climb the mountains ahead when it seems that the first mountain is still blocking the vision of where we want to go as a nation?
*Haitian proverb, the last line quoted in O R Tambo’s biography by Luli Callinicos

My First Time Confronting Sexism Head On

Growing up in an urban setting (mostly in flats in the CBD of East London) I learned very early in my teens that I didn’t own my space when I walked out in public. Like many women who are dependent on public transport and public areas waiting for taxis, the mail gaze has always been part of my daily bread.

When I asked my mother and older sisters about a strategy in dealing with men’s comments in public I was often told, “su’bahoya wethu, a’khonto babhetere ngayo” (Don’t worry yourself about [men], they’re not worth your attention”). This didn’t allay my frustrations because it seemed that the less vocal women were in these public spaces, the louder men became. The attack on the woman at the Noord taxi rank was a prime example of what happens to many women across South Africa. I have been fully dressed but some men have had the audacity of slapping me on the bum simply because he can, or caressing my face as though he owned it.

Apart from the physical harassment, men have the annoying habit of whistling at women to get their attention the same people do to get the attention of dogs. I noticed early in life that women didn’t do this to each other and least of all to get the attention of a man. And my highlight experience of walking in public are the obscenities men shout when I don’t respond to their “ek se baby, ngas’ske undifake kuloo mathnga akho” (hey baby, I wish you could let me in between your thighs). When I have ignored these comments, the man has proceed with “hayi suka,suziphakamisa” (Whatever! You think you’re better!). I guess he’s hoping that will offend me more than the fact that he has made a sex object of me not realising that I could be his daughter, sister etc.

the rest can be found on:

Friday, May 14, 2010

Teaching and learning!

Today is the last day of a term where I was immersed as a teacher/lecturer.I have no formal education as a teacher but this is what I have been in educational settings since I was 18years old. First as a sunday school teacher to primary school children, then an on and off teacher where I stayed with about 50 children between 6 and 13 years for 3 years while I was an undergrad student.

When the thought of teaching first came to mind it was about how I would be the person who would influence the learners and draw them out and be part of their journey of making sense of who they are. Instead little of this has happened. I have been the student learning about life from people as young as 6 years old. The greatest lesson I learned from "the Dinkies"(Grade1-3 learners who were living at the hostel with me) that the most important thing in life is to play and be listened to; the best form of violence is to kill people with kindness and hugs have the ability of communicating everything without saying a word.

But being a teaching assistant in higher education has been a different lesson, I have questions? Why do students bother with higher education if they don't want to do the work? What happens between Grade1 where school is an adventure to first year varsity where varsity becomes a party? A student in the isiXhosa 1 mother tongue asked me a question today "wena wenzani ngokubhalwa kwesiXhosa nokuphuhliswa kwaso?...what am I doing about isiXhosa literature and the development of this. I gave him an answer, but the question that underlies this, why is it so important to me that people (especially children) read in a language that is not internationally recognised? Why is it important to make people aware of difference and accept and embrace that difference?

I don't have answers for these questions, but hopefully lessons along the way will show me why higher education is so complex and requires not only mind but heart as well.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Why I have fallen in love with Ruth First

Today Rhodes University hosted Judge Albie Sachs to launch the Ruth First Scholarship.Apart from the launch, Justcie Sachs spoke about "Ruth".Simply put,he told a story about a woman we've only read about in books and articles.He finally did her remarkable character justice.I was inspired by her rigour in scholarship as well as the daring nature the Justice described.She was simply human,and not afraid of asking difficult questions.

This made me think about my role as a scholar and what I will do about my education and insight.This is not to suggest that knowledge is only found in the walls of universities but somehow there's a different elememt here that shouldn't be taken for granted nor viewed with derision.Ruth First saw scholarship as a platform to engage with people and not empty discussions that have no effect on the real world.

I was inspired on many levels by this speech(warm and fuzzy feelings),but also afraid as this kind of relationship with the academy suggests being bold and asking the right questions. Furthermore,it suggests that the people researchers engage with can no longer be seen as subjects or objects of reserach where the reseracher simply arrives in their lives and gets the information needed to get ahead, but I have to see the teachers I work with as they are,human beings with voices that deserve to be heard and understood.This may add to the complexities of a discipline where one is advised to be objective,but I can only hope the experience will be richer.

I was also inspired to learn that Ruth First was also stylish and stood out in the crowd because of her dresscode.Yay for that!

And sadly technology betrayed me!I recorded the beautiful words of Judge Albie Sachs but I can't seem to attach a link to them on this blog.

A rock and a hard place

Today I started my day thinking that I was going to "Rhini"Primary School(this is not the actual name of the school) simply to observe teacher practices in order to help me frame my research for the Masters in Education I am reading for. Much to my suprise I realised that the teacher I was allocated to for today was not coming to school.

There are 4 grade1 teachers in the school with classes over 30,a third or more of the children in each class have learning disabilities or behavioural problems. 3 of the teachers have been have teaching longer than I have been alive and they are all older than me. None of us are entirely sure why I keep going to their school, but they are all welcoming and indiluge my curiosity and patience in their class.

So today I entered the school as a psuedo-researcher from THE university and I left as a teacher. I was handed over into a class of Grade 1s with no preparation, no knowledge of the children's name and abilities, no knowledge of the classroom code on how to indicate that learning is going to begin.

Thankfully I am Xhosa so language wasn't a problem.My main problem was what to do from 9am until 1 pm-the longest morning of my life!My practice mirrored the teachers I had seen, asking the children to count, writing number patterns on the board, writing sentences on the board, pretending I knew what I was doing. The whole days was bizarre but the best moment was when one of the learners, a 6year old girl, realised I wasn't swimming like most teachers,I was drowning. She kindly approached me when I realised that a third of the learners couldn't write their names and the date from the board and the rest of the class was making a noise. She kindly informed me that there was a pipe on the teacher's desk that I could use to make sure that everyone keeps quiet while I gather my thoughts.At first I didn't understand her, but when she repeated herself, I realised that she was giving me a strategy for keeping peace in the classroom.I thanked her for input but realised I didn't have the courage to give them a hiding.I spent the entire day devising activities and stories to reach their levels.Our work can be measured on two pieces of paper from each kid, one with patterns and one with words and random sentences.

I realised leaving the school that I still have alot to learn about what it means to be a researcher in a context where the people I work with see me as an eager young girl trying to make sense of the big world, the school's classrooms. I don't know what to anticipate tomorrow, but I've learned that walking in with a willing heart and mind,I will be able to understand the school and the teachers better than I think. Conversations during tea time range from failed marriages, irresponsible boyfriends to laments about what it takes to raise a black child in a poor community.There's more to being a researcher tha simply being objective,it's often very difficult not to get involved.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Meeting the Old Man,Madiba

When I told my mother that I had seen Madiba, she laughed as I am one of those star-struck kids who have always wanted to meet the person I had proudly told anyone who would listen that he was my grandfather!There wasn't much time for conversation when I met him but he did ask where I am from and he guessed by lineage,"oh!ebaThenjini?" when I simply said "eKomani ta'mkhulu!".It was difficult not noticing his smiling eyes and his desparation of making conversation with all 28 of the scholars!

I study isiXhosa because I can

When people hear me speak English they often ask me where I am from and I tell them I from the Eastern Cape. I have realised over the years that this is a polite way of saying to me, "you're a coconut". I'm in two minds about this identity as it has been thrust upon me by people who are trying to understand me and figure me out.I have never once woken up in the morning and thought "Hmmmm,Thank you God for making me a coconut".But somehow this identity follows me.

Part of what entrenches this identity is the education I have received.Informally, my mother was the first teacher educating me about colonialism, the prophet Nxele, the story of Nongqawuse and underlying many of these stories is the reminder that "abelungu bane-date yokufika apaha eMzantsi,ungayilibali lo nto Baba"(White people have a date of arrival in South Africa and don't ever forget that my baby).I can't judge her for her views as she felt apartheid first hand and knows the limitations that it rendered her which have an effect on her psyche to this day.

My formal education taught me that white people are the custodians of knowledge and all forms of progress, sine qua non!This began to change however when I took isiXhosa Mother Tongue in my 3rd. I thought I was going back to my roots and didn't think I had to justify my choice of subject, but much to my amazement I had a lot of explaining to do hence the next article(which was my first article in the Daily Dispatch!)....

Inyathi ibuzwa kwabaphambili

I discovered a whole new world of literature in my 3rd year at Rhodes.The irony however is that I had been studying English literature as a major since my first year but it was only in my 3rd year when I took isiXhosa 1 that I realised that there was a history of prodigious writers from the Eastern Cape writing in isiXhosa.Apart from the challenge of this new course, I was ashamed at my ignorance of this knowledge and partly angered by the formal education I had received that had successfully ommitted such a rich heritage from my curriculum while I was in school, in the Eastern Cape nogal.

Ever since this course I have been re-educating myself on the history of the Eastern Cape and the writers and intellectuals.Yes,it's part of my existential crises of making peace with my legacy and education but it is mostly a realisation that when we talk of developing African language literature we are not operating in a vacuum,we stand on the shoulders of giants, inyathi ibuzwa kwabaphambili.

We have our(I mean black African here) own Shakespeare and Chaucer and Milton when we talk of SEK Mqhayi, AC Jordan and Nontsizi Mgqwetho. The article in this link elaborates on these thoughts after I had attended a conference last year commemorating one of the intellectuals from the Eastern Cape, SEK Mqhayi...

On leadership, youth activism, and duty of those 'born free'

Last year I was shortlisted and selected as a Mandela Rhodes Scholar for this. One of the questions in the interview posed by Sibongile Mkhabela was around the issue of what kind of legacy will my generation leave behind.I was stumped as this is something I had never really contemplated. Many things can be said about abantwana bangoku some good, but many people are disinterested and some profess doom and gloom for the kind of future we have.The following article expresses these thoughts...

Why education fails so many

I count myself as one who has been very lucky in receiving the kind of education I have.I matriculated from Clarendon Girls High (a girls school in East London) in 2005. Part of my education was sponsered by an organisation Friends of South Afroca Students (FOSAS) which has now amalgamted with Student Scholarship Programme. It was only after I came to Rhodes University when I realised that what I had called school for 12 years was no the norm for many South African people. The article below is a reflection on my experience and as well as moving forward as somone who wants to make education better for the majority of learners in South Africa...

The centre cannot hold

This is a piece I wrote for The Mandela Rhodes Scholars Thought Leader. I was sharing my frustration o the many initiatives making education a focus but somehow ingathi sichitha nge-rice esanti (we are spilling rice on the sand)...