Thursday, June 21, 2012

end of term musings...

After a difficult term with one of my classes (Grade 10s), we had a leadership camp in Greyton. The camp ended with a hike to Genadendal where the kids visited a museum where the first German missionary settled. While reflecting about the complexities about the idea of a “leadership camp”, a friend pointed out that leadership camps are like rites of passages in all middle class schools; “don’t question it too much, that’s just what we have to go through”.

What often appears as a series of “lame” activities to teenagers (like building a tower from recycled material) some of the learners realised the importance of planning and listening to one another when under pressure and learning to let other voices join a discussion even when there are time limitations in an activity. There were many questions and conversations amongst the kids about who they are, their personal development and what hiking to a small impoverished dorpie has to do with leadership. While hiking I asked one of the learners in my group what he thinks about the camp and the hike. He reflected that apart from the physical exhaustion, there might be value in starting a journey to nowhere, following the paths as they open up and learning to trust the people on the journey to encourage you along the way.

One of the joys of teaching is that my learners teach me without realising it. In spite of the challenges I have with them, they remind me of simple principles that we take for granted as adults. They’ve taught me to teach with a sense of humour and not to take myself too seriously. There’s nothing more humbling than standing in front of a group of teenagers who have the ability to turn a well-planned lesson upside down! They’ve taught me the importance of holding back my own answers and trusting them to find the answers themselves, rather than telling them what they ought to say to me. They’ve taught me that they too have knowledge and the right answer isn’t always the best answer. I’ve also learned to listen. I don’t listen as much as I talk as a teacher but fortunately there’s time to rectify this.

While teaching in my classroom by day, after hours I have been involved in more public debates about education. I was involved in the Conversations for Change series organised by the CMRS. A panel with Dr Mamphele Ramphele, Minister Trevor Manuel, Dr Rhoda Khadalie, Dr O’Connell and I gathered at UWC with the aim of addressing the education question. I didn’t blog about the event at the time because I had to mull over what the event meant and the outcomes of the event. I still don’t think this post will do any justice to my cerebrations, however, I was led to consider whose voices count when we talk about education reform in South Africa.

I also had the opportunity to share my views on eTV’s Sunrise morning show with Dr Mamphele Ramphele and Prof Mary Metcalfe. In spite of my misgivings about how the discussion on the show was framed, I realised the challenge of articulating my views as a young teacher. And on Youth Day I was at Ratanga Junction (not for the exciting rides) but for the TEDxCape Town Education event. I won’t do this event any justice as it was a mixture of inspiration, questions and reflections all in one day. All speakers reflected on their groundbreaking initiatives in education. The speakers included people who are leaders in their schools, communities and organisations. I also had the wonderful opportunity of being part of the TEDxYouth here in Cape Town where one of the Grade 11 learners from my school was the youngest speaker. I was humbled by his profound insights, his enthusiasm and maturity at the event.

After each event mentioned above I left wondering “What now?”. I learned to engage with other people’s ideas about education and even share my own, but in the bigger scheme of things, government remains unchallenged in the Eastern Cape, textbooks are still not delivered, we still face an exodus of teachers in South Africa and some children still go to mud schools or learn under trees.

While I may be sceptical about the level of conversation and action (or lack of) about education in this country, the past term’s events (within and beyond the classroom) have led to growth I would never have had as a student in university. Being in the midst of the real world and learning from weird teenagers means that I am yet again confronted with my own way of seeing the world. I’m content with not having any answers this time and simply learning from others.

Monday, June 4, 2012

a is for apple,b is for banana...e is for EXAMS

For the past two weeks my learners and I have been subjected to the examination process. This is a form of assessment that is firmly established in our schools. It wasn’t until my honours year that I started questioning the foreboding period of exams. My annoyance set in when I realised that exams were useless for the courses I was doing at the time as I had been handing in papers and essays throughout the year. What does a controlled setting and controlled time tell us about the knowledge students (in my case high school learners) have acquired over time?

Because exams are a given in our schools, learners only engage with exams because they have to. Before exams I asked my learners what they do when they study. Many told me they rewrite their notes, others use a highlighter and pen to make note of the important facts on the class notes they have been given, while others are just not interested.

During exams everyone takes on a different rhythm. School starts later than usual and ends earlier. After school learners have the choice of going home or staying at school to study (the assumption is that some learners come from homes where there isn’t a conducive environment to support learning). In spite of the different rhythm, learners feign stress. Kids have to study for hours and it is expected that those who put in the necessary hours will be rewarded with the expected results. Since this was my first exam period as a teacher, I noticed that many learners were not good at sitting in silence for more than 30 minutes, studying before an exam. Girls were better at this than boys as most read novels instead of revising from their notes. I also noticed many learners bunking the after school study sessions as much as possible (to play soccer or loiter in town).

By the end of the second week of exams, fatigue settled in the small of my back and I kept telling friends, ndidinwe ngaphakathi (I’m tired inside my body-an expression I use to depict inexplicable exhaustion ). Even though I wasn’t actively teaching, I became exhausted without realising it. I was tired from sitting and marking and sorting through the paperwork in order to make sure that all my marking is done timeously for the end of term madness of reports and final marks. I also had more time to wonder about my teaching in relation to the results that started emerging while I was marking.

I ended up with a few questions: why is this form of assessment privileged? What do exams tell me about my learners’ abilities? What do exams tell me about my teaching? I haven’t got answers to these questions yet as I may be asking them in vain. Exams are firmly established and unquestioned practices as they prepare learners for Grade 12 where the main form of assessment requires learners to study for hours and write for many hours all the knowledge they have acquired in their 12 years at school. They are granted a piece of paper which will hopefully allow them further study where a similar process of exams is repeated if they choose to go to a university.

My ontological quandary with exams has left me wondering about what knowledge means for both the teacher and the learner and without having too much of an existential crises: what is the point of all of this? Am I a teacher so that I can prepare my learners for exams?
While leading up to exams I began telling my learners that some of the activities they will do in school are not important because they do not relate to the real world. Such activities are important because they are simply a means to an end; the end being a piece of paper proving that they can do the necessary work we set out for them at school—simply an academic exercise. And exams are the perfect example of this.

Schools are about school knowledge so there are no mechanisms in place measuring if learners have become better people in the term or whether their self-esteem has improved or whether their racial prejudice has changed. The output is quantified in relation to subjects and learners are compartmentalised into people who have school knowledge and life knowledge and school knowledge seems to get all of the attention.