Saturday, January 26, 2013

Altercations and inspiration

Yesterday was Saturday and I was at school until 4pm. The reason: 8 of our learners have entered the English Olympiad. The Olympiad has a different theme each year and this year the theme is "Secrets and Lies: In camera". The anthology focuses on examples of scandals and corruption ranging from the Secrecy Bill in South Africa, the Profumo Scandal in Britain and an extract from 1984.

In the attempt of encouraging our kids to come to school on a Saturday morning (granted it's only a smalll group of 8) we invited speakers from the Right to Know Campaign, Murray Hunter and Vinayak Bhardwaj. In the attempt of getting them excited about an English olympiad which simply demands kids to think and think creatively about content they wouldn't ordinarily be exposed to in class, we asked Murray and Vinayak to "engage" our kids about ideas that matter. They obviously were not convinced about being at school on a Saturday morning but after discussions began one of the Grade 12s confessed "I'm so glad I woke up and decided to come here this morning". That's all I needed to hear given the horrible altercations I had in the previous week. Seeing teenagers excited and intrigued and rivetted by issues and concepts I wasn't exposed to when I was in high school made my heart smile.

Between Monday and Friday however, I was not inspired. The honeymoon period of silent and ordered classes have come to an end. All my kids are becoming comfortable and their attitude has shifted from what it was in the first week of term. Evidence of this was a spectacular altercation with two Grade 11 boys. The lesson started as any normal lesson would but Luyanda and Luzuko were late. As punishment for their lateness I told them they had to sing "Beasts of England" from Animal Farm and thereafter could they join the class. They hesitated and I became annoyed because we were wasting time. They mumbled and fooled around so I asked them to leave the classroom and I would invite them in when I thought they are ready to join the class. I settled the rest of the class, they began working.

When I ask kids to leave the class I often call them back after a few minutes (unless of course I forget and one of the kids has to remind me). When I walked outside to call the two boys they had disappeared. A slow anger began to rise as I felt like an idiot. I knew exactly where they were. I marched into the boys' toilet and opening the door I heard the offensive tunes of a house song being played from a cellphone(I'm not a huge fan  of house music but I can tolerate it). The school rule is that learners are not allowed to have their cellphones on between 8am and 4:15pm. If a cellphone is seen or goes off in class it is confiscated for a week.

But here were the latecomers having a jam in the bathroom.

What began as an innocent incident of lateness spiraled out of control when the boys pretended not to know what I was talking about when I asked for the cellphone. Their reluctance and silence at my demand for the phone made me think I had imagined the song (technically I didn't see the phone but I could hear it). My mother calls this "inam nawe" (I can't translate it into English) which implies that the accused students were dumbfounded but also blaming each other for the phone.

I lost my patience. I was wasting time (again) telling these boys to give me their phone. Luyanda begged me to negotiate so I wouldn't take the cellphones. I didn't know what there was to discuss. Not only had they made a fool of me but they were also defying me.I threatened to find the Deputy principal and I began marching down the corridor towards the office. They ran after me trying to stop me from opening the door at the end of the passage (one of them even held my arm tightly which made me very uncomfortable). When he loosened his grip I was lucky enough to bump into the Deputy while she was downstairs. She came and spoke to the boys. By now my voice was shrill and I must have looked hysterical. The Deputy took over and I went back to class to teach Animal Farm.

In retrospect the incident didn't need to spiral out of control. Luyanda came back to class to apologise, Luzuko disappeared and I didn't see him until break time. Luyanda was still asking me to negotiate so he could get his phone back. I lost this battle because I did what some mother do when it comes to discipline: "Wait til dad gets home". Instead of dealing with the situation myself I pulled a wait-til-dad-gets-home by running to the Deputy because the boys wouldn't listen to me. I grew impatient and took the whole incident personally rather than an episode of misunderstanding.

Another altercation was in the Grade 9 class. This saga has been happening since last year and would need a post on its own. To cut a long story short, one of the boys in my class insists that he gets bored in class(go figure!) and his response to this boredom is that he disrupts his peers (naturally). But because it's a new year, I have been making the brave attempt of bending his will. In class he did not write his notes down correctly so I made him come back at break time to complete his work. He was livid. He objected to my decision and had an answer to everything I said. I've decided he needs a different intervention (another post for another day). He has become the perfect example of belligerence and it's frustrating because he is smart but he doesn't want to do the basic work that is required to make teaching and learning what they need to be: taking notes, sitting in one place and reading. He's my reminder that we have a long way to go in trying to make differentiated teaching right in the classroom.

 After the altercations with Luyanda and Luzuko I went home and collapsed into a semi-coma sleep because I was exhausted. Misunderstandings and shouting at boys taller and stronger than me is exhausting. It's difficult recovering from misunderstandings with the kids I teach.When I have weeks such as the one described above, some inspiration on a Saturday morning doesn't hurt.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Reinventing myself on the first day of school

Today was the day of reinvention. Today was the first day of school. While trying to keep up with the admin of printing worksheets and giving out the timetable, I had to convince my kids that it's a new year. Last year I made the grave error of not setting the basic expectations when I walked into my class and that had a huge impact on how the rest of the year unfolded (I don't know how I missed the memo, but alas, I did).

I only taught a few classes and interacted with the Grade 8's briefly. I'm one of the Grade 10 class teachers as well as a mentor group with learners from every grade. Our mentor group is an innovation we are trying to establish in my school. Apart from having a grade class (mostly for administrative purposes), we have mentor groups which will be a space where learners interact informally and address any grievance or suggestions about their experience at school. The mentor group was facilitated by two prefects (we have a class of 25 Grade 12 matrics and all of them are prefects) and they seemed to handle the process very well. Seemingly, there wasn't much reinvention when there's just admin to do.

My subject classes was where the reinvention took place. I had a Grade 9, 10 and 11 English lessons. I taught most of the kids last year so there were no major introductions. The lessons started badly: learners were late for class. No surprise because last year I was so exhausted at the end of the year, I didn't really care about lateness. But today I had to tell them that it was the first and last day they would be late. Once each class was settled, I launched into a powerpoint presentation telling them that with the new year came new expectations. And these expectations were nothing new, just the basics which fell by the wayside at the end of last year.

I told them that each expectation was not a suggestion nor a request, it was an imperative. There was no negotiation or tweaking of the expectation. As the teacher I decided on the expectations alone. Last year the thought of taking this kind of control seemed to be akin to being a dictator in the classroom, but when I saw the sober  look on every child's face, I was comforted by the fact that for the first time ever, I was able to stand in front of a class with no disruptions. They listened, they were engaged. They put up their hands when they wanted to make a contribution. There was the obvious disgruntled murmur when I mentioned that we would be studying Shakespeare's Macbeth. They hate Shakespeare and I love Macbeth and told them they would be crazy about the play too by the end of the year!

I told the Grade 11s that this year is the first half of Grade 12. If they wanted to go to university, this year was the year that would determine that. If I had to deal with their misdemeanors as I had to last year, we would never get through anything that would prepare them for the hereafter. They were the "bad-ass" Grade 10 class (with 2 girls failing at the end of the year and 2 others dropping out before the end of last year) whom I challenged to read a book and hand in a book review on the first day this year. Much to my surprise, I had five students give me work because the work came with the bait of 10% if they handed something in (I'm yet to mark the work and assess whether they will earn the 10% or not). They also seemed to be attentive when I told them that the mistakes we had all made last year would not continue this year.

It's the first day and this time last year I was eager and mostly naive about what it takes to teach. This year I'm sober with my feet on the ground. I am a teacher and I have a renewed sense of what I would like to achieve this year. The challenge is being consistent with my expectations. The challenge is to maintain my new persona. Tomorrow is a longer day, my patience will be tested and I will have to remind them of the deal that we settled on today.