Thursday, May 30, 2013

The thinker

I started writing this poem while pretending to invigilate an exam. After three weeks of invigilating exams, I'm learning the art of observation.

He assumes the position: slouching over the wooden desk, sinking into the black plastic chair.
I place the question paper in front of him.
His eyes blink countless times.
He bites his short, dirty nails
Chews what he can
Before he reads the questions
Searching for the answer
Change the following words into antonyms by using a prefix.
Wrinkles and creases form on his forehead.
His eyes gaze at the blank wall.
His hand rests on his cheek as if to support the heaviness weighing on his heart and mind.
He scratches his head furiously as though he were getting rid of lice
Scratching in the vain hope that the answer will be released from his head and present itself on the answer sheet.
Quick glances at the clock which ticks slowly, reminding him of life, real life, passing by.
The rain outside is constant and creates the background melody to the scribbling pen on paper
Incessant dripping from the drain pipes create the possibility of movement beyond the classroom.
An hour of his life passes by as I watch closely, assuming my position of the diligent gaze.
He stares outside the window searching for more answers.
He purses his lips forming a pink prune where his lips should be.
He flicks his pen impatiently.
He sighs deeply when the question begins with a word he doesn’t understand: Define...
A deep sigh as though exhaling will release the anxiety of not knowing the answer.
Finally, a wry smile of confidence  when he reads an easy question
And he scribbles the answer before it runs away from him.
He squints his eyes, they become smaller with concentration
But then he soon resigns to his ignorance and shrugs his shoulders.
The exam is over.
He rests his head on the table forming a pillow with his arms.
His head is down but the search for more answers continue because the exam isn’t over until time is up or all the questions are answered.
He doodles and I sense he’s thinking about nothing in particular because the hour has been dedicated to thinking about an exam is almost over.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Beautiful surprise

There are certain moments that I think many teachers live for. The moment when we witness the light bulb moment in our students and all of a sudden what we've been teaching makes sense. It's always a bonus when this moment finally happens because this can keep a teacher's energy from lagging. I was lucky to witness this recently when some students and I attended the Franschhoek Literary Festival. I watched my studenst blossom outside the confines of a classroom. In the midst of the exam period, a moment of enlightenment is always appreciated (I don't think of exams as a moment of enlightenment, least of all for the teacher who has to mark all the scripts).

Last week Friday was the Franschhoek Literary Festival and I was invited as one of the speakers. I was part of a panel "Rising Eighteen" alongside Sam Page, Nik Rabinowitz, Fiona Snyckers and Osiame Molefe. I travelled to Franschoek with 11 Grade 10s who were handpicked by default because they weren't writing an exam on the day (we recently started the exam period which is always the worst time of the year for me).

I didn't have any expectations for the day except for the session that I was asked to be part of. Our school was given free tickets for three of the sessions on Friday. The first session was "Science is Cool" where a science journalist, Sarah Wild, and two scientists Ethel Phiri and Jeff Mururgan spoke about the work they do in the effort of making science appear "cool". I listened intently and made sure my kids had front row seats because after all  my school is a Dinaledi, Maths and Science focused school. The talk was interspersed with questions from the audience and I was suprised when my kids' hands were shooting up to answer and ask questions of highly esteemed panelists who were talking about "String Theory" the Higgs Boson and the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

It wasn't so much that the kids were putting their hands up but that they were willing to engage with issues they may have heard of and that they had an interest in. When the audience was asked about SKA I was also surprised that my students were part of the few people who knew about the project (thanks to Laura Richter who is a physicist and works for the SKA project). Rumour has it my kids went up to the panelists at the end of the session and asked one of the speakers to come and speak at our school.

The second session was "Rising Eighteen". Our panel was given the brief about talking to the audience about surviving high school. The session began when we each spoke about where our journey with writing began. I recounted the story about my Grade 1 school magazine which was a publication featuring the writing of all the students in the school. In Grade 1 I believed that I was a published writer because I saw my story in print for the first time.

And to my surprise  one of the quiet students in my group asked a question that I could sense came from a place of anxiety. She asked a question related to the issue of Plan B: when people want to become writers/musicians or sports stars, they are always told to have a Plan B. Her question was addressed to Fiona and Osiame. I didn't answer Sarah* because I know she simply wants to be a girl-cricketer in spite of all the nay-sayers telling her to have a plan b, a degree and a proper job to fall back on.

The final session was "Technology Wizards" which was my favourite session of the day. Perhaps it's the easiness and bravado of an all-male panel that made the difference, but the discussion was invigorating. The focus of the session was about technology, innovation and technology. Once again my students surprised me to the point where their questions directed the conversation for most of the hour. One of the students stole a question just as  I was about to ask it. It seems we were thinking about the same issues and as Mama would say, undibethe emlonyeni, she stole the words from my lips. Near the end of the session one of the panelists made a mention about coding (computer programming): that instead of wasting time, teenagers should equip themselves and get started on coding their own programs and contribute to the changes in technology rather than become consumers of it. As he made a mention of this, one of my students turned to me and smiled because we had spoken about coding in the context of a video that was looking at what schools don't teach their students. I was beaming with pride because for the first time, one of the discussions we had previously had in class was confirmed by a speaker my kids had never met but were convinced he was cool enough because he was on a panel rather than being a teacher in their classroom.

As the day in Franschhoek came to an end I asked each of my student to share their highlights from the day. Each had something thought-provoking to share about how something in a session had changed their mind. This was learning that took place outside the classroom where I didn't have to be a part of it directly but was lucky enough to witness some of my kids blossom in the world beyond the classroom.

These are the moments I live for that remind me that in spite of the challenges, my world is alright. Being a teacher is about beautiful surprises where my children are riveted and thoughtful human beings who are curious and wonder about the world around them.

*Not her real name

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Whose language is it anyway?

The language question has reared its ugly head again. Recently Rebecca Davies wrote an article about research that confirms “English is leading the way as the most preferred teaching language”.  As an English teacher this ought to make me happy however, I am not convinced that the findings from this research account for the complexity of language use. In other words: umnqwazi wam awuqini. Statistics about who speaks what language don’t take into serious account the context, the so-called “new” South Africa.

I am a language teacher who is able to negotiate three South African languages to accommodate the language diversity that my learners bring into the classroom. I am also an avid reader of isiXhosa literature and my favourite poet is Nontsizi Mgqwetho. My double consciousness allows me great fun in my classroom. Anyone eavesdropping into my lessons might say I am a bad English teacher because at any given time learners know they can pipe up in isiXhosa (and Afrikaans, though this is often slang) and the lesson will continue to  unfold.

The language in education debate only confirms the many problems in the education system: there are two systems of education in this country. One for the working class, mostly black and coloured children who end up functionally illiterate and the other is for a middle class minority across the race groups who spew forth the queen’s English and send their children to extra classes to speak isiZulu or seSotho as a token of how sorry they are about their linguistic limitations. Until this parallel system of education offends us, we are yet to solve the language problem in the education system. Parents who think that their children should be taught in English instead of their mother tongue will continue to make ill-informed decisions about their children’s education and what language they ought to be taught in because they lack the social capital to make lasting and meaningful decisions for their children’s education.

What we really need to consider when we talk about the obsession with English is that English (and thanks to Apartheid, Afrikaans as well) have social capital. Those who are making money and producing knowledge are doing so in contexts where they are not required to come face to face with their monolingualism. They do not have to navigate in spaces that demand that they speak another language because they have the social capital which gives them power to control the use of language in any space. The Afrikaans question is still an interesting one that hasn’t been seriously considered but similar conclusions can be made that it is also a language of power. The problem with English is that it renders others powerless when it comes to communicating, and this depends on context. When people visit banks, the train station, shops, the use of English all around them is a reminder of who is in charge, rather than an open invitation for people to embrace English.

Writing about  the “obsession with English” confirms rather than questions the hegemony of English and that is nothing to be proud of in a country with 11 official  languages. I judge monolinguals. People should be embarrassed that they can only communicate with every person they meet on their personal terms. This is an example of language prejudice which is second cousins with white supremacy. When English/Afrikaans monolinguals refuse to get out of their comfort zone, often  smiling sheepishly everytime they fumble through greetings in isiZulu or isiXhosa, they  ought to deal with their own limitations, but thanks to the history of white supremacy, the person who speaks English with a “black or coloured” accent is likely to be apologetic when they make the language shift to speak to a monolingual English/Afrikaans speaker.

We marvel and clap for white people who can speak another African language as though they are doing something extraordinary forgetting that, that is the way it should be. If people consider themselves South Africans, Africans and citizens of the world, the practice of immersing yourself in someone else’s language should be an imperative. Monoligualism must become a myth.