Thursday, February 4, 2016

Making local knowledge matter in the classroom

Recently my grade 10 pupils had to present orals using quotes from African writers. While listening to their orals I was struck by the lacklustre nature of their speeches. When I introduced the assessment to the girls there was an understanding that the speeches should be interesting and that the opportunity to research African writers would hopefully inspire them to learn more about the work done by African writers. As each pupil got up to share their oral the atmosphere in the room began to change. An outsider who doesn’t know my students would have said they are good speakers but I was disappointed.
Most of the speeches were feel-good speeches about the rainbow nation and Africa the dark continent and anecdotal references to being a proud African and South African. Some of the speeches could have been extracted from tourism brochures. Some of the speeches were very interesting but not convincing. They lacked the authenticity I was expecting. Each speech was laced with the eagerness most teenagers have in most classrooms: saying what the teacher wants to hear. As each student spoke I began to yawn. Literally. None of the speeches triggered any discussion so I had inadvertently produced an oral-producing factory in my classroom. We all began to realise that not only was the audience disengaged but so was each speaker.
Once the speeches were complete I tried to give feedback and posed questions about why the orals were “such a drag”. I conceded that perhaps I should have spent more time talking about the skills needed for effective speeches or focussed on the content of their speeches. After many attempts of explaining themselves one of the students responded that she struggled to find a quote to which she could relate. I felt that this was the most honest response. In the few years that I have been a teacher I have noticed that teenagers judge whether something is worthy of learning based on relatability and interest.
I can’t remember if this was the case when I was at school, but as a teacher it is one of the greatest challenges of teaching: how do we make learning interesting? Interesting being synonymous to fashionable and relevant. The question of relatability is also an interesting one as students have made a value judgement about their learning based on their vantage point: their sheltered, comfortable, middle-class lives in South Africa’s suburbia. This is a very myopic view because based on this view, the most interesting ideas are possibly consumerism, pop culture and keeping up with the Van Tonders.
I also asked my students if the fact that they couldn’t find quotes they could relate to had anything to do with our choice of African authors. Perhaps while doing research they had come face to face with their subconscious perception they have about African writers who are not as popular as American or British writers. Is it possible that in choosing an African writer they felt they couldn’t find anything interesting because of the unquestioned belief that Africans only have war, dictatorships, poverty and corruption to offer the world?
The experience in my classroom made me think about Nomalanga Mkhize’s article “Education for the elite lacks local intelligence” where she points out the reality that in privileged schools education can be “intellectually thin and devoid of social intelligence”. She points out the paradox: “The school was ostensibly offering the best available education under the sun, but it also seemed that it was teaching [her] nothing at all of what was going on around [her].”
Herein lies another paradox: when such a school attempts to incorporate local knowledge in order to address the gaps Mkhize points out, there’s resistance from the students and the desired effect of exposing students to other voices is thwarted. The resistance is not intentional but I’d like to think it’s a subliminal response from learners who haven’t truly questioned the perceptions they have about local knowledge. Next term this same class will read and discuss Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus as their setwork for the term. I’m very excited about teaching this text but after the disappointment with the orals I’m worried the students will not be able to “relate” to Adichie (let alone pronounce the names of the characters in the book).
This concern raises many questions about my assumptions of my students and their interests in African literature. I am also aware that Adichie is perceived as a safer option than a South African writer who may make references to apartheid and we know how tired of apartheid the born-frees seem to be.
My students are at an impressionable age and they are part of a school culture that privileges the “right” answer while challenging ideas is secondary. They are also inundated by images of celebrities who are not questioning the representation of Africa but rather interested in the shock factor and making money. They are also living in a country where racism is not dead and ideas about blackness and whiteness are centre-stage.
The problem with choosing knowledge in our classrooms has to do with how we position ourselves and our learners. The ideas and voices we choose to privilege send a message to the students about which ideas matter and which don’t. I fear that the response to the orals suggests that the voices of African writers don’t matter because it’s not possible to relate to them. This is a dangerous position to be in because then which knowledge does matter?