Last week was my first full week in the schools. I think it went fairly well. My goal was to observe all the classes and for the most part I was able to do that. There were a few different styles I noticed this week but there was a common thread to all the classes: there is a lot of room for improvement.
For the most part the classes were brutal. Not in the sense of difficult content. The stuff is easy or at least it should be easy relative to their grade, it is tough in the sense that it is void of any activity or thinking. It is almost entirely repetition and rote memorization. No conceptualization or thinking about the subject. Any questions posed to the students have mostly likely already been asked a hundred times. Generally all the classes are way behind, some classes are still on material from the first term when it is now the fourth (last) term. I can certainly update the content or at least help the teachers with it, that is low hanging fruit. Sure, I can explain fractions, "if I take two slices of this delicious pie, what fraction of pie have I just devoured?"
In one particular class, I watched in shock as a teacher had a class copy down a board of notes (not entirely accurate, Dr. Edward Jenner discovered penicillin in 1400 B.C. ) then have everyone say aloud what was written on the board three times. "Conduction, Conduction, conduction is when heat flows through an object easily. Insulation, insulation, insulation..."(three times back to back). And believe me, they weren't saying it as fast as you are reading it either. Each word is loud and drawn out and monotone. Completely lifeless and dull. This entire exercise lasted about 30 minutes. Unfortunately I couldn't just boot the teacher out the door and shake the students out of their delirium. I am not just here to teach for 2 years because that doesn't really leave much lasting change. I have to be careful not to cut out the teachers because they were here long before I was and will be teaching after I leave.
In another class, a teacher humiliated a student because he did not copy a census survey correctly. By correctly she wanted all the information to be only on one page like the example in the book. Instead he had simply flowed over to another page when he ran out of room, making it a two page affair. She focused on the most trivial aspect of the assignment when in fact the student had completed the meaningful content of the survey. This is a general problem in a lot of classes. The point of the lesson is lost entirely in tedious formatting issues. A ruler is used for everything when the page already comes with lines.
Some teachers have nothing prepared and just read something out of a book for an hour or write on the board for 10 minutes then have the learners copy it. Some teachers leave the class alone for huge chunks of time. Classes run way over time, some classes teach an entirely different subject. All this is of course something, arguable stimulating. Some teachers don't even show up. I don't know if it would be better to have no teacher or bad teaching.
If it seems like I am being overly judgmental of the teachers, that may be. They were mostly likely taught in the same fashion or indeed much worse. For those of you who are familiar with apartheid, you know Bantu education stunted an entire race of people for decades. The echoes are still present after the fact. To those unfamiliar, Bantu education basically allowed for a severely excised content base. Technical skill training was forbidden and the funding to all black schools was insufficient just to name a few of the policies. Most notable, all sciences and math were not taught. If any subjects suffer the most in the schools in South Africa it is certainly math and science. For instance one of my schools has a very well equipped science lab that goes unused simply because no one knows how to use it.
The teachers often complain that the students just don't "get it". Rather than thinking it may be their teaching style or at least considering it, they blame the students attention span or the parents. These are of course important but learning something new in a foreign language is difficult when not combined with examples that supersede language. You can say "magnetism" and its definition over and over again a hundred times and it may stick but if you play with a magnet for a couple minutes the concept sticks much better.
There is really a lack of activities (fun). I am not one to want to get up an work with other people or brainstorm or do a skit but I know other people do. That is just how some people like to learn. So it should be provided every now and then. People learn in different ways, and everyone learns better using as many angles as possible. This is what I need to get across the to the teachers...among other things.
To end on a positive note I will relate my side project for the week. One of my tasks is to draw a map of the community. Basically a bird's eye view including major landmarks and roads etc. While I did do this myself, I also made it a competition in the sixth grade class to see who could draw the best map of their section of the village. Just an optional assignment to do over the break. Pretty genius idea but I cannot take credit for it because I heard it from another PCV during training. To the principals surprise, there were a lot of students who actually completed a map. Furthermore most were very well done, showing a lot of detail and care. I was pleasantly surprised and the exercise gave me a lot of information/results for very little work, which is certainly the best kind of exercise.
Before I left the U.S., I decided to head into D.C. and pick up a bunch of Obama paraphernalia to hand out as prizes. This competition was a good occasion to hand some out. The response from positive feedback as well as reward for job well done was overwhelming. It definitely made my day and gave me hope. So that is how a sixth grade student in a rural village in Northwestern Province South Africa won an Obama t-shirt on the same day he won the Nobel Peace Prize.