Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Dispatch: Prior Knowledge

Prior knowledge. Have you ever been having a conversation with someone and you start to talk about something – an issue, a person, an idea – and realize the person you are talking to doesn’t know what you are talking about – they have little familiarity with the topic or one might say, minimal prior knowledge.

I think I first learned of the term “prior knowledge”, as it relates to teaching, when I was in Houston for my Teach for America training. But sometimes as a teacher you assume, especially when teaching adults, that people know certain things, have experienced certain things.

I’ve been thinking about prior knowledge for a few weeks ago, since my first day as a lecturer at the University of the Western Cape. My course -- Comparative Education A, Film and Pedagogy. I started off by asking my students to answer a simple questionnaire – where and what do you teach, what are your goals and concerns about the course, and a start to every film class, what is your favorite movie? We went around the room of about 20 teachers and each person shared one answer. The first teacher to share – my oldest and proving to be my most challenging student – felt the need to read the answers to ALL her questions. When she got to her favorite movie, she said Generations. Anyone who has ever lived in South Africa knows about Generations. It is one of the most popular soapies (soap operas) in the country. Every night at 8 pm, thousands tune in to see the dramatic goings on of characters like Queen, Sibusiso and Jack. Generations is, as you may have gathered, a television show. It is not a movie. I took a deep breath, but instead of correcting my student, probably more than 20 years my senior, I moved to the next student. As we went around, amidst Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone movies and one teacher who admits to being a sucker for teacher films like Dead Poets Society and Freedom Writers, at least five more people named a television show as their favorite films -- Generations, another soapie Rhythm Nation, and the popular American sitcom King of Queens. There I had it, a room full of adults, some of whom did not know the difference between a television show and a movie.

I have to admit, it hadn’t even occurred to me that the first thing I should do is discuss the difference between a television show and a movie. Why would it? It is a classroom of adults, of teachers and of course in my world, everyone goes to the movies. I make and watch documentaries, my parents go the movies almost every week and if you ask my sister what its like to rent a movie with me, she’ll tell you difficult because I usually have seen everything she wants to see.

Once the whole class had shared, I pointed out that the television shows they mentioned were not movies. But I didn’t pursue a discussion about the differences between the two. We moved on to other activities and when I went over the homework assignment –watch your favorite film and analyze it based on the main elements of film we discussed as well as any piece or theme in the film that might carry over into your curriculum -- I emphasized that they must do a movie and not a television show. (I am grading them now, a few will have to redo their papers, and again I am learning about prior knowledge, writing levels and the skills of those educating the youth of South Africa.)

I went home feeling like class had only gone okay and mulled over what needed to change. As I read over their questionnaires, I thought more about who my students are, where they come from and their journeys to get to my class. They are all working on B. Eds, at night and on Saturdays. All but one of my students are Black or Coloured. All teach in township schools and many grew up and some live now in those same townships. While I don’t know their exact ages, it seems everyone is at least 30 or older. Some are teachers because it was one of a few professions they had access to. Many were trained at colleges were not always the highest. They are children of apartheid, they own the legacy of their country’s history and as their teacher, it is a history that I must consider as I work to help them understand and experience film and think about how to bring it to their students. I sit and write this in my favorite new café, where they make a brilliant coffee and I could find the same atmosphere in a café at home. But most days that I am here, Trish, the owner, and I get into a conversation about the latest news or something we read and it generally leads to a discussion about South Africa, often about race, about the legacy, the history. It is always present, always here.

I realized that in order to teach film in their classes, I needed to make my students watch movies, experience movies, know different genres, love movies -- maybe not as much as I do. One of the first things I did on my return to Cape Town was renew my membership at the video store. So it was there, when I was looking for a movie to screen in my second class that I had my epiphany -- how many of my students had ever been to a video store? My mom took me to a library when I was very little and I still love libraries, love bookstores, love touching books, smelling books, reading the synopsis on the back. In that same way, I love lingering in a video store. I needed my students to feel that.

So I started class two by handing out index cards and asking them when they last saw a movie in the theatre, on TV and rented one from a video store, if ever. Some answers are below:

When was the last time you went to a movie theatre? What did you see?
While a few said last week, several people said years back or a very long time ago. For one man it was 1982, another woman saw Message In A Bottle in 2000, and others said a year ago.

Have you ever been to a video store? What was the last movie you rented?
More people said yes than I expected, but it was usually a long time ago. Some may have never been to a mainstream store, but rented a movie at a small spaza shop in the township – perhaps pirated DVDs. One had been but didn’t rent. Another had been but mostly watches cable now. Movies ranged from Happy Feet to Sweet November to A Dry White Season.

As I collected the index cards, I noticed that someone a new student Walker Texas Ranger was the last movie he saw which prompted our necessary discussion about the difference between films and TV shows. Finally we were all on the same page – as we moved forward, raced to see who could list the most movies in 3 minutes – winner gets a candy bar – watched some of Mad Hot Ballroom and worked in groups to think of how to use it in the classroom, I saw the energy rise, I saw the class gel. And I was excited to give them homework:
Go to a video store. Spend at least a half an hour there. Identify ten films that you haven’t seen that you think you could use in your classroom. Then write a page response about what it is like to be in a video store.

Our third class is this Saturday afternoon and I am excited to see their homework and for our lesson. As we move forward, doing our first activity with video cameras (thanks Andres!) and writing lesson plans to test out in their classrooms in the next few weeks, I will keep in mind my prior knowledge and their prior knowledge, my life experiences and there’s. Not lower my expectations or make things easier, but just consider it as I teach and present. We are all products of our experiences, our pasts, but also where we are born – from who our parents are to our neighborhoods and our schools to our country. And for me, here in South Africa, more so than, I think, at home, the impact of country looms larger.

Much is happening here – Jacob Zuma announced today that if he becomes president he will think about making a referendum to reintroduce the death penalty and racism has been all over the news with a meeting of the Black Journalists Forum that excluded Whites and a video made by White students at University of the Free State in protest to the university’s racial integration of the residences. The video depicts four white male students taking Black workers in their residence through a mock hazing process – making them swallow a bottle of beer, run a race, play rugby and then kneel and eat meat, which had been urinated upon. At the end of the video, the students say in Afrikaans, “That is what we think of integration.”

No doubt there will be more to write about soon.

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