Monday, January 28, 2013

Part 1: Journey to Mafikeng

I disappeared in 2012, but I’ve decided to write again in 2013. This dispatch is the first in a series of reflections about education in South Africa. Over the next several months I will be visiting 14 schools in seven provinces across the country. The mission of the Schools That Work project is to create a series of videos that serve disadvantaged communities and are having academic success – or but are having academic success, depending on how you see it. When compared to other schools in South Africa that also serve poor children, these schools are excelling despite. Despite the hunger and poverty of the learners which negatively impacts their experiences in the classroom, despite struggles with parental involvement, despite lack of classrooms and toilets, despite sometimes unresponsive provincial and national governments, and sometimes, despite necessary resources. I was hired to do this project by Jonathan Jansen, Rector at the University of the Free State.

Last year, in Limpopo, pupils were without textbooks for the first half of the year because the government had not delivered the books. And just before the beginning of Matric (school leaving) exams this year, the Minister issued an open letter apologizing to grade 12 students. In it she said, “I know 2012 has not been an easy year for you. I also understand that you may feel I, Minister of Basic Education, have let you down. I apologise unreservedly for all you have been through as a learner.”

It is likely that for many students it would have been a difficult year even if their schools had proper infrastructure and enough resources. They didn’t need school to make life harder. You know things are really bad when the government feels it has to apologize to learners for failing them, for not giving them the education they deserve. And this apology just devastates me. Kids deserve so much more. Governments, education departments, politicians should all be advocating on behalf of students. They should be the good guys. Unfortunately, they often aren’t.

So this week, I traveled to Mafikeng. Mafikeng is a small town in Northwest province. It is about a 20-minute drive from the Botswana border. The first language of most people is Setswana and there is also a significant Indian population. At one school a boy stopped me and asked, “Why don’t you film the Indian kids, we’re here,” and pointed to a group of his friends. I told him we were filming everyone. It was interesting to think about how he sees his place at the school – a school where most students are Black, the principal and one of the deputies are Indian and the staff is very racially diverse. I still haven’t found out why there is such a large Indian population in Mafikeng.

Every time I visit a school, see a classroom, watch teachers and principals, I think about my own experiences. I think we frame how we see all schools through the lens of our own experience as students, as educators, as parents. My cameraman Felix and his soon to be wife are expecting a baby in a few weeks and all this time in the classroom led to conversations about where and how we would want to educate our children. This week after watching a trigonometry class, Felix, and I talked about our failed attempts at solving sine and cosine. I remember the teacher; I remember the class and some of you reading this might have been in it with me. Felix grew up in a small town outside Stuttgart, Germany and no doubt our school experiences were very different. But regardless of the country, trigonometry seems to prevail.

Each school has it’s own feel to it. Some feel warm, some chaotic, some very structured or disciplined, others a combination. The first school we went to has incredible academic success but felt very chaotic – more outside of the classroom than in. I was only aware when we arrived that the school did not fit into the mold of the project, as most of the students there are middle class. I don’t think I have ever been to a school here that is mostly middle class students. Where the challenges include things like Facebook and cell phones. I have been to very poor township schools and formerly all White more resourced schools, but never something like this.  South Africa is full of extremes and one doesn’t often see the middle.

The second school was a warm place. The buildings are physically spread out because it used to be a teacher training college before it became a high school in the 1980’s. The physical plant reminded us of a missionary school with long white buildings of classrooms and nice trees and flowers. But the school no longer has laboratories or a library because they were turned into classrooms for it’s 1441 students. There are 18 toilets for 800 girls and 16 toilets for 600 boys. When I asked the principal what his priority was, he chose classrooms over toilets.

When filming, I try to represent reasons why a school is so successful and often that comes through excellent teaching. In one English class, 9th graders were reciting Shakespeare’s sonnet Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds,
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove…

Many made it their own with tone of voice, body, energy, and humor. The teacher affirmed them, allowed the class the space to laugh and clap noisily, and before each student began grounded them by saying, “The stage is yours.” Some of excellent teaching is personality and after filming we talked about how his classroom felt different. Positive and full of joy, and that wasn’t just due to a love of Shakespeare.

At an economics class – if you’ll believe me – we found students almost equally excited. Who knew learning about land, labor, capital, and natural resources, labor could be fun? The teacher brought two students up to the front, had one take off his tie, roll up his sleeves and hold a bottle of water  -- the laborer. The other one remained staid in his uniform, tie and all. He was the boss. Above the chalkboard were photos of Martin Luther King, Obama, Mandela, Malcolm X, Walter Sisulu and W.E.B. DuBois and quotes from Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes. What was notable for me were the diverse notable people who he brought into the space. (It would have, of course, been nice to see a woman too!)

But just because a school has high Matric pass rates, it doesn’t mean that every teacher is going to show such passion and energy. I also saw teachers on the other end of the spectrum – one struggling to control students (as I once did), one who seemed barely interested and others who stood at the front of the class and talked at students rather than with them. I saw young teachers and older teachers, and I know that no matter who they were, they all try and they all care. But I keep thinking about how we define good teaching and what makes good teachers.

One moment in particular sticks in my mind. It was an 8th grade English class.  As the teacher called student’s names for presentations, she didn’t make an effort to pronounce them or seem to care which face belonged to which name. As she sifted through her cards, she even named the same kids twice. Many students were not ready which I know is frustrating as a teacher. But in the environment in the room was uninspired and felt negative. I wouldn’t have felt supported or wanted to try very hard in that classroom. Why is this worth telling? Well the teacher was white, her students Black and in a place like South Africa where questions of race are still so prominent, these moments are all the more significant for me.

I’ll close on a picture that will make you smile. Picture a group of girls on the edge of a field in funny hats twirling batons and flags. Behind them, on the big field, is someone mowing a lawn. In front them, a team of boys, in bright colored shirts, run in circles around the field. Amidst it all, if you look carefully, you’d find Felix kneeling and lying on the grass in an effort to capture it all.

I love those moments. 


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