A Travellerspoint blog

Another Brick in the Wall

WARNING: this is long! And probably not interesting if you are not a teacher or in my family :)

I have spent four weeks working at Sitintile High School, in the township of Kanyamazane, Mpumalanga, that goes from grades 8 – 12 (Years 9 – 13 for the Brits). Before I arrived I had heard and read about the maths education being pretty poor in South Africa. I had been forewarned about large classes and a lack of resources, and on my way there in the car, was told that it is quite common for teachers not to go to their classes. Despite this, after four years of teaching in a place where the biggest gripe can be that the air con is too cold, it was an interesting experience to walk around Sitintile on that first morning.

Initially I was struck by the smart appearance of the students. They have bright blue uniforms that stand out against the dusty ground, and you can often catch students polishing their shoes at the end of the lesson. The pride in their appearance is in contrast to the battles about uniform I remember from St Leonard’s. The fifty or so teachers share a staff room, and often desks. There is a relatively well resourced library, one classroom for each class, a computer room with thirty or so computers (of which about twenty don’t work), and a science lab that is barely resourced for any experiments. Each class stays in their own classroom, and each row of rooms is used for a different grade. Class sizes can vary hugely, with most having around 45 – 55 students, although I was aware of a grade ten class having around 70.

Effectively I was assigned a teacher to shadow by the Head of Maths. She had recently been working with another volunteer, a student from Exeter University. I was a bit concerned when she introduced me and said I would be taking over from where the previous volunteer left off, as given all I had heard, I was worried I might end up doing her whole timetable.

Despite the warnings, I was surprised to find one of the Senior Leadership Team telling the staff off for not going to their lessons, either at all, or on time, in my first morning briefing. This is partly why when you walk around the school during lesson times, there are students everywhere. Later on, I would have a conversation with a teacher who wanted to know if we had a similar problem in the UK. I wasn’t brave enough to tell her that if the teachers were there on time, took attendance and followed up on those absent, it probably wouldn’t be much of a problem. Especially given that I found the majority of students are well behaved and have an interest in learning.

That first day I spent my time observing Mmeme’s grade 9 and 10 classes. The lessons seemed to always follow the same structure. It starts with students doing corrections to the previous day's homework. This involved two or three students writing their solutions on the board (black with chalk) whilst the rest either ignored them or feverishly copied down the work they were supposed to have done. Then an example of the work, followed by ‘do you understand?’ and a nice class chorus of ‘yeeas’. (I had to write it like this – it was very long and drawn out.) The classwork followed, and given the students penchant for underlining titles despite only a few rulers circulating the class, it would take a while for most of them to get started. And given the lack of understanding in the majority, most students would not complete the work. Homework is then set, ready for the whole process again tomorrow. It had been explained to me that many teachers might not necessarily have been that well educated themselves due to the ‘Bantu Education Act’ that was in place during the apartheid, meaning that black children did not receive the same quality of education as white children. However, in general I found her knowledge of maths and notation were good. It was more a case of not thinking about the best way to explain something to a large class of mixed ability students, many of whom will have failed maths in previous grades.

As you can imagine, I was itching to do some teaching after that day. It was planned that I would take over one of the grade 10 classes as they were a better class in terms of both ability and behaviour. I was told to review volume and surface area for one lesson, before moving on to statistics. I planned a lesson focusing on the nets of solids to help students remember and understand where the surface area formulas come from, as this is often more challenging then volume. As it turned out, we barely got past a cuboid. I couldn’t believe that many of the students could not tell me how to find the area of a rectangle, and if they could, they probably couldn’t do the calculation without a calculator. Although it had not been what I would call a successful lesson, I was gratified to see that Mmeme saw the value in trying to get them to understand where the formulas come from, as she copied the whole lesson for the other grade 10 class. So much for reviewing the topic in one lesson. That evening I planned a much simpler and more successful lesson, focusing on areas of rectangles and triangles, that I taught to both grade 10 classes.

The first couple of days quickly introduced me to the main problems facing the learners; firstly, the appalling standard of numeracy. Most could not be asked the simplest of sums without reaching for their calculators. Initially I thought they were being lazy when typing in things like 3 x 2 and 28 – 18, but I quickly realised they could not do it without. They simply did not have any techniques or real understanding of what they were doing that they could apply to the problem, such as repeated addition for multiplication, or thinking about a number line for addition and subtraction.

With a lack of structure over what I was going to be doing during my time at Sitintile, an interest in seeing some grade 12 classes and a wish to start a maths club at lunchtime, I thought I should see the Head of Department. He was quite a hard man to track down, and despite agreeing I could run the maths club, he did not really seem interested in what I was going to be doing. Over time, I saw the Heads of Departments were more like a mix of Deputy Heads and Exam Officers, and didn’t seem to have too much to do in relation to creating a strong, organised department.

In general there is a lack of planning and organisation. During frees, teachers would chat and read magazines. Several times as we were walking to a class, I was handed the chalk and board rubber by the teacher and told to take the lesson, as she had to go to a meeting. My favourite instance was my suggestion that I take out small groups from the grade 9 classes, either the strongest or weakest students, so they could get support for the work they were doing. Most teachers I know would instantly have an idea of who would benefit, who they will send. However, we arrived in class and the students were just asked who wanted to go with me. I ended up with almost half the class.

After the first week I felt my role to be more clearly defined. I was teaching both grade 10 classes. It was only supposed to be 10F, but since I had the lesson planned and I usually arrived on time, I would start and usually continue the lessons with 10E anyway. With grade 9 I was working with 8 – 10 students in the library during each class, and at lunchtimes I was running Maths Club, where we did games, investigations and puzzles (read Nrich problems!) I also got students coming for extra help when their graded assignments were due.

With grade 10, I generally tried to pitch the lesson at a simpler level than the curriculum suggests. I definitely put more focus on explanation, and tried to teach understanding rather than rote learning. I got to complete a whole unit of statistics, which was nice. My style of teaching is obviously very different to what they were used to; all closed questions and agreement. I like to play on students tendency to agree with you, which is much stronger here than I have experienced before. I ask, ‘is this the right answer?’ and they chorus their group agreement. When I then said, ‘no it’s not, why not?’ the cognitive conflict was too much for many students. I spent a lot of time waiting for them to think through an idea and come up with an explanation, something they are unused to doing. I was pleased at the progress I saw in 10E. In their final lesson they were either the manager or the trainee at a mobile phone shop, and had to calculate some statistics from the data I had given them. They then had to argue to either sack the employee or keep their job. Whilst not many gave their conclusions backed by the correct choice of statistic, most were making a genuine effort to give reasons for the answers, which was a big step up from a couple of weeks earlier.

With Maths Club I was incredibly surprised at the lack of ability to apply any logic to a problem. Problems I have done with grade seven previously, could not even be started by the grade ten and eleven stunts that came to the first session. Over time I got a group of core students, one of whom had come second in a local maths competition. They tried, and sometimes used some good logic, but they generally just didn’t know how to approach anything different from what they had seen before. Again, no techniques or methods that could help them. This is an area that has really helped me improve my views on growth mindset. I knew you could improve students problem solving, but I had no idea by how much. These students have just as much potential as any other set of students I have taught. So the improvements they could make if they had some quality instruction would be huge.

Whilst I was there I found lots of things that I wanted to change, but I am not very brave at speaking up. If I had been given more of an official role in terms of improving the maths education then perhaps I would, but I felt a bit rude as a volunteer. Even so, I felt it was important to get my thoughts and opinions across. I therefore asked the head teacher, Mr Gondwe, for an opportunity to speak to him about it, as I know he is looking for improvement. I find speaking off the cuff on important topics quite difficult. I always forget something, or more often back away from an important point. Therefore I spent time at home writing up my thoughts, and I ended up with an actual document to give the school listing my three main concerns and the suggestions that I had for their improvement. I have mentioned those concerns already above. The lack of numeracy, the lack of understanding and recall of previous knowledge, and the inability to problem solve. I was glad I took the time to write this 3 page document, as Mr Gondwe seemed pleased with my efforts and appreciated the suggestions I had given. At home, Esther (my home stay Mum) also read it, and wanted to take a copy for her primary school. This is great, as if they really want to improve the problems in the maths education – especially the numeracy – then it needs to begin in the primary schools.

Everyone at Sitintile was incredibly kind and generous on my final day. During lunch some of the staff put on a goodbye event for me and the two UK student volunteers. There were speeches by us, and the students and staff, and presents very kindly given. It all felt a bit much given I had only been there four weeks, but in general I found this in Kanyamazane. People wouldn’t say much or go out their way to speak to you and see how you were doing, but then they would do or say something incredibly kind. My conclusion was that a lot of the people I worked with just don’t know what it is like to be somewhere in a foreign place by yourself, whereas I would make an effort to talk and check on someone in that situation, because I know what it is like. So I really appreciated their well-wishes and thanks.

Overall, I am incredibly glad I came here, so my thanks to Karen Niedemeyer and Liz Macintosh for doing their part for setting up this opportunity. Four weeks sounds like a long time when it is the number of weeks until half term, but here it went very quickly, and in many ways I wished I could stay longer in order to feel like I had made more of an impact on the students. A few things really stood out for me. I always had my red pen on me in lessons, and as the students realised that I went around checking and marking work, they would call me over in order to show what they had done and get a big tick. On one of these occasions a couple of weeks in, having given some ticks to the work they had been doing, some girls showed genuine excitement at getting their work correct. This was some of the first positivity I had seen in a maths lesson. My final memory is of one of the boys who sat at the back of 10E, looking for all the teachers in the world like the group of naughty boys in the corner, standing up to give his own thank you speech to me after the class representative had done his. He thanked me for explaining things well, he thanked me for taking the time to re-explain if they needed it, and he thanked me for showing them that they could understand and enjoy maths. And though other students had said this, given the interactions I had enjoyed with these particular students over the last few weeks, I felt like this was genuine and true.

Many teachers and students asked if I would be coming back to Sitintile. Although it seems unlikely, it would also be great to go back to see if any changes had been implemented, and to stay for longer to see if I could affect more.

Posted by SpannaB 15:43 Archived in South Africa Tagged education Comments (1)

Adventures In Solitude

Turns out there's a thing called sandboarding!

Whilst although not entirely an accurate title (that's right Clarabel - I used a dictionary!) I feel that almost a month and a half without seeing any of your family and friends is solitude in a certain respect. Listen to the song by the New Pornographers here.

But solitude is not loneliness and I haven't been. Since I last wrote I have done so many different things. I am currently in Cape Town after finishing my 4 weeks at Sitintile High School. Whilst still there, I had a weekend in Swaziland to see the Reed Festival (lots of naked women presenting reeds to the Queen Mother of course). This was shared with other volunteers who are university students from the UK charity Tenteleni. The best ones were obviously from Durham, but they were so young! I thought twelve year olds listened to One Direction, turns out university students do as well....starting to feel old. I also became White River Rotary club croquet champion after being invited to another Rotary Club function, where again the people were unfailingly friendly. Then my last week of school was upon me. On my last day I was very humbled after the school put on a 'function' at lunch time to say thank you and goodbye. (This was for the two other volunteers as well) but there were speeches and presents! Meme, the teacher I had been working with got at least one student to say a thank you on behalf of the class, which were all very sweet and her own speech was very kind. Then I was kidnapped and taken to the mall in Nelspruit for a drink by Meme and others to say thank you, which was a lovely way to finish.

A weekend in White River with Liz finished my time in Mpumalanga. On my last day we went for a horse ride through some beautiful countryside - I think an escarpment along the Drakensburg range. And then to Frances and Brian's who I stayed with on that very first weekend which allowed me to thank them again for the kindness.

Then on to Cape Town. A short flight down and a painless bus journey in, until I realised I wasn't sure where to get off. Just as I was wandering along a road with all my baggage thinking it probably wasn't a smart move to not get a taxi, I got some kind people to show me the way. In general I have found the people in Cape Town to be incredibly friendly and helpful throughout my stay. The hostel has been great, I spent a few nights there, then hired a car for a few days and am now back at the hostel where 'everybody know your name' (I now realise this could be a title too!) Cape Town is a bit like New Zealand in a way, lots of adventure activities to try, wine to be tasted and there's a great big mountain in the middle of the city. I have sandboarded (think snowboarding in summer), climbed (first multi pitch route), kayaked, hiked, seen whales and penguins, bus toured and tasted a lot of wine. The wine tasting was a really fun day - picked up from the hostel I found myself sitting next to two other women who had quit their jobs and were traveling, and we had our first taste (with cheese = happy Anna) by 10am. You can see how the rest of that day went.

Tomorrow is my final day and I am hoping to hike to the top of table mountain, weather permitting, and then I have my ticket to head to Robben Island. I realise the last paragraph might be making a few people a little jealous but I have been desperately trying to stick to a budget and not spend too much, so just know - it could have been worse. Overall though in 40 days, I have met many awesome people, I have watched no TV (but three films), I have been bored sometimes, I played my uke so much the string broke (but haven't seem to have improved) but I haven't been lonely. Although I can say I can't wait to get to Singapore and talk to lots of people I know!

Posted by SpannaB 08:07 Archived in South Africa Tagged town cape Comments (4)

Hakuna Matata

Elephants, rhinos and birds oh my! (Giraffe forecast: Extremely likely)

There are a few things wrong with using this song as the title for this entry. However, it's probably the only time I'm going to get to use a song from Lion King, and if you know me well, you know that I can do this whole song word for word!

The main thing wrong is that I haven't seen a lion. I have however spent 3 days in Kruger National Park. After my first week at school I got picked up on Sunday morning by Liz, who was driving me to one of the overnight camps in Kruger for my Wolhunter Trail experience. This means we got to drive through the park first, although sightings were thin on the ground until we got word a cheetah had brought down a kill quite close to the road up ahead. (Photo will appear here eventually).

At Berg-en-dal campsite, we were to meet our group of 8 and get driven to our private camp in the middle of nowhere. As a lone traveller, I was hoping for a group made up of adults, no kids, things in common etc. There were two trails going out, and as several cars pulled up, out jump two families and some adult friends....yep I got the families! Our guides Moses and Ranjani introduced themselves and we headed out in an open jeep to our camp. I was impressed - nice thatched huts, a cook and hot showers - I was not expecting such luxury.

The whole experience was fantastic. For two days we got up around 5, had a typical South African start of coffee (for dunking) and rusks. Then out for a 4 or 5 hour walk with a stop for breakfast. Back to camp for lunch and down time, then a late afternoon walk with sundowners (drinking with the sunset - ingenious!) The area we were in is known for its rhino and elephant population, but the point of the walking trail is to introduce you to the park as a whole, rather than just being about the Big 5. Moses and Ranjani were brilliant at showing us and teaching us about our surroundings. I have learnt all about poo - how to recognise what animals it it. Even how to tell the difference between a black and white rhino's! We looked at plants and animal tracks, but also we did end up seeing loads of animals. I have stood in the dusk watching baby elephants walk past me. We jumped out the way as a mum and baby white rhino trotted around the corner and headed straight for us. We tracked some wild dog puppies back to their home. And best off all, we all got on really well as a group. There was a Dutch family with two boys, and an Aussie/US family with a adult daughter. I found fellow geeks in the youngest Dutch boy Flores, and Frances the daughter from the other family. We had a long conversation in the jeep about maths in general interspersed with shouts of 'giraffe at 10 o'clock' and the like.

This has been one of my most favourite things I have ever done whilst on holiday/travelling. It was active, nature, animals and learning all rolled into one. I know quite a few of you who would love it.

As Liz couldn't pick me up, I was saved by the Dutch family who offered to give me a lift out the park. After 3 days of spotting animals, we sped out being very blase about the animals everyone else was stopping for. Now I'm back in Kanyamazane and have been back at school for 2 days and tomorrow morning am heading to Swaziland for the weekend with some English university students who are also here helping at the local schools.

If anyone can suggest a better song title for this blog please let me know. I spent ages trying to come up with animal related songs, but other than Nellie the elephant I was a bit stuck! Thanks for the comments on the blog - it's nice to know people are reading :)

Posted by SpannaB 06:27 Archived in South Africa Tagged wildlife kruger Comments (4)

The Story So Far

Arriving in South Africa (Giraffe Forecast: High)

So after a delayed plane at Heathrow I arrived at Johannesburg to find a crazy queue for immigration. Waited patiently watching time tick towards my bus departure time. After some good British dithering, I got close enough to the front to ask the officer if I could skip the rest of the queue to try and catch my bus. Flight had disappeared from baggage claim, and the then signs to the bus terminal abruptly stopped in a car park. Had it not been for this, I might have made it, but I missed it. Was told the next bus was full, but if someone didn't turn up then I could get on. Luckily, somebody cancelled so I got the premier seat up the front of the minibus to watch the scenery as I traveled to Nelspruit.

As my lift was unable to pick me up due to a family emergency, she sent a friend along. Cue staring awkwardly at random white men to see if they were Brian. In the car my first stop involved stopping at Macro to help pick up several vats of wine and beer for a party they were having! Staying with Brian and Frances I got thouroughly spoiled for two days. Their house is lovely and they run a B and B with little cottages around their grounds. I stayed in my own for three nights. I got fed delicious food, met their friends and then got taken to Kruger - for free! They are part of the Rotary Club and they had a day trip for pensioners organised for Sunday, so I went along to 'help'. But Brian kindly got up at 6 to take me out early to see as much as we could. Once he snuck me in (I pretended to be South African - i.e. I didn't say anthing) we went searching for the animals. in the morning I saw giraffes, zebra, wilderbeast, impala, elephants, hyenas and more. By the time we got to lunch I was pretty impressed - and then Brian proceeded to tell everyone we hadn't seen much! With our drive after lunch I began to see what he meant. We saw a leopard (the rarest of the Big 5) and then two amazing encounters with a large group of rhino and my favourite - an elephant nursery. Two or three adults with 4 or 5 babys...so cute! I do have the photos but they are stuck on my camera for the time being.

Come Monday, Liz picked me up to take me to my school - Sitintile High School. It has about 1400 learners and goes from grade 8 - 12 (years 9 - 13 for the Brits). There is much to say about the school and the education, but I am going to save it for another post when I have more experience and knowledge of the place. Safe to say it's a bit different from UWCSEA....

Here is the link to the song The story so far: Spunge

Posted by SpannaB 07:13 Archived in South Africa Tagged travel Comments (4)

The Road

So I am going to (try) and write a blog about my travels and experiences this year. As you might have guessed from the title of the blog, there is a musical theme, partly because it's interesting and partly because it might give me enough structure to actually write something. Each blog title will be a song, either with the title relating to the post, or a song that has been part of the experience. There may well be a largely Frank Turner based theme, one, because he is awesome and two, because his song titles work really well with travelling. I'll be off on 'the road' on Thursday, heading to South Africa.

Also for those that are interested here is the link to the song: The Road Frank Turner

Posted by SpannaB 13:08 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (4)

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