Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Play ball?

Sitting in the computer lab, a rogue cricket who has somehow found his or her way in here chirps ever-so-loudly in the background. While admittedly annoying, it’s almost endearing in a TIA sort of way, since such a thing would be rare in the climate-controlled school environments of the Western world.

Have been doing a lot of thinking about my students lately, and the severe disadvantage at which they find themselves in so many ways. While their social location poses obvious challenges, most obvious to me are the ways in which it handicaps them in their educational processes.

In 2002, the Western Cape Ministry of Education passed legislation that regulated all school curricula and standardized all exams, meaning that every student in every school – be they Black, White, Coloured and everything in between, be they from Townships, wealthy White suburbs or the rest – would follow the same curriculum, be at an equal level of comprehension of the taught subject matter (in my case English, and the subject to which I will be referring), and given the same Matriculation exams at the end of the year.

Now, let me preface what I am about to say by recognizing that I understand the notion of wanting to create a South Africa where everyone is on an equal playing field, and prepared in a like manner to face the world that they will share.

That said.

It blows my mind that there can be an expectation that a Township-born, native Xhosa-speaking, English-as-a-second language poor Black kid will be able to learn and perform at the same level as a city-suburb born, raised in a home where English is the first spoken language, privileged White kid. It’s almost obscene.

The main novel under the Grade 11 curriculum is George Orwell’s classic satirical allegory, Animal Farm. An “accessible”, insightful and interesting book, it was one of my favourites growing up. I also happened to be a privileged kid who grew up in a first world city. I spoke English at home, and came from a family where great emphasis was placed on education and the importance of learning. Even then, I remember finding the novel somewhat challenging.

Now imagine that English is your second language. That you have never heard of communism, Karl Marx, the Russian revolution, or even the words ‘Rebellion’, ‘Dictator’ or ‘Enthusiasm’.

In my opinion, it makes absolutely no sense to move forward with a Chapter in the text if the Students do not understand some of the key themes and terminology. So, we spend a good portion of the class (keeping in mind that these are 40 minute periods, of which one is lucky to get 25 minutes of full classroom attention and attendance), going over these things. As you can imagine, we move sl-oooow-ly.

After animated (on my behalf) and relevant explanations of the terms they struggle with, students often have a good grasp of them. Because of the time spent doing this however, more often than not the bell rings before we can even crack the first few pages of a chapter. In a setting where these words would be part of the students’ existing vocabularies, blowing through a whole chapter in the same time would likely not be a problem.

And yet, at the end of year, when my Grade 11s write their English Matriculation exam, they will be tested at a level that is designed to challenge the aforementioned first-language English-speaking White students.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

And the novel is but one example. The grammar, the level of reading…it goes on.

The other day I was speaking with a colleague, M, who teaches Business. I was asking her about how things were going with her classes and what they were working on. She sighed. She started to tell me about Market Day, for which students have to create a product, which they then have to promote and sell. Standard issue, right? Only these students face problems that those at home never would. Lack of available resources from which to create a product. Little to no market. No start-up money. Not even a little.

I think back to High School Business classes at home. How more often than not the challenge for students lay in creating a product that is new and revolutionary and then creating a need for it in the marketplace. As saturated as our Western markets are, this can be difficult. Here however, it’s not a question of creating a market. Everyone needs everything. You name it, someone will need it. Only, there is no money to create it. And even if there was, there would be no money to market it. And even if they had all that, in the community, there no money to buy it.

The WC Ministry of Education wants to create a system that prepares all its students for life on an equal playing field. In acknowledgement of all the challenges faced by those coming from the Townships however, one cannot help but wonder:

how can this begin to be feasible if they are not even close to the same level of practice when they come to bat?

1 comment:

Cappy said...

My heart goes out to you on this subject. As someone that went to a Govt high school in Swaziland, a rich all girls White School in Pretoria and also Canadian schools I know the vast differences. I don't know what the answers are (the headstart program in the States was started to try and bridge this gap in the US so there many be partial solution.
Caprice cpettem@shaw.ca
PS: Loved the Baboons. I was here yelling "Don't get out of the car" and almost wet my pants with the continuation. You were really lucky.