Sunday, April 20, 2008

Make a difference.

Am I able to?

It’s tough to say. Most days I can’t tell, some days I am sure not, many days I feel like a fraud. And then there are the other days. The few. Where I have a moment and think maybe – just maybe – I am.

Friday was one of those days.

The bell indicating the change of class had rung late, meaning I left my previous class after the next one had started. Making my way to the lesson, I was intercepted by one of the students from that class who had been on his way to fetch me.

‘You’re late miss!’ he said, ‘We are all waiting for you!’

As I apologized and quickened my step, I couldn’t help but smile. This particular student (Z), the one who had come to fetch me, was one who I had seen a notable difference in since the beginning of the year. I had been told about Z by other teachers, as he was known at Songeze (our sister feeder school) for being a trouble-maker. In the early days of last term, it was apparent that this behaviour had carried over to Fezeka. He was also often absent from class. His work was weak and he clearly struggled with the language. I heard whisperings that he was involved in gangsterism, though as with other students which I have heard this about, I never asked him for fear of hearing something I didn’t want to.

As the term progressed however, I began to notice a change in Z. He was showing up for class more – and increasingly on time. He would answer questions that were posed to the class, [perhaps] encouraged by my mantra of: ‘if you aren’t sure, its okay to guess’. Z would do his in-class work, and even call me over to ask if it was right. A firm believer in positive reinforcement, even when students’ work is wrong I let them know what is good about it and how to get back on the right track. As English is difficult for Z, this was common with him, but when he did get it right, my comments would be met with an ear-to-ear grin and an almost imperceptible-but-there blush. The fact that it was Z who had been fetching me further reaffirmed that he was making an effort now that previously he had not.

While the impetus for this change is anyone’s guess, at the end of the day his visibly improved commitment is what matters most.

When I get to class, the first thing I do after greeting students, making any announcements and going over the plan for the days’ lesson, is to check homework.

I assign it about 50-60% of the time, and I sign their books if they have completed it. Despite the frequency with which it is given, many students often do not do it. I have spoken to them about the importance of completing all assigned work and what it means for their participation marks on a number of occasions, yet this often falls on deaf ears. Regardless, I continue to reinforce the message that they are intelligent young people and put the onus of responsibility for completing their work on them. Unlike the social and cultural capital which surround schools in more privileged environments, this is not a situation where parents may be counted upon to support the pedagogical achievements of their children. Moreover, as with tardiness and attendance, I could easily spend a majority of the time dealing with these issues if I was so inclined.

On Friday however, when I asked them to show me their homework, the sweet sound of 34 notebooks obligingly opening greeted my ears. Aside from 2 students – one who had been absent and one who had forgotten his book at home –


Did their homework.

While something so small and seemingly expected in another context may seem insignificant, to me in that moment, it made my heart skip. Granted it wasn’t a difficult assignment (Write 5 sentences using the Conditional Form), but they did it. And it was something I taught them.

And almost all of them got it right.


katie elder said...

hello alex!

my name is katie and i'm traveling to south africa with old dominion university and dr. jen fish on may 11th! for my service learning project i was assigned to work with the Education Without Borders organization. i am so excited! i have been reading through your blogs the past few days and i am so anxious to meet you and your students! i'm incredibly nervous but i am trying my best to hide it. 3 other girls from the program will be at the school as well. we can't wait! i do have a silly question, what do you think we should wear to school? we were wondering if nice jeans and a blouse/top would be ok? any advice is greatly appreciated! also, we have been given a description of what we will be doing and some ideas as to what we should bring for the students but if you have any specific requests please let me know and i will be happy to pass them along to the group.

i hope you and your students are doing well and i can't wait to hear from you!


katie elder said...

honestly, your comment has eased my nerves quite a bit!

we are actually from Norfolk, Virginia. we fly out of Norfolk May 11th at 330pm and arrive in Washington DC about an hour later then we have a 19 hour flight to Johannesburg, then to Cape Town. i think they said the whole trip is 24 hours! i guess i should make sure to have my ipod fully charged....we leave June 1st for home.

my email is

talk to you soon!