Thursday, July 31, 2008

a Room with a View

A couple days into the first week back, it was announced that there would be a shift in the Matrix. Rather than continuing with the current system of classroom movement, whereby students stayed in one class all day and teachers went to them depending on what lesson it was, each teacher would now be given a classroom of their own. Upon hearing this news, I was ecstatic. Aside from the sense of ownership over their learning space and belonging in their classrooms that both teachers and students would now [hopefully] feel, on the most basic of levels it would allow students to get out of their classrooms. Even if only to walk the distance between classes and various departmental blocks that had now been set up, I thought it a good thing, since for some it is the only physical activity they get at school during the day (we don’t have physical education as a learning area). Further, I hoped that this may help with the issue of absenteeism – both student and more importantly teacher – since once would always know where a teacher ought to be when it was his or her lesson.

My classroom finds itself in the English block at the very back of the school property line. Until I was given the keys, I had never even been to that part of campus. Upon unlocking the door, it was clear that this room had not been used for a while. Freezing cold, no electricity, broken windows, graffiti-covered walls, not even one piece of furniture, and the ceiling was caving in not one but two parts of the room. But I didn’t care. It was mine. And I had free reign to decorate it.

Unlike the amusement park playground of Western classrooms – with colourful posters and decorations covering the walls, modern facilities and indoor heating, these classrooms have none of that, and instead have more of an institution-like feel. There are many reasons for this, lack of funding and resources being a frontrunner. Moreover, there is the issue of theft, as being situated in a community with many more have-nots than haves, it is difficult to leave anything of value in the classrooms as it will more than likely get stolen. After school on the day that we were given our keys, I drove straight to Walton’s, the South African equivalent of Grand and Toy. Here I bought a roll of newsprint to cover the graffiti, a world map and one of Africa, brightly coloured paper and pens, a stapler, scissors, and various other organizational tools. Was so excited that I had to stop myself from getting too carried away. As no budget exists in the school’s resources to fund any of this sort of thing, clearly all these purchases are out of pocket. I was very aware of the fact that few, if any of my colleagues would be able to afford similar accoutrements for their own classrooms. Spent that night at home stuck into some arts and crafts fun – cutting out letters to spell Life Orientation and English. The next day at school I had a couple students help me staple the newsprint over the graffiti-covered corkboards, and then set about gluing the words I had so painstakingly cut out the night before. Already it was looking better. Used images from an old calendar I found at home to stick up around the classroom and give it some colour. When students came in that day, it was clear that they not only noticed, but appreciated my efforts. Before getting started, I gave them all the same speech about this being their classroom as well, and my wanting them to feel at home in it. By the same token, they must respect it and take care of it the same way I did. They agreed, and have more or less held their word ever since. In the weeks following, bits and pieces have gone up to continue the classroom’s evolution. A poster here, some student work there. Week before last my grade 11 students were the first to put their individual mark on the classroom. As previously mentioned, in order to do anything in this country, citizens must have an Identity Document (ID). This passport-like item lists one’s ID number, Name, Gender and Date of Birth. After a mini-lesson on identity and how they identify themselves, I asked them to create figurative ID documents. Each was given a piece of paper in the colour of their choice, and given the sole direction of ‘Create something that represents you’. They could use any medium and were encouraged to get creative. The results were impressive and now adorn one corkboard under the heading (again in my carefully cut out letters): ‘Who am I?’ Despite the shivering temperatures in the early-morning classes or on rainy winter days, when the sun shines in the one wall of the classroom that is covered in windows that face onto the school property line bordered by some grass with a backdrop of shacks, it’s almost poetic. Despite its ragamuffin aesthetic, there is no other classroom in the school that I would have preferred. Now that all my students (well almost all), have desks, chairs and even a desk, chair and storage cupboard for me, slowly but surely it is all coming together.

In the weeks to come I will give my other two classes an opportunity to put their own personal stamp on the classroom as well. By bringing in colour and the chance to feel connected to their learning environment, ultimately I want it to be someplace that my students feel at home in, and maybe [hopefully], somewhat inspired. Along those lines, I have also introduced the “Quote of the Day” activity to the class., Each morning I write a new quotation (that I think relevant or that they may connect with in some way) on a small whiteboard which students copy into their notebooks. The quotes come from a variety of sources – from Ghandi to Wayne Gretzky to Michael Jackson and Confucius. We discuss the quotes’ significance, where they originated and a bit about the person who said them, if this information is available. Students are encouraged to come up with their own inspirational quotes for the quote of the day, which they are expected to explain to the class, along with why they chose it. When I next have some money burning a hole in my pocket, I plan to buy another white board, this time for a “word of the day”, as I did when teaching in London, and as my friend and colleague Safia has her in classroom back in Canada.

Speaking of the homeland, a very important addition to the classroom d├ęcor is on its way to me in a few short weeks courtesy of my aunt and a care package being brought over by my friend Rosalind. Three guesses as to what it is…

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