Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Lauren Talks about "Work"…and Feelings

The bad news: it’s been a long time since I've written. The good news: nothing is really going on so I don’t have to do the big catch up.

We’ve been here in our village for about a month and a half. The structured bureaucratic government entity that is Peace Corps South Africa has given us lists of tasks to do each week in the schools and our community for “Phase 2” of training which makes up the first three months at our village. During this time we are supposed to get a good enough sense of what is going on to start proposing some projects.

Here’s what Phase 2 has looked like so far for me thus far:
Observing-I have sat and watched most of the teachers from our two schools teach a lesson or two. At the primary school (grades K-6) it was mostly what you would have seen in the US with less stuff. At the secondary school, the school itself is in pretty bad shape and there's a little more "laid back" attitude from the teachers.

Teaching-I have taught a few lessons and then had a couple days where I played a substitute teacher at the primary. I basically improvise an entire day of lessons, as there aren't really such things as substitute teachers in rural South Africa, so there's no lesson plan left nicely on a desk for one to follow. I think I did well given the circumstances. I will say the students here are so enthusiastic about learning and are so well behaved, it'd be hard to really bomb.

Meetings-Meetings make up a large part of the educational world. If it's not a staff meeting, then it's a meeting for the School Governing Board which is an elected group of parents who basically act like a school board but for each individual school. Either way, these meetings are long (at least 2 hours) and almost entirely in Setswana. Sitting in them borders on meditation for me because my mind wanders so far away from what is going on around me. I was able to get on the HIV/AIDS Policy committee which has been slightly more interesting. I'm hoping to get involved with the planning of their health awareness activities for the next school year.

Minor Problem Solving-Need something typed or researched on the internet? Want help with a specific issue in a lesson? Student looking for a bit of tutoring? I'm your woman. Sadly, these are very few and far between. However, when does come my way I jump at the opportunity to actually feel productive. Which leads me to...

Nothing-I'd say this makes up the large majority of my time. I'm going to be honest, most of it is my fault. I'm struggling with the adjustment of living here as well as the notion that they would really like me to be their on-call sub, both of which make me want to run into my room and hide. On the plus side, I've read quite a few books, started a regular journal, and had plenty of time to just think. On the fun side, I've also gotten the opportunity to hang out with other volunteers in the group and we've had a really good time together.

So let's talk about schools in Rural South Africa. They have a lot working against them, there's no doubt about it. They face the same issues that rural schools in the U.S. do like declining student population, difficulty finding qualified teachers, and lack of resources, but it's on a much larger scale.

The secondary school has entirely bare walls and the ceilings of some of the classrooms are caving in. The furniture is definitely old and falling apart. Our host sister has brought home several science assignment where the students are required to "perform" a lab, without actually doing it. Instead they are expected to draw pictures of what it might look like and create imaginary data. This really breaks my heart. How many of us fell in love with science because of the experiments we were able to do in school? I took Anatomy and Physiology in high school and we dissected, mircroscoped, and manipulatived our way through that course and I was obsessed with it. I can't imagine if all I had was one worksheet for 10 students and lecture after lecture.

At the primary school the kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grade classes have over 40 students (the largest class has upwards of 50) in them and I really feel for these teachers. There's no art or gym class built into their day so they can have a break. In fact, there's no support staff save a secretary and a couple ladies who make lunch for the kids. The teachers "cope" by letting the students go unsupervised for long periods of time. But honestly what are they supposed to do? This aspect has been the most shocking for the majority of volunteers. That and corporal punishment, but that's a whole other blog topic and I personally haven't witnessed it.

The curriculum itself is very modern and looks a lot like the standards movement in the U.S. Each grade has a certain number of learning areas with learning objectives and assessment standards they are expected to cover. It's all very organized and excellent in theory, but virtually impossible given the resources available.

On top of this, there's the language issue. South Africa has 11 different official languages. Grade R (kindergarten) through 3 is all taught in their home language. When they reach the 4th grade they switch completely to an English immersion curriculum with one hour every other day in their home language. And just like in the U.S. this is creating students illiterate in two languages more than anything. They are also being taught by teachers who can be far from fluent and therefore might bend the English rules a little bit. Completely understandable if the students weren't going to have to take a giant exam during their senior year called the "Matric". If they cannot pass this test which is written only in English and Afrikaans (don't even get me started about that), they do not fully graduate and cannot go onto any college-level education. And let me tell you this test is no joke. The science and math on the exam is stuff none of us had seen until our first year of college.

And now it's time to talk about feelings. I would like to find a way to put a nice sugar coating over all of this, but I'm having a hard time doing that for myself. In discussions with many of the volunteers, it seems we're struggling with the same issues. We are noticing that projects we might have been interested are either low on the list of priorities or just wouldn't be sustainable. South Africa appears to have the financial resources it needs, it's just still healing from the years, decades, centuries of inequality. And that takes time. The difference we can make here will be small. Baby steps. I believe as Peace Corps volunteers we will be successful in meeting the goals set forth by Peace Corps, but is it enough? Are the baby steps and global friendships and whatever personal gains/growths we gain worth two years of our lives? Of our friends and families? Of Bailey's? I'm not sure it was what I was expecting, but I guess so little ever is. For better and for worse.


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