Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Now the real battle begins.

A brief update between piles of tests being marked...

Pushing the envelope: BIG time

Ah, the novelty has worn off. The whole 'ooh new school' feeling has been replaced by 'what?!? homework?!? f£$k th@£ sh!£" feeling and the kids are pushing back BIG time. It really does feel like sitting on a suitcase with the most obnoxious troll inside... we've just got to sit tight and make sure we don't let up the pressure. Which is rough. Especially when you're beyond tired. I've let a couple students slide already this week who I need to mop up tomorrow and Thursday--they think they've gotten away. Ha! Not so fast.


I love lists. Nay, ADORE lists. My life is just one big long list of lists which is constantly shifting and updating all the time. One day I might be able to make head or tail of them. But for now, at least, I know each student is on a list. Somewhere.

First home visit

Went to chat with a mum today... she came to see me at the school and she was on crutches! So I gave her a lift home and we chatted in her living room about her children who are both at the school. A great lady--keen to support, offered to take a phone call any time. So a positive. Especially after some of the other difficulties in contacting or meeting parents.

The picture swims into focus

I'm finally starting to see what I'm working with here after marking part of the avalanche of diagnostic tests last week. Bleak, dire, despair... um, no still not finding the right word. I don't know how these kids have been allowed to continue like this for so long without having their learning deficits addressed. And it's not like they couldn't do it--they are not stupid. A travesty. Yes, that's what it is. A travesty. Of the worst kind. I still haven't manned up to the task that lies ahead for the rest of the year. I'm still living by da river dey call DeNial. It's ok, for now my sanity lies there. But I'm going to have to take a deep breath and plunge soon into the seriously hectic remedial programs. Right after I have developed them.

That's it for now: the initial 'whoop whoop-new school' feeling has worn off rather quickly. We're now fighting against the slide into the 'look-the-other-way-because-I-can't-handle-this' approach that happens in most SA public schools: we're now fighting for the school we really want. We've got a helluva fight on our hands.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

10 days like no other

Apologies for such a long hiatus since the last post. To say the start of school has been crazy must be the understatement of the millenium. Here's a breakdown of what's happened since we opened the doors of the school 2 Wednesday's ago... it's about 3 blogs in one.


So, it's the eve of the opening of the school and finally the desk delivery rocks up... 40 desks short. Safe to say the idea of opening the school to a community, to whom we've been desperately selling the idea that this school is going to be different, without enough desks is NOT appealing. The only thing that's saved our goose is that no where near a full contingent of students actually rocked up on the first day. Despite a whacking long waiting list of students who want to get in, there's definitely an existing expectation for schools like ours that things only kinda start to get moving in the first few days of term (I've mentioned that having a timetable before the start of the school year was considered exceptional). In my own class of 30 I only had about 22 on Day 1. Good thing in hindsight, as we didn't have enough desks for all of them! Fortunately the remainder were delivered in the first day of term.

We finally got a photocopier this week Tuesday, 4 days into term. Working without a photocopier or printer was really hard, especially since I needed to administrate extensive diagnostic tests in the first full week of term (I have no idea what I'm working with!). Last Sunday involved R400 spent at UCT on photocopying (this after a trip to an internet cafe because UCT printers weren't working). On the Monday I still had to bolt down to the local postnet at lunch time and blow a further R400 to copy the last of the tests I needed for that afternoon since I'd maxed out my credit at UCT. The photocopier we finally got on Tuesday jams on every 3rd page--no fun when you need to make 300 copies of a 5 page document. It's time-consuming frustrations like this that have contributed to the absolute exhaustion in the first week for me and the other staff.

Candle at Both Ends

Within 5 days of actual school, the staff started comparing how much weight we'd all lost through sheer lack of opportunity to eat. The max came in at about 3.5kg in a week. Most staff were still sending emails flying at 1am in the morning for planning and coordinating activities and lessons, so the average sleep was pitching at around 5 hours a night for everyone. We'd meet up again at 7am the next morning to tackle the day. As for me, I'm struggling to find clothes that don't hang off me in a really unpleasant baggy way. I've worn out 2 pairs of shoes in 8 days in the dust and dirt of the school site, being on my feet all day.

But I've managed to squeeze in one run and a cycle in two weeks. By Wednesday I was feeling desperate and unable to continue--I parked the pile of work I had and put on my running shoes. All of a sudden, my head cleared and I could think straight. A solid run put me back on track again, getting rid of the stress and allowing me to sleep properly.

But I'd recommend starting a school as a sure-fire weightloss strategy.
Breaks have been spent running around doing photocopies, trying to shepherd students into staying in the school grounds when the gate wasn't closed (more on this later), keeping students in who wasted time settling down between lessons or didn't do their homework and generally enforcing the strict lines drawn in the school code-of-conduct. We've literally laid down the riot act. And it's been extensively time consuming and exhausting. Last Friday I drove past a good friend's place of work on the way home and popped in to say hi. She asked me how I was and I just burst into tears. I fell asleep at 8pm after a stiff drink. At the moment, a stiff drink seems to be the guarantee of sleeping peacefully without frequent interruption. A habit I do not intend to indulge.

The Riot Act

Ok, it really felt like I did nothing but read the riot act to my mentor group for the first day. I confess, despite my misgivings expressed in the previous blog post on punishment, I went in strong. Not punishing, but certainly drawing very firm lines. Again, it's become clear in the first week and a half of school that my students often (not all!!) lack any form of structure in their lives: things ebb and flow unpredictably and almost anything goes. So this is a new experience for them--coming to school on time, wearing uniform correctly, not sticking gum all over the floors, teachers starting lessons on time, homework being checked and consequences for not doing it... I've not felt I have any room to be anything but very firm on these things. Apparently I've gotten a bit of a reputation in the first 8 days of school. Can't say I'm too cracked up about it. It's maintaining my sanity.

Honey pot

We anticipated a lot of the problems and pre-empted them. We made the expectations clear from the front and, on the whole, the students responded well to them.

What we didn't anticipate was how quickly the school would become a honey pot to nefarious influences from outside our boundaries. On the first day of lessons at first break, the gate at the top was still unlocked and, despite a permanent security presence, a gang of rather unpleasant young men swarmed into the school and strutted around haranguing our students as they pleased. Even during lesson time, I came across a student waiting outside a class to speak to a teacher and he'd been found by 2 of these guys... one on each shoulder like the angel and devil scene so common in cartoons. This kid looked like he wanted the ground to swallow him whole with these 2 tsotsis pinning him between them like a sandwich. I told them to get off school property with threats of police and we have tightened up security big time, but even on Tuesday last week I still saw a guy hanging around the edge of the playground: having scaled the fence he was looking to push drugs to our students and bolted as soon as he saw me. He came back twice to see if I was gone (which I wasn't--I was on playground duty). But the threat is there.

We've also been picking up the tell-tale signs of our students being involved in gang activity: graffiti in the boys toilets between rival gangs proliferated within 3 days of school opening, resulting in us locking the boys toilets and making the boys use the porta-loos set up in the playground. I've also caught boys 'tattooing' their gang names and symbols on themselves in class with ballpoint pens, and drawings in their books which are truly disturbing. Again, the threat is there... it is going to take a long time to get these boys feeling safe and thinking that there are alternatives places for affirmation without being part of gangs. Keeping them in school for most of the day and keeping the tsotsis out will be key. But it's going to take a while.

Theft on campus

Unfortunately we've already had a teacher's laptop stolen on Tuesday. The police were called in but the bluff was called and the students stayed schtoom. The incident just reaffirmed my conviction that I was not bringing personal things of great value to school--it's very easy to forget where we are. So no handbag, no credit card, a cheap phone and a cheap watch. At worst I will lose my house keys which will piss me off. Otherwise, they can take the lot. I've nothing with me that I'm particularly attached to.


Another thing we anticipated but just weren't emotionally prepared for was how violent the students are towards each other. Kicking and hitting each other at the slightest dispute is standard--who knows what kind of behaviour they have witnessed and become immersed in that this level of violence is the order of the day. I have had to intervene in several incidents of minor violence and one student was extracted from class on Friday for pummelling another for a verbal sleight. The firm boundaries are going to be key to stamping this out, along with the constant drawing on the code of conduct which we are trying to ground in values--respect, care and honesty. Here's hoping that driving the message home calmly, firmly and consistently will work.

We've seen a massive improvement in behaviour in only 8 days of school in terms of punctuality, attendance, uniform, quick transition between classes, staying within school bounds and not disrupting class. Here's hoping we can get the message into student-to-student interactions too.


I have tested the crap out of these poor kids this last week. Most have not provided report cards from their prior schools, and for those who have, their maths scores are regularly below 40%. I've literally just finished marking the first set of tests for my grade 9s and the results are beyond depressing--some are struggling with the very basics. I feel angry and dismayed: what have their previous teachers been doing for the last 8 years of their education? How can they have been lied to like this for so long?

The test in question is a base-line grade 8 test intended to allow us to draw a base line for new arrivals to high school. The grade nines are not really scoring above 30% on a grade eight test. Issues such as place value, where decimal commas go, number bonds, multiplication tables and Cartesian coordinates are coming up frequently. I haven't even begun to try and assess where language is causing the problem. Oh well-- I suppose it will be difficult to go anywhere but up from here. But it really is truly, terribly disturbing.


I have always had a fantasy about organising and conducting a choir of kids for whom singing is as much of a joy and pleasure as it is for me: kids who burst into song spontaneously with gusto and vibrance. Well, that time has come. And it is beyond anything I could've imagined... I get slightly high when the kids sing.

At the first choir practice, the kids asked if they could sing an isiXhosa song. I told them I'd be very disappointed if they didn't!!! They launched into some fabulous songs--simple, repeated refrains with slightly asynchronic timing and loose harmonies... but always beautiful, even if rough and unpolished, it was raw and heartfelt. I taught them a 3 part song we created in reading club which is an appeal to parents to read to their children at home: the lyrics of the altos repeat over and over "Funda, sifuna ukufunda, sifuna ukufunda nani nonke" (Learn, we want to read, we want to read with you all).

The next day in assembly, this was the song the kids chose to sing at the principal's request that they sing a song (assembly will always involve singing). The choir turned around and indicated I should mouth the words to the rest of the school who didn't know it. I haven't been advertising too loudly that I speak some isiXhosa to the students so the shock on their faces was, I have to say, pretty cool. The hall roof lifted with the song from reading club--it was ethereal.

Speaking isiXhosa

As mentioned, I havent been shouting from the rooftops that I speak some isiXhosa, for a few reasons. Firstly, I'm rusty, and I don't want to embarrass myself. Secondly, as soon as students discover I speak isiXhosa, they only speak to me in isiXhosa and trying to 'charm me over' if you like "oh miss, please give me my phone" (I've confiscated at least 10 so far. Other tallies include about 13 pairs of earrings and 5 hats).. "oh miss, you look so pretty today"... conversations that are appropriate for peers, but not between students and teachers.

Thirdly, it's a bit underhanded, but it gives me a trump card that the students are not expecting. For example, one student started making comments to his friend about the shape of my backside. He did not expect to be pulled aside and blasted in isiXhosa about respecting his teachers and respecting women. It was very effective. He has been far better since, and yet has come to talk to me in a respectful but appreciative way. The relationship was set straight with that one conversation--I understand you and I insist that if you want me to respect you, you must respect me. End of.

That said, we've been trying to translate our code of conduct and letters to parents into isiXhosa. I'm still wrestling with how I will try to implement the multilingualism I believe in in my lessons and my school practice, and how I will find the time and resources to do this on top of all the demands that simply teaching requires in general. I do slip in a few phrases when trying to bring the kids round, or to lighten things up a bit. But I'm not claiming any kind of fluency and certainly am not wanting to give the impression of fluency either.

We had  our first parents' meeting yesterday morning. Due to start at 9am, we were all a little crestfallen at the start when we had maybe 20 parents at most. The principal showed his experience and tact in how he discussed the vision of the school and our expectations of the students, drawing the parents in as partners in this project most dexterously. But a low turn-out meant that for all his skill and diplomacy, his words would only reach the converted.

By 9:30, however, the hall was full. The teachers yielded their seats to make more space for the steady trickle of people coming through the doors to hear our message and give their thoughts on what we are trying to do with the school.

By 10, there was barely standing room.

Thrilled! We're just thrilled. We never anticipated such a turn-out!! And, if initially the parents were thinking 'mm, this all sounds a bit strict', a few vocal community members took the opportunity when it came for an open-floor conversation and really let rip into how if they didn't take this opportunity and didn't support the good work the school was doing, then the kids would be lost and how we must do it for the kids. Slowly the agreement started to build, until there was resounded unanimity behind the movement. We couldn't have hoped for better. All of a sudden, this feels more than possible. This feels probable.

So we stand on the cusp of our second full week of school. I know about 80% of the names of my kids which is proving immensely helpful, and am keeping notes in a slightly OCD way on each child's character, learning and behaviour: good and bad. I probably won't be able to keep up this level of attention but I'm hoping after a couple more weeks I won't need to: things will settle into a rhythm and I'll know the kids better as they will me. The classes of 36 are tough on this front but I think they are capped at that number (thank goodness! more on my feelings about recent debates in the newspapers about admissions policies and class sizes in another blog).

Here we go: week 2!! A plan is in place, the data is there to be analyzed and used to develop strategies (read that as "I have a shitload of marking to do"). I've been asked to join the school's senior management team, a duty which will start in earnest next week. More coming soon.

Friday, 11 January 2013

Bolt from the blue.

This sh!t just got real folks.

So we started 'unofficially' with staff yesterday. After about 100 hours doing the timetable and dispairing at the fact that we can only fit half the kids in half the classes (an interesting timetabling constraint!!) i finally made peace with the bits I didn't like and presented it to my colleagues today. To say it was a relief is a massive understatement! And, much to my comfort, they were very understanding about the nature of timetables. Some were quite complimentary actually. Apparently having a timetable in place before the kids arrive is rather unusual in SA public education. Now ain't that an indictment...

We are 9. 10 with the HT. 11 with the admin lady. We're in 7 classrooms of welded-together crates, painted in some nice bright colours, with a separate hall which is a bit of a schlep up the hill: 8 classes running in total all the time, 4 per grade. At least we get a little bit of downtime... at any one point, one member of staff is not teaching. I've learned in the last week that that too is a luxury in SA education where there is no such thing as protected planning/preparation time. Me? I'm teaching 25 hours a week.

There are 2 'sites': a site within a site if you like. The first is the small area where we'll all be working, fenced off and alarmed (!). The level of security makes me feel uneasy and relaxed at the same time. On the one hand one does not want to feel like you're in a prison. On the other, you need to be realistic about where you're working. Being naive or blase will not help anyone.

The hall is outside this, but otherwise it is access controlled and we park inside. The larger 'site' is the bigger stretch of land on the mountainside, including an old swimming pool, old zozo huts from the previous institution that owned the place and a LOT of Port Jackson weed. The larger site is the area on which the Department of Education will be building the proper final school structures over the next 18 months (here's hoping--who knows when it comes to building time scales). This site is accessed from 2 sides: one from the township where most of our students stay, and the other from a suburb which was an ex-apartheid 'whites only area'. The school effectively sits in what was previously termed the 'buffer zone' in apartheid parlance (although the local estate agent still seems to think this is an ok term to use. We told her we weren't interested in dealing with racists when she described the arrival of the local GP as "a relief: we thought he was only going to treat black people". She was a charming character indeed. Not at all unusual for the area I suspect).

We're still waiting on desks and loos (!) which we're hoping are going to arrive next week before kids arrive on Wednesday. With the timetable in place, the next task is designing diagnostic tests to find out what the kids do and don't know. Chances are that they are at least a year behind, probably more, so the year's planning will need to go back to the basics and fill in as much as is feasible. I'm grateful for another experienced maths teacher on site, even though he will be split between maths and science. A fellow maths teacher brain is a godsend at this point.

Also warming to the heart is how well my ideas and suggestions for working in bilingual additive maths learning have been received by my colleagues. The dictionaries provided by my friends at PRAESA (you know who you are!) are sources of joy and delight to all the staff and we're super excited about leveraging students' home language to understand maths better AND improve their English. I'll also be trying out some techniques used in California (See Khisty in Barwell 2009) for Spanish-speaking students simultaneously learning maths and English (letter writing to your teacher explaining your maths thinking behind your answer! How awesome is that?) and will keep you posted on how these go.

On a last note, yesterday was a major wake up call as to how embroiled (and not a little self-indulgent) I have become in academic communities and thinking. We ain't in Kansas any more Toto. You can take your theories of Bourdieurian cultural capital and shove them where the sun don't shine. And yet, there is no point to all that if there is not some way of reconciling the theory with the real. So I'll also reflect on that occasionally as I traverse this quagmired labyrinth with my colleagues and my students.

As our HT quite rightly said: fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy ride.