Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Creating spaces

Today warrants a special post about positionality, spurred by 2 contrasting events which just couldn't help but strike home.

Positionality is that schmancy academic word to refer to who you are relative to who others are... and how you negotiate your identities within the given context of the interaction, laden with history, power, appearance, income, language, race, accent, gender and anything else that might affect how you interact with people or they you.

SA is just a complete dogs breakfast when it comes to positionality. How you walk, how you talk, your accent, your dialect, your dress code, your gender, your car... and of course your language and your skin colour!!... are all used to pigeonhole you into a VERY specific, well defined and excessively laden identity within 5 seconds of meeting and greeting, an identity burdened with history and violence. Due to our geographical separation, for many people of many different identities, some physical spaces are so unfrequented by people of certain 'races' that you stick out like a sore thumb, branded by your melanin as an outsider.

For a 'white' person, a township is such a place. More importantly, South Africans walk around excessively conscientious of skin colour: their own and other peoples'. One of the first things that struck my students is the difference in our skin colours (I'll write another post soon about how my students see themselves due to their skin colour--that's a completely different can of worms).

So event 1 today.  I completely lost any cogniscence of my skin colour. In the moment of doing maths with my boys at the whiteboard after school, we were chatting away in isiXhosa and it just didn't feature. Not a blip on the radar. My hand pointed to the number next to theirs, the colours were so obviously not the same and yet our difference just melted away. It was the first time I haven't felt 'white'. It was awesome. I was told by a student over the weekend: "Ma'am, sometimes I forget that you are white. I speak isiXhosa to you and I forget." Forget please, sana, forget away. The more you forget my 'whiteness' the better. The more I forget my whiteness, the better.

Which brings me to Event 2. We went to the local township library today (myself and my colleague, who is learning isiXhosa). We got to chatting while we were in the library with a group of junior school age boys... ok, I admit: I got to chatting with them. In isiXhosa of course! My poor colleague following along as I showed off. One boy, quite a bright young fellow, was adamant!!! He kept repeating in isiXhosa "no, but you're an umlungu! (white person) you don't speak isiXhosa". Over and over. Incredulity maybe?

Then he asked me "so where did you learn isiXhosa? where? where?"... getting quite angry and adamant that this thing he was hearing/seeing didn't make sense and he was going to get to the bottom of this trick I was pulling on him.

Him: "where did you learn isiXhosa? where?"
Me: "where did you learn English?"
Him: "but WHERE did you learn isiXhosa?"
Me: "where did you learn English?"
Him: "at school! I learnt English at school!! Where did you learn isiXhosa?"
Me: "at school. Like you".

It was the cutest teasing ever. This poor thing was besides himself. Such things cannot be, umlungus who speak isiXhosa. For his 7 year old mind, this was a trick. A trick he was determined to discover.

Then I became another boy's party trick. His friend came into the library and he bounded up to his friend and said "I've found an umlungu who can speak isiXhosa! Like PEH-FEKT-LEE. Like perfect!" (very flattering-my Xhosa is NOT perfect).
Friend: "no way, you are lying".
Boy: "it's true, it's true! That one there! (point at me)".
Friend: "uh-uh... no way"
Boy: "yers, like perfectly!".

Eventually, when I continued my conversation with the first boy, the second one turned to his friend and said in the most precocious voice "Seeeeeee, I told you so!". I was his party trick, his frog-in-a-lunchbox :) it was awesome.

What do we do when we defy others' expectations of us? How many spaces and opportunities do we create for real connection when we buck the very rigid stereotypes created by a system of racial and economic engineering which are still so ubiquitous in our South African society? I'm hoping that this is a really valuable lesson for my students: to not judge someone by the colour of their skin. In SA, it's a lesson we all need to learn again and again.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Salvation in a teapot

It's been 3 weeks since the last blog post. Not that there hasn't been plenty plenty plenty to write about in the last 3 weeks, but this is rather an indictment on the time available in which to write about it.

The week after the last blog post felt like a genuine corner turned. Something clicked and for reason, for me, the kids were on side, on task and getting on with it. Despite trying to address the staff shortage issue, something worked for me in my classes...

I'm super pleased to say that since then, my relationship with my grade 9s has grown and grown. Despite grade 9 having such a bad rap as the really 'tough' year in high school, I think there is a difference for this cohort as the 'seniors' of the school. They ARE the big kids, and hence don't need to prove it. There is also a small advantage to the slightly older kids who have repeated a couple of years... they add that small core of maturity which you wouldn't get if the whole lot of them were 14. A few 16 year olds is actually working out well in this case.

But grade 8! Going into grade 8 feels like going into war. I drop my helmet, don my gas mask (in some cases, literally!! what are those kids eating?!?!) and venture forth ready for battle.

In the case of grade 8s, it feels like quite a few major factors are collaborating together. Our rooms are very long and narrow, and it feels like battling a dragon when you can only access the head. The classes are just that 3-kids too many too! Man, what a difference when a couple of them are absent! 33 I can manage. 36 is just over the tipping point. And you feel like a tennis ball between the back and the front of the classroom: you get the back to shush, and then the front starts up. The front is quiet, then the back starts. To be honest, on days when a troublemaker (and there's a critical mass of them!!!) is sleeping, I actually don't want to wake him/her up. I know I should. But can you blame me? It means the other 30 kids actually learn.

Also for me, grade 8s have somehow ended up later in the day. Man, you can set your watch by our kids' behaviour depending on the time of day. The first two lessons? Angelic, across the school (ok, almost angelic). After first break? Mmph, a bit rowdy, a couple of flare ups, but nothing a decent lesson plan and some routine can't sort out.

After second break? Good bloody luck to you. The Gizmos turn to Gremlins and it's just anarchy. And most of my grade 8 lessons are the last two of the day.

I thought it was just me. I thought I was missing something... but it turns out I'm not the only one who feels like this with Grade 8. I dread it. And of course, the kids detect this, the perceptive little $%£. I notice I find myself prioritising my Grade 9 planning, my grade 9 preparation. Which makes it worse of course.

The teacher voice in me says 'plan the crap out of them--blow them out the water with such an engaging lesson that they can't help but behave because they are too darn interested'. Easy to say unless you're on 5 hours sleep a night and working 80 hour weeks. Very easy to say. In situations like this, one can hardly be blamed for focusing on what works and picking the battles it feels like you might win.

The week before last was just hell. Something in the water? I don't know. Grade 8 were climbing the walls by 9am. What is it? Bad learning habits? Critical mass of students? Downward spiralling relationship? bad planning? Bad time of day? Combo? Probably. Either way, I need to find a way somehow of breaking out of this loop. It's like a really irritating record stuck on repeat and it's driving me mad.

My lousy grade 8 classes are enough to make me reflect on each day and dismiss it as a failure. My blood has boiled and I've had enough. Genoeg! KWANELE!

So here's the crux of today's post (I have so much else I could write about, specific or general, theoretical or practical: I'm just going with a brief update and one thought-for-the-blog)... focusing on positives. Small positives. Daily wins. Here are a few that are keeping me (and the others) ticking over:

-the students are starting to greet us in a genuine way instead of sarcastically. :)
-last week Thursday 6 students set up a couple of chairs in the courtyard and just started reading. They had borrowed some Roald Dahl from me, and some from the english teacher. Some had brought a book themselves to school. They sat in silence, propped up against each other, nose stuck in book, completely absorbed. It was awesome!!

-the choir did their first little song at assembly. They have improved so much in 4 weeks! 2 new very enthusiastic boys now want to sign up: they really enjoyed it that much.

-my grade 9s make me smile daily. I had the worst grade 8 lesson ever and then walking to my room next door to find they had, without being reminded, gone to fetch the brooms and cleaned my room.

-one grade 9 chased after me today to return a pencil I had lent him. Given how much of my stationery the grade 8s have been stealing, this melted my heart.

-one girl wrote in her journal that she 'is now no longer afraid of fractions and its so good'. :)

-we have books! Kind donations have started our library: we have 300+ books! It's great.

-one of my grade 9 boys who has such a naughty reputation got 70% in his maths test last week. Despite all the others' really bad marks, this really made me smile :)

--my grade 9s seem to genuinely enjoy maths. Like, really enjoy it. :) they are trying hard.

There are others. These are a few. Manna for my soul. Fuel for my tank. We're half way through term... let's see what the next 5 weeks bring. Right now my salvation is in small victories and my teapot or coffee thermos. Sterkte.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Reflections on chatting with some colleagues and friends about my job

It's been a while. Time for a blog post :)

About 2 weeks have passed since the last post. They have revealed that raw space where you really think you don't have anything more to give... that place when you find out if your convictions can take you forward or whether you'll cave in.

It's no one particular thing. In fact, overall, no one thing is particularly bad. It's rather the accumulation of many, many, many small things, unrelentless, crashing against you daily as the sea does rocks. We know that the sea wins eventually. Mostly it's the lack of sleep--that always makes everything feel much worse than it really is. You hear your own voice getting cross with kids who just won't shut up and realise how you're becoming that unpleasant shouty teacher because you're too tired to implement effective behaviour management. Bleh. The One Thing guaranteed to make you cave is sleep deprivation.

One teacher has decided to go--he has not come back.That's put the rest of us in a pickle as we have had to scramble for someone to take his classes. We had one unattended class when he was absent without notice; with that one chaotic unattended class the whole school environment felt like a 'typical township' school: loud and uncontrolled, kids running around yelling. That afternoon did not feel good... we felt like we were sliding backwards.

For some reason yesterday felt like a breakthrough point--that despite the tiredness and the daily battle to keep good order when the class next door erupts into a cacophony (in my last lesson there was a brawl in the classroom diagonally opposite with the usual chaos of a full on fight :P). It was a good breakthrough point: not the "I don't care" beaten point, but an "ah well, let's get on with it then" point.

Tonight I was kindly invited to share some thoughts and experiences of opening the school and was asked to provide a title for the evening. I chose the title "Doing things Differently"... and then during the entire discussion I didn't get to talking about exactly what it is we are trying to do differently! Although I felt like I only told the story as it was--honestly and factually--I realised by the end of the evening that everything had sounded hopelessly negative. What was a factual account of the status quo reflected the bleak landscape that our education system has become. As things currently stand, I am far too immersed in my daily local interactions to pick my head up over the parapet and see things at the system level. I won't apologise for that at this point: I think it's understandable to focus on the daily immediate stuff at this stage. Perhaps in a few months time when the school feels more established I'll look more holistically at a system level, but for now focusing on the daily bread and butter issues is understandable.

I think sounding negative is also justifiable, if not entirely healthy. So sorry to those folks who listened to me problematize the education system (or shoot down their suggestions), although I'll stand by my answers as accurate. After all, we can't start to find solutions that will work if we don't understand the inter-related complexity of the problem. Ignoring the reasons why solutions won't work doesn't make them work after all.

But let me lay out here why I chose to call the evening "doing things differently". I still believe that we are doing things differently at our new school. Here's a few ways how:

--we're still looking for the potential in the kids instead of the problems. We're still holding the perspective that punishment and sanctions are not to be implemented blindly.

--we're doing our best not to forget those quiet kids who get drowned out by the bad behaviour. For my own part, I know almost all the names now. It's made a huge difference. In fact, that is one way in which we are doing things differently to the norm (sadly, it is the norm-in most schools, the teachers don't know the kids by name).

--we home-visit. We go to the kids homes and see where they live, meet them  and their families in a different environment. Home-visits haven't stepped up proper yet but we do them. That's different.

--we're looking for the resources to create experiences and opportunities for our kids that they wouldn't normally access. This is important to us.

--we're not giving up.

yes, that's different. Very different. 90% of the dysfunctionality in public schools is when (understandably) people have given up. We're not giving up. Despite 2 laptops getting stolen, we're not giving up. Despite the kids who do not understand the idea of not hitting each other, we're not giving up. Despite how truly awful that lesson after second break feels when the sun is baking us all like sardines in our tin-can-classrooms...we're not giving up. Despite some of us still waiting for our paychecks, we're still not giving up.  Yes, the silly things like the fact that we still don't have rulers (! arbitrary to everyone except a maths teacher!!), or that we can't have a photocopier that does collation and double-sided (apparently we aren't a big enough school to warrant saving time or paper)... those little things feel big on top of everything else. We're still working with porta-loos, and we need to bolt everything to the floor to stop it going walking... we're one man short and I've got to mark an extra 200 tests over the weekend on top of the other 100 homeworks and 60 books and feel like crying...

but I'm not giving up.

At least not yet.