Monday, November 14, 2011

October 31st Recap

Today was our last full day of professional meetings for this trip. Hard to believe that it’s almost over already, but the 17 hours of travel really does take up two days. It’s been a great experience and one I will not soon forget. The problem will be sharing the information and using it to impact the lives of my friends, family, students and teachers.

This morning we started our day at Liwa Primary School in the township of Langa. This school is one of many who have received technology equipment and software through the Kanya Project. We were escorted to their computer lab where one of the grade 3 classes were logging on. Many of us were familiar with the error message that appeared on many of the students’ screens and immediately jumped into action. Thankfully we had an ICT expert with us who restarted the server allowing us to get almost all of the students up and running. We were able to watch them as they worked with some of the provided software. They were working on learning new high frequency words in their native tongue, isixhosa. About halfway through the class, the students then switch to practicing math skills using a program called CAMI Mathematics. Although these programs would be something that many of us would only use for interventions, the kids were enjoying their work and progressing in their skills, which is what is important.

The principal then completed our tour throughout some of the other classrooms. In many classes we were greeting by all of the students and they performed some rote tasks that they have learned and were very proud to share what they’ve learned. What shocked me the most with the rest of our tour was when we went into the room that functions as one of we might call a classroom for students with learning disabilities. There were about 12 students in the class from 11 to 15 years old. This classroom was very drab and lacked the color that many of the other classrooms had in abundance. The teacher explained that they do a lot of work on the board together reinforcing what they learn in the books. She said that after they do it on the board, the skill is often gone by the time they try to do it on paper. It appeared though that many of the students were fairly high functioning. There was no evidence of mental retardation or even conditions that can be identified visually such as Down’s Syndrome or a physical disability. This was a recurring theme throughout most of our visits.

We then traveled to visit a secondary school in the townships. This was a no fee school due to the area that it was located it. Here we did not get to interact with the students because they were taking written exams. We snuck quietly through a large assembly hall with students seated at desks that were lined up in very tight rows as we made our way into the computer lab. This lab had two very different looking sides. One side had old white computers with the large and deep monitors, the other side had new machines with flat screen computers that still had their plastic on them.

We had a very welcome and interesting surprise here. While we were there to discuss the Khanya project and the effects that this program has had on their schools, we found out that one of the men who assists several schools with their technology was actually from the United States. He moved to South Africa several years ago and has worked in various positions, but has settled into his current position that allowed him to come and chat with us. His point of view was very different from the principal, the man from the Khanya Project (who's name I can't remember), the teacher in the computer lab, and just about everyone else we had spoken to. While we were there to specifically look at technology in education, it was possible to not discuss the state of education in South Africa.

I believe I mentioned previously that there were places where the teachers would just not show up for days and months at a time. The people at Mereka found this out when students would text using Dr. Math looking for the syllabus so that they could continue to do their work when their teacher was not present. For us it was unbelievable that there would be teachers who just don't show up or only show up when they want to. Not only is this absenteeism a problem, but the teachers do not all have a strong education background. I'm not entirely sure what you need to become a teacher in South Africa, but it really doesn't seem to be all that much. One of our guides made it sound like she had a semester of classes and now she is a teacher. I suppose that a teacher who is there and tries to teach the students is better than one who might have training but doesn't show up to do the job.

Getting to school is a problem as well. There are areas where the one school in the village is miles away and it takes half the day to walk there and the other half to walk back home. There are rivers that rise in the wet season that do not allow the students to cross to get to school. They told us several places that young children have been swept away in the high waters as they were trying to get to school. These are problems that we really do not have to deal with here and we are very lucky.

One of the other key ideas that was brought up during this discussion was professional development. This was one of the problems that we face here in the US and Canada as well. The current system usually throws something at teachers and says do it without giving any time or support to actually implement it in their classrooms. It is also often lecture driven and it isn't usually clear why you are sitting through what seems like an endless day of words with no meaning.

During the evening we met with Professor Cronje and his students at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT). Here his students shared their projects with us that they are working on. They were very interesting and we were grateful for them sharing them with us.

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