Friday, June 19, 2009

If Sisyphus could Juggle

In exactly 8 weeks and one hour, I’ll be on a plane, taking off for America. Now, 3 of those weeks will be spent in India with my family and 1 of those weeks will be spent in Pretoria taking care of all my exit interviews, check-ups, etc. So a grand total of 4 weeks left in my village. I’ve already begun the process of wrapping things up and trying to make sure I can leave my counterparts with as smooth a transition as possible once I’m gone. Here’s the round-up:

Maths Class

I finished up my last lesson last week and mid-year exams are well underway. On Monday, my kids will write the last maths paper. Then on Wednesday, I’ve promised them a Math Party to celebrate finishing exams and surviving my teaching. Those that have earned enough points for behavior and their work will be able to purchase goodies and I plan on taking lots of pictures. As I closed up teaching, I had a few moments I wanted to share.

Six months can’t undo 11 years. It seems obvious but it’s a hard pill to swallow. I think about half my kids have a fighting chance of passing mathematics at the end of the year. It’s up from about ¼ that I believed could pass at the end of the first quarter but it’s still disappointing. After drilling, Mad Minutes, handbooks, all sorts of tricks and explanations, most of the kids still struggle with mental math and handling fractions. However, some of them can take the derivative of polynomials now. Go figure.

Carrots and sticks really DO work (figurative sticks).
The point system in my class rewards good work and behavior. It also punishes lateness and disrespect. Last quarter, two of my kids ended the quarter with negative points. One was a real troubled case. Malebogo (name changed) was obviously a bright kid. I would glance at her notes as I walked around the class and saw her picking up things others did not. Frustratingly, she refused to apply herself: never turning in homework, refusing to participate in class discussions or group work. I said very little to her the whole quarter and at the end handed her report with her negative point tally. Her forehead wrinkled in anger. We had a small class party and I told them that their points carried over to the next quarter. Those with negative points though could have their debt forgiven for good faith efforts to turn their work around. Honestly, I didn’t believe it would amount to much. Come the new quarter, Malebogo was on fire to rack up points: Answering questions, pushing her group forward, and perhaps most shockingly doing her homework (at least some of the time). Passing her on a path in school, I stopped her to say I’d noticed her efforts and thanking her for it. She looked at me awkwardly waiting for me to dismiss her and went on her way. Awkwardness really is my way of life here. Later I learned that other teachers were still struggling with Malebogo and pulling teeth to get her to do anything. Though this was bad news, I couldn’t help but feel a little good inside. How many of them had come up with a fair and consistent discipline system and also given her positive feedback? I’d done something that worked, that the teachers with their certification and years of experience still failed to do. A few of them noticed. I can only hope that some of them will actually adopt some of these practices themselves.

Despite frustrations, tardiness, and incomplete work, some of the kids really gave it their all, no matter how it looked to me.
This came to light when I was walking home with one of my boys, let’s call him Tebogo for his privacies sake. Tebogo has struggled a lot in the class. With a big smile on his face, he struck up a conversation with me in English.

“Unfortunately KB, you can never forget South Africa!”
Tebogo’s English is patchy at best, so I quickly figured out that the “Un” was unintentional.
“No, Tebogo, I will never forget South Africa or all of you.”
“And unfortunately, I can never forget you!”
“Unfortunately not,” I replied grinning.
“I will always remember, I had a teacher that came from America and we called him KB. And he taught us maths.”

I have a collection of conversations and events from the past year that I store away in my head to pull out on the really terrible days. As Tebogo grinned from ear to ear, I returned his smile and carefully tucked away his words in my head.

Computer Classes

In my three primary schools, I’ve been training six individuals once a week on computers. We’ve gone from, “This is a monitor and this is a mouse,” to “Make sure the printer port is configured properly and the driver is correctly installed.” This past week, I gave my six students their final exams. The exam included a theory section with questions ranging from “Label the mouse in the picture” to “Give six things to try or to check if a printer is not working.” There was a practical that included installing hardware, running virus scans, and such. There was also a section in Microsoft Office to create various files. Lastly, there was a typing exam. The test took an average of 3 hours to complete. All but one student passed (50% was the cut off). At two of my schools, I can say there was somebody that could do basic troubleshooting on their own. At the third, at least one person had a few ideas on where to start. At my high school, I’d already trained a few people to do most of the tasks.

On the topic of computers, I recently started a crusade to make my high school Window’s Free. The library is already Ubuntu based. With about 20 old Windows 2000 machines that were either virus ridden or unused, I decided to start a revolution. Unfortunately, these old machines only had 64Mb of RAM, no CD-ROM drive and a BIOS too old to boot off a USB. After some tooling around, I found a solution using both Damn Small Linux, it’s boot floppy, Puppy Linux, and it’s boot floppy, I have come up with a way to get into the old machines, back up the old documents, repartition and then finally install Puppy Linux and configure it with all the school printers. Using a SWAP partition helps relieve the low RAM and voila, new usable computers. So far, I’ve got 5 machines up and running Puppy and plan to get the rest next week. I see this as one of the most sustainable solutions to computing out here as no matter how much I’ve tried to teach the schools about anti-virus programs, scanning USB sticks, and updating, every Windows computer in my village, save my laptop, has a virus.

Literacy and Numeracy

I haven’t done much this quarter with the Primary School teachers on these fronts, but I feel like some of my earlier projects are still living on. There are at least two teachers using Numeracy methods I taught them in their classrooms and two schools seem to be using the English songs I taught them as kids are always singing to me in the village in English. This was probably one of my weakest areas and I hope that any other volunteers that get to my site will be able to boost this area.

School Management

After a lot of time and work, two of my four schools are still implementing some of the Development Plans we created. There are simple changes (like weekly staff meetings at my high school) that are small but still significant changes in the culture. Bureaucracy will always continue to be an enigmatic and unmovable beast against which I can only make incremental improvements. It’s an open question to me whether the amount of time and energy I spent on this front would have been more useful in other areas.


Read Children Read!

The children’s corner has been completed and opened. We completed an introductory workshop at one Primary School that brought 180 kids to the library. Now over 100 of them are registered users. High school students regularly study in the library. Books are slowly starting to be checked out. But we are far from over. In the pipeline we have introductions for a second Primary School, a program to include the Adult Basic Educational Training students, and more. The library committee itself had started to flag and I made some impassioned pleas/guilt trips that seem to have paid off. Reinvigorated, members are chipping in again and taking ownership of different aspects of the library. I’m nagging the school on one side and the government on the other to get either of them to create a full time position to hire some of my library staff. Before I leave, I hope to see the committee apply for book donations on their own and also use some of the funds we’ve raised to make their own purchases. The possibilities and extensions are endless and I could literally work forever on this project. But then last week, a couple of little fourth grade girls came to me at the library desk and asked, “Where are the math books?” As the girls sat at the tables excitedly reading out loud from their math books, I took a mental snap shot and tucked it away. I can move on.

And the rock rolls down the hill again...

Despite all the advances and changes of the past years, it can still seem tragically pointless. This evening, I found myself again sitting at the memorial service for a student. This one had been struck by a car at night. She had been at a tavern and ran out into the road. She was 15. The last girl that died had hung herself after finding out she was pregnant. Teenage promiscuity and pregnancy along with alcohol abuse seem like they claim all the kids that HIV/AIDS doesn’t get. True, there are those that escape and make it somewhere in life. But no matter how many life skills camps, pep talks, and guidance you can give, people make their own choices and unfortunately, with the only alternatives being boring or hard, irresponsible use of sex and alcohol get chosen a lot. And then there is the other stuff. Sick stuff. Teaching beating or hurting students. Adults taking advantage of children sexually. On these fronts I’ve had a few precious victories but many more humiliating defeats. Outside of the village, violence dominates so much of South Africa. Terrible things have happened or almost happened to friends of mine and realizing your own impotence to protect those you care about is a big slap to the ego.

Pick Up Sticks

It’s cliché to talk about the ups and downs of Peace Corps but they are intense. The journey is also uniquely personal. There have been days when I’ve literally woken up in tears, defeated by the sheer reality around me, then ended the day seeing a child light up with a love of reading knowing that it will be rare that I’ll ever feel such satisfaction. I’ve seen myself at my best and at my worst. My views on life, death, religion, good, evil, progress, development, and culture have profoundly changed. And now I find myself filled with trepidation and excitement as I prepare to leave behind this life and jump into the next one. On one side I am writing up manuals for my counterparts and planning how to say good-bye. On the other side, I’m reading scientific articles sent from my graduate advisor (yes, I already have an advisor) and trying to remember how to meet Americans in a socially acceptable way (not “Whoa! You sound like an American! Are you from America?”). I feel like a juggler that is cycling out torches for knives, except that I also have to make sure the bloke that is catching my torches can really juggle... or maybe I can leave that to the next volunteer at my site…


Sarah's Story said...

Great entry AJ!

All I can say is, it gets better. And easier. Distance really does create perspective.

Trevor said...

wow AJ, Great entry. You have done a lot with your two years here. This experience is something I don't think can ever be summed up in a single blog entry.

What age group of maths learners were you teaching. I'm going to be focusing on maths education from grad 4 - 12 for the next 6 months and would love any pointers you have. Though I know life will be a whirlwind in the weeks to come.

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