I spent the past week working in Phakamisani Primary School. Although it was a complete shift from the public health focus of the previous two weeks, I felt energized in the fact that I was experiencing a different aspect of South Africa - especially a struggling system of society.
Phakamisani is one of two public primary (K-8) schools in Kwanokathula Township. The second primary school was opened recently in an attempt to make education more accessible in a larger geographic area and also to evenly distribute the children to schools that are an appropriate distance from their homes. Kwanokathula is a primarily black township so the majority of people are of Xhosa decent, meaning the schools are Xhosa speaking. That being said, townships that are majority colored speak Afrikaans and subsequently have schools that are taught in Afrikaans. This is clearly problematic given the fact that these very diverse townships are comfortably situated in approximately 25km area. To make it more confusing for the students (referred to learners in ZA), the Xhosa speaking public schools undergo a dramatic shift in grade 4 and start teaching entirely in English. Again this poses a multitude of problems for the learners, especially when most of their parents can't or don't speak English. The students become distinctly separated in ability levels in grade 4. Some of them understand the English language from experience at home or around Plettenberg Bay and others struggle to comprehend simple sentences, let alone a maths or english lesson.
Our job in the school was to act as a teacher's assistant in the grade 4 classes - all of which house 40 students even with the creation of an additional school. I was in a classroom that was primarily focused on maths during the morning hours I was there. I waked around the class, red pen in hand, granting the learners a small check next to every problem they correctly solved. It was astonishing to see how excited the children were to receive a simple check. Some of them would raise their hands after every question they answered, just to gain a new check - validating their intelligence and giving them the extra motivation to continue to the next problem. The grade 4's were doing math problems involving distinguishing even and odd numbers, rounding and word problems. It was honestly good to catch up on my mental math! The students were very diligent for the most part, the exception being when their teacher stepped out of the classroom. They referred to the teacher as Madame and stood up every time they talked in front of the class. It was evident that a majority of the learners had an innate desire to learn and were taking advantage of the opportunities they were granted.
I think the hardest part of the week was being exposed to the learner's wide range of abilities and sadly the lack of available resources to help all of the different children learn most effectively. Some of the learners were extremely intelligent and advanced through the lessons at a rapid pace. However, there were others that struggled to do basic math computations and did not understand when I tried to correct them in English. Another huge issue was copying. The students that quickly picked up on the topics - the ones who gained the red checks first - were often taken advantage of by the slower students. It was evident when two students sitting next to each other would raise their hands simultaneously or when one student would produce the correct answer and as soon as I turned around the clump of students nearby would quickly raise their hands, claiming profoundly, to have suddenly attained the right answer. The lack of work on the 4 digit subtraction problems was also a clear giveaway. I wanted nothing more than to make a difference in these learners lives, but it was hard to tell if I was actually helping.
One way the school is attempting to combat their language barrier is through introduction to English in grade 3. The woman who set up the partnership between TBB and Phakamisani, named Pepper, oversees a program for struggling grade 3's. She and her team pull students from class and work with them individually on reading and speaking English words. She has a structured system that the learners advance through, gaining confidence and knowledge to better prepare them for the upcoming academic year.
I had wonderful conversations with the grade 4 students in the field after we would finish the maths lessons. It was slightly concerning that me and another TBB student were in charge of 40 students in the field area, and no one seemed remotely concerned about their whereabouts and if they returned to class. We played netball (a less exciting version of horse), and another game that involved chucking a ball (a bag full of rocks and garbage) at people and just trying to dodge the throws. The actual hardest part of the week was trying to speak Xhosa. Saoirse and I asked some of the girls to teach us some Xhosa words and we quickly learned that our mouths are not cut out for that much movement. For anyone that doesn't know, Xhosa is a language that involves clicking noises and the X represents a very loud noise that sounds like a 'ch' and a tongue flick at the same time as pronouncing 'hosa'. In other words, it is quite difficult for my untrained mouth to produce. I received quite a few odd stares and blatant no's as I attempted to practice the different clicks in the field. I did successfully learn how to say 'what is your name?' and 'how're you,' and 'I'm good,' which I figured is all I really need to survive around here.
Overall the week at Phakamisani was a humbling experience. Although school has always come easy to me, I am unsure about how different my life would be had I gone to a struggling elementary school. The primary school age is incredibly important for formulation of ideas, development of the brain and future success and I feel equally as heartbroken about the struggling learners as I do the incredibly intelligent ones. Neither of which will receive the adequate resources they need, let alone the average students, who receive the least amount of attention. The high school graduation rate is not close to where it should be, let alone the number of students that successfully complete grade 8. The students are only allowed to fail once, after that, they are forced out of the school system. It's hard to pinpoint one core issue that all the problems are stemming from, but from my brief time at Phakamisani I believe that the education system is plagued by lack of infrastructure. Phakamisani needs more teachers, larger classrooms, the students need erasers, play equipment and differentiated learning tracks, just to name a few. It's hard to hold students to standards when they don't fully exist.
I'm looking forward to my time in India to fully delve into an education system. I believe education, or lack thereof, is the most pressing issue facing the world today. Although it is not my main interest, it is crucial and I want to do my part to first understand and then work to improve current failing systems.
Right now I am in Robertson working with Breede River Hospice. I won't get into details now because I promise a bog post about this week will come soon! We are spending the weekend in Cape Town, which will be unbelievable.
Stay happy and humble people :-)
An attempt to document my journey through 5 countries, 3 global issues and billions of people