1st Update From Randfontein
Sun, Jul 26, 2009 at 4:29 PM
I thought this would be a good time to give an update on how things are going here at the school in Randfontein. I have only spent a few days with the children but already I am finding the experience to be both extremely challenging and rewarding.
To begin frankly- I have been absolutely floored by the disorganization of the school. Teachers will leave a classroom of students and not return for the rest of the period. Some teachers don’t even show up to teach their classes, leaving the students alone, which inevitably leads to the class turning into a zoo. A definite low point occurred after I had released my class of 6th graders at 10:00am for their 20 minute lunch break. At 10:40, I began to wonder when the bell was going to ring, so I walked down to the main office and asked a woman at the front office what was going on. She looked at the clock, laughed, and said something along the lines of:
“Whoops! Thanks so much!”
and then rang the bell.
In addition, probably the most challenging part is that (as you already know) the school is horribly understaffed. The worst example is my sixth grade class that has approximately 64 students.
With a class this size, its difficult thinking of new ways to get through to the kids, let alone getting them to be quiet.
Students can’t learn in such a cramped environment. To manage them, teachers have had to resort to strict rules of classroom etiquette, where anytime someone asks questions like “Do you understand” the children are programmed to respond with canned responses like “Yes teacher,” and any kind of misbehaving or speaking out is quickly punished. As a result, students have a difficult time thinking or answering for themselves. Cheating and copying seems to be common practice, and most students don’t feel comfortable raising their hands unless all of their classmates are doing so as well.
Basically, because there are so many, it is almost impossible for teachers to establish working, collaborative relationships with the students, and therefore students arent getting the individual attention that they need. As a result, the feedback that student’s receive is hardly adequate, which is easily seen when you read the comments section of a few of the student’s report cards:
- (Comments read: “Your work is not satisfactory, keep on doing it so that you can perform better.”)
In addition, the classes are extremely varied in the age of the students and their abilities. In my fifth grade class, I have students ranging from 10-14. Some of them can read quit well, most can spell out the individual words, and some of them don’t even know the names of the letters of the alphabet.
I’m playing around with a few ideas, and nearly all of them involve breaking up the class up in some way. I don’t think its possible to do anything truly productive with so many students in one room. Some of my ideas involve using the gym as a learning center, where students are administered a rudimentary reading assessment test, and then placed into one of three groups that have learning strategies based on their skill level. As a pilot, I quickly tried this strategy with one of my smaller classes (30+ students), and it worked really well. I first had each of the students quickly read for me and I placed them into “teams” 1 (lowest), 2, and 3. The distribution actually worked out to a nice bell curve.
- Teams by reading skill
I had the lowest students (team 1) drilling one another with alphabet flash cards and challenging each other to competitions (e.g. Who can me the most words with the sounds you’ve learned for each letter? The team that comes up with the most gets candy). While in a group with children who were at a similar level, the students seemed to thrive, even the ones who were previously acting out in the large group setting.
- Practicing with flash cards
I had the middle students reading simple passages and paraphrasing what they have read with their other teammates. Due to the size of this group, it was the most difficult to manage, but once we got going the system began to work very well for them too.
- Reading simple passages
I had those in team three begin writing their own original stories. At first they had no idea what I was even talking about. But after their first draft, and a discussion with me on how their stories/characters could be complicated and improved, they really started to get into it.
- Writing their own original stories
More rigorous assessment and individualized learning strategies for the different skill levels is definitely a start, but thinking of a system that will work after I leave is a logistical nightmare, which is bad because the system needs to be as simple and straightforward as possible. After all, the school administrators are having a hard enough time managing the school as it is.
With that said, I am confident that if the students and I work together, we can come up with something. It may not be much, but hopefully we can make some sort of a difference.
That’s all for now. I hope you all are doing well!