Saturday, August 8, 2009

Elamba’s Edification

Term two of my first year as a math teacher is coming to a close with exams starting this week. If I were a student in my classes, I would feel confident and prepared to ace the two ninety-minute math papers (tests). But that viewpoint is coming from the perspective of someone who graduated through the American education system and has all of the junior high math indelibly imprinted across the interconnected synapses of the brain. For my learners in their radically different learning environment, the attitudes towards school, the quality of teaching they receive, the obstacles in their way, are all very distant from my experiences as a student.

The Owambo culture places an emphasis on respect for elders and this sometimes translates into children being regarded as servants who get the very short end of the stick. Outside of school, kids have an extreme amount of work during the farming season (read: basically year round) but at least all the other family members work just as hard. In school though, it is a very different dynamic. On top of a very high pressure to succeed in their studies, the students have to deal with Namibian teachers, most of whom, from what I've encountered, interact with learners in a way that is sickening to me. They command silence and attention in the classroom by fear and intimidation. They ridicule and abase learners for making common mistakes. They humiliate learners for untucked shirts or uncombed hair. But the worst is when they beat learners with whip-like tree branches, sometimes for the most trivial of offenses such as not drawing a line under a completed assignment. It's completely ridiculous and I hate to sound so negative but this rant was bound to spill out sometime. It appears that the reason for their behavior is that now that they have survived childhood and school under apartheid (which was most likely much worse than the current situation), they have these power positions as adults and want revenge for the suffering they endured. Many emulate the treatment they received and thus they teach how they were taught, which perpetuates this dismal cycle. I am struggling a lot with my attitude toward and relations with other teachers. As colleagues and friends, most are nice and friendly and funny but it is so hard to reciprocate when I see how they are with the learners. I would much rather be friends with all the learners but I'm supposed to be their teacher and a certain distance has to be maintained. It's a paradox to be sure.

But slowly I think my learners are realizing that I'm on their side and just want to help them learn math in a fun, encouraging, positive setting. I've tried to teach some topics with interactive lessons rather than just lecturing with chalkboard examples. For area and perimeter, I had the kids go physically walk the boundaries of places at school (the outer fence, the soccer field, the teachers' building). For rate and speed, I timed them as they covered a 100 meter distance with different styles of movement (walking, running, skipping, frog jumping - which got some pretty good laughs). For relating circumference and diameter, we found both measurements for various circles (buckets and lids and cups etc) and then divided, which would have ideally resulted in pi, but inaccuracy was rampant so I don't think they were convinced. For coordinates on the xy plane, I had them plot points that would eventually draw four shapes revealing a smiley face. For volume, I borrowed Greg's idea and had them fold origami which in the end can be blown up as a 3D box. For bar graphs, they counted the animals at their homesteads and made a chart of the results. Hopefully some of these activities achieved the goal of actual understanding and not just rote memorization and regurgitation. I'd like to think that the majority of my lessons were clear and followed logical steps, and that my learners were telling the truth when they said they had no questions. But this is a very subjective viewpoint and probably not realistic. Often, I'm sure what's obvious to me goes right over their heads, not to mention the fact that they are being taught in English which is not their mother tongue! Just this week I had one learner call me over to his desk and say 'I don't understand this' and as I explained, my mental celebrations were going wild because that means some students feel comfortable enough to ask questions!

Also keep in mind that Elamba Combined School has the most basic of supplies. Textbooks written after 1992 that actually cover the topics on the syllabus? Not for grade eight and nine.
Electricity? Nope.
Photocopies? Only when the resource office has blank paper and the machine isn't broken.
Cubic blocks to teach volume? Nope.
Most days all I use is the chalkboard.
But despite everything that is stacked against them, most of my learners are really great. Now here are some more personal anecdotes and details about these kids who I spend so much time with:

In grade nine there are 32 kids and most are 15 years old but some have repeated multiple grades so who knows how old they are. This is the class I have the most trouble with and I think it mostly has to do with the age gap and that even though I'm the teacher, I still look pretty young. That's why I've taken to shaving only every two weeks. Although there are some kids that constantly have that glazed look in their eyes and find the goats outside are far more interesting than polygons, the others are diligent students. Impartiality towards the learners is too difficult for me, however I do my best to conceal it. My favorites are Linda, Nangombe, Lusia, and despite their ridiculous names, Asser and Lempie. [Sidenote on names: Everyone in Owamboland has three names: the traditional first and last names plus the Christian name given at church. The missionaries were mostly Finnish so there are a lot of people with names like Rautia, Rauna, Titus, Andreas, Martin, Elias, Evelina... I'm not sure if those are really Finnish or not but there sure are a lot of kids that share the same name. To add to the confusion, many of the traditional names are variations on common Oshiwambo nouns. Amutenya = someone who was born in the afternoon. Angula = someone who was born in the morning. Ausiku = someone who was born at night. Egumbo = house. Kadhila = small bird. Ashipala = the place where they thresh millet. And some more unfortunate examples: Uushona = something small. Kangulu = small pig. Nangombe = cow.

Back to my favorite grade nine learners. Besides being quick and clever and in possession of mathematical intuition, Asser is a complete jokester. One day I had asked everyone to measure some part of their house and find the area and then some were sharing their drawings on the chalkboard the next day. I was asking what the pictures were and there was a sleeping hut, the kitchen area, the maize field and then on the last one, Asser pipes up before the other kid answers and blurts out 'the toilet' and the class erupted. Lusia, Linda and Lempie aren't the brightest students but they try really hard and have the best smiles. Nangombe is the ideal learner for a teacher. She understands before the explanation is finished, always has her homework complete and correct, and consistently aces the tests.
Grade eight has 25 learners. There are no super-scholastic-stars (besides the repeaters) but I do get the most questions in this class which is great because then I know what things are easy and what things to spend more time on. My favorites are Retta, Susana, Ileka, Erika and Aina all of whom like to answer questions in class (no matter how many wrong answers they give) and can throw a good punch when the boys are being jerks. Only girls on that list because the boys usually zone out and goof off in the back. They are great soccer players but less than great students. I am partial to Hosea, however, because he talks to himself while he does his homework... 'page one hundreds twenty fives... Multiplication by two... Base times height...'. Also he comes up with some very ingenious incorrect answers which helps put me inside the learners' minds so I can see where the errors originate. The latest example was plotting two points for each coordinate. (2,-3) prompted him to make two points at (2,0) and (0,-3).

As usual, I left the best for last. Grade seven has the best mix of personalities and most days my lessons go well. My host sister Mwingona sits in the back and several of the kids live on neighboring homesteads. Most are crazy about reading but the combination of a limited selection and a mild fear of chapter books, leaves them with the same beginner books over and over again. They are the most eager to answer questions in class and show me their completed work. I like to give a problem and then walk around for individual help. One day we were practicing writing our own multiplication story problems and Abner had copied my previous example: If a dog has four legs, how many legs do six dogs have? So I asked him to expand and write more. When I came back I saw 'If a dog has 17 legs, how many legs do six dogs have?' My definite favorite in this class is Alina. She is the smallest, spunkiest, sassiest, sneakiest sprite in the room. Even when I catch her reading a book during class, I don't have it in me to dole out any more punishment than just taking the book away. In fact, I really have no punishment system in place which is probably why some kids have learned to take advantage of my laxity. My reward system has some motivating power though. The best ten test scores get a piece of candy and there are prizes for memorizing the times tables. Grade seven is always saying 'Sir, we want multiplication!' Demonstrating mastery over the 4s, 5s, and 6s gets them a new pen or pencil sharpener or ruler.

One last story involves Johannes who cannot stop smiling despite his mathematical shortcomings. We were studying pictograms and the key said one big body = 10 people and one small body = 1 person. The chart showed four big bodies and I asked the class how many it was and everyone was snapping and squirming and screaming to answer and when I call on Johannes a disappointed silence settles as they all wait for the seemingly obvious answer of forty. But then, with the happiest grin, he shouts 'FOUR!' which is met with an uproar from the rest of the class. Don't worry Johannes, you'll get it next time!


Ariel Kazunas said...

Parker, this post is one of my favorites! The personalities you describe are great and it makes understanding what it's like over there that much more vivid. You've also thoroughly impressed me with your creativity and honest desire to get your learners LEARNING. You deserve applause for that.

I'm good, Stateside is pretty routine these days, so not much to report. Bainbridge is still fun and I'm getting to know the Seattle area better. Funny how the world brings you places you wouldn't have expected! Take care of yourself and keep the updates coming!


Holly said...

I always thought of Asser as the little Godfather. He used to sit in the front and if people were getting out of control he would silence them all with one quick sweep of his head and an arm wave. Does he still finish his exams in record time and then if you ask him if he's really finished just give you a cocky smile?

Why do you call Rautia Nangombe. She IS perfect, such a wonderful girl. Please tell them ALL I say hi and that I want them to keep working hard and listen to Mister Paka! I miss you all dearly

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