Photo by Teresa Rafidi

Photo by Teresa Rafidi

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Village Chronicles...

The Passing Games (Article by Robin & Woody)

Beep,. . . beep,. . . beep. . . This is a test. For the next sixty minutes, this school is conducting a test of the Department of Education system. This is only a test.”

June marked the end of Term 2. So, at the beginning of June, it was time for mid year examinations again. When it is exam time in the schools, it is impossible to get much teaching done. The teachers and students are so focused on administering, writing, and passing the government issued standardized tests that regular classes are put on hold. So, generally Woody and I have a bit less class work going on during exam time. Therefore, during exams, we have more time for our other projects, and even some observation. One thing that we are reminded about at exam time is how much the South African Department of Education, seems to set these kids up for failure.

Instead of giving each student a clearly printed individual test paper along with maybe a Scantron answer sheet where they can bubble in multiple choice answers, the Department of Education gives each school one copy of the original exam (typos and all) and then it is up to the school to make hundreds of photocopies or duplos of the exam. So as a result, exams are often given with questions that have a picture and the student is expected to use the picture to help them write an essay. This test question is similar to the writing assignment that I gave the grade 10 and 11 students last month. However, the majority of the time, the exam paper has been photocopied so many times that it is impossible to even see the picture or read the text. Rather than giving the kids a corrected test, the schools just shrug their shoulders and expect the kids to be able to successfully write an essay without even seeing the picture meanwhile the exam question clearly states that “there should be a clear link between your essay and the picture you have chosen.

Test questions like that are given on an English First Additional Language exam – meaning that the test is given to determine how much English a student has learned as their first additional language. So, instead of testing them on English grammar concepts that they might have learned in class, they are expected to answer relative questions or give their opinion about a topic like “what the photographer's intention was when taking this photograph.” Forget if you know how to conjugate a verb correctly or if you know the difference between direct and indirect speech... No, no, no we are going to see if you can write an essay on “what was the impact of the cold war in forming the world as it was in the 1960s?” I realize that the last time I was in high school was at least 1000 years ago, but some of these questions are concepts that I didn't even learn about until I got to university.

Students are also often expected to read a comic strip or an advertisement inserted into the test (with unreadable text due to over photocopying) and then analyze them. There are questions like “quote the slogan of this advertisement.” Well, if you have no idea what the word 'slogan' means, then how exactly are you suppose to quote it? Or they have to be able to explain the meaning of advertising terms and phrases such as “Terms and Conditions Apply.”  How about letting them just learn regular English first before bombarding them with ad speak and pop-culture that is difficult for even native English speakers to understand?

Additionally, as standardized tests so often do, many of the test questions contain cultural or geographical bias making them difficult for rural South African students to comprehend. A question that may be meant to evaluate reading comprehension instead seems more like a measurement of the student’s pre-existing knowledge of a culturally biased subject matter. For example, I was once sitting in on a class when the teacher was reviewing a sample test with the class. There was a question on the test that included an advertisement for blemish cream that helps fight red pimples. The students were expected to read and then answer the comprehension questions about the ad. While acne might seem like an average subject that most teenagers would know something about, but not all actually do. While reviewing the question in class, the teacher turned to me and asked for clarification on what a blemish or a pimple was. Then a few weeks ago, I had a big pimple right in the middle of my forehead and the General Worker at my primary school was talking to me about something while vigorously trying to rub the pimple off of my forehead – as if she thought that it might just be a smudge of dirt. Not to say that black people don't get pimples, because they do – people of all cultures and ethnic groups do get them. However, because pimples aren't as obvious on them, then generally speaking most black people – especially living in rural areas – just aren't as obsessed about them as much as urban middle-class white people are and they don't use blemish cream and aren't necessarily familiar with terms that would be used in an advertisement for blemish cream.

Another test question that I came across asked students to read a passage of text about a TV actor. In the article, it mentions how the the actor is also a remarkable script writer and a producer. Then one of the questions asked was “what is a script writer?” Well, nowhere in the article did they ever define the term script writer. So, how exactly are the kids suppose to guess the meaning of the term?

It is often like fighting a losing battle here. I mean imagine if you had to take a test in Portuguese (if that isn't your first language) and write a 300 word essay about whether you think that the Kyoto Protocol achieved its objective or not. It can be a formidable task to say the least...

Here are some of Woody's thoughts on the school budget which also has an impact on how the exams are distributed, and school operations in general work:

Caution: Some math follows... According to the UN's Human Development Index, South Africa spent 5.3% of its GDP in 2007 on education, while the US spent 5.5% of its GDP on education in the same year, and has been reasonably stable for the last decade or more. While that may sound comparable, consider that the nominal GDP in the US in 2007 was $14,029 billion while the nominal GDP in South Africa in 2007 was only $286 billion. With about 12 million students enrolled in basic education in South Africa and 440 thousand educators (2010 statistics) compared to the US' 49 million students in public schools and 3.2 million teachers (also 2010 statistics), that puts the annual expenditure per student in South Africa at about $1,263 compared to the US' $15,747.

While we're on statistics, the operating budget for one of our primary schools for the year is about R160,000 ($20,000) (excluding staff salaries) with enrollment of 350 kids making their budget about $57 per student per year. No wonder we don't see legible copies of the tests being distributed...

This concludes our test of the Department of Education system. You may now return to your regularly scheduled program. BEEEEP. . . ”

Opening of the New Library (Article by Woody)

The only thing that you absolutely have to know, is the location of the library.” ~Albert Einstein

Library construction complete!
After nearly 18 months from the first meeting proposing a new literacy centre at our local high school, the library is finally done! To put it in perspective, that's about as long as a white rhino's pregnancy lasts.

Well, maybe it's not done by all definitions of the word 'done.' What I mean is that the construction of the new building is done. Now we get to move in and try to get it furnished, stocked with books, paint a mural, and set up for use before we reach the end of our service in just about 4 months.

Inside view with new blue paint
While waiting for the building to be completed, we've been running around trying to prepare all the things that will be needed to get the classroom functional. Ulusaba, Pride 'n Purpose have been happily helping us by working with a variety of donors and sponsors to arrange bookshelves, tables, chairs, and other classroom / library furnishings. 

Woody offloads computers from the
delivery truck
They have also recently delivered to the school a generous donation of a wide array of books collected by the Woolfe family in New York, books we collected from the Rotary Humanitarian Aid and Book Donation Centre, and computers collected by the Saturday Night Community Church / Emmaus Road Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and shipped to South Africa with the aid of Rotary's Second Wind Foundation. In addition to these, Robin and I have been working with a small group of Peace Corps Volunteers to gather donations toward a shipping container full of books from Books For Africa to be divided between our schools. This shipment will likely be the biggest single source of books for this library with over 2,000 books in our share of the container. Fundraising for the BFA shipment is nearly complete, but as you know, the last mile before the finish line is always the hardest. We are still short just over USD $2,000.  So if you have planned to donate but have not yet, click here to do it now! We have also received some generous donations of books from the Scarsdale Women's Club – Operation Bookshelf group and Darien Book Aid Plan.
Principal Mayile helps unload boxes
of computers and books

Of course the building completion was not done until the last day of school before the June/July school break. So as soon as school resumes mid-July, we will have the bulk of our work ahead of us. Arranging the library; inventorying, categorizing, tagging, and shelving the books; setting up a reference station and general purpose computers; and most importantly training the small group of students that will be the Library Helpers and the few teachers that will comprise the Library Committee on setting library policies, managing and maintaining the library, and the array of daily tasks that will have to be done to keep the library in working order. Looking at this list, we may yet need another two years to get all this done!  

The unloading crew excited about
the new computers and books.
Woody, Deputy Principal, Lindsay from P'nP,
and the building contractor
reviewing the contract one last time.

The Jojo tank will collect rainwater runoff from
the roof for water for the garden.

Celebrating Youth and Saving Rhinos (Article by Robin)

The duty of youth is to challenge corruption. ~Kurt Cobain

Soccer game in action!
On 16 June, Woody and I assisted with the Footprints of Hope “Goal is Life for our Youth” football (soccer) match hosted by the &Beyond game lodges and Africa Foundation in partnership with Ulusaba and other lodges from this area. There were two main purposes for this day including celebrating South Africa's national holiday Youth Day while at the same time creating rhino conservation awareness among the rural community.

The 16th of June in South Africa commemorates the start of the Soweto uprising and riots of 1976. When high-school students in Soweto started protesting for better education that day, police responded with teargas and live bullets. An estimated 20,000 students took part in the protests, and roughly 176 people were killed. One of the first students to be killed was 13-year-old Hector Pieterson. He was shot at Orlando West High School and soon became a symbol of the Soweto uprising. The South African national holiday called Youth Day honors all of the young people who lost their lives in the struggle against Apartheid and Bantu Education.

So, what a better way to celebrate the annual Youth Day holiday then to be out with the youth playing football?! The games included 4 nearby community youth teams including our village team. The soccer game drove home the dual message of uniting people and conserving our environment.

Several surrounding game lodges were present at the event. Woody and I assisted Ulusaba, Pride 'n Purpose set up a drink station and gazebo with lots of rhino awareness activities and anti-poaching education. The station included colouring activities where community kids got a chance to design and colour a rhino and then enter a contest for prizes. There was also a rhino quiz competition that adult community members could take to learn more about rhino conservation and also enter a drawing for prizes.

Go team!
The soccer game between the village teams was great fun to watch. Our village team won the first round of games, but then unfortunately lost in the final play-off match. Our high school's principal, who is also one of the team coaches, was there to watch the day's activities and direct his team in the matches they played. 

Woody & Robin get to meet Gordon Gilbert
Woody and I also got a chance to meet professional soccer player Gordon Gilbert who is a Footprints of Hope Ambassador and is very passionate about rhino conservation. Back in January, Woody and I had a chance to do a rhino conservation awareness walk with Gordon and the &Beyond staff starting from our village through about 5 other communities. It was great getting a chance to see him again after almost 5 months. Gordon is a very down-to-earth and genuine guy who shares a passion with us for animal conservation.

To read more, click here to check out &Beyond's Footprints Of Hope blog