Hark! Zac writes a letter.
8 August 2004
and I are wrapping up our penultimate term here at Ekulo. Five down, one to go.
The learners are busy writing exams and we teachers are busy marking them.
Actually, none of my exams have been given yet, so I get to sit around while
Sera marks her papers. The language papers are always given first on the
reasoning that the learners don't need to study for them and it takes a long
time to grade them, while math should go more quickly and can wait. These exams
are very important for the grade 12 learners as they use the results on their
applications to university, et cetera.
Well, it has been discovered that I haven't written in a while and so for
those of you who are apt to wonder what I have been up to, today is your day.
First of all, I have been teaching math this term to two too clueless grade 8
classes. I taught them about area and perimeter, parallel lines, indices
(exponents) and introduced them to algebra. I enjoy teaching them but I wonder
sometimes how much they are learning from me. I have a precious handful of
learners who seem to be interested and are eager and able to learn the material.
The majority are, however, struggling to understand and a few of them, well, I'm
sure it was very entertaining to hear me speaking in a foreign language for 10
weeks. I always think my lessons are fool proof and that the topics are almost
self explanatory but the kids have the hardest time getting things right when
they actually try to do a problem on their own. It could be quite frustrating at
times. I can do a problem on the board and everyone seems to be paying attention
but when I tell them to do an identical problem on their own they have
absolutely no clue what to do.
In addition to the problems I have teaching them things for the first time I
have the experience to know that as soon as we move on to the next topic, 80% of
the previous topic is immediately lost. Teaching here is like bailing out a boat
full of holes. The problem, I think, is that they can memorize how to do a
certain type of problem but they don't really understand what is happening on
any useful level. These kids have not had the rigorous math lessons that a
comparable US learner has had. In the US there has been year after year of
reasonably competent teachers slowly building a solid foundation; with any luck
the students eventually find themselves able to command a broad range of basic
mathematical concepts. Here, learning is much more haphazard. In elementary
school they might get a teacher or two who just doesn't like math and therefore
doesn't teach it. In junior high and high school they might find themselves with
a math teacher who doesn't know the topics themselves, or worse, they might go
for extended amounts of time with no teacher at all. It should also be kept in
mind that it would be very possible to go the whole twelve years without ever
having had a math textbook that they could call their own.
And speaking of going twelve years without a math book, I have also been
teaching grade 12 math. They do a bit better with remembering topics, and it is
a good thing that they do. Their final exam covers two years worth of material
and is the entire measure of their mathematical ability. If they fail this exam
it is as if they hadn't taken math as a subject -as nothing they do in class has
any direct bearing on their official results. I have a pretty good idea of how
they will do as I have given them many problems from old exams. Most of them
should do reasonably well -although they do make it abundantly clear that just a
few years ago they were clueless eighth graders themselves. To illustrate this I
decided to give my classes of grade 12 the same test over the area and perimeter
of rectangle and triangles that I had written for my grade 8 learners. The test
was exactly the same. The eighth graders had the advantage of more time and the
benefit of having just covered the topic. I gave it to the grade 12 learners as
a pop quiz. My grade 8's managed to get an average of 52 percent and the grade
12's got 59 percent correct. So those four extra years of sitting in math class
have evidently given the twelfth graders a whopping seven percentage point
advantage. I guess I was hoping that finding the area and perimeter of rectangle
and triangles was a mathematical cornerstone that they would just automatically
remember, but no, they complained about not being given the chance to prepare.
I have also been preparing four of my learners to take a more advanced math
exam (HIGCSE, as opposed to IGCSE -the H stands for Higher). Anyway, this exam
covers additional topics such as differentiation/integration and three
dimensional vectors. These four learners are some of my best and volunteered to
try this exam; they will be the first from Ekulo to do so. Ironically, I have a
giant stash of books for HIGSCE (for four learners) while the majority of my
learners have to share a rapidly deteriorating supply of IGSCE books. So I have
been spending a few nights every week trying to get these kids ready for their
exams by going over these books. While they always say that they are ready, I am
kind of worried for them. I say to them repeatedly that they need to know the
material so well that they don't waste any time on the exam recalling what to
do. I don't think they are underestimating the difficulty of the exam, but we
shall soon see.
In addition to teaching math I have also been teaching one class of
"keyboarding and word processing" to 8A. The class has 29 learners and
there are eleven computers. I have two or three learners at each computer taking
turns at typing. The computers are Linux (because it is free) clients, this
means I have one monster server and ten Pentium II computers networked together.
The system has proven to be very reliable, though somewhat slow if it gets
slammed with too many requests. They have a typing program on them that I rely
on to help teach my class how to type. I make them use the program but the
learners can work on any level they want (the higher the level, the more
(different) letters in the words they have to type). To alleviate the problem of
having too few computers I usually have one learner from each group doing
exercises from the book where they copy (onto paper) a passage and correct the
text as per the manuscript signs. One of the problems I have is that since the
computers are arranged in two big rings I can't keep an eye on more than a few
of the screens at a time, so the learners are forever switching to games or
email. It is a fun class to teach and a few of them have reached about 15 wpm.
This is really phenomenal if you consider that the learners who previously took
typing (on electronic typewriters) never learned in three years how to touch
type (type without looking at the keys). Although that might have had more to do
with their crazy teacher, who herself doesn't touch type. As a special bit of
motivation I had Sera come and demonstrate her typing which, at 50 wpm, blew
them away and was declared to be "magic."
Ever since the lab has been operational I have been inundated with requests
by learners to use the lab. They want to spend as much time as possible using
the computers, or at least helping someone else to use theirs. They ask me for
the keys after school, all weekend and even during school when their teachers
gone. I don't really want to spend my life in a computer lab but I have
tried to oblige them whenever possible. However, between increasing complaints
from the teachers and evidence of rule breaking (candy wrappers, etc) I have had
to reduce their computer time. The grade 12's have been lucky because they get
to go in to type their CV's. The curriculum vitae is the equivalent of a resume
here and almost all of the learners have claimed to desperately need them. Last
year we had them come in small groups and type them here on our laptop, but that
became quickly became insufferable because their free time overlapped our dinner
time. This year they can type them in the lab but Sera and I always have to
check them and fix the many errors, move them by USB drive to the secretary's
computer, print them and then find the learner whom they belong to.
I also teach PE but instead of going out into the blinding sun and watching
the learners play soccer we do special hand eye coordination exercises. That's
right, instead of giving these skinny kids some more exercise I unilaterally
decided to give them computer time. Both the kids and myself are very happy with
this arrangement but because it breaks some Ministry rule the principal doesn't
approve, so I desist when he is around.