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Zac Writes a Letter

Hark! Zac writes a letter.
8 August 2004

Sera 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 are 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.

Take care,

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