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A month in photos: February 2013

  • The first meeting of Girls on the Rise — a girl’s club that my counterpart Yama and I started at the high school in my village. The club is open to anyone and will run until November. We will teach about health issues, self-esteem, love problems (that one is on Yama), sex, really anything else a high school girl would want to talk about. With 38 teenage pregnancies last year at the high school, we can only hope this club will help girls make the right decisions for their futures. My counterpart rocks and organized all the girls. We will meet twice a month. During our first meeting we had the girls draw and discuss their “self-image”, how they see themselves, which I think they enjoyed! (more to come on Girls on the Rise as it takes off!)
  • Pen pal project with my City Year school Markham Middle School in Watts and also Stevenson Middle School in Boyle Heights of Los Angeles. My former roommates Marissa and Josh are team leaders this year at each school! Hopefully I can send the letters this week, but there’s a post office strike (Africa always wins).
  • Learners helping me label library books, which of course got out of hand
  • Other randoms from February


Yours in service,
Small heartLiz

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Month three: South African school structure; similarities and differences in America

“YES!!!” The learners screamed and jumped out of their seats.

YES!!! They got an answer right!

I sat in the back of the grade 5 English class during one of my “observation” periods perplexed, cracking a smile, but also trying not to laugh because the thought of my students from last year acting like this is just too funny to cross my mind. They would never be caught dead screaming “YES!” in unison during grading; indeed, they are too kewl for skewl.

South African youth, however, aren’t sitting in class during grading period texting and Facebooking each other, “bord in 4 period!!!! lmao >:((((( lyke or commnt” (American middle school internet slang gets me every time). Instead, school is cool and South African learners care a lot about their schoolwork because it’s such a big part of their lives. Family, church, school, chores, cleaning and playing games with other village kids is a typical learner’s childhood.

After the lesson, I told the English teacher that would have never happened in the grade 6 class I worked in last year. She laughed and said, “Ah, yes the learners like to learn!”

At that moment, it really became apparent to me: oh boy, I’m definitely not in America anymore.

So far, I have observed some drastic cultural and administrative differences between South African schools and American schools. To name a few:

  • Students stay in their classrooms, but teachers move class to class.
    Many classrooms aren’t decorated, but may have a few educational posters up because each classroom doesn’t belong to a teacher like they do in the states.
  • Learners from grade 4 and up take NINE subjects.
    These subjects include: arts and culture, life orientation, maths, economics management science, English, home language, natural science, technology and social sciences. I guess instead of one grade 4 teaching all the subjects in a day’s worth of class, the learners get the subjects from different teachers. But seriously, would you have been capable of all these subjects at grade 4 after being taught in isiZulu and now your first year being taught in English? Didn’t think so. However, with next year’s new curriculum, the ministry merged arts and culture and life orientation and natural sciences and technology. The ministry also ditched economic management science and now learners don’t take it until the senior phase (grade 8 and up). Amen my brothas, is teaching a kid about how businesses run at age 10 really practical? Nah, also didn’t think so.
  • Teachers teach based on a “timetable” that breaks up the hours the Ministry of Education requires.
    Subject classes aren’t taught every day and are longer or shorter on certain days. Therefore, learners don’t have a set schedule like we do in America (about an hour for every class period and usually students have the same schedule every day). Some days they might have one hour of English and on other days they might have two hours. As of next year, the ministry requires per week six hours for home language, five hours for English, six hours for mathematics, three and a half hours for natural science and technology, three hours for social sciences and four hours for life skills.
  • Teachers teach multiple subjects.
    In America, teachers usually teach only one or two similar subjects — English and history, math and science, whatever. South African teachers teach whatever they are assigned to and it changes each year. That means if they needed a maths teacher and I had time in my schedule, they’d throw me in that class. I can barely do sixth grade math myself, but in an extreme case, I would possibly have to teach it (trust me, though, I’ve strictly said I will only teach English).
  • Learners clean on Fridays instead of attend class.
    This has been one of the hardest things for me to watch/deal with. Learners come to school on Fridays, sing at morning assembly, then sit in class and wait until 10:30ish when they eat the school food. After they finish eating, they clean all day — polish the floors inside and outside the classrooms, clean the staff rooms, sweep, do the dishes, wipe the windows and burn the trash. The reasons for this are two-fold: the school doesn’t have enough money to hire a custodian and it “teaches the students responsibility.” When I tried to clean up my mess in the library the other day, a teacher refused to let me do so because it’s the learner’s job. I’d argue that these learners go to school four days out of the week. I know I won’t be able to change this because it’s cultural — South Africans need everything to be clean regardless of the unstoppable and ever-going accumulation of dirt in buildings — but I do hope that I can at least make Fridays a literacy day for some learners. For example, some grades clean while others do literacy sessions with me in the library (I would do phonetics with lower grades, reading and listening with other grades, etc.) We’ll see if it works — I probably won’t propose this until I feel it’s the right time. In a way, this cleaning business is kind of ironic for me — from my experience, I’ve seen American students trash and tag their schools; now cleanliness is a top priority.
  • Teachers go to class on their own time.
    Heard of African time yet? Well, it ain’t no myth — it really exists. African time is far, far, far different from American time and I’m slowly — but surely — getting used to it. I value timeliness back in America and I have mini-panic attacks when I’m running late for something (I know my roommates painfully miss morning car rides with Liz, right guys?) My time clock says 30 minutes before the scheduled time is early,15 minutes before the scheduled time is on-time and right at the scheduled time is late. In Africa, I’ve learned that schedules aren’t of much importance. When teachers are done with what they have to do — like socializing, debating over a morning announcement from the principal or marking papers — then they’ll go to class. Classes are supposed to start at 8 a.m., but usually start around 8:30 a.m. or later. I’m going to be moving at the pace of a tortoise when I come back to the states, no joke.
  • A substitute system does not exist.
    Self-explanatory. If a teacher isn’t there for the day, the learners sit in the class and do nothing. Hey — at least they don’t throw chairs, hit each other or trash the classroom like my old sub days! Not too shabby kiddos.
  • Every morning, learners gather in the front of the school for “Morning Assembly” where they sing in isiZulu and pray.
    All the learners have different dances and songs they sing according to the day. It’s pretty cute to watch. Sometimes they pray in English and the younger one’s faces are so serious because they are concentrating on saying the prayer right. My school is public, but all the learners are of a Christian background (they attend the Anglican church), so they know all the same prayers. Separation between church and state is unheard of. I find myself closing my eyes, pretending to pray and mumbling “amen” a lot during morning meetings. Awkward.
  • Learners are respectful and listen to teachers.
    Learners say good morning and good afternoon educator to me every time they walk by. They stand in unison when you walk into a room and say, “Good afternoon educator, how are you? We are fine.”Whenever I see a bunch of learners gathered in a group or boys playfully fighting, my blood rises and my eyes are glued to the group as I think a fight could break out. That’ll never happen, though, I just assume that a grouping of students means a fight is about to start. Miss Little Liz won’t ever have to break up a fight again (ha, or attempt — middle schoolers are strong)! Soon enough, the Markham Middle School-effect will fade and I won’t be on edge at school.
  • Staff meetings are held during school and not after-school. Teachers leave directly after-school.
    Only four teachers at my school live in my village and the rest live at more suburban towns anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour away. Those who live farther get a salary incentive to teach in a rural village. Thus, teachers may be more qualified, but only put in the hours they need to because of distance and time constraints. Staff meetings are therefore hosted during school hours so all the teachers will attend. In America, staff meetings are usually once a week after a minimum day at school, which is one more thing I’m looking at to implement here.

Now, I bring you the basics:

In general, all South African children have a right to basic education, which is the same in America: children are guaranteed an education until the 12th grade. Twenty percent of the government’s budget is spent on education, but during the Apartheid period that funding was purposefully not given to all-black schools in the rural areas we serve at. As I’ve mentioned before, the purpose of doing so was to ensure that whites received a decent education and blacks received a poor education so they would later work for the white people.

South African operate top-down similar to the way individual American schools operate: principals —> deputy principals —> department heads —> teachers.

All students at the end of grade 12 take a comprehensive exam in English that measures performance, which is called “matric”. This statistic — the matric pass rate — is a significant marker of the schooling system. In the 1990s, South Africa had a 40 percent pass rate and most recently in 2011, the pass rate is 70 percent. Other than English being an official language in South Africa, this is another reason why learning English is so important for these learners because to graduate from school they must be able to pass this test.

Ninety-three percent of South African children are in public schools. There are “no fee” schools for those who cannot pay and then two other groups of schools where parents pay for activities, supplies, etc.

One in 100 South African students will receive tertiary education (translation: go to college). After high school (grade 12), they can attend either colleges that emphasize further training for specific skills or universities like we do in America.

Funding here comes from the government, but isn’t determined by standardized tests like it is in America and schools are allowed to fundraise. If parents are more involved in their children’s education and earn a salary, they tend to contribute to their children’s public schools. At my school, this isn’t the case, but I haven’t seen a lack of resources yet. There are enough exercise books, workbooks, paper and printer ink to teach. The office assistant told me that the school never runs out of basic supplies as such. I have a hard time believing this because paper and ink were such a scarcity last year at my American school, but maybe it’s true. If it is, I can’t believe I’ll be able to make as many photocopies as I need for my class!

Now, I bring you the social issues:

Aside from differences, I can travel from urban America to rural Africa and still find social issues that ring a bell. The schools Peace Corps South Africa serve in face similar challenges to those that Markham Middle School in Los Angeles and other American schools face. There are high illiteracy rates because students cannot get the help they need with homework at home. In rural villages, the mother is usually out working so a grandparent is the only person home, who cannot assist the children because many elders are illiterate. Likewise, the mother may speak some English, but not enough to help; the mamas and babas of my community had to learn Afrikaans in school because they went to school during Apartheid. At Markham, many students couldn’t complete homework at home either because their parents weren’t involved in their education or their families only spoke Spanish. Same situation, different language and country.

Most dropouts leave school during grade 10-12 — a little later than the American school system. Some girls dropout as early as grade 7 due to pregnancies. Most girls are pregnant by age 18 and may return to school if there is a Gogo at home to take care of their child. Girls my age — 23 — more than likely have at least one child.

HIV/AIDS also plays a big role in the South African school system. Learners may have to be the adult of the household because they have lost family members to HIV/AIDS. In America, students may have to assume responsibility in the household due to substance abuse in the family or their parent’s busy work schedules, but still also live in child-headed houses.There’s a good number of children at my school who are also orphans — like foster children in America — and are taken in and cared for by relatives or elders in the village.

Now, I bring you everyone’s favorite — the political issues:

Teacher’s unions also integrate themselves into the way schools operate — what a shocking surprise. Low-performing teachers from the Bantu education era aren’t fired because of union rules and not many want to take their spots in rural schools.The only way teachers are seriously fired is in extreme cases of corporal punishment, which is now illegal in South Africa, or sexual abuse. If a teacher doesn’t commit such a crime, one can call teaching a lifelong job. I can travel 10,000+ miles away from Los Angeles and teacher’s unions still play a huge role in the education system.

The image of a teacher in South African culture doesn’t help draw attention to these issues in the educational system that need attention, either. Historically, South African teachers were seen as poor that made the bare minimum. Therefore, the profession in the past has not been appealing to South Africans and those who made it out of the public school system work in the private sector, but now more and more people are teaching after attending university because of government incentives and higher salaries.

I find South Africans exclaiming their appreciation for us being here far too often. Most of all, I recall the time a deputy from the Ministry of Education came to our pre-service training to welcome us to the South African school system and tell us how excited and lucky they were to have us. Very nice gesture, but like anything and everything, my questioning kicked in.

There are definitely some talented and experienced people in my Volunteer group so I have no doubt that they’ll be amazing teachers and English is our native tongue, but the question that keeps running through my mind is do other countries really look up to American education and educators?

Do other countries understand that our public education system is struggling too? Just because we’re American doesn’t mean we have solutions to all issues or a decent public education system. The teachers at my school were shocked to hear that teenage pregnancy is an issue in America too. See, I told you, believe it or not — we are combating similar issues!

Regardless of the issue of public education plaguing many parts of the world, Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful WEAPON that you can use to can change the world.” Truth.

Now let’s spread that message like wildfire, my Peace Corps and City Year friends.

Here’s a glimpse into my school (10x smaller than an American school!)

Outside of my school

School yards and garden

School sport yard and volleyball court

Peace Corps world map project completed by former health Volunteer in my village

Love to my peoples back at home working in American schools!
Ngidinga ukulala (I need to sleep),

SmallTransparentLogoLiz

Markham Middle School CST scores are up!

Markham Middle School increased 8 percent of students scoring proficient or above on both the English and math sections on the California Standards Test (CST) from the 2010-2011 to the 2011-2012 school year. Last year’s statistics state that 15 percent of students scored proficient or above in math and 19 percent scored proficient or above in English. Now, 23 percent of students scored proficient or above in math and 27 percent in English. Eight percent may be a small number, but to us it’s a huge gain! I may not agree with standardized tests, but it looks like all the emphasis my team and the school placed on the CST really helped and Markham can only benefit from this. My team and many teachers worked very hard last year to prepare our students for this test and the hard work paid off. This news made my week and gives me faith that Markham can keep improving (and therefore, get more funding!) Maybe when I come back into the states in two years Markham will make double-digit increases in test scores. Good job students!

So proud! Go Watts go!

We made our mark at Markham,

SmallTransparentLogoLiz

Vote for Markham to get more school supplies!

Ran across this Target fundraiser the new City Year team leaders at Markham started — all you have to do is click a button to vote. If they get enough votes, Target will send school supplies and what not to Markham. And let me tell you, they need it!

Vote here.

Thanks all,
Liz

Teaching my students about South Africa as a farewell

During my last English class, my teacher allowed me to do a short presentation about where I’ll be living and what I’ll be doing next year. My students are pretty interested in it and actually know where I’m going (although South Africa isn’t that hard of a country to remember). I even got them to recite greetings in isiZulu in unison!

Here’s the short presentation I did:

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20120608-103857.jpgSouth Africa is known as the “rainbow nation” because it is so diverse and so many languages are spoken

20120608-104003.jpg They were amazed that I won’t have running water and I might not have electricity. They told me to watch out for animal “droppings” and asked questions about how I’ll survive without electricity.

20120608-104111.jpg I explained to them that I am joining a government service organization that’s kind of like how you give years to military service for America, but instead I’m giving my time to help people.

20120608-104229.jpgThis slide generated a bunch of “ews” except one student said the sausage (known as Boerewors) reminded them of chorizo.

20120608-104534.jpgI’ll be honest, I can pronounce these greetings as well as my students, but we all tried together!

20120608-104607.jpg “You know how I always tell you to get out a pencil or pen? Well, this is what I’m going to have to say when I ask my new students to get one out.”

20120608-104646.jpg Sala kahle: goodbye. I can’t speak isiZulu yet obviously, so I added it into some English. The third isiZulu phrase means “see you later”

20120608-104832.jpgI made my students Hertzog cookies from scratch, a famous South African cookie I found online. I’m not sure if this is really village food, but apparently it’s a cookie that’s made often in the country (maybe urban areas or both? I’ll have to find out when I get there!) The cookie is a vanilla cookie with coconut, apricot and powdered sugar filling. The students enjoyed them and ate seconds!

An end to my first year of service: a reflection to never forget

My worst nightmare has come true. Our last day at Markham Middle School was on Wednesday (actually, one of my students said his “worst nightmare would start on Thursday” because City Year would no longer be on campus).

I can barely write a blog post because so many emotions have been going through my mind this week — I’m anxious that I’m leaving the country in 33 days, depressed that I am leaving my students for good, excited for the future, but not ready to say bye to everyone I’ve met this year.

This year has truly been amazing. I have learned so much from my school, my students and my teammates. At the beginning of the year, I really didn’t have expectations. I didn’t know if this year would be bad, so-so, or great. It exceeded greatness. Why? Well maybe because I learned so much:

  • Markham Middle School and Watts showed me a reality so many others aren’t aware exists.
    I feel privileged to have been given the opportunity to experience an urban and struggling school like Markham, as well as a community like Watts. I saw the issues facing our public education system upfront. To name a few, students violently fighting about anything and everything (gangs, gossip, family issues, community issues) before school, during school and after-school. Obviously that affects any learning environment for students — being surrounded by violence at school of outside of school. For example, just the other day when my class was coming back from a field trip on the metro, a rider was walking up and down the train yelling with a gun in his pocket, and then just five minutes later a group of men trying to fight each other at the metro station by Markham. The day after I watched my teammates break up a crazy fight between a boy and a girl before school that was related to outside family/gang retaliation. Scenes like that in the neighborhood and at school I know would make me frustrated and mad, so I’m sure students feel that way.

    I saw how the public education system has failed so many students: so many are behind grade level and unmotivated to keep trying because the work is too hard for them to complete. I witnessed prostitution and alcohol and drug abuse in the community — every morning driving or walking to school. The litter, graffiti and homeless camps throughout the streets with boarded up buildings are a familiar sight. I learned that my student’s parents sometimes work three jobs to support them and traveled as far as 50 miles one-way on public transportation to get to the jobs. I faced the hard reality that some students I knew were foster children due to substance abuse in the family.

    The neighborhood of Watts is also just a bunch of houses, housing projects and convenient stores, soooo, where are the jobs for the struggling families and the kids turning to gangs and violence? The area is forgotten because so many in Los Angeles don’t really realize the extent of the problems here and that it’s a reality for many people. Now that I’ve worked in this reality for ten months, I will never work a day in my life that isn’t dedicated to a cause that will help change this stark reality so many people face in poverty-stricken areas of major cities. Granted I’m not sure if I’ll come back to Los Angeles, but every city has its Watts and that’s exactly where I belong.

  • My students showed me that I have empathy and compassion I didn’t think I had.
    Due to various situations I’ve dealt with with my family, I thought I lost all sense of being empathetic. I usually just think, “Well, that’s your fault for the way you are and you can change if you want to” or I refuse to deal with someone I know won’t change. But that’s not the case in all situations. I found even the worst behaving students in my class to hold a special place in my heart because I saw them outside of their behavior problems and caught them in their squishy moments — i.e. one student always talking about how much he loved his baby brother. That one always got me: “You want to be a role model for your brother, right? Start behaving in class! He’s depending on you.” My students gave me the hope that people do change and will change; now I can believe.
  • It’s chance that my students were born into or moved into Watts and went to school there.
    They have dreams too, just like any other Los Angeles kid. However, it’s going to be much harder for them to succeed based on their reality. Life may never be fair for minority students and students of such communities, but at least we can work to bring some justice to these communities through work like City Year or just teaching in these schools.
  • My team was so incredibly diverse and I tried my hardest to not have first assumptions about people, but let’s be honest, everyone has first impressions of people.
    Everyone is amazing in their own way and every person on earth has an interesting life story. Give people a chance and they’ll surprise you. My team ended up being the most hilarious, intelligent, inspiring and caring group of people I’ve ever met all at once. I vow to not make any assumptions about everyone I will cross in South Africa, whether that be another Peace Corps Volunteer or someone from my village.
  • Time apart shows you who your real friends are.
    This year has been so crazy busy that I lost contact with many people. The best part about losing contact with people is when you see them again and it’s not awkward you know it’s a real friendship.
  • Keep calm and never doubt.
    There were countless times this year that I wanted to give up. I was working toward improving issues that are bigger than myself. I realized that the only way any work would get done at school is if I was calm about it and never doubted the situation. I still doubt a lot of things, but I added a couple of points higher on my positivity scale (special thanks to the teammates and roomies Marissa and Daniel for teaching me this).
  • Changing the world isn’t as easy as it sounds.
    Change doesn’t come overnight. Any work I did with my students may show in a couple of months or years or maybe even never. You come into City Year thinking you are going to change your student’s academic abilities so much, but you don’t understand how patient you have to be with this process. Maybe I didn’t change my student’s academic levels, but I know I made a difference because students looked up to me and the rest of City Year as friends, mentors and role models.
  • I now know what I stand for.
    I stand for the voiceless of the world. I am here to be a voice for the voiceless through my writing and volunteer work. Whether it’s a neighborhood like Watts or a rural South African village, I will be that voice that forgotten communities lack.

I’ll never forget this year and the students I got to work with; I’ll carry the memory of Markham Middle School with me wherever I go in life and it’ll definitely be a factor in choosing my final career path. Everything I learned will serve me well in South Africa and this year has prepared me more than ever for my Peace Corps adventure.

It still hasn’t really hit me that I won’t see my students next week. I think it’s going to take at least two weeks for it set in that this year is actually over.

One of our students wrote a letter to us and read it aloud after-school when all the corps members and students were saying goodbye (yes, many tears were shed):

Dear City Year,

I hope you guys visit us and I hope you guys find a good job. I will always remember you guys, you guys are like my big family. I hope you guys have fun in your new job and I hope you guys have fun in your life.

Thank you Markham Middle School for changing my life. Next year’s Markham team really has to uphold everything we created this year. My team built the foundation for next year’s team to succeed because City Year wasn’t at Markham last year and it seemed like the school was apprehensive about having us back, but now they can see it worth it and that we really made an impact. The students trust us and love us — next year’s team needs to carry over our love, passion, dedication and care. I have faith they will.

Sadly, we graduate City Year tomorrow, but it’s not goodbye, it’s a new beginning. Three more weeks in Los Angeles. Seriously? Gotta make the best of it.

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Keeping the USC spirit alive. I wrote all of my students letters and gave them a Fight On pin so they hopefully remember to never give up on their dreams.

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One of my students begged my teammate and I for our yellow bomber jacket. My teammate Chariya is giving him one of her yellow jackets. I hope he’ll look at the jacket and always remember what we taught him.

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Got my kids to sign my boots because I’m bringing them to South Africa with me. “I’m gonna miss you bitch” oooohhh Markham; words like this mean the kids really do love you.

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My team leader made pictures of all of us and put them on the wall in the City Year room for students to sign. Once again, to show love, one student wrote “you ugly” on everyone’s, but mine was even more special. “don’t know you, but you still ugly.” Oooohhh Markham.

What will I miss about Markham the most you ask? Based on the pictures above, I’ll miss the hilarity.

Although I’m graduating tomorrow, I’ll still be “yours in service” (South Africa in a month),

Liz

Summer blast off event at Markham: it’s summatime!

Today City Year at Markham Middle School hosted a school-wide event for students and parents to play games, win prizes and most importantly, find things to do during the summer! My teammates Daniel and Becky worked extremely hard putting the event together and invited a lot of community based organizations in South Los Angeles and Watts like the local library, gang reduction programs, UCLA’s summer UniCamp, among others. City Year put together four booths with different themes — literacy over the summer, summer games, academic games for over the summer and fun and free things to do in Los Angeles.

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We made handouts that showed students why summer reading is so important — research shows student who don’t keep up with reading over the summer will fall behind grade level. The handout also included calendars to make a summer reading schedule as well as crossword puzzles and games. We raffled off a bucket of school supplies and a dictionary to look up words they might not know while reading.

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The students also got to play two games at our booth — one that made them separate fiction and nonfiction books and another that had them spell out as many words as they could with the letters given. If they played they got a free snack or book.

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All the community organizations that showed up before students visited the booths.

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Students racing at the “Summer Games” booth.

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Some light refreshments at the lemonade stand.

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Students learning about fun and free things to do in LA this summer with a pamphlet and map my teammates made.

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An academic twist on a water gun carnival game.

Next week is our last week at Markham. I don’t even know what to think and cannot believe I will be writing my year summary blog post soon. This year went by way too fast…stay tuned for my final City Year post and a South African bake day/presentation for my students next week to teach them about where I’m moving to!

Happy Summer!
Liz