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Posts tagged ‘rural south african school’

Month 10: success is counted sweetest when…

Emily Dickinson, one of my favorite poets, once wrote:

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.

Failure in life is inevitable – especially when you’re working in a foreign country. But that doesn’t mean you can’t experience what success feels like. It’s just all about how you decide to measure success. As my girl Emmy D said, success is counted sweetest by those who don’t succeed much; they are able to comprehend and appreciate it so much more – and as parched, they taste that sweetness and juiciness of a nectar like no other.

I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ll say it again: English development is challenging for my kids. Learners learn in home language until grade 3, then switch to English and curriculum work is equivalent to that of an American English standard.

Thus, how am I going to measure success during my time here? Quantitatively? How my kids score on the upcoming nation-wide exam at the end of term two? How much homework they complete? No way, Jose. I’m almost positive not much of that is going to change. Call it failure on my part, I don’t care. Failure builds character, strength and courage. Numbers aren’t everything, and success can be measured qualitatively, too.

One of the ways I’ve decided to measure success is analyzing my student’s English speaking and listening abilities. It’s only the middle of term two, and I already see a drastic change with how my students communicate with me.

Buhle and Zanele, tow learners who didn't speak in the beginning but are getting more comfortable with trying

Buhle and Zanele, two grade 5 learners who didn’t speak in the beginning but are getting more comfortable with trying

Most – or at least my mediocre and top learners — are speaking English to me, even some of the ones who can’t really speak. They are trying to have conversations with me. They follow my instructions. They respond to me in complete sentences. They come to my hut on weekends to visit and speak only English. Some can copy down word-for-word what I say to them. And the best part is – they aren’t scared to talk to me. They are confident and trying because they know I won’t laugh at them.

Even if it’s the most broken and ungrammatical English ever spoken to me, I’m somehow now able how to decipher what they are trying to say and then say the sentence appropriately to them.  Of course being around this daily has toyed with my English ability and I speak the slowest and loudest possible English (my village voice) and enunciate all contractions — “DO — NOT — TALK” or “I – AM — GOING — HOME”. I usually catch myself talking in my village voice to other Americans and people back home. Don’t even make me think about what I’m going to sound like after another year here…

My learners know well enough now that I will NOT translate to Zulu for them, and I will not speak Zulu to them. Yes, this means my Zulu isn’t top notch – but I’m here to make sure these kids get English exposure. If I wasn’t doing this, these kids would never get this much English exposure. Everything at school is done in Zulu – except grade 5 and up classes – but those classes are a mix between both languages. The educators only speak in English because the classwork and teacher’s guides are in English. However, as soon as they’re done with the class books – hello, Zulu!

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of spending a weekend at one of my co-worker’s home in Nquthu, our shopping town. Her little 5-year-old, Wendy, was visiting home for the weekend from boarding school. When I first met Wendy in November 2012, she couldn’t speak a word of English. I still played with her and spoke little Zulu to her, but there was a huge language barrier. Wendy left for boarding school last January to start grade R (kindergarten) and was thrown into an English-only environment. She still takes a Zulu class because it’s her home language, but is taught in English.

Cute little Wendy after getting her hair did!

Cute little Wendy after getting her hair did!

Common knowledge: Kids thrown into a language at a young age will catch on quickly. Wendy has done just that. This month when we had a sleepover, played games and coloured, she spoke to me in English. She even taught her older brothers how to play Uno in English. Her vocabulary is advancing as if English was her first language, and this all developed within five months of school. FIVE MONTHS. And you wonder what would have happened if my grade 5 learners were taught in English from grade R and up? They’d be fluent. Many probably wouldn’t be failing. Oh, if only…

Too bad that’s not a reality for my kids or any other rural kids. So, in my case, success is sweetest when the learners try to talk to me. If they’re already chattin’ away with me this much, what’s it going to be like a year from now? We’ll be even better best friends!

There is one spoken English issue here that everyone who learned English as a second language says and drives all the Americans crazy. In Zulu there is only one verb for “lend” and “borrow” so everyone says, “Please, borrow me ______.” My PCV friend who teaches grade 8 English even saw this phrase used as a correct English phrase on a district exam once, which is hysterical but makes me also face palm.

I have this jump rope I brought from America the kids love to use. If they say, “Please, Miss, borrow me the skipping rope?” I say, “I will if you say, ‘Please let me borrow the skipping rope.’” Most grade 5s have caught on and now will only say to me, “Miss, may I please borrow the skipping rope?” OH SWEET SUCCESS!

There are plenty of setbacks in the Peace Corps and South African schools, but depending on how one decides to interpret success, you can get a little taste of that luscious nectar Emmy D was talking about. Take what you can get, and treat it as a great triumph.

Yours in service,
Small heartLiz

Month nine: the library is ready to go!

The day has finally come that I have been waiting for – I am done organizing and decorating my school’s library!

When I first got to site, I poked my nose around to see what I could do. I came across the library, which had been organized into sections, but had no system for kids to check out books/put books back on the shelf. So, I created an accession register for all ~800 books, separated them by reading level or subject and created labels for all of them. That took me about five months; I was going crazy. Let’s just say I am not passionate about taping labels onto books and sorting them.

But if you know me, have seen my childhood room, my freshman dorm room, college apartment, or now home sweet hut, you know I like decorating. I always have to find a way to make things bright and colourful and usually cut out some letters from construction paper to write a quote on my wall or something along those lines.

Naturally, I had to decorate my library.IMG_6425I decided to hang big signs from the rafters for the fiction and non-fiction sections and stars. So far, whenever a learner comes into the library they look up and say, “phezulu!” (above) or “it is beautiful!” If learners are curious about the decorations in the library and are attracted to the colours and shapes, won’t they want to come in and read? Hopefully, because that is my goal. I want to make this space theirs and somewhere they really enjoy being.

Next week, I will continue my library progress to get ready for the big opening on Monday, Apr. 22.

  • finalize rules and hours with staff members
  • give grade 5, 6 and 7 applications to be library monitors, choose monitors and then train them
  • train the teachers how to use the library through a scavenger hunt
  • make a reference guide for teachers about where they can find certain books they can use in their classes
  • train all the learners on how to use the library and keep it clean

Initiatives to come from my library:

  • hopefully, hopefully a school newspaper (I just have to)
  • English story time with Miss Mathebula (me)
  • chess club (the grade 7 educator is very adamant about getting this started)

We might not have many books right now, but we will be getting more! Some PCVs and I have started the Books for Africa process with our volunteer group (South Africa 26) and the health volunteer group (South Africa 25). Books for Africa is a nonprofit based in Minnesota that does exactly what its name says — sends books to Africa. Each shipment of books contains approximately 22,000 primary and secondary books. To receive the books, we must raise the funds for the shipping costs (approximately $15,000USD). We have invited other PCVs and their schools and organizations from South Africa to be a part of the project, which we decided to call Project Amandla. Simply, amandla means power in Zulu and literacy gives people power. Thirty schools and organizations will participate and each one is required to raise 2,000 Rand for ~733 books. Today was our first day of fundraising at school and the kids could wear casual clothes if they paid 1R. Most of the kiddies wore casual clothes and we raised 216R today! Every Friday my school will continue this effort.

All those who are participating in Project Amandla will soon be asking for donations from America to raise the rest of the money. I am working on finishing the Peace Corps grant for $5,000USD with help from other Volunteers. Once the grant is approved, our project will show up on the Peace Corps Website and we will send out a link to our blog viewers, friends, family members and former co-workers. I will also publish a description of the grant on my blog as well as a short promotional video. Stay tuned; coming soon!

Things are finally coming together at site and I will be very, very busy these next few months. Just what I’ve been waiting for — to be stressed again. Seriously though.

Yours in service,
Small heartLiz

Month eight: just call me mama

Every morning, I walk by the grade R classroom and the kids either say, “buh byeeee Ms. Mathebula” (because it’s all they know how to say in English). One of my wittle friends, Zinhle, always says, “Hi mama!”

Zinhle swingin’ away, where the “Hi Mamas!” usually come from

Mama is how one refers to an older woman in Zulu culture. But as we know, I’m not old, and I look like I’m 18. South Africans usually call me intombazane (girl), so it always cracks me up when Zinhle calls me mama. Learners have also asked me many times if I have a baby. Am I really old enough (23, soon to be 24), to be called mama and have a baby? Maybe in this culture, but in my own culture? Uh… I sure hope not.

Although I’m in a drastically different place from last year, I keep experiencing things here that remind me of my City Year service. One of which has come to mind quite often this school term: students seeing me as a motherly figure.

Liz Warden, as a motherly figure? The girl who has vowed countless times that she will not have kids because she can’t deal with them? The girl who often has a scowl on her face – without even knowing it? Yup. I guess there’s just something so warming about that infamous scowl.

Last year, I had a couple of students who called me “mom” and clung to me. Their mothers had either passed away or they were absent from their lives. I never really understood it because I was far too young to be considered a mom in America.

After almost two years of this stuff, I am starting to understand the mama role a little more. Because I show a lot of interest in my student’s lives and try to get to know them personally, they open up to me. They see that I care and trust me, so they begin to see me as a motherly figure. To have a young, energetic woman, pushing them to do their best in their life is different than what they normally get.

In my journaling efforts with my grade 5 class, one of my students wrote all about her mom. She told me everything. That her mom lives all the way in Johannesburg and rarely sees or talks to her, she forgot about her birthday, and she even said, “My mom doesn’t care about me.” Then she wrote, “Miss, tell me about your mom. What is your mom like?”

Alright. To my readers who don’t personally know me or my life story, I guess it’s a time to get a little mushy because I can only truly explain this impact of my service by digging deeper into my past. I don’t have a relationship with my mom, and cut off all communication with her last year for various reasons. I haven’t had a — let’s say — present mother since I graduated high school and my parents split. Blah blah blah blah life story blah blah blah.

I’m sure my student thought I would write about how perfect my mom was, how much I miss her, how beautiful she is, and all that. As someone from America, of course everything has to be perfect, right?

I could have simply described what my mother looked like, her name, where she lived, and all that boring stuff. But I had a gut instinct to be honest, probably because I had tears filling up my eyes. I told her I don’t talk to my mom also, we don’t agree about many things and it can be very hard without a mom, especially at her age. I told her that she’ll look back to when she was 10-years-old when she’s my age and realize how strong she is because of all of her mama drama. I knew by writing this, she would trust me more and hopefully not get so down on herself. I understand both of us have very different mama drama, but mama drama in general is always bond-worthy because somehow it always relates to an absent mother.

I know you’re probably thinking how can one of my grade 5 learners comprehend any of this, as I have said plenty of times before that some of them can barely write a sentence in English. This little girl, however, is an anomaly. Her aunts spoke English to her growing up, so she speaks very fluent English for a fifth grader. She’s really mature, too. I enjoy talking to her sometimes more than talking to adults at my school. After telling her about my mom, I can tell she feels more comfortable with me. Sometimes she’ll just come into the library because, “They’re being too noisy in class.”

With little of a language barrier, I can be a mama figure for this learner and push her to succeed in school and life – something her gogo, who she loves very, very much, can’t do because she’s too old. Two years of being my little buddy will be something unforgettable for the both of us.

Staff told us in Peace Corps training, our “self-identities” would change drastically during our service. Well, so far mine has changed from “Liz Warden” and “friend and daughter” to “Miss Mathebula” and “friend, daughter, sister and mother”. Call it mentorship, call it whatever, but honestly, sometimes I really do feel like a mother and care for some of these kids as if I was related to them. Maybe because of my past, maybe because I feel guilty about my family, maybe because I’m old enough to be considered a mother here, or maybe that’s just how this service game plays out. Who knows, except I do know that I’m happy, excited, and have found just another one of those kids that makes my service worth it.

Yours in service,
Small heartLiz

Month seven: you can try to Americanize, but Africa always wins

Back in PST, as naïve little Peace Corps Trainees, we visited schools close to our training sites. We watched teachers write notes or exercises on the board with little explanation. How BORING for the kids! WHAT AN ABOMINATION.

Now we’re doing that.

Hypocritical much?

This is an observation the mini-Los Angeles Volunteer Support Network my fellow PCV bud George and I have made. (George and I enjoy discussing and helplessly laughing at school issues and reminiscing about Los Angeles taco trucks and freeways in our Mini-Volunteer Support Network. Angelenos thing alike, thank God there’s one here with me!)

I thought because I was different, I could do something different in the classroom too. I could make my own rules, my own discipline system, play games with the kids and make my classroom a mini-America. The kids would love that – something different, interactive and creative for a change.

ERRRRRR. These kids aren’t ready to handle “different” – whether that is because of their age or the language barrier. Now, instead of setting expectations before I jump into something, I am learning to mold my expectations as I go. I expected them to love my new style of teaching so much that they would be interested and listen, but now I just expect them to copy what’s on the board in a timely manner.

The learners really only respond to the board or violence. If I don’t want to deal with constant chitter-chatter, I must write exercises on the board or I could (but wouldn’t) hit them. Only busy work like that keeps them focused and on task. My learners even hand me the corporal punishment stick when the kids won’t be quiet. It took me less than a month to realize the genius idea that sometimes teaching is just making sure the kids are on task and at least attempt to complete classwork.

Last year, the infamous uncontrollable factors at Markham Middle School were helicopters, the fire alarm and lockdowns – most of legitimate concern. Here, the uncontrollable factors are a little different and of very little concern – teachers randomly popping into your class and making announcements, asking you questions while you are lecturing, yelling at the kids when you ever mention any problems to the teachers and my favourite of all – a student’s little brother that wanders the grade 5 class. Of course we can’t forget African time and time management – teachers not finishing their classes in time and using some of your teaching time, kids not able to follow a timed schedule, kids leaving your class to play soccer at another school etc. It makes me laugh writing this – I went from outside factors that really could involve life or death to factors that South Africans treat as if they are life or death situations, like signing a paper with an announcement on it. And I can control very little about it.

What I can control, I will control. As mentioned that my kids are far behind grade level, few are at the level of the grade 5 workbooks I have access to. I have taken upon myself to write two stories a week for the students with ten vocabulary words that are tested on on Friday. The stories will also focus on one grammar or punctuation concept.  It’s been hard so far, but I’ve only given them three stories. Eventually I won’t have never-ending writer’s block.

The story is about a boy, Umhaha (greed in Zulu), his best friend Thobile (humble in Zulu) and Amandla, a taking horse (power in Zulu). Amandla grants Umhaha three wishes. Umhaha’s first wish is to travel the world and see other countries. So after the horse hazes the boy, Umhaha will go off on this grand ol’ adventure through the world and I will show the kids where he travels to on a world map mural a health PCV painted at my school last year. Unfortunately, the stories aren’t illustrated so I had the kids enter a drawing contest and draw each character. We will use the winning illustrator’s drawings to illustrate the rest of the stories! Africa hasn’t won just yet on this one – their classwork is officially Americanized and that’s one thing no one can do anything about because no one can change my lesson plans or weekly structure focusing on the two stories a week.

Back at home sweet home, we can Americanize many more things. I’ve Americanized my hut with endless inspirational quotes and pictures of family, friends and former students.  I can semi-Americanize the way I dress – I still can rock skinny jeans and over-sized shirts here (the Liz style). These few things help keep my sanity here and are totally harmless.

Inspirational hut quotes!

Inspirational hut quotes!


Pictures upon pictures

But there’s always a “but”. South Africa Volunteer Group 26 is the first group of Peace Corps South Africa to be “full-time” teachers. We are expected to teach at least two classes a day and be at school Monday-Friday from start to finish unlike previous groups. I am teaching a little less than that, but it’s how my principal and I worked out my schedule. Teaching even one class is extremely time-consuming, especially if you’re making up your own classroom material like I have been doing. It takes at least a full day to lesson plan for the week because we’re new at this and reinventing the wheel as we go.

Work comes home with us. Work outside of work is unheard of here – my host family doesn’t understand what I mean when I say I have a lot of work to do. “Weren’t you at school all day though?” is the common response I get. Yes, yes I was, but I was trying to juggle at least four different things at once (in my arena, my girl’s club, my library, my classes and helping my counterpart with her English class) so is it really possible for me to get everything done? Yeah, but I need sleep too!

In America, it looks good if we bring work home or do extra work. It shows we really care about what we are doing. Here, because people place so much importance on relationships, bringing home extra work means you’re too busy to spend time with people and don’t care to, which can be seen as an insult. And on the weekends, most PCVs want at least one day and night to ourselves to read (I am intellectually dead), watch movies, study for the GRE, relax and do absolutely nothing, blog or clean and do all the laundry after a long week at school. We don’t have much time to integrate into the community fully and most of the time we want our free time as our free time, not as the community’s. If a kid comes to my door on a Sunday and asks to visit, I generally will say hello and talk for a little, but after that I have to close my door because I’m busy with something.

I have Americanized my weekends, which may be detrimental to any community projects in the long run and my language exposure. I speak English at school Monday-Friday; Zulu gets a little peep. And I know I could push myself to an extreme, but I’ve also gotta keep my sanity. The new structure of our Peace Corps program sometimes makes me and other PCVs feel as if we are teachers abroad and not Peace Corps volunteers. I understand this is what the country needs, but our expectations as Peace Corps Volunteers in our community may not be the same as expectations of other education Volunteers around the world because our education program has become streamlined to teaching only. You think maybe America would win in this sense because I still get to have “American-me” time, but in my opinion, Africa won this battle too. Few Africans understand “American-me” time even after explaining. No matter how much or how little work we do, Africa will always win.

As Peace Corps Volunteers, that is something we must come to terms with because Africa has a home advantage over us in this upward battle. We can control a couple of things, but need to also be okay with the things we cannot control because this is not our home country.

But, at the end of the day, I can still come home to my Americanized hut. Mini-America does exist here after hours!

So far:

Liz vs. Africa

  • Classroom rules: Learners follow rules they have known in school their whole lives
  • Classroom incentives: Only few care enough to get sweets
  • Classroom crafts: TAKES WAY TOO LONG
  • Classroom decorations: Kids don’t use them for reference when writing
  • Classroom games: Kids get too riled up to control 40 of them
  • Explaining things in Zulu:They just laugh at me
  • Time management: Jokes
  • Coming up with my own story/curriculum: YOU GO AMERICA!
  • Reading outloud and acting out picture stories:  Kids can’t sit still
  • Keeping kids at break: Teachers have “break duty”
  • Explaining things in English: Language barrier
  • Doing extra work after school: Cultural misunderstanding
  • Doing work at all times: Cultural misunderstanding
  • Decorating my hut: GOD BLESS AMERICA
  • What I wear to school: Yea, you a Los Angeles wannabe hipster!
  • How I organize my lesson planner: Red, white and blue.
  • Speaking English: Native language!

As you can see, now that I’ve figured out few of these things I can really Americanize I will either have to make a hybrid plan or just deal with it. I call that cultural understanding!

Sorry I write so much. One of the things I never really learned in journalism school was how to follow a strict limit, somehow I always talked my professors and editors into giving me a couple more words…

IF Amandla the Talking Horse gave me one wish, it would be the ability to be in two places at once.

Yours in service,
Small heartLiz

Month seven: I struggle, you struggle, we struggle [present tense]

I already did something I was trying not to do. I yelled, very harshly, at my students. My “everyone’s hands are in the air so it must be quiet” method wasn’t working — too much chitter-chatter. Another group was stealing each other’s rulers and hitting each other. One girl even started to cry during reading time. I couldn’t take it anymore – it had been a week of childish games. They’re just children, damnit, just children. I closed the book I was reading, told them we would try again tomorrow, and walked out of the classroom holding back tears of frustration.

I told the other grade 5 educators that the grade 5s were being “naughty” (a favourite South African term) and that they were disrespectful. Two teachers went and yelled at them, and likely threatened to beat them, or did. I know it’s hard to fathom that a child may have been beaten or threatened in my name, but this early in the game, I have no choice. I either get the other educators to help me control the kids and speak to them in a language they understand, or wade my way through a neck deep river until the student’s finally trust me, which could possibly be never.

To effectively teach, one needs to build relationships with the students to gain trust. I can’t just pop into their classroom and expect them to respect me just because I am different from them. My PCV friend George couldn’t have summed it up better — right now all the students see is, “OMG OMG LOL LOL UMLUNGU (white person)” instead of someone who cares and is here to really try to give them an adequate education. They don’t know much about me, and I don’t know much about them (although I am learning a lot through their journals!) Also, they know I won’t hit them, so they aren’t scared, which opens a whole ‘nother can of worms.

The day after the grade 5 educators addressed the class, they kids were angels. They earned a lot of rocks in their “rock jar” (if they’re good, they get rocks. If they’re bad, rocks are taken out. If they fill it, I will give them a class prize like an English movie).

After class, all of my girls came to the library and gave me a card. They tried their best in English — it was a “Happy Birthday” card (too cute) from Mr. Verb to Ms. Noun. Inside it reads, “Mr. Verb loves Ms. Noun. They agree all the time.” If you’re wondering what the hell that means, I made these stupid-childish-looking cardboard puppets named Mr. Verb and Ms. Noun. I introduced them to the class as our classroom friends and as the year goes on I will ask them, “Do Mr. Verb and Ms. Noun agree in your work? Remember they really love each other so they agree a lot!” I told the kids Mr. Verb paid a heavy lobola to marry Ms. Noun. Cheesy, but that’s the kind of stuff you’ll get in my classroom. Any oddly creative thing that can stick in their heads I will try.

The girls are mostly well-behaved in my class. The boys are usually the ones who are acting up. However, a couple of the boys also came by to apologize to and then spent the day in the library reading grade one books while I worked on classroom posters.

I know they were probably told to apologize to me, but I am human and I need love sometimes too, especially in my Peace Corps lows.

After school that day, another girl, Nqobile, came by to just say hello and one of my boys, Siyabonga, came by with a friend and hung out. I talked in Zulu to him, and he basically said he wants to try to learn English and he is trying. Ngiyazama (I am trying).

I felt pretty helpless after that. I realized that their behaviour isn’t just the problem; I am the problem too. I am trying to get used to a new classroom culture, teaching for my first time, and not really knowing if my students understand me or not. They rarely will tell me if they don’t because it’s cultural that the educator is a divine being. I even have a group of students who can’t even read in Zulu — let alone understand a sentence of English.

It occurred to me that we are in this battle together. It’s like a symbiotic relationship — we both want something out of this, but we’re going to have opposite struggles. They are going to have a hard time understanding me and the work and adjusting to me, and I will have a hard time communicating with them, explaining concepts and adjusting to them. If we can get through this year together as a unit, we will all only be better in the end. But it won’t be easy and we will need to help each other.

Seeing my students read grade one books and my student Siyabonga trying his hardest to say simple things in English at my hut door, slapped me upside the head to be easier on than them and lower my expectations. During reading time, instead of reading longer grade 4/5 passages, I will read picture books. My Peace Corps leader even made the awesome suggestion of having them draw and describe their favourite scene from the book afterwards. Likewise, I will start translating some things into Zulu when necessary. I need people to translate Zulu to English for me many times, so it’s only fair.

Once I start doing sports activities with the kids, I think I’ll start bonding with them more because that is something that a language barrier can overcome. As we always say in the Peace Corps, only time will tell.

In honour of our grammar review: I will struggle. You will struggle. We will struggle. [future tense]

Eleven months from now I hope we can all write on the chalkboard: I struggled. You struggled. We struggled. [past tense]

In honour of spelling: I am now using British English.

Keep on zamaing (like my Zunglish?)

Yours in service,


The card the girls made me. Pretty sure they meant to say, “Simple Present Tense” and not “Simple Person” but they tried. Bayazama.