Saturday, March 17, 2012

A week of teaching in a township school

I spent this week teaching English Additional Language at a township school. I was supposed to just be observing, and teaching just one lesson at some point. I ended up teaching at least two lessons a day. Yesterday I taught all 4 of them.

I am so exhausted...

But at the same time, I'm sad it's over. After my first disaster lesson, this week's teaching has been surprisingly amazing. The first day, I just watched the teacher, as I wanted to get an idea of what to do (or, if she was terrible, what not to do). I learned a lot on both fronts:

Tips for teachers:
1. Repeat every instruction at least ten times, in ten different ways, orally, and in writing, and in the form of a mixed-media triptych, and as a Butoh performance. And then walk around the class, explaining everything again to each and every student.
2. Prepare for repetition. You will say the same thing to 50 students. Then the next class will come in. Lather, rinse, repeat. Yesterday I taught 4 lessons. Sometimes you might teach 7.
3. Invest in light-coloured pants if your classroom uses a chalkboard. Get black ones if there is a whiteboard. Chalk dust gets EVERYWHERE.
4. Bring lunch and a mug.
5. Don't be afraid to tell them to behave themselves. You are the teacher, and they will try to push their luck with you.
6. Try to stick to their usual teacher's routine, if you are only there for a short time. Moving tables around and changing the routine gets them worked up and makes them a bit difficult to handle. If you're there for a longer time, start with the teacher's routine and slowly push it towards yours over time.
7. Keep signposting. "Hey, kids. Remember when we did the theory for this on Monday? Well, now we're going to practice." "Ok, so now we're going to do something new." "Good work, everyone. So, what have we covered today?"
8. Make sure your spelling is impeccable. Board-typos can be embarrassing.
9. Keep them busy writing, drawing or doing something physical. If they're just staring at you while you talk, you will get flustered and they will get bored, and they'll start misbehaving.
10. Don't ever undermine the teacher you are observing! Don't comment on whether their lesson was good or bad (be vague/incoherent if they ask you to). Don't criticise them in front of students.
11. Bring snacks to the staffroom as a thank you at the end of your time, and chocolates for teachers if it's their birthday.

And a tip from my friend Mici: If told "Hey, I'm busy now, so you must teach the next lesson," remember the five step plan:

Five steps away from the classroom, go "Oh crap! I don't have a plan!" and teach anyway.

When I taught a lesson at the ex-Model-C school a few weeks ago, they got bored and started putting their heads down on their desks. Before I knew what was happening, there were 5 unconscious students in my class.

This is not a new problem.

This time round, I had students literally climbing over each other to ask me to help them with things, or mark their work. And so many of them got full marks! It made me make this face:

There is nothing better than seeing a student "get it", and their little dance of excitement at getting everything right. Oh wait, there is: having your planned lesson, with 50 rowdy students, go absolutely brilliantly! ^_^

Wow. What a week. I don't think I could have had a better experience, or learned so much in such a short period of time. There were a  few things that made me sad, though. For example, their Grade 8 and 9 English teacher is away on maternity leave and they can't afford a substitute teacher, so these kids mill around, doing nothing, instead of having class. And their librarian was transferred at the end of last year, so their well-stocked library is sitting locked up, and has been all year. Last year it was open, but before that it was closed for 10 years. This is sad, especially since there were boxes and boxes of new books donated by Van Schaik, and now they're not even on the shelves. I spent my frees on the first day sitting in the library, and about 25 kids came in and did project work, with research, without even being asked to. I wonder how the school is going to do the extended reading programme which is a curriculum requirement right now if the kids don't have access to fiction that they can take home.

It wasn't as bad as this, at least.

So, all in all, it was a fantastic experience. That said, I am definitely looking forward to sleeping til noon tomorrow.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Why Grammar is Worth Learning (and how not to teach it)

I just thought I'd share this excerpt from the magnificent Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog:

 Profound Thought No. 10
A stratum of consciousness
Leading to beauty

In the morning, as a rule, I always take a moment to listen to music in my room. Music plays a huge role in my life. It is music that helps me to endure . . . well . . . everything there is to endure: my sister, my mother, school, Achille Grand-Fernet, and so on. Music is not merely a pleasure to the ears the way that gastronomy is to the palate or painting to the eyes. There’s nothing terribly original about the fact that I put music on in the morning, just that it sets the tone for the rest of the day. It’s very simple but also sort of complicated to explain: I believe that we can choose our moods: because we are aware that there are several mood-strata and we have the means to gain access to them. For example, to write a profound thought, I have to put myself onto a very special stratum, otherwise the ideas and words just don’t come. I have to forget myself and at the same time be superconcentrated. But it’s not a question of “the will,” it’s a mechanism I can set in motion or not, like scratching my nose or doing a backward roll. And to activate the mechanism there’s nothing better than a little music. For example, to relax, I put on something that takes me into a sort of faraway mood, where things can’t really reach me, where I can look at them as if I were watching a film: a “detached” stratum of consciousness. In general, for that particular stratum, I resort to jazz or, more effective overall but longer to take effect: Dire Straits (long live my mp3 player).
So, this morning I listened to Glenn Miller before leaving for school. I guess it didn’t last long enough. When the incident occurred, I lost all my detachment. It was during French class with Madame Fine (who is a living antonym because she has a repository of spare tires around her midriff). What’s more, she wears pink. I love pink, I think it’s a color that’s had a bad rap, it’s made out to be a thing for babies or women who wear too much makeup, but pink is really a subtle and delicate color, and it figures a lot in Japanese poetry. But pink and Madame Fine are a bit like jam and pigs. Anyway, this morning I had French class with her. That in itself is already a chore. French with Madame Fine is reduced to a long series of technical exercises, whether we’re doing grammar or reading texts. With her it’s as if a text was written so that we can identify the characters, the narrator, the setting, the plot, the time of the story, and so on. I don’t think it has ever occurred to her that a text is written above all to be read and to arouse emotions in the reader. Can you imagine, she has never even asked us the question: “Did you like this text/this book?” And yet that is the only question that could give meaning to the narrative points of view or the construction of the story . . . Never mind the fact that the minds of younger kids are, I think, more open to literature than say the minds of high school or college students. Let me explain: at my age, all you need is to talk to us about something with some passion, pluck the right strings (love, rebellion, thirst for novelty, etc.) and you have every chance of succeeding. Our history teacher, Monsieur Lermit, had us hooked by the end of the second class by showing us photos of these guys who’d had their hand or their lips cut off under Sharia law, because they’d been stealing or smoking. But he didn’t do it as if he were showing us a gory film or something. It was enthralling, and we listened attentively throughout the class, the point of which was to warn us against the foolishness of mankind, and not Islam specifically. So if Madame Fine had taken the trouble to read a few verses of Racine to us, with a tremor in her voice, (Que le jour recommence et que le jour finisse / Sans que jamais Titus puisse voir Bérénice) she would have discovered that the average adolescent is fully ripe for the tragedy of love. By high school it’s harder: adulthood is around the corner, kids already have an intuitive idea of how grown-ups behave, and they begin to wonder what role and what place they are going to inherit on stage, and anyway by then something has been spoiled, and the goldfish bowl is no longer very far away.
It is bad enough to have to put up with the usual grind of a class in literature without literature and a class in language without cognizance of language, so this morning when I felt something snap inside me, I just couldn’t contain myself. Madame Fine was making a point about the use of qualifying adjectives as epithets, on the pretext that our compositions were completely barren of said grammatical grace notes, “whereas really, it’s the sort of thing you learn in third grade.” She went on: “Am I to honestly believe there are students who are this incompetent in grammar,” and she looked right at Achille Grand-Fernet. I don’t like Achille Grand-Fernet but in this case I agreed with him when he asked his question. I feel it was long overdue. Moreover, when a lit teacher uses a split infinitive like that, I’m really shocked. It’s like someone sweeping the floor and forgetting the dust bunnies. “What’s the point of grammar?” asked Achille Grand-Fernet. “You ought to know by now,” replied Madame Never-mind-that-I-am-paid-to-teach-you. “Well I don’t,” replied Achille, sincerely for once, “no one ever bothered to explain it to us.” Madame Fine let out a long sigh, of the “do I really have to put up with such stupid questions” variety, and said, “The point is to make us speak and write well.”
I thought I would have a heart attack there and then. I have never heard anything so grossly inept. And by that, I don’t mean it’s wrong, just that it is grossly inept. To tell a group of adolescents who already know how to speak and write that that is the purpose of grammar is like telling someone that they need to read a history of toilets through the ages in order to pee and poop. It is utterly devoid of meaning! If she had shown us some concrete examples of things we need to know about language in order to use it properly, well, okay, why not, that would be a start. She could tell us, for example, that knowing how to conjugate a verb in all its tenses helps you avoid making the kind of major mistakes that would put you to shame at a dinner party (“I would of came to the party earlier but I tooked the wrong road”). Or, for example, that to write a proper invitation in English to a little divertissement at the château of Versailles, knowing the rules governing spelling and the use of apostrophes in la langue de Shakespeare can come in very useful: it would save you from embarrassment such as: “Deer freind, may we have the plesure of you’re company at Versaille’s this evening? The Marquise de Grand-Fernet.” But if Madame Fine thinks that’s all grammar is for . . . We already knew how to use and conjugate a verb long before we knew it was a verb. And even if knowing can help, I still don’t think it’s something decisive.
Personally I think that grammar is a way to attain beauty. When you speak, or read, or write, you can tell if you’ve said or read or written a fine sentence. You can recognize a well-turned phrase or an elegant style. But when you are applying the rules of grammar skillfully, you ascend to another level of the beauty of language. When you use grammar you peel back the layers, to see how it is all put together, see it quite naked, in a way. And that’s where it becomes wonderful, because you say to yourself, “Look how well-made this is, how well-constructed it is! How solid and ingenious, rich and subtle!” I get completely carried away just knowing there are words of all different natures, and that you have to know them in order to be able to infer their potential usage and compatibility. I find there is nothing more beautiful, for example, than the very basic components of language, nouns and verbs. When you’ve grasped this, you’ve grasped the core of any statement. It’s magnificent, don’t you think? Nouns, verbs . . .
Perhaps, to gain access to all the beauty of the language that grammar unveils, you have to place yourself in a special state of awareness. I have the impression that I do that anyway without any special effort. I think that it was at the age of two, when I first heard grown-ups speak, that I understood once and for all how language is made. Grammar lessons have always seemed to me a sort of synthesis after the fact and, perhaps, a source of supplemental details concerning terminology. Can you teach children to speak and write correctly through grammar if they haven’t had the illumination that I had? Who knows. In the meanwhile, all the Madame Fines on the planet ought rather to ask themselves what would be the right piece of music to play to make their pupils go into a grammatical trance.
So I said to Madame Fine: “Not at all! That is simplistic!” There was great silence in the classroom both because as a rule I never open my mouth and because I had contradicted the teacher. She looked at me with surprise, then she put on one of those stern looks that all teachers use when they feel that the wind is veering to the north and their cozy little class on punctuation might turn into a tribunal of their pedagogical methods. “And what do you know about it, Mademoiselle Josse?” she asked acidly. Everyone was holding their breath. When the star pupil is displeased, it’s bad for the teaching body, particularly when that body is well-fed, so this morning it was like a thriller and a circus act all rolled into one: everyone was waiting to see what the outcome of the battle would be, and they were hoping it would be a bloody one.
“Well,” I said, “when you’ve read Jakobson, it becomes obvious that grammar is an end in itself and not simply a means: it provides access to the structure and beauty of language, it’s not just some trick to help people get by in society.”
“Some trick! Some trick!” she scoffed, her eyes popping out of her head. “For Mademoiselle Josse grammar is a trick!”
If she had listened carefully to what I said, she would have understood that, for me, grammar is not a trick. But I think the reference to Jakobson caused her to lose it completely, never mind that everyone was giggling, including Cannelle Martin, even though they didn’t get what I had said at all, but they could tell a little cloud from Siberia was hovering over the head of our fat French teacher. In reality, I’ve never read a thing by Jakobson, obviously not. Though I may be supersmart, I’d still rather read mangas or literature. But Maman has a friend (who’s a university professor) who was talking about Jakobson yesterday (while they were indulging in a hunk of camembert and a bottle of red wine at five in the afternoon). So, in class this morning I remembered what she had said.
At that moment, when I could sense that the rabble were growling and showing their teeth, I felt pity. I felt sorry for Madame Fine. And I don’t like lynching. It never puts anyone in a good light. Never mind that I don’t want anyone to go digging into my knowledge of Jakobson and begin to doubt the reality of my IQ.
So I backed off and didn’t say anything. I got two hours of detention and Madame Fine saved her professorial skin. But when I left the classroom, I could feel her worried little gaze following me out the door.
And on the way home I thought: pity the poor in spirit who know neither the enchantment nor the beauty of language.

This book is amazing. Buy it now. 

My first poetry lesson - Grade 9 girls

Last Thursday I taught my first poetry lesson. And yes, I cried like a big girl's blouse afterwards, but in hindsight maybe it didn't go as badly as it felt. I used Hennie’s “poetry formula” as well as the CAPS Home Language guidelines for teaching literature to plan my lesson. 

Hennie's Poetry Formula

1. get connected - do an introductory activity to get them into the "zone" of the poem. Create a space for the poem in their minds.
2.   Read the poem. Make the first reading good. If it's crap, they will think the poem is crap. 
3. Ask them for their initial response to the poem - what is it about? How does it make them feel?
4. Explore the mechanics of the poem but DO NOT GO LINE BY LINE. How do the devices work together to create that effect? This can work as groupwork but then make sure they have time to present their findings.
5.  Closure, summing up activities - possibly a worksheet with some questions.

The poem I taught was "Vergissmeinnicht" by Keith Douglas:

Three weeks gone and the combatants gone
returning over the nightmare ground
we found the place again, and found
the soldier sprawling in the sun.

The frowning barrel of his gun
overshadowing. As we came on
that day, he hit my tank with one
like the entry of a demon.

Look. Here in the gunpit spoil
the dishonoured picture of his girl
who has put: Steffi. Vergissmeinnicht.
in a copybook gothic script.

We see him almost with content,
abased, and seeming to have paid
and mocked at by his own equipment
that's hard and good when he's decayed.

But she would weep to see today
how on his skin the swart flies move;
the dust upon the paper eye
and the burst stomach like a cave.

For here the lover and killer are mingled
who had one body and one heart.
And death who had the soldier singled
has done the lover mortal hurt.

 To get them connected and to emphasise the theme of perspective evident in the poem, I showed them an optical illusion and asked them if they were able to see both images. 

Old woman or young lady?

The class was quite evenly split with about half of them seeing one image and half seeing the other. I then asked them if they could see the other image, or both, and talked about perspective and how something can be seen in more than one way. The first reading was not a good one, as my decision to ask the class to read it failed miserably. I read through the poem and several girls went “Oh...” when I did. I asked the class in general for their initial response, and there was some response to rephrased “what” questions. I also introduced the poet and his historical context, as I had found out that they had just covered that period in their History class. There was some misunderstanding of the plot of the poem, and so I briefly went over some of the more difficult stanzas in detail.

To get into the mechanics of the poem without going line by line, I decided to get the girls to create a Poetry Toolbox by suggesting poetic devices, which I wrote on the board. I had brainstormed this on my own beforehand and so had categorised the devices according to form, imagery and sound, which I then represented on the board. Here it is as a sort of mindmap/tree thing.

 I asked the girls to find examples of the devices in the poem, which they did quite well. However, when I asked what effect those devices had on the meaning or the effect of the poem, the girls were not very responsive. I gave examples of the alliteration sounding like steam lifting off a kettle, giving the feeling that it was very hot. I asked what effect the rhythm and repetition combined to give in the first line, rephrasing it several times as the girls seemed confused, but they worked out that it sounded like drums. In this sense I feel that this main part of the lesson was more “learning” oriented than a line by line “teaching” approach might have been. My time management seemed to be quite good too, as their interest started to wane just at the point where I was going to introduce the closing activity. The change from reading and answering questions to a creative writing exercise boosted the momentum and energy of the lesson, and the girls seemed to enjoy the exercise. They were asked to write three sentences about peanut butter; one neutrally descriptive, one positive response and one negative  response. One girl said she was struggling to find anything good about peanut butter, because it “smells like batteries”. It reminded me of this:

I encouraged those with strong feelings about peanut butter (good or bad) to try to pretend to be someone who felt the opposite way, and write what they would feel; this was to help them understand the poet’s use of empathy to gain a different perspective in the poem.  When I explained how the introduction and conclusion were illustrating the use of different perspectives, there was another “ohhh...” moment, but by then the bell was ringing and they were heading out of the class. The only real difference between the plan and how the lesson actually ran was that I thought their understanding of the plot of the poem was inadequate and so spent a little time talking them through each stanza, and what function that stanza was performing.

Some questions Hennie asked us to answer about the lesson: 

What worked really well in the lesson?
My introduction and conclusion worked well, as they addressed themes and concepts in the poem without being drudgy “poetry” things. My idea for the “poetry toolbox” on the other hand did not go as well as I had hoped – while the learners were able to name and find examples of all the poetic devices, they did not understand how they work together to create meaning in the poem, and their interest waned toward the end of the lesson.
What did not work well? What could have been better?
The girls did not seem to understand the plot of the poem (evidenced by the incorrect answers when I asked them what the poem was about, and questions they asked me about how I knew the speaker was remembering, and so on), so I think I should have spent a little more time working through the stanzas to explain the meaning. If I had known what resources were available in the class, I would have projected the poem onto the board and written notes all over it to help the girls understand. I would also read the poem myself first, rather than ask the learners to read it out, particularly when the poem has an irregular rhythm, as did this one.
Did the girls enjoy the lesson?
For the most part I think the girls enjoyed the more interactive, creative aspects of the lesson, but they did not enjoy working through the poem. I think that for many students poetry can be dull, and so in future I would make a worksheet and ask them to work through the questions in pairs, to further their interactivity.
What did you learn from your observer’s feedback?
I think the main thing I learned from my observer’s feedback is that you are your own worst critic. When you are standing in front of a class and the students’ heads start dropping down onto their arms, you feel like you have failed. On the contrary, my observer’s comments were very supportive, and he said that the class seemed interested. I need to work on affirmation of student responses, particularly in how to affirm (but correct) wrong answers. Compared to my micro-teaching exercise, I made much better use of the classroom space, using the board and walking around. I did apologise too much; I must admit that I was quite scared of the students. This may have undermined my “power”. My time management was good, but I should work more on creating interactive or engaging activities such as a worksheet with questions about the content of the poem.
Did your planning succeed in focusing on learning rather than teaching?
Before walking into the class, I had no idea of the students’ level. I therefore planned the lesson to work on terminology that they knew, and introduced only a few new devices that appeared in the poem and seemed unfamiliar to them – this was the intention behind my “poetry toolbox” idea. The students contributed the devices, found examples of them and tried to work out their effect on meaning or the effectiveness of the poem. They were not very successful at this, however, so I think perhaps the “toolbox” would work better in a worksheet with some set leading questions.
What was it like to be instructed to follow a particular approach to teaching poetry?
I found it very helpful, but I did try to be creative within the guiding framework of the formula. I also thought it would be interesting to use some ideas I had thought of while reading the CAPS document – for example, the writing exercise at the end was intended to use creativity to help them learn how empathy feels, and how it can be expressed in writing and how the poet had done this in the poem.