An update from KZN, heading toward the end of Term 3

Being in the Peace Corps is often quite difficult.  There are many challenges that are difficult or impossible to overcome.  You are often challenged by your own personal emotional crap you brought with you from the easier life of the first world.  You are challenged by trying to find your way in a culture you don’t know, don’t fit into very well, and oftentimes find distasteful.  You are a servant of a system (government and/or education) that doesn’t function easily and is mired down by its own paperwork, corruption, and bureaucracy.  But you are a representative of America and just the mere fact that you are from America is awe-inspiring (even when some folks don’t even know where America is). You wonder how this can be but still try to be a polite, respectful, tolerant ambassador from your country who has had a program for 50 years to land and support volunteering Americans in foreign countries who have asked for our assistance.

This past week has been difficult for me personally for all the above reasons.

1.  Two nights ago, a neighbor’s herd of big, hungry cows came into our compound (yes, the gate was left open) and began munching on everything handy.  One cow came onto my porch and was headed for my five yogurt containers of plants.  Of course, I heard the damn cow, banged on my window to head him/her off, and while the cow backed off, I went outside, got the containers and brought them indoors (saving the few tomato sets, lettuce, wildflowers, and lavender).  Outside, the munching continued.  One very large cow trumped right through my plastic bottle fence, tearing some of it down, and proceeded to eat all my plants–the kale, the tomatoes, the alyssum, the cosmos, the other flowers.  I was sad, angry, heartbroken, and had no skills to get rid of the damn cows who were destroying all my hard work. I am a city person!  What do I know about herding cows? (It has since been explained to me that the cows will be afraid of me if I yell at them, wave a broom at them, throw stones at them. They will move if I tell them to, loudly.)   Yeah, I know that it was inevitable; I have worried about goats and cows from the start.  Yeah, I know it was a spindly little nothing of a garden that barely survived on infrequent and inadequate doses of dishwater and laundry water and bath water. But it was mine!

My trampled fence. I have put it back in place but haven't yet wrapped the yarn to secure it.

My trampled fence. I have put it back in place but haven’t yet wrapped the yarn to secure it.

My garden area, without plants, following the cow vandalism.

My garden area, without plants, following the cow vandalism. “The cows were hungry,” I was told. Should I replant?

Cows still in the yard, still munching.

Cows still in the yard, still munching.

The ancestors house, after a cow attack. The loose straw has been raked into a pile and has been burned.

The ancestors house, after a cow attack. The loose straw has been raked into a pile and has been burned.

2.  My Cherry Pie in July book group, with Lori as the coordinator, has sent me five boxes of “stuff” since I have been here.  (THANK YOU TO ALL THESE WONDERFUL WOMEN!). The last four have been mostly books, wonderful books, fabulous books.  Inside the 5th box were a few “non-book” items, including chalk, soap, and 3 frisbees.  There were also two small baggies full of an assortment of ballpoint pens.  You want to know what the most desired things were?  The pens!!!  Free pens from America!  Different colors! Different designs!  Teachers were SO happy to get them!  (America! America!–wherever that is!) (The pens are probably all made in China–wherever that is!).  The wonderful books got barely a glance.  I was heartbroken, again.  Of course, this says as much about me as it does about them.

3.  In South Africa, teachers are required to follow the state-mandated CAPS curriculum.  There are textbooks for each subject and each grade level, with all the curriculum and assessments (called Tasks) that the teacher must do within each term.  I have these textbooks for Grade 5 English First Additional Language, Grade 7 English First Additional Language, and Grade 6 Social Science.  We do not have enough textbooks for each child; they share.  The English textbooks (even FAL) are way too difficult for my learners.  They are also poorly written and there are errors in English.  If I only used the textbook, they would be totally lost.  I supplement or change some of the reading passages and all the spelling words to make it more accessible.  Even when I use material from a lower grade level, many are lost.  There are mandated assessments (11 this term for Grade 5) in Listening/Speaking, Reading/Viewing, Writing, and Language/Conventions/Structures.  I am getting behinder and behinder.  I haven’t finished listening to all 65 Grade 5 learners read to me.  I have given up part of every break time to do this because I want class time to be teaching time.  I have three weeks of Term 3 left and haven’t started the next round of assessment.  It is a similar situation for Grade 7.  There is an assessment for writing an Agenda for a meeting.  There is an assessment for writing Minutes of a meeting.  There is an assessment for a narrative essay and a descriptive essay. When am I going to do these things?  And teach the jam-packed daily curriculum?  When?  For the first time, I have been told that you just can’t do it all!  I get sad for the children, anxious that I can’t do it all, angry that the department is even thinking it is possible to do this, curious as to how other teachers are handling the dilemma, and stressed by the entire package.

4.  The Annual National Assessment (ANA) will be held in mid-September to assess all South African learners in home language (primary), English and Maths.  We are all cramming the learners full of “teaching to the test” activities.  We all also know they will not do very well. Fortunately for them, the pass rate on an exam is 40%.  Unfortunately for them, the rest of the world considers 40% failing.  How will they take their place in this competitive world if they have a poor education?

5.  As you know if you read my previous post, Grade 7 is a problem.  I am now working with them on Saturday mornings trying to get them prepared for ANA and high school.  They do so poorly on any independent assignment that I really need to go back over it and have them redo their work. But, is that a good use of time?  Should I complete the assessments?  Should I give them a “skim the surface” approach to test preparation?  Having taught in a school for high-achieving and gifted kids may be a disadvantage.  I go fast!  I have high expectations! I expect a lot!  Wait!  That is good!  Right?  Yes. But the kids aren’t used to it.

Nombulelo came to show me the wire car she made. These wonderful creations are about the only toys I have seen children playing with.

Nombulelo came to show me the wire car she made. These wonderful creations are about the only toys I have seen children playing with.

Phakamile (Grade 7) and Lungelo (Grade 4) are off at my house. Phakamile comes to me for

Phakamile (Grade 7) and Lungelo (Grade 4) at my house. Phakamile comes to me for “things” like yarn and crochet hooks. She is in my class and a good student! Lungelo checks out a new library book every day at school, brings me water, and once brought some lettuce. She comes to my house to read books and even to do some writing! We often walk to school together.

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4 thoughts on “An update from KZN, heading toward the end of Term 3

  1. There’s your answer, Karen. Those two beautiful girls who come to your house and read books, are creative and talk to you. You are their wonderful teacher! Try to keep that in mind when all the other difficulties and frustrations come up.

    That is why your blog ends with their photo, right?

  2. Angel blessings. May all of your children do 50%. Teaching to a test is frustrating all over the world apparently. Keep at it. I could have told you about the cows. Get a cow stick and chase them, they will run. Yelling is good too. Take it from an old hand with cows. All cows behave badly when there is an unfenced hay yard or a garden. Sorry for your loss, but do rebuild it. It’s lovely to think of you and your garden. Blessings.

  3. I agree with Jacquelyn, Karen. The girl who came to show you her toy car, the other girls who are happy to be with you, learn from you, walk with you, are being influenced by you, probably in ways you may never know. I know it’s hard when you’re trying desperately to help the lowest students but hope you’ll try to think of the impact you are having on these curious, interested students.
    PS: As far as the cows go, well, I’m a city girl myself, so don’t have any real advice! Take care, you’re most likely doing much more than you’re giving yourself credit for.

  4. Dear Karen,
    Wish I had been there to help. I’m an old country girl and would have chased those cows away.
    But, knowing your determination and skill, you’ll have that garden growing again.
    Teaching those children must be very frustrating and difficult. I don’t have any advice along that line, but please know your friends are all thinking of you and wishing you success in your endeavors.
    Just think, when you’re my age(82) you’ll look back on these years as wonderful adventures.
    Lots of love sent your way.
    Carolyn

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