Every once in a while - when I'm sitting in a classroom at Thandokulu High School or when I'm stuck somewhere between sleeping and waking - I can't escape the thought, "What am I even doing here?"
Here, in Cape Town, South Africa. Am I kidding myself that I have something to offer high school students who come from an entirely different background than I do? Students who speak Xhosa or another African language at home, which is usually in an impoverished township ridden with crime, violence, and heartache. What does a middle-class white girl from the midwestern United States have to offer in this situation?
Two weeks ago I offered a lesson on optimization (an application of calculus) to several classes of Grade 12 students. Whenever I asked if something made sense, they would respond and ask further questions, which was a dream come true for a pre-service teacher like me. Exams started last week for students at Thandokulu, and I think it is reasonable to say that several Grade 12 students will at least know how to start an optimization problem on their math exam next week. I hope that many will feel comfortable completing the process as well.
Did I bring anything special or beneficial in my optimization lesson? Several of the teachers I have observed at Thandokulu have a more authoritarian style than I am comfortable with, so perhaps I brought some variety to the school day. However, I'm not sure that presenting something special or unique is really the point of me working at Thandokulu. Closer to the point might be providing students with another person in their life who cares about their learning and, even more importantly, who cares about them as a person.
I hope I've had some success in carrying that point across, and that I can continue to do so. It's a little challenging with exams going on all through last week, this coming week, and the following week. Some days I just supervise students taking a test, while other days I get to interact with the few students who come to school when they don't have any exams to write. Last week the principal of Thandokulu was really excited about a free online resource in math and science, but students cannot take advantage of it without an email address and a device (computer, smartphone, tablet, etc.) to download materials onto. It's hard to say whether the students Connor and I helped set up email addresses for will get any use out of their free materials. Fortunately there's a lot of math that can be done with only chalk and a chalkboard. Even then it is hard to tell how much is really sinking in - one 8th grade girl said that the problem on the board with ratios made sense, but her classmate said, "No, sister, you are lost." It wasn't derogatory in any way - she was a shy girl, and hesitant to ask for help, so I tried to explain it in different ways, but it's hard to know if I really helped her understand. I wish I could speak fluent Xhosa, but as that isn't the case I'll just keep trying variations in English. The language barrier is challenging to cross at times, but worth the effort even with the frustration it produces. As much as I am learning from this experience, I hope the students at Thandokulu are benefiting as well.