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Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Grahamstown, South Africa

Greetings from Grahamstown, South Africa! This semester I am so fortunate to have two International Pre-Practicum placements! Both schools are just down the street from Rhodes University, where I am studying. Balancing the two placements, some volunteer work, a full course load, and travel will be a challenge, but I am excited to be able to experience so much in my 5 months here!

The first school, which I will be visiting on Thursday mornings, is Victoria Primary School. VP is an all-girls, fee-paying, public school. This means that the government does give funding to the school, but that the students are also required to pay fees. These fees are lower than private schools’, however they are still usually too high for many South African people to pay. Girls can apply for scholarships to cover some of the fees. Some students that go to VP live far away. Out of the nearly 400 students, 45 girls from Grade 1 to Grade 7 board overnight in the school’s Hostel.

At VP, I am in Miss Dixie’s Grade R class. There are 19 students, aged 5 to 6-years-old. Many of the girls speak Xhosa or Afrikaans at home, but all of VP’s instruction is in English. In Miss Dixie’s class there is also a classroom aid and an assistant teacher.

On a typical day, the girls arrive between 7:00 and 8:00. Miss Dixie has different activities spread out on the tables that the students rotate between. These activities help the girls’ fine motor skills. After they are finished, they go outside to play. The playground has many different activities: swings, hopscotch, chalk, a jungle gym, a makeup salon, jump ropes, and hula-hoops. Miss Dixie has focused many of this term’s outdoor activities on improving the girls’ gross motor skills. For example, they see how long they can hold themselves up on the monkey bars. The school day ends at 12:30 for the Grade R girls.

The other school that I visit is the Good Shepherd School. I will be there every Friday from 10:00 until the end of the school day, at 13:45. Good Shepherd is a co-educational, no-fee, public school. All of these students come from Grahamstown’s township. From what I have learned, during Apartheid, this part of town was where the Black and Coloured South Africans were required to live. In South Africa, “coloured” is the appropriate term for someone of mixed race. The township is the still the poor area in Grahamstown. The South African government gives many people in the township their homes for free. The newer township homes have running water and electricity, but many of the older Apartheid-era homes do not have these basic necessities. Instead they rely on outhouses and community faucets.

Most township schools in South Africa are located in the townships themselves. The Good Shepherd School is different in that it is located in the middle of Grahamstown. It’s great location has allowed it to build good relationships with surrounding private schools. For certain needs, the private schools are able to provide them with assistance, often for things like extra-curricular activities. The Good Shepherd School also has a lot more resources than the average township school because they have support and resources from the Good Shepherd Trust. The trust owns the private property where the school is located. The South African Department of Education rents the property from the Trust. Because the Department of Education only hires 7 teachers for 7 grades, the trust also pays for additional staff. They even have a brand new computer lab with 40 desktops for the students to use. It’s an amazing space for the students and a great resource for the teachers!

Good Shepherd has about 300 students in Grades R through Grade 7. Nearly all of the students speak Xhosa or Afrikaans at home. Good Shepherd teaches them in English from the beginning, though. This school has a government-sponsored meal program. They provide all of the students with breakfast, snack, and lunch daily.

At Good Shepherd, I will be in Ms. Herring’s English classroom. She is responsible for teaching Grades 4 through Grade 7 on a rotating class schedule. Each grade has only one class, with about 35-38 students per level. Thankfully, because of the computer lab, the teachers are sometimes able to split classes in half. They teach half of the students, while the other half can work independently in the computer lab. The students arrive at school around 7:00. Most classes involve book work and class discussion. The students have workbooks that they do activities in for homework too. Ms. Herring tries to keep all of the grade levels on the same topics to make it easier to plan all of the different lessons. For example, all of the students are learning about novels now. Each grade’s lesson is executed somewhat differently.

I am so excited to learn more about these schools and all of the students this semester! I really enjoyed introducing myself to the students. Most of the kids thought my accent was funny, but I know I will need to repeat myself often so they can understand me. I also really enjoyed getting to know all of the students. The Grade 5 Good Shepherd students had made travel brochures for South Africa that I was able to read. This was so much fun for me to learn more about their country, while also gauging their English abilities.

My biggest challenge right now will be to learn all of their names. I am usually pretty good, but I have nearly 180 students to get to know between the two schools! Also, many of the names are beautiful Xhosa and Afrikaans names that I have never heard before. The Xhosa language is particularly difficult for me because it has three different “click” sounds that I have to learn. I feel terrible asking the children to repeat their names over, and over again. I think it is extremely important for me to learn their names in order to interact with them. With class lists, name tags, and plenty of practice, hopefully I will learn them all!

Both Miss Dixie and Ms. Herring have been really welcoming, supportive, and flexible. This week I will start teaching lessons. It’s much quicker than I expected, but I think jumping into this experience will be so worthwhile!

- Allison Irwin

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