School Daze Part 4: Technical Difficulties

This post has been sitting as a draft since the start of our last week in the school.  I have completed it today, and I will be posting a follow-up with some of my thoughts about the project in the coming days.

Since getting the computer room up and running, we’ve been trying to make as much use of it as possible.  We’ve had all of the classes between grades 3 and 7 in at least once, and most of them have been in twice or more.  I realise now that I was over-shooting a little when I brought along binaries for three different programming languages, along with a bunch of teaching resources; in fact, I’ve had to seriously revise my expectations.

The first thing we did was teach each learner to log in with their own username and password.  The kids loved this, but getting them to understand that their username is not the same as their name was, for some of the younger kids, more difficult than I expected it to be.  That may be because of the way I explained it to them – it would have been useful to do a classroom session with each group prior to bringing them into the computer room – but there were a few kids who couldn’t spell their own name.  I also hadn’t expected that.

Secondly, in a fit of enthusiasm for IT security, I had set the password for most accounts to be ‘p@ssw0rd’, and this caused mass consternation.  The shift key was mystery to most of the kids; when they want to type a capital letter, they were turning on Caps Lock, typing the letter, and then turning Caps Lock off.  And the distinction between O (capital ‘o’) and 0 (zero) wasn’t clear in the font that I used. For later groups, the password was set simply to ‘password’, and they had to change their password the first time they logged in.

For the younger kids, we introduced them to the wonders of MSPaint.  Paint has come a long way in the years since Windows 3.1 when it could do a single 256*256 image with only 256 colours.  The younger kids drew pictures, and in doing so improved their mouse skills.  Some of them put their name and their best friends name in hearts, some wrote poems, and those moments when they were starting to get the hang of it were oases of quiet in days of bedlam.

For the older kids we set them quick research projects – “Who wrote the national anthem of South Africa?”, “What is the capital city of Denmark?”, “What money do they use in Japan, and how much is R100 worth in that money?”, and set them loose on the intertubes.  These kids had more experience with the computers because their teachers were themselves more comfortable with the computers, but they were still committing dad-level mistakes like typing “Who wrote the national anthem of South Africa?” into Google.

With all of the groups, we’d try to do something like 45 minutes of lesson, and then let them have 15 minutes to research whatever they like – this was often illuminating.  For example, I now know that while Justin Bieber is no longer the favourite of young teen girls – apparently Austin Mahone is the new kid on the block – WWE is still enormously popular, and apparently something called “Swag Notes” is a thing.  I also learned that is a repository for games beyond the wildest dreams of kids, and that a 360k connection shared between 20 workstations works out to about 18k per workstation, and even the most basic Flash game won’t load in less than 30 minutes.  Fortunately, we had a secret weapon.

There is an open source project called GCompris.  It’s an awful name, I know, but the project is pretty sweet.  It’s a suite of educational games – simple things like “match the card that has 8 butterflies with the number 8”, and puzzles and mazes.  The software is free to use, and because it has games that do not need to load, the kids loved it.  And because all of the games are in some way educational, it’s easy to let them self-direct.  The only thing you really need to watch out for is when kids choose a game that is perhaps too difficult for them.  Finally getting the kids to do something that is both worthwhile and enjoyable in the computer room was a huge win, and it felt pretty great to watch them work away in blessed silence.

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Into the wild…

We’re just back from a week of travelling – exploring the Karoo and the Western Cape.

The Karoo is a vast semi-desert region in the Northern and Western Cape. As some of you may know, Niall has something of a passion for astronomy – so we headed deep into the desert to find SALT – the South African Large Telescope, the largest optical telescope in the Southern hemisphere.

It was quite the experience. First, I must thank Niall – as I don’t drive, he did the 350-odd km there and back without help, including some rather hairy roads. We passed through the lush winelands around Paarl, through the Hex River Valley and under the snow topped mountains via the Huguenot Tunnel, before coming out into the Karoo desert.

Sutherland is apparently the coldest town in South Africa – we were epicly layered up, just in case. The only reason there’s a tarmac road all the way up there is the telescope. It was quite mad, to be honest. After stargazing in the evening, we walked back to the car- no torch needed, as the starlight was bright enough that we could see the way perfectly. We also spotted the Magellanic clouds, the Milky Way, the rings on Saturn and a nebula that looked like a swan. Oh, and Niall thought Venus was a streetlamp – it was THAT bright. 

On the way to Sutherland we stopped at what must be the weirdest little town in South Africa – Matjiesfontein. It was once a Victorian spa town, once the seat of the British Army during the Anglo-Boer war – now, it is a strange place, its twee charm preserved for those passing through; a red double decker bus and Victorian fire truck adorn the main street – there’s also a museum with an impressive collection of chamber pots and early dentistry implements. 

And as for the Western Cape? Down the Cape Peninsula, through the fishing villages of Hout Bay, Fish Hoek and Simon’s Town to Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope, with visits to seals and ostriches along the way. We really experienced the ‘Cape of Storms’ (as the Cape was originally named); our boat out to the seals in Hout Bay was dealing with swell about twice its size, and we were very nearly blown off the top of Cape Point by epic gales that diminished as soon as we got down. 

The onto the picturesque Winelands, with port and chocolate tastings as well as wine and cheese tastings – and a tour of the Kayamandi township, built in the 30’s outside Stellenbosch to house those who worked in the vineyards, and still home to most of the vineyards’ seasonal workers. Passing through Paarl, we stopped at Victor Verster Prison, where Nelson Mandela took his first steps as a free man in 1990. 

Then Cape Aghulas, the Southernmost point of Africa- and probably the farthest South I will ever go, despite Niall’s suggestion that we head to Antarctica someday. Then back around the coast to Hermanus to see whales and Betty’s Bay to see penguins. Hermanus is amazing – you can sit on the shore and the whales come right into the bay, just messing around. It’s cool, but disconcerting. The penguins – known as Jackass penguins because of their braying laugh – are cute but seem to be especially smelly, even for something eats and poops fish all day. 

I find it hard to fathom that we’ve only a week left in our project, and only three weeks left in South Africa. I feel like we’ve seen and done so much, but that there’s so much left to see and do.

I suppose that’s inevitable in a country almost the size of Europe.

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It’s the little things….

It’s strange how similar and yet completely different things are over here. Silly things stick out, really.

Little differences? The KFC adverts make their customers appear trendy and chic. Everyone says ‘avo’ instead of avocado, and adds it liberally to all kinds of dishes. Students are called ‘learners’. Everyone uses ‘must’ where I feel they should be saying ‘should’, or ‘have to’. If you ask for tea, you must specify whether you want rooibos or Ceylon (which is sometimes named by brand). Speaking of which, you can get rooibos based espresso style drinks – red espresso. People regularly switch between languages in conversation, meaning we’re mostly listening to a mixture of Afrikaans and English. Also TV shows are subtitled in English, with a range of the eleven languages being spoken onscreen. It also seems to be very important to ‘greet’ people, and properly – you can’t just say ‘hi’ to someone, you must ask how they are and answer their question too. I have met a particularly adorable two year old who has been taught to ‘greet’ with a handshake or fistbump, depending on context; school children must greet their teachers (and us) when we enter the room, or they’ll be forced to stand up and repeat it until they get it right. And Capetonians LOVE their food – any excuse is a good excuse for a spread, or cake, or yum-yums (tasty little round doughnutty blobs of goodness) – and we’re yet to find a restaurant, cafe or shop that doesn’t serve mouthwatering deliciousness as standard.

And similarities? The weather is pretty much as you’d expect it to be in Ireland in Spring. There’s a burgeoning craft brewery scene, thankfully a good bit cheaper than at home. Trendy coffee shops are populated by hipsters with iPads – in one, the staff were in waistcoats and top hats. A general theme of complaining about government, education departments, lack of funding, etc sounds much the same as at home. People have the same concerns here as elsewhere – a decent place to live, a job, good education for their kids, and so on.

But there are big differences too. For starters, there is a MASSIVE mountain, right in the middle of the city. As Niall has said (repeatedly), if you got that map on SimCity you’d just reload. Oh, and depending on the cloud cover, some mornings you can’t even SEE the mountain. And then you turn a corner, and it looms out of nowhere. I swear, it’s sneaking up on me sometimes.

Cape Town is a city of around 3.5 million people. Around 1.5 million of these are estimated to live in Khayelitsha, the largest of the informal townships. That’s around as many people as live in Dublin, my home city, living in shacks made of wood, tin, corrugated iron and cardboard. We toured a township a couple of weeks ago – I asked what seemed like an obvious question: where do people get the materials to build the shacks? (After all, I hadn’t seen piles of it lying around anywhere). Turns out that the government gives anyone who wants it five sheets of metal, to build themselves a shack. And yet the government is insisting that they’ll have everyone out of shacks by 2024…. It’s seems a particularly circular solution to me, to enable people to build shacks whilst railing against them publicly yet not providing a decent alternative.

Cape Town is an amazing city, but full of contradictions. It’s hard to get your head around. Especially with that mountain.

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An Important Milestone

Given the last few posts, you’d be forgiven for thinking that I spend most of my time in the classroom trying to wrest the tattered remains of my sanity from a horde of unruly kids; In reality, most of my time has been spent in the computer room I mentioned in my first post.

The lab was donated to the school by an NGO at some point during the last year.  Before handover was complete, the NGO ran out of funding, and the computer room has languished since, minor snags leaving 6 of 20 workstations out of service.  None of the teachers having the training or, more pertinently, the time to fix things.  This is where I come in: I speak the same techie language as the people on the help-line, and more importantly, I can be spared to sit on hold for however long it takes to get a response.

When I arrived at the school 5 weeks ago (has it really been that long?!), I had 6 machines to get working.  Two would not log on if given the correct passwords, two had the incorrect cables for their monitors, one would not boot, and another would boot sometimes, but it also had a bad keyboard, so that even if it booted, you couldn’t log in anyway.  On top of that, the software activation was never completed successfully, so Windows is functional, and it nags you every time you log in.

My first IT job was many moons ago, setting up and re-imaging a lab full of computers in IT Tallaght.  The work here is similar to that in more ways than one.  Aside from the necessity to get a large number of PCs ready for students to use them for various purposes, there are also the constraints of working in a public sector environment.  Repairs must be carried out under warranty, and I don’t have a stack of replacement parts to hand, even if they didn’t.

I completed an audit of the computer room, taking note of serial numbers, machine names, and then detailing any problems that I found.  For the machines that did have problems, I ran through all of the troubleshooting steps that I could think of to try and isolate the source of the problem as much as was possible.  It turned out that I was able to fix the machines that would not log in (they just needed to be added to the domain), and one of the machines that had a problem with its monitor also seemed to be having motherboard problems.

With all of these issues noted, I proceeded to log a call.  This was not as simple as I had anticipated.  I called the Department helpdesk, and a call was logged pretty quickly.  A couple of days later, I got a call-back from the technician who told me that as those issues were all hardware-related, I had to call the hardware supplier and log warranty repair calls.  Why I couldn’t have been told this when I logged the call, I’m not sure.  I called the warranty repair line that I had been given and was transferred four times before being told that I would have to log a repair request over email.  I sent the email to the address I was given and I waited.

Then, I  spent a week with Grade 2, and as I was busy the whole day, I didn’t chase up on this.  Finally free of my obligations, I went to follow up.  I called the warranty repair line again, and I was told that I actually needed to call a different line altogether.  I called this line, and after 10 minutes on hold, I actually got to talk to the person who logs the calls.  She gave me her email address, and I sent her all of the relevant details.  It was Friday before the technician came out, and when he did, part of the email that I had sent had been truncated, so he was missing some parts.  He came back the following Monday, but then one of our machines with an intermittent fault was on a good day, and it started having conniptions again he moment he left…

As of Friday last week, all 20 workstations in the computer room were functional, and we were able to hold our first computer class.  It shouldn’t have taken so long to get 6 computers working again, but that assumes that there’s someone who has the time to work with the machines nearly full time.  Even I didn’t have that time as we filled in for sick teachers.  This is a minor milestone, and I’m pleased, but there’s still more to do – this is only the hardware issues sorted.  Software is the next milestone.  Until then, I’ve been giving people the following advice:

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School Daze Part Three: The Storm

When the gods want to mock us, they grant our wishes.  I had said to myself “I wish I had more time with a class”, and, well, I got it.  One bright Friday morning, the headmaster approached Helen and myself and said “Grade 2’s teacher is out.  We’ll split the class in two – Helen, you take the girls, and Niall, you take the boys.”  School finishes early on Friday’s, so this was easy.  We put on a video to get us as far as first break, then we did some maths, some drawing and played some football to get us to the end of the day.  And being a Friday, we were able to coerce the boys with the promise of lollipops if they were good.

On Monday, we arrived into school, excited about getting to work on our projects.  When we arrived, we were told that not only was the Grade 2 teacher going to be out, but that she would be out for the whole week.  And we were going to take her place.  For the whole week.  While you can get away with lollipops and videos for a half-day, you can’t do it for a whole week.  Not only is it not fair to waste a week of the kids’ time, but there are only 4 DVDs to choose from, so they would get bored before the end of the first day.  Helen had done some work with this class before, so we had a rough idea of where they were in their books, and we decided that we would carry on.  We kept the class split on Monday, and I brought the boys to Helen’s nascent library, while she kept the girls in the classroom.

We actually survived Monday OK – the kids were still tired out from the weekend, and we had some residual good-will from the DVD session on Friday.  Helen and I took some time after class to plan the next day’s lessons – thankfully the textbooks pages are marked by term and week, so we were able to pick up “Term 3 – Week 7” and run with it.  Tuesday morning dawned dull and damp, but we were not deterred.  We’d had a good day with the kids on Monday, and we thought could build on that on Tuesday.

We were wrong.  Tuesday descended rather quickly into bedlam.  I was attempting to teach the 2/3 of the boys that were paying attention in a loud voice while the other third just wandered around messing.  I should mention that in this class, there are 48 kids, so there is a full class worth of boys and a full class worth of girls.  I was trying to teach some maths to the 15 or 16 boys who wanted to hear.  But even that wasn’t working out so well.  The kids who understood the sums would finish them quickly, and bring them up to get marked.  From that point on, I was trying to do crowd control, mark books, stop people from copying the answers out of a book that I’d already marked, and finally, help the kids who didn’t understand.  I did none of those things particularly well.  At the end of the day, we were physically and emotionally drained.  We went home, ate triple dinner (Cape Malay Cuisine is divine, and served up in large portions at home), and went to bed early.

On Wednesday, Helen was sick in bed, so I ended up taking the whole class together.  So that I not be slaughtered in a gruesome re-enactment of Lord of the Flies, I had Mr Momberg, our headmaster in with me.  We played a tag-team game, with him running crowd control, and me trying to do the teaching.  This actually worked really well.  The kids have a relationship with Mr Momberg, and they respect him well enough to behave when he’s around.  And with a general air of studiousness in the room, I was able to get some teaching done.  I had also brought my guitar with me, and having learned my lesson previously, I played a few songs with really good call-and-response structures.  This went down a treat, and when the day was over, I felt like we might actually make it to the weekend.

On Thursday, Helen was back.  We kept the kids together so that we could take turns teaching and doing crowd control, but for whatever reason, the kids started the day unhinged.  In the 150 minutes between class starting and first break, I had broken up 10 fights.  Kids who normally sit beside each other and play as pals had one another by the throat; one kid farted, and that was enough for his neighbour to throw a punch at him; another kid tried to referee a fight that had started because someone swore about someone else’s mother (and not the sort of swearing that you would hear on HBO – apparently the offensive phrase was “your mother has a big bum” or something like that), and then ended up fighting both of them when a wayward punch hit him.  I even had a kid try to fight me because I tried to stop him fighting someone else.  Thursday was grueling.  We felt like we had lost the kids and would never get them back enough to teach them anything.  If we got through 15 minutes without a brawl breaking out, we considered that a success.  I can see why Arthur Dent never got the hang of Thursdays.

On Friday, we just focused on surviving.  I had a cold, and we were both shattered.  As Fridays are half days, and we could bring out the DVD player, we only had to get through the morning session.  Just that little bit was tough enough – we were ragged both physically and emotionally.  The day ended, and we went into town and had a well-earned pint.

Most days, this class is run by one person.  She doesn’t have the option of just putting on a DVD because she can’t get the kids to shut up, and she doesn’t have a second pair of hands to help out when things get tough.  She has to try and teach as many of these kids as much as she can.  I’ve another post brewing about why I think this is so tough, but this is long enough already.  We survived our week with Grade 2, but only just…

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School Daze Part 2: The Calm

After a week with the computers, I was beginning to feel like I wasn’t in a school, despite the scream mass of childer running around me at break times.  I said to our headmaster that I’d like to spend a little more time in the class room.  He dutifully obliged by placing me with Mr Luddy’s Grade 6.

This was a different planet from the chaos of my previous classroom encounter.  For a start, the class is smaller, with less than 30 learners, and these learners are that bit older, and so that bit calmer.

And finally, Mr Luddy is the deputy head, a trained teacher, and a dedicated educator, in complete control of his class.  His classes were structured, and they had a flow and cadence that was almost musical; as the kids’ interest in one subject started to wane, he would move onto the next.  As the kids were working, he would by turns cajole, exhort, inspire and amuse to keep them engaged.  The difference between this experience and my last could not have been more stark.  I felt  little bored, and quite unnecessary in the class, up until I brought the boys out to play football, when I was told that I wasn’t taking my refereeing duties seriously enough.

It was an interesting experience for a number of reasons.  First of all, I had very much forgotten how a primary school class should be structured – this information was to prove invaluable for our next classroom experience.  Secondly, it’s interesting to note the difference class’s background made to the classroom environment.

Several years ago, the school was only drawing from the local area, and was in danger of running out of numbers.  To avoid having to close its doors, the school cast its net a little wider, and brought in kids from some of the local informal settlements and children’s homes.  The kids that we had taught previously in Grade 3 had been from this background, and the kids in Grade 6 were from the more settled background, and this made a huge difference.  All of the kids had the basics: pencils, erasers, rulers – in Grade 3, this was the exception rather than the rule.

Finally, it was interesting to see that even in what is probably the best behaved class in the school, that there are still problems.  The did a practice assessment, and we marked it in class.  Only 2/3 of the class got marks that would have passed them.  Some of them were failing on things as basic as not reading the questions correctly, some on basic arithmetic.

Join us later in the week for Part 3: The Storm – the tale of the week Helen and I spent in charge of the largest class in the school.

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Community matters

A quick overview of the area and community we’re living and working in.

We’re living in an area called Crawford, Athlone – it was originally designated a ‘coloured’ township under the Group Areas Act, which split South African residential zones along racial lines. Across the highway there are areas that were designated ‘Indian’ or ‘black’. The majority of the established community in these areas tends to be of the racial groups that were first moved there, somewhat inevitably. However there is a black and Indian population – and even a handful of whites – in Athlone.

The family we’re staying with are coloured and Muslim – they come from the Cape Malay community, who mostly have little to do with Malaysia, but are descended from the freed slaves who settled in Cape Town. This community has been racially mixed over the centuries, with mostly South-East Asians and Indians, but also Africans and Europeans, intermarrying and creating a melting pot community. This leads to many different skin/hair/eye colours within the one family – for example, Mrs Gool’s granddaughters – three sisters, two with dark brown skin and black hair, the youngest with fair skin and blonde hair. The Cape Malays are technically a sub-set of the wider coloured community, and were so designated under apartheid. The Cape Malays also have their own delicious cuisine, which is something we have been hugely enjoying while we’ve been here with our host family. The Cape Malays also introduced Islam to South Africa, and we can often hear the competing sounds of two muezzins from nearby mosques in the evenings.

So the surrounding area is largely, but not exclusively, coloured – but the majority of the kids we are teaching are black. In Athlone, most of the houses are what’s called ‘formal settlements’, i.e. permanent buildings of bricks and mortar, or concrete, or breeze blocks. Not all of these permanent houses are in good condition, by any means – although several have two stories and double garages. Some of the plots of land along our street have corrugated iron houses on, with a brick wall separating them from the street, still others have an additional ‘slum’ building built out the back or onto the side of the building. Most of the formal settlements – i.e. brick and mortar houses – are occupied by the coloured residents who have lived here for longer.

But a few streets away from the school you will find a small ‘informal settlement’, or slum, consisting of houses built from sheets of corrugated iron and wood. These houses are about the size of most of our bedrooms, or smaller; no running water (except from the single communal tap), no toilets (there are maybe ten chemical toilets set up in the street), and the electricity is stolen by jimmying nearby pylons. Oh, and the streets are dirt roads just big enough to fit a car through, and there is no drainage – so in heavy rains (which happen pretty often in CT) the streets and all the houses flood. There are a few tiny shops, and a fair few ‘shebeens’ or quasi-legal pubs – but very little employment. There are also serious problems with drink, drugs and violence. When we were there yesterday, we had to reverse out of a street because there was someone resisting arrest and the police were going to be there a while.

This is where the majority of our kids are living. Some are in permanent houses, but not many. A fair few are coming from one or other of the children’s homes in the area. A few more are coming from slightly further afield, from the larger townships of Langa and Gugulethu. But few of them have access to clean water or a toilet in their homes.

One of the targets of MDC 7 is to improve the living conditions of slum dwellers, and increase access to clean water and basic sanitation. I heard on the radio yesterday that more Africans have mobile phones than have access to clean water. Looking at conditions like these, it seems believable.

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