Friday, November 6, 2009


After several weeks of struggling not to be bored (what with canceled classes due to soccer matches and exams), I'm lately finding myself overwhelmed with work. Two weeks after the last marking period exam, I'm still trying to finish grading (marking 400 or so written exams by hand is a pretty significant task), and students now starting to seek me out in between classes to ask for help. So the days have become pretty packed.

But I like it. I especially like tutoring students outside of class; the enormously high student-to-teacher ratio is definitely the biggest factor holding back student progress. My accent combined with the literacy issues are also major factors, but one-on-one or small group tutoring helps to overcome all of these things. So, though unfortunately I can't tutor all of the students one-on-one, it's still very rewarding to help out those who come to me outside of class.

I've also started trying to tutor some of the neighbor's kids in math when I have time. This in part is a solution to the problem I was having before – how to deal with them when they ask for stuff. Having them work math problems in order to get small treats – usually a little bit of chocolate – seems to work pretty well, and, when I can find the patience to tutor hordes of wild boys that usually show up (most between the ages of about 6 and 14), it's rewarding for me as well.

The only problem is, when the kids find out I'm giving out chocolate for math, suddenly it seems like every child in a 3-mile radius shows up at my door. And it's impossible for me to monitor all of them. I have a rule, “no fighting on my porch,” but I don't have the energy to try to teach math and keep them all from whooping on each other. So what starts as a fun way to motivate the kids to study generally ends up as a brawling free-for-all in my front lawn, with 5 or 6 kids hanging off of me or my porch, while I try to shoo them away from the one kid at a time I'm trying to get to actually do the math and not just write random numbers so that I will give them sweets. Yesterday this turned into a 3-hour marathon of teaching (or trying to at least), by the end of which I was covered in pen (my white skin makes an excellent drawing surface), and the porch was covered in little ripped-up sheets of paper and various articles of clothing that had been removed and left behind.

Still, overall, I love spending time with the kids. Despite the fact that they don't have much in terms of toys, or even food, they are generally such happy kiddos and have so much fun that it's difficult not to be happy around them. Yesterday it started to pour, and a bunch of them took off all their clothes and started dancing around naked (this eventually degenerated into them kicking mud all over each other, which – I'm not going to lie – looked like a GREAT time). They also proudly demonstrated their armpit-farting, singing, and storytelling skills, all of which are very impressive.

But the more time I spend with the kids, either my students or the neighborhood children, the more I realize just how messed up the educational system here is. Part of why I like tutoring the neighbor's kids is that they learn extremely fast – even if I only have 5 or 10 minutes once or twice a week to devote to each kid, they still are making visible progress. What's sad about that is that they can progress so fast because they are clearly getting almost no individualized attention whatsoever in the schools. And, for the most part, the parents do not have the education or the time to help out at home, so the kids aren't getting any support there either. So even a tiny bit of personal help is a lot more than what they get most of the time.

The result of this mess is barely literate high-schoolers. Grading the 8th-grade science exams in particular was distressing; some of them were not even able to copy down the questions they were supposed to answer, much less actually try to answer them. I don't feel as though it is my job to teach or grade English, but sometimes the answers that were written were so garbled that I couldn't even begin to decipher what they were trying to say. For example, one student wrote, “you can test the hyothesis from jear the meart and faster.” At least I could read that answer; others' writing is completely illegible, or appears to be a random mix of letters that do not make anything resembling actual words.

I have to think, as I grade these, that it's no wonder there are behavior issues in this class (in which I should note there are officially 99 students, about 70 or 80 of whom usually come to class). Many of the students are totally lost, coming to school only because they are supposed to come to school. After years of failing, with nobody to turn to for help, they have given up on actually trying to learn. I'm more and more coming to understand that the noise, the mocking, the rudeness, and the rowdiness are all the results of a feeling of hopelessness, a byproduct of going through the motions without any expectation that going to school will realistically allow them to improve their life situation.

Honestly, I just don't know what to do to motivate the students. Last week, I tried to have this same class do a simple activity in which they measured the two sides of a square and then calculated the area, but many of them flat-out wouldn't do it. I walked around the class trying to get them to do something besides sit there and talk to each other, or complain that they didn't understand what I wanted them to do, but it didn't work. Then this week I spent the majority of Tuesday's class trying to get them to be quiet so I could talk to them – alternately speaking in a normal voice, trying to quietly express my disappointment to them, trying to yell over them, trying to yell at them, and simply waiting at the front of the class until they settled down (they never did). Finally I gave up and left the class (I'm ashamed of how short my patience can be – I'm trying to work on that). I told the principal about the situation and he ended up lecturing and then punishing the entire class, making them clean the school campus for two days. Today, after the punishment, they were quiet but sullen and defeated – which I'm not convinced is an improvement over noisy and disruptive. So that was not a great solution. But then, I'm not convinced there is a great solution – or even a mediocre one. Maybe a lousy solution is the best I can do for now.

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