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History in Action

January 22, 2012

It was the third day of class and the timetable hadn’t been finalized, and feeling that I was letting my time be dominated by the secondary school, after teaching there I went to look for something to do at the primary school. I ended up taking over the grade 6 math class. The Limpopo Department of Education knows that its academics are suffering (especially when it comes to literacy, right guys?), so last year before I arrived, they imposed upon all the primary schools a panicky last-ditch attempt to raise test scores. They call this an intervention, and it consists of a dubious schedule and curriculum on top of the new curriculum they’re rolling out this year. The intervention lasts until next month, and if I start going on about it or the Department of Education I’ll never finish writing this, so it suffices for now to say that I had to teach about least common multiples and greatest common factors to kids who do multiplication by drawing tally marks and counting them.

I don’t have any teaching duties at this school and the class is actually assigned to the head of department. (“What department,” you ask? “The department,” is the best answer you’re getting.) The head of department is something like a vice principal and he probably has a lot of admin duties for the new school year, so I agreed to take over the class without pressing him too hard about what he would be doing while I was teaching.

So I went in, completely unprepared. Rather than diving right in, I sat down at a desk and took a look at their notebooks to see what they had been doing recently. South African learners are issued clean notebooks at the beginning of the year, which they decorate with pictures from magazines in the days before school starts, and they fill with classwork steadily throughout the year. Their attitude towards these notebooks is crippling. Everything is written in pen and it has to look perfect. I suspect that if they have an answer they know is wrong, they’d rather leave it than correct it because correcting it means scratching the old answer out and tarnishing the paper. They get so distraught if I scratch something out in their notebooks or write something that isn’t a red check mark. You can’t do math like that. You need to have room to make mistakes and experiment until you get the answer. They probably developed this attitude because in some classes they’re graded on the neatness of their notebooks, and this is going to take some work to undo.

After giving a little review of the previous topic (which was completely unrelated, of course), I tried explaining the concept of factors by sharing biscuits, which we call cookies in America. If you have 15 biscuits, you can share them fairly if you have 5 friends or 3 friends or if you’re unpopular and you only have 1 friend, but you can’t share fairly between 4 friends because 4 isn’t a factor of 15. I drew a three by five grid of circles and I circled groups of them to show how they all fit into groups of three or five, but not any other number. I was painfully conscious of how silly and ineffective this was as I was doing it. If only I had brought some candy or something they could actually see and manipulate…

I paced the room, trying to think of a way to save this lesson. Then it hit me. In the corner of most of my classrooms is a cabinet or shelves filled with absolutely useless books and papers, but it was just what I needed at that moment. I opened the cabinet and grabbed a stack of 12 books and set them down on someone’s desk. There were three rows of desks, more or less, so in the end I had three stacks of 12 books out from the cabinet.

“Pass these books out to two people in this row.” It took us a while to communicate these instructions, but in the end, all the rows had two kids with six books they didn’t really want. “Now put them back together and pass them out to three people.” The subsequent factors of 12 went faster, and while some learners knew without this exercise how many books everyone would be getting, others counted them up every time they were passed out. Finally I had them distribute the books among 8 people. (Looking back on this, this was impossible because there were only 23 learners. I don’t know how they managed it.) “Now how many books does everyone have?”


“…You in the back. How many books do you have?”


I should have seen this coming. The kids who were engaged in the lesson took two books, the kids who didn’t care were left with one, and no one cared that there was a difference because these were just old apartheid-era textbooks that no one wanted in the first place. Once again I bemoaned my lack of candy, or even the roll of pennies I asked my mother to send from the states would have been perfect.

I had just finished shoehorning this into a conclusion the subject on factors when the siren rang and kids started packing up and leaving. It was only one o’clock. “Where are you going? I haven’t even started on multiples yet!”

“We are done today. Don’t worry! Come back Monday!” one of the girls pleaded with me. She took me to the head of department, who explained that they were knocking off early today because, well, it doesn’t matter why.

I went back to the classroom to put the books back in their resting places, and for the first time I really took a look at them. About half the books I pulled out were copies of a thin history book dated 1981. Despite their age, they were in pristine condition and most of them had obviously never been used. I took one with me, figuring it wouldn’t be missed. Reading it on the walk back, I couldn’t help but laugh at the very first part of the introduction:

When more and more people begin to live close to one another in the same area rules have to be made to keep the peace. Certain people have to be in charge while others have to agree to obey them. The story of the last 150 years or so in South Africa is the story of experiments in living with others and the government systems they tried out.

This is why I’m here.

The old history book. Apparently this one was made for the “new syllabus”.

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