GCL 101: Introduction to Teaching with Limited Resources
Walking into a classroom at St. Rodrigue High School can elicit a number of reactions from the students. Usually 20-50 girls dressed in royal blue will stand and wish me a good morning or afternoon. Sometimes one or two will shriek in surprise, erase the names they were doodling on the chalkboard and scramble to their seats. Sometimes the students are so weighed down by exams or lack of sleep or simply the dreariness of Monday morning that they can barely drag themselves out of their seats and mumble a "How are you, Mistress?" But the first time I entered a classroom to teach math to 8th graders ranging in age from 13 to 18, I held their undivided, curious gaze. As they hesitantly pronounced my name (which they soon improved to 'M'e Valley), I could practically see the cogs turning as they considered my outfit, nascent Sesotho accent, and perhaps even my tendency to coat my clothes in chalk dust. Undoubtedly older students would have also been comparing me to their memories of previous Grinnell Corps fellows, but these students (with the exception of a few repeaters) were also new to St. Rodrigue, so I had the opportunity for a first impression.
Meanwhile, I was desperately hoping that I would be able to teach a lesson on types of angles that my team-teacher had just informed me to prepare only an hour before. As I asked the students questions and scribbled examples on the board I gradually found ways to make myself understood. I mimicked the way other teachers formed their questions, made a conscious effort to speak slowly, and tweaked my Sesotho accent.
I assigned some practice exercises and was surprised when students started bringing their notebooks to my desk for me to grade. My first inclination was to let students work on their own, go over the answers in class, and relegate the bulk of their practice to homework assignments. I soon learned that homework assignments tend to be few and light. This is because many students have to walk hours between home and school each day, and even if they're not preoccupied with chores and looking after siblings, they may not have electricity to illuminate their studies. The students who live in the hostel (on-campus dormitory) are hardly in a more study-conducive environment, surrounded by a cacophony of teenage girls. Thus the only time available to most of them for homework and studying are the 30 minutes in the morning before classes begin and any free periods that crop up during the day.
So instead of assigning a dozen or two math problems as homework, I grade most of my students' work as we do it in class. An advantage to this is that I get an immediate survey of how many students understand a concept, as well as a few precious seconds of individual interaction with each student. Unfortunately there's more emphasis than I'd like on having notebooks filled with clean lines, neatly written answers, and big red checkmarks that indicate a correct answer, preferably found with no mistakes and no corrections. This frustrates me for a couple reasons. The back pages of their notebooks are covered with scratches and jottings of calculations. I've practically begged my students to not hide those little steps away, to let me see their work. In addition, the focus on just showing up with a correct answer leads to a lot of copying. The cause, I believe, is not a lack of integrity, but rather a fear of having a notebook filled with false turns and dead ends. One of the greatest challenges I've had so far is convincing my students that the more mistakes they reveal in class, the fewer will appear on their exams.
Back in that first class, the allotted 80 minutes flew by. For all the challenges of teaching with limited access to electricity, whiteboards, photocopies, and calculators, I've found that time is the resource whose restriction I feel the most. When I look over the list of topics in the syllabus and compare it with the days in the school year, I wonder how I can sufficiently prepare my students for their exams. And when I watch a student return to her seat after spending a few seconds pointing out her error, I wish I had an hour to work with her individually.
In a way I've attempted to address both these misgivings by meeting with students for tutoring after school whenever possible. Teaching a packed classroom has its own charms, especially when several dozen students answer my questions in unison with enthusiastic shouts ("se-VEN-ty!" "ahhh-CUUUUTE angle!!). However, my favorite interactions with students have come from meeting individually or in small groups in the library. I revel in being able to pinpoint a student's particular challenges, and their personalities begin to come into focus outside the crowd of their classmates. Inside or outside the classroom, I've come to value all the time I can spend with students.
GCL 102: British Linguistics and Gender Perspectives in Mathematics
The textbooks we math teachers use are published by the Lesotho Ministry of Education, and while I appreciate certain features of the books (such as culturally appropriate names, currencies, and story problems) the editors could use a dose of the assiduity and perfectionism my students apply to their notebooks. I frequently find glaring typos and errors, anything from mismatched transformations to incorrect equations of graphed lines. If math is a menacing jungle to these students, I often feel that I am their guide, hacking away at the seemingly impermeable tangle of formulae and graphs before them to reveal a clear path to acing their final exams. Unfortunately, our map is faulty, and I just have to hope they won't be led astray by flawed examples.
In my first few weeks of teaching I had my own difficulty with the subject at hand. Despite a thorough secondary education in math and a modest helping of math classes at Grinnell, many terms that appeared in class were new to me. I was skeptical, for example, that 'anticlockwise' was a real word, and 'gradient' didn't sound nearly as satisfying as slope. After some deliberate training, I broke my old habits and learned to say brackets, indices, and Pythagoras' rule instead of parentheses, exponents, and the Pythagorean theorem. Perhaps most notably, the subject I teach is no longer math but maths. For all this jargon I can thank the influence of the British education system. Lesotho was a British protectorate until 1966 and the standardized exam students take in 12th grade is the Cambridge International Exam. This is also the reason that, to my continual amusement, the tedious chore of proctoring exams becomes the much more colorful-sounding invigilation.
Between my begrudging adoption of British terminology (although I still haven't mustered the willpower to say 'zed' with a straight face) and my students' gradual inclusion of the steps leading up to a solution in their notebooks, we've established a comfortable routine in our class time together. However, despite many enjoyable and productive classes, my soaring dreams of producing a small army of math whizzes in a matter of months have been rudely grounded. Test after test receives a failing grade, despite numerous attempts to review or simplify a topic, or present it in a different context.
Many of my students have spotty primary educations at best, and the amount of material they need to cover over five years to prepare for their Cambridge exams would be daunting even if they did have a firm grasp of their multiplication tables. In the case of older students, they simply haven't had much practice approaching problems that require them to think critically about which of their skills they can apply to find the solution. I've spent some time teaching test-taking strategies (like solving the easy problems first), but I believe one of the greatest obstacles my students face is a lack of confidence in their own math abilities.
Encouraging girls in math and science is a global issue, and even an all-girls school in Lesotho with primarily female teachers is no exception. In nearly every conversation I have with the principal, when she asks about my progress with the students she says, "These girls, they so fear the maths." When my students don't understand a new mathematical concept instantly, I worry they take it as proof they have no natural talent for math. Sometimes I feel like I am pelting them with an endless stream of challenging new topics, so I try to give lots of encouragement and praise. I can see the progress they've made, and I try to help them focus on how far they've come.
I may be giving the impression that the math classes I teach are a source of frustration and bewilderment in my life in Lesotho. Nothing could be further from the truth. Some days I'm positively giddy with the anticipation of showing students the magic of pi or how factoring can conquer intimidating expressions. Watching a student's face light up with comprehension as she exclaims "OH!" never fails to make me smile. The joys of teaching math far outweigh whatever challenges arise.
GCL 103: Environmental Nostalgia Studies
Before traveling to Lesotho I had some trepidation about how I would adjust to my new surroundings. After all, how much did I really know about this little house in a tiny village in an easily overlooked country? How could such an unknown place become my home for a year?
As it turns out, a surprising amount of my new environment is oddly familiar. On a daily basis I meet small herds of cattle and sheep, and while the polled Angus and black Suffolk of home are absent, the sounds and smells are all the same. When it rains I don my knee-high rubber boots ("gum boots" here – more British lingo) and squish through muddy dongas stippled with hoofprints and I could just as easily be tromping through a feedlot. After I dump the kitchen scraps in the backyard (only nominally composting) I can count on a flock of chickens to invade, scratching through potato peels and apple cores and gulping water out of puddles. Eggs once again come unsorted and unwashed, rather than uniformly white and boring. In the morning the smell of cooking fires wafts on the breeze, and I'm overwhelmed by memories from summers spent waking up early to cook pancakes over well-balanced logs. Waking up before sunrise is another habit I've revived from my pre-college days, although for somewhat different reasons. I don't have any animals to feed, but living without electricity makes one appreciate sunlight and I try to make the most of all daylight hours.
All this isn't to say that no aspects of my life here are completely new. Despite making efforts before departing the US to prepare myself for seeing Lesotho, I somehow overlooked the detail that the mountainsides would be covered in MONSTER ALOE. Riding in the nun truck from the airport to St. Rodrigue I could barely peel my eyes away from the 10-foot tall alien-looking stalks bearing clusters of bright yellow flowers, protruding from succulents comically giant compared to the potted varieties to which I was accustomed.
If the aloe took my breath away, it was only a prelude to seeing the stars. The sight of a night sky with few familiar landmarks is jarring, but not nearly as much as seeing a recognizable constellation, like Orion, upside-down. Of course, the stunning clarity of the stars in the mountain air, miles away from the slightest hint of light pollution is also astonishing.
Small details continue to remind me that, for all the continuities between rural Iowa and rural Lesotho, I am in fact on the other side of the world. It might be a rock speckled with vivid lime green lichens, or a field populated by sorghum instead of soybeans. Even something like thunder, which I'd be inclined to label invariable, can take on a new quality. Here it reverberates off the mountains and gains an echo-y tone, like it's bouncing around inside a machine shed. Whether the sights and sounds of life in St. Rodrigue are thrillingly new or stir up fond memories, I'm content with the reassurance that before long, they'll all make me feel right at home.