April 2014   

NEWSLETTER # 16 - Breaking ceilings

The sky is the limit! Dream BIG! The world is your oyster! These are the kinds of encouragements we bestow on middle- and upper-class kids as they migrate from high school to tertiary, or on their way into the world of work. Contrast this with the persistent sense of limitation and ceiling, which we experience in our interactions with teachers, students and schools here every day. There's good reason for this, of course, given the history of schools in the former Transkei and on-going obstacles that continue to hamstring rural schools, but wouldn't it be magnificent to hear more ambitious dreaming backed up by concrete action?! On this note, we were thrilled to see so many of our Grade 12 Ekukhuleni students do well at the end of 2013. It feels like after three years, Ekukhuleni has reached the point where students are starting to take hold of the opportunities on offer, and this is reflected in overwhelming demand to be on the programme this year.

In summary, our 23 matrics:

  • Achieved 12 Bachelor passes with maths and physical science as subjects (compared with 2012: 4 of our students and 5 in total from more than a thousand matrics in the area);
  • Attained a 19% average improvement across all subjects from Grade 11 to the end of Grade 12;
  • Had only two outright failures (compared with twelve the previous year);
  • Virtually 100 % placement in tertiary study for those who passed.*

Of course, the success of these students is as much a reflection on the hard work of the teachers in their schools, as it is about the additional support we offer. So it was pleasing to hear how elated one of their science teachers was with what she described as her first 'Level 4' (a student with more than 50%). Sometimes it feels like half the challenge is to convince people of what is possible with some hard work and appropriate support, so we're hopeful that there is more of this 'breaking of ceilings' around the corner!

Our 2013 Matric class celebrate their results

At the end of last year I hinted at some positive developments for our Teacher Networks. We asked principals to consider allowing their maths and science teachers to attend professional development meetings with their peers from other schools every two weeks. This was quite a shift from the twice-termly arrangement of previous years, but schools have bought-in in a big way. We now support five teacher networks,each meeting every two weeks, and this has opened up a world of possibilities for the development of meaningful 'communities of practice' that support teachers with content, teaching ideas, planning, in-school follow up and more.

Looking deeply at content with Teacher Networks

Our experiences with the Bomvana Physical Science Network are a case in point: Nonkanyiso Vokwana from our team, together with teachers from the schools that participate in the network, set the agenda for each meeting, based on issues they've had or anticipate having soon. After a quick check-in on where each teacher is compared with the work schedule (a 'pace setter' collaboratively put together at the beginning of each year), the group dive into some fairly deep content work, looking specifically at the kinds of 'tough topics' that students find challenging. Plus there's usually some practical work or some ideas for how to teach these sections creatively. All in all these afternoons are an opportunity for rich dialogue and learning from each other about good teaching.

Critical question: What's tough about teaching this?

This particular group has challenged us in two further areas. Apart from the few formal assessments mandated by the Department, there are few opportunities for students and teachers to receive feedback on how learning is progressing. To address this teachers encouraged us to introduce monthly science tests that run across all the schools, with the idea being that feedback is simple, immediate (or as close as possible) and helpful (rather than for high-pressure grades). We're not there yet, but we're hoping we can streamline the process with some technological innovations, and develop a system that can be easily rolled out to a wider set of schools. A spin-off of this is that we now have a much better idea of which students are doing well and which need support. Some of the high-performing Grade 11 students were selected by their schools to join their science teachers on a trip to the Science Festival in Grahamstown last month, jointly funded by Axium and the schools. This was an initiative launched in response to one of our Bomvana teachers 'dreaming big', pushing us to find the funding, and then schools coming to the party. It represents a great incentive for teachers and students to push hard to earn a place on next year's trip - another ceiling on its way to being broken?!

Grade 11 students and their science teachers at the Science Festival

The other hugely exciting development this year has been the birth of our Community Readers' programme. Four young people from the Zithulele Community have worked with new team members' Nathalie Koenig and Sive Mbolekwa to create a dynamic and engaging environment for young children to hear stories. They're partnering with two local schools to allow more students the opportunity to develop a love of stories and reading, from earlier on in their school careers. Check out some of the photos and video clips on Facebook to see these crazy characters in action - too much fun! We couldn't be doing this without the support of the Freddie Marincowitz Welfare Trust and Biblionef, who have supplied books to fiveschools in the area. A new generation of readers is just around the corner!

Sive and the Community Readers with students from Putuma and Sea View

And then there is still the heartbreak and frustration… Putuma Junior Secondary School, featured in the media on numerous occasions, previous national choir champions, and widely seen to be one of the best schools in the area, STILL has over 130 students per classroom. Why is there so little action so many years on?! Many of our bright-eyed 2013 matriculants spent most of January alone, with precious little money and nowhere to sleep, in the intimidating big cities of Cape Town and Durban, trying to navigate the vagaries of university entrance and finance systems. Surely there must be a better way to ensure rural students make the transition successfully?!

Putuma have (finally) been awarded sufficient chairs and desks, BUT where do you put them when you only have 10 classrooms for 1200+students?!

As you can see, plenty of problem-solving still to do!We deeply appreciate all your contributions of encouragement, ideas, time, materials, and, of course, finances that allow Community Readers, Tigers Tours, Matric Magic, Science Festivals and so much more to flourish.

The Zithulele Tigers celebrate their first Interprovincial win in Durban recently

Onwards and upwards to break more ceilings!!

Craig, Michelle and the Axium Team


*For some students it was in their best interests to wait a year and reapply on their vastly improved final results, and so we expect them to take up a tertiary place in 2015.

Can you help? We're looking for:

Dynamic, hardworking, 'adventurers in education' (volunteers!) - we're always looking for great people willing to volunteer their time - and have an infinite amount of things to do!
Stuff for kids: Reading books, Xhosa-English dictionaries, calculators, maths sets, solar lights… anything that will help rural kids learn!
Donations to our Tablet Fund: bringing the educational power of tablet computing to our Study Groups. (1 tablet = R1500/USD150, or part thereof, use 'Tablet' as your reference if making an EFT)
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