Friday, June 10, 2011

The Plight of South Africa's Boys, Continued

For the past few weeks, I had been considering e-mailing Oprah my opinions on this issue, basically because if I were in her shoes, I'd feel a responsibility to help the boys of South Africa not just the girls. I don't know how much she knows about the challenges faced by males in this country, but on the off chance that she doesn't know anything at all, maybe my e-mail would get read by someone sort of important and make a difference. I know the reason that she started her school here wasn't really for South Africa, but for Africa itself where in most countries, girls have a horribly impossible time and for herself, as she is very dedicated to women's issues. Still, it makes me wonder why not base your school in a country then where girls really need your support.

This desire to communicate with Oprah had been brewing as, as I mentioned in the last post, we've been watching a lot of Oprah (we get episodes about 4 months behind so the final episode has not yet aired) since winter started. She's really quite good at making you feel like she is accessible and might just call you up when you really know that's never going to happen. Now, my reflection on this issue has been enhanced by the chance of me ever meeting Oprah has gone from never in a million years to slight chance we'll be in the same room, but would I even get to talk to her and if then, would it go beyond hello?

So a few more thoughts to ponder about boys, education and life in South Africa. In my research for our conference paper, I had the chance to read the report on South Africa of the 2006 PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study). This study which compared scores of 4th and 5th graders in 35 countries around the world (most of them developed, the only other African country included was Morocco) found that South Africa performed the lowest of all countries. Within South Africa, students from rural schools also performed significantly worse that students from urban and suburban schools. These statistics were not suprising to me, but what I found most interesting was the gap in performance between girls and boys. Overall, in all countries, girls performed better than boys, but South Africa also had one of the greatest performance gaps between girls (gr 5: avg. 319, gr 4 avg. 271) and boys (gr 5: avg. 283, gr 4: avg. 235). For context, the international average score (and most countries only tested grade 4) was 500. I wish they would have given the breakdown of rural students' scores by gender, but they don't.

In my schools, I see boys lagging behind consistently. I know a number of boys who dropped out of school after the finished 6th grade (end of primary school.) Because of my interest in this issue, I decided to disaggregate the scores on the pre and post assessments I did for creative writing for our research by gender. The overall average on the pre-test was 11.4 (out of twenty) and the overall average on the post-test was 13.4 so the average went up by two points. For girls, the pre average was 11.8 and the post average was 13.2 (an increase of 1.4). For boys, the pre average was 11.14 and the post average was 13.48 (an increase of 2.34). So as you can see, boys originally under performed girls, but made a much larger increase in score to outperform them.

I can only attempt to understand why this happened, but my guess is that, the boys were motivated by the kinds of activities we did because they were interesting to them. In my schools at least, the culture of girls seems to be very achievement oriented. They want succeed. They do everything that they are asked to so that they will get good marks. Though there are a few girls in that class who really just do not know how to read and continue to fail, most girls average 3 and 4s (above average). The boys just don't seem to care as much about getting high marks. I think it has to do with the factors I discussed in my previous post. They don't see the point. The creative writing activities we did were motivating to them because they were fun. Not a single one of them was for a grade (though in retrospect, maybe the should have been), but they did them anyway (boys and girls). Kids who completed their writing assignments got to go type them in the computer lab which was a big motivator. They got to write stories about things they were interested in. When I collected the post assessments (a story about a sequence of pictures), a few boys told me 'I think you're really going to like my story.' I don't know that fun and challenging activities are going to suddenly sweep across this nation, but I would guess they might help motivate boys.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

TV in South Africa

Unlike the vast majority of volunteers, we watch a lot of South African TV. This is mostly because we have a TV in our bedroom. We had never planned on buying a TV when we decided to join Peace Corps a second time around, but when we arrived at our fully furnished house, there it was (along with 3 couches, something most volunteers also don't have the luxury of in their PC abodes). Now, we are both extremely happy that we've had our TV, not just because of the hours of entertainment it provides, but because it has helped us to integrate into our community and to be more effective at our jobs.

We get the 4 free channels (our host mom has a satellite but we did not pay to get a second box so we only watch satellite TV very infrequently) so it's not like we have a lot of programming to choose from. Most of our students are also too poor for satellite TV so that's also what they watch. Usually in the evening, we watch Oprah, our favorite soap opera Rhythm City, the news and possibly something else if there is something good on (for whatever reason old seasons of American reality shows...Survivor, Amazing Race and American Idol lately...are the most entertaining to us). Oprah we most only watch in the winter because it's on at 5:30 at which point it is too cold to be outside any more while during the summer we sometimes stay outside chatting with our host mom til 7 or 8.

Watching the news has really helped us to understand what's going on in South Africa. Yeah, we could look up news online, but the news we see on TV is the news that most people are hearing so it becomes part of the collective consciousness. We often have conversations the next day about the news with teachers and other adults that we run into. It has helped us to learn more about the South African government, politics, and important people (hence why we were very excited to see South Africa's Police Commissioner Bheki Cele at the basketball event. He is on the news almost every night.) It also makes our favorite South African TV show "Late Night News with Loyiso Gola" (which is trying to be like the Daily Show) a lot funnier when we know who and what he is talking about.

Having background in ESL and sheltered instruction, one of the things I know is most important with teaching in a second language is accessing background knowledge to help kids connect that to what they are learning. I have found background knowledge kids have of life in the village a little bit helpful (teaching about mammals, I got kids to think about which animals give birth to live young for example), but I've found knowledge of TV shows even more helpful as it is shared by almost all of the kids and it helps even struggling kids to get the context of things that are farther from their own experience. Recently, I taught a lesson about the elements of a story (setting, plot, characters, and theme) and explained that not just stories that you read have these elements, but TV shows and movies too. I got kids to identify these elements on the most popular soap opera, Generations, before moving on to a story they had read. To explain that sometimes characters can be animals instead of people, I got them listing the characters on the cartoon "Skunk Fu". To discuss theme, I had them identify the theme of "Captain Planet" which was a great example because it's so obvious. Then, it was a lot easier for them to look for the theme of their story which was also pretty in your face, but is daunting to kids because it requires reading.

Anyway, even if had watched Captain Planet as a kid, I wouldn't know that it was on TV on Sunday mornings if I didn't flip through the channels. We don't usually watch movies on TV because why watch a movie filled with commercials when I have 100s of movies at my fingertips, but I always make a mental note of what movies they are showing each week because you never know when one might make a good example in teaching or just a good topic of conversation.