Can you put The American Declaration of Independence into plain, modern English? Ok, you might ask “why would I want to?” Hold that thought. Just try:
“We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights that amongst these are life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness….
Now stop, imagine you are in Grade 7 and are 13 years old and live in a rural area with possibly illiterate parents/mother or an illiterate grandmother. Or you could be an orphan.
Your school does not have running water so you use rain tanks for water. You don’t always wash your hands after you go to the toilet – that decision depends on water supply – and you certainly don’t have toilet paper.
Zulu is your first language, English is your second and you don’t take school books home to read so your English reading is probably not at the best level for your grade.
In your Social Studies book -that you know is published by a BEE company because it tells you so- you are taught about the first free and fair elections, Nelson Mandela and South African Democracy (is it relevant when jobs, decent roads, running water and power remain empty election promises?)
The introductory chapter, before the ‘end of apartheid’/democracy stuff, is about America (when you don’t have a TV and have never even been to the beach to see the sea 200km away).
After your introduction into America, you are asked to work with other learners to put the American Declaration of Independence into simple English with the instruction- “You might need a dictionary to help you”.
I mean all second language English speaking Grade 7’s should be using the word ‘endowed’, right.
Questions after the activity include: “What did the declaration mean by Equality?” “What individual human rights are guaranteed in the Declaration? What do you think is the meaning of those rights?”
Volunteer teacher Briton Henry Thoulson thinks some of the text books at the Ingwavuma-based school he is volunteering at for a year could be better. He doesn’t like the American Independence Declaration bit himself.
But as a University graduate, he picks and chooses what to teach and adapts the books accordingly.
The problem is the other six teachers at the school have had varied levels of education and training and none have had the opportunity to attend teacher’s training college or University. They have had rural educations themselves.
Thoulson says they are hard working, dedicated and care about the kids and teaching. But he says they could do with more support and resources.
Now those teachers do get a say in what books are ordered and the school does have a text book budget. There is money for books which the school HAS to spend. The principal also has a say in what books the school orders. But with all sorts of publishers offering different books and even arriving unannounced at the rural school with promo books, there’s a lot to choose from.
The Grade 7 English book, I flipped through today, published well know company Macmillian has some activities on electricity, pie charts and Science. Thoulson says it sometimes loses the plot and “forgets to teach English”. There are lessons on animals including the Orangutan and the Sloth and then the book includes animal categorisation exercises.
When so many South African students are second language English speakers and so many schools are poor and under resourced, surely decent text books are important?
BTW There is a series of ESL books (Total English) published by Oxford in the UK designed to include the most commonly used words and phrases in English. There is lot of material available and research about how to teach people essential words for communication and leave out less common words or jargon.
Now, I think the school in question who ordered the books has a lot to answer for but so does the KZN Education Dept.
Thoulson wanted to know: who prints the books? Is there text book quality control?- Do curriculum advisors’ actually check what books are used? Is guidance given to rural schools on what to buy, should they need it?
Teachers do get training from the Department- which Thoulson and the principal say is a problem because it happens during school time and it means that sometimes 3 teachers are out of their classrooms, a day or two a week meaning their students play all day.
Thoulson thinks to improve rural schools the government should start small and organise:
Electricity if poss.
Decent text books- quality controlled.
Teachers’ training that starts at lunchtime and allows teachers mornings free to teach
A training plan that has reasonable amounts of training for the year set out clearly.
Give the principal and staff the power to say no to training schedules when they feel students need to be taught, rather than teachers.