Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Teaching Challenges

"Challenges" here could refer to my darling students or to the situation, depends on my mood. Some of you have heard this rant, but it bears writing about. I think it’s important for readers to understand the root challenges I face as a teacher. It explains a lot about the Mozambican school system. These are things that occupy my mind on a daily basis and have proven to be far more difficult aspects of Peace Corps service than, say, having to carry water or deal with a hot climate.

I am feeling frustrated with school at the moment, as I always do after correcting tests. On my last Biology test only 12 out of 35 passed (34%). It’s incredibly discouraging after dedicating so many hours to planning quality lessons, making beautiful posters, grading homework, giving extra help sessions... to find that it doesn’t seem to be working!

I'm encountering three main problems:
1. Biology and Chemistry are the two “key” disciplines of first year. If they don’t pass those disciplines they can’t go on to second year.
2. Both Biology and Chemistry have national exams that the students must pass. These exams are ridiculously hard.
3. The students lack the prerequisite knowledge and skills to learn the material in the curriculum, which combines 8th, 9th and 10th grade in an accelerated one year course.

The grading system in Mozambique is different than in the US. First, they grade out of 20 instead of out of 100. Second, the expectations are set very low compared to US standards. You can pass with 50% and many students are thrilled to get even that. 70% is considered exceptional.

Even with the low standards, the bar is set high. Students cannot continue to the next grade if they don’t pass Biology and Chemistry. With other disciplines the administration can decide to let them go on even if they’re failing (one of the reasons for the problem in the first place). Since I am teaching Biology and Chemistry, there's a lot of pressure on me to pass these kids/inflate their grades.

Students who pass with a grade of 10 or above (50%) still have to take the national exam, but if they pass with a grade of 14 or above (70%), they get to skip the national exam. The latter is preferable since the national exam has a very high failure rate. It’s almost impossible to prepare for it because the questions are specific and cover an unreasonable amount of material. The curriculum for regular secondary schools is jam-packed as it is and in a technical school like mine the problem is compounded by condensing three years of material (8th, 9th and 10th grade) into a single year. Did I mention that the Chemistry curriculum is from 1986, when Mozambique was in the midst of a civil war?

I’m looking at an old national exam now and wondering why, when there are only eight questions, they dedicated an entire question to naming the twelve parts of the microscope. Why is that important? It’s all the more ironic when you consider the handful of schools that actually own a microscope!

The first two issues wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t for the third: the very low level of my students. I am trying to teach a course that surpasses the difficulty level of American high school AP classes to kids who struggle in the most basic skills. Many of them still have to read aloud and I can hear them softly murmuring during a test. Many of them have trouble writing even when they are directly copying a text (I’ve had kids misspell their own name!). Math skills are also appalling. Many still have trouble with addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Things we take for granted, like reading a table or a graph, summarizing a paragraph and writing something in your own words are near impossible tasks. These kids belong in fifth grade, not 1st year technical (i.e. 8th, 9th, 10th grades accelerated).

So how do these kids end up in my class when they really don’t belong there? There are a lot of reasons. Three that come to mind are:
1. Many Mozambican students pass a grade by cheating, bribing or performing sexual favors.
2. It is now possible to pass 5th grade then skip 6th and 7th grade by taking a test.
3. The technical schools changed their calendar so that students must wait around for 6-7 months before starting their first year of technical school.

The latter is a new change that has negatively affected our school. The youngest incoming students are 13 years old. Who would let their 13-year-old sit around the house for 6-7 months waiting for school to start? Most parents found a different alternative. The result was a very small incoming class (about 40 students total) that was largely comprised of students who simply hadn’t found something else. I hate to say it, but it was essentially “scraping the bottom of the barrel.” That said, I do have some jems in my class and a good group of hard workers. They keep me going.

I guess all I can do is my best, but the students will have to meet me halfway. I’m planning on dedicating an entire class period to teaching some basic study skills and I’ll be giving a project based on national exam questions. This on top of quality lesson plans, graded homeworks and extra help sessions, is all I can do right now.

The purpose of this entry was not to complain. Ok, maybe a little bit... but also to give you an idea of what my job is like. I'm sure American teachers can relate to many of my frustrations. These challenges are not unique to Mozambique. If you have any suggestions or encouragement don’t hesitate to send it my way!

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