Recently a colleague – Zimkhitha Mlanzeli – and I ran English writing workshops at a rural high school in the Eastern Cape. It was a fascinating – and challenging – experience.
The teachers had complained that learners are not expressing themselves, so for the grade 10 workshop we did a short interactive poetry writing session. Katie Huston, from the DG Murray Trust (which funded the trip), writes about ‘Finding the courage to fail: reflections from the Eastern Cape’:
Learners faltered with quite basic English, and were terrified of making a mistake, of being laughed at by others. Some of them were visibly shaking as they stammered through their short poems. Katie’s blog post succinctly captures the contradictions and learnings of the experience.
The essay writing workshop we ran for grades 11 and 12 were less terrifying, it seems, possibly because it is perhaps a recognisable topic: they know that essays are something required for school. We read and identified models of good essays in the various genres (narrative, descriptive etc.) However the main value of this exercise is just getting learners to read good essays, as they are seldom given good models to learn from.
Then the class wrote a group essay ‘Getting to school’, with each group working on a different paragraph. It took a lot of explaining that their own every day experiences of getting to school were actually going to be described for a school essay. Most of the groups did manage, but still seemed slightly bemused that this was content appropriate for a school task.
However there were still some individuals who contributed answers unrelated to the topic and in some cases patently untrue. For example a boy who was in the group describing the animals they saw on the way to school (I could write an essay on this myself after a few hours on the roads there) said that there were ‘lions’. “Really? On the way to school?” I asked and he shook his head sheepishly. Another group, describing ‘nature’ on the way to school (after a discussion of the various things that were seen, such as trees, grass, rivers, dust), went into platitudes about nature serving us, it is so beautiful, there are many different aspects to nature – almost like a bad summary of an introduction to a section in a geography textbook rather than a paragraph about the nature you see on the way to school.
Most of the groups did manage, after quite a bit of support. But it seemed to me that for many of these learners it was not only a problem of learning in a second language. It was also about a lack of understanding what writing and text actually is. For many of them texts are just not expected to be about communication of any kind of meaning. They are inscrutable codes, and every now and then if you recognise a topic – like ‘nature’ – or ‘animals’ – you have a set response that you can use for it. There is no understanding of how texts work, the different kinds of texts, and how as readers they need to engage with the content, and even have the right to challenge it.
FunDza also distributes high interest teen novels to under-resourced schools and organisations, and from the feedback we have received it seems that for many of the learners it is the first time that they have recognised their world in a book, and seen that reading and text can actually have relevance and meaning to their lives. This is seen most visibly when, in other similar classrooms, we have read extracts from our Harmony High novels.
When there are swear words, or slang words, there is a ripple of astonished delight that goes through the class. Who would have thought that reading could actually be subversive!
These kinds of responses point again to the importance of the work that Nal’ibali is doing for younger children, and what we are trying to do at a teen and young adult level – to demonstrate that literature and stories and writing can relate to our lives, can offer support, guidance, a feeling that you are not alone in the challenges you face, or just simply a story to enjoy. But it takes more than just a few workshops to get there.
Thank you for reading,