Saturday, November 21, 2009

Putting Something Back - Community School Initiative

The Knowledge Workshop - Language & Skills CentreSince inception, The Knowledge Workshop has held firm to the ideals conceived by Marian James, founder of the school, namely, to find more meaningful ways of conducting business in the unique environment of the new South Africa.

With the legacy of apartheid still hanging in the air, many children find themselves attending under resourced, overcrowded schools. This is not to detract from the huge advances that have been made since 1994, merely to point out that the task facing the government of today is still enormous. Many schools lack facilities such as libraries and have to deal with a shortage of textbooks and teachers. To play a small part in addressing some of these issues, TKW has set some initiatives in motion.

The Knowledge Workshop - Language & Skills CentreWith the large number of TEFL graduates being signed up for jobs in government schools in South Korea and elsewhere, we have given our TEFL trainees the opportunity to do some of their practical training in a local government school where English is not the mother-tongue. Upon investigating the possibility through discussions with local schools, it transpired that there was a real need for an additional support function at some schools. One of the difficulties facing schools is the diverse backgrounds of the students. It is not uncommon for a class to be made up of mixed ability in English, where those at the top of the class have a good command of the language and those at the bottom are almost completely foreign to the language. Aside from mixed ability classes, there is also a shortage of teachers at some schools, meaning that when teachers have training days or are otherwise engaged with administrative duties, students are often left to do self-study.

Our response has been to launch a pilot project with Ikamvalethu Secondary School in Langa, Cape Town. The school is about 10 minutes drive from Rosebank and situated on the edge of Cape Town's oldest township, where the predominant language is Xhosa. Langa has seen a lot of change in the last few years and is now the focus of the N2 Gateway Housing Project, which aims to make the informal dwellings of the area a thing of the past.

The Knowledge Workshop - Language & Skills CentreWe approached several schools with our ideas, and Ikamvalethu was one that could not only see the benefits of such interaction, but openly welcomed us to work with them in a mutual and cooperative manner. We have formed good relationships with the Principal, Head of Department for English and many of the teachers and office staff. Our TEFL trainees initially step into the classroom as assistants but after the first day, they set about designing lessons and activities in line with the curriculum and lead entire lessons. The more confident trainees often step in as substitute teachers when the resident teachers are absent or unavailable. Of course, our trainees are obliged to practice the methods they have learnt on the TEFL course. Often, the methodologies employed in mainstream schooling are not effective in catering to the needs of classes with mixed ability in English. By default, this often means that English classes are, in part, conducted in the mother tongue - Xhosa. We work closely with the teachers who identify areas of weakness that need addressing. It is then up to the trainees to devise activities to facilitate the learning process.

This project has been running since early 2008 and has had a tremendous impact on the school and the quality of training experienced by our TEFL trainees. We have had some fantastic reports from our trainees, who said the experience prepared them for almost any classroom situation, whilst fitting into school structures and growing attached to the children and teachers!

The Knowledge Workshop - Language & Skills CentreFrom the other side, Ikhamvalethu has seen its grades in English go through the roof - an average of 84% in last year's exams, compared with 50% the year before. We can't take full credit because the staff is clearly putting in a serious effort, but this project has definitely helped and so far seems to be an elevated example of a win-win situation. Ikamvalethu, incidentally, means "Our Future!"

If you are a teacher or think you have something to offer, why not volunteer your services for a few hours a week. It's an incredibly rewarding way to gain classroom experience. Please contact us to find out more.

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