Notes from the field: Mogoditshane Senior Secondary School

I was a bit closer to home this week as I visited Mogoditshane Senior School in the “village” of Mogoditshane. Just 30 minutes from my apartment and nearly 15,000 people,  the village is comprised of people from many different backgrounds who want to live near Gaborone but have cheaper living costs. I misspoke last week when I mentioned Molefi was the largest school campus I’d ever seen. Mogoditshane is definitely the largest. In fact, when I told the teachers at Mogoditshane that I thought Molefi was big, they laughed and said “Molefi?! That’s small!” Again, only Form 5 students were on campus and they numbered nearly ONE THOUSAND STUDENTS. With Form 4s, Mogoditshane is nearly 2,000 students. TWO THOUSAND STUDENTS. Depending on what sign you look at, THERE ARE ONLY 2,000 PEOPLE IN THE ENTIRE CITY OF MOOSE LAKE.

People here don’t know how to comprehend small town America. It takes them awhile to realize that when I say I currently live in a town of 300 people that 300 people means just that. Not 300,000 but 300. They always end up laughing at me.

The campus is absolutely ginormous with huge two-story classroom blocks. There is, of course, teacher housing although I’m told that there isn’t enough given all the staff that work at the school. The history department shares a larger office with the geography department. There are four computers and lots of desks. It’s actually not that big when you think about eight people sharing it but with everyone having different schedules, it seems to work out. The school was built in 2012, so it’s fairly new and updated. They have fans, lights, whiteboards and chalkboards in every room. There are also plenty of outlets. While there are bulletin boards in each room, they are all left blank and unused. My inner elementary teacher just wants to go and decorate them all, but with the constant shuffle of classes and teachers–it doesn’t make sense.

Many things about my time at Mogoditshane reminded me of my time at Molefi–emphasis on exams, teaching (and learning) styles, strict focus on the standards/syllabus and genuine respect/discipline from students. There were also plenty of things I learned and observed this week, including:

-Most students would again, rather not take history but opt for a Geography or Social Studies elective. This is evident as there are only 3 history teachers and 5 Geography, 5 Social Studies and 5 Development Studies teachers (all inter-connected/humanities courses).
-There are 125 students in history courses and nearly double in Geography (305).
-Students cover a lot of information, but as the head history teacher told me–they have trouble applying it. I struggle with the same thing! How can we teach young people these critical thinking tools and actually have them apply it to their work? Their studies? Their life?
-The history teachers stressed that there is just simply “so much to cover in only so much time”. They definitely feel the pressure of exams although they know there is no real consequence if students do poorly (at least for the teacher). In the event of poor results, teachers meet with the regional director of education to explain what the heck happened but they won’t be fired.
-The history syllabus was introduced in 2000 and has never been revised despite many concerns by teachers. Imagine the uproar in the US—standards not being revised in a period of seventeen years? Uffdah. A lot has changed in that time.
-The head of the history department (HOD) reflected that he wished he could teach the way it was when he was growing up. Ultimately, he doesn’t like using primary sources because students struggle to understand them. He sees their value but its challenging. I find this incredibly interesting. My students also struggle with primary sources and while I wish there was an easy button to press so they could just magically interpret and analyze them perfectly, it doesn’t work that way. How can we improve this process? Primary sources are critical in the study of history.
-There has to be homework given at least every two weeks. The homework always consists of questions you may see on the exam. Students write in their notebooks and then turn their notebooks in.
-There is also classwork students do, which I observed this week, but the HOD doesn’t grade very strictly on this.
-Mogoditshane used to have a history club! Hearing this made me miss my little history club! While it’s gone dormant in the last few years, it sounds very similar to that of the National History Day program–only quiz-like. Students can advance all the way to nationals. The history club also served as a tutoring/help program and allowed students to do different activities and debate.
-I was able to go to my first assembly this week. I’ve learned that most schools have assemblies every Monday, Wednesday and Friday where they pray, sing and then provide daily/important announcements. At Mogodisthane, they are split into “houses” of about 300. The teachers are also split up and advise the assemblies although they are totally student-led.
-I also witnessed corporal punishment for the first time. As an American teacher, this concept is so foreign to me and yet here in Botswana, it’s very normal. It’s also very regulated in the fact that teachers are supposed to have sticks of certain sizes and give raps on the inner hand and only so many times. In talking to teachers, this system is very supported in the country. In fact, if parents find out that there child was reprimanded by the stick in school, they will sometimes receive more at home.
-All classes are split up by SCIENCE classes. Wow. After years of being in a system that was determined by math scores, I was surprised the classes were split up by their science scores.
-Classes were still extremely teacher-centered.
-Although my presence definitely affects students (one boy got so nervous he stuttered when answering and then said he “was just so nervous because an American is in our class”) many were more comfortable asking questions of each other and their teachers at Mogoditshane than at Molefi.
-I taught an entire lesson today. By accident. I knew I was supposed to be at class but the teacher didn’t show up for me at the office. So, when a couple students came to see where he was, I went with them. They immediately wanted to start their work and conduct as if everything were normal. So, they presented. And I winged it. It was awesome. The teacher had had an emergency and wasn’t able to make it to class, so I just covered. The students were absolutely incredible. They listened, asked questions and wrote their notes. While I definitely question whether or not all of them were retaining the information we were covering, they continuously implied that yes–they did in fact know what I was talking about. After the lesson, they wanted every form of social media I was on and obviously, to take some selfies. No matter where in the world you are, SELFIES ARE LIFE.
-I was extremely intrigued by special education at the school. I asked the HOD about special ed students and whether he had any in class—he replied yes. I then asked if he had particular accommodations or things he had to differentiate. He said no. We then had a very interesting conversation regarding special education in schools in Botswana. He said the school first received special education teachers around five years ago. If you weren’t blind or deaf, you weren’t really attended to. He wanted me to actually talk to the special education teacher because he didn’t know a lot about it. When I asked teachers about students with ADD or ADHD, they didn’t know what I was talking about. I described the symptoms and they told me they definitely have students who have these conditions but they go undiagnosed and definitely, unsupported. To be quite honest the HOD told me, the system doesn’t sustain students with disabilities. Especially those with cognitive or learning disabilities. They will fail out of junior secondary school and most won’t make it to senior secondary school. The whole conversation brought up a lot of interesting things and even the HOD acknowledged that perhaps they weren’t doing enough to cater to them. The same is true of kids who struggle with reading. Everyone is accountable for those final exams, the SAME final exams everyone takes–and if you don’t pass, you don’t move on. Period.
-The vibe at Mogoditshane was definitely different than Molefi, and I think size/location may play a part in that. Regardless of where I am, teachers and staff have been absolutely unbelievable in making me feel at home.

Only two weeks into visiting schools and I feel as though I have more questions than I started with. I guess that’s a good thing in this process. Next week, I head outside of the general Gaborone area to a junior secondary school. I’m going mountain biking in the bush this weekend, so expect a ridiculously rad blog post on my adventures. I might even tell the story of how I was a human tomato this week, thanks to a killer sunburn I received last weekend. Life is pretty grand.

Pictures from the week:

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