Letters - A tale of two setworks

This tale is about the controversy surrounding two little setworks in an ex-model-C school in Bramley, Johannesburg.

Last year, I taught matric English to second-language learners. The school’s authorities believed that these learners would be more capable of handling Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities - which is a foreign novel, set in distant times and far removed from the experiences of my learners.

I briefed my head of department and the principal about my idea of my class studying Maru, and we discussed ways of raising money to buy the books.
I then talked to my class about the option of studying Maru. We agreed democratically to do so.

There were several reasons that I think are of value in this.

Firstly, a setwork is nothing other than a teaching tool, and if as teachers we find that one teaching tool is more effective than another, we should be free to use that tool. I would be teaching the same set of skills, but making the task easier for my learners, because it’s more relevant to their experiences.

I found my learners enjoyed Bessie Head’s language, which flows better and is far more accessible than that of A Tale of Two Cities. We found it easy to get through, with time to stop for discussions and analysis in class. Through Maru, my learners explored imagery, language use, themes and characters even better than they had when studying Shakespeare in the previous term.

Secondly, we should work to restore pride in African art and literature that centuries of colonialism has damaged - which is also in line with the transformation of our institutions. We need to take a stand and acknowledge the rich cultural and historical heritage of our country, and not put only foreign art and literature on a pedestal.

I was called into the principal’s office one day and criticised for teaching Maru. I was asked what right I had to decide what setworks the learners should study and I was falsely accused of not consulting my seniors. I was then told that I was lowering the standards of the school by doing Maru with the higher-grade English class!

Let me point out that Maru is prescribed as a setwork by the Gauteng department of education for both the first and second English language papers, and for both higher- and standard-grade students.

I found this to be offensively conservative and totally out of line with the transformation of institutions and the values of our fledgling democracy. The ‘white is right” ideology is so thoroughly entrenched, it makes one wonder whether we are actually transforming our schools to reflect ‘white standards”.

Another area of conflict was the content of the June exams. The English head of department challenged the question I had set for the matric exam literature paper, saying she felt they were ‘too controversial” and too focused on language. She had a problem with the learners being asked to analyse words such as ‘kaffir, nigger and Masarwa”, all of which were contained in an extract quoted from Maru.

I pointed out that I was trying to get the learners to grapple with words used in this country, and consider how meanings and connotations of words change over time. I also pointed out that the distinction between language, literature, writing and orals is being done away with, as they are linked to one another.

It was only when I was invigilating the exam that I discovered the head of department had taken it upon herself to eliminate the questions I had set on Maru, and replaced them with her own. Not only did she not consult me on this, she also left my name on the paper as one of the examiners - which is blatant dishonesty that I take great exception.

So, as you can see, change is slow to take place - ‘like a snake shedding its skin”, as Head puts it in Maru.

I experienced this especially with the little support I received from teaching colleagues. I wondered where courage had gone when I asked in the staff room for my colleague’s opinion on my exam question, and she said she did not want to get involved. I wondered where courage had gone when I saw other staff members belittled and treated unfairly, and there was no solidarity from the rest of the staff and administration.

Another English teacher, who also maintained progressive education standards, and I paid the price for our principles: our teaching contracts at the school were not renewed at the end of the year.

I hope this tale gives you more insight into the kinds of cultural oppression that go on at certain schools, and how certain individuals try to control and dictate the education of our youth.

Certain schools have become bastions of conservative thought where traditional methods of teaching and thinking still dominate everything. We could be moving forward faster and making democracy work in our communities if we as individuals were afforded the space to play the vital role we should in the education of our youth.

Our Constitution, the most progressive in the world, may be held in high esteem - yet bit by bit, I have become disillusioned by those who see it as simply a nice-looking art object to be framed and hung on office walls. Transformation is not taking place.

Lara Reddy

Windsor West, Gauteng

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