Jonathan Field - Maker of Random Stuff

South Africa 2013 Wrap Up

It ended up taking a nasty cold to keep me still long enough to write an update. Here I am at my mom’s in Rhode Island, wrapped in blankets and sniffling the night before my birthday, trying to figure out how to describe the three month whirlwind I just experienced.

It’s impossible really – to describe the roller coaster of emotions I went through as I took each stumbling step, hopeful they’d fall one in front of the other. I brought a more intentional approach this year. In the past I’ve tended towards observing and reacting rather than prescribing, but this year I had some specific things I wanted to see happen.

Indeed, I got most of them done. I realized early in my trip though that if I wanted to get things done I wouldn’t have time to write about it. So I didn’t. But now that I’m back I have just a bit of time to follow up on the plan I posted almost three months ago. Here we go:

Goal: get local network (printing and file sharing) and internet running at three schools.

100% success!

I am glad to report that all three of these schools now have modern networking, complete with file and printer sharing, internet, and wifi. Same deal I gave Thalana last year: if they pay for materials, I’ll do the the work. Similar to some pictures from last year, but here’s me and a couple guys wiring up the lab at Maceba.

The real benefit of this work was saving the computer teacher hours of work distributing and collecting files to and from their 40 computers for each assignment using CD’s and USB flash drives. What used to be tedious, time consuming, and error prone is now a simple announcement to the students: “go to the network drive and grab the file”.

The other thing that thrilled them was wireless printing for the teachers. Now everyone can just fire off documents from their laptop and go pick them up. No more bringing USB sticks to the clerk to print. They thanked me profusely for this almost every time I visited from the day I got it working until the day I left.

Out at Maceba, in the countryside, internet is just so-so. It works, but it’s slow. It isn’t super reliable, and it’s sort of expensive. Still, there have been several times I’ve seen benefits: teachers getting papers from the department of education, students applying for bursaries, and other bits of communication and work.

Last year you may remember we set up a local network at Thalana High School, and got the wiring in place for internet access. Due to problems with the ISP however, the internet wasn’t working when I left and wasn’t working when I arrived. It may have worked for a week sometime last September, but I’m going to go ahead and call that “not working”.

This year I jumped on this issue right away and followed up continuously for over a month. I felt particularly bad that they had paid for the materials to get it set up, and that I had fled town before it was working. It took lots of phone calls, faxes, and waiting, but I’m happy to report that the DSL line at Thalana is really up and running now with reasonable speed and reliability.

As you can imagine, the internet is a mixed bag as far as benefits go: people tend to fall into using it as a time waster pretty quickly. My philosophy is that the benefits outweigh the negatives – not necessarily on an individual level, but as a whole. What I mean is that some students and teachers will waste time on the internet, but that is not reason enough to deny it to those who would benefit. Maybe only a handful of students and teachers will use it positively, but those are exactly the people I want to assist. The rest will find ways to waste time no matter what I do.

For what it’s worth, I have fairly tight filtering set up through OpenDNS: Facebook and YouTube are blocked, among many other things. In any case, I was plasantly surprised at how often students used it for what appeared to be actual homework and research.

Goal: match up the South African curriculum by grade, subject, and term, to the resources I have: Khan Academy, Educational Games, Reference materials.

No dice.

So I started in on this, but was soon distracted by other more pressing issues. I matched up the 7th grade math curriculum to my materials, but that was it. Even that took me almost four hours. However I learned something crucial.

Over the past several years I have often wondered why the teachers weren’t taking better advantage of the materials we provided. Certainly there was something they could do with the treasure trove of content, all free of charge. After having sat down with the curriculum and tried to match it up, however, I now realize that is asking a lot.

The content doesn’t match the curriculum that well, and even when it does it is a lot of work to find the right parts. Do I have something that focuses on fractions? If so, what aspect does it focus on? Maybe I need fractional arithmetic but only with proper and improper fractions because we haven’t gotten to mixed fractions yet. Is that something I have? What assumptions are in the content about what the kids already know?

Sure, math is math is math – but the reality is that the kids are expected to know certain things at certain times according to the curriculum. The teachers are judged on how well they meet those milestones. As an overworked teacher, would I really be willing to take time off form my normal duties to dig through this content and validate its appropriateness… when I don’t even know if it will ultimately help?

As with most things I’ve dug into: it all sounds so simple when you don’t actually have to do it.

The outcome is that I never got around to doing this part, much like the teachers I used to judge.

Goal: run a regular after-school computer club at each school, so both teachers and students will have more time to explore and get hands-on help from me.

Mostly success!

I ran many after-school classes at Maceba High School this year, and it was a blast. I was wary at first, but eventually got comfortable guiding a room full of students. Most of the time it was inexperienced kids, so we started with how to use the mouse and keyboard. By the time I left most of them had written and printed out mock application letters and other such stuff. We also played some educational games and I got headphones so they could explore Khan Academy.

At Ethangeni School I never got to do any of that. I had allocated less time there than the other schools, so after setting up the lab I only got to work a bit with teachers and never made it to the students. I put all the same stuff on the computers there, though they only have 14 machines, and no computer teacher. I tried to give the teachers a good sense of what was available to them so that they might use the lab a bit like a library. Experience has shown that this usually isn’t enough to kickstart actual progress, but we’ll see.

At Thalana High I got drawn into an unexpected role: substitute teacher! The computer teacher I worked with last year had left, and the kids were without anyone. This meant they were literally just hanging outside when they should have had computer class. The principal talked me into “teaching” them even though I didn’t have any knowledge of the curriculum. Sure, I could show them a thing or two about computers, but I had no idea if that was going to help them pass any particular test they’d be given after I left.

Luckily, before I had to do much of that, the principal found a real teacher from another school. Problem was the real teacher could only come by on nights and weekends. So we quickly formed a pattern where he’d teach and give assignments in the off hours and I’d be at the school during normal hours to supervise the lab and assist the kids in their work. I did teach a few actual classes too. One time I taught HTML and got the kids to make rudimentary web pages, which was a lot of fun.

Goal: Produce a Zulu comic book for kids aged 8-12.

This was a much bigger project than I anticipated. First some history:

Last year during some talks with Alan and Donna it struck me how nobody in the schools I was visiting read for pleasure. I remembered how growing up I loved to read, but it wasn’t usually the books at school, it was stuff I chose myself, and more often than not it was comics.

It also struck me how aside from all the technology we were promoting, there were simpler ways to encourage education. Comics are a relatively cheap way to entertain, encourage reading, and for some kids they become a means of expression. When I was a kid I liked to make comics just as much as I liked to read them.

Wouldn’t it be great to kickstart a comic culture here?

My first thought was to distribute existing comics. However after some effort I learned that because of the way the US comic industry works, it wasn’t going to be financially viable. You can’t just buy a hundred copies of the first few issues of Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man; they’re out of print. You can buy new compilation books, but they’re too expensive. You can buy single issue used comics from collectors, but that’s also too expensive.

Then I considered how these were all in English anyway, and by the time kids could read English they might be past the age they’d be likely to get into comics. So what about a Zulu comic? And as far as I can tell, there has been
no such thing. So I decided to make one.

My first thought was to enlist some local artists, but after a weak attempt at that last year that didn’t pan out, I decided that I needed to make some sort of demo first so people would know what I was going for. I committed to do that
this year.

So without further ado, I present Ayoba! – the world’s first Zulu/English comic book!

It took me so long to produce that I had to leave before printing was finished, but I’ve just today received word from Alan and Donna that some initial copies have been distributed to local hawkers, and they’ve already requested more.

Phew – so that’s the result of the checklist. I suppose it’s really too much to put in one blog post, but I felt I needed to jot it all down before my birthday tomorrow, and before it all got too stale. Even so, it is just the tip of the iceberg of everything that happened on my trip. Here’s a few other points of interest which I may elaborate more on later if I find the time to blog, or if you buy me a beer and ask.

  • Adopted a small old house in the town of Tugela Ferry that was going to be torn down and organized its renovation.
  • Funded a young cabbage farmer to get his small business going again and provided him some business guidance.
  • Had a significant meeting with a school administrator about what I felt was excessive use of corporal punishment in one of the schools.
  • Visited with pride the university student I assisted from 2010 to 2012 as she moved on to a paid internship related to her field.
  • Took another university student under my wing and helped Alan and Donna setting up their three new students.
  • Finally got the recipe for Ujeqe, a type of Zulu bread that I like.

That’s all I’ve got time for at the moment. My apologies for the rambling nature of it all – it was a great and inspiring time, and I can’t wait to do more.

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4 Responses to South Africa 2013 Wrap Up

  1. I am glad I found your blog, Jon. Sounds like your doing great things out there. Hope to see you and Lisa out in Vegas one of these days. Take care, and happy birthday.

    • Hey bud, glad to hear from you! Thanks, and I hope to be there next time you come by. I’ve got a PBR with your name on it.

  2. Cool stuff. I stumbled here via your post to KA Lite. It is so cool to see so many people such positive stuff.

    • Thanks for dropping by Mark.

      Yeah, the further I dig into these kinds of projects, I’m always amazed at how many people there are working in the interest of mankind. Cheers to you and much luck with We 4 D Kids!

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