Monday, May 14, 2012

Budding Conversationalists

The results from the first trimester are in.  Out of 250 eighth-grade English students under the tutelage of their American teacher in Mozambique, 148 failed.  102 passed.

My director was kind enough to call a staff meeting to divulge the school-wide results, making a note of the fact that my students had the lowest grades in the entire high school.  The final count?

I have a forty-one percent pass rate.  Fifty-nine percent of my students failed. 

Here is a visual, in case the numbers aren’t stark enough.

My poor students...

So what happened?  First of all, I refuse to lie.  If my students don’t come to class, don’t do their homework, and don’t take their tests, they get a zero.  Secondly, a LOT of my students don’t speak Portuguese.  If they can’t speak Portuguese, how can they be expected to learn English?  Oh, my poor little students.  I love them so much, but some of them have gumdrops for brains.  Just… sweet little gooey gumdrop brains. 

Don’t get me wrong.  Some of my students are doing a great job.  Some of them.  41%, in fact.  The other 59%, however….well.    A least they are cute. 

So in a school without access to extra paper, large printers, and copy machines, how do professors divulge their grade?  Here in Mozambique, report cards aren’t actually a feasible option.  Instead, professors have opted for a much more injurious method of sharing end-of-trimester results. 

They read them.  Out loud.  To everybody.

It was Friday morning when Seni (my neighbor, house-hold helper, and student) came over to ask if I would be his guardian that afternoon at the trimestral grade divulgence. 

“My aunt said that she can’t come,” said Seni.  “Can you act as my guardian for today?  For me and Pascoal, both.”

Pascoal is his cousin, the son of his aunt.  They live together in the same house, along with four more of Pascoal’s little siblings.

“Why can’t she come?”  I asked. 

“I don’t know,” said Seni, “She just can’t.  Will you come instead?”

“Of course,” I said.  “I can come. That’s fine.  I’ll be your guardian.” 

I was touched.  Dan and I have a real fondness for Seni and his cousins, and we are aware of his situation at home.  To put it gently, one could say that Seni’s aunt is not always the most attentive parent or caretaker.   Seni spends most of his time on our porch or on our couch, reading books and avoiding his family.

That afternoon, Dan and I showed up at the school with a notebook and pencil.  A massive crowd of parents were already outside, sitting on the grass.  I saw immediately that I needn’t have dressed up.  Most mothers were wearing head wraps, T-shirts, and capulanas.  Some of them were even barefoot. 

At 4PM, the students poured outside to invite their parents into the classroom.  Pascoal ushered me inside and showed me to an empty desk.  I sat next to Seni, who was twitching nervously.  Everyone was staring straight ahead, at the Director da Turma. 

The Director cleared his throat. 

“Welcome to the divulgence of the grades for the first trimester.” He said.  “Before we begin, I would like to make a few announcements...”

For the next 45 minutes, the Director talked (scolded, really), covering everything from student tardiness to the value of planting trees.  I don’t know why I was surprised.  We wouldn’t be in Mozambique if every meeting didn’t start with such prolonged and exhausting verbosity.  I thought that Seni was going to die from nervous anticipation.  Finally, the Class Director took a seat and unrolled a giant grade sheet. 

“Amilton Almoco?”  He read.  Hamilton Lunch?

“Estou,” said the student.  I am (here).

“Encargado?”  Said the Director da Turma.  Person-In-Charge?

“Estou,” said Amilton’s guardian, sitting next to him and brandishing a pen over a piece of notebook paper.

“Grades for Amilton Almoco,” read the Class Director.  “Portuguese, 10; English, 16; History, 12; Biology, 11…”

Amilton’s guardian dutifully copied his grades, and, when the divulgence was duly recorded, the pair ducked their heads and left the room.  The sense of relief was palpable.  Hamilton Lunch had passed his first trimester with an overall average of 13 points out of 20. 

More students would follow, and with varying results.  Sometimes, when an especially low grade was announced (Catarina Fote earned a three in English, for instance), a murmuring titter could be heard rising throughout the classroom.  When one girl earned a zero in Chemistry, some people outright laughed out loud.  Even the Director da Turma poked fun at her.

“Did you really do that badly in Chemistry?” He said.  “Did you even take a single test?”

The girl hung her head.  When her grades had been divulged, she and her barefooted mother left quickly and wordlessly, heads hung low. 

My two “children,” Pascoal and Seni, squeaked by with low passing grades.  At least, however, they passed.  They were a part of my forty-one percent. 

As cruel as the system seems, in does make sense to read grades in Mozambique.  It would be too expensive and wasteful to print results for every individual student (though we only have six classrooms, we have over 800 students), and the technology just isn’t available.  And as far as hurt feelings go, I found that the worst students tend to avoid the situation all together.  They leave school early or neglect to invite their guardians, and their names will be omitted from the reading list.  The other students, the ones who stay for the reading and invite their parents, usually feel some degree of pride in at least a few of their trimester grades, and are proud to have them read out loud.  Even Catarine Fote got a 10 in Design.  

I am learning to focus on the forty-one percent of students who are doing well in my class, rather than dwelling on the 59% who are failing.  Emotionally, this is less taxing.  In that vein, I am pleased to announce that 102 of my students passed their first trimester of eighth-grade English.  


That is a lot of budding conversationalists.  

1 comment:

  1. When we were there, Director Sande would grade all of the teachers based solely on their students' pass rates. Lucas was always one of the lowest at around 50% (satisfatorio), and I was always one of the highest with almost 90% (muito bom).