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Finding the courage to fail: reflections from the Eastern Cape  

What can you do if you leave school unable to lift your head, look someone in the eye, and speak your mind? It’s a question we grappled with last week, as we watched more than 100 Grade 10 learners stammer out simple poems they’d written in English, terrified of making a mistake.

I was with the FunDza Literacy Trust in amaJingqi, a rural area outside of Willowvale in the Eastern Cape. Over two days, we ran writing workshops for Grade 10, 11 and 12 learners at the local secondary school.

FunDza tailored the workshops to respond to a specific need articulated by the school’s dedicated English teacher. “They won’t speak English,” she told me last year in a planning meeting. “They only want to speak Xhosa. They are too afraid of making a mistake. They’re afraid the other kids will laugh at them.”

At the workshops, we decided, they would speak. We asked each Grade 10 learner to write a biopoem by filling out a worksheet with prompts:

I am ________________________ (first name)

__________________ and ________________ (2 adjectives that describe you)

who loves ______________, _____________ and __________________

who fears _________________ and _________________________

who dreams of ____________________________________________

I am _______________________ (first name)

I am ____________________________________ (first name and surname)

Then we asked them to read. We wouldn’t correct them, we said; we just wanted to hear their stories.

A few voices rang out with confidence: this is me, and I am proud of it. But for most of the 130 learners, who we worked with in groups of 30 to 40, their fear was visible, palpable. Chins were dropped, lips trembled, voices shook. Many were inaudible. A few got so flustered they had to start from scratch.

“Are you afraid of us?” Dorothy asked them, halfway through a round of sharing. “Or are you afraid of each other? Are you afraid your classmates will laugh at you if you make a mistake?” In nods and shy murmurs, they confirmed that it’s their peers they’re afraid of – not us.

Yet ambitious dreams were plentiful: in their biopoems, learners shared that they want to become doctors, pilots, social workers and teachers. One young man wanted to be the doctor who finds a cure for Ebola.

There is a serious disconnect between these big dreams and a culture of learning that creates fear of failure.

That fear doesn’t stem from vicious schoolchildren. It comes from an education paradigm that rewards getting the right answer in the exercise book, instead of teaching children that to truly learn – especially to learn in a second language – they must grapple, experiment, question, take risks, and make mistakes.

It’s hard to make space for that, though, when you’re teaching 130 Grade 10 learners in one class, as Miss Adams does each day – and when the only English class set you have to teach them is Macbeth.

For the last several years, the school’s matric results have hovered around a 50% pass rate. This year, the Grade 12s are all living within walking distance of the school and attending night classes from 6-10pm each day, to prepare for matric. But unless they learn to “work smarter”, those extra hours will not necessarily unlock the futures of which they dream.

Attitude shifts will not magically close gaps in foundational understanding. But they can propel young people to take risks, to confront the topics they are struggling with instead than hiding comfortably behind those they understand, and to ask for help when they need it.

It is up to teachers and principals to create a space where this is allowed – and it is up to young people to have the courage to rise above the crowd, to speak, to lead. But in a resource-strapped rural school, what does it take for this kind of culture to take hold?

Katie Huston is the Portfolio Manager of DGMT’s Creative Learners Portfolio. She visited the Eastern Cape with FunDza Literacy Trust (www.fundza.co.za or www.fundza.mobi)

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