At the beginning of 2017, after many years of wishing that I could move back to the Eastern Cape (and particularly to the former Transkei region), I relocated to Zithulele to work for Axium Education. In May of 2016 I had met with Craig and discovered that two of the areas that Axium wanted to grow in – numeracy in the foundation phase and teacher networks – were two of the areas that I was interested in and had experience with. And so my journey with Axium began.
As the numeracy coordinator my work is divided between supporting the community readers (the Nobalisa) in thinking of creative ways to incorporate numeracy into their after school reading clubs as well as supporting foundation phase teachers in two local schools to explore alternative Mathematics teaching approaches. Although I have experience supporting Mathematics teachers in schools, when I started at the beginning of the year I had no experience in teaching or working in rural schools. This means that a large portion of my time has been spent observing teaching, and talking to teachers and the Nobalisa in order to start understanding some of the complexities of working in a rural school. From my perspective, the biggest barrier to learning is the large class sizes. The classes I spend time in range from 67 to 107 learners – in one class, with one teacher. It isn’t possible to provide 7-year-old children with the kind of individual attention and differentiated support that is required when there are more than 100 learners in a class.
And yet there are ways to engage a large group of learners and to start laying the foundations necessary for learning mathematics in later years. Many of the strategies that seem to be showing promise have been adapted from games played at the after school mathematics clubs I have worked in previously. While many of these games can be played by two learners without the involvement of a teacher, what has worked well both in schools and at the reading clubs is to adapt the games slightly so that they are played by the whole group or by two learners, with the whole group watching. Because another challenge of teaching in a rural school is a lack of resources, the games that we have been experimenting with require no or very few resources – learners use their hands and fingers, bottle tops or sometimes scrap paper.
Practicing addition and subtraction with playing cards
In order for the support that the teachers are receiving to be sustainable in an under-resourced context, we have been using only things available in the schools to make resources with the teachers, such as poster paper and permanent markers. Something as simple as a 1 to 100 number chart is a powerful tool to introduce the 10 base structure of the number system we use and to help them count not only in 1s but also in 10s, starting at any number.
Home-made cards of the isiXhosa names of numbers and number chart
Try this challenge: If the numbers from 1 to 100 are arranged on a 10 x 10 grid, what numbers are to the left, right, above and below the number 65?
Another challenge faced by schools is not knowing how to use the resources that they do have – for example manipulatives or even the laptops that all foundation phase teachers in the province have been provided with. So another way of supporting teachers has been to help them use what they already have.
Mrs Didi, the foundation phase HOD at Mhlahlane Junior School, learning how to use a counting frame and colour puzzle.
While schools have few resources and large class sizes, the after school reading clubs run by the Nobalisas are smaller and better resourced. This means that games involving cards can be played. One game in particular, Top Ten, is ideal for the clubs as it is already played by adults in the community and because learners have to find pairs of numbers that add to 10 – a very important skill for doing calculations. Other games that are played at reading clubs to support numeracy are UNO and snakes and ladders as well as the low resource games played in schools. Because the Nobalisas focus primarily on isiXhosa literacy, they have identified songs and stories that include numbers and counting which can be used both during their work in schools and in reading clubs.
More than 700 bottle tops collected by the Grade 2 class at Mhlahlane Junior School.
As an organization we still have a lot to learn about supporting teachers in teaching Mathematics to foundation phase learners in large classes where the language of learning and teaching is isiXhosa. We have, however, started on this journey, a journey that we believe is hugely important if we are to achieve our goal of raising student achievement.