Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Newspaper Project Stress: Memorization vs. Creative Thinking

This week has probably been the most stressful week of our project. We started the newspaper project at all three of our schools, and found that we have a lot more work to do than we originally thought. On the first day, we asked the students to pick a topic that they are interested in, take a picture that goes along with the topic, and then write about it. Some of the students got the idea and wrote really good articles, and all of the students were excited about the project. All in all, it was a success. The next day, we asked the students what sections they wanted in their newspaper, such as “Education,” “Sports,” or “Health and Environment” … this is where things started to go down hill. The students didn’t seem to understand the concept of newspaper sections or how specific topics would fit into those sections. After talking to the teachers more, we found that the students have seen newspapers, but only ones that are written in English. Because most of our students only speak Sepedi, they have probably never actually read a newspaper, which makes writing a school newspaper somewhat difficult.

Next, we asked each student to pick the newspaper section that they are most interested in and then write an article that fits under that section. Unfortunately, a lot of students wrote completely random things, such as “My name is _______. I am in grade 5. I attend ______ school. Etc.” The students who understood that they should pick a specific section, such as “Sports,” would generally end up writing things like “Sports are when people run and play games together. I like sports. My favorite sport is soccer. Etc.” They are confused about how to construct a story or article, probably because they have rarely been given the opportunity to write and express themselves before. Their entire education system seems to be based on memorization and copying to the point that they are confused when they are asked to think creatively. We weren’t too discouraged at this point, though, and continued the project with high hopes. For the next couple of days, we continued to ask the students what they were interested in and then we asked them to write about those topics. When a student seemed to be catching on, we would have them read their article to the class so that the other students see a few examples.

This plan seemed to be working. After a couple days of practicing and sharing good examples with the class, we asked each student to write about a topic that they are interested in at home and then bring those topics to the workshop the next day. The next day, some of the students came with amazing articles… really amazing… too amazing. As one girl was typing her article, I asked her if she wrote the article (it was written in perfect English and her English skills were not too advanced). With an excited smile on her face, she told me that she did write it. I asked her if she copied it from a book. With the same excited smile, as if she was doing something really great, she responded that, yes, she did copy it from a book. Another student proudly told me that her older sister wrote her article (which she was now typing into her XO). The students have been so conditioned to get ideas from books or other people and then memorize these ideas that they proudly admit to copying. They aren’t trying to cheat… the idea that copying is bad does not even occur to them. We have worked for the past few days to explain to the students that we value their thoughts and that we want them to write the articles using their creativity, but we still have students come to class every day with work that is not their own. It can be really disheartening to see really bright students so boxed in that they don’t even know all of the amazing things they are capable of.

I don’t want this entire blog to be all doom and gloom… there have been some really positive moments over the past week. First off, we can see the excitement in the kids’ eyes over having the opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings. Carolyn, Gordon and I nearly start jumping up and down every time a new student comes out of their shell and writes something amazing. We have also learned a ton of information about our students’ lives and the villages where they live. The students that we are working with have talents, interests, and obstacles that we didn’t know about before we started this project. The students are starting to understand that other people value their opinions and that makes them even more excited to be a part of this. In the end, this project will be worth all of the stresses and disappointments that we have faced this week. Our goal now is to continue to work on this project and to have a first edition printed at each school before we leave on August 18th. I know that that sounds like a lot of time, but because we have to work separately in 3 schools, it will be a race to the finish. We have two more days at the schools this week, and we are hoping to collect a few more amazing articles.

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