“It is the ability to write in an academic, informative style that often determines a learner’s success in matric.”

Interview with Hazel Bonarett, a teacher at Springs Boys High School in Johannesburg.  In July, she will address the African EduWeek E-learning session on Springs Boys High’s experience with e-learning, the impact on learners’ reading skills and how it changed the teachers’ pedagogy.

1)  Please can you we start with some background on you and your school?
My personal background is actually in the therapeutic sciences.  I graduated with a BA in Speech Therapy and Audiology from Wits University.  This was followed by a year working in a government hospital providing language therapy to children with disabilities and to stroke and head injury patients.   After this I worked in many school environments, inclusing mainstream schools, remedial units and special school placements.

In 2001 I returned to Wits to lecture to Speech Therapy and audiology students and started research into teaching and learning strategies for university and post grad students.  I also started to investigate different learning styles.  After the birth of my second child in 2007, I left the university and was employed at Springs Boys’ High School to teach English to grades 8 and 9.  I completed my PGCE in Senior and FET phase teaching in Languages and Life Orientation.  In 2013 I was appointed Subject Head and then was promoted to HOD English in 2014. I currently teach English Home Language to grades 10 to 12, and have served as a Matric Marker.  I also offer language and reading enrichment classes at the school.

My interest in electronic teaching methods began in 2010.  I am also passionate about giving high school students a chance to be compassionate and giving, and so run a growing Interact service club at the school.
SPRINGS BOYS’ HIGH SCHOOL is a government school for boys on the far East rand. This year, we have just over 800 learners in grades 8 to 12, with 121 matriculants.  We boast with a pass rate above 97% for the past 13 years.  Learners all take English as a Home Language and this is the medium of instruction. The school places much focus on discipline, brotherhood and extra mural activities and boasts with more than 27 extracurricular codes offered to the learners. The school was placed in the top 100 schools list in 2009.  It has been led by principal Andre French for the last 20 years.

2)  You are addressing EduWeek on your experience in e-learning at Springs Boys High School.  Can you give us some background about this project and how this has changed learners and teachers alike?
The decision to make use of electronic textbooks was proposed during 2013.  This decision was made by the governing body and then proposed to the parents.  At a special AGM in August 2013, all but three parents supported the idea of tablet use in classrooms.  Their only reservations were safety, theft issues and the possible distraction offered by such devices in class. Within the space of three very short months, the school became an e-learning environment.  In reality, this meant using electronic textbooks and teacher material via Moodle.
As a language teacher, and also a language therapist, my initial concern was the impact of electronic devices on reading.  Reading on tablets had been minimally researched and some differences were evident.  Also, the school was excited about learners being more “in tune” with technology and so would cope well with electronic text.  However, I was interested in whether or not this would make them more eager readers.
Also, having previously been involved in tertiary and professional training, I was aware that adults do not accept change! I became very interested in documenting the transition from one system to another by the teachers with varying skills.

3)  Any other exciting projects you are involved in that you are particularly excited about?
I am passionate about the Interact service club at our school.  We offer service opportunities, leadership development and social networking for the teen boys.  Their enthusiasm about these projects, providing service to children, the aged, cancer survivors, the homeless and the general community is inspiring.  My aim is to make the club completely student led so as to develop their confidence and maturity.
I am also passionate about contributing to the discussion of home language education in SA.  I believe firmly that home language education is key and that good literacy in the home language is important.  However, reading fluency and comprehension in English are important to tertiary education preparedness too so this predicament must be discussed by all in education.

4) What in your view are the main challenges in education in South Africa?
•    Continuing education for teachers and “up-skilling” of teachers: workshops and developments opportunities for teachers are often limited: formal advanced studies are expensive and time consuming; schools cannot afford to allow teachers to take time off for workshops during term time; departmental training is often frustrating, poorly organised and not practical; and teachers are often comfortable doing things “as they were always done”!. As a result, many teachers are ill prepared to make the changes required to equip modern learners for a modern work environment.
•    Continuity of the curriculum: skills taught are often repetitive and isolated, leaving the learner bored and frustrated. Too often one hears: “We did this already”. In the language curriculum, this is especially true, and yet learners’ abilities to write and comprehend seem worse than ever.  The progression of learning, and the practicality of the skills taught, must be made more evident.
•    Language issues with home language, medium of instruction, and preference for English being some of the major concerns: our crisis is a classroom of learners with poor home language conceptual knowledge, and poorly developed home language register, coupled with rudimentary knowledge of the language of instruction.
•    Specific teaching of written language and academic English: the transition from oral language, to written language, to a more academic register is assumed to be a developmental process.  However, especially for second language learners, the academic, informative style of writing required in high school must be taught specifically.  It is the ability to write in this academic register that often determines a learner’s success in matric. Awareness of this need to explicitly demonstrate this skill, and make learners aware of the criteria of transactional texts is critical to high school successes.

5)  What surprises you about your work?
Perhaps my biggest surprise is that every day is a surprise! Sadly I am also surprised by the general perception of the public that teachers work a half day job!

6)  Will you have a specific message at EduWeek?
My message is that fear and an inability to change will greatly reduce our efficacy in the future. Teaching is a dynamic process, and with the modern trends in information technology this is truer than ever.  We are capable of improving our teaching through the use of technology, but training and support of teachers is the key.  We must also accept that teachers are not a homogeneous group, so various strategies need to be in place to help teachers implement technology in the classroom. This transition has to happen, but-more importantly- it has to happen with the full endorsement of teachers.

7)  What are you most looking forward to at EduWeek?
The opportunity to learn! This is the most exciting part of being an educator, knowing that lifelong education is our greatest gift.

8)  Anything you would like to add?
On a personal note, a thank you to EduWeek for offering me this opportunity.

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