The Mystery of Xolelwa

In South Africa, there were two students my teaching partner and I suspected to have a learning disability. One of these was a twelve-year-old girl named Xolelwa Jokana.

Xolelwa’s name is of isiXhosa origin. It’s pronounced beginning with a click for the letter “x.” The click sound is made by placing your tongue against the side of your top teeth and quickly swiping it down the side of your mouth. You complete pronunciation of the name with just a regular -olelwa. Like all students at Ikamvalesizwe, she most likely lived in the township outside the town of Kenton on Sea. These kids live in shacks with no running water, electricity, and probably only eat once a day; at school. I would often stand outside and watch the children play and eat at break, and I can’t say I remember seeing Xolelwa with any of the other children, so she may have been a bit of an outcast. She was built thicker then the other kids, and was quite tall for her age.

So, naturally having some difficulty pronouncing her name, I realized right away that there were days when Xolelwa simply wouldn’t speak in class. She never raised her hand, but I felt bad to call her out because she actually didn’t look like she knew what was going on. Unfortunately, South Africa does not have a special education system, so there is nothing that can be done to help these students. Her handwriting was very good, but she didn’t understand what she was writing. Her typical school day consisted of being talked at and made to copy things off a blackboard. Lecture in fifth grade is just unheard of here, because we have a much different standard for younger grades.

For Xolelwa, I think she has dyslexia, or some other word recognition deficiency. She could also have a processing disorder where she just doesn’t understand written language. To effectively help her, she would need more verbal and one-on-one instruction. A very small class would be good for her, where she can have plenty of attention from her teacher and someone to read her questions and write her responses. The sad part is that I don’t know if her parents are literate or able to speak English, or even part of her life.

Many people argue that teachers shouldn’t be involved in their student’s home lives, which is true to an extent, but knowing what goes on in their home is important to know how to teach them. Home situations contribute to depression, stress, motivation, and many other things that could be beyond a teacher’s control. I can’t judge Xolelwa for her lack of English vocabulary and reading comprehension because I don’t know enough about her. Is she stupid? Absolutely not. Does she have potential? Sure. Will she need help? Yes. Can she get the help? That’s the problem. My teaching partner is a native South African and actually lives in the township. She went to Ikamva and graduated in 2004. After a few years, she was able to go to the US for college. She’s getting a prime-time education in our country, but she will go back to South Africa when she graduates and stay there to be a special educator. That’s when students like Xolelwa will get their help.


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