All the material that Associate Professor Mary Alice Barksdale needed to win a Fulbright Scholar grant for educational research was a couple boxes of crayons, sheets of paper and some staples.
These meager tools were part of the reason why she received an e-mail in late March 2008 from the people at the program congratulating her on her accomplishment. It was the same reason why she departed for South Africa to a township in Port Elizabeth in January of that year to work with a number of educators at a local primary school in association with the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.
As the Elementary Education Program Area Leader in the Liberal Arts and Human Sciences' Department of Teaching and Learning, Barksdale is part of a graduate program that accepts no more than 25 students each year. These students will spend their time studying how children learn to read and develop. It's also no wonder that the focus of her winning proposal - her second Fulbright award, by the way - was about first through third graders who use their imaginations as well as the tools provided by Barksdale to preserve their mother language, Xhosa (the "x" prompts a clicking noise), while learning English. To achieve this, Barksdale had the children create storybooks with simple sentences written in both English and Xhosa. Barksdale hoped this would nurture the young minds toward a proactive approach to reading and writing.
Her enthusiasm for her work has brought her to many different countries in the past. She did extensive research in the neighboring country of Malawi from 2001 to 2006 and lectured in Russia. While sitting in her office in 307 War Memorial Hall, she spoke about her time spent in South Africa.
COLLEGIATE TIMES: What were some cultural differences that you encountered from past experiences?
MARY ALICE BARKSDALE: I got the whole idea for this project; it all grew out of my work in Malawi. I know a lot about Africa, I know a lot about poverty. Malawi is a country where most of the people don't have electricity, at least not the people in the rural areas; the people in the towns do. But none of the classrooms or schools had any electricity. Part of my reason for going to South Africa - I was a little misguided. I knew that class sizes would be smaller in South Africa, but what that turns out meaning is that instead of 100 kids, there's 45. But, there's still more than you can handle.
And in Malawi, lots of classrooms didn't have desks. Well, these classrooms did all have desks, the kids didn't necessarily have chairs, but if they didn't have a chair they sat on an upturned pail or something. But the same situation, some kids didn't have pencils, they didn't have paper, the schools didn't have basic materials for teaching. It was more like Malawi than I really expected it to be. Which is a good thing and a bad thing because it means that the work that I did really is representative of Sub-Saharan Africa, but it was very challenging - more challenging than I thought it would be.
CT: Why did you focus on the mother tongue languages in your research?