Who is SMYLe?
The Soweto Marimba Youth League (SMYLe) project is a youth development programme that seeks to offer under-privileged children living in the Dobsonville area of Soweto an opportunity to overcome adversity, work towards a common goal, and to reach the pinnacle of the success they choose for themselves. While SMYLe appears to be a “music programme”, it is in fact an academic enrichment programme that uses music as a means for teaching learners (Grades 1 through to 12) discipline, team work, commitment to a common goal, and that hard work can lead to positive outcomes. Moreover, SMYLe provides supplemental Math classes to all of our high school learners – grades 8 through 12 – noting that the education system within South Africa has proven itself to be almost completely ineffective. Whereas learners are only expected to achieve a mark of 30% to pass Math, SMYLe asserts that 50% will always be the minimum standard to “pass”. As such, for any SMYLe learner to participate in one of our performance teams, they must either have at least 50% in Math, or perfect attendance in our supplemental Math classes.
Our motto is:
Where you get to in life isn’t a function of where you begin, but of how hard you’re willing to work to get to where you want to be!
Based in the Dobsonville area of Soweto, SMYLe’s membership is drawn from 14 different schools, including 7 primary schools, 6 high schools and one school for learners with special needs. Of our feeder schools, only one high school offers music instruction, although the school does not possess the instruments required to offer proper instruction. As such, SMYLe offers an outlet to learners who possess inherent musical talent, as well as a desire to learn how to play an instrument and to perform.
For most people who have seen or heard of SMYLe, the project appears to be little more than a music programme. This tends to be because of the high quality of SMYLe’s performances, as well as the fact that SMYLe currently has a repertoire of more than 170 songs – of which more than 60 can be played by any member of SMYLe’s junior and/or senior performance teams. However, SMYLe is as much about Math as it is about Music.
To learn Math successfully, learners must not only receive quality instruction, but must also learn that success in Math is predicated on practice…practice…practice…which is precisely the same way musicians learn how to perform. As such, all SMYLe performers – within our senior teams – are expected to not only have good attendance at SMYLe practices, but must also meet the following requirement:
• The learner must either have over 50% in Math (or Math Literacy), or
• The learner must have perfect attendance in our Supplemental Math classes
The learners want the music. We want the Math!
It is our firm belief that Math – as well as English and Science, although we currently only focus on Maths due to funding constraints – is a cornerstone subject for academic success, and a fundamental requirement for life. Thus, we use our music programme as “the carrot” to encourage our learners to perform well in Math.
How does SMYLe make a difference?
SMYLe has a set of core values that each member must subscribe to in order to continue to be a participant of the project. These core values are the backbone of SMYLe and the reason for its growing success. The most important of these core values is “Education First!” in which each participant is expected to demonstrate a commitment to their education, before all other activities: including SMYLe.
We believe that SMYLe is a powerful tool to encourage learners to stay in school, and to set and work towards strong academic goals. SMYLe members are required to prove that they are committed to their education, and the leadership team tests this by conducting bi-monthly interviews with each learner’s school (among our high school learners). In the meetings, we ask the principal’s office to perform an ‘AHA test’ for:
If a learner is deemed to be a poor performer in any of these areas, they are suspended from the project for 2 months: until the next AHA Check has been conducted, and then only if behavioural progress has been observed. We do not necessarily assume that all of our learners are academically gifted, and therefore we only query marks in terms of trends (i.e., if marks are declining, or remaining below minimum requirements, then we seek to assess why and/or determine if sanctioning or additional support is required within the context of SMYLe). Rather, we believe that ALL learners must at least strive towards excellence through measured effort and attitude.
It should also be noted that SMYLe rehearsals are often used by learners as a ‘shared learning environment’. Although our current practice facility does not have adequate homework rooms, groups of learners will use pre-practice and post-practice time for helping each other with homework assignments, or in group study activities for tests and exams.
Just like attendance at school is tested, attendance at also recorded at SMYLe practices to ensure that each member of the project can demonstrate their commitment to the team. This also extends to the taking of attendance in our Supplemental Math programme for high school learners.
Since September 2011, SMYLe has employed the services of a skilled Maths teacher – Thabo Dube – who provided supplemental Math classes on a weekly basis, and during school holiday periods. These classes are designed to support each learner’s regular curriculum – in both Math and Math Literacy – and are geared towards helping the learners improve their understanding of Maths, and ultimately their marks.
As from January 2013, our Supplemental Math programme now includes daily after school classes – Monday to Thursday – as well as all day Saturday classes for our Grades 11 and 12 learners. Additional classes are offered during our Holiday Math Camps, three times per year, with our learners expected to attend one class per day, plus 2 hours of group study, throughout the full duration of the school holiday period. This is due to our awareness that one supplemental class is not enough in order to bridge the current gap between what is being offered in our feeder schools and what our learners need.
In setting the bar so low, the education system is failing to recognise that educators ‘teach to the curve’, and therefore only set their performance targets at 30%, which has catastrophically reduced to potential for high school graduates to succeed at the university level if/when they get grades high enough to be accepted into tertiary schools (sadly, a 40% average is all that is required for most learners to gain university entrance).
Moreover, it should be noted that the ‘Matric Pass Rates’ (i.e., the % of learners who successfully complete their final year high school exams – or ‘matriculate’) for schools in South Africa are effectively fraudulent due the processes employed to remove learners from the system prior to Grade 12. In most cases, fewer than 30% of all learners who start Grade 10 actually complete Grade 12, and with a Matric Pass Rate of 50% being considered ‘good’, the real pass rate would in effect be 20% (not 50%).
Thus, SMYLe’s attention to Supplemental Math – as well as English being our language of instruction within our music programme, due to the fact that English is the language of exams in South Africa, even though most learners only receive tuition in English from Grade 8 – is fundamental to our ability to ensure that our programme is successful in using music as a mechanism for academic impact for under-privileged learners in our affected schools.
SMYLe’s Core Values are:
• Education First!
Participation in the project requires a commitment to one’s future through no less than demonstrating the proper attitude at school. Our ‘AHA Test’ seeks to ensure that each participant has an appropriate Attendance record, completes all of their Homework assignments on time, and apply the correct Attitude when at school.
• Shared Commitment
Participation in the project requires a commitment to teamwork, shared effort and support for one another.
• Avoid Drugs & Alcohol
Because drug and alcohol abuse is persistent problem in our affected communities, SMYLe participants are expected to be positive role models, and thus to avoid the risks associated with drugs and alcohol.
• Avoid Crime
Although we believe in the principles of fairness and ‘innocence until proven guilty’, accusations of criminal behaviour are taken seriously, and proven involvement in crime is immediate grounds for expulsion from SMYLe.
• Avoid Teenage Pregnancy
Teenage pregnancy in communities such as Dobsonville is a significant barrier to academic and thus future career success. As such, members of the SMYLe team are frequently reminded of their need to act responsibly, and to avoid teenage pregnancy. This rule applies for the boys in the project as much as the girls.
• Respect Others
We believe that respect for gender, racial and ability-related diversity is paramount to our collective ability to respect ourselves. As such, SMYLe members are reminded that discrimination of any form and/or disrespect for others cannot be tolerated.
• Environmental Protection
To ensure that we have a vibrant and sustainable world to live, learn and perform in, the SMYLe team is committed to environmental protection. Littering is not tolerated during any SMYLe activities, and it is expected that this behaviour will extend beyond band events