August 9, 2009

The School Has Made So Much Progress!

We returned to A.V. Bukani Monday morning, just in time to see the students singing some of our favorite songs. The teachers each gave us warm hugs. But beyond the deep friendships formed last year, we wondered what lasting impact our visit had on the school. How would the second visit be different and would there be a motivation for future visits? We soon saw that the school had made progress beyond our expectations. Larry had hoped that the teachers he and Sara worked with last year continued to read aloud to the students and use the Think-Pair-Share technique. He hoped to see the books we left for them and the additional books we purchased from South Africa Partners, with the generous donations of our many donors, being used in the classrooms.

The first day he went into classes to do shared reading using the”big books” we brought. As he was about to ask the children to tell him what part of the book they liked, the teacher said, "OK. pair.... now share,” and the students immediately starting talking to each other! We mean all the students and immediately. It was amazing. This happened in all eight classes that Sara and Larry worked in last year. When Larry asked the students to share, some hands went up and the students talked. Their English at 2nd and 3rd grades is still really limited, but these are very beginning English learners and just a word in English sometimes is all they are capable of, given the very limited exposure they get to English during the day. Some of the grade 4 learners speak in phrases and sometimes full simple sentences. It's definitely something we can continue to build on.Some of the teachers in K (their R) and first grade have been coming to the classes to observe Larry teaching, even though they don’t teach in English. After taking part in some professional development Larry presented on the many uses of “big books,” the head teacher in 1st grade said she wanted to order some big books in Xhosa that she saw in a catalogue from one of the publishers. Mr. Thambo, the principal, has the Heinemann rep coming on Tuesday with samples of big books. Hopefully they have some good titles and we can use some of the $1,000 we have remaining from the donations to buy many more English and Xhosa titles.

In addition to the big books, Larry has been using the materials generously donated by Developmental Studies Center. The children loved “Quick as a Cricket” and had great fun comparing themselves to animals in the book.

Larry planned with all the teachers on Friday of this first week so that he can co-teach with the teachers next week (this week he did all the teaching). The teachers took it very seriously and asked some really good questions while they planned. The last week the teachers will take over and Larry will observe and provide feedback. We hope these three weeks give them enough demonstration, information, and confidence to continue after we leave.

Computer lab

Words cannot describe what it felt like to see the students in the computer lab, completely comfortable with the keyboard and mouse after only three months! We thought this day would not come for a few more years, but through amazing Mr. Thambo, the school had a donation of new computers and every class gets to work in the lab.

We didn’t get to meet the computer teacher who is out on maternity leave; however, Eileen met with the IT Committee from the faculty and heard their ideas for improving instruction on the computers. Right now the students are using donated educational software that is several years old. Some of the games are great and some are terrible (don’t even ask about the “puzzles”!) But the teachers are committed to aligning the students’ work in the computer lab to the curriculum in the classroom. Having the computer teacher there full-time, thanks to the donation from Burness Communications, will make a great difference. It is hard without the dedicated computer teacher now, because many of the teachers are not computer literate. Similar to what we saw in the early days of computers in U.S. schools, some teachers feel there is enough on their plates already and they just leave computer teaching to that teacher. But the teachers are starting to realize they must improve their own skills because very soon the students will surpass them.

Parent Engagement

The parent engagement project has been an extraordinary experience. Although we know how the school works this year, it has been a new challenge to try to work with a community that has its own culture, its own language and its own way of doing things. Eileen has worked to connect with key parents, which again is another challenge.

On Monday, Eileen met with a parent leader who spoke at the farewell party last year. Pindewe is an amazing women – smart, knowledgeable about the community, and committed to serving the community. She has excellent English skills. We set the first parent meeting for 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday. The school sent home a note and Pindewe contacted the parents. The school expected about 20 parents, and assuming they would be late, the note home said the meeting started at 4:30. At 4:45 there were 50 mothers and grandmothers in the room!

Addressing 50 caregivers who speak only limited English was quite a daunting experience. Through a translator, Eileen explained that we would be creating a quilt together. Each mother or grandmother would get to create a square describing their hopes and dreams for their child. Eileen asked them to share their dreams and about half of the family members stood up and talked about their dreams of their child becoming a doctor, or a social worker (because so many were helped by social workers), or bank manager, etc. One of the mothers noted that it is not enough to have your own dreams, but they must also be the dreams of the child, which led to a great discussion about talking with their children.

The second meeting was set for Thursday. Despite another important meeting in the community, 25 family members came (and on time!). Eileen and the parents discussed the importance of talking with tyour children when they come home from school and asking questions about what they are learning. Eileen shared with them what Principal Thambo had told her about his own family. Although his own parents could not read or write, his older sister would read to the younger siblings as soon as she learned to read. When Mr. Thambo was studying at the secondary level, he mentored all his younger siblings and cousins. “Make your home a center of learning,” Eileen urged. Each parent was given a piece of paper and a new pencil (“homework!” one of the parents proudly said), with instructions to talk with their children about their dreams, so they could design their square together.

The family members were very engaged with the discussion. One of the grandmothers gave a long speech in Xhosa and Eileen waited eagerly to hear what she said. “On behalf of all the mothers and grandmothers here,” she said, “I want to tell you how much we appreciate being here. We do have hopes and dreams for our children, but no one has ever asked us, and we do not know how to help them. You are telling us how we can help our children. Thank you.” What a moment!

Then Pindewe and some other mothers came in with the refreshments. Pindewe had said that the food should not be catered from the outside, but prepared by mothers in the community who could earn some funds that way. They cooked an amazing dinner of chicken and dumplings, serving a full plate to each caregiver (probably more than they had eaten all week). Eileen told the parents that they are always serving everyone else and this would be a day that they were served a full dinner themselves. The mothers and grandmothers broke into song and dance. The translator explained this was a song that expressed how happy and excited they were to be there. The meeting, planned for an hour, went on for 2-1/2. Next week, we work on the quilt itself, with the help of one of the teachers who is a good seamstress.

Our homestay

We are thrilled to be back with the Mofu family. In addition to their grandson Yanga, who is turning 8 this week, we are joined by two other grandchildren. Their daughter Pam (Yanga’s mother) has moved back and is working nearby. Her older sister Yolanda is also back in the township, with her 2 adorable boys, ages 5 and 2. They are staying in a nearby home while we are there, but we get to see the boys every day and they never fail to entertain us. They are bright, full of life, and totally charming.

WHAT A WEEK. We are totally exhausted, yet exhilarated with the possibilities. Can there only be 2 weeks more???

Larry and Eileen