August 24, 2009

Far More Than the Sum of Its Parts

What’s bright with color, created with love, and filled with the hopes and dreams of an entire community? The A.V. Bukani school quilt!

Words cannot describe the significance that this quilt took on for the community. The Herald newspaper in Port Elizabeth (S.A.’s 5th largest city, which is an hour away) wrote about the project, including photos and audio on their website. Mothers and grandmothers poured their hearts onto their squares, appreciating the opportunity to send a message to the school and to their children about their hopes for the future. The quilt-making model developed by Teaching for Change in Washington was the perfect way to engage families and give them the tools to be supportive advocates for their chidren

Each family member described their special square at the final meeting. What might have appeared like simple shapes or cut-outs took on deep meaning as they explained their creations. There was the stately grandmother who said she no longer had children at the school, but her home is always filled with the children who live nearby, as she encourages and helps them. Her square included the cut out of a cow: “Just as a cow gives milk to nourish all, I ‘give milk’ to nourish all the children nearby,” she explained. There was the mother who wanted her daughter to be a social worker. Her square included the word, “Friendly,” surrounded by a hand “because she needs to help others,” and a heart, “because she must have a big heart.” This incredible mother, whose own education had been stopped and restarted multiple times because of the apartheid struggle and the lack of money for advanced courses, sewed a zig-zag path in small green beads leading up a mountain, “because the path to the mountain top is never straight and easy. She must work hard to stay on her path so she can reach her goal.” Then there was the young mother who had sewn a large sun at the center of her square, with the moon and the stars nearby. “My son is like the strong sun. He will always shine. Even when the stars and moon are out, my son will still be shining.”

An increasing number of teachers became involved with the quilt project. Listening to the parents and grandparents was truly enlightening on many levels. The principal came to speak to the last meeting. In a lively dialogue, he talked with the parents about how to continue the work started by this quilt, to partner to strengthen the education of all the children of the township. The parents agreed they would stay involved, working with the teachers, and keeping a watch over all children, not just their own. The principal promised to continue to involve families in their children’s education. Family story time at the school, in collaboration with the municipal library, is one project now in the planning stages. The quilt will hang in the entrance to the school as a reminder to all of the power of dreams.

Creating the quilt – we believe the first such school quilt in South Africa – was an extraordinary activity. There were many times during the three weeks when Eileen wasn’t sure how to get to the next step, because it had to be uniquely relevant to these families in this community, and then people and events just moved it forward. There were the three mothers who spent hours cooking full meals for 35 – 50 people at each meeting, serving and washing each dish afterwards. These meals became a highlight of the program. There was the teacher who mentioned she knew how to make a quilt like this and then spent a Saturday morning driving Eileen to the fabric store and picking up all the materials (She happened to be one of the few teachers with a car!). There was the teacher who suggested that Eileen tell the families about adult education classes nearby. Of course, Eileen quickly talked him into making a presentation to the families himself, and then the following session, his wife told the families about the library where she worked. There were the three faculty members who lived in the township and came to every meeting, from beginning to end, helping the parents, translating where necessary, supporting Eileen and just making sure that everything worked as it should. There was the day when Eileen worried she would never get all the squares sewed onto the backing, when several teachers who had never been involved in the process appeared in the staff room and began sewing with her. And then, the mothers who showed up to make sure the project was finished properly, quickly picking up needle and thread. The quilt became an intense source of pride to all the families and teachers and will soon be an inspiration to the children as they pass it each day.

And for Eileen, there was Larry – given the Xhosa name of “Tando” or “love” – by the parents and grandparents at the last meeting. At the end of the busy day of working with so many teachers, he would join Eileen at the family meetings, doing everything from helping the parents to serving the food, to sweeping the floor when it was all over.

Teachers Commit to Making Continued Progress

"We promise, we promise, to continue to work on what you have shown us and to use the materials you brought,” said Qamba, one of the teachers who Larry worked with, speaking for the whole group at our final meeting with the faculty and principal. Qamba said that her students had asked her if she would be reading them a story every day, and other teachers agreed that their students looked forward to this each day.

Everyone agreed that the use of the big books and the Making Meaning materials were highly useful and that the teachers had made great strides in using them effectively in the classrooms. The teachers all agreed that their students loved the big books and the stories in the Making Meaning kits. Although Larry worked directly only with teachers who teach English in grades 2, 3 and 4, nearly every teacher in the school (even those in grades K and 1) had either observed Larry do lessons in the classrooms or attended Larry's big book/shared reading training session after school.

All agreed on the following initiatives for the summer of 2010:
  • that we would continue to provide instruction about how to use the big books to teach specific skills.

  • that we would work to purchase more big books, including some in Xhosa for the grade K and 1 teachers. Before we left several orders were placed with publishers that supply South Africa. The teachers agreed to contact publishers within South Africa and Larry would continue the search in the United States.

  • that we would try to find additional quality educational computer programs for the computer lab.

Next year we will be working on a dream that we have had for A.V. Bukani since we began this project – a library for the school. Principal Thambo spoke eloquently about this, noting this is essential if we are to build on the instruction and create a school of readers. There is a small space for a library now, but we always dream big. We hope to secure a shipping container (two containers would provide space for the students to sit and read!) or a mobile classroom to create the library these students need and deserve. We’ll be collecting books this year, and hope to solve our biggest issue – how to ship them. But as they say in the show “South Pacific,” If you don’t have a dream, how you gonna make a dream come true!

We’ve landed back in the U.S., a little jet-lagged and a lot inspired. For those who have contributed moral and financial support, we hope you can see the impact you have made on this school. We could not have imagined the progress that has been made since we first stopped there. More thoughts on this years trip later…

Eileen and Larry (a/k/a Nosango and Tando, and yes, that's really what they started calling us!)