September 14, 2012

Our hearts sang this week

When Larry was asked what he wanted to do after he retired from full-time work, he replied he wanted to do something that would “make my heart sing.” Well, our hearts sang this week at A. V. Bukani Primary School in Nomathamsanqa township. 
The Grade 4 teachers had taken Larry up on his offer to train them on how to assist the students in choosing a “just right book” – one that is neither too hard nor too easy for that child to read.  Students packed the library, looking at the cover, pictures and words of each book to see if it was something they wanted to read and something they could read. One by one, they picked books to take home.

And there they were. A group of boys in the back of the room, busily talking with their friends about the books they had chosen, passing them back and forth so they could share their excitement.  That was the moment. That was when we knew that the effort we put into this project, and the effort of so many people who contributed books, and volunteered time, and donated funds, was well worth it.  This was not a container full of books on shelves. It became a living library that very minute.

That day only got better. Eileen has had some loyal parent volunteers helping to inventory the library books. Two of the mothers who truly understand the importance of supporting the school said they would be willing to help organize other parents to help with the library and other projects.  A benefit of volunteering is that parents who help out will get to take out books from the library themselves. Eileen helped the parents find fun books for their children and the parents were elated.  Their enthusiasm for the books will certainly be contagious with their friends and relatives in the township.

And, we’re witnessing the love of reading start early. Grade R (K) and 1 teachers have begun taking books for their classrooms. The students love the stories Eileen has read them. The great news is that the municipal library will soon be providing regular story hours at the school for the young students and their parents, with books in English and in their mother tongue of Xhosa.

At the end of the day, there were visitors from the provincial legislature with responsibility for education.  They had just visited a school that was in near chaos and were quite depressed.  They left A. V. Bukani with broad smiles. They were impressed by the faculty, impressed by the resources like the computer lab, and yes, they loved the library. We met with several of them after the meeting and have continued the dialogue.

Teachers sharing their strengths with their colleagues

We feel this third week of our trip was the most productive of any in our four volunteer visits. It all came together in many positive ways. On this trip, we found that the teachers had been working to improve, and Larry was able to quickly work with them on needs they identified. He was able to help them use many of the resources that we had shipped with the library, including beginning readers and professional materials. Eileen’s contacts in the community, both within the township and beyond, have helped solidify support for the school.

A highlight of the week was the last professional development. Larry noted that a number of the teachers had unique special strengths and he asked them to share this with their colleagues. The faculty watched as Bella talked about creating a warm environment for read-alouds in her second-grade class. Thandi talked about helping the students retell stories by looking at setting, character, and the problem solved in the plot. Ace discussed using student work to create a mini-spelling lesson. Nomhle described the way she uses sentence strips to improve student comprehension. It was very impressive.

As each faculty member spoke, Larry gave them one of the relevant instructional resources that was already at the school. Suddenly they knew how to make use of these books. He ceremoniously handed each speaker one of the markers for the whiteboard, saying, “Do you accept the responsibility of ‘the pen’ to keep this professional sharing going?” They each smiled and took the pen. Other teachers talked about their turns.

Improvements in other nearby schools

We see hope for educational improvement beyond Nomathamsanqa.  The nearby middle school, Vesumsi,  had been floundering without a principal for years. A new dynamic principal took over the helm last week and everyone is thrilled. The entire community vows to support his efforts.

Another American who has fallen in love with Nomathamsanqa, Martha Cummings, has focused her attention on the improvements needed at Vesumsi. She hopes to raise enough money to renovate the school, which now exists without electricity in many classrooms. You can read about her efforts at

An interesting note is that there was just word that both A.V. Bukani and Vesumi will become R(K) – 7th grade schools, as the national government does away with middle schools. Each school will gradually take on additional grades. Bukani will include Grade 5 next year and many parents are happy their children can stay. Parents are permitted to send their children to any school as long as they can get their child to school and pay the fees (which are waived in these schools). Vesumsi may add Grade R to its roles next year.

On our last Friday, Larry led singing on his guitar for 1000+ students singing “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain.” We had taught it to every class and the kids were primed. They – and we – had a ball. It was followed by “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” which the teachers have taught the students this year. The students then sang their traditional songs. It was oh so hard to leave.

"She'll have to sleep with grandma when she comes..."
There is much more to say, which will do soon in future blog posts. With the staff, we have identified some critical needs in the school and we hope to raise funds to provide the much needed support. They are incredibly grateful for all we have done, and by we, I mean all of you who have been generous supporters of this project.

More photos, movies, and stories soon…  

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