September 1, 2012

A School With Serious Intent

We arrive in the township for our 4th  volunteer visit, and it all feels so familiar, so comfortable. Our feelings are confirmed when we walk into school early in the morning and the teachers greet us with powerful hugs and the words, “Welcome home.”

There are no welcome parties for us, big or small; and that is very fine with us. We all just get to work, recognizing that nothing is more important than educating a child in a new democracy.

There is a seriousness about the school this year. The Eastern Cape, where this school is located, has fallen behind the other provinces in South Africa in terms of education. The education district that oversees A.V. Bukani is rife with corruption and the central government – for the first time ever – has taken control of this district. There are still questions of who is in charge of what, but there is no question that things are moving forward.

In just a few weeks, all students at A.V. Bukani will have to take national exams in math, English, and their home language (Xhosa in this school). Prior to this, only 3rd grade took the exam. The teachers are working hard to prepare their students, in content as well as test-taking skills.

Sample questions for the national exams were posted on the internet and our school downloaded them last week. (Yes, the school does have internet connection at a few computers! But as one of the teachers said to me, “What about schools that have no computers? They cannot even see the sample questions.”)

Our students must take the same exams as those whose mother tongue is English.  The 4th grade exam included a question about rhymes. It became clear to the teachers that many of the students did not know the word “rhyme,” although they know rhyming sounds. What other obstacles lay in wait in the exams?

The Library!

What can we say about seeing the library at the school? It is so powerful to see this amazing resource for all the students. Volunteers over the last few years have helped organize it and further refine the categories of books. Teachers in 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grade have taken boxes of books into their classrooms and the students can take books out about two times a week. We’re encouraging them to have books go home even more frequently.

It is so rewarding to see the books in homes throughout the townships. One of our favorite sights was a glimpse of a 4 year-old laying on a chair in the kitchen, paging through the Berenstain Bears book that his older brother had brought home from school. Yes, the library is indeed having an impact!

Grade 4 students enjoying the book
"Are You My Mother?"
We are working to introduce the books at Grade R (Kindergarten) and Grade 1.  English is now introduced in Grade 1, rather than 2, and this is a new responsibility for the Grade 1 grade teachers. Most relish it, but some don’t have strong English skills themselves, so it’s been challenging. But they know it is what’s best for the children.

Eileen has been going into all the Grade 1 classes, and some others, singing songs in English and reading some books. The kids are incredibly engaged. They are so excited to be able to do something that was reserved for their older brothers and sisters.  And the teachers appreciate the opportunity to see some new techniques they can use with their students.

The Grade R (K) teachers have so far not been given any books for their classrooms.  One of the new teachers, a bright young educator, said she’s been asking for books. “The Grade R teachers feel neglected!” she said.  Eileen talked to the principal about the value of having books in the classrooms for the youngest children, and that will soon be happening. Larry is going to do some training for the Grade 1 and R teachers early next week.

Grade R (K) teacher singing with her class 

Increasing teachers’ knowledge of literacy strategies

We’ve been impressed with the work that has gone on in the classrooms over the two years since we’ve been here. There is much more interaction among the students, with the teachers encouraging the students to “Think – Pair – Share,” a technique Larry and Sara taught the teachers during our first visit.  Some of the teachers have excelled at this and the healthy buzz going on in the classrooms warms our hearts.

The weekly planning meeting with the teachers and Paul,
our volunteer coordinator
Larry has developed a plan with the teachers to do a “train the trainer” approach sessions for teachers in 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grade with two teachers from each grade. These teachers will then train the other teachers in that grade after we leave. The focus is an issue the teachers raised: helping the students retell the stories they are hearing or reading on their own. Larry has demonstrated a technique in which students talk, draw, and write about the beginning, middle, and end of stories read to them.  This approach will help students develop an understanding of the structure of stories, which will help build understanding and improve their retellings.  Teachers have been enthusiastic about the approach and have been pleasantly surprised at the positive responses from some of their struggling students.  Next week they will take over the teaching, with support from Larry.   

New responsibilities for the school leadership

The government just completed an evaluation of A.V. Bukani and determined that the school earned  The right to manage its own funds.  Up to this point, school leadership had to request funds from the district school office, and it could take six months to get an order of paper! Worse, money often didn’t make it out of the district office at all.  Now the principal and the school governing board (including teachers and parents) have control of the funds.

Our principal, Mr. Thambo, is thrilled that he can now take charge of his own funds. This is something he has fought for. But there are also challenges. For the last decade, schools have not been permitted to hire non-teaching staff at the school, so all the financial issues must now be added to the work of the principal and the teachers. Mr. Thambo is getting training in management of the funds, but it is a huge responsibility.

Reconnecting with our friends and “family”

This year, we are not staying with the Mofu family in the township.  Rev. Mofu has been quite ill and we have been very worried about him.  At the end of our first day of school, we quickly walked to the Mofu’s to see how he is. We are thrilled to report that his health is much better. He's lost weight, eating healthier and his diabetes completely disappeared! (Diabetes is a huge health issue here and we hope some day to bring in nutrition classes for the teachers and families) The doctors are hoping that Rev. Mofu's kidney problems, which were related to the diabetes, will increasingly improve as well. We are VERY relieved.

The other issue is that part of the roof of the Mofu’s home blew off in a heavy wind last year. They are now repairing the home and doing some other home renovation, so there are boards and nails everywhere.  In between the hammering, we got to visit with their grandsons who are now in Grade 6, Grade 2, and preschool. It is hard to believe that 11 year-old Yanga was only 6 when we first met him. His charming smile and big hugs never changed. We’ll be back to visit more next week.

We are staying with other friends just outside the township, Nondumiso and Keith. Rosedale, their totally “green” B and B which opened 3 years ago, is in the midst of their organic orange farm on the border of the township.  They are fascinating people who have lived extraordinary lives and we truly enjoy their company. They are very supportive of the school and the volunteer program. This is where Sara, Alex, and Cecily stayed in 2010; and Keith and Miso graciously held our Farewell Party there that year when the school building was closed because of the teachers’ strike. We often visit in the township in the afternoons and then go to Rosedale for dinner. We particularly love sitting outside in front of the open-pit fire after dinner and enjoying the cool, clear evening with the full moon peeking through the indigenous trees and the sounds of exotic birds filling the air.