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…  

September 10, 2012

Keeping Progress in Mind

It’s the end of our second week here – two-thirds of our visit is over. This is the point we always say that next year we’ll come for six weeks or maybe two months. But we get home, and we only seem to be able to carve out three weeks from our lives. But then again, maybe next year…

It’s always gratifying to be reminded of the lessons we learn from the incredible people here.  Mrs. Nyati, a grandmother who always teaches us about perseverance and hard work, doesn’t disappoint.  This year, her English skills are impressive. Eileen asked her if she was taking English classes.  “No, I don’t take classes,” she said. “So how did you learn?” Eileen asked. “Well, I like to read the paper, and I watch television shows in English.” Mrs. Nyati repeated her request for an English-Xhosa dictionary, something we finally found on the weekend. When Eileen gave it to her on Monday, Mrs. Nyati is speechless, leafing through the pages as if they were written with gold leaf. “Now I will be a professional,” she says. Over the following days, she has reported that she reads it every night. “It is such a wonderful book,” she says.

In many ways, this has been our most productive trip. There have been no major interruptions, such as teacher strikes or public holidays.  We are working with the teachers all day, every day.

And yet, for every thing we do, we see 10 more we’d like to do. Larry has been working with the teachers in Grades 2, 3 and 4 on techniques for improving comprehension by helping students retell the stories they are reading. He’d like to show all the teachers other techniques, such as how to use the students’ work to create spelling lessons and how to extend the comprehension techniques, but he needs to focus on reinforcing the important technique he’s teaching. Some of the teachers are very eager to learn everything they possibly can, so Larry has been teaching them some of the other techniques. At the final professional development session, he will ask some of the teachers to share their particular strengths, of which there are many, with the charge that they share it with their colleagues. We look forward to reports during the year about how this collaborative approach is going.  We do think the faculty is ready for this.

GRADE 1 curriculum 
Eileen has been going into the Grade 1 and Grade R (K) classrooms and doing read-alouds and singing, sometimes with the older students as well. The children love “Are You My Mother?” by P.D. Eastman, about a baby bird who hatches while his mother is away getting food and he goes out to find his  mother. One of the Grade 1 teachers showed Eileen that part of their curriculum involves matching baby animals to their mothers, so the book is relevant on many levels. 

The teachers of early grades are eager to be included in the professional development, so this year, Larry provided workshops on reading Big Books. We’d love to find good Big Books in Xhosa for the younger readers and more in English for Grade 1 where they are now beginning to teach English.

"Toot! Toot!"
We found a book with the words for “She’ll be Coming Around the Mountain When She Comes,” a song Larry sang with hand motions with the teachers and older students when we were here last.  The younger students love it as much as the older students, and greet us in the street with “Toot! Toot!”, the opening hand motion. We’re getting a kick out of the fact that an entire school on the tip of Africa loves singing an old American folksong – as much as we love hearing them sing songs in Xhosa during the morning opening . Interculturalism at work.

During the lunch break, the teachers began singing some of the songs Larry taught with his guitar two years ago – “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” “There’s a Hole in the Bottom of the Sea.” There hasn’t been much time for singing with the guitar this year because of our other work, but clearly the teachers (and students) miss it.

Keeping Progress in Mind

We try very hard to keep our blinders on, so we focus on the needs of this school in this community without thinking of all the other needs around us. Even with that, sometimes we are overwhelmed by the incredible needs and the obstacles the students face -- particularly as they are about to take exams that will be compared to students from schools that are well financed with parents’ money and who are taking the exams in their mother tongue.

The school system is built to be unequal. Each school requires parents to pay fees, set by the parents in that school. In poor communities like ours, these fees are waived, so poor schools must subsist on the barebones budget provided by the district education office. In our township, if you’ve got the money to pay the fees and to pay for transportation, you can send your child to another school a few miles away, but few in this township can afford that.  Paul, our volunteer coordinator from Calabash Trust in Port Elizabeth, was telling us that his three girls go to a school where parents pay about $100 per child each month and there are 1000 children in the school. So the school abounds with resource teachers and extra programs.  We wonder how the enormous inequities will ever be overcome.   

Yet we have to refocus and remember how far this school has come over the past 5 years. The teachers have worked hard to implement the new strategies that we and other volunteers have shared, along with training on new materials and curriculum from the education department. Many work hard to update their skills, taking courses and attending workshops.

There are far more resources available to the students and the teachers over the past few years. The computer lab, once dusty and forgotten, now has up-to-date computers with curriculum-related software and even some with internet access.  Teachers work with their students in the lab on a regular basis.  There is a quality printer connected to the computers through a network.  We are simply amazed at how far this computer lab has come.

The impact of computers is felt throughout the area.  Principal Thambo reports there are a record numbers of students in Grades 1 and R.  “This is because parents have heard about our computer studies,” he says. Other schools in the area are not seeing growth in numbers like this. In fact, the education district thought Mr. Thambo was inflating his numbers to get additional funds. “I told them to come here and count the children. They are here. This is real,” he told me.

There are other resources – many purchased through the generosity of regular readers of this blog. Five years ago, there was one copier which rarely worked. Today there are two excellent copiers working all the time. Can a school function without a copier? Of course. But it certainly helps the teachers and administrators get things done efficiently. And, equally important, it shows the faculty that their time is valued.

Families Volunteering the Library

Principal Thambo asked Eileen to facilitate a meeting with families, and she eagerly agreed. It has been challenging to get parents to volunteer in the school, and there is a new group of parents who had never taken part in the earlier parent meetings while Eileen was here last.

At the meeting, there was a dialogue on the importance of parents and teachers being partners in the children’s education, with everyone giving what they can.  Unfortunately, there are many high school graduates in the township who cannot get a job. But what they can do is read to the younger children in the afternoons. In that way, they can gain self-esteem and use their time productively, while improving the education of all the children. One of our hopes for the future is to identify a parent who can coordinate parent involvement in the community. It is always hard in just 3 short weeks.

Eileen asked for volunteers to help organize and inventory the library. Some of the boxes of books that were shipped were donated to the municipal library and some of the more difficult ones were donated to the middle school and high school. Mr. Thambo has been asked by his superiors to determine exactly what books are in the library.

The following morning, several parents came to help. They enjoyed taking the books off the shelves and checking them against the master list, looking through the books and reinforcing their own English as they went. The process had value far beyond checking off book titles. The parents couldn’t wait to take books home and share them with their children. These parents were given permission to do that, but unfortunately there is no system for taking out books beyond the classrooms.

Increasing use of the library

One of our goals for the future is determining how to increase utilization of the library. Even the classrooms are not yet taking full advantage of the library. Grade 1 and R teachers want books in their classrooms, but as yet that hasn’t happened. The teachers in Grades 2, 3 and 4 have boxes of books in their class for students to take home at night, but they don’t visit the library to change out the books. Even more important, we don’t see many books going home regularly. The teachers tell us there are other priorities and that parents don’t read the books with the children. Part of the issue is that the students need help identifying books that they can read themselves, and Larry is working with the teachers on this.

A key challenge in this school, and others like it, is there is no funding for non-teaching staff. This seems to be an issue only in this province’s education district, and there is hope that this will change now that the national government has taken control of this failing education district.  In the meantime, every time a new responsibility is added, it falls on the principal or the teachers. While there is a library committee, they have challenges to overcome. Part of the issue is that books have never been a part of the culture of the school or the township. Another part is the desire to keep the books in good condition – in other words, to protect them from destruction by not using them. We’re working on this…

Learning to enjoy the natural resources

While we have enjoyed staying at Rosedale B&B, we miss seeing our friends in the township every day, particularly our former host family, the Mofus. The owners of Rosedale, Keith and Nomdumiso, are friends of the Mofus and they invited them over for a brai on Thursday. We had a wonderful time.

A brai is far more than a bar-be-que. It involves sitting around the firepit as the wood fire is built, waiting for the coals to get hot, cooking over the coals, and then enjoying the fire for hours afterwards. In the cool weather, you enjoy the warmth of the fire. In the hot weather, the smoke keeps the bugs away. It’s an entire evening of sitting out under the stars, bundled up if you need to be. Compare that to an  American bar-be-que where we try to light charcoal as quickly as possible, pouring on chemicals to speed the process; then we cook the food and retreat inside if the weather isn’t perfect. Sitting around the campfire in cool weather is reserved for a camping trip.

The enjoyment of the outdoors no matter what the season is one of the many lessons we learn on our visits here. We are always struck with how wasteful we are at home. Here, cups and plates are washed, not thrown away, even with a large crowd. We are very aware of the limited resources around us. We begin to guard small bits of plastic wrap, keep our paper napkins for future use (there are none at school) and view a plastic bag as a treasure. Yes, we have been washing out our small plastic bags for sandwiches!

A weekend trip to the beautiful “Valley of Desolation”

We always talk about traveling a bit on the weekends, but by the time Friday rolls around, we typically are exhausted and need to spend our awake time finding resources for the next week. Having the library at the school has made a huge difference. There are books geared to teachers as well as students that we can use in our professional development. Plus, this year, we are on the same wavelength with the teachers and planning was much easier.

So we decided to spend a weekend in Graaff-Reinet, a tourist town about 3 hours north of Port Elizabeth, surrounded by the Camdeboo National Park.  On Saturday, we hiked around the park on a beautiful trail with spectacular views above the Valley of Desolation. It has the feel of the desert southwest of the U.S., but with springbok (like small deer), kudu, and ostriches running about. We get a true appreciation of wide African skies, with views of mountain range after mountain range in the distance.

We stayed in a lovely B&B and enjoyed the local food. The only downside was reading a book about the area that was in the B&B library. Although published in 2008, you would have thought it was written under Apartheid. The entire history was presented from the view of white Dutch settlers, with the Xhosa tribe that lived in the area viewed as a problem for the settlers without any recognition of their stake in the area. There was an entire chapter on angora wool, a mainstay of trade for the whites; yet there was no chapter on slavery, prevalent in that area. (Yes, it bore a striking resemblance to books on American history from a generation ago.) I was told that Graaff-Reinet is one of those communities that still hasn’t accepted that life is different these days.

Well, that wasn’t the only downside. We picked up a 24-hour bug there which made the 3-hour drive home a bit dicey. But Larry’s didn’t hit until after we were back in Port Elizabeth, so we were OK. We slept most of the rest of the day. On to week three.