August 23, 2015

It's oh so good to be back...

We are back in South Africa for our 5th visit and it feels comfortable and right -- like visiting old friends or family.  Considering this has been our 13th week here over the years, that makes sense.

Our first week back is truly one of contrasts. We were looking forward to the joyous reunion with our colleagues at A.V. Bukani Primary. But Sunday, we heard the challenging news. One of the teacher leaders at the school, Mandisa Mbande, just passed away. Mandi was one of the teachers we were closest to. She lived in the township and often spent time with us after school. Larry and Sara both worked with her. It is a real loss to the school and to the community.

So instead of hugs of joy, there were hugs of mutual grief. As sad as we are, we are glad to be able to mourn together. During the week,  the faculty planned and took part in a prayer service for Mandi’s family at their home and a memorial service at a church, each at 1 p.m. on school days. The students were dismissed early and many of teachers were working on the plans during the school day, also practicing hymns with students. We attended the weekday services with them, and also attended the funeral on Saturday. (More details later in this blogpost.)

The school is also facing some shortages of teachers. For a number of reasons, including serious illness, several of the strong teachers we have worked with are no longer here, in contrast to previous years when the school faculty was very stable from year to year. A.V. Bukani is also transitioning to a R (K) to 7th grade school, as is the school on the other side of the township which had been a middle school.  So there are some new classes in 5, 6, and 7th grade, requiring extra teachers.

Some of the teachers are literally doubling up their time, going from classroom to classroom, getting one group started on some work and then going into the classroom next door. If a teacher is out for a day or two, there are no substitute teachers, so a class of 35-40 may suddenly have another 20 for the day while that class is divided among the teachers who are there. A new teacher was just hired, with two more expected next week. But at the moment, the teachers feel a great deal of pressure.

Even with the sadness, the schedule disruptions, and the teacher shortage, the faculty worked hard to take advantage of our time. We see some things that let us know real progress is being made.

Ace sharing some of the strategies
he's learned on literacy 
We are most excited about the appointment of our friend Ace Lamani as Deputy Principal, with a focus on academics. Ace is a true life-long learner. He is eager to hear about every strategy, every bit of information, that can help him with his “learners” -- their word for “students” and one we think is more appropriate. He recently finished his honors degree, including some of the strategies Larry and Sara taught him over the years, which he incorporated into his thesis. He has impressively stepped up to this leadership position.

Literacy in the Upper Grades

We have brought several priceless resources with us this year – our friends and colleagues Randi and Steve Adleberg.  We enjoy having colleagues to process the day’s activities and brainstorm together.  In addition to their duties throughout the school, Randi made numerous contributions to this blog and Steve took many of the photos.

Randi, who recently retired as a secondary language arts teacher in Fairfax County has been assigned to work directly with Ace who still teaches many classes for 5th, 6th, and 7th graders.  Ace gave her full authority to jump in and work with his learners.  After observing his classroom for the first day, she quickly went to the library, and pulled out some books at different levels. With all the stresses on the teachers to teach “the required curriculum,” taking books out of the library has become something of a luxury, unfortunately. But Randi has been reigniting enthusiasm for the books with the students, and modeling how books chosen by the students are essential to enhance literacy. 

A key lesson that we learn and relearn in South Africa is flexibility. Here’s how Randi described her first week to some close friends back home:

Randi working with learners and **library books**
 “I think I am a very different teacher here than I was at home. I have learned quickly not to worry about time. At home, I carefully planned daily lessons so that I could fit certain goals into the class time periods. Here, though, the schedule never stays the same, so I am learning to start activities regardless of time constraints. If I start something they can’t finish, no worries. We continue the next day.

“I am also learning to accept background noise. At home, I was not shy about going into the hallway to ask other students to quiet down. Here, I can’t exactly ask the cows to stop lowing, or the roosters to stop crowing; so I don’t shush the loud students when they pass the classroom door. The learners in the classroom are used to these noises and work in spite of them.”

Supporting Math

Steve Adleberg’s multi-faceted background as a teacher and principal includes working as a math specialist, so he was assigned to work with Ben, a wonderful teacher of math at the upper grades.  We are happy that Ben finally has some professional development, as most of our work has focused on literacy.

Ben and Steve and manipulatives 
Steve brought with him math manipulatives, thanks to mutual friend Linda Braverman. He discovered that the school district had already sent the school a box of manipulatives that had never been opened. (This just confirms our belief that resources without training do not get used).  Steve and Ben spent some time learning to work with the manipulatives and will introduce them to the lower grade teachers next week.

Steve also worked with Ben on strategies for solving math word problems. When Larry taught the learners a new song – “Children, Go Where I Send Thee” – Steve typed up the words, which build on increasing numbers. He used it as the basis for some math word problems in Ben’s classes, integrating math and language arts.

“Larry’s Song”

Larry accompanies a second grade class learning an
English rhyme
Speaking of Larry singing, neither the learners nor the teachers have forgotten Larry’s guitar.  The last time we were at the school three years ago, we finished our volunteer visit with a school-wide sing-a-long of “She’ll be Coming ‘Round the Mountain.” Larry came with new songs, ready to move on, but oh no, he will not get away without singing what has become “Larry’s Song” in the school!  We laugh that younger learners who had never met Larry before this week still call it “Larry’s Song.”

Larry is building on the groundwork he laid with Sara and Cecily and in subsequent years when he carried on alone. This year he plans to work on guided reading, with our luggage brimming with specialized books for small group work.  The first week was spent solidifying the previous strategies with the teachers he is working with, some new to the school. It was heartwarming to see some teachers using Big Books, think-pair-share, and active read-alouds.

While skill proficiency varies widely, we are truly seeing readers in the upper grades. Ace has looped with a group of learners from 4th to 5th to 6th Their progress is impressive. Randi is introducing writing, and revision,  and is enthusiastic about the engagement of the students.  She’ll be sharing these strategies with more teachers next week.

Eileen is slipping into a variety of roles. She read and did finger-play rhymes with 2nd graders. She reconnected with the wonderful municipal librarian to gain guidance on setting up the new computerized library system. And she began laying the foundation for parent meetings on supporting their children’s literacy development. She also helped the teachers with the memorial service, such as creating a slide show of photos of Mandi that included a number with our family over the years.

It Never Rains in Nomathamsanqa

We told Randi and Steve to prepare for arid conditions, with a warm sun mid-day helping with the cold weather. Ha! Climate change has hit here and it has rained most of the week. Of course this area needs rain, so we can’t complain.

There are few paved roads and the others are rutted and covered with a combination of just plain mud and the occasional droppings from the neighborhood goats or dogs, or cattle who roam along the side of the road. We were sure our ride back to the guest house where we are staying was going to get stuck in the mudded road, but our driver somehow managed to get his tires rolling through it. So glad WE are not driving!

The rain makes everything a bit more complicated, and attendance drops when it rains all day. But most make due. The learners here are often given responsibilities that they fulfill proudly. The day after the memorial service for Mandi, Randi wrote: “Classes were delayed this morning while we waited for students to bring back the chairs they had carried several blocks to the church in town for yesterday’s service. The school children here willingly take on chores. Every morning, as they walk onto the school grounds, they pick up trash to throw away. When they get to their classrooms, they sweep the sidewalks outside the door. During break, they sweep the rooms.”

This rain is a totally new experience for us here. Randi’s words: “Due to the rain, the mud around the school is plentiful and slick! Everyone’s shoes are coated. To stay clean, the main office entrance has torn cardboard boxes for foot mats. Smells like rotted paper and cow dung. The mud we all track into the classrooms dries by the afternoon. After classes, several learners stayed behind to lift and move the student desks and sweep the classroom floor. Every Friday, lessons end at noon so that the children can remove all the furniture from their classrooms and thoroughly clean the rooms as well as the office area.”

With everything going on, there still manages to be education. The principal is a true force of nature, a well-respected leader who just knows how to get things done. “Most of my friends are politicians and they tell me I should leave this hopeless job and go into politics,” Mr. Thambo tells Eileen. “But I must stay here because this is important work. As Mandiba said, ‘It is not enough that you were born, but what matters is how you have used your life to improve the lives of ordinary people.’”

Sharing in the Grief for a Friend

We know that there are many funerals in the township – far too many. The day of Mandi’s funeral, there is another funeral for one of two young men who died in a tragic car accident nearby - a brother and brother-in-law, so one woman lost both a husband and brother. The young man buried that day had just earned his degree and begun a job.  Many of the mourners wore a tee shirt with his picture on it.

With Mandi in her green sweater
on our first visit in 2008
The sun came out on Saturday as we went to Mandi’s funeral. The township looked refreshed, cleaned by the rains. The warmth of the sun felt so good. The funeral is packed with mourners.  The funeral service, as with everything here, is a cultural experience for us. Hymns are not just recited, they are sung with enthusiasm, dancing, and extensive harmonies. The “passing of the peace” is full of intense hugging and singing. The service goes on for 3 ½ hours, most of it in Xhosa. The speakers speak with their full body, so it is fascinating to just watch the body language. In both the Memorial Service and funeral, Larry and Eileen are recognized and asked to stand. We are made to feel welcome in many ways. We are a bit embarrassed, but the family tells us that they are warmed by our presence. We are honored to be part of the community.

Weekend Visit to an Informal Settlement

On Saturday, Randi and Steve took a township tour in Port Elizabeth (PE) through Calabash Tours, which we strongly recommend. Before Apartheid, many black people had good jobs and good homes on the PE harbor. Under Apartheid, blacks were removed from their homes, some in thriving multiethnic communities, and forced into isolated townships. The blacks no longer had access to good jobs or employment at all. Today, unemployment is still a major concern.

The townships across South Africa today include homes of varying levels, from the original small mud huts to middle-class homes. They are often places with a strong sense of community and a thriving culture. In addition to townships, there are informal settlements, basically squatter camps, that house the poorest of the poor, as they do in other countries. Those who can’t afford housing will create what they can in a settlement.

We all were dinner guests at a private home in one of the informal settlements surrounding Port Elizabeth. From Randi: "The settlement we visited is on the site where a hospital once stood. Children still find old needles in the dirt. The houses are corrugated shacks. No indoor plumbing. (Just a few outdoor pumps shared by many families.) No electricity. No bathrooms. No paved roads. Definitely no sidewalks! The streets are all mud and dirt. No trees. No playgrounds or fields."

Our host told us that she and her husband came from a northern rural area of South Africa to look for work in the city of Port Elizabeth about 15 years ago. They created a two-room home in the settlement for themselves and eventually their three children. Her husband has worked as a security guard and a truck driver. She sells beaded jewelry that she makes. The furniture was comfortable and the small home welcoming.

Our Calabash guide told us that his family also had lived in a settlement at one point. His father was involved in anti-Apartheid efforts and their home was destroyed by those in power. His father was able to eventually move their family to a large culture-rich township nearby.

After Apartheid, when Mandela became president, he ordered the building of 1,000,000 free and renovated homes to improve the housing of blacks, many of whom were forced to live in mud huts under Apartheid. A fraction of these were built, and nationwide, tens of thousands still wait for homes. The family we visited is "on the list" for one of these homes, but has been waiting for years. Eventually all homes in the informal settlement will be destroyed once residents have new homes.

More observations from Randi: “Our hostess prepared a feast for us! Rice, green salad, potato salad, bean salad, beets, fried chicken, and beef. It was delicious. Although the settlement has no electricity, the people who live there ‘borrow,’ or buy, it from neighboring developments that have electricity. The house we visited had several electrical wires, and cables running from outside and down the center post of the house. A TV was on the entire time we were there, although muted. We also noticed a washing machine in a small shed attached to the house. 

"The main house consisted of two rooms. In the main room, the kitchen area is separated from the living room by a several large chairs with a large low coffee table. That's where we ate. 

The second room is the master bedroom. The three children (a boy and two girls) sleep in a small room that is attached to the house, but has a separate entrance, just outside the front door of the main room. 

"There are no indoor bathrooms. Each shack has a 'bucket system' (a/k/a outhouse).  The ‘system’ works like this: the family fills the bucket with excrement and municipal trucks pick up the buckets once a week. 

"Despite these stark living conditions, the children play, and run, and laugh just like the kids in our neighborhoods at home. The parents worry about their children, as all parents do. And they want good education and promising futures for their children. They are just like us.”

The faces that greet us each day:

Eileen and Larry