August 30, 2015

Lessons We Learn

We come to South Africa not only in the hope of improving the lives of others, but to be changed ourselves. Our work through Calabash Tours and their international partner, People and Places: Responsible Tourism, is all about respecting the values and strengths of the communities that volunteers work with. With that overarching principle, we are taught lessons by the people we work with and those we meet every single day. 

Randi and Steve Adleberg, our friends and colleagues these two weeks, joined in the lessons. Here’s how Randi put it:

  “When we went to Port Elizabeth last weekend I wanted to stock up on TP, pencils, pens, crayons, poster paper, etc. Eileen pointed out, ‘So you buy toilet paper for the school; it will last a week. Then what?’ Our goal here is to make sustainable changes in education, not to provide consumables. The students and staff are used to working with the supplies they have. And the learning occurs--even without all the school supplies we, in The States, find so necessary. 

  “Do I wish the learners had supplies?  Do I wish I could xerox and distribute practice work instead of writing it on the board over and over again?  Of course I do. Would it speed things up? Undoubtedly. Does it make a difference in what they learn?  I don't think so. 

  “Here are all the things they DO have. Ace taught a lesson on electricity yesterday. He started with a web centered around the words, electrical power. He asked the students to list all the things they could think of that use electricity. ‘Fridge!’ ‘Stove!’ ‘Lights!’ ‘TV!’ ‘Cell phone!’ ‘Computer!’ they all shouted.  And the families do have most of these things (although few have computers, and cell phones still need ‘minutes’ to be purchased to make them work).

  "But more importantly, I think, they have free time!  They have two recesses at school, and time to run around, and play, and just be kids. Several of the kids are on sports teams: soccer and rugby mostly. I have at least one student who takes karate. (He has his yellow belt.)  And I have noticed older kids who run on the dry afternoons. But they do not seem crazed with extra-curricular activities. Everything is at a more comfortable pace. And people do not let lack of the best sports equipment stop them from being excellent athletes.  

  “I've learned many things from my two weeks at the A.V. Bukani School, not the least of which is that quality of life is not dependent upon how quickly we achieve our goals, or on how many material goods we possess, but on taking the time to savor what we do have.”

The lesson hit home on Thursday again, when the school community gave Randi and Steve one of their grand farewell parties. As the teachers were preparing for it, Randi said, "They don’t need to do this. We have such little time with them and there is so much pressure on them already." 

Eileen responded that this is indeed what they want and need to do. What we have learned is that this is an essential part of the school’s life – Celebrations and showing of appreciation are not to be ignored for “serious work.” They come first. And oh yes, as much as they mourned last week, they celebrated this week, showing appreciation for educators who come so far to share their skills and their hearts.

The teachers, and some of the students regaled us in song and dance, and prayer. "Thank you, God, for sending Steve and Randi to us. Thank you, God, for giving them the skills, so that they could teach them to us."  

Randi and Steve made a huge contribution in their time here. What draws us back here year after year is the belief that the strategies and knowledge (and caring) shared with the teachers make a profound difference in the school community. 

We see that reflected in the teachers and students this year. Seven years after our first visit, teachers at A.V. Bukani immediately trust people of another race and another country in mutual respect, are engaged in strategies shared in their classrooms, and request and attend after school professional development. And, we see it in the READING and now the WRITING (!!) of the older students.

The volunteers with Principal Thambo and Ace Lamani.
Eileen & Larry honor the community by wearing the traditional
dress made for them by the mothers in 2008.
Randi came with fresh eyes, with high expectations for the older students (higher than we admit we even had). They responded. She and her mentor/mentee Ace Lamani, the Deputy Principal and teacher, learned a great deal from each other.

Steve came with a willingness to share and to learn from his co-teacher, Ben Tenato, the upper grades math teacher and head of the math department in the school. "Thank you for the honor of being part of your school community," Steve said at their farewell.

Ben noted his deep appreciation for Steve’s openness and support: “He did not come to judge me. We taught together and we were like a team that had been together a long time,” Ben said. “Every time he demonstrated a lesson, it became clear to me what I was missing, what I needed to do to improve.”

Ben using techniques from Steve 

Steve in the classroom

Randi’s last lesson for her students was on letter writing. She wrote this letter on the board. 

The students in each class wrote letters back to be mailed to her. Some could not wait and handed her letters as she was leaving. They were all in tears (Randi, too). Here are snippets:

“Thank you, about everything you have done for me, teaching me that education is important.

“I don’t know how to thank you. But thank you, Randi. It was nice having you around. I wish that God could bless you.”

“Thank you, for [teaching] some things that we are going to never forget in our lives.”

“I have no words to say, but I want you to always remember that you will always be at our hearts. Thank you Randi. You were like a mother to us.”

 “I want you to know that you are one of the people I admire and inspire me to do well and be great at work.”
“You were a very supportive teacher. You taught me to not laugh at another person.”

“I’m going to miss your smile.”

Where else do you make a life-changing impact like that in two weeks?

Two More Weeks for the Kuglers

We have two more weeks to go and we appreciate the extra time we have this year, grateful we decided to stay a month instead of our typical three weeks.
Larry is in the midst of working with the teachers in Grades 2, 3 and 4 on Guided Reading. What Randi has seen and reported about the reading and writing skills and excitement in grades 6 and 7 has inspired Larry in his work.  

Since the last time we were here in 2012, when grade 4 was the highest grade, we can now see the possibilities and the fruition of the work that Larry, Sara, and Cecily began in 2008. Since these grade 6 and 7 learners have had three additional years of opportunities to talk, read, and write in English since our last visit, their potential has been unleashed and many of them converse easily and effectively in English.

It is important to note that English is not spoken anywhere in their community, other than by the teachers during English class. This is not an immersion into a language all around them. It is swimming upstream to learn an essential and required skill if they are to continue in higher education and in commerce in the broader South African society. It is the reason we all created a library of quality books in English for this township.

The lesson for Larry this year: While progress may be slow, progress is indeed taking place!

This progress has fueled Larry’s commitment to provide small-group guided reading to the teachers’ array of teaching techniques. The previously introduced techniques of think-pair-share, read aloud, and the use of big books have been integrated into the fiber of instruction, more effectively in some classes than in others, but noticeably in most classes that teach English. The goal is now to develop a small group approach that can be used to meet the more specific needs of individual learners. Larry will continue to model the approach and then transfer responsibility to the teachers with whom he works to help them develop this skill.

They can then share this approach with other teachers in the school.  Slowly but surely they have done this with the other techniques and we know they can do the same with guided reading. With two more weeks in the school during our current visit, we are encouraged by the progress Nombulelo (grade 2), and Melene and Coke (grade 3) have made and optimistic about the future

Things Do Work Out

Eileen continues her work to connect with the families in the township and in the broader community. Her big lesson (which she learns over and over again!): patience. Used to being able to see the big picture and strategize the little steps needed to get there, Eileen finds that sometimes the little steps don’t work here. Or sometimes you don’t know they are working. Or sometimes the big picture is really years, not days away. But in the end, things do start to work, at just the pace they were supposed to. Patience. Patience and faith.

Getting parents together is a challenge this time of year. The main employment in the township is in the orange groves, and this is the height of picking season. Parents are working long shifts throughout the day and evening, picking and packing the fruit. The frequent rain, unusual this time of year, has made it even more difficult because the fruit can’t be picked when it is wet. So when the weather is sunny, the shifts are long and may carry into the weekend.

Despite this challenge, Eileen held a successful parent meeting this week, with twelve mothers and grandmothers there helping plan four more meetings over the next two weeks. They were all women Eileen had worked with over the years and they were very eager to reconnect. She worked with them on helping create a love of books with their children, and they indeed enjoyed having books in their hands.

Eileen is going to share simple ways families can support their children’s learning at home. In addition, one of the leaders of the township is helping organize a knitting program as part of the meetings, to knit scarves and hats in the school colors for the students who don’t have them. Several of the women will cook dinners for all the participants, so even workers from the grove can get off the busses and come right to school.

Eileen also gets the fun opportunity to read and sing in English with the youngest learners. Boy, do they love "Brown Bear"!  They already know a few rhymes and songs in English as the school is working to introduce English as early as possible. 

One other lesson Eileen learned was from one of the teacher leaders at the school, a caring teacher committed to making the school a place where all children can get the education they need. When Eileen told her how much she respect the hard work Mrs. Sam puts in every day to make the place better, the teacher said, “If everything is perfect, you never learn. You must make progress every day.”

So perfection is not the goal… learning is. True words of wisdom.

Eileen and Larry