September 16, 2015

"I am the product of what you have brought here"

We were definitely supposed to stay the fourth week. So many wonderful things took place at school that week. So much came together.

Our Farewell party was an extraordinary day that we will never forget, a surprise that the teachers and students worked on all week. The students displayed their academic prowess in a way we could not have imagined a few years ago. There are exciting details and pictures later in the blog, but first, we’ll report on so much else that happened this week.

It was a week of great achievement.  One of the school’s Grade 3 students won the area spelling bee!  Teacher Nomhle Gada was over the moon when she came in to give us the news.

And the older students took part in a successful Entrepreneur’s Day, under the mentorship of teacher Ben Tenato. 

They had to make something to sell during the mid-day break, advertise it, set out, sell it, and then figure out how much they made after accounting for all their expenses – an economics lesson. So much excitement at the school for this great event! 

The Library

While the school truly appreciates the library, there have been a number of obstacles to getting it functional. This, unfortunately, is the case in many township libraries with over-burdened teachers and no budget or staff to run it.  We were committed this month to trying to “crack this nut,” as our volunteer coordinator Paul Miedema said.

Through some contacts Eileen made in the broader community, she connected with a professor at  Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University  in Port Elizabeth, Dr. Laetitia Greying. Among the professor’s many specialties is library education.

Dr. Greyling met with Eileen in Port Elizabeth on the weekend and then agreed to come out to the school in the township. It could not have been a more positive experience for all involved. She talked about building a love of reading in the community. “Reading has such power. You can’t be mad at your child when you are sitting together reading.”

She met with Principal Thambo and several teachers who are members of the library committee, including new teacher Nombulelo Lamani who had worked at the municipal library. Dr. Greyling toured the school grounds, including the new Reception (kindergarten) areas under construction. She was impressed with the commitment of the school.

Ace Lamani and Laetitia Greyling
But the most fortuitous part was that when Dr. Greyling came to school she recognized Deputy Principal Ace Lamani from his Honors program where she had been one of his professors – one of his toughest, and one of his most supportive, he remembers. They were both happy to reconnect. She is eager to become involved with the school’s efforts to effectively organize the library and train community volunteers and teachers as library aides. She will also be a great resource for teachers interested in furthering their education.

The school still has work to do to move the library forward. The library committee stated it is committed to having boxes of books back in classrooms, something that hasn’t happened widely since there have been unfilled teacher positions in the school leaving some students without teacher oversight for many hours a day.  And there are organizational elements that need to be completed before Dr. Greyling becomes involved. But we are all hopeful these steps will be taken to take full advantage of the wonderful books in the library.
Dr. Seuss on the back of the library

Guided Reading Continues

Larry concluded his work with the six teachers he worked with. They included one Grade 2 teacher, three Grade 3 teachers , and two Grade 4 teachers. During this final week, the teaching responsibilities were completely turned over to the Bukani teachers. Each of them selected a book to use and to lead the lesson. Every one of them did a great job! 

It’s obvious they were astute observers when Larry did the teaching and their seriousness paid off. After each lesson, Larry provided immediate feedback and gave them written feedback by the next morning. The discussions with each teacher focused on what they had done well with one or two suggestions about what they could do to improve during the next lessons and in the future. Overall, each of these teachers made good progress during the month.  Guided reading is by far the most complex technique the staff has undertaken over our eight years and five trips. Much work is to be done to hone their skills, but, taking the long view, they have successfully begun this journey.
And, oh yes. Larry had great fun singing with many classes on Thursday and Friday before departing. The learners at A. V. Bukani so enjoyed learning these songs.  Their smiling faces, the peals of laughter at some of the silliness in the lyrics and Larry’s crazy renditions, and the absolute joyful dancing as they sang left everyone exhausted, sweaty, and exultant (especially Larry).

Parent Programs Build

Attendance at our parent meetings continued to increase during our final week. Deputy Principal Lamani and Mrs. Lamani helped with the translation and also worked with the parents and the learners, bringing joy to all.

The mothers and grandmothers continued to knit scarves for students at the school and really enjoyed the opportunity to get together. One of the community leaders is hoping to continue the knitting at the school.

Eileen also learned that there is an arts cooperative working with women in the area, called Valley Arts ( coordinated by the Centre for the Community School at Nelson Mandela Metro University. They are interested in working with the group that knits at Bukani. Currently they make beautiful bead work and other jewelry along with items from special cloth made only in that region.   **Eileen brought back some of the beautiful jewelry and other crafts from the cooperative for purchase if you are interested in supporting these women.**

But of course, the parent meetings were more than about crafts. During the meetings, the parents learned simple strategies to support their children’s reading and math skills. The parents were given blank cards and a pen to take home to work with their children. Early learners drew pictures of words that start with a certain sound. Some added in the word. Older learners drew pictures and wrote stories about them.

 One father asked me how to get his son to turn off the TV because he gets angry when the father turns it off. I suggested that his son probably wouldn’t mind turning off the TV if the father sat with him and worked on words and stories.  At the next meeting, the father came with his son and the son gave me a stack of cards with pictures and stories. They had truly enjoyed working on this together.

We also encouraged the parents to use their regular daily activities as a way to build math skills with their children. These included cooking, setting the table, grocery shopping, and counting out change for purchases.

An increasing number of children came to each meeting. We had books and word games out and they quickly became engaged. The older learners read books to the younger ones. We encouraged them to keep reading to their brothers and sisters, cousins, and neighbors.

Visiting Our Family in the Township

Yunga is at tall as Eileen
We always look forward to spending time with the Mofus, the family whom we lived with for our first three years. Grandson Yunga who turned six on our first trip is now 14! He is still sweet and caring, but definitely a teenager:). 

Rev. Lovemore Mofu has suffered from kidney failure the past few years. He now goes for dialysis three times a week in a hospital about 50 minutes away. It is a full day’s trip for both him and his wife Nomsamo every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It’s quite a challenge, including the cost of a ride there. One time he did not have the money for transportation and he skipped dialysis. He became so ill, he was in the hospital for 10 days.

They also care for their two young grandsons, whose mother is working in a nearly town. Yunga and the two little ones are the love of their lives. No one gives a hug like their grandma Nomsamo! Pam, Yunga’s mother, works at one of the schools in the township and is a tremendous help and support for her parents and all three boys.

We had dinner at the Mofu home the night before we left. Pam and Nomsamo had wide smiles on their faces and said they had a special gift for us. They honored our family by giving Sara and Alex’s children Xhosa names! As in the Native American tradition, Xhosa names have deep meaning and are a treasured gift to those outside the culture. Maxine’s name is Sinovuyo, one who brings happiness, and Elias’ name is Sipho, a gift. A great honor to our family, indeed.

“I am the product of what you have brought here since 2008”

Our farewell party is always fun and moving – but this year it was something we could not have imagined.  It was one of the most powerful days of our lives.

The teachers wanted to create something completely different from previous
years and they kept it a secret from us all week. The Farewell showcased the Grade 6 and 7 students who were just starting school when we first arrived in 2008. All the speeches were written and delivered by the students, the first time students were given an important responsibility like that.

The official welcome was presented by a 7th grade student:  

I am the product of what you have brought here since 2008. I am from an unnamed family, but you taught me the strategies I needed so I could learn.”

Other students made similar remarks: 
Thank you for planting the seeds that helped us grow.” 
“We will never forget the Kugler family.”

Larry and I were stunned. And of course, the tears started falling and didn’t stop for an hour. The students displayed their reading and writing skills, their creative poetry, and their knowledge of strategies that Larry taught.  The students performed a fun skit about reading a Big Book, including discussing it afterwards.

The learners sang all the songs Larry had taught them, one led on a guitar that a student made in a class where they each made a musical instrument. The Grade 1 learners sang “The Penguin Song” which Eileen had taught them, after her granddaughter, Maxine, taught it to her.

The older learners performed “This Little Light of Mine,” a new song Larry taught this year. Afterwards, choking back tears, Eileen spoke to the Grade  7students. Many will go off to a high school that has severe limitations. And they will face racism and injustice in a country still breaking free from its harsh history. She urged the students to “Never let anyone try to put out your light. If someone tells you that you can't, remember me standing in front of you telling you that you can. And share your light with your younger brothers and sisters, cousins and neighbors. That is how your teachers learned and it is now your responsibility.

Of course, there was great fun, too, with dancing and singing. What would a party be without music?!

This was a program that opened our eyes to the impact our work has had. And inspired us to continue. Yes, there are still challenges and we need to take the long view. But we can revel in a celebration of what these students have gained in confidence, knowledge, and skills. We could not be prouder of them.

It was a wonderful fifth visit, shared with friends who made their own impact on these deserving teachers and learner. We'll have more reflections soon...

Eileen and Larry