Wednesday, March 23, 2005

A Success Story by Andrew Mullek, Peace Corps

For all of the problems in the schools, we all do have our favorite success story.
This is mine…

I have been working with a book club in one of my schools for the past eight months or so. My purpose in establishing this club was to engage children who had potential and motivation, and to help them develop their literacy skills, which were being wholly neglected. Another purpose was to show the teachers what the children were capable of. Luckily, one of the first real successes came when a teacher joined hands with me on this project and we persevered to establish this club despite obstacles that had been placed there by other teachers and by the school administration.
My story is about a trip I organized with the two teachers who had taken ownership of the club and were working with me in leading the group. I had wanted to take the children to the library in Tzaneen – the local town. Already, as a club, we had broken mindsets by giving and demanding homework, engaging the learners in reading comprehension, allowing free expression in speaking, using positive motivation, and by having high expectations. That these things are nonexistent in the classroom points to the most severe problem in rural education – the learners are simply not engaged…creativity and thinking is stifled.
The trip was a chance for us to encourage and motivate the thirty-five children who had continued to come to our weekly meetings, while exposing them to new things. Again, there were obstacles and opposition, but we were finally able to receive permission from the administration after a number of needless procedures were met. I was just slightly upset that thousands of rands are wasted on “athletics competitions” and we were given nothing, nor were we supported. That this was a great learning opportunity had little to do with getting approval...that we got to go is almost a success in itself.
I had organized to take the learners to visit the library, the government offices, and the local museum, and to the city park for lunch. I had wanted to break several mindsets in organizing this. 1) I had wanted all of the children who were a part of the book club to get to go. School trips only include 5 – 10 % of the children because none of them can afford to go. We were able to accomplish this by raising money and making our own food to the extent that the kids only paid R 10 to go, and we allowed poor learners to go free, which was entirely revolutionary. 2) The trip was to be a positive reinforcement for our learners. Only book club learners could go. 3) The trip was about the kids. Teachers were excluded except those who worked directly with the club. (Incidentally, on a normal school trip, all of the teachers go, and manage to make the trip about them). 4) The trip was to the show the school the amazing things that can be found close by, and that a lot of value can be found in going a short way.

Out of this trip came some amazing stories, and this is where I really begin.

The highlight might just have been lunch at the park. Our children had never really had access to a park before, and they truly enjoyed the time spent there. Seeing the kids play as they did – with such freedom – was a first for me in all of my time here. At the part was a white boy who was about 12 years old – the same age as my other learners. I watched intently as he approached some other children at play on a wheel structure that required more then one child to play on. He was absorbed immediately into the group and had no reservations about being the only white child in the group. What a sign of hope and encouragement for the future. By the end of their time in the park, he and another boy had become best friends. At one point, Matome (one of my grade 6 learners) approached me with his arms around the shoulders of the white boy and introduced him to me as his new best friend. The heart of the children was lost neither on myself nor on the teachers.
After the park we went to the museum, and the children were told some of the traditional Tsonga stories that the museum is trying to salvage before they die out completely. When we did finish the day, the two teachers with me were awed. We had only traveled 10 miles to the local town, but the teachers had never known about some of the places we went. One even told me, “Andrew I have lived here, my entire life and I have never even heard of some of the places you have taken us. I cannot believe it. You have done a good thing.”
A second and rival highlight came two weeks later when we had to collect the library books from the children. I had wanted each child to have a chance to check out a book and take it back to the village. The school has a library with tons of donated books, but will not give out books to the children, which was part of the reason we arranged to visit the public library. The school also refused to help pay for a school library card, for which we also had to raise money. All of the thirty-five children did returned their books, disproving the schools belief that the children could not be trusted. One morning, one child came to me with his very thick book. The others had all given their books to their teacher. I was unfamiliar with the child and that meant he was in the slow group. I asked him if he enjoyed his book, and he said, “Yes.” Unwilling to let him off with just a “yes” answer, I asked him if he could tell me about his story, and his eyes lit up, and he asked me in return, “About the gingerbread man?” I had seen that his was book of fairy tales, and I quickly said, “Yes.” The boy went into an amazing narrative about the gingerbread man. He must have read it several times for he highlighted all of the details. His voice was enthusiastic and his retelling was not only comprehensive, but joyful – he wanted me to learn about the gingerbread man. I kept my mouth shut and allowed him to express himself – something that never happens in the classroom. My smile got bigger and bigger while I listened and witnessed the four teachers in the staff room all leave their chairs and creep up behind the boy to hear his story. They were in total shock at what came out when free expression was encouraged and expectations were placed with confidence. The teachers could not believe their eyes or ears. Hardly, do they ever go beyond a “yes/no” question. I, myself, was surprised with the boy’s intelligence and eagerness, but I had created a venue for it and some of the teachers got to see what the learners were truly capable of…when given a chance.

1 comment:

kim said...

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