From Oxford Street to Lion’s Head –Nicole Kalkman, our UK staff member’s visit to South Africa
1 November, 2018
On the 8th of October, I left help2read’s UK office in Oxford Circus to work alongside my colleagues in South Africa for 2, 5 weeks. On arrival, I attended an annual celebration event for one of help2read’s literacy development collaboration partners, Partners for Possibility. The event gave me insight into how much of a crisis the education sector in SA is in and a glimpse into the collective efforts being done to improve education outcomes. help2read programmes play a pivotal role in ensuring that education is meaningful within the communities we have partnered with, an aspect that was clearly highlighted when I embarked on various school visits.
In Johannesburg, help2read’s Literacy Tutor programme currently operates in 2 township communities with 3 schools in Alexandra Township and 1 school in Diepsloot Township (launched in January 2018). My first visit was to Diepsloot Primary 4 School which consists of separate container buildings. The help2read Reading Room is in one of the containers in which our Literacy Tutors (LTs) provide one-on-one reading help to 10-15 learners each twice a week. The LTs here told me about the various games they play with the children to enhance their vocabulary and how much the children as well as the LTs themselves enjoy these activities. By ‘learning through play’ the learners seem to overcome the negative connotation often associated with reading that many of them carry before entering the help2read programme. However, after a few sessions with the LTs, the children have a more positive attitude towards reading and eagerly show up for literacy activities with no need for prompting. The programme is a great way to keep the children engaged and active during the half-hour reading sessions.
At Carter Primary School and Ekukhanyisweni School in Alexandra Township, the LTs shared stories about some of their favourite workshops they received through the help2read programme, such as the Raising Readers training which showed them how to teach the children to read words and provided them with sight word games to use during their sessions. The LTs also told me how the LT programme has had a positive impact on their lives; one of them mentioned how the experience of working closely with all different kinds of children has greatly helped her with her studies in education psychology. The majority of the LTs told me they wanted to continue or start their studies in Education after their year at help2read. This was echoed by the LTs at each school I visited and goes to show how the LT programme inspires and further develops both the learners on the programme and the LTs assisting them; the dual impact is critical to help2read’s sustainable impact in such challenged communities.
I was delighted to hear from the LTs that the favourite activity for most of the learners was “surprise, surprise” reading books! This is such huge behavioural change given the fact that at the start of the year most of the learners in the help2read programme were very reluctant to read. The greatest impact of the programme lies in how the improvement of learning levels and joy in reading goes hand in hand; the more confident a child is about his/her reading skills, the more fun reading/learning will be for them. I was able to witness this while I chatted to the LTs at Carter Primary where the children for the next reading session were waiting in front of the door and could clearly not wait to get started. My colleague Thuli asked them, ‘who loves reading?!’ and every single one of them put their hand up as high up as they could and screamed, ‘ME!’ This showed how influential the LTs’ work is and how they have not only improved the reading skills of the learners, but also their joy and confidence in reading. The impact that help2read is making was articulated by the Principal who mentioned that, with an average number of 51 learners per class, help2read ‘’is doing work that the school itself cannot do with the time it does not have’’.
I visited Siyavuma Primary School in Soweto, where a young church group -trained by help2read- act as Volunteer Reading Helpers (VRHs). However, instead of providing reading help twice a week like all our other volunteers, this group provides reading help every morning and afternoon, each school day. They also like to do group activities with the children such as singing and dancing. The children seemed to love these activities and it got them all excited for their reading sessions, which were held outside on the day I visited. The children loved the sessions so much that they did not want to go back to class afterwards!
After the weekend I continued my trip to our team in Cape Town, where my first visit was with Heather, a Relationship Coordinator for the Volunteer Reading Help (VRH) programme. We visited 6 schools and it was great to also get to see the Volunteers ‘in action’ during their one-on-one reading sessions. We even got lucky enough to watch one of the puppet shows presented by UNIMA on the importance of reading at Portia Primary School. The puppet shows are sponsored by help2read and have been a huge success so far – it was great to witness how engaged the children were with the show and how much they enjoyed it. Furthermore, it was very interesting to see the contrast between the township schools we work in and the VRH schools, which are mostly former-model C schools. However, children in these schools need our help just as much, as many children are bussed in from townships to these schools to seek better education. The Volunteers I met were a mixture of retired men and women, university students and younger mums. Many of them have been with help2read for many years and are all clearly very passionate about helping children develop their literacy skills, some even purchasing books for the learners themselves.
I also visited seven LT schools in the Cape Town area with the LT coordinator, Melody. We visited our schools in Paarl, Wellington and Franschhoek in the Winelands region. In Mbekweni Primary (Paarl) one of our LTs told me how she has been working with help2read for 4 years now, having started off as a LT, followed by a more senior position within the LT programme each year and now being the area coordinator of 3 LT schools. Other LTs currently in the programme have similar help2read journeys. Moreover, almost all LTs I spoke to had already applied for either further studies or job opportunities. This was very encouraging to hear, as the main goal of the LT programme is to prepare the youth for future opportunities after their year with help2read.
My visit to Khayelitsha township in Cape Town – reputed to be the largest and fastest growing township in South Africa, was quite eye-opening. Khayelitsha seemed a lot more underdeveloped than any of the other townships I had visited, and there were barely any brick buildings to be found. One exception to this was the school that our LTs work in, Sobambisana Primary – a clear safe space for the community’s children. The school has two libraries, of which one is donated by help2read’s partner Breadline Africa. The LTs hold Reading Clubs once a week for Grades 1-3, as well as holiday reading clubs which are open to the whole school. During these Reading Clubs, the LTs do various activities such as a Spelling Bee competition to develop children’s literacy skills. They even hand out prizes (e.g. books and dictionaries) for the winners! Our Reading Clubs -held in all our LT schools- are a great way to engage children of all ages throughout the whole school, and in some places even the whole community, and expand our reach to children outside our one-on-one reading help programme. help2read’s presence at Sobambisana Primary School has provided the community with a safe space for children to learn and play.
During my visit I was very inspired by seeing how engaged the principals were with their schools. The principals were very engaged with the help2read programmes, stating all the positive feedback they have had from teachers. Literacy development is successful through collaboration and shared values, an aspect help2read has nurtured with the schools over the years and which resonates with the national call to action to make education more functional and useful for the thousands of learners across South African schools. Being on the ground and speaking to all the principals and coordinating teachers emphasized the fact that without the cooperation of the schools, we would not be able to do our important work and impact the lives of thousands of children throughout Gauteng and the Western Cape every year.
I ended my visit to South Africa on a literal, high by climbing up Lion’s Head and feeling very excited to be part of a team that does such important work. Hearing all the inspiring stories from our Literacy Tutors and Volunteers, witnessing the joy in children during the reading sessions, and seeing their incredible improvement in the assessment forms is something I will treasure for years and which will continue to inspire my efforts as a help2read Reading Champion.
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