Impact of Caring: Post 4 – Julika

This post is the fourth in a series about my experience while teaching and traveling this summer in South Africa. Here are the links to the previous posts:
Impact of Caring: Post 1 – Faaidah and Mahavia
Impact of Caring: Post 2 – Fiona and Cheryl
Impact of Caring: Post 3 – Kannemeyer Primary School

Julika Falconer
I am very fortunate because I have enough food to eat on a daily basis. I have a job that pays enough for my shelter, food and extras that I need. However, there are thousands of children who wake up hungry everyday.

According to a 2014 blog post published by Bordon Project, a nonprofit agency that addresses poverty and hunger,  over 11 million South African children are unsure when or where they will get their next meal. Jobs are scarce or pay very little and directly influence the amount of food parents can provide for their children. When children come to school undernurished or suffer from the effects of a lack of proper nutrients, it makes learning even more difficult. Without proper nutrition, the full capacity of what a child can achieve educationally is dramatically reduced.

I had the great fortune to meet a person who have devoted a major portion of her life helping feed vulnerable and impoverished children. I believe she is a  lifesaver for many needy children. Julika Falconer is the CEO of FutureLife Foundation, the charity arm of FutureLife, a company which has supplied over 9 million nutritious meals to needy children since 2009. She has been instrumental in finding financial sponsors so the children at Inchanga Primary School where I visited can begin their day with a nutritious breakfast. Having breakfast has positively impacted the learning for the children at Inchanga. Instead of starting their day hungry, they are able to have a quick nutritious meal and then have the capacity to concentrate on their lessons and do better in school.

What was most striking about the food packet was that nothing else was needed to eat. Children didn’t need a separate spoon, cup or dish. They could simply compress the packet to open the middle seal, rub the pouch, tear open a corner and drink the contents. The plastic bags are then collected, recycled and made into hard plastic benches which are donated back to the school. The program is a winner from all sides of the table. I look forward to working more closely with the staff at Inchanga knowing that they are linking forces with as many agencies as possible to make sure their students can achieve their full potential.

This blog posted was cross-published on my Books to Africa Partnership blog site.

Impact of Caring: Part 3 Kannemeyer Primary School

This post is the third in a series about my experience while teaching and traveling this summer in South Africa. The first post can be found here, and second post here. It is also cross-posted on my Books to Africa blog.

Half of my trip to South Africa this time was spent in Grassy Park, a suburb community of Cape Town. I spent two weeks at Kannemeyer Primary School volunteering with teachers, students and the school librarian with the organization Volunteering Solutions and SASTS Working Solutions. I demonstrated some different ways to share literature with students and got quickly known by the students as the “Pigeon Lady” because I had my pigeon puppet with me for most lessons.

I observed teachers using techniques we use here in the US in the lower grades. Children were engaged in their learning and eager to raise their hands and share what they knew. The classes were very interactive and unlike others I’d observed in the different schools where students had to sit quietly and copy words off the board.

During one lesson in the 2nd grade class, the children were reading a story in Afrikaans. As I listened, I suddenly realized that this story seemed familiar. The children were reading The Three Little Pigs in Afrikaans!

While I was there everyone painted a rock to be placed in the Inspiration Pathway. Headmaster Mr. Samodien and Deputy Headmaster Mrs. Ross work hard to create a school with a positive culture where children want to come to learn.  The rocks were placed in an area with seats and trees where the children could sit quietly if they needed a moment alone.

There are signs around the grounds with positive messages and colorful play areas. Most of the classrooms have gorgeously painted murals.

He also strongly believes in the importance of having a school wide reading culture. Just the fact that the school even has a library is a huge indicator of the commitment the administration has in ensuring that their students get the best possible opportunities despite the huge financial constraints they face.

I loved helping Mrs. Willemse in the library. She quickly put me to work  sorting through and re-organizing the fiction section so students could more readily find books to read.

​I spent one day in the computer lab with the Tech teacher Mrs. Beukes. At the surface level it was terrific seeing that the school had a computer lab, white board and projector. Yet the reality is that the CPUs were running Windows XP and barely able to withstand the daily use from running even the most basic of programs. The teacher and technician used all of their combined skills to keep the computers functioning. The result was that sometimes when students  came to the lab to work on a project were more often frustrated by the experience than learning.
Technology is a complicated arena in underfunded government schools. I had many conversations with different teachers around South Africa about this subject. The biggest factors are lack of funding, old equipment, and poor or expensive internet connections. I saw multiple schools where computers were donated, but the continued support was not. Without a qualified technician to keep the equipment working and a budget to make sure this happens, computer labs don’t last long. I hope that soon they will find a benefactor who will donate some new or almost new computers to the school.

On my last afternoon at Kannemeyer, I met with Mr. Samodien and Mrs. Ross where we talked about the future of Kannemeyer. We discussed ways to deepen the reading culture at the school. Many of their students do not come from homes where reading has been nurtured at a family level. As a result, school is the first experience children have had with literacy and reading. I encouraged them to keep up the great work they are doing.
After our conversation, I am happy to announce that our Books to Africa program has added Kannemeyer to our Books to Africa  partnership. 
We also hope to be able to Skype together in the future and build a partnership between our schools. I left Kannemeyer with some new novels to read aloud to classes and some favorite pictures books and one very popular Pigeon puppet.  I am also hopeful about how we can work together in the future.

The Impact of Caring: Part Two

This post is the second in a series about my experience while teaching and traveling this summer in South Africa. The first post can be found here. It is also cross-posted on my Books to Africa blog.

Fiona and Cheryl-

​These ladies are part of my Microsoft Educator Network and shared their time and homes with me. I am so fortunate to be part of this organization where I can go across the world and meet up with friends.

Fiona entertained me on my first night in Cape Town and made sure I wasn’t homesick. Our friendship dates back to 2011 when we met through blogging. I had started my Bulldog Reader Blog and was meeting different people around the blogging world. Fiona also had a blog, and a comment here and a response there, led to a friendship across the miles.
​We first met in person in 2011 when she came to Seattle with the Microsoft in Education program. We met again at an ISTE conference in San Diego. Now we were meeting on her turf in Cape Town! Our love for technology kept our conversation going for hours. I loved hearing how Fiona’s desire to help others is taking her around the country leading technology training with teachers.

Cheryl and I met in Budapest at the Microsoft Global Educator Conference. She teaches Biology at a private high school near Cape Town.

  Cheryl took me around her school where I could see how they are integrating the Global Sustainable Development Goals at a school level. She inspired me to introduce the program at my school. I think it’s important to teach our students the impact they can have on their world. I think with the work that our school is doing with education already, learning about the goals is a natural fit.
​We also had great conversations about the work the students are doing at school regarding water conservation. In the Pacific Northwest with our abundance of rain ALL WINTER LONG, it’s a completely different mindset to think about how you preserve this resource. We have too much and they have not enough. The students have brainstormed and created posters to hang around the school reminding everyone about water conservation.
Cheryl and her husband also showed me around the Constantia wine farms which are known throughout the world. Even though it is winter and not much was in bloom, it was easy to imagine how beautiful the grounds must look in the summer. Seeing the Cape Dutch design buildings with the thatch roof is not something we see everyday here. I was also very amused by the baboon sign. Not really something you see in Seattle!

It truly was special to have two women in Cape Town with kindred spirits who were will to share their time and homes with me while I was there. Click here if you would like to learn more about the Books to Africa Partnership. We are always looking for more people to help support our partner schools in Africa.

The Impact of Caring: Part One

I just returned from a month long trip to South Africa as both a volunteer teacher and visitor to our partner schools in my Books to Africa partnership. I generally write about this program on a separate Books to Africa Partnership blog.

However, today I started a new blog series about my thoughts about this trip. Words like amazing and heartfelt can describe my experience, but they don’t even begin to capture the depth of what I went through. Instead I decided to share through the lens of the people who made my trip meaningful. This post is also published here.

Words are usually my friend, but I’m finding it difficult to write down my thoughts about my trip to South Africa. As I was thinking about how to write about this experience, I realized what made this trip so amazing  was about the people I encountered along the way.  I have decided to share my trip through a series of blog posts about the people who made my trip memorable.
​The people I met all share a common trait. They care. This simple act of caring is having a longstanding impact on many people.. That may not sound so profound, but the reality is huge. By talking to parents, volunteers, teachers and students, I witnessed first hand the difficulties they face everyday. Huge class sizes, lack of resources, old computers, no internet, no paper or pens, and hunger are daily problems. Yet, in the schools and places I visited, I saw multitudes of people who care and by doing so are making a difference in the future of their country. They are the future of South Africa.

Faaidah and Mahavia 

Faaidah and Mahavia opened their home to me and 13 other volunteers while I stayed in Cape Town. Their belief that it’s important to give back to others drives them to give people opportunities to help in their community. Our conversations filled in the gaps of knowledge I had about the history of Cape Town during the apartheid years where thousands of people were displaced from their homes and forcibly moved to new areas.

She made sure we experienced the joys of a sunset on top of Signal Hill and see the colorful huts at Murzenburg Beach.

She urged us to visit Robben Island to understand about the history of Nelson Mandela’s life. We learned about the politics of the Cape Town region and the complexities of racism that still exist in both of our countries.

They took another volunteer and I to one of the squatter camps where we passed out pens, books and other materials to children living there.  Children pushed and shoved to make sure they could get something and were disappointed when we ran out of supplies. I spent the rest of the day contemplating the reality of this living situation and wondering how it could change. Obviously if there was an easy solution to get families out of squalid living conditions, it would have already been accomplished. I was saddened by the reality of the fact that there are no easy solutions. Seeing how down I felt about the experience, Faaidah shared that she heard one boy walk away with a book and a pen saying, “This is enough for me.” At that moment in time, I hope it was enough, but I also hope the future will bring him more.

We also talked about religion. While I have met many Muslim people, I had never had the opportunity to really talk in depth to a Muslim about their faith. Faaidah opened her heart and faith with all of us, renewing my belief that it’s not a person’s faith that defines them necessarily. What matters is within the person’s heart and soul. I left Faaidah’s home knowing that while we might be different on the outside, our commonalities on the inside matter more. Her family’s desire to make sure volunteers have a safe place to live while they work in the area speaks volumes about their desire to care. I truly was fortunate to have to opportunity to live with Faaidah and Mahavia while I was in Cape Town.




When It’s Time to Abandon that Book


Lettrici_a_HvarCreative Commons License Antonio Castagna via Compfight byronv2 via Compfight

The sun rays are warming away the winter blues as you sit on the beach. You have your beach chair, the one where you can sit low and let your toes massage the sand underneath them. The kids are happily making sand castles and you are settled in to get some great beach reading done. Your favorite beverage is close by so you won’t be distracted by mundane refills tasks as you lose yourself into the pages of the book you so carefully chose for this trip. The book came with a 4 or 5 star rating, so you know it’s going to be great.

Then it happens. A chapter in, your attention suddenly drawn to the intense beach volleyball game happening nearby. You listen for the sounds of your children and realize they are just fine.

You go back the book. Five minutes pass. Now the sand that seemed so soft is beginning to scratch the bottoms of your feet. The kids squeals of laughter nearby seem a little more harsh and loud. So, you decide to  move your chair just a few inches to the left. Settled again, you open up the book and realize you aren’t really sure where you left off. Annoyed, you close the book toss it into the sand and go off to join the kids making the sand castle.

What just happened? I call this scenario book abandonment stage 1. Generally when readers have the right book, the screams from the kids making sand castles wouldn’t faze them even in the slightest. We readers call that “nose-in-a-book-syndrome”. Wild horses running by might get a glimpse as you turn the page, but little more. Join the volleyball game? uh…no! Are you kidding? You need to see what’s going to happen in the next chapter. There’s. No. Time. To. Stop. Reading!

Except when there is.

It’s called Abandon That Book, except when you suffer from the syndrome – I Can’t Abandon A Book, It’s Against the Rules! Blame the keep reading it message on your parents, teachers, librarians, friends, etc. Who knows when you got the message, because it’s very prevalent. I know I lived by it until I was in my 30’s. What? Don’t finish a book I had started? I thought the Book Gods would descend on me and pummel me senseless with old Encyclopedia Britannica volumes until I screamed for forgiveness.

Yet, there was a book one time that I couldn’t stomach one more page. I closed it. Pulled out the bookmark. put it facedown and never touched it again (except to hand back to a teacher). (PS- I bought the Cliff Notes and read as much as I could about the book without really reading it. Yes, I suppose this is called book cheating) That book was Watership Down by Richard Adams and was very popular when I was in high school. In fact, it was pretty forward thinking of my English teacher at the time to assign this book instead of one of the classics. In fact it won a bunch of awards and inspired the 1978 movie and later a television series of the same name. I know there might be gasps from people who are reading this post and saying, “I loved that book! How could she?” However, that one experience was so unpleasant , it ruined my interest to read any other fantasy genre books. The book has a talking animal, rock, spaceship (insert noun here)??  Forget about it! I’m NOT going there.

That experience started me on my path of abandoning books without needing therapy for the decision. It did take me another 15+ years to do it, but I’ve not looked back since. It’s OKAY to put down a book you don’t like! I would even go so far to say to a student who is reading as assigned book that they despise, to talk to the teacher and find another with a theme that is comparable. Suffering while reading should never go hand in hand. There are too many fabulous, wonderful, you will melt when you read them books in the world. How do you know when to give up? There are some signs it’s tie to ditch the book and really get rid of it. Don’t put it on your bookshelf and then feel guilty every time you see the spine sticking out. Donate that book and get it OUT of your house!

The number one reason that you should abandon a book

When you are reading a new book and you  find yourself distracted by everything around you. When you start thinking about loading the dishwasher or wondering when the last time was that you scrubbed the downstairs toilet, there’s a PROBLEM brewing. If you are a chapter or two into a book, or you find yourself ten pages ahead, but absolutely don’t remember what you’ve read, then it’s time. I give myself about 2-3 chapters (50-100) pages before I say enough.

There are too many fabulous books in the world to have to labor through one. When I talk to adult friends about their reading habits, more often than not, the ones who aren’t voracious readers, tell stories of how reading what hard when they were young. The word hard has different meanings for different people. Sometimes hard was a decoding issue. The concept of reading and decoding words was hard because of different issues such as dyslexia or sight problems.

In other cases the word hard referred to the content. It was hard to get into the book because it wasn’t interesting. Asking some readers to read fiction is equivalent to torture. Others prefer non-fiction or forget it.

Know yourself as a reader. If you have tried a genre and it didn’t speak to you, don’t give up on reading. That’s like saying you are going to never drive again, because you learned on a “3 on the tree” old farm pick up truck. There is a world of books out there waiting for you to enjoy. Things have improved!  And don’t forget the audio books. Remember those days when your parent read to you? Listening to a narrated book is the next best thing! Going on a long car trip? Check out a book CD and drive in listening pleasure!

Have a great reading summer! Have you ever abandoned a book? Leave a comment and tell us why!



Books to Africa Partnership

In less than two weeks time I will be headed to South Africa for a month to volunteer teach in Cape Town and then visit schools we support in our reading partnership project. I will be posting updates on my Books to Africa website Look on the blog page for photos and news of what’s happening while I’m there. I am sincerely grateful to my family, friends and school supporters whose generosity with my GoFundMe campaign made this dream come true! Thank you from the bottom of my heart!

Mo Reading Fun

When it comes to having Rock Star status in the library, Mo Willems is at the top of the charts. This spring when all the library books came back for a summer vacation rest, we were surprised to see exactly how many copies of his books we actually have. Why? They are always checked out. I could have 50 copies of his books and still not have enough to keep readers happy.

So when I heard about the Mo Willems book and plush character sale at Kohl’s stores, there was no question what I would be doing at 8am on a Saturday morning! Now I have what I need to make four more Backpack Buddies for the library! I also bought a couple extras to take with me to South Africa this summer. We are all set to have some Mo reading Fun!

If you would to learn more about the Backpack Buddies we have in the library, check out this post.

Proud to Be a Loser

There’s an Irish proverb that says: You must empty a box before you can fill it again. I’ve been dealing with some empty boxes – ones that came from rejection and failure to achieve what I wanted. Yet, I am not upset. I am a loser and proud to be in the club.

All year long I have been talking to my students about how it’s okay to take risks. That it’s okay to fail because you gain strength when you get up again. Talk is cheap and easy to do. So when I failed for the third time in a BIG way this spring, it was my time to take a dose of my own medicine. I didn’t like the taste one little bit.

To understand why I was so disappointed, I have to backtrack a bit. In 2012 I founded the Books to Africa Partnership where my students raise money to send books to teachers and students in some impoverished schools in Africa. Through the years, these teachers have become close friends and visiting them in person became important to me. I knew I could learn a lot by visiting their communities and bring back that knowledge to my library classroom.

In 2014 I applied for a grant through an organization that specializes in investing in teachers who want to enrich their classroom through professional development which enriches their skills and confidence. I was turned down. I was heartbroken when I read the word “with great regret, we are writing to let you know…”. I moped and had a great big pity party for myself and invited anyone who would listen to me complain. That was failure #1.

No! buttonCreative Commons License Ruth Hartnup via Compfight

However, I am pretty self-determined (stubborn) person and applied again in 2015. I rewrote the grant, edited it, and changed the focus. Once again I was turned down. Failure #2. This time I swallowed and nearly chocked on the “you are a failure” message. I shared the news with one of my classes, and one boy raised his hand. When I called on him he asked, “Why don’t you go anyway?” I quickly listed off all the reasons why I couldn’t go. He heard me, but wasn’t listening. “I still think you should go,” he mumbled as he walked away.

His words rumbled around my brain. I told my husband and he said, “if you can figure it out, you need to go.” That summer I traveled to South Africa and visited the teachers and students at the schools we send books to. I turned my failure into a success.

My 2015 trip had such an impact on me as a person, that I decided to try grant writing one more time. I spent over 40 hours wordsmithing each paragraph until I thought there was no way it would be turned down. I consulted a very experienced grant writer and I submitted my application with confidence.

The “we regret to inform you” email arrived April 5th. Failure #3 was like a punch to the gut. I hurt from the inside out. I wanted to quit. I did quit. Three times out was enough for me.

In an article “How to Fail Up!”  Lucie Hemmen, PhD., author of The Teen Girl’s Suicide Guide, writes about the four steps in the aftermath of failure.

1 – Sit with your feelings.

2 – Reflect

3 – Set a Goal

4 – Act.

It wasn’t until today when I read her article, did I realize I went through those stages without really consciously realizing it.

During my reflection stage, I realized that quitting wasn’t setting a very good example for my students. All year long I’d been harping on them to not fear failure. How could I quit on something that matters so much to me and be a believable role-model for my students?

Ask any writer or artist to tell you their story and they will have their own rejection experiences. Dr. Seuss was rejected 27 times before his first book was published. Author Dan Gutman openly writes on his website about how he’s been rejected hundreds of times. Even basketball legend Michael Jordan was cut from his basketball team during his sophomore year because he wasn’t good enough. But Jordan, like Seuss, Gutman and many others, didn’t give up. They got down to business and used that rejection as a launching board to success.

In her TED Talk author and psychologist Angela Duckworth calls that desire to persevere and charge through the muck as grit. In several studies, and in her own experiences as a math teacher, she has found that it’s not intellect or talent that makes a person a life-long achiever. It’s grit. It’s the ability to turn the negative into a positive by keeping with something especially when the going gets rough.

As I moved through the steps of my own failure experience, I set a new goal and acted upon it.  I would take my grant failure and turn it around into an opportunity to grow and risk again.

Educational Postcard: Cultivating a willingness to persevere Ken Whytock via Compfight

I created a GoFundMe campaign and quietly shared it outside of school with friends, family, parents, and colleagues. Those people then shared it with their friends. Seven days after launching my website, my dream to teach in South Africa this summer was fully financed. In 88 days I will depart on a trip that will take me away from my family,friends, and everything in my comfort zone.  I will live with a host family I don’t know, teach in a school radically different from my own and spend two weeks struggling to understand a language I’ve never heard before in my life. I can’t wait to grow and learn!

I shared the news first with my kids. After all, they have been coming to before school meetings for months. They are the ones who believe in helping others. They are the ones who will ultimately benefit. As tears rolled down my face and they looked at me strangely wondering what was wrong, I told them about my upcoming trip.

With the help of a dear friend, we talked to the kids about how failure does not make you a loser. With the right mindset, failure can turn you into a winner and I can show you how.



Backpack Buddy Tribute to Golden Acorn Recipients

Our PTSA honors amazing volunteers each year with the Golden Acorn Award. The recipients are chosen for their excellence in service to the school community. They are dedicated to making our school a better place for all of the students.

This year’s winners are Cynthia Lydum, Dara Schaffer and Celinda Hoover. As a tribute, we now have added three new Backpack Buddies to our collection. These interactive reading backpacks are ready for checkout for our primary age students.

Backpack Buddy “Ballet Cat” for 2017 Golden Acorn winner Celinda Hoover

Backpack Buddy “The Kissing Hand” for 2017 Golden Acorn winner Dara Schaffer

Backpack Buddy “Pete the Cat” for 2017 Golden Acorn winner Cynthia Lydum

I have been creating backpack buddies for many years, but recently started the program at my present school in the fall of 2016. Each backpack has a hand puppet or a stuffed animal and a matching book. The idea is for children to practice reading in a fun manner. I got the idea after working with my former Reading with Rover therapy dog. Students sat down and read to him. The format takes away the stress of reading because nobody is correcting the child if they say a word correctly or read slowly.

Megan and Reese

In the Reading with Rover program, children with reading difficulties actually read stories to a dog and the logs love to listen. a child that may be hesitant to read aloud to his peers is typically less stressed when reading to a dog and the dog never judges the child’s reading ability. Click this link to learn  more about the local Reading with Rover program. There are local events at the Crossroaads Community Center in Bellevue and at the KCLS Sammamish Library in Sammamish.

Since we can’t have therapy dogs on campus, Backpack Buddies are the next best solution. The stuffed animal or puppet is used as the listener and the child reads with a quiet and very attentive audience.

Example of a backpack buddy coming soon to the library!

We now have about a dozen backpack buddies with more to come this spring. Due to the limited numbers of backpacks, only students in grades 1 and 2 are able to check out backpack buddies at this time.

If you would like to create your own Backpack Buddies, I have found the clear, large take home backpacks from Lakeshore Learning to last the longest. I love the flush puppets and book character dolls from Folkmanis and MerryMakers. You can often find the same items in local quality toy and book stores.

I also try to have an assortment of fiction and non-fiction topics that appeal to primary aged boys and girls. The kids can practice reading non-fiction and using text features without knowing they are doing valuable homework.

If you have any other questions, please leave me a comment and I will try to answer your questions.

Happy Reading,