10 Takeaways from My Literacy trip to South Africa

IMG_5578I spent countless hours reading to my daughter and showing her by example how joyful reading can be. She is now what I call a joyful 21st century reader. She reads eBooks while exercising on the treadmill. I still sit with my hardcopy book on the couch because I need to touch the pages. What we have in common is experiences with reading because it’s a valued part of our family’s culture.One of the greatest trips of my life ended a week ago when I returned from a three week trip visiting our Books to Africa partnership schools in South Africa. Adjectives like amazing, extraordinary and life-changing only begin to describe my reaction to this experience. Instead of searching for more descriptive words, I thought I’d list my top 10 takeaways of my literacy trip.

1. South African people are generous and caring.

When I began planning this trip from home, my partner teachers quickly stepped in with ideas of where to stay and what to do. Once I landed on South African soil, I was overwhelmed by the generosity and thoughtfulness of everyone I met. From the owners of the guest lodges where I stayed to the teachers who took care of me – everyone stepped way beyond the boundaries of being nice. The side trips to Soweto and the Lion Park, the authentic dinners in teachers’ homes, the trip to see the Natal Midlands and Nelson Mandela’s Capture site, the visit to the Indian Market and beach front in Durban and the extraordinary weekend at the game park each contributed to making my experience epic and came from the generosity of those incredible teachers.

2. Students are the same throughout the world.

When I visited each school, I thought the same thing. The only thing that separates students in South Africa with ones in the US is geography and circumstances. No matter where I went, I found students who wanted to learn. They listened to stories or watched book trailers with the same enthusiasm as my students at home. I think actually I saw more students interested in doing their best school than students at home because of their difficult circumstances. Students who live in extreme poverty know education is their key to a better life.

3. Teachers deserve medals for their efforts.

I visited two very impoverished schools in South Africa – one in the Limpopo Province and the other in Kwa-Zulu Natal. Teachers in both schools handle overcrowded classrooms on a daily basis. Here we complain bitterly when our class sizes reach 30-35. There I taught in classrooms where the average was 60 students per classroom. One class had 78 children squeezed into a room build for 30 students. How do you maintain control, teach effectively and find the time to assess all these children? How do you know your students as unique individuals when they are one in 60? I’m still looking for the answer to that question.

4. Inequality of school conditions is astounding.

I wish I could say it didn’t exist, but from my experience I saw a huge discrepancy between the conditions of schools in town and in rural townships. Apartheid has been over since 1994, but this country is divided into two parts -those with and those without. Schools in rural areas have old buildings with broken windows and floors with holes you have to side-step to get inside the classroom. In the city I saw schools with interactive whiteboards and large inside lunchrooms. In the rural countryside, teachers still use chalkboards and the support staff cook lunch outside in open flame kitchens. I heard teachers from both sides of the line say it’s hard for every child to have a high quality education when the conditions of schools are so different.

5. Teachers inspire learning by example.

My friend and principal, Phuti Ragophala has a saying at her school: Make Every child a Star. When her school opened in 1966, it had 66 students, 4 classrooms and 2 teachers. Now in 2015, it has 1252 students, 21 classrooms and 34 teachers. The classrooms are crowded, but the children hear every day that they are valued – that they are each a star in their own right. Teachers inspire their students with how they dress, walk, talk and teach. They are grooming stars and future leaders and take this job seriously.

6. Reading for enjoyment is a new concept.

I spent countless hours reading to my daughter and showing her by example how joyful reading can be. She is now what I call a joyful 21st century reader. She reads eBooks while exercising on the treadmill. I still sit with my hardcopy book on the couch because I need to touch the pages. What we have in common is experiences with reading because it’s a valued part of our family’s culture. However, the concept of reading for enjoyment seemed to be new to the children I worked with. Their cultures emphasize oral storytelling, and having books at home to read for enjoyment is vastly different from reading a workbook to complete homework assignment. When I read stories aloud to children in the classrooms or outside on the terrace, the children were hungry for more. Children need and want stories.

7. The children need books for their school libraries.

My school has sent hundreds of books to the children at our partner schools. Naively, I thought these would supplement the books they already had in their libraries. Nope, nada, not even close. There are no other books. At one school, I discovered the library in plastic tubs in the school office. The only books they have are the ones we’ve sent over the past 18 months. It’s hard to create a reading climate when you don’t have books to read. The teachers are embracing the idea that “Readers are leaders and leaders are readers.”

8. Teachers want to learn new teaching techniques.

I was nervous about whether teachers would accept me as an equal when I visited their schools. I didn’t want to go in as the American know-it-all and alienate my peers. What happened is the teachers asked me for ideas on how to use story books in lessons. They asked me for tips on integrating technology in schools with limited technology and internet access. They asked me how they could use the materials given to them by the government because they hadn’t had training on how to implement them in the classroom. In most cases, the teachers asked to see different teaching techniques. You can’t change if you aren’t given the tools. The teachers want the tools.

9. This program needs to grow.

As I left one of the schools, a couple teachers and many students said something that’s ingrained in my memory. “Don’t go home and forget us. We need your help!” Our work in these specific schools is having an amazing impact on their education. Somehow, I need to grow the program, so we can send them more reading materials. I’m a teacher, not a fundraising guru, so I definitely need advice and help from others on how to make our Books to Africa more impactful. If you have ideas, please share them!

 10. Animals are amazing.

I saved the animal take-away for last because it was the last thing I did in South Africa. Rod and Desire Dunstone with Louise MacLeod, three of those generous people from lesson #1, took me for a weekend to the Hluhluwe Imfolozi Game Park in northern Kwa-Zulu Natal. These two reserves have over 120,000 acres of land for animals to live and roam naturally. Rod drove us for hours down the red-dirt roads and patiently stopped every time I squealed, “Stop! I need a picture please.” I was overjoyed with every rhino, giraffe, elephant, buffalo, warthog, zebra and antelope sighting. I don’t know if I’ll be able to go to a zoo again after seeing giraffes nonchalantly eat leaves from a tree only a few feet away from our vehicle. Between the Lion Park in Johannesburg and this game park, I was able to see 4 of the African Big 5 animals: lion, elephant, buffalo, and rhino. Maybe next time I’ll see a leopard!

Yes, this trip is one I will never forget. I just don’t want to call it a “once-in-a-lifetime” trip because I want to go back. Here is a short video of the highlights.

Phuti Ragophala, Principal of Pula Madibogo Primary School in Limpopo Province, also made a video of our collaboration.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

9 thoughts on “10 Takeaways from My Literacy trip to South Africa

    • Phuti – When we met in Barcelona I didn’t know how far our partnership would extend. Our work together is helping children and that is a legacy we can both be proud of!

  1. Book Ambassador Julie,

    I remember when I was in the temporary library at Bell when you showed me one of the boxes of books that you wanted to donate. I wish I had videotaped you then as it would be the perfect beginning for your video (which made me tear up).
    The impact BTA has had on you, Bell students and the students in Africa, me and the many you inspire, has been far reaching. It started with a few boxes and an idea. A life changing idea that you didn’t give up on. Yay for technology that has made the world smaller and Yay for books that make the world larger.
    Yay for you!

    • Dear Judy,
      Thank you sincerely for such a thoughtful comment. I know that when I found those boxes, I had no idea they would take us on the extraordinary journey we have been on. It wouldn’t have happened without parent support however. You led the charge from the very beginning and I appreciate everything you have done to support this program.
      We are making a difference one book at a time!

  2. Wow Julie. What an amazing trip, and what important work you’re doing. Not only are you touching the lives of African children in a meaningful way, but you’ve changed the lives of the children in your school. Thank you! Your work is an inspiration!

    • Dear Jamie,
      It’s hard to really conceptualize the impact of a project until you visit the children and see their hunger for books and a better future. I’m so glad I made the trip there and I hope I can inspire others to try something similar or join our project.

  3. I didn’t get a good education when I was a child, but fortunately I read a large number of books, as my father allowed me to read any book in the house. I always say that books have been my university!

    I salute you for helping SA schools with books; you may be sure that the pupils will appreciate them and will extend their knowledge through books, thus preparing them for a good adult life.

  4. Hi Julie,

    I’ve been following your Books To Africa project from the beginning and admire your passion for books and reading and your drive to get as many books as possible into the hands of students in South Africa. I can only imagine the impact it had on you when you met the teachers and students that you and your fabulous students have been helping by sending books. Thank you for sharing your journey on Twitter while you were there. Through your eyes I could see the impact you made in sharing the joy of reading, but also the work that still needs to be done for this to continue.

    I know I’m a long way from you in Australia, but I would truly love to be involved in any way to help you grow your Books To Africa project. Is it possible to build a global group of schools to support your project?


    • Dear Kim,
      I apologize for not replying earlier. I’m SO touched by your willingness to work together on this project. Whenever there is a child without a book, there is room for help! I do want to help make deep roots of literacy in our partner schools.
      Let’s talk some more! What would your students like to do?
      So excited!

Leave a Reply to Judy Bernard (josa's mom) Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *