back to Port Elizabeth as a volunteer – not as p+p’s programme advisor!

By Dianne Ashman. Filed in project news, volunteer stories  |  
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Emmanuel Advice Care Centre in one of the Port Elizabeth townships is a project people and places volunteers have been supporting for many years now.  I (Dianne) was last there in October 2017 in my role as programme advisor, but that did not give me enough time to do any meaningful volunteering work myself, so I returned this spring for four weeks as a volunteer.  Here is my report.

Placement outline

This placement was slightly different to a normal volunteer placement in that the idea for what I should do came from us at people and places rather than coming directly from the project and our local partner, which would be the normal approach. However I had visited Emmanuel several times in my role as programme advisor for people and places and knew that what I was proposing did fit in with one of the project’s stated aims on the support plan, ‘to support the staff at Emmanuel in their work with children in the crèche and preschool, helping them develop appropriate play and educational activities for the children.’ The plan for my placement was see if the curriculum project for pre-school children we helped to set up in Swaziland, which has been so successful there in raising children’s achievement and developing teachers’ skills, could usefully be transferred to Emmanuel. Although the Swaziland project is set in a rural area and Emmanuel is in the middle of one of the townships, the communities have many similarities. They are both very economically poor communities, with high levels of unemployment and ill health, largely due to the high incidence of HIV/Aids and TB, and the projects in both countries aim to provide holistic family support to vulnerable families.  In addition, the structured programme now offered in Swaziland has enabled our local partners there to use unskilled volunteer groups in a much more useful, relevant and focused way, and our hope was that if a more structured programme was offered at Emmanuel this might provide our local partners in Port Elizabeth with an additional project, focused on responsible tourism, for the school and university groups they often host.

Pre-departure preparation

I proposed the idea of a curriculum development project to Calabash, our local partners in Port Elizabeth, and we discussed it through emails and Skype. We agreed that I should write my own initial placement outline and send it to Calabash. I was happy to do this as I had a clear idea of what I would like to achieve.

I followed this up in detailed discussions with Calabash on my orientation day and together we tweaked the placement outline based on their recommendations and advice.  I was pleased to learn that Nomonde (the very good teacher at Lavela, a pre-school near to Emmanuel, supported by Calabash) was willing to meet me and to help in the training of the Emmanuel teachers.  (My suggestions regarding the involvement of the local community in our plans were not deemed appropriate, for very good reasons which were explained to me.)

To prepare for my placement I spent some time researching on the South African Department of Basic Education website, where there are quite detailed suggestions for a programme of teaching for grade R (I knew that at Emmanuel they have a crèche, a pre-R class for 3-4 year olds, and a grade R class for 4-5 year olds, and planned to focus on the older children in my placement). I printed relevant extracts from this programme to take with me, as I was fairly sure the teachers at Emmanuel would not have seen it, as their IT skills and Internet access are limited. I already had the curriculum we had produced with our Swaziland partners and projects, so the two together gave me a lot of material to work with – I was determined that I would be using materials designed for children in southern Africa and not taking curriculum materials from the UK which would be less relevant. On the advice of Marion, (one of the founders of Calabash Trust who now lives in the UK) I bought story books which linked to themes on the SA curriculum for grade R and took them with me – I would normally buy resources in the country where I volunteer in order to support the local economy, but I was advised that books are very much more expensive in South Africa than at home, so this enabled me to provide more books (though with the disadvantage of them all being in English and taking up a lot of room and weight in my suitcase). I also made a set of 60 A5 whiteboards by laminating white card – I did this because I knew Emmanuel has very few resources and even less money, and I did not want them to have to buy lots of paper for children to write on – the whiteboards provide a useful alternative and can be reused many times as long as felt tip pens used on them are the kind with washable ink.  Finally I prepared a PowerPoint presentation about the Swaziland curriculum project which I thought might be useful as a means of introducing what I wanted to do.

What I did

I spent the first day in the Calabash office, meeting Nelson, Bernice, Rifqah and Thandi.  Normally this would be the orientation day and would include a township tour, but I opted not to do this as I have done the tour before quite recently, and was very familiar with all the information given to volunteers as part of the orientation process. Instead we talked in more detail about what I hoped to achieve; I showed them the Swaziland PowerPoint and they then felt much more informed about what the aims of the placement would be. Rifqah phoned Emmanuel to make sure they were aware I would be starting the next day, and when we realised they had some questions about what I had come there to do she helpfully rearranged her schedule so she could accompany me there on the Tuesday morning. This was really helpful – she did a brilliant job of helping to explain our plans and made sure they realised the idea was not to impose a brand new scary system but to build on the work they were doing already, utilizing the skills they already have. They also watched the PowerPoint presentation, and particularly warmed to the video of Teacher Gugu from Swaziland talking about how useful the new curriculum is in helping her plan the work she does with her children and how proud she is of what they have achieved. They were very willing to try out any ideas I had, and it certainly helped that they knew me already. It was decided that I would work mainly with Charlotte, the grade R teacher, as she already has some teacher training and is the person who has been deciding, on a fairly ad hoc basis, what they would talk to the children about each day. I would also work with Nellie who teaches the pre-R class. I spent the rest of the day observing, and realised that a lot of potential teaching time was being wasted. For example, their main aim for this month was to teach children the alphabet. Each teacher had one laminated cut out set of letters and children were taking it in turns to come to the front and put these in order – meanwhile the rest of the class had nothing to do and inevitably got bored.

Nellie reading to the children

I discussed with Charlotte and Nellie the idea of having a weekly theme and focusing all children’s activities around that theme, which is the approach suggested by the SA Department of Basic Education, the approach being taken at Lavela and the approach we took in Swaziland. They liked this idea, and by the end of the first week we had a provisional list of 40 topics, as there are 40 weeks in the SA school year. This list was refined over the next few weeks but remained the basis for our work and the curriculum is now a formalised structure with a theme a week. As soon as we had an agreed list I printed a line drawing for each theme which the teachers took away to colour (Nellie’s granddaughter really enjoyed colouring hers and made a really good job of them); these were then laminated and will be put up on the wall every week to illustrate the week’s theme.  In the weeks I was there we trialled three themes, ‘Wild Animals’, ‘Water Animals’ and ‘Birds’. This enabled me to suggest and demonstrate a variety of different teaching and learning activities, ranging from directed use of stories to creative arts activities such as making animal masks from paper plates (which they loved) to collecting shells from the beach and using them to teach different textures and which formed the basis for the creation of a sea scene thereby enabling the children to practise fine motor skills using coloured pencils, glue and scissors. Charlotte sorted out any resources they already had and produced an impressive collection of inflatable animals which we used as visual aids where appropriate. Nellie was our story teller, and very good at asking questions and eliciting involvement from the children as she read.

Emmanuel is a multi-cultural centre; it is on the edge of one of the coloured communities so the majority of the staff and a good percentage of the children have Afrikaans as their home language, but there are also many Xhosa speakers, some others whose home language is English and one or two who speak other languages. So as far as possible we included all three languages in our work with the children. We discovered that reading a story in all three languages was too time consuming, but most basic vocabulary was practised in all three languages and we tried to produce display materials that were not just in English – I impressed them by making posters showing the months of the year and days of the week in English, Afrikaans and Xhosa, though it only required doing a Google search for the vocabulary and some careful copying! We quickly established a routine whereby the teachers did their normal activities with the children for the first hour, then after the children had eaten and played outside we gathered the two classes together on the mats outside and introduced some work on the week’s theme, usually finishing off back in the classrooms for some sort of creative arts activity. I also tried to encourage them to read stories to the children instead of leaving them sitting for long periods with nothing to do – this has been difficult in the past as they had so few books and relied on someone simply telling a story – hopefully, now they have a few more books and have seen how very much the children love stories, they will keep this up.

In the first couple of weeks I was not sure how the work I was doing was being received. I was very aware of the need not to be seen to impose systems on them but it was clear I needed to do the initial work to give them something to comment on and add to. There were a couple of occasions early on when I had given suggestions for work they could do when I wasn’t there, but it had not been done because, they said, not enough children had been present on that day. However as time went on Charlotte in particular became much more enthused and engaged in what we were doing. For example, when we were studying water animals I gave one sheet of blue card to each class and suggested colouring and cutting out fish shapes to create a sea scene. She realised her children’s work would not fit onto the card so overnight dyed more paper blue by mixing a little blue watercolour paint with water, dipping white paper into it and laying it out to dry – I would never have thought of doing this.

Useful conversations between teachers from Emmanuel and Lavela

One of my priorities was to establish a link between Emmanuel and Lavela, so that Nomonde could help to model good practice to Charlotte and Nellie and so that the teachers from both places could share ideas and resources. It is obviously preferable that the teachers learn new techniques from someone who can speak their language and is available locally all the time, rather than from a volunteer coming for a one-off or infrequent visit from another country. This seemed to work really well. Fridays are a more informal day at both schools, so any contact between the schools was made on that day. On the first Friday Charlotte, Nellie, Rifqah and I went to Lavela, which is about 15 minutes away in the neighbouring township of Joe Slovo. This enabled the Emmanuel teachers to see another pre-school in action and to make comparisons with their own facilities and practice – facilities are better at Emmanuel, teaching is far better at Lavela, as is the use being made of the space available, such as the amount of display material on the walls and children’s work strung across the room. We had a short meeting to discuss establishing a link between the two centres, established that everyone thought this was an interesting idea and worth trying out, and exchanged contact details. Nomonde gave me a list of their weekly themes and we dovetailed our list to run more or less parallel to theirs.  Arrangements were made for the three Lavela teachers to come to Emmanuel two weeks later – they were to make their own way there but on this occasion Calabash would pay their taxi fare (just 11 rand per person each way). The visit to Emmanuel went very well indeed – we were scheduled to meet at 12.00 but they arrived at 8.45 and stayed all morning! Some time was spent looking round and observing activities at Emmanuel, then we had a more formal meeting to discuss the work we were doing at Emmanuel to structure the curriculum and to pick the brains of the Lavela staff as to activities that work well in their centre. For example, the Lavela teachers recommended that when the topic is something like ‘Birds’ it is better to talk about a different bird each day rather than introducing vocabulary for lots of birds all at once. (I haven’t always managed to do this in the curriculum I have structured for them as I wanted to concentrate on skills development – this may need reviewing at a later stage).  I thought the best thing about this morning was how well everyone seemed to get on. Anita and Thembeka (Emmanuel’s Principal and Project Manager) spent a lot of time talking to the Lavela teachers and conversation ranged much wider than the curriculum – both they and Nomonde gained useful information from each other about grants they could apply for and places where they could get resources. The Lavela staff particularly wanted to look at Emmanuel’s garden, office and toilets – they do not currently have any of these facilities but are due to move to new land soon where they will have a lot more space. They all agreed to stay in regular contact by phone and to meet about once a month; Calabash have committed to make sure these meetings do take place, if not monthly then at least twice a term, until the link is properly established.

The visit to Lavela made both Emmanuel teachers look at their classrooms with fresh eyes. Charlotte’s room in particular was not a good teaching environment at all. It is an old container, long and thin so difficult to configure for effective teaching, with old and irrelevant posters on the wall dating from when it was used as an office by the Emmanuel community care staff (e.g. a poster on safe sex is clearly not a useful resource in a teaching room for 5 year olds)!  It was furnished with large old benches and tables and full sized old office chairs, making it impossible to get from one end of the room to the other without literally climbing over children. I thought it was an impossible teaching space and, with the help of Bernice in the Calabash office, priced up new plastic tables and chairs. The price was very reasonable so, after consultation with Emmanuel staff, I used my project contribution to buy seven tables and ten chairs, the number required to seat all 28 children in her class when supplemented with chairs they already had. Charlotte rearranged the room and the old tables and chairs were put away in the storeroom.

This immediately made a massive difference to the room.

Not only did it look more attractive, it made it into a reasonable teaching space. It was now possible to get to children in all parts of the room without risking injury, and interestingly the children were immediately less noisy and Charlotte started speaking much more quietly, so a calmer atmosphere was created all round. Charlotte has further plans for renovating her classroom – she has already had a new door fitted and there are plans to have the leaking window fixed and then to have the room painted – I am looking forward to receiving the photographs. We also decided to make better display materials for the wall – Rifqah suggested we organise a resource making day for the following Friday and I thought this was an excellent suggestion as it would involve the Emmanuel staff directly in making their own teaching materials rather than relying on me or other volunteers to buy or make things for them. Calabash staff, Thandi in particular, were really helpful in sorting out anything they had which might be useful, ranging from educational posters no longer needed, to homemade musical instruments, to old magazines which could be cut up to provide pictures to illustrate some of the themes. Both Nellie and Charlotte loved sorting through the boxes and bags of materials to see what they could find, and Charlotte in particular immediately started to stick things up on her classroom wall. I had thought we would sort things into folders to illustrate each of the themes and that they would put these up as they became relevant, but she prefers to put all visual material up now, saying as she teaches each theme she will point out the relevant area of the classroom wall to look at, and I must say I can see the benefits of that – her classroom already looks much more attractive. On the resource making day itself, the only person who made resources was me – we had identified what posters we needed to make as permanent display materials, and decided that each classroom needed posters on the alphabet, numbers up to 20, shapes and colours, days of the week, months of the year, and a birthday chart to show the month of each child’s birthday. They already had one copy of some of these – my aim was to fill the gaps so that both classrooms had all of them.  I got these laminated for them so they will last much longer. Although this added to the expense (53 rand per poster including cost of card and laminating whereas readymade posters cost just 25 rand each) it was well worth making our own, partly because I was able to include words in all three languages on one poster (readymade posters are readily available in all three languages, but as separate posters) but mainly because it demonstrated that it is possible to make your own display materials and make them look professional. On the Tuesday following the resource making day I arrived at about 8.30 as usual to find Charlotte’s class already hard at work and her in a poster-making frenzy

Charlotte shows Rifqah the posters she has made

of excitement. She had asked the children to look through the old magazines to find pictures of fruit and vegetables which she was cutting out and sticking onto card – she has now made a number of posters and has stored them away carefully while she saves up enough money to get them laminated. I laminated the A4 posters for her as I had a laminating machine, although I did not take it to Emmanuel as they currently have no electricity – many thanks to Calabash for buying this while I was there – and considered giving her the money to get the A2 ones done as well given that staff at Emmanuel receive no salary or stipend and all come from very poor communities themselves, but decided not to do this as I wanted her to be fully responsible for making the whole thing herself. I will not forget the expression on her face as she said, ”Who would have thought I could ever make my own posters!” In addition I made various pictures cards to support some topics, which I was able to use to demonstrate to both teachers various sorting and matching games, and one set of small, simple cardboard jigsaws as I have recently learned that doing jigsaws in a useful pre-writing skill.

Towards the end of my placement I did a workshop for all staff at Emmanuel to explain the work we had done and to make sure everyone was aware of the new theme-based approach. Anita and Thembeka were already aware of most developments, having attended the meeting with the Lavela teachers and all the weekly meetings which Nelson or Rifqah led in order to get feedback on the progress of the placement and to make sure everyone was happy with how things were going. However they were keen that the two caregivers, Thoko and Sindiswa, whose main job is to provide home-based care for people in the community, were also totally up to speed with how the children were to be taught, as they frequently do look after the children if Nellie or Charlotte is away or involved in something else. To help with this we had decided that as well as producing a plan for the year in a folder for both Nellie and Charlotte so they could access it easily, I would also write the whole thing out onto flipchart paper so that it was easily visible to everyone all the time – Charlotte has undertaken to turn it to the right page every Monday morning so the new topic is on view. Producing this was far more time consuming than I had expected, and was quite difficult to do physically as there was no large table in my room at the guesthouse where I stayed, so the chart ended up on my bed – essential to keep felt tip pen off the nice white sheets and incredibly hard on my back, but worth doing if it proves a useful resource for them. Comments at the feedback meeting were all very positive, and they certainly have every intention of using it. I have encouraged them to make this a living document, writing on it which activities work and which don’t, and adding any new stories and activities as they think of them.

I also held a meeting with Calabash about half way through my placement to explain to them how the project was progressing and to find out whether they thought it was something we could develop to provide placements for school or university students in future. If they thought they could place young volunteers there, they could be invaluable in helping to produce resources but I would need to provide guidelines (as I have done for unskilled volunteer groups in Swaziland) as to precisely how they could support each theme; if they didn’t think this was a viable option for their schools groups then I would need to make sure Emmanuel had all the resources they would need to support the curriculum, but would not need to provide the guidelines sheets. The discussion was thoughtful and wide-ranging – in the end the conclusion was that while Calabash are supporting just two pre-schools, Lavela and Emmanuel, there is not enough scope for placing groups without overwhelming the centres, which are both very small. They felt we need to see how the curriculum goes at Emmanuel, but that if it goes well there is certainly scope to introduce it more widely in a year or so. Although they do not yet support any other pre-schools they do support a number of township schools, so it certainly might be possible to introduce it to some of the informal pre-schools that feed into these schools. The feeling was that although the format for teaching that I was proposing is used widely in pre-schools in wealthier, mostly white, areas of Port Elizabeth, it is not something that is being done in any of the township schools which are currently doing little more than providing childcare.

Both Nelson and the staff at Emmanuel were enthused by the idea that they could be leaders in this field and give their children the same opportunities as are available to children from more privileged communities in their city.

Highlights

Seeing how enthused the teachers became as the weeks progressed. In particular Charlotte’s excitement and renewed enthusiasm for teaching – she has drawn real inspiration and motivation from this.

Accommodation

I stayed, as I always do, at Fifth Avenue Beach House. As always I was made very welcome and was very comfortable there. I made good use of the fridge and microwave in my room and mostly prepared my own meals, apart from breakfast. Evening meals are available at Fifth Avenue on Mondays to Thursdays – the food is excellent and the main reason I chose not to sample it this time is that last time I stayed here I put on too much weight due to the excellent puddings! There is a good supermarket just 10 minutes’ walk away, and restaurants and take-away shops in the same shopping centre and at the Boardwalk near the pier.

Free time

When I returned from work in the afternoons during my first two weeks I enjoyed walks by the sea. It was autumn but the weather was still warm and sunny in the afternoons, and during my first weekend I relaxed in the sun. It was dark by about 6.00pm and advice was not to go out after dark, so I read books and listened to the radio in my room. After two weeks I took a pre-planned break and went on a short holiday to Namibia – I planned this break because I knew there were public holidays at that time which would have meant five days not at work, and I did not want to lose that amount of time from my volunteering placement. During the last two weeks of my placement I had no free time – I had set myself an ambitious amount of work to do and worked long hours to achieve it. That was my choice and is the way I like to work – I enjoyed throwing myself wholeheartedly into this project and becoming totally absorbed in it, and the sense of achievement gained by completing it to the best of my ability. I also knew I did not have time to continue working on it after I returned home, though I will of course be staying in touch with the project as it develops (at the insistence of everyone at Emmanuel I have learned how to use What’s App which is their preferred method of communication) and hope to return before too long to see how it is progressing.  I have been to Port Elizabeth several times before so did not need or want to do tourist activities there this time. However there are many things to do in and around Port Elizabeth and the orientation pack Calabash issues to volunteers contains a list of some activities they can book for volunteers. My top recommendation from trips I have done with them in the past is Addo Elephant Park.

This has been a very satisfying project to work with, and I am excited by the prospects for developing it further in the future. I look forward to hearing how it progresses at Emmanuel and hope the teachers’ enthusiasm is maintained and that it leads to more enjoyable lessons for the children, higher attainment, and an enhanced sense of job satisfaction for the teachers. I would like to thank the staff at Emmanuel and at Calabash for their enthusiasm and support in getting this off the ground.

Dianne with Rifqah and the Emmanuel team

To learn more about this project take a look here

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