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Volume 5 Issue 3 Highlights



A Piece of Our Hearts Will Always Be in South Africa

What happens when a family makes a deeper connection with a destination through a voluntourism experience? In truth, we do not know very much about the long-term implications. Thanks to Eileen and Larry Kugler and their daughter Sara, however, we are on our way to discovering at least one answer. Via this recounting of their two-trip connection with the AV Bukani Primary School in Nomathamsanqa Township in Addo, South Africa, Eileen and Larry share their observations and unique engagement with the teachers, students, parents, and grandparents of the community.


It started in 2004 with a trip to South Africa with a People-to-People delegation of multicultural educators. We were overwhelmed with the feeling of hope and promise we saw in “the new South Africa,” yet we saw the great need for up-to-date training for the teachers. We thought about our own skills (Larry is a school improvement consultant with 30 years as a teacher and administrator in Fairfax County, VA; and Eileen is a consultant on school culture and parent engagement in diverse schools). We vowed to return to South Africa to share research-based strategies with the teachers and to help engage parents in the schools.  After all, how many times to you get to play a role in a new democracy?

Researching volunteer programs on the web, we found UK-based People & Places and knew this was the group we wanted to work with. We shared a commitment to sustainable change, not just a fun volunteer experience. After identifying the volunteer program within South Africa that was a best fit, we were introduced to Calabash Tours, based in Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape. We have been incredibly impressed with both these ethical, well-organized, and well-run companies. 

As we began the planning for our July 2008 trip to South Africa, our daughter Sara decided she was not about to let us go without her. She had taught in New York Public Schools for seven years and was to begin a job in September as a literacy staff developer with Columbia University. We now had the incredible opportunity of living and working for three weeks with our adult daughter who normally lived four hours away in the U.S.

Our volunteer placement was in A.V. Bukani Primary School in Nomathamsanqa Township in Addo, a rural area one hour north of Port Elizabeth. The principal of A.V. Bukani is a dynamic leader who was eager to bring volunteers into his school, but somehow the rural area had proved a difficult sell. We thought it would be a fun adventure for us urbanites.  Next question: Did we want to stay in a nearby Bed and Breakfast or live with a family in the township?  Photos were sent showing a lovely family with a big comfortable bed waiting for us. Indoor plumbing but no shower.  Sure, we said again.  What’s the point of traveling that far and staying in a B & B?

Arriving in the Township

As we entered the township, we tried to prepare ourselves for just about anything. But we could never imagine the warmth, enthusiasm, caring and outpouring of appreciation that we received both from the school and the entire township. Once we established that we recognized we had a lot to learn from the school and community as well as share with them, the relationship was extremely positive. We kept a blog for our friends and colleagues back home and our first entry was entitled, “We are the luckiest people on earth!”

"But beyond the deep friendships formed last year, we wondered what lasting impact our visit had on the school. How would the second visit be different and would there be a motivation for future visits?

The first day Larry went into classes to do shared reading using the “big books” we brought. As he was about to ask the children to tell him what part of the book they liked, the teacher said, "OK. Think...now pair.... now share,” and the students immediately started talking to each other! We mean all the students and immediately. It was amazing. The teachers had indeed been building on what they had learned last year."

Our host family, the Mofus, are caring and warm, making us feel comfortable in every way.  We were surprised to learn from the Mofus that we were the first white people ever to stay overnight in the township. This was told to us not with any resentment, but rather a sincere appreciation for our willingness to be with the community. We heard the same message from many others in the township. For us, the home stay was one of the most meaningful parts of our trip.

We loved spending time with the entire family who would break into song at a moments notice. The Mofu’s seven-year old grandson Yanga, who lived with them, taught us Xhosa as we taught him English when we did the dishes together. The food was delicious and high in healthy vegetables. The only "comfort" we lacked was a shower, and we quickly learned that you can wash up quite well in a large bucket of warm water.

We did go back to Port Elizabeth on the weekends, giving the Mofus a break as well as giving us an opportunity to unwind a little.  Most of our time there, however, was spent buying books or other supplies for the school or just relaxing, a/k/a sleeping.

Working with the Eager Teachers

The teachers, as one teacher noted, were “hungry to learn how to help the students." When we arrived we were overwhelmed with the lack of material resources -- students sharing stubs of pencils and a very limited supply of paper; few books other than aging workbooks.  But we found the human resources valuable beyond measure -- a caring and committed staff, with one of the best principals any of us has ever met. The educators welcomed the opportunity to learn new strategies for engaging their students and increase the learning.

Larry and Sara worked with the teachers who taught English in grades 2-4, both in class and in afternoon staff development. The teachers wanted to move away from their “chalk and talk” technique, where children basically repeated back what the teachers had said. Larry and Sara demonstrated techniques during “read-alouds” that are used in American classrooms for English Language Learners, such as “think-pair-share” which en­courages the students to use English or their native language of Xhosa to discuss ques­tions about the story. The teachers were encouraged to try these new methods, with Larry and Sara offering support and feedback. Many were thrilled to see the light in their students’ eyes as they were offered the opportunity to do more than just parrot back what the teacher had said. The teachers loved the resources we brought with us. After Sara used a popular picture book from the United States, Swimmy, in a demon­stration lesson, one teacher grabbed her arm and asked if there were more books like that one which seemed to create magic in her classroom.

Eileen became the computer guru, helping the teachers learn basic computer skills in their very dusty computer lab, which had not been used in several years. The teachers, many of whom had never touched a typewriter let alone a mouse, were thrilled to learn word processing. Nomthle, one of the most enthusiastic teachers, was absolutely elated when she learned how to change the font color, “I’m typing in ORANGE!!!” she exclaimed.   Nomthle visited the computer lab whenever she had a free minute. “I must peck away at this and learn something new every day.” Eileen showed her how to insert a table and the next day Nomthle was in the lab typing a chart for a class she was taking.

We learned so much from the amazing community and school. One critical lesson that impacts both our professional and personal lives is the way the faculty did not get frustrated by what they did not have. They just learned to persevere and move forward in whatever way they could. They were so optimistic, believing that under the new South Africa there are no limits placed on them. When I asked Mr. Thambo how he was able to develop such strong leadership skills while apartheid had deprived him of so many educational opportunities, he said, "What they didn't know when they placed the yoke of apartheid on us is that it only made us stronger. We learned how to persevere and overcome any odds."

For Eileen, the insights into the culture have proved invaluable in her work to strengthen diverse schools and communities in the U.S.  She is able to share examples from this strong Xhosa community, such as their commitment to family and the way they look after the most vulnerable. Too often, the resources in a community like this are overlooked as it is viewed simply through the lens of poverty.

As we said goodbye after our three weeks, we promised to return. The powerful connection that we had with the teachers, the students and the community was so strong that we could not imagine never seeing them again.

Our “day jobs” and life quickly enveloped us when we returned home, but the educators and students always remained with us. We began giving presentations to friends, colleagues, or professional groups. We didn’t call them fundraising events, but we quickly saw that people wanted to support this school. They liked giving money to a place where they had a direct connection to the people who would benefit.  We created a fund at a U.S. based organization called South Africa Partners so that Americans could make tax-deductible donations. Checks started mounting – most were $25 - $50 from people we had never asked for money. Then there was a colleague who said her family was looking for a place to donate instead of buying each other Christmas presents. She sent a check for $1000.  A girl celebrating her Bat Mitzvah donated $300 from her gifts. Then a friend who owns a small business said each year they make a contribution to an international charity and this would be the charity for 2009.  He asked us for a proposal for a $5000 donation, which we gladly supplied. We now had the money to purchase some quality books and teaching manuals for the teachers. Larry researched publishers and placed an order for books that are used with English language learners in the U.S. When the publisher heard how we would be using them, the company refused to take payment – another $3000 donation. That freed up money to fund a parent engagement project and additional classroom books.

Returning to Find We Had Never Really Left

When our plane landed in August 2009, we immediately felt like we had never left. We returned on Monday morning, just in time to see the students singing some of our favorite songs. The teachers each gave us warm hugs. But beyond the deep friendships formed last year, we wondered what lasting impact our visit had on the school. How would the second visit be different and would there be a motivation for future visits? We soon saw that the school had made progress beyond our expectations.

The first day Larry went into classes to do shared reading using the “big books” we brought. As he was about to ask the children to tell him what part of the book they liked, the teacher said, "OK. Think...now pair.... now share,” and the students immediately started talking to each other! We mean all the students and immediately. It was amazing. The teachers had indeed been building on what they had learned last year. Some of the teachers in K (their R) and 1st grade came to the classes to observe Larry teaching, even though they don’t teach in English. After taking part in some professional development Larry presented on the many uses of “big books” in developing literacy, the head teacher in 1st grade said she wanted to order some in Xhosa to help the children learn to read in their mother tongue. Within a few days, publishers were at the school showing their Xhosa “big books,” and the school was able to place an order using some of the donated funds.

And the computer lab! Words cannot describe what it felt like to see students in the computer lab, completely comfortable with the keyboard and mouse after only three months! We thought this day would not come for a few more years, but through amazing Mr. Thambo, the school had a donation of new computers and every class gets to work in the lab. Our donations are helping pay for a computer tutor 5 days  a week, and the classroom teachers are working with her to align the students’ work in the computer lab to the curriculum in the classroom. Teachers are continuing to upgrade their own skills. All quite impressive for a school where no one touched a computer only a year earlier.

The A.V. Bukani Community Sew Their Dreams onto a School Quilt

A new project this year was aimed at engaging the families from the community in the school, a goal of Eileen’s since she first arrived at the school. With Mr. Thambo’s support, Eileen worked with the families to create a school quilt, with each family creating a square that described their dreams for their child. Based on a model by Teaching for Change in Washington, DC, the quilt-making project connects the families to the school in a non-threatening way, while giving them the tools to be supportive advocates for their children. As the families sewed together, they learned about strategies and resources for helping their children.

Mothers and grandmothers poured their hearts onto their squares, appreciating the opportunity to send a message to the school and to their children about their hopes for the future. There was the stately grandmother who said she no longer had children at the school, but her home is always filled with the children who live nearby, as she encourages and helps them. Her square included the cut-out of a cow: “Just as a cow gives milk to nourish all, I ‘give milk’ to nourish all the children nearby,” she explained. There was the mother who wanted her daughter to be a social worker. Her square included the word, “Friendly,” surrounded by a hand “because she needs to help others,” and a heart, “because she must have a big heart.” This incredible mother, whose own education had been stopped and restarted multiple times because of the apartheid struggle and the lack of money for advanced courses, sewed a zig-zag path in small green beads leading up a mountain, “because the path to the mountain top is never straight and easy. She must work hard to stay on her path so she can reach her goal.” And there was the young mother who had sewn a large sun at the center of her square, with the moon and the stars nearby. “My son is like the strong sun. He will always shine. Even when the stars and moon are out, my son will still be shining.” Each square spoke volumes.

An increasing number of teachers became involved with the quilt project. Listening to the parents and grandparents was truly enlightening on many levels. At the last meeting the principal led a lively dialogue about continuing the partnership to strengthen the education of all the children of the township. Creating the quilt – we believe the first such school quilt in South Africa – became a profound experience for the families, the faculty, and for Eileen.  The quilt hangs with pride in the school entrance. The Herald newspaper in Port Elizabeth wrote about the project, including photos and audio on their website.

Will we return?  How can we not?  Our hearts are on two sides of the globe and we are only whole when we are a part of both communities.  Plans for next year?  A school library.  We’re already working on it.

Learn more at the Kugler’s blog – www.KuglersinSouthAfrica.blogspot.com

Kugler Bios

Larry Kugler (pictured left) is a thirty-five year veteran educator, with classroom and administrative experience in reading and literacy.  He taught for many years as an elementary and reading teacher and then for a year as a high school teacher.  He moved into central office administration in Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, the 13th largest school district in the U.S. He coordinated various district-wide programs, including the federally-funded Title 1, aimed at improving achievement of low-income students.  Since retiring from Fairfax County, Larry consults for the Mid-Atlantic Comprehensive Center and for the Center for Innovation and Improvement.  As a school improvement specialist, he has developed guiding questions and a self-assessment rubric as part of a district-level strategic planning process and helped to develop a multi-faceted school monitoring process.

Eileen Kugler (pictured right)is a consultant on building strong school communities – both within the school walls and beyond. Her award-winning book, Debunking the Middle-Class Myth: Why diverse schools are good for all kids, documents the unique academic and social benefits of multicultural schools. Eileen’s passion was inspired by the education of her children at one of the most diverse schools in the United States, with students from wide-ranging economic backgrounds and cultures, hailing from nearly 90 nations. Blending her professional expertise as a communications consultant with her parent commitment, Eileen worked collaboratively with administrators, faculty, and parents to rebuild the school’s crumbling community support, turning the high school into a vibrant focal point of its multicultural community. Today, Eileen speaks at international conferences and works with school districts and local communities to build strong school culture and engage parents of all backgrounds through her company, Embrace Diverse Schools.

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