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South African projects advance literacy and basic education

By Mary Jo Jean-Francois, Area of Focus Manager for Basic Education & Literacy

There is absolutely nothing that makes my job better than visiting Rotarian projects and seeing the faces of children light up because of one simple thing: they are learning. Who am I and what incredible job do I have, you ask? My name is Mary Jo Jean-Francois and I am the Area of Focus Manager for Basic Education & Literacy here at Rotary. A relatively new team, we are very excited to work with Rotarians throughout the world. In November, I had the opportunity to travel to South Africa and evaluate two global grant projects from the Future Vision Pilot and report back to the Future Vision Committee on these initiatives. Both projects focused on early childhood education with strong teacher training components. Although the long-term results of these projects are still to be understood, the quality of the teachers’ instruction and the interest they receive from their students already speak volumes to the value of such projects and the commitment of the participating Rotarians.
 I first visited a rural community  just outside of Rustenberg, South Africa. Early childhood education teachers there were passionate about their work but had identified a need for training on how to interact more effectively with their students in the classroom. By the time of my visit, these teachers had received training through two Vocational Training Teams—one  that sent a group of South African teachers to the U.S. and another that sent teachers from the U.S. to observe and train the South African teachers. They found this experience to be invaluable. Not only did I hear them praise the training they received in curriculum development and teaching methodologies, but I saw them make great use of their classroom space and apply positive discipline techniques. Most importantly, it gave the teachers the confidence that they needed to effectively run their classrooms and meet the needs of their students.
Teacher Maria works with three year olds on developing fine motor skills. Photo courtesy of Mary Jo Jean-Francois.
 The second project I visited was based in and around Pretoria. This project implemented a methodology called “Souns,” which has both material and strong teacher training components. Souns provides early childhood educators and parents with tools to help children build early literacy skills.  Instead of the traditional focus on the names of letters, Souns works with children to identify the sounds of letters and eventually build words by using sounds. Teachers receive a bagged set containing 52 non-toxic plastic letters to use in their classrooms and are encouraged to spend just a few minutes a day working with students on Souns, either in small groups or individually. I was incredibly impressed with the program and felt the contagious energy of the students when they saw the bag of sounds brought out by their teachers. As a result of this project, students were building words at young ages and parents reported better communication with teachers. An added bonus was seeing the Rotarians from the Pretoria East Rotary Club in the classroom with the students.  
Students identify sounds to build words. Photo courtesy of Mary Jo Jean-Francois,
My 16 days in South Africa were a great reminder of the phenomenal work Rotarians are doing in the field. Seeing children excited to be at school and loving to learn is undoubtedly the best part of my job.  Knowing that committed Rotarians are behind these initiatives only makes my work better.

(A special thanks to Rotarians Andre Brandmuller, Murray Thomas, Robin Jones, Brenda Erickson and the Rotary Clubs of Pretoria East and Middleburg for their hospitality!)

Teachers from South Africa who were trained during project. Photo courtesy of Mary Jo Jean-Francois.

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