Russ has an unexpected wildlife teaching moment in a tiny rural school in the Underberg, South Africa.
Margrit makes a terrific find. Amongst the plethora of activities, hikes, and excursions on the board, there next to the fireplace is a notice for volunteering at the local Primary School.
She is so excited for me but I am a bit hesitant. This is a very very rural bush school and there are so many stories of discipline and interest problems. The kids at almost every school we have driven by were just running around outside. It seemed like more daycare than education. And the chance that they know English is remote.
But off we go. (cool photos below)
“We are your volunteers”, I announce to the three teachers on break. We are avoided as if not there. “Are we at the right school? We are looking for Pr..se..ne Primary School”. They all laugh at this strange American. By butchering the school’s name at least the ice is broken.
“Yeees! This is the right place”, smiles the Principal. “What do you want to do with children?”
Wait a minute. The write up indicated a set program for us to read to the kids in English and follow up with comprehension questions. It seemed easy enough. But apparently this is not to be.
I feel some relief as the first child enters the classroom answering my questions with ‘Yeees’. Well, maybe they can speak English. Wrong again. Mostly blank stares and answering ‘Yeees’ to anything.
So our job is to teach anything to 17 Grade 6 and 7 children in a language that they barely understand especially coming from a urban Texas accent…
Okay, here we go!?!?
“Margrit and I are from Texas!…” No reaction whatsoever. Just blank looks. “Do you know where Texas is?” Same reaction, NONE. Come on, everyone knows about Texas. But wait that’s right we are in the bush on the other side of the world.
I turn to the boy with some life in his face. “What is your name?” His eyes light up and then turn to panic as he realizes that he has to answer. He gyrates in his chair head bobbing as he slowly rises from his chair, looks down and says, “My name is Polare”. Then he quickly yet proudly sits down. The spell is broken and a few more look at me to ask their names. After the final few reluctantly give in and stand, the atmosphere improves as trust is gained.
NOW WHAT? Well I was supposed to read a story for them to ‘understand’. “Can I tell you a story?” “Yeees”, is the response. “Once upon a time two people met in Germany…” But the light is instantly gone… poof. Again, NOW WHAT?
Frustrated and not expecting an answer I ask, “Do you have any questions for me?” Slowly we find out how old we are, about brothers and sisters, favorite colors, and ah yes favorite animals. “Elephant!”, the little tike giggled. Okay now we are getting somewhere. As conservationists this should be good and lead into wildlife maybe…
But the next favorite was cow and other domestic animals and they don’t understand enough to actually discuss and be influenced about poaching and vanishing species. So you guessed it… NOW WHAT?
I pull out my last trick. The old stand by that always attracts kids attention and keeps the lights on. Folding an old origami bird that is only visible at the last folds works every time. The trick is it actually flaps its wings when you pull its tail.
Well at least I can entertain them a bit.
The only paper I can find is an assignment on the teachers desk. I don’t know if it is important but I am desperate and start folding. “If I cut this piece off what does it look like?” Silence… “Triangle, Rectangle, Square, Circle”, I say with great hope. “Square” is the response from the corner and most agree. Then again we spend some happy minutes guessing what the shapes look like as I fold. The wonder is building as to what I am really doing.
The wings come up and there is the usual “ohhh, ahhh” of delight. As I pull the tail a united scream for joy lights the room. “Would you all like to make one?” Another cheer reaches the roof tops.
Then I panic. Do we have paper?!?! Do bush kids have the dexterity and skills to follow me? Margrit quickly finds a notebook in the car and we begin, hoping for the best. About half of them start off well, then they help the rest. By the end they are all smiles and so very proud of their creations.
As I look around it is amazing to see the light, the smiles, the confidence, the accomplishment, the trust. It has been a true teaching moment!
While a little man is flapping his birds wings and soaring it through the sky it strikes me that you can touch hearts and teach without talking and cramming in massive amounts of information. What matters is connecting the dots through an experience.
“Now you must not pull the tail too hard”, I said and rip off the tail of my bird to show how fragile it is. Horror radiated from each young face. I hadn’t realized how precious this little creation was to these kids. I had just killed my little bird and they were shocked.
Now I can proceed with a real teaching moment of wildlife and poaching.