Journal writing as a mentoring and reflective tool, which is supported by literature on teacher professional development, played a major role in the mentoring process explored by the study. It was found to be very beneficial in classrooms where teachers and students write to each other for meaningful reasons. The journal-writing process involved:
Giving explicit explanation of what journal writing and reflection mean and of the principles involved:
Modelling journal writing
Writing in one’s mother tongue
Setting time aside for writing
Mentorship increased teachers’ confidence and trust in the children’s ability as well as their own practice. Once they started seeing the results for themselves, they became more secure and self-confident. When our approaches were linked with curriculum documents, teachers’ attitudes changed, which helped with the uptake and understanding of the curriculum. Teachers became mentors to each other.
All expected curriculum outcomes were reached (and at times exceeded) using Whole Language approaches in a coherent and systematic manner.
Take-up of reflective practice and literacy approaches is a complex developmental – rather than linear – process or a once-off event and depends a lot on the presence of mentors to provide ongoing demonstrations, team teaching, discussions, meetings, training, reading of professional books, and reflections with teachers on their attitudes and patience.
Mentoring teachers requires mentors to have patience, value teachers’ current practices, praise their attempts, and accept resistance. Professional development should not focus on one person but on a number of teachers, thus building capacity.
In some cases we allowed teachers to depend on us or use us as substitutes when they left classrooms for whatever reason. Training should be tailored to teachers’ individual needs.
Implementation of approaches and strategies requires the presence of the mentor, and depends on good management. There are many things competing for teachers’ time, including high administrative workload and too many workshops.
Teachers’ critical reflection still needs to be developed with the help of a reflective mentor. Staff mobility within and outside the school affected continuity and implementation.
In the community
Vulindlela Reading Clubs as an example
In different communities around the Western Cape and in other parts of South Africa, children and adults are starting reading clubs. Many of these reading clubs follow a basic programme of songs and games, storytelling, reading and writing, and drama and poetry in the mother tongue and English. This loose network of community literacy initiatives grew out of the need for the Langa community in Cape Town to respond to the low levels of literacy among their children. PRAESA was asked to partner with a community organisation to set up a reading club and pass on skills and literacy knowledge to interested community volunteers.
The theoretical understandings and practical, technical and pedagogical know-how of how the development of reading and writing habits in children can be nurtured within these reading clubs is a culmination and continuation of PRAESA’s Early Literacy Unit’s experience and knowledge.
The theories that underpin the work and training within the Vulindlela reading clubs include:
Reading for enjoyment as the missing link in literacy learning;
In the multilingual settings of Africa, and given the history of the continent, mother tongue-based bilingual education allows children the best opportunities for learning: not either mother tongue or the ex-colonial language, but in both;
Literacy is part of people’s regular social and cultural practices;
Oral language and written language are learned in similar ways for use in personally meaningful ways in social contexts;
Emotions are at the very heart of language development, so the environment needs to be a nurturing one;
The way to a child’s heart and mind is through a story;
Children learn the cultural ways of their communities through guided participation with interactive role models.
The reading clubs were started to create conditions in community settings which inspire, promote and support reading for enjoyment and the development of reading habits in the mother tongue and additional languages among children and adults. Our aim was to create environments that motivate children to read and write, and that affirm their identities and give them a sense of belonging.
Hand in hand with this is the sharing of knowledge with community volunteers about appropriate ways of encouraging and developing children’s literacies. In this way, communities can develop educational strategies that equip them with the means to navigate a system that fails in many ways in order to redress past inequalities.
Central to the success of the reading club model is the participation of and role modelling by adults. In communities that are economically, educationally, linguistically, structurally and psychologically marginalised, supporting children’s literacy development is at times a luxury, and at times a burden or a low priority in the face of the real material hardships that have to be dealt with on a daily basis.
The training, encouragement and belief in communities to reclaim some responsibility for the education of their children are just as important as the transfer of reading and writing skills.
By using stories, songs, poetry, drama and games as bridges to written language, reading clubs have the potential to not only include entire communities in the educational development of their children, but to create alternative spaces within which poor and marginalised communities can compensate for some of the disempowering factors that prevent effective literacy learning and the establishment of a culture of reading and writing.