Reflections from South Africa
Africa Reggio Emilia Alliance Conference 2016
It was a privilege and a pleasure to accept the invitation on behalf of REANZ, of- fered by Tessa Browne and Des Hugo, the International representatives from the Africa Reggio Emilia Alliance, to speak at their International Conference in Johan- nesburg recently. It was a wonderful opportunity to also meet with Tizianna Filippini, Professor Karin Murris and other esteemed educationalists.
The significance and importance of this opportunity began to dawn on me – sharing stories of learning and teaching from our context here in Aotearoa /New Zealand with 400 teachers from early childhood and primary settings from five countries, whose teaching experience, cultural context, training and knowledge was so differ- ent and varied to mine.
Tizianna, Karin, Tessa and I visited a Preschool in Soweto, housed in an aban- doned old school buildings, cleared and repainted. It was early afternoon and the children were asleep on their mats on the floor. Each age group from 1 year olds to 5 year olds had their own classroom, each looking very much the same as the oth- ers with colours, numbers and alphabet letters and a daily outline of the routine on the walls. In contrast to what we were used to seeing in our own settings, we no- ticed that there were very little materials for the children to use.
What struck us was the lack of any resources for the children ... to play with, to en- gage with, to explore and to look at. The daily routines of toileting and hand wash- ing took significant chunks out of the morning and afternoons although with group sizes of between 20 and 40 children with one or sometimes two adults, the enormi- ty and dynamics of ‘managing’ these challenges become apparent.
The outdoor play space whilst vast, had a ‘jungle-gym’ left from the ‘closed down school’ and a large empty sandpit. The teachers and children were in the process of planning and digging a large vegetable garden, an opportunity they hoped would
engage families and possibly the local community. In a word, these children and teachers had very little, yet their smiles, their commitment and their desire to strive for better things was so evident in their faces and all they said.
Talking on the bus as we returned to our hotel I was overcome with emotion and I was not able to hold back my tears. This experience touched my heart in so many ways and highlighted the complexity and enormity of the daily challenges the peo- ple of South Africa face. Some say these problems from the past are insurmount- able and overwhelming but through the commitment and responsibility taken by the teachers, there was a strong sense of hope for the children. The three of us went back to our rooms to rethink our presentations.
I struggled to find a focus. I didn't know where to start. How could I respectfully share my planned presentation with photos that illustrate our affluent environments, the multiple learning and teaching opportunities our children are offered and the technology we use to share and make learning visible?
Tizianna led the way with her skilfully woven stories from the early childhood cen- tres in Reggio Emilia to highlight the opportunities that both natural and recycled materials can offer children. Reminding everyone that although they might not have cameras they all have cell phones they can use to take photos. Thankfully this of- fered me an opening to share our stories from New Zealand, using both natural and recycled materials in multiple ways.
Pinky, Poppy and Audrey, three teachers from Orange Farm, another settlement south of ‘Jozi’ shared their stories, illustrating the influence and impact exploring the Reggio Approach has had on their teaching. They, along with a number of other teachers have attended Reggio inspired workshops organised by Tessa and Des, who work tirelessly offering professional learning opportunities, to support teachers to think about new ways of learning and teaching. Money gifted by REANZ supports a small group of teachers to attend these workshops.
The Trustees of REANZ have made a commitment to nurture a long-term relation- ship with the African Reggio Emilia Alliance. We have begun this by providing fi- nancial assistance so that I could be present at this conference and for teachers from settlements, to also attend. My wish is that with the support of REANZ we can continue to support teachers to attend professional learning opportunities that will assist them to think of new ways of teaching and learning for the next generation of South African children entering a brave new world.