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In December 2017, our much missed Kyla Hazell sat down with you to chat about your various roles and passions at Axium and how you came to be with us. Only having had the privilege of working with you over the past month, it feels far too soon to be saying farewell.

I know that you wear about 17 different hats but I thought perhaps we could chat about the most recent hat you’ve been wearing which is linked to the exciting work you’ve taken on with our Nobalisa team in the last 2 months? Could you set the scene for us?

People have known in South Africa that literacy is not great but then the results for the tests done in 2016 were released at the end of 2017 which revealed 8/10 children in grade 4 cannot read for meaning in their own language. This was much worse than people thought. The Nobalisa program's primary goal is to address this.

So the Nobalisa program has been running for the past 3-4 years. What has changed over the last 2 months?

Towards the end of last year we did an ‘audit’ of the program and asked how we can better support it. The biggest change has been to split the learners in each class into different ability levels and to teach and design activities that match where learners are at. This program re-design was inspired by the educational approach, Teach at the Right Level. We used EGRA (early grade reading assessment) data to classify learners into these levels and each Nobalisa runs a group. I've been running around like a headless chicken trying to get this program off the ground. It’s been quite a challenge.

What interested you about this work?

I’m interested in teaching kids how to read. I had learners in Grade 6-9 in Masakhane who struggled to read in English, partly because of not understanding the language, but also because they don’t know how to read for meaning; so it gave me a good perspective of what needs to be taught in foundation phase. Reading for meaning is a separate set of skills that hasn’t necessarily been taught to them in their home language isiXhosa. So it wasn’t such a big jump to go from the one program to the other.

The missing piece for me still is: how do we get kids to transition into English from Grade 3 to 4? From grade 1-3 you are taught in your home language (supposed to have English alongside that but in reality that does not happen) and then in grade 4, all of the sudden all your textbooks, materials and assessment tasks are in English. It’s tricky, there aren’t really easy answers there.

What’s next for you?

Transitioning to English is something everyone seems to be struggling with. I attended an online video conference with people doing literacy work in different countries all around the world. One of the big questions asked was ‘how do you transition into English from another language?’ There was not a single person who said “we’re doing it and it’s working.” People were trying this and that but nobody knows how to do it very well. There are so many challenges getting learners literate in their own language and then when you introduce a second language it adds another layer entirely.

Do you see yourself moving further and further in the direction of tackling literacy questions?

Yes, I am moving back to Cape Town to study a Masters of Education in Applied Language and Literacy Studies. I will probably go into the field of transitioning to English, as my background as a foreign languages teacher.

Where did this love of language and reading come from for you?

I grew up bilingual and then moved to Japan for three years and worked as an English teacher there. I’ve always loved reading, it’s my passion and the feeling of being in a country and experiencing what it’s like to not be able to read was eye-opening and incredibly frustrating. I think that frustration coupled with that perspective fueled a desire to teach kids how to read. That sense of shame when you can’t access a language is such a damaging perception of yourself; and so many learners experience it and it’s not their fault that they haven’t been taught.

What have your learners taught you in your time with them?

It’s interesting for me to compare learners from different environments because you see what’s unique to an environment and what is the same. I kind of knew this already but this just confirmed for me that kids all over the world are exactly the same. It doesn’t matter which language or which country or socio-economic background, children are children, it doesn’t matter where you go. But what is interesting about this environment which I didn’t experience at my previous school is that the learners here desperately want to learn. Obviously you get exceptions and we are a selection program so we are picking the top students. But they have big dreams and ambitions and are so keen to learn. I’ve really enjoyed working with children who are so resilient in the face of crushing challenges.

Are there any moments that stand out for you over the past two years?

You know the opening song to the Lion King? I grew up watching the Lion King as a child and would ‘sing along’ but now I actually needed to learn the lyrics because I needed to teach it to four grades and multiple times in the same lesson. Having to sing ‘Nants ingonyama bagithi baba”, over and over and over with the learners staring at you like, “we don’t want to sing Gene”…those kinds of moments that are horrendous when you’re doing it but so funny afterwards. Or moments with my team; sometimes the work we do is really ridiculous and absurd. We’re trying to achieve impossible things, with too little resources and not enough time and so people just become very funny. I can’t quite single out a moment, but I’ve had a lot of good laughs with people.

What will you carry with you from Axium?

Perhaps this is a very education specific thing, but when you’re all trying to help learners and even though you’re working in different teams and different programs, everybody is unified by the same single goal. Teamwork within teams and teamwork across teams and within the organisation to try and…I mean, the not-romantic way of saying it is we’re a ship that’s sprung 30 000 leaks so people really stretch to try and cover. But in as much as there’s a sense of desperation and panic, there’s also an immense sense of, “well I’ll cover for you and then you cover for me”. There’s a really good team dynamic there that gets things done. The plans that people come up with are both tragic and comic but rooted in such a profound depth of caring for one another.

Thanks for your time and insights Gene. I feel it’s only fair that the students who spent much more time with you have the final say:

“There are many years you are here thank you so much for your teaching us. From 2017-2019 you give us a future to go forward. These two years you waste with us there is the difference.”

“Don’t forget about Zithulele’s children because we can’t forget about you. We will never give up because of your going will read our books. Gene, go well.”

“You are a big best friend of the library. Good journey and thank you for your time and good luck for your future.”

Hamba kakuhle, Sizokhumbula (we will miss you) Teacher Gené!

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