SMWC professor studies the universal language of learning in South Africa

May 17th, 2011 | SMWC

While most educators teach others, Sandra Chappell took a chance to teach herself. In October 2010 Chappell, an associate professor of education at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College (SMWC), embarked on an enriching voyage to South Africa, where she learned valuable lessons about education across the ocean and here at home. 

“We were able to enhance friendship among the world’s people,” Chappell said. “It was like a family. We all shared in knowledge, issues and challenges.”

Chappell, along with about 50 other U.S. educators, toured early childhood educational facilities in Cape Town and Johannesburg, South Africa, with the People to People Citizen Ambassador program from Oct. 4 – Oct. 14, 2010.  The program, started in 1956 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, offers professional growth through seminars, humanitarian efforts and cultural activities around the world, according to the website.

The trip was led by Sue Russell, the president of the Child Care Services Association and founder of the T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood Project , and Carol Day, the president of the National Black Child Development Institute. The goal of the trip, the leaders said, was “to consider the power of the early education profession to advance social change.”

In it’s curricula, SMWC emphasizes the importance of creating a positive change in a global society. Chappell spent her time deeply engaged in the educational and social culture of South Africa and will use the lessons learned there to enrich her early childhood education students at SMWC.

“Hardships can be a positive,” Chappell said. “South Africans face many challenges, like AIDS/HIV and discrimination, yet they are a proud people with much hope, energy and creativity.” She hopes to instill this determination to overcome challenges in her students. She will use the experience to compare and contrast the cultural identity of classes in the U.S. to other cultures.

“I will encourage students to visit families and community neighborhoods to learn more about cultures and the way people live,” she said. With 21 percent of non-white students in Indiana schools, according to the U.S. Department of Education, it is important for future teachers to understand the cultural barriers that can help a child excel or fall behind in a classroom. Chappell understands that her experience in South Africa can help her students learn how to overcome these challenges and celebrate these opportunities.

In the U.S., 14.3 percent of the population lives in poverty. Compare this to South Africa, where 47 percent of the population lives in poverty. This, compounded with the more than 10 percent aged 2 or more dealing with HIV or AIDS, has a drastic effect on the quality, availability and affordability of education in South Africa. By sharing the teaching methods Chappell observed on her trip, she can help her students learn to overcome the health and poverty issues they will see in their own classrooms.

Intangible lessons are not the only experiences Chappell had on the trip. She also brought back a collection of materials to use with her students at The Woods. One of the most cherished items is a children’s book entitled “Bongo at Home,” which was published by South Africa’s Early Resource Learning Unit, one of the organizations Chappell visited. The book introduces the young reader to the concept of sound by following a small boy as he interacts with items in his colorful Cape Town home.

“Sharing the story of Bongo with students helps them understand that Bongo is first and foremost a person,” Chappell said. “His living conditions may be very different from ours, but in the story he is seen exploring objects and learning about his world as any young child would.”

She hopes these materials will help her students understand the importance of learning from other cultures, the benefits of visiting another country and encourage positive interactions by showing that all it takes is one person to make a difference.

Chappell encountered many teaching moments during her time in South Africa, but none so compelling as her visit to The Pebbles Project, a school that focuses on children from disadvantaged backgrounds with special educational needs, especially those affected by alcohol.

“They are tackling a generational problem of fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) and really making a difference,” Russell said.

This program serves more than 500 children whose parents work 11 vineyards. “In the openness of the fields I stood wishing my students could be with me,” Chappell said. All throughout her trip to Africa she observed the drastic contrast between wealth and poverty, healthy and sick. “Africa is a land of opposites,” she said. At The Pebbles Project, she was able to see how the impact of these discrepancies can last for generations.  In the past, these vineyard workers were paid, not in money, but in wine. Over time, alcoholism became a serious problem, resulting in many cases of FAS, which radically affected education. While the owners no longer use wine as a form of compensation, the effects can still be seen. The project works diligently to provide a quality education to not only the children, but the parents as well.

“They pick people from the vineyards to train as teachers,” Chappell said. “They also provide a toy library, teacher training and parenting workshops, which is something needed in this country, too.”

Chappell’s passionate about early childhood education and understands that educating parents is a large part of that.  “I have a passion for improving the lives of children and their children,” she said. “For each of my students I want to help them find their passions and interests and give support. Enthusiasm is contagious!”

One of Chappell’s favorite quotes is from Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa and winner of the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize, who was the first democratically elected leader of South Africa. It is a quote that inspires her and reminds her why she loves what she does and why she hopes to pass on these values to students at The Woods.

“Children are the most vulnerable citizens in any society,” Mandela said, “and the greatest of our treasures.”

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