The AVBOB Poetry Competition | Blog


Cradock Spring - Remaking the world with words    
Wed, 14 October 2020

The health of creative arts teaching in the Eastern Cape is reason for great optimism for educators in the beleaguered province during Teacher Appreciation Month. The area, which was hard hit by the pandemic, is bearing witness to a remarkable education revolution spurred on by people of vision and commitment. 
This innovative response to the difficulties educators are currently facing was conceptualised well before COVID-19, but the crisis proved to be a catalyst that propelled a genius plan. 
The AVBOB Poetry Pop-Up Teaching and Learning Studio could significantly rescue teachers all over the country at minimal cost. This free online resource for educators and learners is a series of video clips which were created in response to desperate teachers who needed a lifeline. By making poetry accessible to learners it gives them a tried and tested tool to comprehend and process the trauma rendered by COVID-19 and other societal ills.
Isaac Metembo, the Deputy Chief Education Specialist for the Nelson Mandela District, said: “I believe education happens in a safe space where people can express themselves without the fear of being judged harshly. The AVBOB Poetry Project is making this possible.”
Indeed, poetry education was not always a safe encounter according to Sindiwe Magona, the doyenne of South African literary arts. She recalls her primary school experience of learning Wordsworth in a remote Eastern Cape mission school in the 1950s. “One by one, each child stuttered and stumbled through the daffodils, catching the sharp edge of the ruler on their knuckles. When my turn came, I fluttered and danced animatedly through the poem. Verse after verse was delivered word perfect. I discovered that my stellar performance now left me wandering lonely as a cloud through the school yard, the least popular girl in the school...”
Mercifully, arts education has improved dramatically in recent history with a collective goal of promoting poetry from the Schreiner Karoo Writers Festival (SKWF), Skills For Life, and most importantly, with the support and encouragement of the Eastern Cape Department of Education. 
In 2018, SKWF invited local poet and songwriter, Melina Smit, to host a two-day poetry workshop for 40 previously disadvantaged learners. The programme, presented in isiXhosa, English and Afrikaans, was very well received. Smit, who had taught drama at Cradock High School, was appointed as the senior education specialist for Creative Arts and Life Skills in 2017. She realised that educators needed to experience this boundary-breaking initiative even more than the scholars did. “If the teachers could find their way into the poems, the learners would follow,” she said. “We just had to shine the light.”
The following year the workshop included learners and educators. “Suddenly I had a bird’s eye view of 70 schools in a 150km radius,” she said. “This year COVID-19 put a spanner in the spokes. When lockdown arrived, I had 135 educators on my WhatsApp planning forum, all needing to get going with teaching online. The gap had to be filled, and the need was urgent.”
Lisa Antrobus Ker, organiser of the SKWF and a hotelier in Cradock, said, “Melina’s novel approach to arts education offers a blended learning experience that is changing the outcomes by teaching life skills alongside poetry, music and performance. The method is simultaneously practical and inspiring. We had to reach the teachers, to teach the teachers,” she said.
“Wherever a teacher has a laptop – or even a smartphone – she can play these videos to her class, which will motivate the learners. It is changing the outcome for creative arts and life skills education in my classroom,” says Chalaine Fleurs, Principal of Hofmeyr DRC Primary School. Hofmeyr, 64km north-east of Cradock had a population under 400 at the last census!
Fleurs continues, “We are not privileged enough to do online education with our learners. We are a poor school. We tried to reach the kids during lockdown but their parents don’t have smartphones. The few that do have smartphones, don’t have data. This education revolution in the region is awesome. Melina grabs your attention and keeps it focused on the videos, which are educational and amazing.”
Fleurs has seen a number of teachers getting stuck teaching creative arts because they don’t have the skills or the interest. “Every teacher is busy. They are overwhelmed and pressured, so they resort to teaching the theory which doesn’t resonate with the children because they don’t have any passion. They don’t live the practice, but with the videos, those children who love poetry can see it and live it.”
Metembo concluded, “I hope to make many colleagues and principals (as well as family and friends) aware of the excellent material that is freely available from the AVBOB Poetry Project. This programme will enrich the classroom practice of teachers in all grades and subjects. Congratulations!”
Back to Wordsworth for a moment, and a poem that invites consideration of the vital and vibrant potential inherent in poetry to radically impact on education. Concerning the Book that is the Body of the Beloved, a poem by Gregory Orr:
Let’s remake the world with words.
Not frivolously, nor
To hide from what we fear,
But with a purpose.
As Wordsworth said, remove
“The dust of custom” so things
Shine again, each object arrayed
In its robe of original light.
And then we’ll see the world
As if for the first time.
As once we gazed at the beloved
Who was gazing at us.
“If people could come see this part of the world and look into the classrooms now, they will learn to dream bigger,” said Fleurs. “My father told me: ‘As a teacher, you never stop learning till you lie in your coffin!’ I see now that’s true.”