An update on Sizwe, the six-year-old boy who, 9 months ago, couldn’t hold a pencil

“When he finishes a worksheet, he has a big smile and runs around the room to show each of the tutors at the Learning Centre his work, and some of the older children as well.”

 I met Sizwe on my first day at Streetlight Schools. I was told that when he first started coming to the Learning Centre, he didn’t know how to hold a pencil – in fact he had never held one until he started school at age six. I was asked to work with him while he practiced letter shapes and sounds. He had a blank page with La Li Le Lo and Lu printed at the top. I was told he would be challenging to work with: he had quite a short temper, and didn’t understand much English.

Nevertheless, I attempted to encourage him to begin practicing his writing. He wouldn’t touch the pencil until I had copied the letters several times as an example. He looked frustrated when I kept trying to encourage him to start his work. Finally, he attempted to write. His letters were misshapen and many of them were upside down or backwards. That didn’t matter, though. He had actually sat down to do some work, and he had finished it. Sizwe began spending more and more time with me. He sat next to me in class almost every day.

While he was warming up to me, he still acted out quite often, and would attempt to hit and kick the other children when they did something that frustrated him. But as he began to sit next to me, he also began to pay attention in lessons and really try to be part of the class. At one point, he even started to try and answer questions during our class discussions, and although his answers were always in Zulu and often totally unrelated, the fact that he was trying to involve himself was encouraging.

I spent time talking with him every day. Although I wasn’t sure how much he understood, as I don’t speak Zulu, I always talked to him in English, and he listened quietly. As time went on, I noticed hints of recognition in his eyes as I asked him the same questions over and over again. Then one day he answered me in Zulu. I finally knew that he could understand what I was saying! As time went on, he responded more and more. He even began to use words in English. He would repeat some of the words that I said in English, and then he would answer.

As his lingual skills improved, his temper also softened. I haven’t seen him attempt to physically lash out at another child in a while, and he is almost always smiling with this infectious smile that completely takes over his face. He also laughs at almost everything. He always wants a hug. To me, his change in attitude is remarkable. As if this isn’t enough on its own, his mindset surrounding classwork has also improved drastically. He enthusiastically practices his writing now, and can copy almost every letter of the alphabet in its proper shape, and each of his letter shapes are at minimum recognizable to any reader.

When he finishes a worksheet, he has a big smile and runs around the room to show each of the tutors at the Learning Centre his work, and some of the older children as well. Even the older children have noticed his progress. I’ve seen several of them high-fiving him and encouraging him on a regular basis. While the change I’ve seen in him over the past two months is quite remarkable, from what I’ve been told, the improvement he has made makes him almost unrecognizable from the boy that first came to the Learning Centre last year.

Source: Hannah Young, Volunteer Teacher and resident on a visiting fellowship from Brandeis University. 23 July, 2014

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