Some open letters are directed at a nation and the recent restrictive measures on adoption by President Putin and the Russian Government found a meaningful response in a letter reverently commenced: Dear President Putin…
Hantam Community Education Trust
P O Box 151, Colesberg 9795, South Africa
Open Letter to the Hantam Community Education Trust
4th December 2012
Attention: Mrs Lesley Osler
Your letter to our Professor Dieter von Willert dated 21 November 2012; undersigned by Project Coordinator, Lesley Osler refers – annexed to this document.
Your decision outlined in your letter informing Professor Dieter von Willert that you will “not be in need of (his) services as from the beginning of 2013” is a blunder, a mistake, especially in the light of the information that we include herein.
By all accounts, and for whatever reason, the Hantam Community Education Trust arrived at this conclusion based on no or little information – information that, if known, would have given added clarity about the work of Professor von Willert.
Although you described Prof von Willert’s work as “services”, you made it a point, mentioning several times during conversations with the undersigned during his September 2012 visit in South Africa, that “I do not know what Dieter is doing in the computer room”. Surprise was expressed at this, since he had, when this statement was made, already been at the Umthombo Primary School for more than a year!
Active, Participatory Learning – true contact time
From what is known, it is clear that the young children, from Grade 2 all the way to Grade 9, who spent time in the computer room, were, in fact, actively involved in learning.
From observations it was obvious that, during the contact time that these pupils had with Prof von Willert and the young volunteers from Germany, serious learning took place. In fact, the contact time was characterized by the Professor’s active involvement with each child, all the time. During the class time, there was no slackness and no twiddling of thumbs. Every child’s progress on the Maths exercises is carefully watched and affirmed and the child is challenged to continue to the next level. He does not just sit there, idle, reading a magazine or texting a buddy or updating his Facebook status or running to the office to make photocopies while the children work on the computers. No!
He engages and interacts with them. He is the epitome of combining high tech with high touch. I, the undersigned, have seen this with my own eyes, and every teacher at your school, who walked through that door and saw what was happening, can testify to this. In fact, they send their students to the Professor – something they probably would not have done if they knew he was up to no-good.
There is a buzz in the room and learning takes place and I have recorded, both in video and still images, many moments that speak overwhelmingly of the wonder and excitement of true participatory and interactive learning during the contact time in the computer room. If an independent study were launched to determine the nature of the learning experiences during the contact time in the computer room at Umthombo under Dieter von Willert’s guidance, it would undoubtedly speak favourably and positively at a meaningful, quality learning experience that is measured by tangible success stories.
Aiming for improved Student Performance
And right there is the one distinctive that makes the work of Dieter von Willert a cut above the rest – all the care, all the individual attention, all the focus, all the diagnostic, the evaluation, the monitoring and the re-teaching is aimed at improving Math knowledge and skills. Dieter knows that his work, if it is great, will be visible, tangible in the results of the students. Not only that, but he does not move on with a student that is struggling. He checks and rechecks whether the concept is understood and then moves on – this, we both know is a parent’s dream – what we hope for in every teacher.
Sound pedagogical Concept
Not just that, but his support is based on a sound conceptual approach to learning – it’s not like he rocked up at the school with no plan, no vision, no ideas, no resources, no creativity, no plan, no purpose. On the contrary, as he so ably communicated at the workshop that was held at Umthombo in September, he possesses a very sound pedagogical approach to take a student from a substandard level of competence to an increasingly improved one. He brings with him a rich understanding of Mathematics and combines it with a healthy love for technology and an unmatched compassion for our children.
Now, if the Hantam Community Education Trust took the time to enter that room, even unannounced, it would have seen a real 21st century learning experience in place where every child is given the best of technology that is available for learning – prudently combined with the most caring, consistent, thorough and challenging human touch.
Of all the talk about equal access to information, giving our rural children the same opportunities for the best learning experiences, bridging the digital divide, narrowing the achievement gap, keeping the standards high, being considerate to social and economic backgrounds, it is inexplicable and beyond comprehension how we could have missed seeing it all happening right in front of us, under our noses, at our school, in Umthombo.
View from a snotneus klonkie
You will remember that I shared with you some personal experiences, similar to the young children that crosses the thresholds of the Umthombo primary school each day and I know what it is to have nothing to eat and to grow up wishing that you had the strength to deal with the sociological decay around you when I lived and grew up in the hostile unfriendly rural Western Cape. I truly wished that I had an adult in my life those years of the caliber and character of Dieter von Willert and it defies logic how the Hantam Community Education Trust can conclude that it does not need this kind of adult at the school and then provide an arbitrary reason for such a decision.
How is it possible, given that we need all the help we can get in this country, and all the assistance that we can muster and all the caring, committed adults we so desperately require, that we can tell someone, and not just any kind of someone, that we do not need his services? How did the Hantam Community Education Trust conclude that the contact time now so desperately sought for the 2013 academic year was absent? How could we have missed seeing that the kind and quality of true contact time that we aspire to, was, in fact, already beginning to happen? Why did we stay away from the computer room, to see and witness what the buzz was all about?
I have now worked and lived in four different learning environments, the Washington DC area, Stockholm Sweden, South Africa of course and now in Rome, Italy, and I have dedicated the last 11 years to the plight of our rural children, often working with schools in our country that can only dream of having the support from someone like Prof von Willert at their disposal.
Cost – at whose expense?
It must be clear and it is a fact that, despite having spent something like a quarter million South African Rands this far just to be in Colesberg and support the Trust’s work, (not mentioning labour) not a single cent was ever asked for, or ever offered to the Professor – he would in any event never have accepted money since what he does, he does for South Africa’s children. He re-located to Colesberg to help us in our schools – at his own expense!
About this matter of costs, I seriously wondered. I wondered why it is that a pioneering, selfless, caring initiative that does not cost the trust anything is brushed aside with such inexplicable disdain? Would it have been better to insist that the Trust fork out the Quarter Million Rands it cost for the Professor to be in Colesberg and serve our needy communities? Would it have been more of an incentive to go into the computer room if we were paying for the diesel and wewere paying for the laptops and printed matter?
If we paid for the transportation, accommodation and food for the volunteers from Germany, would we have then tried to sneak into the computer room to see their endearing support and one-on-one Maths help offered?
We have now had 3 young people supporting our young children’s learning and we did not pay a single cent for them!
What is it that blinded us to the possibility that some people accept a different currency as payment – a child’s improved performance in Mathematics and that child’s sincere thanks? How did we miss the heartwarming, caring and generous details that make up the fiber and caliber of Dieter von Willert – a son from another soil who, despite a myriad of other things he could do with his resources, chose to spend it with us, for the improvement of our children? What caused our blindness? Why did we not go into the computer lab to see his compassionate DNA at work?
Experience, Compassion and Academic Excellence
Would we have actually walked into the computer room to see him at work, if we knew that we were blessed at Umthombo with someone whose first book (published by Cambridge University Press in 1992) became the compulsory textbook on Plant Ecophysiology in South Africa? Would we have been a little more attentive and respectful if we knew that a second academic work, a few years later, is the textbook in Germany for biophysics in plant ecology (where his love for Mathematics comes from)?
Instead, we insultingly called him a volunteer, when we had visitors at the school earlier this year and identified him as such in the Trust’s official publications – despite the fact that the Hantam Community Education Trust did not recruit him, as one does with a volunteer. If he was a volunteer, he would have been the most qualified volunteer to ever trod the dusty roads of the Northern Cape.
Maybe we also did not know that his evenings are not made up of wonderfully calming, retirement-type-red-wine-sipping expenditure of what retirees think they have earned and rightly deserve – not Dieter von Willert.
I have in my e-mail inbox, a mountain of reflections, contemplations over how to best support our children in learning, strategies on how to evaluate and how to best address the needs of our children. I have deliberately not deleted these emails as they represent for me the ultimate record of a truly passionate friend of my home country, my South Africa, our children!
Our seemingly endless Skype conversations have only one subject – the improved quality of learning for the less fortunate in South Africa’s forgotten communities. There are no arrogant ramblings of boastful achievements in his career work as an influential global voice in Botany – something that none of us who knows, would deny him. But no, Dieter von Willert occupies his mind, his heart, his soul with those who need it most and empties his wallet for the rural forgotten and God knows, I wish I had someone who had just 1% of his commitment in our school when I was a snotneus klonkie in the rural Cape.
Our young children benefit from this amazing hero, because that is what he is to many children. I would dare the Trust to recruit an objective inquiry into how our young learners’ views of the Professor, as he is affectionately called, or Kagiso (peace) as the children from the Kalahari named him. Something happens to them and their performance and their self-worth improves when they work with the Professor.
Umthombo’s Grade 9 Mathematics class’ results are amongst the many illustrations of this – if we want to know what the professor is actually doing.
Looking at the graph herein, we see the variance in the performance of Math in Grade 9 between the June and November 2012 examinations.
We notice that only two students improved in their performance. These are student numbers 1 and 2. Everyone else dropped in their performance, on average, by 7%.
Two variables must be kept in mind that may explain why the results look so differently between the two tests. The first one is likely to be the unfortunate medical leave of absence of the school Principal, Mr Niekie Pretorius who was also the Math teacher. He was replaced so that Math instruction could continue, but under different arrangements – the Hantam Community Education Trust decided to reduce to zero the amount of contact time the Grade 9 Maths students would have with Prof Dieter von Willert in the computer room. Up and until the beginning of Mr. Pretorius’ medical leave, he sent the students to Prof von Willert for additional support. Sometimes the professor was even asked to conduct the school lesson. That had all been changed after Mr Pretorius left.
The second variable concerns one of the two students who improved their results – pupil number 1. Her name is Nosipo and she was the only student, out of the entire Grade 9 class, who had the chance to regularly work with Prof Dieter von Willert over a period of 12 days, which included about 15 hours spent in the computer room. It is not sure to us, why pupil # 2 showed such remarkable improvement. It is certainly worthwhile finding out as we could all learn something from it.
Now, just before skepticism causes us to write this off as a one-off lucky strike, we should consider that Prof Dieter von Willert started his work after his retirement in South Africa, way back in 2001 and there is a mass of detailed accounts of his work in this country of ours from Kitlanyang to Colesberg. In fact, not just did he complete work in many schools, both in-class and after-school projects, but also introduced several young children, who showed potential, to sponsors from individuals and organizations who are continuing their support for these children to enable them to continue what was started by the Professor at competent schools, through bursaries.
Additionally, Rotary International recently honoured the work of the Professor to extend his much needed contribution to our communities by providing funding for 2013 and 2014 in the Colesberg region.
There is no doubt that he loves South Africa and that he gives of his life to, what the Human Rights Watch described as, “the forgotten schools (and communities) of South Africa.” He’s been at it since 2001 because he adopted the view of retirement so warmly held by Corrie Ten Boom – “it simply means retyring and going for the next challenge.”
In our cynical moments, we can come up with many different reasons why the Hantam Community Education Trust told Professor Dieter von Willert that his services were no longer required. I mean, how do you tell someone that his or her services (which we never bothered learning more about) are not needed?
We were, in fact, telling him that, “We don’t know what you are doing, but, whatever it is, we do not need it anymore”!
But cynicism has never been a friend of civility.
As such, our view is that the decision is not based on any knowledge of the work of Professor Dieter von Willert. In fact, telling the Professor that we no longer require his services does not make sense at all. It was an un-informed decision. But, being un-informed is a symptom of a global disease, commonly known as ignorance, which, happily and thankfully, is curable!
Of this disease, we pray that the Hantam Community and Education Trust, be healed, because as a key role player, it is a valuable, vital and, in some cases a life-saving asset in our country, in Colesberg and on our farms.
There is no doubt, though, that we missed the boat completely in relation to Professor Dieter von Willert and may God forgive us this transgression.
Theophilus van Rensburg Lindzter – FOUNDER: LEARNING ACADEMY WORLWIDE
“Gebore in die Kaap, snotneus van Genadendal, Geseënd bo my verdienste, opreg Besorgd”
Largo Temistocle Solera, 7-10, Rome, 00199 ITALY – Tel +39-366-726-2513
MOBILE LEARNING – www.m-ubuntu.org.za
The following is a good example of an open letter serving the purpose of adding content and context published by the South African Democracy and Education Trust.