Zonnebloem library nurtures culture of reading and respect

07 Aug 2019
Zonnebloem library nurtures culture of reading and respect

Written by Nadia Krige | Featured image by Andrea Stalbom

Educational institutions without libraries, these days especially – as hubs offering access to essential internet services for research purposes – are almost unthinkable. This was however until recent years the case with Zonnebloem College Estate, which on 9 March 2018 celebrated 160 years of education.

This grand age places the three institutions now established on the property – Zonnebloem Girls’ and  Boys’ Primary Schools as well as Zonnebloem NEST High School – among the 100 oldest schools in South Africa.

With so much history behind its name, it’s rather hard to believe that for the better part of these years, the estate was entirely devoid of a library that served the learners’ needs.

Unfurling of a sunflower

That is until, in December 2016, the Otto Foundation stepped in and allowed the magical Sunflower Learning Centre to unfurl.

“The more I spoke to the school, the more I just realised how great the need for a library was and that it was an opportunity for our foundation to make a real difference,” explains Otto Foundation CEO Zephne Ladbrook. “We started in December, knocked out, pulled up, painted and refurbished and by April [2017], we opened the doors.”

From the start, school management teams were open to partnering and have been working alongside the foundation to tackle literacy challenges from different angles.

Having grown up surrounded by books, reading was very much a part of her home culture, but Ladbrook soon realised that this was not the case for most South African children.

Photograph by Andrea Stalbom

According to the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) report released by national research coordinator, Professor Sarah Howie, at the University of Pretoria (UP) in December 2016, the majority of South African Grade 4 pupils cannot read with comprehension.

The report found that around 78% of South African Grade 4 learners do not reach the international benchmarks and, therefore, do not have basic reading skills by the end of the Grade 4 school year. This is in contrast to only 4% of learners internationally.

South Africa was the lowest-performing country out of 50 in the PIRLS 2016 study.

Ladbrook believes that, in many ways, South Africa’s literacy problem can be ascribed to the fact that there aren’t enough spaces where age-appropriate, interesting and relatable books are freely available for children to pick up and read, and where adults model a culture of reading.

Apart from wanting to create a space that nurtures a love for books and the magical worlds they carry, Ladbrook and her small, but dedicated team also wanted the library to serve as a sanctuary of sorts. Since most of the learners attending Zonnebloem’s primary schools come from poor households on the outskirts of Cape Town and have to travel long distances to-and-from school every day, having a space where they can safely relax after classes is an unknown luxury.

Enlisting the expertise of architect Victoria Perry of Loudon Perry Anderson Architects, the foundation succeeded in creating the type of space that any child would dream of calling their own.

With its high ceilings, quaint house-shaped reading nooks, comfortable furnishings, drifting cloud wall and splashes of bright yellow cushions, the library seems to glow with homely warmth and welcome.

Mazvitashe Gonondo, head girl of Zonnebloem Girls’ School with Head Librarian, Sonica Motsepeng Petros .

Meeting the woman in charge

Of course, even the most welcoming space will lose its charm if the people in charge don’t play along.

Fortunately, this is far from the case at Sunflower Learning Centre!

Head librarian Sonica Motsepeng Petros, has won the children’s hearts and trust by simply being available, paying attention and lending an ear.

She has gained particular favour with the youngest learners – Grade R to Grade 3 – who don’t hesitate to quietly slip into the library after school, even when she’s busy teaching an older class.

“Normally, they’d immediately find a book to read and sit down quietly where they don’t disturb me or the older kids,” Petros explains. “Sometimes, I print out pages for the Grade R’s to colour in, so they help themselves to the crayons and keep themselves busy with that.”

With a strong sense of intuition regarding the wellbeing of the 750 children who move in and out of her library every week, Petros has also been instrumental in helping certain learners get the help they need – from something as simple as sending a feverish child home early to the more prickly issues like encouraging teachers to have ‘naughty’ learners assessed for learning disabilities.

Photograph by Andrea Stalbom

A place of peace and tranquillity

According to Mazvitashe Gonondo, head girl of Zonnebloem Girls’ School, all the children find Petros approachable and find it easy to talk to her when they have a problem – certainly a far cry from the strict and sushing librarian archetype!

“She’s quite fun because she also has a child and is like a mother to us,” she says.

Sunflower Learning Centre has also played another essential role in the lives of the learners:

“Before they built the library we were always worried about where we were going to get information for our projects and also where we would be able to print them out when they were done,” Gonondo recalls. “Now we have peace of mind when we get our projects.”

Gonondo adds that stepping into the library always has a relaxing effect on her, especially after a stressful day at school. She enjoys just picking a book off the shelf – Roald Dahl is currently her favourite author – and reading with a friend.

Photograph by Andrea Stalbom

Highlighting South African stories

While Dahl might have won Gonondo’s heart and imagination, the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney is by far the most popular book among the learners entering Sunflower Learning Centre.

“The kids in intermediate phase tend to keep the books for a long time because they don’t want anyone else to read it,” says Petros. “And then when they do eventually bring their copy back, it gets taken out almost immediately again. They’re actually getting damaged more than any other books!”

With the main character having to navigate the minefield of school during his preteen years, it’s easy to imagine why the intermediate phase children favour it.

This also highlights how important it is for children to find books and characters that they can relate to if you want to nurture a love and culture of reading.

For this reason, Ladbrook has ensured that the library is well stocked with books by South African authors and that the isiXhosa section remains robust. She has noticed, however, that there is a real need for local tween fiction and hopes to see more on the library’s shelves in the near future.

In her role as librarian, Petros makes an effort to highlight the work of local authors and stories.

“I try to focus more on South African writers than international ones, because I want them to know the folk tales and stories of Africa,” she says.

Photograph from Facebook

To further encourage awareness about South African books and stories, the library hosts local authors for book readings every once in a while. During these sessions, the children get to interact with the authors, ask questions and, sometimes, even do a creative project together.

Ladbrook says that she’d love to get more cartoonists to come to the library and deliver a talk.

“It’s such a clever and funny way to learn about what’s going on in the country,” she says. “It also shows the children that telling a story isn’t just about words.”

Zephne Ladbrook, Otto Foundation CEO. Photograph by Nicky Stowe.

Since opening its doors in 2017, Sunflower Learning Centre has undoubtedly become a hub of interactive learning, where a love for reading is being nurtured on a daily basis. More than that, it’s a space where the children of Zonnebloem’s Primary Schools are getting the opportunity to strive for a better future.

“Research shows that reading for enjoyment is more important for children’s educational success than their family’s socio-economic status,” says Ladbrook. “And that’s what we’re hoping to see.”

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