#TrueConfessions: I love giving presentations about FunDza but – and it is a big but – I’m terrified of giving presentations to teachers. Perhaps this is a throwback to my long ago schoolgirl past, or perhaps not having had a teaching background leaves me feeling I’m at a disadvantage in a roomful of seasoned educators… I’m not sure. But it’s always good to confront one’s fears so about a year and a half ago I agreed to do a presentation on ‘the power of stories for change’ for the 6th Educateurs sans Frontieres Assembly, a two-week conference organised by the Association of Montessori Internationale.

As the date of my talk drew closer, I felt a growing sense of impending doom… what on earth would I say to the Montessori educators and practitioners gathering for this event at the Sustainability Institute in Stellenbosch? And, how on earth could I keep them engaged for an hour and a half, especially in the late afternoon?!

Thankfully, my colleague Dorothy, who has spent many hours in the classroom, was on hand to help me prepare a highly interactive programme – with writing, discussion and reading activities. More importantly, I was fortunate to find that the audience of educators were particularly kind and responsive.

My talk started around 3.30pm in the afternoon. Again my fears rose to the fore – I was concerned that the participants would be tired and disinterested in participation. But, I was proved wrong. They loved the free-writing exercises – the first on ‘My Reading Journey’ and the final one on ‘Languages and Me’ – they were happy to read some of our Rights booklets and discuss different methods for introducing a message through a story, and they were keen to add their voices to the pros and cons of reading on phones versus reading on paper.

My presentation provided background to the South African context in terms of literacy touching on how poverty is one of the biggest barriers to creating a vibrant culture of reading, and how digital access to relevant and exciting content can help to bridge these divides.

I spoke about the power of local stories, that speak to young readers hearts and minds, and that provide opportunities for them to reflect on their own lives and experiences. And, we discussed the power of story-telling, and how writing your own stories can build confidence and give a writer a sense of agency and independence.

One of the highlights were the stories that came from the delegates as they spoke about their early reading experiences, and how language has shaped them as an individual. One particular story that stood out was from a woman who had grown up in the Eastern Cape. As a child she only knew Xhosa. She thought that all black people were AmaXhosa and was shocked when she discovered that there were black people who spoke other languages. She had learnt to speak Xhosa well, and loved its rich idiomatic expressions. Her first encounter with English was at school – and it came as a brutal shock. She found the language difficult and to speak it ‘correctly’ she felt she had to change her voice. She said that she remembers as a child thinking that to speak English one needed to have a peg on one’s nose!

There were numerous other anecdotes and surprising stories from people’s past that were heart-warming to hear. The feedback was immensely positive and many said how the presentation had touched on a number of the underlying themes – such as inequality, language and identity, developing independence of thought, etc – that were central to the broader discussions of the assembly.

It was wonderful to spend the day with the approximately 90 participants from around the world. I was lucky enough to have heard a presentation by Susan Nyaga from SIL-Africa that looked at multilingualism in the classroom, as well as presentations by other practitioners from around the world. There was also a breakaway session to discuss a 1949 essay written by Dr Maria Montessori on combatting illiteracy. While the world has obviously changed significantly in the last 60-odd years, the article retained a relevance and it was interesting to hear – particularly from ECD practitioners – about the Montessori approach to encouraging young children to develop their writing skills and create their own words and worlds.

A big thank you to the AMI organisers and to Victoria Barres who had initially invited me to speak. It was a privilege to participate for the day, and it provided a great opportunity for overcoming my fears!