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School-in-a-Box makes literacy a cultural exchange

Author: Kate Gordon, Junior School Teacher

29 Jul 2016


I was fortunate to travel to Papua New Guinea alongside SEAMfund (Sustain Engage Art Melanesia) founder and author Drusilla Modjeska, writer Maggie Mackellar, architect Dr Stephen Collier and a small team to deliver SEAMfund’s Making Books project and School-in-a-Box to local children.

SEAMfund is a not-for-profit organisation that works in conjunction with the Kokoka Track Foundation (KTF) to improve educational outcomes in remote areas of PNG. 

Delivering School-in-a-Box

School-in-a-Box is a portable teaching resource, designed by SEAM design manager and award-winning architect Dr Stephen Collier. It includes marine ply cabinets, which store the included teaching resources (a library of books, two children’s laptops, and a full-size laptop), flexible solar panels, and a large tent, which can be set up at local schools.

We visited KTF’s Kokada College, a teacher training facility based at Kou Kou, where Dr Collier set up the first School-in-a-Box. I helped facilitate literacy workshops with the student teachers and children at Kou Kou Elementary School. 

We put in long days, but were inspired by the student teachers’ enthusiasm. They were excited to explore their School-in-a-Box and its potential for teaching and learning. I felt privileged to be involved in this innovative project and work with the student teachers.   

Making Books in the Fjord region

We later took a 35-minute flight to Tufi, in the fjord region at Cape Nelson, Oro Province. The view of the fjords as we approached was nothing short of spectacular. The land is like fingers reaching into the ocean. The villages in the fjord area are really only accessible by boat. But those with local knowledge know pathways through the jungle. 

The locals paddle wooden canoes across the fjords and out to the reefs to fish. Fortunately, we were not expected to paddle to Tainabuna Village School, where we would collaborate with students as part of SEAM’s Making Books initiative, but were taken there by dinghy. 

Drusilla Modjeska has spent a lot of time in the Tufi fjord region. When writing The Mountain, which was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award in 2013, she spent weeks at a time staying in village guest houses, getting to know people in the village, and understand their way of life. Her return is always eagerly anticipated by those who live there. And this year was no different. We were given a most incredible welcome as guests of the village and school for the day. 

We were led from the boat up to the village by people in traditional dress of tapa (bark) cloth, elaborate shell necklaces and feather headdresses. Villages sang a moving song of welcome, played kundu drums, and led us into the village. 

At Tainabuna Village School, who will receive School-in-a-Box in November, we had anticipated about 30 students in the Kindergarten to Year 2 section but arrived to a group of almost 100 kids – enrolments had clearly increased! I taught all 100 students alongside Martha Bentley, a drama teacher from Singapore’s Australian International School. 

Creating shared and mirror books with Wenona

We read stories and repeated the page-making process that Drusilla and Maggie ran at Wenona when they came to run literacy workshops. Back in Term 2, Drusilla had led Woodstock girls in making pages for counting and ABC books for young children using wax crayons and watercolour paints, and Maggie worked with Years 5 and 6 to write stories about the school day. The Wenona and Tainabuna students’ works will be made to create shared books and mirror books, depicting the lives of Wenona and PNG students. 

We spent time industriously making pages in their classrooms, before setting up under the trees in the centre of the village to play games which not only entertained the children, but the adults of the village as well.

Looking out for each other on the journey

At the end of the day, the teachers dismissed their students, reminded them to take great care on their journey home and to look out for one another. I thought this was a lovely way to farewell them. From our dinghy as we voyaged back, we saw many of the students paddling their little canoes over the choppy seas. The teacher’s words took on even greater meaning.

Over the trip we visited the villages of Jebo, Oratoaba and Siu, where we delivered solar lights on behalf of KTF and students from a primary school in Brisbane. None of the villages have electricity, so the lights were gratefully received. Solar light will enable students to read and study at night, as well as making everyday tasks easier. 

All too quickly, our trip came to an end. While it was hard work at times, the experience was enormously rewarding. The people of PNG are justifiably proud of their beautiful villages and thriving schools. I hope I will have the opportunity to return, and would encourage anyone to visit Tufi and the villages of the fjords.