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CFS Associate Professor Trina Spencer Shares Fulbright Experience in South Africa

CFS Associate Professor Trina Spencer Shares Fulbright Experience in South Africa

Photo Left to Right: Dr. Juan Bornman, Bathobile Ngcobo, and Dr. Trina Spencer

“Are We Together?”

After several starts and stops and a year and a half delay, CFS Associate Professor Dr. Trina Spencer finally made it to South Africa. She won a Fulbright award in 2020, but due to COVID-19, she was unable to begin her experience until 2022. Now in Pretoria, South Africa, she works alongside colleagues at the Centre for Augmentative and Alternative Communication (CAAC) at the University of Pretoria (UP).

To support a UP master’s student’s (Bathobile Ngcobo) first presentation on AAC, Dr. Spencer traveled with her colleague Dr. Juan Bornman to a rural town, Umzinto near Durban, South Africa. They were warmly welcomed despite Bathobile not being able to share with friends and family about the big event beforehand – as she explained “This is a big event for me, like a wedding. In our culture, you cannot share big news like this before it happens… only afterwards.” The administration and teachers at Schola Amoris, a school for learners with special education needs, nonetheless, rolled out the red carpet to welcome the scholars. All 36 teachers were able to attend the training because the support staff and bus drivers filled in for them in the classrooms. The school principal, Mrs. SN Gumede is an exemplary leader, empowering her staff with knowledge and advocating for the reduction of barriers for learners with disabilities.

Bathobile gave a cogent and inspirational introduction on the importance of communication, including non-speech forms of communication. Dr. Bornman followed with an energetic presentation on the use of symbols, which included teaching everyone to sing Old MacDonald using keyword signing with signs from in South African Sign Language. Using the sign language augments, we sang the song effortlessly with a “moo-moo here, and a moo-moo there” – highlighting the importance of having fun while learning. Drawing from her research on storytelling as an effective academic and social promotion strategy, Dr. Spencer taught the power of culturally derived storytelling for all – including learners with disabilities.

Dr. Spencer described the experience as culturally enlightening and incredibly humbling. “The teachers were so eager and grateful for the bits of knowledge we shared,” she said. “Working with children with significant disabilities is a very challenging job and sometimes teachers get stuck. In just a few hours, they gained some new ideas about how they can better support their students’ communication.” Fortunately, Bathobile, who is the school’s speech-language pathologist, was able to collect pre- and post-test data on the teachers’ perceptions of communication and how to promote it in their classrooms. This professional development study will be her master’s thesis.

“My absolutely favorite part of this experience is when Bathobile would interject, ‘Are we together?’ during her presentation to check the teachers’ understanding of the content. And every time she askd, we heard a clear and resounding, ‘Yes!’” said Dr. Spencer. The phrase, “Are we together?” did more than check for understanding; it ensured their professional journey was one of collective interest and engagement.