I have lost count of the countries I have traveled to, worked in, and lived in. I spend my days speaking French at home and English at work. My kids take German and Chinese classes after school. On Mondays and Wednesdays, I spend my days teaching foreign students--their places of birth circle the globe: Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Brazil, Cuba, Japan, China, Korea, Taiwan, Cameroon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Afghanistan, India, Germany, France, Spain, Italy and on and on and on and on. None of this makes me special. It make me an aberration in a family of otherwise blue collar workers and anti-intellectuals, but not special in the positively attributed sense. What it makes me is lucky. Very very lucky.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the ubiquity of internationalism and languages and cultures in my life has served to normalize them. On the one hand, this has been positive. I want my children to grow up in a household of global citizens; but it has a downside, too: it sometimes removes the excitement and newness that travel offers the less globally seasoned. This is of course a good problem to have and you will hear no complaints from me. But it’s the truth. A life lived across the globe is sometimes one desensitized to the small pleasures of minor cultural differences.
I’m telling you all this because South Africa did not feel that way. South Africa, for whatever reason, felt wholly and entirely new all while it was wholly and entirely comfortable. I have no explanation for this except to say that it reminded me of what I love about traveling and learning amongst others. This trip was everything I might have hoped and more. South Africa was everything I hoped and more. The amount I gained as a teacher, a profession I consider a vocation, was everything I hoped and more.
I joked about a South Africa 2.0, but I was only half kidding (more like 0% kidding if I’m honest). The truth is that this course highlighted for me all the things I still have to learn about inclusive education in international contexts. And any course that leaves you with more questions than you started with is worth its weight in gold for me. There is no pursuit more worthy that realizing how little you know and diving back in for more. Thank you for everything, South Africa!
So… I’m in love with Cape Town. Just putting that out there. I feel sure I’m neither the first nor the last person to start a blog post that way. Alas, onward!
Our last couple of days in South Africa were dedicated to sightseeing and cultural excursions. On the first day, we were together as a group, visiting Bo-Kaap, Boulders, and the Cape of Good Hope (all three were stunning and I’m so glad to have seen them!); on the second day, we split up and participated in the sightseeing and cultural activities that spoke to us individually and in small groups. I spent day two visiting Robben Island, ambling about the city and outdoor markets, and hopping on a classic Red Bus Tour (I'm predictable like that). While experiencing Robben Island was perhaps the most culturally significant and profound of my experiences that day (not to mention the one that allowed me to connect A Long Walk to Freedom with my experience in Cape Town), it was actually the Red Bus Tour that I enjoyed the most.
I say the aforementioned not because I value it more than my other experiences per se--certainly not more than Robben Island--but because it felt like the perfect completion of the trip, as if I were both literally and figuratively looping around the city and its people and all the varied demographics and income groups that bring it to life, all the townships set up against the wealthy suburbs and beach towns, all the erstwhile sites of protest now paved over as if themselves old tropes, all the bits of history and pain and beauty that make up any real place in the world. It was all of the books and films and all of the discussions and assignments and all of the people meshed up together. I loved it as much as one could possibly love a tour.
One of the genuine highlights of this trip was the fact that we met, socialized with, and learned from a plethora of South Africans, some formally involved in the educational system and, some, not at all. Looking back, meeting these people--Dr. Jez’s friends, her former colleagues, local professors and their students--provided us that same "breadth of understanding” that the Soweto Bike Tour did. What I mean by this is that they provided us with a richer, more robust view of the lived experiences of South Africans and the knowledge that there are so very many ways of being in South Africa that no one narrative applies.
Imagine had we only visited Eisikhisini and Soweto as compared to only visiting Lebone II and Melville, for instance. Imagine had we only viewed The Wound and not had the chance to view Catching Feelings. Such isolated and vacuum-like experiences would not have given us a representative view of the ways of living experienced by South Africans every single day. They would not have demonstrated the ways in which sociopolitical history and strife (read: colonialism, Apartheid, and capitalism) affected and continue to affect institutions and informal systems of justice for all South Africans, for better or worse. How could we possibly have examined the educational system absent this knowledge?
Meeting South Africans (and immigrants to South Africa) of various cultures, socioeconomic groups, and professions provided us with some of our most important knowledge to this end, and that’s this: South Africa, for all the challenges it has faced and continues to face, is a deeply complex and often stupefyingly beautiful place--not just geographically and physically, but more importantly in the figurative sense. As I feel about my own society, it is worth the effort that so many have and continue to put into it.
I’m going to break a rule here and combine these schools into one blog for two reasons: 1) so as to give myself room for a final reflective blog at the end, and 2) because I realize, in retrospect, that I’ve cognitively categorized these schools together--not because they were identical experiences: by contrast, they were not--but because, together, they enhanced my understanding of the secondary education system in South African townships as a whole. In this way, their differences were as important as their similarities.
So, broadly, what was the same about these schools?
Broadly, what was different about these schools?
Did these schools each have a different “feel” to them? Yes. Alas, I am left with a sense that even for their differences, they face many of the same concerns. This is a theme, of course, that is increasingly apparent to me where U.S. and South African schools are juxtaposed as well.
My overall takeaway, however, is this: The schools themselves aside, the students of each of the classrooms in which I spent time lived such varied lives and had such varied needs that I almost can’t imagine teaching them without the assistance of the CRSTP. The sheer number of languages that these students spoke was such that teaching them without knowledge of those languages and the cultures attached to them would have felt nearly impossible. I realize that we cannot know all aspects of our students’ lives, but the CRSTP provided us with critical information for a group of stunningly diverse students. The necessity of a tool of this nature as part of a culturally responsive toolkit is more and more apparent by the day.
How much do I love the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) students!?! Sooooooo incredibly much. Though I certainly expected to get to know this group and probably to like them, even bond with them, I can tell you with absolute honesty that I did not expect to meet people who might be lifelong friends and educator-partners. What an experience!
Interestingly, there’s quite little I can really say about CPUT itself because we were so immersed in our experiences with the students (all pre-service teachers) that the university itself fell to the periphery for me. What I can tell you is that the lack of resources the university experienced was at times obvious, but that my experiences and discussions with their students led me to believe that any lack of material resources was met with superior teaching and learning. Working with those students on the CRSPT left me with the same sense that the Changemaker Symposium did, but even more intensely. Considering the chasms between us, I was amazed with the seamless and organic nature of our conversations, including conversations in which we had strong differences of opinion.
As with the symposium, building empathy with the CPUT students was key, and it happened far faster than I might have thought. J.C., for example, became one of us. And the General---need I really say more?! On our final morning with this group, Dr. Jez left us with the CPUT students to make some final arrangements and gather copies. After completing a quick project, we had time to spare, so we turned on some South African music and danced and laughed and snapped goofy pictures and talked about South African lyrics until nothing else on earth seemed more appropriate for that moment and space in time. There were no pretences, no awkward silences. We were one team of educators, now friends.
Now, this may all seem purely social and thus disconnected from our course content, but it’s actually not. Instead, it is demonstrative of how empathy-building and changemaking and community development all work. We were, perhaps without even realizing it, putting the practices we were exploring for K-12 students into practice amongst ourselves. And it worked splendidly. We began as individual students from varying cultural backgrounds and ended as one community of global educator-friends.
There’s so much to reflect on here that I barely know where to start. In fact, I joked about wanting to pull my children out of their school and send them here; and I was only half kidding. Remarkably, Lebone II was putting into practice much of what we had been reading about and discussing over the previous weeks and months.
Even without having seen actual students in the classroom, for example, it was clear that Lebone II was putting culturally responsive pedagogy into practice. Prior to arriving in South Africa, from Brownell et al. (2012), we learned the importance of varying and adapting instructional practices in relation to diverse needs. This was at the very heart of what Lebone II appeared to be doing--tailoring projects to multitudinous needs, providing opportunities for independent study, encouraging students to participate in the planning of their lessons and classrooms, and, perhaps above all, practically insisting that students feel seen and heard.
Nowhere was that latter intent more evident than in the administrative conference room we glimpsed. Hung carefully across on the far wall were pictures of each and every student in the school. What struck me upon first seeing this was the humanizing effect it had. When students are no longer “just another student amongst the masses,” when they are placed before you as breathing, feeling human beings, it becomes a lot harder not to take their interests and needs into account. It becomes a lot harder not to insist on hearing their voices.
There can be no question that Lebone II has what it has as a result of financial resources. Ignoring that fact would be to discount the lack of resources we saw in other schools and the extreme poverty we’ve witnessed during our stay in South Africa. However, what is also clear is that Lebone II has succeeded in not simply taking those resources as a means of providing students with the best of material things, but of ensuring that they are providing students with opportunities that match their needs and desires. This is critically important if they are to continue serving students and, nearly as important, the local community.
Brownell, M. T., Smith, S. J., Crockett, J. B., & Griffin, C. C. (2012). Inclusive instruction: Evidence-based practices for teaching students with disabilities. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
The day we first went on Safari was our first day off in South Africa; it was MUCH needed. For my part, I was exhausted, a common phenomenon when spending time in another culture or amongst speakers of another language. When our brain is forced to work harder to comprehend our surroundings (even little things), we fatigue faster. This is something I remind my international students of, many of whom find themselves sleeping more and tiring faster during their first few months in the U.S. In light of this course, this phenomenon is particularly fascinating because it speaks to some of the very things that Hammond (2015) addresses in Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. What I experienced and what Hammond addresses in her book speak to why our job as educators must be to create an environment in which students see connections to what they already understand about the world and what we aim to show them.
But I have digressed. Back to the safari itself. I suppose that what I want to express is the fact that while I was not really sure what to expect from a safari--it honestly wasn’t high up on my bucket list--it so far exceeded my expectations as to almost dumbfound me. We saw lions, a leopard, giffare, rhinos, springbok, zebra, wildebeest, elephants, warthogs, and other incredible creatures who simply aren’t popping into my head at the moment of this writing. We watched the pink-orange fingers of the sun curl around us. We listened to wild birds. And we laughed, a lot. I think back on it now and find it somewhat surreal. At times, driving through the South African landscape, I felt as if I had been plucked up and dropped back off in one of Alan Paton’s landscape scenes from Cry, the Beloved Country. It was quite nearly perfect. We'll find that water buffalo on 2.0!
Hammond, Z. (2015). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain: Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. Corwin.
Paton, A. (1948). Cry, the beloved country. New York, NY: Scribner.
I’d like to, if I may, post a few sentiments from my Changemaker Pledge email as they capture what I really want to say about the symposium and how it changed me.
Inner transformation (Who have I become now? What’s next?)
I am almost at a loss to describe the ways in which this experience has transformed me because they are so very multitudinous. What I mostly feel is that I am seeing our shared experiences through new eyes. Whereas I previously viewed us as distinct systems with largely distinct challenges, I see us now as sharing so many of the same issues and concerns. There is a thread of connectivity between us that I did not perceive before. I perceive it now, friends and changemakers. And whenever I tug on it, I hope you’ll be there on the other end rooting for me in the same way that I’ll be rooting for you.
Relational transformation (What have you learned from this experience about working with others?) I learned so much working with all of you. Mostly I learned to sharpen my ear and listen—for you have more things to teach me than I could ever perceive on my own. Working with you also reminded me of the importance of sharing ideas even if they are not yet fully formed. Even when we do not move forward with initial ideas and solutions, they give us a springboard from which to work in the future. Thank you for showing me this.
Systemic transformation (How will this experience influence your leadership?) My own leadership is constantly in flux and situational; this experience has reminded me why that is so important and why I must reassess needs and contexts all the time as a leader. Nowhere was this more evident for me than it was working with French-speaking immigrant students in South Africa. My own research area is in linguistic imperialism and I often cognitively categorize French as a privileged colonial language. In South Africa, I was reminded that the privilege we ascribe to some languages shifts based on their location. This was an important leadership lesson for me because it reminded me that nothing is static, even commonly held narratives.
The truth is that had you asked me prior to the symposium if I would have found it as transformational as I portrayed above, I wouldn’t have believed it possible. But, looking back, I realize how profound it was to sit with a group of (mostly) strangers and connect themes between our two countries in such an organic and honest way.
The fact that we found as many commonalities as we did between the United States and South Africa was striking. In fact, few of the barriers we discussed were isolated to one country. And almost all of them were present in our course content, most notably the issues of language barriers addressed by Dr. Makalela in his presentation and in readings from Inclusive Education in African Contexts. It's interesting to think how I originally isolated the issues discussed in Inclusive Education in African Contexts to Africa whereas so very many of them, with slight contextual and policy shifts, are just as evident here. I knew that theoretically, of course, but sometimes it takes seeing it to really click.
I was also struck by the fact that we were able to build empathy as quickly and authentically as we did. Our group felt vivid and dynamic. It felt real. Moreover, we not only identified but solved problems with respect. We listened. We evolved in our stances. We offered measured criticism and heaps of praise. No one dominated conversation. What this all suggests to me is that we, as learners, were receptive to learning. I could not have been more proud.
Phasha, N., Mahlo, D., & Dei, G. J. S. (Eds.). (2017). Inclusive Education in African Contexts: A Critical Reader. Springer.
I suspect that the Soweto Bike Tour will end up having been one of the most impactful experiences of this trip. I don’t think that I’m alone with that sentiment based on conversations with many of my peers. There are those who, without context, might consider this type of activity akin to “disaster tourism.” I disagree with that stance. I cannot change the privileges I have access to. I can’t erase them or dilute them or pretend they don’t benefit me every single day of my life. What I can do is open my eyes to the complexities of the world and develop my understanding of the chasms between us all. I can try to understand how those chasms were forged and why they often continue to flourish.
If we had only visited schools in South Africa, I might have suspected I understood how students lived, but my understanding would have been thin and superficial. And how would that benefit me? Understanding the superficial aspects of culture only gets you so far. In Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, Hammond (2015) spoke to why superficial understandings of culture, often promoted as a push toward multiculturalism, are not enough. To be truly culturally responsive, I need more than knowledge about the "surface cultures" of my students: I need to dig deeper into their cultural ideologies and ways of living and seeing the world.
One evening in the car, we commented on the vast differences between the wealthy beach town where were had just had dinner and the township we had visited earlier in the day. Afterward, we commented on the importance of seeing as much of a country as one can if one is to try to understand it (in whatever sense one can “understand” a country after a few weeks). I thought of the Soweto Bike Tour in that moment. I thought of how it reshaped my understanding of South Africa. We cannot ignore major demographics of a country if we are to try to make sense of the educational system in which those demographics are suspended. We cannot teach if we pretend our students all live the same lives and see the world the same way.
Hammond, Z. (2015). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain: Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. Corwin.
Truth be told, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Harambee visit, nor quite how relevant it would be to the course content, but it turned out to be an incredibly insightful part of our trip and one that I revisited mentally several times during later school visits (particularly at Lebone II where teachers make it a mission to teach soft skills from grade R). I have a vivid recollection of watching one young man present his vision board--an experience that reminded me how important our ability to narrate our hopes and desires is to making them realities. Intentionality comes to mind here as critically important.
Another thing the Harambee visit helped me do was to connect the manner in which our soft skills and socialization connect to our ability to transition successfully to the workplace. This is notably critical in South Africa because schools and communities vary so distinctly across the country, especially where available resources are concerned. Though the connection between socialization and transition was not new to me, it was so clearly articulated at Harambee as to help me better connect my own experience as a first generation college student to some of my early difficulties as an undergraduate navigating the challenges of school and work. And I was far more privileged than many of the students seeking out the services of Harambee.
Finally, while it may at first seem unrelated, Harambee also brought the importance of our readings and discussions of culturally responsive pedagogy and the brain to the fore for me. To my mind, Harambee serves to connect some of the gaps in education that result from a lack of culturally responsive pedagogy, demonstrating its importance not just to academic performance, but to lifelong measures of success.