Tuesday, August 5, 2014

"How was your trip?"

Whenever you return from a trip, everyone asks you: "so, how was your trip?," or "What was it like in Africa?" The easy answer is always "it was great" or "amazing," but that simple response does not capture the experience that I had in South Africa. It's going to be difficult to put into words and my description will not be able to capture reality, but here's my best attempt at answering the question that everyone will be asking...

My experience as an educator was different than my experience as a tourist, so I have to make that distinction.

Educator's Experience:
I've had the opportunity to travel quite a bit lately but I have never been into the schools and I want to incorporate this into future visits. It was refreshing to talk with fellow educators about their triumphs and struggles in the classroom and realize that no matter where you are, working with kids is challenging. We had the rare opportunity to visit an array of schools within the same city, which made me realize that I need to visit more schools in my own district as well. The inequalities that exist within South Africa are visible and it seems that progress is slow. Before we left, I fell in love with a quote by Nelson Mandela: "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world." As an educator, I know this quote is true. There is nothing more powerful than a good education, but so many people do not have access to one and it's criminal. This is true in South Africa, but it's also true in America. As my career as an educational leader emerges, I want to find a away to promote truly equal education for all children.

At Emafini Primary School, I had a workbook, chalk, chalkboard, and 45 learners in a class and I had to teach even though I didn't really know what I was teaching them. I taught students who were learning English as their second or third language and students from different academic levels who were all in the same class. They learned and they enjoyed what they were learning (I heard this later because they were talking about me in isiXhosa). As teachers in the United States, we have so many resources available to us that there is no excuse for not teaching our kids. I have an infinite supply of resources with multiple computers and internet access in my classroom. I have all the technology that a teacher could want; granted it doesn't always work properly, but I have it. I have 90 minutes during the school day to prepare for my lessons, grade papers, and do other work that needs to get done. I also have less students in a single class and far less in a given day. Why are we complaining so much? Good teachers are teaching around the world with the materials they have available... and they aren't complaining.

It's August and school is right around the corner. My goal for this upcoming school year is to bring the Xhosa spirit to Hoggard. We all need to work together for the benefit of the students. I want to remain positive throughout the school year. I have a difficult schedule for the fall semester, but I know that I can handle it. I will implement some techniques that were effective at Emafini and methods to help students who are struggling with their English comprehension. I want to create a community environment within my own classroom to ensure my students are collaborating for mutual success and not competing. I hope that I can pass this outlook along to my colleagues. I fear that the system has made many of us bitter and negative, but those attitudes are not what our students need. I am exciting about the upcoming school year and I hope that my Xhosa spirit still exists in October!

Tourist's Experience:
I will return to South Africa one day so that I am able to experience more of what the country has to offer. If you plan to go, my only advice is to not visit the U.S. Consulate. We got a safety briefing there which truly scared all of us, but I never felt unsafe during the trip. Port Elizabeth was a smaller city with a beautiful coastline. We were later told that no tourist ever spins so much time in PE, but I would strongly recommend going there.

Cape Town is what everyone told me that it would be: the most beautiful city. The geography of the city is so unique and I have never experienced anything like it. The coast was beautiful and almost reminded me of Maine or Northern California because of the huge rocks that were dotted along the beaches. Being at the V&A Waterfront felt similar to being at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. There were street performances, good food and shopping, and a very strong ocean smell. When you turn to your left (or right), you see the incredible Table Mountain which is so much bigger than you can imagine. You can hike up the mountain or take a cable car to the top. Unfortunately, it was closed for the winter, so this is something that I need to do when I come back.

Someone is wondering about the food and it was delicious. There was a strong English influence on the cuisine so I ate chips (French fries) with every meal, but their "ketchup" was different. We had a traditional English breakfast every morning: eggs, mushrooms, tomatoes, and baked beans. Something that was unique was that you could find such an array of meats. Besides from the basic pork, beef, and chicken, many restaurants had springbok and kudu on the menu. We were encouraged to eat warthog, but we never found a place that served it. South Africa is a destination that I would recommend if you are okay with being on a plane for 15 hours :)

Americans have many misconceptions about Africa. It's not a country... it's a huge continent that is very diverse. Within South Africa alone, there are 11 official languages. There are no lions or elephants roaming on the streets and I did not see any "tribal people." I didn't get malaria or Ebola.

I did see a nation that is still divided over a painful history that has many similarities with the struggle that America has gone through. I learned that living in a democracy is so much more than voting once every four years; it's about all the freedoms that we take for granted. South Africa has had a democracy for 20 years and they have made many accomplishments but they aren't "there" yet, although I don't think that America has figured it out yet either. I know that my two week experience in South Africa will change my professional and personal lives and I hope that other people get the chance to be transformed by a similar experience.

Thanks for following my blog!

Monday, August 4, 2014

Robben Island

On Thursday, our group went on a tour of Robben Island. The island has played an infamous role in the history of colonialism in South Africa. The British used the island to exile African chiefs who threatened their reign and after gaining independence, the South African government used it originally as a sanatorium for people with leprosy or severe mental illnesses (Coombes, 2003). During apartheid, the government built a prison on the island and many people were sent their as political prisoners. Nelson Mandela, the leader of the African National Congress, was arrested in 1964 for treason: conspiracy to overthrow the government. Mandela's sentence was life imprisonment and he was sent to Robben Island to work in the limestone quarry. He served 27 years in prison at Robben Island and later at Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town and was released in 1990. While he was at Robben Island, he secretly wrote about his experience, which was later compiled into his book, A Long Walk to Freedom. We took a 40 minute ferry ride from the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town to reach Robben Island. Though the prison on the island was medium security, there were never escapes because of the distance to land and the amount of great white sharks that love the area where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet. From the island, there is an incredible view of Table Mountain, which was an eerie reminder to prisoners of the freedom that they did not have, but also served as inspiration to continue their fight for equality.

Below is a picture of Mandela's cell while at the prison:

Robben Island prison housed political prisoners until 1991 when the last prisoner was sent back to Cape Town and the prison was officially closed. The island had always played an important part in the history of South Africa and many different groups argued over what to do with the it after its closing (Coombes, 2003). Proposals were made to create a Disney-style amusement park, rehabilitation camp for street children, and a casino. With the fall of apartheid in 1994, it was decided that the island needed to serve as a reminder of the past and a monument for the perseverance of the human spirit. The Robben Island Museum was created and has become a centerpiece for the "new" South Africa.

After the ferry ride, we walked from the harbor to the prison where our tour guide brought us into a large room to begin the discussion. He started by telling us the story of his arrest. Our tour guide was a political prisoner on the island for over 10 years and that realization added a different element to the experience. It was incredible to have a former prisoner recount his experience in the prison. He talked about punishments that prisoners received for not following the rules. Guards would bury men neck-deep in the dirt and urinate in their mouths. Also, the racial factions that existed throughout the rest of apartheid South Africa were maintained while in prisoner. Black men received less food than their colored prison mates and they were treated vastly different as well. They worked in the limestone quarry which had long-term effects on their health from respiratory problems to blindness. Prisoners lived and worked in these inhumane conditions while serving sentences for "crimes" against the apartheid regime.

After the prison tour, we got on the bus and a different tour guide took us around the island to see the leper's graveyard and church, and the precinct village where the guards and their families lived. Today, the village houses the employees of the museum. There is a school on the island which was just closed in 2011 because of low enrollment. Children must take a ferry to school each morning and they often cannot attend school because of the rough seas. At the end of the island, we were able to get out to experience an incredible view of the oceans and Cape Town.

On the bus, the tour guide had asked where everyone was from. People came from Germany, Holland, England, Sweden, Jamaica, and the U.S. She thanked all of us for playing such a significant role in the end of apartheid, since many western nations had sanctioned the South Africa government in an effort to advocate equal rights. Finally, she encouraged us all to tell others about what we had seen and learned about Robben Island and to teach about the triumph of humanity.


Coombes, A. E. (2003). History after apartheid: Visual culture and public memory in  democratic South Africa. Durham: Duke University Press.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Last Day at Emafini

Today was our last day working at Emafini Primary School. Our visit has been so short but so meaningful at the same time. We led a professional development session to show the teachers how to use thinking maps, which they seemed excited about implementing. 

I taught a final lesson in my grade 7 class in which I asked the students what I should teach my high school students about South Africa  when I return to school. Many students told me to teach about apartheid and the greatness of Nelson Mandela. My favorite response to my question was : "Teach about how we welcomed you at Emafini  primary school in grade 7. We are the people that love other people living in other countries like your country. Thank you for coming to this school and we love you all." That pretty much sums up my visit.

Girls reading the books from my Honors World History class:

The teacher who allowed me into her classroom:

This is the grade 7B class (so one of four grade 7 classes)

"Selfie" time (yes this was popular among girls here also)

We have made a wonderful connection at this school. Even though I was only there for a week, this experience will share my life forever. One of my classmates is the technology director for his county and he was able to set up Skype in the principal's office, so I am hoping to connect one of my classes with the school this upcoming school year. I am looking forward to what this global connection will do for myself and my future learners! 

Monday, July 28, 2014

Visiting "Ex-Model C" Schools

During apartheid, white students attended schools that were called Model C schools. Today, 20 years after the end of racial segregation by law, these same schools are now known to many as "ex Model C" schools but it seems that not much else has changed. All government run (public) schools receive the same amount of funding per student; however, some schools charge fees. Emafini, the primary school with all Xhosa students is a "no fee" school, so the parents do not have to pay any money for their students to attend (except of uniforms and supplies), whereas the "ex Model C" schools charge
R20 000 - R34 000 ($2,000- $3,400) a year for students to attend. While the nation is no longer legally segregated by race, they are still very much segregated by socioeconomic status, which is along racial lines. 

We attended Grey Junior School today which felt like I stepped into Hogwarts from Harry Potter, except that it was an all boys school. All school students wear uniforms but at Grey they wore blazers and everyone's uniform was clean and new-looking. The school facility was old but still in wonderful condition, every teacher had a computer in their classroom and most had interactive white boards, there were about 30 students in each class as opposed to 50+, and all students were required to participate in sports including: cricket, rugby, football(soccer) and hockey (field). The resources that the students had available were vastly different than Emafini. 100% of the students at Grey pass the matriculation exam, which is taken in grade 12 to determine whether the student can go on to college or not. In comparison,  the high school that Emafini feeds into, Lungisa, has a 59% passing rate. Students who do not pass the exam can pay, if they have the means, to take it again, but they mst pass the test to be eligible to go to college. At Grey, we went into a grade 7 English class with 30 boys and only 3 of them were black, which is drastic increase in diversity since 2008. While black students are now admitted into Ex-Model C schools, they are typically at a disadvantage because they are not being instructed in their home language (Vandeyar, 2007). Despite learning English as their 2nd or even 3rd language, these students are judged on their academic performance based on their mastery of the English language which does not seem to be a fair comparison. Black students in Ex-Model C Schools must learn to cope with this language barrier as there is little to no academic support for them.We have realized despite the ending of apartheid in 1994, not much has changed and no one seems to know how to implement any changes. Although, I can't say that we have the right answer in the US, because our schools are still very much segregated by socioeconomic status.

Grey Junior / Senior School:

More pictures of my students at Emafini:


Vandeyar, S. (2007). Shifting selves: The emergence of new identities in South African schools.
International journal of educational development. 28. 286-299

Addo Elephant Park

On Saturday, we went to The Addo Elephant National Park in Addo which is about one hour from Port Elizabeth. When the British settled here, many people were farmers with large plots of land. Addo is an area where there were originally 5,000 elephants living and that is where the farmers settled as well and were given rights to kill any elephant on their property. In the early 1900s, they realized that there were only 12 elephants left in the area and they knew that conservation efforts were necessary. Also, hunters from Britain and the United States would travel to South Africa to hunt the "Big Five," which are the five most dangerous animals to hunt: elephants, lions, leopards, rhinoceros, and water buffalo. 
Addo Elephant Park is still home to the big five. Now, the area is 20,000 hectares which is over 49,000 acres. There is a fence around the entire property to contain the animals inside although our guide told us that there really is no way to confine an elephant. We rode around in a vehicle and we got to see many exciting animals throughout the day including elephants, zebras, warthogs, water buffaloes, red heart beasts, kudo, elands, and I think that's it. We really wanted to see the lions but there are only two prides on the entire property including only 14 lions total, so they stayed hidden. Here are some of my favorite encounters with the elephants:

Friday, July 25, 2014

Understanding Culture

In traveling to any country, Americans immediately notice the differences in culture and that is certainly the same here in South Africa. However, the culture is very diverse here because of their unique history. In reading more about the history of the nation, I have learned that there is a disagreement as to who the actual indigenous population is since so many different groups have migrated through South Africa (Coombes, 2003). While many countries seem to have a truly dominate culture, I do not get that sense here because they truly are the rainbow nation. There are several tribes that live in South Africa including the Xhosa, Zulu,  and at least 8 others. The first Europeans to arrive were the Dutch who settled in the Cape Colony which is now Capetown and many of them were farmers and eventually developed into the Afrikaners. Later, the British arrived in South Africa and had tension with the Afrikaners. Through their history, the various groups in South Africa have lived together to create this rainbow nation.  I have been repeatedly amazed that most people know multiple languages. There are 11 official languages and everyone seems to know at least two. While I understand that learning multiple is out of necessity, I still believe that American students would benefit from becoming fluent in another language. 

Through the readings, I have also learned since apartheid has ended, that the various cultures have disagreed as to how to create public monuments to represent their history (Coombes, 2003). Different groups want their histories to be represented differently,with respect to their own truths. On Wednesday of next week, we will be going to Capetown where more of these public monuments exist and I am looking forward to seeing them. We will be going to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned and we replanting to go to the District Six Museum as well. District Six was essentially a diverse neighborhood in a prime location in Capetown. After being declared a whites only area, around 60,000 people were forcefully relocated and their communities were bulldozed. With the fall of apartheid in 1994, the government has attempted to resolve this issue by providing property rights for those who were removed and helping to rebuild their homes. Like all other monuments, they tell a biased story and many feel that everyone's side of history needs to be expressed.

Another significant cultural difference is the concept of time. In the United States, we value timeliness and we tend to have every minute of our days planned out. However, that rigid concept of time is not valued in the same way in the Xhosa culture. This is most recognizable for me in working in the classroom at Emafini. After being in the school for four days, I still do not understand their daily schedule which they call a timetable. The classes rotate differently each day and students are in each class for a different amount of time each day. One of my classes was scheduled to end at 9:20am and my lesson went over to 9:24am (there are no bells to dismiss class) and I felt bad for keeping them for so long,but the teacher I am working with didn't seem to mind and casually told the students that they could switch classes. The concept of time is just more relaxed but it has reminded us to just let go and that it is okay.

Overall, American society is very individualistic and competitive which are values that go hand in hand with our capitalist economy. There is a much more collective culture present in the Xhosa culture which is also noticeable at the school. In the classroom, the students hold each other accountable for being quiet in class by shushing each other or tapping on the desk to quiet their peers. Pens and other school supplies seem to be in short supply so students are constantly sharing with each other to make sure that everyone has written down whatever needs to be. This morning, we watched the morning assembly in which 1200 students lined up very close together to sing songs and to officially welcome us to the school. One of the department chairs, named Mrs. Thambo (Tom-Bo) talked about me in front of entire school by talking about how good I was at teaching social sciences and apparently all of my 7th grade students have been talking about how much they like me in Xhosa. It was such a great honor to be recognized in front of all of them. In many instances, I think that the collective mindset would be beneficial in American society and especially in American schools.

Finally, today, we visited Lugisa High School which serves grades 8-9. We talked with their principal and the department chairs before taking a tour of the school. We discussed some common issues wears having with our high school students from motivating them to go to class to low test scores. There seemed to be many similarities and it was oddly comforting to realize that teenagers are teenagers no matter where they are. In touring their school, it was very obvious how bad the vandalism was. The school has had problems with people breaking in to steal things that they cannot afford to replace. In two classroom, all of the electrical wiring had been torn out. Since these rooms now haven't electricity, they cannot be used and they cannot afford to replace them. While theft certainly occurs in our high schools, it was obvious that it was a true problem at Lugisa. Regardless, it was really great to talk with the teachers at the school and learn how the high schools are run here.


Coombes, A. E. (2003). History after apartheid: Visual culture and public memory in a democratic     
     South Africa. Durham: Duke University Press.