Sometimes, it takes lessons learned far away to help students understand those closest to home.
To educate students on the political spirit of South Africa and its relevance to the United States, teachers Aimee Riechel of Mission High School and Kyle Beckham of Downtown High School packed their bags and headed to South Africa this summer.
For 24 days, they immersed themselves in the country’s rich culture. They interviewed South Africans from all walks of life, including students, teachers, activists, and even the occasional tour guide.
A grant from the nonprofit organization Fund for Teachers provided the funding for the trip. The grant proposal, authored by Riechel and Beckham, focused on issues of social justice, and models of teaching within the classroom.
Specifically, they wondered how South African schools deal with discipline and the content of their curriculum. Their objective was to explore South Africa’s tumultuous political history and apply it to their own curricula.
“I teach modern world history, and I’m always trying to figure out a way to change up the curriculum. I’ve been trying to find a way to incorporate other histories rather than just what’s in the textbooks and what’s standard,” said Riechel.
For Riechel and Beckham, South Africa was the perfect place to begin. “South Africa as an idea has loomed large in my political development,” said Beckham. “There’s a lot of myth-making that’s been done around it as a country. I feel like (its story) is very similar to the traditional story that’s told about the civil rights movement here in the United States, but I also knew that, given what I know about the history of the civil rights movement, there was a lot more going on than meets the eye. I wanted to learn the real deal about what happened during Apartheid and how the country exists right now.”
So the pair set off to South Africa, eager to delve into its history and how it functions now, in the wake of Apartheid, the racially segregated and white supremacist government system that only ended in 1994.
They began in Johannesburg, where they visited two elite, private schools and met with Tali Nates, the director of the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre, an institute dedicated to Holocaust and genocide education. Nates welcomed the pair into her elegant home and discussed the Centre’s work to educate students on the Holocaust, genocide and human rights. The conversation inspired them to explore curriculum based on the Centre’s resources and approach to human rights education.
Later, a visit to the Apartheid Museum with a South African teacher provoked a complex discussion about racial politics and methods of teaching Apartheid in the classroom.
“I am envious that South Africans are nurturing their infant democracy with dialogues about race, equality and human rights and I want to figure out ways to move our students towards these kinds of open dialogues,” Riechel wrote in a blog post about the trip.
The two, though their exploration of Apartheid and reconciliation in Johannesburg, mainly interfaced with “highly educated, white South Africans,” said Riechel. “It was one realm of what we were exposed to.”
They saw another realm when they traveled on a “nontraditional” safari through rural, less prosperous parts of the country, and stayed at the homes of three South African families.
Two of the families were of the Shangaan cultural ethnic group, and the other was Venda. All embraced the pair with warmth and hospitality. “They were amazing, incredible,” said Riechel.
The grandmother of the second Shangaan family they stayed with was a traditional healer, and offered to read Riechel’s life. “It was powerful,“ Riechel said. “You can’t deny the power of people who have that much connection to the human body.
The daughter of the Venda family they stayed with—a teacher—took them to her school in Limpopo, “the second poorest province in the country,” Beckham said. They were shocked by the profound differences they saw between the sprawling, luxurious private schools they saw in Johannesburg and the one before them in Limpopo, without books for its students.
They then traveled to Durban, where they visited a thriving elementary school, and a failing high school just a mile away. They wanted to know the issues that schools faced, their disciplinary policies, and their integration of social justice in their curricula.
At the elementary school, dedicated leaders were crucial to its success, Riechel said. At the high school, morale was low and teachers rushed to leave the building as soon as the bell rang.
“The schooling was so damaged under Apartheid that things have to get better. They are getting better,” said Riechel.
But outside the classroom, the two observed a lively atmosphere of political engagement and debate. This spirit of activism is what Riechel seeks to take home to her students at Mission High.
In her Ethnic Studies class, Riechel plans to fold into her curriculum the lessons of South Africa’s struggles, including complex themes of power, oppression, human rights and social justice.
Beckham said he hopes the lessons that they teach their students will take root and grow.
In the Xhosa and Zulu language, “amandla” means power. Once used as a popular rallying cry during the resistance against Apartheid, the word’s meaning is still deeply rooted in its historic struggle for freedom against the country’s formerly all-white regime.
Mission students may live thousands of miles away from the birthplace of the potent spirit of amandla. But their teachers hope they can relate to what it means to so many worldwide.
“I think it’s good for the kids. They don’t feel so isolated when they realize these issues are going on on the other side of the planet,” said Beckham.