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Teaching for transformation and social justice

| September 14, 2018 | 0 Comments


Diversity and inclusion consultant, Verna Myers, in her address to the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association, said: “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance”.1

Hopefully, nearly 23 years after our transition to democracy, it is a given that all are “invited to the party” – well, all who can afford to come – but if we are ruthlessly honest, we would conclude that not everybody in our classroom feels that they are being asked to dance. My nine years at Waterfall College (WFC) in KwaZulu- Natal gave me two classroom moments that I would consider to be the most significant of my teaching career. The first provided the impetus to shape a substantive change to my classroom approach and the second served to validate that decision.

Two transformative classroom moments

Let me begin with the first: I had delivered the most wonderful lesson on Chinua Achebe’s poem Refugee Mother and Child2 to my Grade 10 class. I had invited sympathetic discussion to which I had attempted to add the idea of the empathetic versus the sympathetic. I passed around visuals of Madonna and Child paintings.3 Suddenly, from the back of the classroom came a furious male voice: “Ma’am, are you trying to tell us that Jesus was black?” Literally thunderstruck, I turned to the student and saw him waving before me one of the pictures that I had circulated, which looked something like this: The horror on his face was something to behold and my reaction was instant: “Well, John*,” I retorted, “he certainly wasn’t white”. I admit that I handled it all badly. I was reduced to tears after the lesson. What could I do differently to realign the thinking of the privileged white kids that formed the majority demographic in my class? What could I do to offer some hope to my black students that whites were not all myopic racists? Fast forward a few years to 2016. In my matric life orientation class, we discussed the #feesmustfall debate.4 It was going pretty much as one would expect: some castigating the damage to property, others sympathising to some extent with the cause. Then one girl raised her hand: “Ma’am, I so want to have an opinion on all of this, but I so want it to be the right opinion”. I was blown away. The immediate response might have been, “Susan*, an opinion is just that – an opinion, so feel free to voice whatever you are thinking/feeling”. But she was saying so much more than that. She wanted her contribution to the debate to be considered, worthy, enhancing and productive – to reflect empathetically the varied and complex voices in this debate.

Creating a context

Between these two moments lies my convoluted journey called teaching for transformation and social justice. And until recently, I didn’t have a name for that journey – it was simply a personal pedagogic approach where I attempted to conscientise how I both implicitly and explicitly role modelled myself as an educator of my students. A paper by professor of religious studies, Rebecca Todd Peters, entitled “Teaching for Social Justice: Creating a Context for Transformation”5 (Peters is based at Elon University in North Carolina in the US),6 provides a more theoretical underpinning of what the staff in the English department at WFC were intuitively attempting. Peters sees an educator as one who enables her students to see themselves as “agents of change, as citizens who live in a system of participatory democracy that requires not only involvement, but informed, reasoned, and thoughtful action in the world”.7 This resonates with me, as frequently I find myself teaching young people who do not see themselves (a) as having a future in this country and/or (b) believing that they can and must be contributors to a future in this country. One has only to look to the post ’94 South African youth diaspora8 to see clear evidence of many young people who have acted upon these sentiments of disillusionment and left our shores. Peters goes on to say that her classes are not simply spaces where social problems are highlighted. Rather they are spaces where her “pedagogical commitment is to teach [students] to think critically about the social problems they encounter and to help them imagine how to participate in changing the world for the better”.9 The truth is that in many independent schools, teachers do their work in an environment of privilege and entitlement. If we are to develop deeper meta-cognition as educators eager to teach for transformed thinking and social justice in our country, it is useful to find and adopt a clear epistemological approach. And again, I find the thinking of Peters both sound and useful.

Dialogic learning

Peters bases her pedagogy on the theoretical work of several people, including Paulo Freire10, the Brazilian educator and philosopher who was a leading advocate of critical pedagogy, and David A. Kolb11, the American education theorist and advocate of experiential learning. Through these two theorists Peters speaks of the understanding of situated knowledge as the framework for dialogic learning. Rather than understanding knowledge as academically objective, several theorists (Kolb included) would argue that “knowledge is partial and particular and grows out of lived experience”.12 So, both we and our students bring to the classroom a world view shaped by our situated knowledge – our individual life experience (race, class, gender, education, economic status, geography, history, family). Clearly, in our classrooms today, these situated knowledges are far more diverse, and in many cases, the teacher’s situated knowledge may be entirely different from the majority, if not all the students in his/her class. Having accepted this definition of knowledge as situated, Peters advocates a learning approach called dialogic learning. Dialogue becomes a “pedagogical tool [that] recognises that both the teacher and the students are partners in the educational process and that learning happens in the midst of dialogue”.13 In other words, given that we all bring to the classroom our particular situated knowledge, it can only be through dialogue that we are able to develop the ability to think critically about our personal experience of the world (that situated knowledge), encounter the experience or situated knowledge of others, and from that intra- and interunderstanding seek to participate in and contribute to a common future.

“Peters quite rightly says that ‘we cannot teach transformation’ – but what we can do is construct a teaching and learning environment that provides the capacity for transformation.”

Creative and realistic solutions

Peters quite rightly says that “we cannot teach transformation”14 – but what we can do is construct a teaching and learning environment that provides the capacity for transformation. Our role is to facilitate a space where our students learn by making meaning of their experience – their situated knowledge – and the experience of their fellow students and then go on to see themselves as agents of or participants in what Peters calls “creative and realistic solutions”.15 In a nutshell, a transformative classroom is one that constantly invites an exploration of differing life experiences and from that exploration, allows each student to navigate towards a better understanding of his/her thinking and opinion. The hope is obviously that this will lead to fairer, more just thinking – that students will self-regulate and begin to realise that there are opinions that hold less legitimacy, and which are in some instances simply unacceptable. With this theoretical context in mind, I would like to offer some practical lesson ideas for transformative teaching:

Ideas for oral work

1. Team talk discussions Many KwaZulu-Natal schools participate in the Daily News16 and Rotary Team Talk17 competitions and the format of these competitions is a wonderful tool to use in your classroom. I will explain the format by referencing WFC’s 2015 topic: “Building tolerance by knowing one another’s stories”. The team’s talk was based on the chorus of an old Elvis Presley song: “Walk a mile in my shoes, just walk a mile in my shoes/ Before you abuse, criticise and accuse”.18 The team talk format is that speaker 1 introduces the topic – in this instance, suggesting that tolerance is fostered when we know each other’s stories. Speaker 2 then goes on to expand on the discussion, often with some research – here our students looked at the idea that catastrophe (it was the time of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris19) is often the result of intolerance and disrespect and that this lack of tolerance and respect is just as significantly a cause of unhappiness in our schools, often taking the form of cyberbullying, racism or victimisation. This was reinforced by the speaker sharing the individual stories of the team members – an Aids orphan, a family tragedy victim and a severely affected diabetic person. The third speaker concludes the discussion by offering to the audience workable solutions to the problem – i.e. how the students themselves can be agents of change – for the purposes of this talk; peer support groups and Facebook support groups were some of the ideas. This is a format that demands collaborative thinking and if you structure your teams of three carefully, students with very different situated knowledge (life experience) can work at mutual understanding and compromise as they formulate and prepare their discussion. Worthwhile topics include:

• gender stereotyping and inequality in our school.

• the accessibility/inclusivity of our school for the differently abled.

• the legitimacy of our matric dance.

• the legitimacy of a matric rage.

• our school’s social action scorecard.

• our school’s cultural/religious diversity scorecard.

2. The 2016 life orientation Common Task for Assessment (CTA)21 I believe that the 2016 national CTA would be a valuable task to complete with either your Grade 10 or Grade 11 students. The task that year looked at the idea of identifying and analysing multiple perspectives in any given situation. Students were asked to identify and interpret the voices behind the opinions in several situations including #RhodesMustFall22, the Ebola scare in West Africa23 and the “Luister” (“Listen”) video made by students at Stellenbosch University24. In other words, they had to analyse the situated knowledge evident in the commentary around various scenarios (demographic, profession, education level, economic status and gender, for example). In 2016, matric life orientation students had to present a visual diary on a situation of their choosing, offering insight into the perspectives and voices behind that chosen situation, but other teachers and students could replace this with an oral presentation, allowing for more extensive sharing of both topics and voices in your class. I felt that the 2016 task could have been taken a significant step further by asking students to identify and account for their own voices in some of the scenarios given. This would definitely be worth exploring with your students and in this context – examining one’s own voice as well as the voices of others – I offer the following situations as some particularly valid areas for our young people to first understand and then perhaps question the legitimacy of their own voice:

• the racism claims against the staff and Code of Conduct at Pretoria Girls’ High School25

• the domestic worker dress-up controversy at the University of Pretoria (TUKS)26

• Cape Party members vandalising an installation piece by Dean Hutton in the Cape Town Gallery.27

Set work and poetry choices

Curriculum reform is a hot topic in higher education right now.28 The buzzwords are “relevance” and “accessibility”, and this is where we English specialists must dismount our high horses. We are notoriously vocal about defending what we see as certain key defensive positions – teaching the classics, ensuring that our children read the classics and sticking to traditional poetry. But, if you are choosing South African/African novels, you are doing your students a favour in terms of enabling more transformed thinking in our context. Novels such as The Beneficiaries,29 Absolution30 and The Native Commissioner31 are useful tools for exploring the many differences in South Africans’ situated knowledge and world views, such as:

• ingrained feelings of white superiority about the perceived benefits of Christian colonial expansion

• feelings of English/Afrikaans antipathy

• issues around white guilt

• paternalism

• the reasons for the rise of Calvinist beliefs that produced the apartheid Christian national education system32

• the ongoing impact of apartheidmandated national service on the current white male psyche33

• the perceived failure of the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to deliver justice for victims.34

I am certainly not advocating that you should eschew the classics, but if you’re choosing the more eurocentric option in matric, then think of a South African or African component in Grade 11. The Beneficiaries and Athol Fugard’s drama Master Harold… and the Boys35 would be a wonderful combination. Alternatively, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart36 in combination with Gavin Hood’s A Reasonable Man37 as your film study would offer rich opportunity for debate around issues of colonial/Christian superiority vs African societal structures. There is a smattering of South African poetry on the matric final examination setwork list, but our students need to be exposed to a lot more. If you are not going to study a South African or African novel in the further education and training (FET) phase, then include an extensive South African poetry component. Allow the students to focus on ‘struggle’ poetry, the ‘honeymoon’ postapartheid period and then the posthoneymoon period of democracy in South Africa. Let them experience different contexts through the chronology.

Some further ideas:

1.Look at the life sciences and geography matric papers for great discursive essay ideas. Past life sciences examination paper questions often offer up wonderful essays on an issue in the South African context with some particularly thought-provoking source material. We still tend to teach in silos and there is insufficient cross-pollination between subject specialists. Tackle essays that are relevant to other subjects and those teachers will love you.

2. A South African poetry project for Grade 10 or 11 In 2016, Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.38 Invite students to nominate a South African poet/musician who should be a candidate for such an award. The project would involve collecting and analysing samples from the candidate’s body of work, sharing that collection (possibly in small groups) and then motivating either in an oral or in an essay just why that person would be a worthy recipient. I would kick off the exercise with Phoebe Hesketh’s A Poem is a Painting39 and discuss how poetry/lyrics resonates with an audience. I would go on to model why Dylan’s work has had societal relevance and popularity and then introduce the task. The choice should not be limited to English-speaking poets/song writers, allowing your students to bring their situated knowledge to the endeavour.

Reshaping the teaching and learning experience

There needs to be a far more concerted effort in our schools to move towards transformative classrooms across the curriculum. In her article on the subject, “Creating Classrooms for Social Justice”, Tabitha Dell’Angelo40 from the College of New Jersey in the US, says that transformative teaching that nurtures social justice is not an “add on” for a classroom and that furthermore, “it is appropriate for all classrooms,” should shape the teaching and learning experience across the curriculum and “is a way of teaching and being that supports high-level thinking and learning throughout our lives”. For me, the litmus test of our success as South African educators in what remains a divided system, will be when our more privileged students seek proactive, contributory, inclusive ways to ensure that all are invited to the party and are asked to dance. 

Beverley Surmon was head of the English department at Waterfall College from 2008-2016 and head of the life orientation department from 2014-2016. This article is based on a presentation Surmon delivered at the Independent Examinations Board English Regional Conference in February 2017. To see a full list of references relevant to this article, please visit:

* Student names have been changed.

Category: Spring 2018

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