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We have a story to tell

| December 3, 2018 | 0 Comments


Here at Our Lady of Fatima Dominican Convent School (OLF) in Durban North in KwaZulu-Natal, we have come to the conclusion that we do have a story to tell.

The more we as a staff discussed it and witnessed the daily happenings at school, the more convinced we all became that our current journey towards transformation and increased diversity was worth sharing. There is still a long way to go, so bravery was required in telling the tale, but this is it! Dominican sisters founded our school in 1954,1 believing that all people are created equal in the image of God. Children of all races were enrolled, despite a government that legislated separateness and division. However, after 1994, some of our families who had been previously marginalised and had sacrificed much for a good education, moved to more affordable government schools. Happily, as new families have moved into our neighbourhood, which is in the heart of Durban North, we have again become more multicultural. Long overdue, we introduced isiZulu as a first additional language (FAL) option for matric, and bursary options for Grade 8s, alongside a determination to inspire girls to initiate and integrate rather than assimilate. Assimilation of minority groups happened so quietly we didn’t notice, but we wanted all our girls to express themselves with integrity and boldness.

Building bridges, breaking barriers

At OLF, we choose a theme every year. Among other things, this gives us a focus in assemblies. This year, our theme is: “Building bridges, breaking barriers”. We have explored many topics, such as “Barriers to mathematics”, “Barriers erected by the fear of failure” and “Barriers created around language difference”. In a deliberate attempt to address stereotyping, a lovely Afrikaans assembly was led by Larissa Naidoo, an OLF pupil of Indian descent who spent her first 12 years in the Free State and therefore speaks excellent Afrikaans. In Naidoo’s words: “Vandag het ons 6 909 tale ter wêreld en 11 amptelike tale in Suid Afrika. En al kan ons nie altyd mekaar se tale verstaan nie, kan ons almal die gemeenskaplike taal van liefde praat. God is liefde.” (“Today we have 6 909 languages in the world and 11 official languages in South Africa. And although we don’t always understand each other’s languages, we can all speak the language of love. God is love.”) It was a wonderfully extraordinary assembly. In an isiZulu assembly, we were encouraged to unlock our hips and swing to the rhythm as we sang a new song. I believe that transformation in schools involves a continuous process of exploring new ideas and the renewal of thinking patterns. This is the challenge. Traditional school sports, for example, are no longer as popular, yet we still so often make them the yardstick of a successful school. Do we hang on to these sentiments or do we embrace new criteria for being ‘good schools’? Being intentional about transformation stretches us out of our comfort zones and challenges our ingrained biases. Acknowledging the richness of diversity needs to be intentional and frequent. It is, however, my belief that the expression of true transformation is a spontaneous, inherent appreciation of the diversity of our cultures and preferences, which manifests itself in authentic, enthusiastic encouragement and results in unity. Over the years, we have been delighted to increase awareness and appreciation by celebrating the gift of dance. On a regular basis, we have showcased dances from different cultures and genres in our assemblies. These range from gumboot dancing, traditional Zulu dance and Greek dancing to ballet, Celtic dance and classical dances of India.

“I believe that transformation in schools involves a continuous process of exploring new ideas and the renewal of thinking patterns. This is the challenge.”

New traditions expand inclusivity

Another way of being more inclusive is to create new school traditions. Two years ago, the isiZulu department elected to celebrate Heritage Day by organising an interhouse indigenous games competition. What fun we had competing in skipping contests, playing shumpu, uma ngilambile and enjoying Afrikaans traditional games! Different genres of music pumped through the loudspeakers and increased the girls’ enthusiasm. This celebration of games is now an annual event. Last year, our isiZulu department added the “Clash of the choirs” competition to our school calendar. Our new Imizwilili choir was delighted to host other schools. The only stipulation was that choirs should include more than one race/language group in the school, which they did. A highlight was the spontaneous, combined, loud singing in the car park when the students waited for their transport. We look forward to hosting this event again later this year. Creating a safe space for true self-expression is not easy with teenagers. It comes with a measure of conflict that needs careful, wise management. Sometimes, we choose to shy away from this because it is uncomfortable, and we feel ill-equipped to deal with the complexity of the problems. One careless or even naive word can shatter the process.

A bold and brave teacher

Yet, many of our teachers engage in the difficult conversations. Jessica Khomo, a highly respected and admired South African netball player2 and a teacher, explains how she is a product of the quota system in sport3 and how she never would otherwise have made it, given her unequal childhood opportunities. Asked about her personal experiences at OLF, this is what she had to say: This is my fourth year at Fatima and when I arrived I wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out. Never did I once have the slightest idea that I would transform into my best self. When I arrived, I knew who I was, but I was very intimidated by the environment even though I hardly showed it. I was petrified of making mistakes because I thought it was such a perfect environment. I remember that when I did make the first of many mistakes, my mentor, Bianca Rademacher, handled it in a way I will never forget. She told me exactly what I had done wrong and that she wouldn’t accept it. She then told me how to fix it and make sure it never happened again. This was empowering, knowing that I need not be perfect, that I could do better and not make the same mistake again gave me tools to keep on trying. At Fatima I feel I am heard. As a geography educator, Khomo was also part of a very interesting integrated learning exercise with our Grade 8s. She explains: If Fatima had enforced a formal transformation policy, I don’t think any of the great ideas we had during our Grade 8 integration weeks would have surfaced. As black educators we would have felt obliged to do things in order to tick the boxes. Instead, we were able to explore different areas that can be transformed, on a daily basis, and come up with different ideas that facilitate transformation gradually. When we look at transformation it is not only racial and cultural but also involves social, economic and environmental transformation and integration. Our programme was designed to get the girls thinking and talking about different issues in society without making race the main factor. Here are some of the ideas Khomo and her colleagues used in OLF’s integrated learning exercises:

1. Impoverished schools in South Africa

Objective: To get the girls to understand that poor academic results are not only a result of learners or teachers not doing their work. Exercise: Sixty-nine learners were placed in one classroom. Only 24 had desks, the rest had to sit on the floor or stand. The air conditioner was off throughout the lessons. There were geography notes that were written on the board, which the learners had to copy in 15 minutes. When the time was up, I [Khomo] read the notes back to the learners and whenever they asked a question, I either didn’t respond, or I told them I refused to explain something they should have learned in Grade 7. The learners were then given a test to write. The question paper contained many intentional errors and repeated questions. Although the time allocation was 45 minutes, they ended up getting only 25 minutes to complete their work and none of them queried it. I left the classroom with all the scripts and the next teacher came in to deliver her economic management sciences (EMS) lesson. The girls tried to voice their grievances to her about the previous lesson and she would hear none of it, telling them they were complaining about nothing. She presented her lesson and concluded with a spot test, which she had hand-written and based on a very brief explanation of receipts. A number of hot, distraught and aggrieved girls moved on to the next session of their integrated learning programme. Discussions: The girls came to our makerspace room,4 where we had the air conditioner turned on for them. I had marked question one of their geography quiz. Only two girls had managed to score above one out of 21. Some girls were crying during this experience, because it all got too much. The girls said that they ended up showing one another their answer scripts, something they had never done before, explaining that the situation they were placed in gave them no other option. The girls also voiced how unhappy they were about us teachers and our methods of teaching, and that they were going to go straight home and get their parents to complain. They couldn’t understand how some learners could be in such an environment for 12 years in other schools and still achieve high academic results.

2. Beyond the River

Objective: To get the students to see how equally talented people can live different lives, and how an opportunity can change a person’s life. Exercise: The girls watched a movie. Prior to the movie, we discussed what the quota system was1 and how the girls felt about it. The girls watched the full movie. Discussion: After the movie ended, we spoke again about the quota system to see who had changed their thinking. I told the girls about my story, and how I wouldn’t be where I was now if it wasn’t for the opportunity I got through a quota system.

3. Privilege

Objective: To look at privilege. Exercise: The students sat in concentric circles. A teacher brought an object into the room, covered it and placed it in the middle of the circles. The inside circle was privileged to see what it was. The teacher then asked the girls what the object was and told the inside circle not to respond. The other circles tried guessing but none of them really got it, leaving then frustrated and demotivated. Discussion: There followed a rich discussion about how privilege affects the availability of opportunities.

4. Charity starts at home

Objective: To enable the students to understand why poverty is an ongoing vicious cycle, and to explore how they can help without using money. Exercise: The girls had to write down what they thought their family spent monthly or weekly on groceries. They had to then go onto the website of their local supermarket, get the prices of the items on their list and tally up the total. The teacher then told them about minimum wages per hour, day, week and month, and about the salary of domestic workers. The teacher asked the girls to write down what they thought they could do to help alleviate poverty without using money. The students came up with ideas such as taking old clothes to the orphanage and volunteering at community centres. Discussion: The teacher asked the students to raise their hands if they had domestic help at home. Every girl did. The teacher then asked the girls if they knew their domestic worker’s surname, and only 12 girls put their hands up. The girls then discussed ways in which they could get to know their domestic workers and their families.

Games club gets everybody going

Grade 12 learner Busiswe Khosa has been at OLF for 11 years. When she was asked if anything had changed over these years, her thoughts went immediately to a newly formed games club, which was initiated by pupil Iola Meyer when she was in Grade 11 last year. Meyer says: In primary school I did not have a lot of friends. I know there were other people who felt they don’t fit in and so I wanted to create a place where like-minded girls could belong. We started with role-playing games. I never expected such a good response. Khosa says: Our students come from a greater variety of backgrounds in our school now. I feel the school is open to people introducing new things and making people feel they can make a difference. I feel like I have breathing space and the opportunity to find myself. Our drama teacher encouraged me to write my poem, entitled “Angry Black Woman”, for a local interschools’ competition and I won! The following sentiment from Buhle Dlamini, of the organisation TomorrowToday Global,6 clears away all the clutter and expresses our mission at OLF: Don’t complicate inclusive culture. Simply ask: “Are we creating an environment where anyone, regardless of their diversity can be proud to be part of?” and work to make it possible.7

Endless possibilities

Our annual Grade 11 history evening, this year themed “This is Africa”, saw 16 girls each explore an aspect or figure of African history through the spoken word, music and dance. A myriad of ideas was presented, including many cultures and figures that have previously been silenced and ‘hidden’. Girls told the history of the Empire of Kitara,8 enacted Congo’s Les Sapeurs,9 and performed Shona praise poetry. It was an unanticipatedly joyous celebration rooted in a real interest and pride in both difference and identity. And so, you might see us celebrate the lives of St Patrick10 or Mother Theresa11 but also acknowledge Emmeline Pankhurst12 and Adelaide Tambo.13 You might hear us debate the virtues of monastic schooling and freedom of speech and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.14 You might see us do well at swimming, hockey and netball but also enjoying board games and shumpu.15 You might hear us singing ancient hymns to the sound of the church organ but also new songs with a different click and contagious rhythm.

Deirdre Horsfall is principal of Our Lady of Fatima Dominican Convent School.

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Category: Summer 2018

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