Continuing Scholar Award Profile: South Africa

Excerpt from the Superintendent’s April 2017 Newsletter

South Africa Trip Changed Perspectives and Helped AHS Students Understand Their Potential

“One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu – the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity.

We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.”–Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu speaking at the Ubuntu Women Institute, 2012

News is ubiquitous and instantaneous today, and our young people are more aware of global events than ever before. This knowledge often leads them to wonder about their place in a world filled with both joy and suffering. They may ask themselves what they, as teenagers grappling with the realities of social media, college acceptance and everyday life, can possibly do to make a difference. This winter, 41 AHS students had the opportunity to explore this question first hand during a trip to Cape Town, South Africa. They discovered that with a spirit of generosity, flexibility and a willingness to see themselves not as separate, but connected to others, they can make important contributions. They learned the truth of another statement by Desmond Tutu, this one taken from The Book of Joy, 2016: “You might not be able to do a great deal, but start where you are and do what you can where you are.”

A Continuing Scholar Grant from the Arlington Education Foundation enabled AHS Science teacher Graham Daley and AHS History and Social Sciences teacher Melanie Konstandakis to create and lead the trip. They worked with Hammer and Chisel Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to creating experiences that prepare students and teachers to be better learners and better able to handle dynamic change. Through service projects and activities that deepened their understanding of South Africa, our students discovered their individual capabilities.

Interacting with local children was an important component of the trip. The travelers took part in activities at three schools and an afterschool. The first location was the high school campus of Elkanah House. Each of our young people was paired with a student, attended classes and shared lunch. This was the first of two visits to Elkanah, and the beginning of a relationship that will continue when the South African students visit AHS next December. Later that day, our group travelled to the township of Atlantis, an area that was created during Apartheid when the colored population was forcibly evacuated from a neighborhood designated to be white. The township is poor and underserved, and approximately 350 excited children showed up in the afterschool to be part of the activities. Our students fanned out, playing one-on-one or in groups, sharing a ukulele, making crafts and getting their hair braided.

At the Ysterplaat Junior Primary School, attended by a poor, underserved population of children in grades K-3, our young people accompanied teachers to their classrooms and served as aides. The group also brought a bouncy house that was set up in the gym so the students could have some special fun during recess. Our students also served as classroom aides during their visit to West Riding Primary School, attended by students in elementary through middle school grades that come from a variety of countries in Africa.

At each location, loving and receptive children that face a variety of challenges in post-Apartheid South Africa greeted our young people. The undersized children at the afterschool brought them face to face with the effects of malnutrition and fetal alcohol syndrome. The pop-up clothing store for the homeless was another encounter with devastating poverty. Working with a local organization, the students served as clerks to distribute the donated clothing they had brought. They worked one-on-one with homeless individuals, treating them with dignity, and helping them find what they needed.

There were many opportunities to learn about, and reflect upon, South Africa’s history and biological diversity. These included a trip to Robben Island where Mandela had been incarcerated, a visit to the District Six Museum that memorializes the forced migration to Atlantis and a stop at the Kirstenbosch Gardens to see the unique flora. There was time to go on safari at Inverdoorn Game Reserve, visit Table Mountain National Park and see the Cape of Good Hope, spend some time at the beach, enjoy South African BBQ, and shop.

The discussions during debriefs, the level of questions asked, the constant journaling to capture their observations and feelings, the clear connections made with the local children, and the tears that were shed when they had to leave, demonstrated to Ms. Daley and Ms. Konstandakis the depth of the experience that all the AHS students were having. They believe that the trip helped the travelers understand their personal potential for leadership–from seeing a problem to developing a solution and making things happen–and a second trip is being considered. Several students have already begun to explore opportunities to provide support to the homeless in South Africa. Others are working to set-up a clothing street store in the Boston area. They understand that even in high school they can be change makers–individuals able to make a difference to others

The materials that they collected and the conversations they had with educators will inform Ms. Daley and Ms. Konstandakis’s teaching now and in the years to come. I am grateful to the Arlington Education Foundation for making this trip possible. I want to thank Ms. Daley and Ms. Konstandakis for their leadership, and thank OMS History and Social Sciences teacher Chris Mahoney and AHS Science teacher Cory Bavuso for also traveling with the group.

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