Editor’s Note: Brett Bigham is the 2014 Oregon State Teacher of the Year and author of a series of over 150 books called Ability Guidebooks that help autistic people get out into the world. This summer, he traveled to South Africa with a group of teachers as part of the NEA Foundation Global Learning Fellowship program. Here, he shares insights from the group.
For many teachers, the idea of global education means finding YouTube videos to watch and books to read. Other teachers bring the world to their students through Twitter or programs that make use of the internet to bring classrooms closer together.
For the lucky few, there are rare chances to actually visit with schools and classrooms around the globe. The NEA Foundation Global Learning Fellowship programis one of those rare opportunities, and the program brings together educators from across the U.S., who, after a year-long professional development program to integrate global competence into their classroom, travel as a cohort to an international location for the summer. This year, the program brought together a group of teachers from forty-seven states and culminated in a trip to South Africa. The teachers were selected as Fellows because of their deep interest and passion for global education.
Some of these teachers come from as far away as a Native Alaskan village in Alaska; others from some of the smallest rural towns in the United States. Several of the Global Fellows shared their experiences and insights with me, and I’ve recounted them below.
English Language Arts and Yugtun Immersion Program, Bethel, Alaska
In Cape Town, the Fellows visited the Rainbow Academy, an arts program open to young people with an interest in becoming professional dancers, actors, poets, and musicians. They performed traditional as well as modern South African songs and dances. As they invited Fellows to join their drum circle, Norman jumped right up to participate. To see him bound up into the drum circle surprised me initially, given his quiet nature, but only for a moment—he was clearly in his element. Then I remembered Native Alaskan performers I had seen in my youth, and it was easy to see that Norman’s Native Alaskan culture and these traditional drum circle dances of South Africa had much in common. You can’t get much further from Cape Town, South Africa, than Bethel, Alaska, but these distant cousins had more in common than you would think. When I asked Norman about the similarities, he said, “There are enough parallels between my culture and African culture that it is very easy for me to make connections regardless of the separate continents. It would be easy to teach my culture—the Yupik culture—(in Africa) and broaden that to other cultures around the world, starting with South Africa.”
Social Studies, Doylestown, Pennsylvania
Vasiliki teaches de-colonization to her students in Doylestown. Her knowledge of the government and culture gave her a much deeper perspective on the recent damage that apartheid did to South Africa. She says: “This is the best professional development opportunity I’ve taken because you hear all these stories. I remember apartheid in the 1980s and never thought I’d come to South Africa. The experience, the cause, and the effect of seeing apartheid in place and the impact that is still felt today in society. All of these primary sources are so important to understand past history and how history impacts today.”
Vasiliki drew a parallel between issues that we are seeing in the southern United States and South Africa: “You see statues of white imperialists all over town. When you look at the statues and think of the time they were created—a select few made those decisions for the whole country—I saw a commonality between the two. Though they are memorials, in today’s world, is it appropriate to have such a statue if it upsets the people who were oppressed?”
Social Studies and Spanish Language, Seattle, Washington
At Cape Town’s South African Jewish Museum, Noah charmed a museum worker into giving the two of us a private tour of the closed Great Synagogue. The ensuing conversation gave us both a deeper understanding of how the ending of apartheid sent ripples of change through the Jewish community. Following one of our school visits, Noah shared these thoughts with me:
“There is no substitute for visiting schools in different countries. I have learned so much from teachers and students I have met during international trips. I have gained new ideas for my classroom and I have gained new insights into how schools are structured. In South Africa, for example, I was excited to learn that many high school principals teach at least one class. My favorite part, though, is creating new relationships that can lead to virtual exchanges benefiting students in both countries.”
Understanding the World
It was clear from my discussions with the other Fellows that this trip to South Africa was going to have immense impact in their classrooms. For example, a middle school teacher, Angie Madsen, from Omaha, Nebraska, observed, “After traveling internationally, I feel I am better in pointing out to students that others have different perspectives. I can authentically share “another side of the story.""
I agree. You cannot face the results of apartheid without understanding that when the leadership of a country does not believe in equality, oppression will often follow. That is why global education is so important. To know other cultures is to respect them. That must remain one of education’s highest priorities.
Top image of the author speaking with a student in South Africa was taken by, and used with the permission of, Dr. Joe Underwood, 2018 Global Learning Fellow.
Quote image created on Pablo.
The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.