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Lessons I Learned in Jo’Burg

I Can Do Better

In 2008, I traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa and spent 10 days touring and sight-seeing this magnificent country.  (I quickly learned that only tourists use the name, Johannesburg.  Most natives refer to their country as Jo’Burg.)  I continue to reflect on the wonderful experiences even now in 2011 – over 3 years later.  The trip to Jo’Burg changed my life forever.  Believe it or not, I came away from South Africa with a renewed commitment to the challenge of meeting the needs of African American male students in our classrooms.

One of my most memorable moments in Jo’Burg was a tour of the Apartheid Museum. There, I learned how a group of Black students overcame injustice and racism, which led to a transformation of the entire country of South Africa.  When Dutch school administrators required that 50% of their daily instruction be in the new and foreign language, Afrikaans, students who had been previously excelling, began failing miserably. These students, ages 6 – 23, formed a non-violent protest, refusing to attend classes where they could not understand the concepts being presented to them. Their ability to learn remained intact – they were the same students.  It was the language that became a barrier to their academic success.  The details of this story are history – this student protest ultimately led to the complete downfall of apartheid in South Africa.

American teachers are faced daily with the challenge of responding to the needs of the African American male learner in classrooms all over our country.  We are faced with the moral imperative to continue tirelessly to eliminate the racial achievement disparities that glare back at us from the data.

I came away from the Apartheid Museum in Jo’Burg with valuable lessons about education in American classrooms that day.  I learned that students can sometimes tell education professionals what they don’t want to hear.  Perhaps the lack of engagement, poor quality work, and negative classroom behavior of African American males is their non-violent protest.  Are our lessons relevant?  Are we designing rigorous curriculum to demonstrate that we have high expectations for the performance of the African American male learner in our classrooms? Are we encouraging African American male students to pursue rigorous and advanced classes to signal to them that we expect them to be college bound?  Have we established meaningful relationships with students so that they will entrust their true abilities to us?

Another lesson I learned in Jo’Burg was that we must move closer toward student-centered learning if African American male students are to find success in our classrooms.  Student-centered learning focuses on the needs of students rather than the transfer of a body of knowledge.  Developing learner profiles and knowing the interests and readiness of each student in our care can only increase our effectiveness in meeting their needs.

I learned much in Jo’Burg, however I took away from the museum a sense of urgency.  African American male students who cannot read, who cannot achieve in our classrooms, who feel excluded from the educational process such that they are dropping out of school at alarming rates, may at some point become so disenfranchised that we will see an even greater lack of cooperation, total disinterest, and a deeper sense of hopelessness, similarly born out of frustration and anger.

Another lesson I learned was the obvious result of generations of children who were failed by their school system.  While wealth abounds in Johannesburg due to industrialization of the minerals found there (the mining of gold, diamonds, and platinum), poverty there also abounds.  In 2008, unemployment rates were over 40%.  People desperate for income have become street vendors and “hawkers” in a sad but dire attempt to provide for their families.  These people live in township called Alexandra, mere blocks away from the prosperity of Johannesburg.  My visit to that community changed my life forever.  There in Alexandra, just blocks away from the four-star hotel where I was residing and mere blocks away from the downtown business district where the Mercedes-Benz and the BMW are the primary cars parked on the streets, impoverished people were living in tin shacks with cardboard walls and stones on the tin roofs to hold the roofs in place.  It provoked sadness in me on a level that I still am barely able to comprehend. People who are uneducated and unskilled are destined to live a life of poverty, but poverty on this level was something that I’d never seen.

Similarly, are we producing American citizens with no possibility of success due to a failure of our educational system to an entire sub-group of students?  What will the impact be on our nation in the years to come?  .

Joseph S. Renzulli, director of The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, says, “A rising tide lifts all ships.” His theory maintains that providing all students with advanced level educational opportunities can only increase academic achievement for all. (Renzulli, 1998) Perhaps lifting our expectations of all students, exploring and understanding students’ specific social, emotional, and cultural needs, and designing and implementing rigorous and culturally relevant curriculum will produce academic improvement in our classrooms by all students and have the greatest impact on African American male students in every school district across our nation.

The lessons I learned in South Africa in 2008 fueled my passion for addressing this national crisis. Children have a way of communicating their needs, even when we don’t want to hear what they have to say. In 2012, I think it’s time we listened.