Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Dispatch: In Class With Future Teachers

Since the schools project is finished, many of you have asked me “What’s next?”

This year is the 70th anniversary of the deportation of the Jews from the village in Romania where my grandfather is from. It is also the town that Elie Wiesel is from. In May, the town is having a memorial weekend. People from across the world will be there, including a few Holocaust survivors. I want to make a short film that chronicles what happens over the weekend – talking to people about their memories and why they made the trip and telling the story of how a community celebrates and honors a difficult history. It will also be a personal story about my experience of the weekend and reflections about family and history and where that leaves me today.

I am trying to raise $10,000 for the filming and to edit a short clip that I can use to raise additional funds. If you know of any organizations or individuals who would be interested in supporting this project, please let me know. 

Ideally, this would be the first step in making a longer and broader documentary.


And now on to the latest Dispatch.

The first time I screen any of my films is always powerful. There are so many unknowns. How will people respond? Which moments or ideas will resound with them the most? And which might upset them or spark debate? How will different people experience the videos? And in the most recent screenings, will they impact their future? That was part of the conversation at the University of Fort Hare last week in East London in the Eastern Cape.

There is a book called, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria: And Other Conversations About Race. I thought about that book when I saw students at Fort Hare sitting separately. In a classroom of 80 students, the white ones were sitting on one side of the room. In another class, there was a smattering of white students amidst the others – which on some unconscious level made me happy. I think about where this separation comes from and what experiences they have had that bring them into that space.

Why do people sit where they do? What does it say about their comfort levels with each other and the way they grew up? I wonder and watch how different racial groups respond to my videos –course on deeper reflection, these responses are far more based on past experience, not on race. There are many scenes in the videos of students eating food, cooked by women from the community. Some are eating with rulers, the backs of cell phones or hands.

Every time this scene came up, the room would fill with laughter. The black students were laughing and the white students were silent. I think the laughter comes from seeing something that is familiar – and the silence comes from surprise, this may be the first time they are seeing this, realizing what school is like for most of their classmates. It isn’t actually about white or black.

Over the week, I started to wonder why I always analyze these things.

Coincidentally, I just had a meeting with a professor who works on race and I got the chance to think about this. As an American I sometimes see race as a proxy for progress and transformation – I look at interaction between races here as a test of how far the South Africa has come since 1994.

I not only notice the separation, but also interaction. I have done a lot of work at the University of the Free State, a historically Afrikaans campus that has undergone major transformation in the last several years. When my cameraman and I go around filming, we are always looking for black and white students sitting together or talking to each other so we can film “transformation.”

Of course I never ask the students questions and I imagine they are not even analyzing their behavior. Do they need to be? Do they have the space to?

Regardless of class, race or seating arrangement, we always have dynamic discussions. I can only share highlights and moments.

Someone asked me, “How do we mold them?” This is not mold like a robot, but shape them into active and thoughtful citizens.

Some were calls to action:

“As future teachers we must think of our own discipline and model, we can’t be late or underprepared. We can’t expect students to do this if we don’t.”

“If we teach kids in grade 1, we need to remember that we are teaching them and trying to get them to grade twelve, not just through the grade we are teaching. We must always think about our power as teachers.”

“We need to push students telepathically and academically.”

This last comment reminds me of a teacher in Limpopo who told me about the importance of the hidden curriculum in addition to the formal curriculum in class.

And then, we got here. “I noticed that the girl in the video spoke very good English,” said one student.

I don’t know if my face registered my shock. I started to answer, but I wasn’t doing a very good job and realized most of the students in the room speak English as a second language. So I asked them.

The first student said that the education system is inherently biased. He said that second language students are at a disadvantage and they are not able to succeed.

One agreed, rightly saying that students in more rural areas are less exposed to English.

But another classmate argued back, “I would respectfully like to respond to my colleague,” he said. “In the location, kids are not dumb, everyone is smart and as a teacher we need to show them the vision. We must teach English. We can’t dwell on kids not speaking English or put out ideas of dumb or smart, we need to push them.”

Six screenings over two days left me exhausted, but one professor brought it all together.

“This is showing what we have been theorizing, teachers with power, as a national builder. These clips show the power and authority that you have as teachers. It all depends on how we use that power. We have the power to build, but sometimes we destroy it. Today we say how to use our power to build a nation. At the first lecture I said, “What are you bringing into the profession?” There were lots of sad stories. But this tells us the positive capital that you bring. We want to build a nation of stories. The message is that these schools CAN. You are one of the important tools to make them CAN.”

I am amazed and honored to play a small part in this.


It turns out I am unable to sell the book directly. For now, you can purchase it at

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Dispatch: Can We Fix South Africa's Schools?

Happy 2014!

After two years of work – and several dispatches about the journey -  my book and video series How to Fix South Africa’s Schools: Lessons from Schools that Work has finally been published. I can’t take all the credit, it was co-authored by a university chancellor Jonathan Jansen.

As some of you may know, I visited 19 schools, some with 2221 students others with 600. Whether urban or rural, big or small, the one thing that these schools have in common is that they serve disadvantaged communities and have achieved academic success. These schools are doing well despite hunger, crowded classrooms, lack of toilets and other resources, and sometimes, unresponsive provincial governments.

In addition to telling the stories of these individuals and communities, I tried to understand why some schools just work. It is something that people all over the world are trying to understand. It is what many of you on this dispatch list work to understand every day.

So what are the key strategies? Can these models be replicated? How do we teach principals to be better and more inspirational leaders, make teachers stronger, and urge students to look to the future? One goal of the book is to try to answer these questions. The title of the book is ambitious, but we have to start somewhere.

“There is no recipe for success,” one principal in Soweto told me. It can be simple – good leaders who hold teachers accountable.

I saw a series of factors -- good teaching, extra classes, continuous assessment, and engaging parents. Check, check, check, check.  But it was the essence of the schools, their individual stories that told me more.

And I found that what is revolutionary is sometimes obvious. One principal told me that the main reason her school works is because students are in class on time, teachers are in class on time and they are teaching. The question we should ask is why is this not the norm.

On paper we have policies and we build education systems. Sometimes they work, often they don’t. We use statistics to assess schools, examine progress. We debate about public vs. private vs. charter vs. community schools; about who should be in the classroom and so many other questions, too many to count. But in this whole dialogue, we don’t often hear the voices of those who are in the schools.

And the voices I heard told me stories of schools that shift the paradigm.

I met determined and resilient young people who arrive at school at 7:00 am for mandatory study – and at one school, they arrive at 6:00 am for mandatory class in Romeo & Juliet taught by the principal!

I met teachers who implement concrete strategies and get students to perform calculus with the same energy and love as Shakespeare’s sonnets.

And I talked to committed principals who lead with a philosophy and vision that is felt throughout the school. These men and women fight and sacrifice for their students because they know what’s at stake.

I know we would like all teachers and principals to be like this and all students to be so engaged. We have to remind ourselves that at any great school and at any struggling schools, regardless of how wealthy or poor it may be, there are students who work hard and others who don’t care so much.

At the schools that I visited, principals recognize the obstacles in front of them, but say they just work hard with what they have. Despite bumps in the road and overwhelming challenges, leaders find a way to move forward. Some do this by empowering teachers to be agents of change, others use a combination of love and discipline to make school feel like home, others regularly adapt strategies in order to help students achieve.

In South Africa, all grade 12 students are required to take a series of exams, called matric, in order to pass school. The schools I visited have high total pass rates on these exams – sometimes up to 95  to 100% of students pass. But the question remains, are these students getting good enough results to study further? These principals know that a basic pass won’t take their students very far. Especially when the bar is set so low. You only have to get 35% to pass the matric exams in South Africa. Most universities require an exemption pass -- at least 50-60%.

So all of these principals are aiming for the real prize -- 100% quality passes that ensure further education, better jobs and more hopeful futures for their students. Last year, at Mbilwi Secondary School in Limpopo province, 325 students qualified for university. This year there are 2,283 students at the school in grades 8 to 12.

The principal’s expectations flow down to students. They have been witness to the transformation in South Africa and 20 years after democracy, they are eager to contribute to it. It is not just the leaders, principals or teachers; it is the investment and the strength of these students who push one another.

All the students told me that education is the key to the future. They told me that they want to go to university, they want to be doctors and engineers and lawyers and teachers, but almost everyone also wants to provide for their family and plow back into their community in attempts to change the circumstances.

Their teachers hope to get them there.

So two thoughts:

Just imagine what could happen if we could harness the energy of these schools and spread it across South Africa? How could we replicate the success of these schools to transform other schools in disadvantaged communities that also have limited resources, not only here but also elsewhere? What could that look like if we did the same thing in the U.S.? I know some schools already are.

And perhaps a more exciting idea, given the current success of these schools that work with only a few resources, just imagine what they could do if they were given access to all the resources that are available. Imagine if every student at those schools had all doors open to them. What it would it look like to level the playing field?

I have seen diverse school communities, each with their own stories, but all moving towards the same goal. Teachers who understand how to nurture student potential, and who extend themselves as counselors and parents, as well as educators. Principals who work tirelessly to maintain effective institutions so that teaching and learning can run the way they are supposed to, all with a single focus that their students find a place in the outside world. Finally students with goals, who want to be active members of the new South Africa and transform their community and country.

They know what matters. But I think it is when we all decide that this should matter that the real change begins.


How to Fix South Africa’s Schools: Lessons from Schools That Work is now available. The book includes all 19 videos. You can learn more  read about the book and watch a few of the videos at my new website My TedX talk, which some of you may have seen, is also there.

On Amazon: The digital version of the book is now available on Amazon. The book will not be in stock on Amazon for a few months.

How to Purchase the Actual Book:
If you would like to purchase the book, send me an email and I can work out a bulk order and send you one from South Africa.  Costs would be payable via check or PayPal.

Thanks to you all for reading these dispatches and going on this journey with me. I am now trying to get this book out into the world through screenings, reaching out to interested universities and organizations, and writing blogs and articles. If you have any ideas, please let me know.